Memories and witnesses in Blood of Our Soil

One of the powers of live theatre is that it can educate audience members about horrible things that happened or are happening.  Sometimes people with privileged and busy lives like mine kind of missed reading about world events or unpleasant parts of history.  I’m not sure whether it’s worse nowadays, when first encounters with news might come through the filter of which stories from which sources the people on my Facebook feeds choose to link and when we get to hear about so many awful things happening that it’s easy to be distracted by the next one, or whether it was worse in the past when there was no way around mass media, nobody tweeting from war zones.

Live theatre can also be an effective way of making sense of traumatic stories experienced by parents and grandparents, placing them in context and sharing them with a wider public.  In Empire of the Son, which played earlier this year at the Citadel, the performer-creator Tetsuro Shigematsu tells some of his father’s stories, including being a Japanese child during World War II and experiencing fallout from Hiroshima (literal fallout).  In Children of God, which previews at the Citadel starting tomorrow, Corey Payette and his creative team will show us some stories of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, and how the experience affected them and their families later.  And in Blood of Our Soil, which opened last night at the Arts Barns Westbury Theatre, playwright and performer Lianna Makuch, director Patrick Lundeen, and the Pyretic Productions team show us some details of the hardships of Ukrainian people over the last 90 years or so, in a format that felt human-scale, touching and inspiring, and also showed me how much I just don’t know about that part of the world. 

The Westbury Theatre space was arranged in a way that felt more three-dimensional and alive than I’ve ever seen it.  Stephanie Bahniuk’s design had dim dappled lighting full of mist exposing a thrust stage area crisscrossed with laundry lines above, and damaged buildings towards the back, with projections (Nicholas Mayne) showing glimpses of life through the windows.  Closer inspection revealed that the buildings all seemed to be constructed of old wooden pallets/skids.  It reminded me of the set for Irma Voth, but come to life in three dimensions instead of being flat and behind the action.

The first act follows a fairly conventional solo-narration format, with Makuch switching back and forth between a character like herself and her Baba (grandma), signalling the switch by pulling her kerchief over her hair and sometimes changing her accent.  Larissa Pohoreski provides some musical background, and the other performers Oscar Derkx, Julia Guy, Maxwell Lebeuf, and Tanya Pacholok create a chorus of expressive movement, occasional song, and joyful folk-dance.

At the end of the first act, the dying Baba tells her granddaughter to go home for her, go to her home in Ukraine.

The second act is all contemporary.  Makuch relates how the narrator travels not only to the village and house of her grandmother’s memories, but to the current war zone of Eastern Ukraine.  In this act, the other performers all represent people she gets to know in the areas touched by war, young former soldiers (Derkx and Lebeuf), Russian-speaking sisters whose brother had been killed in Kyiv participating in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (Pohoreski and Pacholok), and a young mother, an internally displaced person living with her small child in a hostel and longing for an apartment and a job and hope (Guy).  I found this character particularly compelling, abrupt and mistrustful, with her fierce protectiveness expanding from herself and her daughter to cover the Canadian visitor as well.  Makuch is painfully honest in showing the visitor’s naiveté and questioning her motives, which impressed me.  Suddenly I remembered the first performance in which I had ever seen her, Greg MacArthur‘s The Missionary Position, which illustrated the harm done by well-meaning misguided Canadian visitors in a place like Haiti.   The audience gets to share in the narrator’s astonishment that in an area of recent/ongoing conflict, “veteran” doesn’t fit the connotations we might have here, old men and women in Legion jackets.  She gets drunk with the young former fighters, and they tell her stories, not just stories of fighting but of how the fighting affected their relationships with women, some of them very funny.

Blood of Our Soil runs at the Arts Barns until March 9th, with tickets available here.


A week of re-views

Liz Nicholls did a great post of the year in review in Edmonton theatre.  Colin MacLean had a great post of the Best of 2017 too.

I’m not organized enough to give you a review of the year, but it occurred to me the other night that this last bit before Christmas has been a week of re-views, for me.

