Busy stages at the end of November

What a busy couple of weeks it is for Edmonton stages!  If your weekend isn’t already full, there’s lots of theatre to watch, with these four shows all closing this weekend.

Fen, by Caryl Churchill, is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday.  Amy De Felice’s Trunk Theatre production is fascinatingly atmospheric.  The trapped and oppressed lives of farm-workers in the cold drizzly fen country of England were portrayed with compelling credibility.  I looked at the women picking potatoes in ill-fitting gloves, on their knees on a cold day, and I remembered what it was like to be tying grapes in March, saying to myself that the money would get me out of here, the money would take me to university, I would never need to do this again.   Most of the people in the play don’t have any realistic hopes for escaping their lives, and their unrealistic hopes are heartbreaking.  Even the children in the story are joyless, trapped and powerless and sometimes abused (I found those scenes the most upsetting of the whole play, but not by a lot).  It is unusual to see a farm story about women’s lives not be a story of land-owning families.  But in this story, most of the women (Ellen Chorley, Monica Maddaford, Miranda Allen, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer) are employed as day labourers or crew foremen, and the men (all played by Cody Porter) include a labourer and a landowner who sells his land to a corporation and becomes a tenant.    The story reminded me a lot of the subgenre of Canadian literature about homestead isolation and despair.

Another hard important story to watch is on stage at the Backstage theatre behind the Arts Barns.  Guys in Disguise / Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre is premiering a rewrite of Darrin Hagen’s Witchhunt at the Strand.  Set in Edmonton in 1942 or so, the story is based on primary source material about criminal trials for homosexual behaviour.  Jesse Gervais, Mat Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart each play lawyers and police officers as well as the men caught up in the witchhunt and their friends and partners.  The scene where one of Hulshof’s young characters is on the stand being questioned in horribly intrusive detail about a sexual encounter was one of the most uncomfortable things I have witnessed in ages.  The main characters in the story were all involved in the Edmonton theatre scene, including Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, in whose honour the Sterling Awards are named.  Mrs Haynes is shown as what would nowadays be called an ally to the LGBT community.  I cannot imagine how the 1940s attitudes of privacy and discretion would have discouraged her choice to be a character witness for her theatrical colleague in a morals case, and I found the character as written very sympathetic.

Witchhunt at the Strand made me very grateful that I grew up mostly after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” and decriminalized same-sex sexual behaviours.  It also made me think about how I had been influenced as a child by the grownups around me who remembered the era of the play, not all of whom were straight.  And it made me cry.

Anxiety is a Theatre Yes co-production with several small theatre companies, brand new and unexpected and … and they asked the viewers not to post about it.  If that intrigues you, check whether they have any tickets left this weekend.

Twelfth Night is much funnier and easier to watch.  It’s playing until Saturday night at the Timms Centre.  Ashley Wright, an MFA directing candidate, directs a version with simple staging and a framework of watching a company of travelling players arrive at the theatre, warm up in their underthings, and get into costume.  Julien Arnold, Dave Clarke, Jaimi Reese, and Jake Tkaczyk play the broad-comedy roles of the script, with Reese as Olivia’s mischief-making gentlewoman companion, Arnold and Tkaczyk as the partying uncle Sir Toby Belch and his awkward trying-too-hard sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Clarke in a variety of clownish roles.  Clarke also created and performed interesting songs and underscoring for the production.  Contrast with the fun-loving quartet comes from Malvolio (Alex Dawkins), Olivia’s dour steward, whose pride makes him vulnerable to one of the most memorable practical jokes in the history of the stage.  Did he get what he deserved?  Or was it unfair that he was bullied and apparently driven mad, with the pranksters getting away with it?  I can’t decide.  Watching Malvolio try to smile and gesture as he expects his mistress wants is kind of painful, but it’s also very very funny.

Look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Chayla Day and Jordan Buhat.  Day’s physicality readily conveys a woman who is inexperienced at passing as a man.  Marc Ludwig is lovesick Orsino, courting Olivia (Emily Howard) who wants nothing to do with him, using her dead father and brother as an excuse until she is captivated by Orsino’s new pageboy Cesario (actually Viola).  Olivia’s reactions to Cesario are delightful, and her discovery that her crush is actually a woman is particularly so.

