Fringe 2022: Just a few more!

I left my final weekend mostly open because I didn’t know if I’d have much energy and enthusiasm left, but I ended up wanting to fit in more shows I’d heard or read about. And I don’t regret it. All of these are now closed, of course, but some may have future runs at other festivals or elsewhere.

The Bender – Corine Demas’ three-hander about a grieving middle-aged woman (Demas) and her short-lived relationship with a much younger trans man (Kai Hall) she meets through a poetry-reading group (“Open hearts, open minds”). The third cast member, Steven Darnell, plays another poet, and amusingly also plays all the hookups the couple find on dating sites. I liked that the playwright didn’t aim for a conventional ending with any of the characters together. Acacia Hall.

The Truth – Adam Bailey is a Fringe-circuit regular, from Ontario. His fast-paced solo examined the concept of truth through anecdotes from his own life, from LGBTQ2S+ history, and from addiction-recovery research vs addiction-recovery ritual, among others, and it was entertaining to listen to.

A Grave Mistake – The physical-comedy duo A Little Bit Off, with Amica Hunter and David Cantor, first hit Edmonton with Beau & Aero a few years ago, which was great, so I knew it would be worth going to the Gateway Theatre in the heat to see them. Their closing performance started with David explaining that Amica was ill and unable to perform, but that with some adaptations, Carly Pokoradi from Juliet: A Revenge Comedy would be filling in on book to give us a segment of the play, and then any remaining time would be filled with some “variety show” by other Fringe artists. So although I didn’t get to see A Grave Mistake in its entirety, I got to see a couple of brilliant artists do a suprisingly-good pick-up performance, with its highlight being the physical business of the swindlers’ seance. I also got to see some other amusing excerpts, similar to Late Night Cabaret bits, from Keith Brown, Paul Strickland, Ingrid Hansen with Nayana Fielkov, and – I’m sorry, I can’t remember who else. I would definitely go to see A Grave Mistake again. Yet this experience was a classic illustration of the ephemeral pleasure of being one of the people in the “room where it happens” for live theatre. Gateway Theatre. (And a note that sweltering-heat notwithstanding, I love that this venue is still being used, and is back to being a lottery venue.)

Pressure – Amanda Samuelson’s three-hander had a progress showing or staged read or something at Nextfest in the spring, but I didn’t get to see it then. I didn’t make it up to the new Roxy Theatre to see it this week until the last day of the festival, but I’m very glad I did. It’s the best new drama I’ve seen this Fringe. Sydney Williams plays the central character Grace, struggling with depression, anxiety, feelings of being an imposter as a playwright and as an adult, and residual hurt from being abandoned by her father. Grace’s sometime-partner Ricky (Meegan Sweet) and Grace’s mother (Sue Huff) don’t always know how to support her, and have their own conflicting needs, but mean well and worry about her. It was refreshing to see the mother-daughter interactions being so nuanced, without the mother being a caricature of misunderstanding or a villain – her support was more than tuna noodle casseroles, and it was satisfying to see Grace managing to reach out to her mother for help. I liked the scene-framing of negative snarky horoscope projections, and I noticed the different underscoring and lighting for therapist conversations and for negative self-talk vs the real-time conversations on stage, but I was occasionally a little confused about the time lapses and flashbacks between scenes. Lorne Cardinal Theatre at the Roxy.

Absolute Magic – Keith Brown’s stage-magic show, sold out at the Backstage Theatre, was a great way to wrap up the festival. He makes very good use of multiple closeup cameras to make close-up magic with cards and other small props come alive for a full room. I was pretty close, and I still have no idea how any of it was done, and I loved it. The performer had smooth, natural, consensual interactions with many audience members, not just the ones close to the table but some from further back in the risers. I appreciated that his methods of identifying audience members to invite participation didn’t assume gender. I liked his stories, which came out of shows he’d done and people he’d met, things he’d learned during the pandemic, and so on. They didn’t feel glib and a couple of them truly inspired me. Backstage Theatre.