I watched Star Wars:  The Last Jedi.  It was fun.  Seeing Carrie Fisher in new scenes for the last time was moving.  Mark Hamill was cryptic.  Another character from the 1970s trilogy was a pleasant surprise.  I liked that for 21st-century audiences there is more than one interesting female character, and I hope that continues to be a thing.  Also, that there is more than one interesting character of colour.  It’s embarrassing that that didn’t used to be a thing.

I watched a Canada-USA women’s hockey game, the last in their exhibition series of this Olympic year.  I missed attending the first-ever international women’s tournament in 1987 in Mississauga, but I volunteered at the first IIHF Worlds in 1990, attended the World Championships in Kitchener in 1997 and in Mississauga in 2000, and was on the ice between periods with my 5-6yo hockey students for an exhibition game at Air Canada Centre in the early 2000s.   And I’ve watched or listened to broadcast Canada-US games many times over the years, usually the gold medal games.  So it was a nostalgic treat to watch the 2017-18 rosters of these powerhouses in our new Rogers Centre.  Canada’s head coach is now Laura Schuler, and I remember when she first made the national team herself.  Shannon Szabados of Sherwood Park was in net for Canada, and the backup goalie Genevieve Lacasse, like several other players on the Canadian roster, spent some time as a young player in clubs and leagues which my mother or I helped to start.  Canada won 2-1 in overtime.

And I saw lots of theatre that in various ways was re-watches.  Back to the 80s Part II, at the Mayfield, was a lot like the previous one in the series a couple of years ago – brief live versions of popular songs of the 1980s, with costume and dance, strung together with a loose plotline and skits.  This one included some music from movies and TV shows, as well as pop music remembered from MTV and radio.  Before it started, I couldn’t think what songs/artists would be left to do, but I remembered almost everything once they started playing it.

I wanted to see this year’s Christmas Carol at the Citadel because I wanted to see Julien Arnold play Scrooge (a few years ago he played Bob Cratchit), and it was lovely as usual.  Beth Graham and Jamie Williams are the Cratchits this year, and Robert Benz is great in various small roles.  The pacing was very good, too.

Two years ago, Edmonton Actors’ Theatre’s production of Jay Torrence’s Burning Bluebeard hit uncomfortably close to home, a show about a theatre fire being produced for the temporary Roxy on Gateway, only seven months after the original Roxy Theatre had burned down.  I didn’t see it last year, but this year I saw it twice, once with John Ullyatt playing the stage manager and once with director Dave Horak in that role.  This year another cast change has Brooke Leifso playing the fairy queen instead of Richelle Thoreson.  Leifso brings another level of compelling awkwardness to the role, as if her ballet slippers were on the wrong feet, and a fascinating powerful remoteness, not making eye contact with the other characters but controlling the story.   Partway through my most recent viewing, it occurred to me that Amber Lewis’s character (Fancy Clown in the program) was not introducing herself in the same ritualized documentary personification as the other characters were, each telling their own story of who they had been and what had happened on the afternoon of the fire, and asking audience members to remember them.  Lewis’s character was more of a general narrator, remote and not particularly likeable, and I began to wonder if this character was in fact a representation of fate or of something more sinister.

And I also made time in my schedule for a couple of viewings of The Best Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever, once on tour and once at the Varscona Theatre.  Since the last time I’d seen it, they’ve added Vicki Berg as musical director and on-stage piano player Miss Vicki.  Her character is very funny, and the recent musical additions include a haunting rendition of “Mary did you know” with a beautiful arrangement showcasing each of the performers.  My companion pointed out that the lyrics of that song made a thought-provoking contrast with the thoughts expressed by the later-in-life Mary as seen in Northern Light Theatre’s Testament of Mary earlier this season.

Which also reminds me of my Theatre Alberta present-under-the-tree – I figured it was okay to unwrap it early because it’s a library loan which I will need to return – as part of their Christmas promotion #UnderWraps, they sent me a copy of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which was so good I was teary eyed in the Next Act.  It reminded me of Testament of Mary, being tribute fiction adding complexity to the story of Christ.  It seems eminently stageable, just needing thirteen male-presenting actors and a few props, and I hope someone puts it on here.

