The other Miss Bennet, in Christmas at Pemberley

I have not always been a Jane Austen fan.  When I was young, I had some difficulty understanding irony, cutting politeness, and the dry humour of understatement, so I think my early attempts to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma probably left me missing most of the point.   A performance of Pride and Prejudice at Red Deer College a few years ago,  some Austenophile friends who shared movie versions of Pride and Prejudice and of Lost in Austen, and the PD James mystery novel Death Comes to Pemberley have given me a better appreciation of the comedy of manners style and the story of the Bennet sisters.

The current Citadel Theatre production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margaret Melcon, directed by Nancy Macalear, is a lot of fun, given that I already knew the basics of the story and had wondered what happened afterwards, especially to the younger Bennet sisters.  I don’t think it would have been quite as amusing if I didn’t already know the characters. This play takes place a couple of years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice, with Jane (Emma Lalshram) and Elizabeth (Allison Edwards-Crewe) happily married to Mr Bingley (Cameron Kneteman) and Mr Darcy (Mat Hulshof), Lydia (Emma Houghton) not so happily married to Mr Wickham, Kitty off in London with some aunts and uncles and not part of this story, and Mary — middle sister Mary (Mikaela Davies), the bookish and musical one who kept butting into conversations with awkward pronouncements about facts, had at first enjoyed having her sisters away from home, because she could play the piano and read as much as she wanted, but had gradually become dissatisfied and restless, realizing that she would be expected to remain at home caring for her aging parents until they died, and then would lose her home as some distant male relative would inherit the estate.  One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about the story in this play was that the girls’ parents, Mr and Mrs Bennet, were not really part of it, but they were not dead either.  The grown sisters manage their own lives and each other’s, acknowledging their parents’ flaws affectionately and finding their own solutions.   I enjoyed seeing how the sisters still knew exactly how to irritate each other, and at the same time worried about each other and had fun together.  Like the Bennet sisters, I too have four siblings whom I don’t see very often, and this felt realistic to me.

Mary and Lydia are the interesting ones in this play – Lydia’s outrageousness made me laugh and wince and feel sorry for her, and Mary’s isolation and longing for study, travel, and kindred minds made it easy for me to identify with her.

The cast of characters was rounded out with Anne de Bourgh (Gianna Vacirca), a canonical status-conscious cousin and former fiancee of Fitzwilliam Darcy, and added character Arthur de Bourgh (Umed Amin), Anne’s own cousin who has just inherited Anne’s home Rosings after the death of her mother the awful Lady Catherine.

I was a little disappointed in the portrayal of Elizabeth and Darcy, because the conflicts between her snarkiness and his shyness-coming-across-as-rude were the most interesting feature of the original book/movies/play.  Elizabeth can still be a bit sarcastic, but she and Darcy seem almost boringly in tune with each other (except about one item of household decor).  In a couple of charming scenes, Mat Hulshof’s Darcy shares his own muddled romantic history  with the even more awkward Arthur and gives him useful advice – while Bingley’s more generic courting advice doesn’t fit at all.

I enjoyed the bits where one character complains about feeling trapped, and another character calls him or her on it, pointing out the existence of choices – especially when Arthur is griping about the burdens of inherited estate and familial expectations and Mary points out that his situation actually has much more flexibility than her own, the female side of property-entailment.

Miss Bennet:  Christmas at Pemberley continues until December 9th in the Shoctor Theatre, meaning that it overlaps with Christmas Carol in the Maclab downstairs.

 

Deaths and lives, a hundred years ago.

On the Remembrance Day weekend, I saw Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver’s First World War play Redpatch at the Citadel.  And tonight I saw Hannah Moskovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know at Theatre Network.  Both of them showed me the human consequences of historical facts that I’d already known in a more abstract sense, and I left wondering more about the unspoken hardships in my own grandparents’ lives.

Redpatch is the story of a young First Nations man (Calvert) from the west coast who enlists and is sent to fight in France.  The rest of the ensemble (Jennifer Daigle, Taran Kootenhayoo, Joel D Montgrand, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya) play his fellow soldiers, but also his grandmother, childhood best friend, a Raven, a killer whale, etc, as the story of their war is interrupted by the older story of two boys sneaking out of school to take a canoe out on the ocean.   One of my favourite bits is where the two boys talk while drifting in a canoe, swaying gently so that I almost felt like the canoe was actually on the water.  The violence of war is presented in a stylized way, with quarterstaves used as Ross rifles and bayonets, very little actual contact, and no blood, but lighting (Brad Trenaman) and sound (James Coomber) to convey the nightmare horror of trench warfare and No-Mans-Land night raids without being so overwhelming that the text was lost.  I found this very effective.