I also went to the year’s last edition of Late Night Cabaret, a festive and joyful celebration of the Fringe and the artists and community. The more times I attend LNC the more I like it. I feel welcomed and included, and I love getting to sit and experience good music – including the preshow – and a fast-moving sampler of Fringe entertainment with shared jokes and short encounters with different performers. I also like having the salient details about each artist’s show posted on the video screen.

So, that wrapped up my Fringe 2022. I might see some holdovers later this week, but the last show laundry is done and it’s time to get caught up on the rest of life and start getting ready for Walterdale’s 2022-2023 season.

Highlights and improvements of the 2022 Fringe:

  • The expanded liquor-licensed area and the paperless-option ticketing systems introduced for last year’s small-scale festival worked great for this bigger event.
  • Same with the no-tickets single-transaction drinks ordering in the beer tents.
  • No paper handbills – I saw good and bad parts of this, but on balance I liked it.
  • Water dispensers around site
  • Community Care Team watching out for unhoused and vulnerable people who might be impacted by the festival
  • Ticket pricing displayed inclusive of the Fringe operations surcharge, so there are no surprises.

See you next year!

An evening of laughter at Fringe 2022

This evening I took in three Fringe performances, all of which made me laugh a lot.

1-Man No-Show – Isaac Kessler’s performance starts before it starts, with the performer on headset walking through the audience talking to the technicians and to the audience members, and shifts smoothly into recognizing the large roster of other Fringe performers in the audience “And even Mark Meer!” and asking some unanswerable questions about the nature of theatre. “A swamp!” The “high art” promised is illuminated, and many other original and unpredictable bits had me laughing. There was a lot of audience input, and I couldn’t tell how much of the show was improvising responses and how much was something that happens every show. It made me want to go back and find out. One more show on Sunday, at the Yardbird Suite.

Jesus Teaches Us Things, a Dammitammy production, starts with Pastor Greg (Adam Keefe) taking attendance of the audience as if we are attending a children’s Sunday School class, until substitute teacher Jesus (Rebecca Merkley) blasts in to take over. Things happen very quickly from then on, including several unique adaptations of popular songs performed by Merkley (He will, he will, save you! / clap clap stomp to the tune/accompaniment of We Will Rock You, for example), a crafts segment, an ask-me-anything, at least two miracles and an exorcism, some brilliant ad-libs, and a response to Pastor Greg’s appeal for tithes and donations that involves overturning tables and some canon-consistent messaging about giving privately rather than showing off. Two more shows at the Sue Patterson Theatre, Campus St-Jean.

Underbelly is described in the program as a “surrealist physical comedy”. Nayana Fielkov’s odd character starts off taking a shower behind a discreet curtain, emerges to coax the audience into song without speaking comprehensibly, has a short-lived romance with a bathrobe, engages some other effects that were so convincing I was sure a second performer was going to emerge, and uses various other tricks and collaborations to tell a story. So much fun. Walterdale Theatre, last show Sunday 6:30 pm.

My schedule today includes our last performance of White Guy on Stage Talking (2:45 pm, Walterdale Theatre), and fitting in a few more to watch. Happy Fringing, all!

Quick notes on more Fringe 2022

Epidermis Circus – Ingrid Hansen’s inspired physical theatre is kind of like object puppetry that takes advantage of various body parts that fit in front of a webcam/document camera. But more importantly, it is funny, delightful, and a little bit gross, an hour that flew by. Luther Centre.

Fags in Space – Before the curtain time, we see two characters (played by Sheldon Stockdale and Braden Butler) rushing around their living room getting ready to host a party. As the play starts they are responding to a question from an imaginary guest at their housewarming/Christmas party, “how did you two meet anyway?” The couple’s answers, acting out the key parts of the story along with all the bumps in the road (“that’s when he ghosted me”, “and then you were seeing Devin”, “It took me ages to figure out that you were studying astronomy and not astrology, and by then I had looked up our signs”), take up the rest of the play. Liam Salmon’s script has credible dialogue and enough resolution for a lot of happy sighs in the audience and a few tears. Walterdale Theatre.