Little Women: the musical

One of my favourite parts of the experience of watching the musical Little Women last night was remembering bits of the story as I watched it happen on stage.  I didn’t love Louisa May Alcott’s book when I first encountered it, but I still read it over and over, like many girl-identified children of my era who read faster than my parents could drive me back to the library.   The best things about the book were Jo’s tomboyish-for-the-time outspokenness and determination, the genuine affection among the different sisters each with her own flaws, and the way the new-boy-next-door (lonely, orphaned, and probably with his own variations from gender norms of the culture) was welcomed and swept into their games and projects.  My least favourite parts of the book were the parts where Jo rejects Laurie’s romantic overtures but and then changes her previous plan of staying single when she gets to know Professor Bhaer.  I didn’t like the example of best friends and equals Jo and Laurie not being romantically suited, with all the March girls ending up with an older more powerful man (Jo with the Professor, Meg with Laurie’s tutor John, and Laurie finally getting engaged to Amy, the youngest of the sisters.)

The stage-musical version (book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) and the Foote in the Door production currently playing at L’UniThéâtre enhance all the good things I remembered about the book and make the things I disliked less objectionable.  The sisters are wonderful together, different from each other but protective of each other and of their mother.  Alyssa Paterson is the oldest, responsible Meg, Ruth Wong-Miller is ambitious and impulsive Jo, Fiona Cain is kind frail Beth, and Natasha Mason is Amy, the whiny youngest at the start of the book who is transformed for the better when Aunt March (Stephanie Sartore) takes her to Europe and guides her into well-off cultured society, with enough money to pursue her interests.  I found it very easy to believe that Jo didn’t care about clothes and the rest of the family didn’t have money to spend on fancy ones, but I was still fascinated to see them take for granted movement in hoop skirts (including stomping  up and down stairs, sitting gracefully on the floor (Meg) and falling in a pretend tragic-death (Jo).  The costumes also fitted with a bit I remembered about Alcott herself being of dress-reform convictions and the March family not putting the girls in corsets.   Wong-Miller is well cast as Jo and has a strong singing voice.  Carolyn Ware (most recently Nettie in Carousel) is lovely as Marmee and Stephanie Sartore is very funny as both Aunt March and the boarding house landlady Mrs. Kirk.

Amy and Aunt March

Natasha Mason, as Amy, and Stephanie Sartore, as Aunt March, in Little Women. Photo credit Nanc Price.

The men in the show helped to reconcile me to the romantic pairings I had been irritated by as a teenager, too.  Stephen Allred as Laurie was an eccentric boy whose life was definitely improved when the March sisters took him in, and then a kind young man who immediately took no for an answer when Jo turned him down.   And although young me had disliked the book version of Professor Bhaer as old, boring, and bossy, Dave Smithson plays him with self-aware humour and without dominating body language.  The script says that he’s thirty-four (not so old), his literary critique of Jo’s stories seems more respectful in the stage version, and their engagement/future plan doesn’t feel like Jo abandoning her own goals for his, but as “give me a task!”-Jo moving on to a new challenge and Fritz embracing it.   Bob Klakowich is fun to watch as Laurie’s grieving and cranky grandfather transforms to shy Beth’s gentle benefactor and the proud supporter of Laurie and Amy’s wedding.  Adam Sartore’s part as John Brooke is small and less memorable, but the scene where he and Meg first meet is charming.

One pleasant surprise for me was the scenes from Jo’s imagination, in which the other actors perform as characters from her stories.  I loved how the sketches showed the maturing of her literary vision and ended up with a tale that was both credible as adventure a newspaper editor would pay for and satisfying to modern feminist sensibilities.  Fight choreography is credited to Chance Heck.

I liked the show a lot.  The pacing was good, some of the music was earworm-memorable, and the simple set (Leland Stelck’s design) worked for the various locations needed (the family parlour, Jo’s garret, the boarding house, Aunt March’s house, and outdoors. )  Trish Van Doornum directed and Daniel Belland was music director.

Little Women plays tonight, tomorrow afternoon, and Wednesday to Saturday next week (Nov 8-11) at L’UniThéâtre.  Tickets are available through both Tix on the Square and EventBrite, and there should be some at the door.