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How to Succeed in Show Business …

Once again, I’ve been too busy watching theatre and helping to make theatre to write about theatre.  But I want to tell you about this one (which I’m working on) in time for you to go see it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a musical by Frank Loesser first produced in 1961, and based on the satirical book of business advice written by Shepherd Mead a decade earlier.  Whether or not you’ve seen the musical or movie or read the book, you’ve probably seen lots of copycat titles, because it’s a memorable turn of phrase.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the latest production from local independent theatre group Foote in the Door Productions.  The company name is a tribute to Foote Theatre School at the Citadel, where company principals Ruth Wong-Miller and Russ Farmer met in a musical-theatre class.  The company began producing musicals at Fringe 2014.  How to Succeed is their second mainstage production, after She Loves Me, in November 2015.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is set in the head office of a big company in the 1960s.  The setting reminds me of Mad Men and of Bewitched, and also of some places I’ve worked in the past.  The protagonist, J Pierrepont Finch (Frank Keller, previously seen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has an unexpectedly-endearing mix of enthusiasm, kindness, and self-involved ambition.  From his initial hiring as a junior in the mailroom, he plays everyone he encounters to bounce upwards and upwards and … to bounce.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how this production (directed by Adam Kuss) illustrates and comments on the status of women in early-1960s office life.  “I’m no Cinderella!  I have eighty-five dollars in the bank, AND a savings bond!” declares determined and daydreamy Rosemary Pilkington (Ruth Wong-Miller) to her office-pal Smitty (Caitlin Tazzer) who wants a fairy-tale ending for Rosemary and J Pierrepont.   In one scene, men waiting for an elevator discuss projects and promotions, while the women discuss needing to reject sexual advances in the office – and that was written around 1961 (by three men, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert).  Executive secretary Miss Jones (Carolyn Waye, who has a joy-filled solo late in the show) wields some real power, and the naive-sexy character Hedy Larue (Kathleen Cera, also the show’s costume designer) also exhibits self-determination and solidarity with other women.

Company president J.B. Biggley is played by Russ Farmer (recently seen in Chess and in She Loves Me).  Farmer, a management consultant, gives a disturbingly-convincing portrayal of an executive who is not as competent as he thinks he is, stuck with a lazy sassy nephew Bud (Rory Turner).

The organization chart of this company is filled in by a strong ensemble (Trish van Doornum, Trevor J, Melanie Lafleur, Gerald Mason, Natasha Mason, Mike McDevitt, Levy Poppins, Emily Smith, Morgan Smith), creating recognizable and entertaining characters and providing the audience with delightful singing and dancing and snappy dialogue.  Choreography was done by Adam Kuss, and live music is provided by an ensemble of 8 led by music director Daniel Belland on piano.

Ruth Wong-Miller took time in a busy tech week to answer a few questions about the show and company, starting with how they find the musicals they produce:  “I am a huge musical theatre nerd. I’ve been obsessed with shows since I was a young girl, when I listened to Les Miz and Phantom on cassette (yes I’m that old). My sister and I used to watch all of the old classic movie musicals and see every show that came to town – it’s hard to stump me on musical theatre trivia!”  On people who have led and supported Foote in the Door so far:”We have had so many wonderful supporters including Adam Kuss who has been involved in our fringe show each year as a director (2014) and choreographer (2015 and 2016). I’d also like to name Barbara Mah as well; she directed our first mainstage She Loves Me last fall and she’s been a great resource for our company.  On this show we have an amazing group, from the cast, production team, and orchestra. The talent level is super impressive, the commitment is incredible and it feels like such a warm family.”

And what’s next for Foote in the Door?  “Carousel (May 2017) is a complete 180 from How to Succeed. It is a dramatic musical with some serious subject matter backed up with some seriously lush and classic music by the legends: Rodgers and Hammerstein! Performers will experience the opportunity to work with an amazing production team including Mary-Ellen Perley as Director, Stuart Sladden as Music Director and Sterling winner Ainsley Hillyard doing choreography. Audiences will enjoy it just as much as How to Succeed as they will travel with the characters on their journeys of romance and self discovery-and there are beautiful songs such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone!”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opens tonight in the main auditorium at Faculté St-Jean, 8406 91 Street (rue Marie-Anne Gaboury).   Tickets for future shows are available through tix on the square, but not for same-day/weekend shows.  Cash tickets will be available at the door  for tonight’s show, $25 adult, $21 student/senior.  Show time is 7:30.  On Sunday Nov 13th there’s a matinee at 2 pm, and the run continues Wednesday Nov 16th through Saturday Nov 19th.  There will be snacks and drinks for sale, including the obligatory red licorice.  In tribute to one of the songs in the show, there may also be Coffee Crisp.  If you’re coming tonight (Remembrance Day) the campus might look closed, but we will definitely be there!

 

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Co-workers advising Rosemary on her romance: Natasha Mason, Emily Smith, Ruth Wong-Miller as Rosemary, Trish Van Doornum, Caitlin Tazzer, Melanie Lafleur (Nanc Price Photography)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday inside the Fringe, and out.