Donna Carnivora’s Killer Party – This one also has an intriguing pre-set on stage before the show starts, including party hats in the front row and something else around the auditorium. I wondered what I was getting into. (In a good way). The performer uses a lot of flirtatious audience interaction, an occasional dash of French, a bit of music, and a lot of blood, to deliver a high-energy creepy funny performance. Walterdale Theatre.

Die-Nasty – This Fringe classic very-long-form improv runs each night through the Fringe, with some characters returning from previous years (Kristi Hansen’s Liz Nicholls, Mark Meer’s Fisher T Johnson gonzo journalist) and some of them new delights, especially Jesse Gervais’ Robin, the shirtless rollerskating recorder player. (Robin, like a sign of spring). Varscona Theatre.

I’ll Have Another – Rebecca Bissonette is credited as playwright, director, and a cast member in this three-hander about bridesmaids who don’t know each other, until they’re all stuck in a wine-cellar at a wedding and they start comparing notes about the bride. Ridiculous and satisfying. Sewing Machine Factory, 96 Street and Whyte.

The Heterosexuals – Johnnie Walker (Redheaded Stepchild) lives up to the tease of his Late Night Cabaret rant in a show that’s part satirical subversion and part insightful memoir about separating and integrating the “Johnnie” and “other-Johnnie” parts of himself, other-Johnnie being the grunge-loving heterosexual-passing part that got him through high school. Luther Centre.

Blueberries are Assholes – TJ Dawe’s tightly-connected monologue full of entertaining facts and oddities led to a surprisingly-insightful conclusion or challenge to the audience. Holy Trinity Sanctuary space.

Destination: Vegas – Same team as last year’s Destination Wedding (playwright Trevor Schmidt, cast Kristin Johnston, Michelle Todd, and Cheryl Jameson) but different characters – these ones a mismatched team of grocery-store workers who take a trip to Las Vegas together rather than lose vacation days. Various complications and dangers ensue. And although much of the story is told in retrospective narrative, it’s never entirely clear how it ends up. Westbury.

A Life, With Surprises (and Songs) – This musical memoir by Brian Ault might be flying under your radar, but is worth making time for. It was charming, humble and funny (like the performer), and also included several of Brian’s original songs from different genres. There is one more show, Saturday afternoon. Acacia Hall.

I saw Crack in the Mirror again – because it’s subtle as well as funny. And I’ve been to Late Night Cabaret a couple more times too, because I love the sense of community. And it’s almost time to head to the site again and see a few more shows people are recommending – 1-Man No-Show and Jesus Teaches Us Things, to start with.

White Man on Stage Talking has one more performance, Saturday at 2:45 at Walterdale.

Starting the Fringe 2022

Crack in the Mirror – This Guys in Disguise show is set at a late-1970’s Women’s Group meeting in a suburban home. Strident divorcée Ruth (Jason Hardwick) shows up at Melanie’s (Trevor Schmidt) finger-foods and wine event with earnest brochures and speeches about Gloria Steinem, but both of them are disappointed when nobody else comes except for the older, naive, Ginger (Jake Tkaczyk). I once heard Trevor Schmidt speak at a script reading and he said in his writing, he favours choosing kindness when possible – that there’s still lots of scope for conflict and interesting stories with characters who don’t set out to be mean to each other. And I didn’t realize it at the time – I was laughing too hard – but Crack in the Mirror is a good example of that. Varscona Theatre.

Meatball Séance – John Michael of Chicago’s solo show is infused with so much manic awkward energy that the themes of loss at its heart didn’t bring it down. Lots of audience participation bits, always with an option to decline. Sue Paterson stage at Campus St-Jean.

Mules – Directed by Kevin Sutley and with a good cast of actors from U of A Augustana (that’s the campus in Camrose), I bought a ticket for this because of the playwrights, Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic. It was dark, it was twistedly funny in parts, and it managed to evoke some really disturbing things without actually showing any of them directly. It is a longer play (90 minutes), but I was really engaged with what was going to happen with these characters, played by Miracle Mopera, Kyra Gusdal, and Frank Dion. Walterdale Theatre.