What a Young Wife Ought To Know, directed by Marianne Copithorne, previewed tonight at the Roxy on Gateway, and plays until December 2nd.  It is set in the 1920s, among working-class Irish immigrants of the Ottawa area.  I found it heartbreaking and sweet, embarrassing and upsetting and sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, by turns.  Merran Carr-Wiggin plays the young wife of the title, starting from a teenager with no understanding of sex getting some reluctant explanations from her bolder older sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard).  We see her awkward romance with hotel stablehand Jonny (Cole Humeny), their love and pride as new parents, and then their gradual realization that expressing their love for each other physically can’t be separated from risking her life and health in childbirth, and needing to raise more children in an already-impoverished situation.  There are no easy answers – Carr-Wiggin’s Sophie tells the audience about some of the unsatisfactory options and staged scenes show us some of the others.  The direction and performances felt very compassionate to me.  The young husband weeps with frustration, not just wanting to share intimacy with his wife but wishing for more children to love, not quite grasping how awful more pregnancies would be from her perspective.   I appreciated that the plot was more nuanced than a typical mid-century narrative showing unmarried women suffering deadly consequences for their own desire or being victimized by men – one can see some similar narrative in Alma’s arc, but Sophie’s and Jonny’s story is a more complicated one that I had not really thought about much before.   I was reminded a bit of Moskovitch’s The Kaufman Kabaret, part of the U of A Studio Theatre season in 2016, but this is a much smaller-scale examination of similar issues, and I preferred it.

The set and costume design, by Tessa Stamp, conveyed the modest circumstances of the characters.  The two-story backdrop might have represented both the hotel and the tenement apartment, and a sliding door hinted at stables behind.   I will be thinking about it for a while.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The Broadway Across Canada series of touring musicals makes a stop this week at the Jubilee Auditorium with Beautiful:  The Carole King Musical.

It can be described as a jukebox musical, a script written to showcase music that’s already familiar to the audience.  But it’s not like Back To The 80s: A Most Excellent Musical Adventure, a flimsy framework of time-travelling stoners reminiscing about a decade of popular music while musicians appear in a series of dramatic costumes as tribute to the varied original performers of the era, or even like Mamma Mia, an amusing fictional premise wrapped around ABBA songs that were never intended to tell one coherent story.  Instead, the songs in this production are used to advance the true story of the songwriters, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann (Sarah Bockel, Dylan S Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, and Jacob Heimer).  And it’s just a lovely modest story (book by Douglas McGrath, directed by Marc Bruni), watching Carole go from a 16 year old college student living with her mother (Suzanne Grodner) who hopes to sell one of her compositions to a music publisher (James Clow) to a successful composer collaborating with her husband on many hit songs, and then to a self-assured woman making her own way and singing her own songs.

The story starts in 1958 and ends in 1971, and it shows how things changed over that time for women, in the workplace, in music, and in marriage.  “Girls don’t write music, they teach it”, Carole’s mother tells her.  The costumes were great, gradual subtle changes in hairstyle and everyday clothing for Carole, plaid pleated skirt to loose A-line skirt to blouse and trousers, and fabulous performance outfits for the various singers and groups performing the songs.

Because, oh, the songs.  I didn’t really know, before this, how many of the pop songs in the background of my childhood were written by Carole King or by the other writers of 1650 Broadway, but I think I recognized all of them but one or two.   In those days, it seems that most pop singers didn’t write their own material, but were matched up with songs by the music publishers/recording studios.  The talented ensemble for this production had actors portraying The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers, and so on, singing the songs written by Carole King and her colleagues.  In one scene, the lead singer of The Shirelles complains to Carole about the arrangement of the song she’s written for them being too “country” in style for Black singers who are trying for crossover appeal.  The young composer acknowledges the problem and offers to reorchestrate to give them a more elegant orchestral sound.    The performing ensembles were great, but what I liked even better was the scenes where the composers and lyricists sing the songs as themselves while trying them out in offices or at home, with hesitancy and passion and what sounded like awkward ordinary voices.  And as in the recent Citadel production Once, when they sing it makes sense that they’re singing.