For me, it was the second Saturday of Fringe.  Our show The Big Fat Surprise closed Friday night (with another sold-out house!) so Saturday I was washing show laundry, then celebrating the parking-space win, catching some shows, lending another artist some of my furniture for a prop, eating festival food (still love that Lunchpail grilled cheese with fresh chips and classic vegetable sticks), checking in at the Lost and Found, serving drinks in the North Tent, talking to friends, and going home in the rain.

I immerse myself in Fringe while the festival is on, after being preoccupied with show prep and publicity for weeks ahead of time, so it sometimes astonishes me that other important things are happening this week outside of the Fringe bubble.  New babies were born.  Couples got married.  Birthdays were marked on Facebook and off.  Students prepared for the next grade, the next diploma, the next degree, the next challenge.  A whole Summer Olympic Games happened and I didn’t watch or read any coverage at all or knit anything for the corollary Ravellenics celebration.  The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market shared the crowd and the parking spaces like an ordinary Saturday.  And last night I stepped into the Fringe North Beer Tent wondering about the music I was hearing, and I discovered they were using their new monitors and good speakers to share the CBC feed of the Tragically Hip’s last concert of their last tour, from the Rogers K-Rock Arena in Kingston Ontario.   While the Fringe went on outside, vendors and street performers, artists handbilling their last few shows, the High Level Trolley shuttling to downtown full of people – the tent was full of shared recognition of the Tragically Hip and of their lead singer Gord Downie, whose announcement of terminal cancer prompted the band’s decisions to tour one last summer and then retire.  I lived in Kingston for many years, and I saw the Hip’s first concert in that venue in 2008.  The CBC live feed and the social media streams reminded me how important they were and are to Kingston and to Canada and to music.  Go in peace, Gord Downie.  And Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay.


By the second weekend of Fringe, I’ve heard lots of other people’s recommendations of what to see.  And although I try not to think of anything as a must-see, because there would be so many that I’d always feel disappointed, the recommendations helped me choose three good shows yesterday and pick up some more tickets for today.

The Fall of the House of Atreus – A very clever comic take on the ancient Greek tragedies of Euripedes, from Jessy Ardern as playwright and Corben Kushneryk as director and designer, the same team that created last Fringe’s Westbury-stage delight Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests.  Fellow BFA Acting grads Graham Mothersill, Sarah Feutl, and Morgan Grau are the Chorus telling and enacting the connected tragedies of Euripides, with all the vaguely-familiar characters – Pelops, Atreus, Iphigenia, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Helen and Paris, etc.  Simple costume elements and hand gestures helped to keep track of who was who, and found-object puppetry added interest to different ways for characters to be killed.  The energetic performers embraced the material and found humour in the grim tales.  The pace was good and it looked like fun for them as well as for the audience.  It’s now closed.

Little Orange Man – Ingrid Hansen’s charming solo show also presents gruesome stories in a very funny way, in this case through the unique voice of a girl of ten or eleven, recounting her grandfather’s Danish folk tales and recruiting the audience’s help for a dreamscape quest.  It’s held over, so after a last show tonight at 8 pm it should move easily from King Edward Academy to the larger room of the Westbury.

Nighthawk Rules – Collin Doyle’s and James Hamilton’s ten-year-old script was directed by Taylor Chadwick in Theatre Network’s new space Roxy on Gateway (the old C103).  Comfortable wide chairs around a shallow thrust stage make the venue’s legendary summer heat more bearable, as do the cold drinks on sale at the venue.  Chris W Cook (3…2…1, Criminal Genius, Sequence, Bronte Burlesque)  and Christopher Schultz (Wish) play old friends approaching 30 and floundering in their party-bro lives, Schultz’s character trying to live up to his new girlfriend’s expectations about settling down, and Cook’s character trying to hang on to the old camaraderie of drinking games and all-nighters.  I had thought already that Chris Cook was good at bringing a mix of naïveté and good intention to vulgar characters, so he was well cast in the role of Dick, and Schultz’s character Barry seems competent and grown-up only by comparison to his buddy.  I had a great deal of sympathy for the girlfriend (Ellie Heath) until we met her and she talked about her boyfriend completely as a project she had invested time in developing in order to satisfy her perfect-wedding goals, quickly flouncing out again with threats to Barry about cleaning up the apartment and getting rid of the loser friend.   The story was very funny and the resolution of some of the problems delighted me with its unexpectedness and credibility.  Nighthawk Rules has one more performance today at 4:30 pm.