And now I think I will read the book again.

Alcott novels

The copies of Little Women and Little Men that my mother received for Christmas in 1945.

Five for one!

Laurie (Stephen Allred) pledges friendship and loyalty with the March sisters, Amy (Natasha Mason), Jo (Ruth Wong-Miller), Beth (Fiona Cain), and Meg (Alyssa Paterson). Photo credit Nanc Price.



Les Feluettes at Edmonton Opera

Jean-Michel Richer and Zachary Read in Les Feluettes. Photo by Nanc Price for Edmonton Opera

Edmonton Opera’s current production of Les Feluettes, a Canadian opera in French based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, has one more performance, this Friday October 28th.  Bouchard is also the author of the play Tom at the Farm, of which I saw a performance at the University of Alberta last season, directed by Brenley Charkow.

When I first heard of Les Feluettes and read a plot synopsis, I was dubious.  I liked the idea of increased LGBTQ representation in opera, as in any performance art, but it sounded like a very sad story.  I get a little tired of stories in which same-sex relationships or LGBTQ characters are inevitably doomed, because for a long time that’s how most LGBTQ characters were portrayed.   Maybe I’m past being desperate for representation and on to the stage of wanting a variety of representation, some of it admirable and some of it happy.

However, I attended a performance of Les Feluettes despite my misgivings, and I’m very glad I did.  The story does have a sad ending with emotional resonance, but not unusually so for opera.   And the aesthetics of the production are just gorgeous.  I’m reconciled partly because it’s good art, and partly because the tragic outcome isn’t just due to the young gay students Simon and Vallier being unable to pursue their relationship in the 1912 Roman Catholic culture of a small northern Québec town, but also due to the jealous and guilt-ridden actions of one particular classmate, who is tormented by his own attraction to Simon.   One might even look to the story of this opera as an illustration of why the Alberta government is currently in conflict with separate school authorities over curricular objectives on sexuality.   Young people who are taught to fear, hate, or deny their own sexuality and that of others can do terrible harm to themselves or others.

The opera, like the play on which it’s based, has a “play within a play” structure (and in fact, there’s actually a play within the play within the play.).  As the flashback scenes are performed by a group of prisoners for the visiting Bishop (Gordon Gietz), all the performers are male, including the chorus and supernumeraries.  Costumes appear as if they could have been constructed out of prison uniforms, draperies, and other available materials by the prisoners for the purpose of acting out this story.  Female characters in the flashbacks are played by male prisoners, and not in an inherently ridiculous way.  Baritone Dominique Côté is the mother somewhat out of touch with reality, played with kindness and pathos.  Countertenor Daniel Cabena is convincing as the young Lydie-Anne, Simon’s fiancée.  The young prisoners who portray the young Simon and the young Vallier (Zachary Read and Jean-Michel Richer) have very strong chemistry and voices that sound good together.

The plot synopsis is available on line and in the printed program.   I would have similar concerns about inviting people to a performance of Romeo and Juliet if they were not prepared for the outcome because I always find stories of the unnecessary deaths of young people upsetting.  But if you are willing to watch a sad opera, you should consider going to see this one on Friday.  Some tickets are still available here.

Letters from (and to) A Doll’s House

torvald nora

Tim Marriott, as Torvald, and Nicole English, as Nora, in A Doll’s House. Photo Kristen Finlay.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m worried about my old friend. I just moved to her city, and we’ve been spending time together for the first time since she got married.  Captain, I think she’s married to a Darth Vader Boyfriend.  She pretends to follow his order not to eat macaroons, but sneaks them behind his back.  When I offered to help her with some mending, she pushed me into the kitchen with the help, saying “Torvald can’t stand to see anyone sewing”.  And he totally mansplained me the other day about how knitting was an ugly low-class pastime and advised me how to do embroidery instead.  She goes along with his whims to a ridiculous extent and she thinks he’s wonderful.  Captain, what can I do?

  • (pronouns she/her). 