Late Night Cabaret – I don’t make it to this Fringe midnight event very often, because I usually need some sleep more than I need a variety show with an amazing house band (Zee Punterz), amusing hosts from Rapid Fire Theatre, and glimpses of many of the Fringe artists and phenomena that I hadn’t yet had time to catch up with. But in the scaled-down masked-up Fringe of 2021, I managed to score one ticket to the limited run of Late Night Cabaret and when I walked in to the Backstage Theatre that night, its perfect blend of nightclub energy and community acceptance was something I hadn’t known I’d been missing. Last night’s hosts were Joleen Ballendine and Joey Lucius of Rapid Fire and the guest performers included Ingrid Hansen (Epidermis Circus), Tymisha Harris (Josephine, Josie & Grace) and Rachel Comeau (Josie & Grace), and Johnnie Walker (The Heterosexuals). Backstage Theatre.

White Guy on Stage Talking – I am stage-managing this, an innocent operations production with Jake Tkaczyk and Meegan Sweet. Like Tkaczyk’s previous innocent operations work, it includes a series of images and explorations devised on a theme, many of them topically pointed, excessively silly, or just absurd, and never takes itself too seriously. It’s fun to show audiences the things the performers and other creative contributors have been building. Walterdale Theatre.

This year’s Fringe has kept some of the innovations we first saw last year. The option to do paperless ticketing, and the move to one-step sales in the beer tents instead of the old get tickets here, give tickets there ritual. The bigger liquor-licensed area covering the old South Beer Tent and the whole of McIntyre Park (Gazebo Park) which eliminates a lot of the crowding/bottlenecks. The “no handbills” rule was easy last year as reducing the interactions between artists and patrons on site felt appropriate, and it eliminated a lot of paper. This year I think it’s more of a challenge – performers do need to engage to sell their shows, and it’s probably harder when there’s no tidy way of taking a card to wrap up the conversation. I’ve seen performers wandering in costume and wearing billboards and T-shirts with their QR codes.

The gravel parking lot (formerly Farmers’ Market parking, rebranded a few years ago to Theatre District parking) has increased in price to almost $20 for a full day, which will change my strategies a bit. Lots of my favourite food vendors (the wood fired pizza, the grilled cheese people, Fat Frank’s, the spaghetti in a cone, and the green onion cakes) are back, along with Native Delights (bannock burgers!) and something I need to try based on recommendations, BF Korean Chicken. Some people are wearing masks – more indoors than out, more performers than guests. There has obviously been some festival planning to eliminate pinch-points and bottlenecks and other non-intentional crowding, which is helpful in many ways other than reducing covid transmission.

Happy Fringe!

The Realistic Joneses: absurdity with kindness

Christoff Lundgren, Colleen Allen, Zack Siezmagraff, and Brooke Hodgson in The Realistic Joneses. Photo by Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

Good storytelling often starts in the middle, and doesn’t explain everything right away.

The Realistic Joneses, a play by Will Eno currently on stage at Walterdale Theatre, does this brilliantly. A married couple sits in their backyard, having a frustrating conversation. Jennifer (Colleen Allen) tries to find more verbal connection with her spouse Bob (Zack Siezmagraff), and he bats away all the metaphorical volleys. “Why don’t we ever talk?” “We talked last week. About Belgium.”

A crash of garbage cans offstage turns out not to be raccoons but in fact the lively new neighbours John and Pony (Christoff Lundgren and Brooke Hodgson), bearing wine. This interrupts the previous non-conversation and introduces new levels of awkwardness. All of this is very funny and strangely familiar. Each character has practised routines of social behaviour, from John’s joking gestures and one-liners and Pony’s sidekick perkiness to Jennifer’s urge to fill silences with chatter.

In this script, there is a lot of playing with words, fumbling for words, and using words to distract and deflect. Some characters were keeping secrets, secrets that mattered. Some characters hinted at hardships, past and present. But these characters are not people who would explain things to each other, and not explaining to the audience is part of what makes this play so intriguing. There is some opening-up, some revealing and regretting, and a moving and hopeful ending.