My favourite songs in this production were the ones I was most familiar with beforehand, I think.  “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and especially “You’ve Got a Friend”.

The set (Derek McLane) shifted between scenes with smoothly sliding furniture and walls to create offices, a busy studio building, apartments, and a nightclub.  Walls and backdrops with interesting textural details reminded me of a Trevor Schmidt style.

I left feeling happy and uplifted, with the sense that the story had been significant enough to justify the wonderful music and general production value.   Carole King, as portrayed in this production, was a kind, humble, hardworking and compassionate person.  I felt glad that she’d persisted through the challenges in her life to find artistic satisfaction and appreciation.  And in an interview I heard this afternoon on CBC RadioActive, the performer Sarah Bockel said that she had met the real Carole King and she was just as gracious in person as the woman in the story.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium until Sunday November 11th.  Tickets are at Ticketmaster.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but oh so good …

The original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a 1988 movie with Steve Martin and Michael Caine.  I can’t remember if I ever saw it, or if I just saw the trailer in a theatre and got a general sense of it – a goofy story of con artists trying to beat each other at their shared game.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, who seems to have a career of making unlikely movie comedies into musicals that one would never expect, such as Full Monty and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Plain Jane did this one last spring but I didn’t write about it) The musical is currently being performed by the local company Foote in the Door Productions.

I didn’t really remember anything about the plot or characters of the movie when I went to see it opening night, and I decided not to listen to the soundtrack ahead of time.  It was a lot of fun this way. I could immediately pick out the character tropes (Russ Farmer as the sophisticated English con artist and Trevor J as the uncouth American one, Melanie Lafleur as a rich gullible visitor to the Mediterranean resort and Zack Siezmagraff as a crooked French police officer who reminded me of Captain Renault in Casablanca.   But the plot had a lot of twists I didn’t anticipate, and both the storyline and the general character ridiculousness had me giggling a lot.   I asked director Carolyn Waye beforehand what she’d most enjoyed about working on this production.  She said that they had all laughed a lot during rehearsals, and she couldn’t wait to watch an audience enjoy the bits they’d already had so much fun with.

I was so caught up watching the interplay of the two con artists with their various marks and allies, along with some delightful dance interludes (highlighting Megan Beaupre, Julia Stanski, Tim Lo, and Andrew Kwan) that it took me a while to realize that I hadn’t yet seen the other Foote in the Door principal, Ruth Wong-Miller.  She appears later, as Christine Colgate, the American Soap Queen.  Both scammers see Christine as an ideal target, so they decide to compete for her money, the loser to leave town.

The songs had very clever lyrics and enough changes of genre to be interesting, especially Shannon Hunt’s “Oklahoma” and the cheesy rock ballad “Love is my Legs”.  Matt Graham was musical director of a nine-piece ensemble, visible behind sets of French doors and acknowledged occasionally by the script when characters called for changes of atmosphere, but never overpowering the singers.

This show is a lot of fun.  The two hours flew by for me, and the endings were surprising and satisfying.  Foote in the Door has tackled some more serious material (Carousel) and more complex drama (Company) – but I think it’s equally impressive that they pulled off this heist of a tall tale without a hitch.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is playing at L’Unitheatre until November 10th.  Tickets are available through Tix on the Square

scoundrels

Trevor J, Ruth Wong-Miller, Russ Farmer, Melanie Lafleur, and Zack Siezmagraff. Photo by Nanc Price.

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Spooky October performances 2018

I’m not managing to see everything on Edmonton stages these days, but I wish I could.  I wish I’d seen Lenin’s Embalmers at U of A Studio Theatre, or the Maggie Tree production Blood: A Scientific Romance.  From what I’ve read about them, it looks like the creepy or paranormal themes could have fit into this Hallowe’en-week blog roundup, too.

At the Walterdale Theatre, I helped work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a script prepared by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans using various primary source materials, and directed here by Barbara Mah.   It was thought-provoking and disturbing, because the horrible fates of real people were depicted graphically, because the resulting legal case portrayed did not result in justice, and because the hazards of the garment industry juxtaposed with fashion advertising are not so different from their contemporary equivalents.   Watching this story play out every night as one of the booth operators, I kept cheering for some of the determined young women who lived to tell their own stories, particularly Rose Freedman (Danielle Yu), and Ethel Monick, (Stephanie Swensrude), and kept getting angry at the factory owners and their lawyer (Eric Rice, Kent Sutherland, and Matthew Bearsto).  It was a relief to close that show and watch some scary shows for fun.  