Dear Ask a Manager:

I don’t have good references because I made some mistakes in my past.  No charges were laid, but I was stuck using some sketchy schemes to make money for a while, until I got this entry-level job at the bank.  Now I’m keeping my record clean and looking forward to promotion.  When I found out one of my old school friends was hired as the new vice-president, I was sure this would be an advantage for me.  So I started dropping in at his office and reminiscing loudly about the things we got up to at school.  And now he says I’m being too familiar and he’s given me a written warning and a pink slip!  However, I’ve got something on his wife (see above, sketchy schemes), so I was thinking that I should just blackmail them into letting me keep my job and move up at the bank.  Nothing can go wrong with this, right?


Dear Miss Manners:

As I am in chronic pain due to congenital syphilis (which my nanny told me was my father’s fault), I would like to die with dignity while I have some agency.  I don’t think my friends could handle seeing me in rough shape, so I’d like to tell them to stay away.  What’s the approved way of notifying them using visiting cards? 


From Dan Savage, Savage Love, confidential to NoNoNora:  DTMFA.

The conflicts and choices portrayed in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, first produced in 1879, are disturbingly timely in 2017.   Alex Hawkins directed the current Walterdale Theatre Associates production to show the complexity of all the characters and the ways class and gender affect their choices. Nicole English (last seen as Mrs. Lovett in ELOPE’s Sweeney Todd) is troubling and inspiring as Nora, and the rest of the cast is strong as well (Tim Marriott as Torvald, Dave Wolkowski as Krogstad, Marsha Amanova as Christine, dale Wilson as Dr. Rank, and Leslie Caffaro as Anne Marie).   The designers worked with the restrained palette of 1879 Norway to create an atmosphere embodying both oppression and beauty, with set by Joan Heys Hawkins, costumes by Geri Dittrich, lighting by Richard Hatfield and Rebecca Cave, sound by Kiidra Duhault, and props by Alayna Hunchak.

A Doll’s House continues at the Walterdale Theatre until Saturday October 21st, 8 pm Tuesday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday.  Same-day tickets are available at the door and advance tickets are through Tix on the Square.

Fringe 2017 – the last weekend

A Beautiful View – Perry Gratton directed Nikki Hulowski and Samantha Jeffreys in this Daniel MacIvor script, a lovely celebration of a hard-to-label relationship between two women. “You have to be very organized to be bisexual”, the one explains to herself/the audience while deciding not to follow up on an unexpected sexual encounter.   There are a lot of segments where a character speaks facing the audience – sometimes they are alternating in a conversation with each other as retold to the audience.  I don’t know how much of that is in MacIvor’s script, but I think I remember a lot of it in a play Gratton directed several years ago at Fringe, Letters to Laura.  The ending was … well, there was enough foreshadowing that the not-entirely-explicit awful/sad ending must have actually happened.  But I wish it hadn’t, since I really liked both characters.  They were quite different from each other, but there were things I identified with in both of them.  (A Beautiful View has one holdover performance on Thursday.)

Late Night Cabaret – Late Night Cabaret is an Edmonton Fringe tradition.  It happens at midnight, every night of the Fringe except the last Sunday when things wrap up early.  I only went to it once this year, but it wasn’t hard to pick up on the ongoing jokes and routines.  Hosts Amy Shostak and Julian Faid have guests from other shows every night as well as the very talented house band Ze Punterz.  The Backstage Theatre sells out with happy artists, volunteers, and dedicated fringegoers extending their evening and building community.  It runs about an hour and a half with an intermission, and I think maybe the bar stays open during the show.  Some people go to it every night.

Multiple Organism – This piece by Vancouver’s Mind of a Snail troupe (Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel) was the most original and creative work I saw at this year’s Fringe, and I liked it a lot.  It made extensive use of unusual projection techniques.  Some of it was a little gross, but not gratuitously so.

Rivercity: The musical  – Rebecca Merkley wrote and directed this new musical which seems to be an homage to the Archie-comics characters without quite borrowing their names.   It’s full of amusing quick-changes for double&triple-cast actors, silly puns, and cartoon-inspired sound effects (especially the wind-up-and-dash running starts of red-headed Andrews (Molly MacKinnon), which sounded like the Road Runner or something).  In between, though, there were some touching and serious solos for various characters, particularly for the viewpoint character Bee (Vanessa Wilson) and for the Jughead-like Jonesy (Josh Travnik, also multiply-cast in Evil Dead).   The cast of four (Kristin Johnston plays Reggie and the principal among others) covers too many characters to count.  Live music is provided by Scott Shpeley and Chris Weibe, wearing Josie-and-the-Pussycats-style cat-ears. 