The actors and director (John Anderson) convinced me early on that each character had some urgent needs driving him or her forward, strong motivations that were conveyed indirectly but compellingly. They almost never asked each other directly for anything, but each character had consistent intention and every scene was necessary towards each character’s goals. I was so involved with figuring out the characters that it was only afterwards I was able to think about the actors and their preparation, realizing that these portrayals happened because the actors understood the characters’ intentions and knew how to express them.

I was particularly taken with Zack Siezmagraff’s portrayal of a character who starts off cranky-awkward and becomes somewhat more transparent, never unlikeable but often frustrating. I could hear other members of the audience also being so engaged with whether Bob was saying the wrong thing that there were a lot of gasps and sighs and head-shaking around me.

As you might already know if you’ve listened to me talk about plays or tv shows I’ve seen, I love stories where the people are in difficult or sad situations but the characters are so consistently themselves that the dialogue is very funny. So The Realistic Joneses just hits the spot for me.

I also appreciated the mountain skyline in the set design (Joan Hawkins), the overall subtle sound design (Shawn Pallier), and one particular lighting effect which I won’t give away (Richard Hatfield).

The Realistic Joneses is running at Walterdale Theatre until Saturday July 16th, 2022. Tonight is 2-for-1 night, and next Wednesday (July 13) is Pay-What-You-Can night. Advance tickets are available through Walterdale’s website (no extra service charges), and walk-up tickets will be available at the door.

Two big musicals of alternate-history – Brigadoon and Hamilton!

Brigadoon ensemble. Photo by EPIC photography.

I got to watch big musicals two nights in a row last weekend, with fireworks in between. Talk about spectacle!

ELOPE is performing the Lerner and Loewe classic Brigadoon at the Westbury Theatre, running until this coming Saturday July 9th. Jon Shields is directing. With a cast of about twenty-nine and about a dozen musicians (Sally Hunt, music director), the deep Westbury stage was full but not crowded. In the story (which I vaguely knew ahead of time – I think I saw the ending of the movie once?), two young American men from 1947 (Mathew Glenn and Randall Scott MacDonald) are lost in the woods in Scotland, and discover a mysterious town from 200 years earlier. This allows for lots of local festive colour (with plaids and dancing), as they arrive on a day that two young residents of the town (Lilly Hauck and Brendan Smith) are getting married. I got distracted by trying to figure out the size of the population (were were just seeing a few of them or all of them?) and whether it was sustainable, but a more interesting question was whether everyone stuck there actually wanted to be there. Of course, the visitors are swept up in the life of the town, with one of them falling for the bride’s older sister Fiona (Christina O’Dell) and the other one being targeted by the, um, outgoing and vivid Meg (Kathleen Sera). O’Dell has a spectacular voice which is well suited to Fiona.

I only recognized one song in Brigadoon, “Almost Like Being in Love”. I enjoyed watching the interestingly diverse ensemble of villagers, and I appreciated the costuming (Julieanna Lazowski).

If you like classical large-cast musicals, you can get tickets to Brigadoon through Tix on the Square or at the door.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

The next night, I saw the Broadway Across Canada touring production (the #AndPeggy cast or third North American touring cast) of Hamilton. It is in town for a three-week run (most BAC shows are here for one week), with a rush-seat lottery operating through a phone app, which is how I was able to see it.

I do not know the US founding-fathers’ history in detail and I didn’t grow up with ownership to the story. As for Hamilton the phenomenon, I’d listened to the cast recording, read lots of articles about Lin-Manuel Miranda and his choice to cast performers of colour, and watched the Disney+ filmed version, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

The BAC production completely satisfied my expectations, and exceeded them. I was seated up close, so the cast of 21 on the proscenium stage felt like they were surrounding me. With multiple levels, side balconies, people drifting in and out of scenes and observing in corners, there was always lots to watch. Julius Thomas III played Alexander Hamilton, and we had understudies Milika Cherée and Charlotte Mary Wen playing sisters Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. I thought Charlotte Mary Wen was especially compelling. The actor playing King George, Rick Negron, interpreted the part quite differently from the Jonathan Groff version I’d seen filmed, losing some momentum in favour of Christopher-Walken-esque momentous pauses. But the audience still reacted strongly to him, someone near me even shouting out about it while Negron was singing. The movement in the show was great, especially the energy of a couple of ensemble numbers with no music. And the songs varied widely in genre with lots of earworm-catchy parts.