I’ve got a few more drinks to pour, a few more tickets to use, a few more Festival snacks to consume, and then it’s over.  That was then, this is (still) Fringe.

Tragedy is silly, Happiness™ is not what it seems …

Epic Tragedy is actually neither.  It’s frivolous and delightful, fun even if you don’t know the Greek-tragedy source material very well.  Gerald Osborn sets his story in a taverna in the Ancient Greece of the classic tragedies, but with thoroughly modern tropes like a first date from a dating-site match.  In the smaller roles, Eric Smith is a very feline Sphinx on the prowl, Francie Goodwin-Davies is a favourite as the Oracle, and Landon Shayne Penner shuffles anxiously as a mute slave working for taverna owner James Hamilton (Laws of Thermodynamics, With Bells On, Waiting for Bardot).  Ruby Swekla, Syrell Wilson, dale Wilson, Catherine Wenschlag, and Cat Walsh all bring extensive experience and fine comic timing to the major roles, making this fun and easy to watch.  One more show Sunday afternoon at the air-conditioned Walterdale.

Happiness™ is not easy to watch – at least, it wasn’t for me.  But it is very much worth experiencing.   Cory Thibert and Tony Adams, from Ottawa, perform as a sales/self-help duo making a product-launch presentation to the audience, with help from the technician for their presentation who was played by the technician for their venue.  The real context and the story context kept blurring like that, and it was creepy and effective, because I do want to go to a Fringe show and I do not want to go to a Forum presentation, Amway recruitment, or gospel revival meeting.  I couldn’t figure out whether to engage with the show or hide in case they were really one of the latter.  I loved it.  They have one more show on Sunday evening, at Rutherford School across the road from La Cité Francophone.

Intense, bouncy, or dark: Fringe for all moods

On Thursday I viewed three performances by local emerging performers, students or recent graduates from the various post-secondary theatre programs.  They were all entertaining, and taken together made an interesting showcase of talent.  All the shows were published work, but I hadn’t read or seen any of them before.

Opera NUOVA’s production of the short musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was directed by Kim Mattice-Wanat, with live music and sound effects by Randy Mueller and choreography by Marie Nychka.  Jordan Sabo, Emma Houghton, Jake Tkaczyk, Sarah Ormandy, and Billy Brown play the Peanuts gang, with Corbin Kushneryk in the title role.  Brief scenes cover all the repeating motifs of the long-running comic strip: Lucy’s psychotherapy/advice booth, Charlie Brown’s daydreaming about the little red-haired girl, Linus’s blanket, Snoopy’s fantasy life with Sally, Schroeder playing classical piano on a toy instrument and ignoring Lucy’s advances, baseball, school bus, homework, kite-flying, and companionship. The short vignettes don’t really have a plot and touch only lightly on some of the loneliness and bullying that I remember being more disturbing to me as a child reading the daily strip and watching Charlie Brown Christmas and Great Pumpkin each season.  The tempera-paint colours of costumes and set pieces captured the Saturday-comics print palette.  One more show Sunday afternoon, probably sold out.

Philip Geller and Emily Howard perform in The Darling Family, by Canadian playwright Linda Griffith.  It is intense and provocative and occasionally funny, about two characters responding to an unplanned pregnancy.  Seeing this show reminded me that well-chosen dramas can work in small improvised spaces with emerging actors as well as in the big productions like the Citadel’s Other Desert Cities, and in some ways the intimacy of the venue can make the experience more powerful.  The Darling Family is playing in the Strathcona Community League building just north of the Scouts parking lot and King Edward School, and they have three more performances this weekend.

Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane is dark and amusing in the same style as George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel series.  The current production is directed by recent theatre grad Eric Smith, and performed by Chris Pereira, Chris Nadeau, Grace Miazga, and Dylan Rosychuk.  I particularly appreciated Chris Pereira’s odd motel clerk character.  They have two more performances this weekend.

Upstairs and downstairs at the Fringe

Kind Hearts and Coronets – I never saw the Alec Guinness movie of the same name, but my father loved it.  The stage version, directed by Ken Brown, is playing at L’Unitheatre at La cite francophone.  John D. Huston plays the Alec Guinness roles as well as miscellaneous servants and executioners, Alex Forsyth plays Israel Rank, the man who grows up poor but knowing he’s only a few deaths from inheriting a ducal coronet, and Julia Seymour plays a variety of other characters including Israel’s love interests, mother, and jailer.  Forsyth’s smug evil leer as Israel’s plans seem to come to fruition is a disturbing delight, a different flavour of bad than characters I’d seen Forsyth play in Deadmonton, Closer, and 7 Ways to Die: A love story.  Last show today, Saturday 2:45