Dead Centre of Town XI has four more performances in the Blatchford hangar at Fort Edmonton Park.  This year the macabre true stories researched and written by Megan and Beth Dart of Catch the Keys all relate to air travel.  As usual, the audience members are guided through relevant settings to encounter the characters of various disasters and mysterious happenings, while super-creepy poet/narrator Colin Matty provides extra detail and atmosphere.  “If humans were intended to fly, why are they so Goddamned squishy?”, he muses.  More live-theatre than haunted-house, this annual immersive event does a great job at making the details build up the overall experience – even the ticket distribution (“boarding passes”) and the traffic-management (impersonal masked uniformed airport workers in a crowded “boarding lounge” with staticky announcements) are part of the adventure.

Dark! at Fort Edmonton is new this year, adding on food (with creepy nicknames like Bloody Balls and Skewered Rat), drinks, and adult-level haunted-house attractions.  I went to one of the haunts, and decided that I prefer the Dead Centre of Town style of horrifying imagery enhanced by narrative, to the unexplained jump-scares of Dark!

The Bone House, by Marty Chan, also has performances remaining on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  It was also very scary in a different style again.  At first it felt like a TV or movie experience, with a forensic-psychology expert presenting an illustrated lecture about serial killers, but it became more unsettling – it was easy to involve myself into the story enough that I could imagine being in danger, but I also began to feel somewhat complicit in choosing to listen to serial-killer narratives in any medium.  Brrr.

This weekend I also managed to fit in a performance of Northern Light Theatre’s Origin of the Species, by Bryony Lavery.  With direction and set/costume design by Trevor Schmidt and performances by Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner, it uses the ridiculous premise of a contemporary archaeologist encountering a live prehistoric woman, to touch on several important themes with a subtle touch.  I particularly enjoyed the very gradual transition of the prehistoric woman Victoria (Johnston) towards modern physicality and communication, and the many ways that both characters subvert assumptions about “traditional” gender roles.

Fringe 2018 – the first half

At midweek, I’m just catching my breath long enough to sit down with my program book (my second program book, after the first had an unfortunate beer accident) and start coming to terms with not being able to see everything I want to see.

What I’ve seen so far:

Don’t Frown at the Gown – I loved this new Guys in Disguise play set in a suburban bridal salon in 1962.  The characters are charming, the conflicts between mother (Darrin Hagen) and bride (Trevor Schmidt) and between mother and best friend (Jason Hardwick), are timeless although the details are a horrifying reminder of the unexamined sexism of the world I was born into, and the salon owner Lady Laura Lee (Jake Tkaczyk) provides a cryptic example of serenity, empowerment, and hope for better things “in the very near future”.

Cult Cycle – A new musical set in a spin-bicycle exercise studio of course needs a soundtrack of original dance-beat music with catchy tunes (Composer Daniel Belland, check.)  It needs a bitingly-clever book and lyrics touching on all the catchphrases and attitudes encountered in boutique fitness as well as a plot with enough stakes to create interest, and a little bit of cheese (writers Stephen Allred, Bethany Hughes, and Seth Gilfillan, check) .  It needs a cast who can tell stories in song, sometimes while cycling at spin cadence, doing arm choreography with weights and towels, and even doing parallel-bars type gymnastics moves on a bicycle (Jaimi Reese, Mark Sinongco, Geoff Ryzuk, Nadine Veroba, Kendra Humphrey, Stephen Allred, check check check.)  It is very very funny.

Red Bastard:  Lie With Me – Eric Davis’s performance is a wonderful example of what can be done with bouffon, alternately alluring and appalling the audience, compelling us to confess embarrassing things, and challenging us to re-examine conventional assumptions of morality.

Bountiful – Rebecca Ann Merkley’s script about sister-wives in a contemporary polygamist settlement has a great balance of interpersonal frictions and cultural issues, with little touches that kept jolting me into realizing the characters were in some ways ordinary women of 2018 (Jameela McNeil’s sassy asides, Emma Wilmott’s “Cool”.)  Laura Raboud played the senior-wife leader of the group and Kayla Gorman played an awkward naive woman who reminded me a little bit of her child character in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant.  There was something especially disturbing about seeing this in sequence with Don’t Frown, with the scenes of married women trying to reassure young brides about wedding-night “responsibilities” in ways that show the audience their own unhappy memories of encounters with honeymoon sex.