Tempting – Erin Pettifor and Franco Correa are a psychic and a sceptic in Ashleigh Hicks’ new script.  When the audience enters the Westbury Theatre auditorium, the large stage has been made into a cozy cluttered studio-space for psychic Alaura (Pettifor).  She is puttering about doing yoga poses in a disjointed distracted way and making tea.  At first it is not clear why Adam is dropping in before business hours, and it is also not clear why Alaura is so immediately adversarial.  Those things do become clear – Adam’s girlfriend Constance is a client, and Adam wants Alaura to recant the advice (or prediction, or support) she gave Constance in a decision Adam doesn’t like.   The problem as described is interesting – Constance is dying and in pain and wants to pursue medically-assisted death, which Alaura supports and Adam doesn’t.  But I don’t really feel compassionate for either of the characters on stage, as I find out more about their motivations and connections to Constance, and I found the ending unsatisfying. 

I think I saw 28 performances this Fringe (one a repeat) and I might see a couple more at holdovers this week.

Super powers of various kinds

Another little change at this year’s Fringe festival is that an artist pass or volunteer pass works as an ETS transit pass.  It used to be that artists and volunteers could request a separate transit pass.  I had the impression that they had a limited number of passes, so I usually didn’t get one, and it was a nuisance to carry around one more thing.  This way’s great – I’ve taken the bus several times for short journeys instead of driving or walking.  On the other hand, the festival also used to have a bus-ticket perq for ordinary festival-goers, and it seems they don’t have that any more.

Yesterday’s short bus trip down Whyte Avenue to 101 Street and then a short walk in the neighbourhood that might be called CPR Irvine or part of Ritchie or just “behind the A and W” brought me to Concrete Theatre’s Playhouse performance space for The Superhero Who Loved Me, a new play by Chris Craddock, directed by Wayne Paquette and starring Kristi Hansen and April Banigan.  At first I thought, this is great, it’s just like the comic-book superhero tales that are my usual cinema fare.  And about halfway through, I thought, they’ve already had more character development and logical plot points than most superhero movies.   Hansen is the secret-agent/superhero isolated by the requirement for secrecy and Banigan the old classmate looking for friends after her divorce, and when they meet again things get steamy pretty fast.  They have all the superhero/mundane mixed-relationship troubles you might expect, and I cared about them.  Staging was simple, painted rehearsal-boxes and a few props, and the obligatory show-you-the-world flying scene was acted out with Barbie dolls.  Two more performances this weekend, and then held over at the venue next weekend.

Another short trip away from the Fringe grounds brought me to the Garneau Theatre for fresh popcorn and the midnight showing of Mo’ Manada, the Boylesque T.O. sequel to O Manada from a couple of years ago.  This year’s revue was hosted by Justin Trudeau (Morgan Norwich) and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau (Johnnie Walker), and featured four talented men from Boylesque T.O. as well as stage-kitten (costumed stage-crew and occasional performer) Shagina Twain.  The hosts were just as entertaining as the dancers, and the midnight crowd was very enthusiastic.  One more show today.

The official Fringe holdover series in the Westbury Theatre was announced yesterday.  Tickets are available from the Fringe box office / website now for Prophecy, My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice, Legoland, and Drunk Girl.

Other independent venues make their own arrangements for holdovers.  Varscona Theatre will be doing one more performance of No Exit and several for An Exquisite Hour.  Holy Trinity is holding over Urinetown.  Concrete/Playhouse is adding two performances of The Superhero Who Loved Me (ticketing info not available yet).

And there’s two days left to see plays, eat mini donuts and green onion cakes, watch buskers, and hang out with other people who are passionate about theatre, until we’re back to ordinary life (which for me is more of the same, but at a slower pace and with more sleep.)