Hamilton tickets are available through Ticketmaster, for shows in Edmonton until July 10th and then in Calgary.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

COMING UP NEXT: Walterdale Theatre’s production of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses opens tomorrow, Wednesday July 6th, 8 pm. I got to see a few scenes in an early rehearsal and I’m fascinated to see more of these quirky characters. Tickets directly from Walterdale online, or at the door.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Kathryn Kerr, Stephen Allred, Ruth Wong-Miller, in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Photo Nanc Price.

My previous entry was about the Teatro la Quindicina quirky tongue-in-cheek period piece Evelyn Strange. And tonight I saw another quirky tongue-in-cheek period piece – Foote in the Door’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. This musical, by Steven Lutvak and Robert L Freedman, won several Tony awards in 2014 – I was actually in New York that spring and could have seen it, but I picked shows I’d heard of instead. And I got to see this production completely unspoiled.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is set in England in 1907. The premise of it is that Montague Navarro (Stephen Allred) discovers after his mother’s death that he’s distantly related to nobility, in fact being something like ninth in line to an earldom, although his mother had been disowned for marrying his late father, “a Castilian … and a musician!” All this information is provided by his mother’s old friend Miss Shingle (Nicole English), paying an unexpected visit. He sets out to meet his rich relations, hoping they will give him a job, but then temptation, ambition, and a series of very strange coincidences lead him to try benefiting more directly from being only a few deaths away from the title and the property.

His girlfriend Sibella (Kathryn Kerr) is a hilariously shallow and self-centred woman, but Montague doesn’t seem to mind, continuing to be captivated by her after she gets married. Meanwhile, he continues to meet various members of the D’Ysquith family, many of whom (all played by Russ Farmer) then meet untimely deaths. Most of them seem equally unlikeable, demonstrating various stereotypes about the turn-of-that-century English upper-class. The career do-gooder Hyacinth, seeking a novel charity that hasn’t been claimed by her friends and speaking of her prospective beneficiaries in appallingly patronizing terms, was particularly memorable. At intermission, I was thinking that I’d only seen one D’Ysquith who actually seemed nice, cousin Phoebe (Ruth Wong-Miller), but that maybe I should distrust that thought.

I thought I’d figured out where the rest of the plot would go … but it didn’t, exactly. And the plot twists of the second act delighted me.

My two favourite scenes were the ice-skating scene (who knew that graceful ensemble dancing – and some not so graceful wobbles by Asquith D’Ysquith Junior – behind some snowbank set pieces could so easily convey skating on a pond?) and the scene where Montague is entertaining both Sibella and Phoebe in different rooms of his apartment, The hallway set piece with the two doors, and the way Allred’s character uses it while he sings to play out wanting both women and trying to keep them away from each other, were just brilliant.

Set and lighting design were by Leland Stelck. My companions and I were impressed by how many set pieces shifted silently and rapidly behind the drapery to convey many different locations, particularly given that the production had relocated to Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre on Gateway from their original performance venue three weeks ago due to the flooding at La Cité Francophone. I think the OSPAC stage is not as deep or wide, but the ensemble of eleven never looked crowded. The lighting design must have been more challenging at OSPAC, which has a relatively low ceiling and doesn’t seem to have as many lighting instruments.

We also admired the period costumes including hairdos and hats (Betty Kolodziej). The members of the ensemble (Kelsey Voelker, Shauna Rebus, Lynnéa Bartel-Nickel, Jason Duiker, Aaron Schaan, Brian Ault) played several background characters each, changing costumes and accents as needed – my favourite ensemble bit was when they were all serving at a dinner, like in an episode of Bridgerton.

The production was directed by Ron Long, with musical direction by Daniel Belland, and an orchestra of 13. The melodies were catchy with some Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque rhymes, and strong voices among the cast.