Merk de Soleil – This vaudeville-esque amateur-circus revue is a very different creation from Rebecca Merkley.  It has all the variety-show tropes – a big buildup, some repeated gags, a cast of odd characters, and some underappreciated helpers (Kristina Hunszinger, Josh Travnik, Andrew Brostrom).  Lots of fun.

The Wilds – Classic Wonderheads production telling a tender story in an amusing way without any spoken words.

For Science! – Christine Lesiak’s new show doesn’t need spoken words either, although it makes good use of text in a slide-show and benefited from audience members who rushed to contribute when asked.

The Alien Baby Project – Impossible Mongoose always has something cool and weird.  This year it’s a script from Nicholas Walker Herbert performed by Jessy Ardern and directed and designed by Corben Kushneryk.  Cool and weird.

2 Queens and a Joker – Cheryl Jameson, Madelaine Knight, and Vance Avery play Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, and a messenger/spy go-between.  Dangerous-feeling design by Trevor Schmidt and script by Schmidt, Darrin Hagen, and Nick Green.

What I’m working on:

All Proceeds Go To:  Jake Tkaczyk, Alex Dawkins, Sarah Karpyshin, and I bring you a much-needed updating of the concept of seven deadly sins, and explore them using various performance genres including neo-bouffon, original music by Alex Dawkins, movement, dance, and audience contributions.  OSPAC on Gateway, three more shows.

A Golden Girls Tribute: Sofie’s Wild Ride is just what the title promises – a funny and nostalgic tribute to the characters of the TV show in some new adventures and to sitcom tropes in general (script by Amanda Leblanc, cast Brian Ault, Althea Cunningham, Nicole English, Ana Fassman, Rhonda Kosuska, and Amanda Leblanc).  Every afternoon at the Billiard Club, some shows selling out.

 

 

 

Russ Farmer as Bobby and Emily Smith as Marta. Photo credit Nanc Price.

In good Company

Russ Farmer as Bobby, Emily Smith as Marta.  Photo credits Nanc Price.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company shows us a group of friends in their 30s, five married couples and the single guy, Bobby (Russ Farmer in the current Foote in the Door production).

In a series of gentle vignettes, we see glimpses of each couple’s relationship and challenges.  We see that Bobby is friends with everybody, good company, as he spends time with each couple.  Harry and Sarah (Stefan Rumak and Melanie Lafleur) talk to Bobby as a way of complaining about each other’s habits (his drinking, her eating sweets).  He’s best man for Paul and Amy’s (Alan Cabral and Ruth Wong-Miller) wedding – or he would be, if they agree to get married.  Joanne (Kärin Thomas) enjoys flirting with Bobby and telling him about her past husbands while devoted present husband Larry (Joe Garreck) looks on.  Susan and Peter (Athena Gordon and Trevor J.) explain to Bobby that being divorced makes their marriage work.  Bobby smokes weed with David and Jenny (Simon Yau and Kara Little).  All of them fuss at Bobby about not being married and try to find out why he’s not married – and Bobby doesn’t seem to know either.

We also see Bobby with three love interests, naive flight attendant April (Victoria Suen, whom I last saw in Lizzie), Kathy, who’s moving away but says she would have liked to marry him (Alyssa Paterson), and Marta (Emily Smith), one of my favourite characters, who is wholeheartedly in love with New York City and with life.

And I should mention that it was fun to spot assistant director Gerald Mason playing bartender and what seemed to be a nightclub full of show orchestra members and assistant stage managers dancing in the dark.

It wasn’t the plot-heavy kind of production full of big character journeys and closure, but rather was full of lovely examples of longterm love and friendship and of people accepting who they are and being comfortable.  My favourite part was “Getting Married Today” in which Ruth Wong-Miller’s character has hilarious physical and emotional range in a wedding dress.  I also enjoyed “Side by Side by Side”, which was a great showcase of choreographer Adam Kuss’s contributions, and Bobby’s final solo “Being Alive”.  There are also many other touching and/or delightful moments which I won’t tell you about so you can discover them for yourself, with just one hint:  Trevor J. lets his hair down.

I admired how Morgan Kunitz’ direction integrated everyday smartphone use into a script from 1970 without looking anachronistic.

Company is playing at L’UniThéâtre until April 28th.  And if you haven’t been to the big auditorium at La Cité yet this season, you will be pleasantly surprised by the new audience seating, which is much more comfortable than the previous seats.