Bella Culpa – Amica Hunter and David Cantor of Portland are A Little Bit Off, the troupe that did the delightful Beau and Aero at last year’s Fringe.  For Bella Culpa, they’re in the Westbury, the big theatre in the Arts Barns, and their stuff is just as engaging and fun to watch in the bigger house.  The two characters in Bella Culpa are servants in a formal household, doing their work of cleaning and preparing for guests, but frequently sidetracked into playful adventures and explorations.   They make clever use of minimal props (buckets, a sponge, a duster, a table) and introduce some impressive acrobatics at beautifully unexpected moments.  They communicate their story mostly through physical expression and action, but occasionally speak a few words in French.  Their tagline describes them as “Downton Abbey meets the Three Stooges”, but I thought afterwards that one of the things I appreciated most about them was that the relationship between the characters was not hostile, not a predictable she-likes-him/he-ignores-her, and not a constant status difference like many physical-theatre/clown duos.  Worth catching (they have two more shows this weekend) and worth watching for in future.

This is Fringe!

Letters from Battle River – I went to this because it got a shoutout at the end of Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, both being narratives about early women doctors in/from Alberta.  Laura Raboud plays the very energetic Dr Mary Percy, who travels from England to work for the Alberta government as a doctor in the Peace country in the 1920s.  I think indomitable would be the appropriate descriptor for this character, of rarely-flagging good cheer, delighting in her life and her work and the country and the people.   My two favourite specifics about this performance were the brilliant use of two wheeled coatracks and a chair to be all the props and set pieces, and the way of handling the racism of the time.  Early on, the character’s narrative (either a series of letters home or one very very long letter home, it’s not entirely clear) is steeped in throwaway racist assumptions about Eastern European immigrants, about First Nations and Metis inhabitants of the land, and occasionally about “Yankees”.  I found it jarring every time this likeable character used racial slurs, although I could see that she was fond of her “Russian” and “Frenchman” and “‘breed” patients and neighbours.  When she began to relate a visit to the “Indian boarding school”, I worried about whether she’d be equally cavalier about the residential school … but fortunately the playwrights had made a different choice (I do not know how much of the text came from the historical artifact letters).  Instead she said something like, it was beautifully light and airy, but of course they hated it, how could anyone like living in a dormitory when they could be curled up with family in a tent in the forest, and then she went on to muse about whether the British Empire was actually wrong to impose their way of life on indigenous peoples.  I did not feel as if the character integrity had been damaged by this viewpoint, and I was comforted that I could still find her sympathetic.

My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend – A new musical by Jamie Price (aka musician Must Be Tuesday) plays in the Telus Building.  It is impressive for a new work by young artists, a fully staged three-actor show with a storyline, songs with clever lyrics and varying melody styles, and musical accompaniment by Price on keyboard and guitar.  The narrative is probably valuable both as a demonstration of queer, polyamorous, and transgender lives for people who are not familiar with these variables, and as positive representation for people who don’t often see their lives on stage.  Just the simple stage business of a character turning away from the audience to take off a bra and put on a tank-top style binder was effective as storytelling and as education, without being enough nudity to distract.  It is hard to plot a story with those goals and show realistic problems and still make the problems solvable, but Price, director Alicia Maedel, and performers Mandi Molloy, Emanuelle Dubbeldam, and Matthew Oliver van Diepen have made a good start.  I could easily imagine this show on a bigger stage with fuller orchestration, a little less didactic and a little funnier or more dramatic, being the next Rent or Avenue Q.  Or it could just be what it is, and a lot of people will enjoy it, see themselves or their friends or family, or learn something.

A Woman of a Certain Age – This was another show full of satisfying representation, with writer/performer Wendy Froberg playing six characters, all women in their late 40s or older, with interconnected lives.  Important common thread was provided by the interactions the other women all had with esthetician Magda, each of them having different reasons for wanting to look younger or look pretty again.  Magda often tried to talk to them about other ways of resolving their problems, suggesting that youth and beauty were not a panacea, but she loses her salon job, and it’s not clear if they don’t like her attitude or her age.  The performance follows all the rules of a good multiple-character solo show, (if you don’t know what they are, this is demonstrated in The Big Fat Surprise) and I enjoyed it.

Gossamer Obsessions:  Wilt – is a set of “parable” sketches, funny and sort of delightfully weird, in a magical or not quite real way, by masters of improv Amy Shostak and Paul Blinov.   Their costumes are reminiscent of fairy-tales, and their stories hover over the abyss between ordinary life and the just plain strange.  The hour flew by.