Advance tickets to the four remaining shows (Jun 16-18 at 7:30 and Jun 18 at 2 pm) are available here and going fast. Door sales (if available) will start 45 minutes before showtime.

If you’ve already seen it, or you don’t mind being completely spoiled, this webpage reviews (and ranks) all the deaths, as staged in the original Broadway production.

Evelyn Strange at Teatro

Oscar Derkx and Gianna Vacirca, in Evelyn Strange. Photo credit Marc J Chalifoux Photography and Video

It doesn’t take me long to say yes when a friend offers me a ticket to opening of a Stewart Lemoine play at Teatro la Quindicina. I didn’t read anything about it ahead of time, though a glance at the program told me that Evelyn Strange was first performed in 1995, and that Shannon Blanchet, this production’s director, had played the title role in a 2006 production at Teatro.

The curtains open on a box at the opera. The Metropolitan Opera in NYC, in 1955. So it’s ornate and private and expensive — and somehow set designer Chantel Fortin and lighting designer Narda McCarroll make it feel like that, with just a few pieces that get slid away to become something else in the next scene.

The occupants of the luxury box are Nina Farrar, whose sophistication and snark are a perfect fit for Belinda Cornish, and her husband’s earnest young employee Perry Spangler (Oscar Derkx), tidy and respectful in Clark-Kent-esque glasses. Perry explains that Nina’s husband Henry gave him the ticket because he was tied up, charging him to keep Nina company and see her safely to her commuter train. And which opera is it that neither of them really wanted to see? Siegfried, a five-hour segment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (By the way, Sing Faster: the Stagehands’ Ring Cycle is a fascinating 1-hour documentary video, if you can find it.)

Evelyn Strange is a great example of Stuart Lemoine’s work and why Teatro does it well. The opening situation has unexplained threads, but the details and characters that appear next don’t resolve those questions but create others. The dialogue and action is amusing but never predictable. Jesse Gervais is Perry’s pushy colleague, poking into Perry’s secrets and holding his own. The eponymous confused woman who slips into the opera box after the lights go down, and slips away again before intermission, is Gianna Vacirca.

Things get odder. Some things seem to fall into place but other things are hinted. Settings like a publishing sub-editor’s office, an automat vending-machine restaurant, a hotel suite, Grand Central Station, and a bachelor’s apartment provide glimpses of mid-century modern chic, with a few well-selected details. Vacirca’s character, Miss Strange, claims to have no memory of her past – which would explain her, um, strange behaviour, assuming she’s now telling the truth.

There is a missing husband, a double-booked hotel room, evidence of trenchcoats and opera tickets and a $20 bill – in some plays, the details might never all fall into place and from other playwrights the hints would all be so obvious that we could figure out the outcomes at intermission. But not with Stewart Lemoine. At intermission my friend and I chatted about some of the possible explanations – we were right about some and wrong about others. And when the play ended, a patron behind us read out the list of predictions he’d jotted down at intermission to note how many of them he’d gotten right. It was that kind of play, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle.

And speaking of elegant, the 1950s-era costumes were designed by Leona Brausen. And speaking of jigsaw puzzle, one of the questions I had afterwards was “what did she have under that? and why didn’t it fall off?”

There are so many Stewart Lemoine plays that I haven’t yet seen, that I don’t want to use superlatives like “best”. But this production is most entertaining, with the directing and acting adding to a very clever script.

Evelyn Strange is running at the Varscona Theatre until June 12th. Tickets are available here and at the door. Masks are required when not eating or drinking – the usual list of refreshments including red licorice and Bloom cookies is available from the cheerful artistic associates staffing the lobby booth.

The 39 Steps at Walterdale

Bradley Bishop, Lauren Tamke, Lucas Anders, and Samantha Beck in The 39 Steps. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

During the last two seasons of theatre performance in pandemic times, I’ve seen a lot of small-cast productions – which makes sense, fewer people in the rehearsal hall means less potential exposure and easier distancing – and a lot of serious themes. Which also makes sense, as our society’s had time to think about some difficult issues over the last couple of years. I even got to direct a show fitting those descriptions.

When I watched Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel last month, I realized that I’d been missing the experience of watching a large cast do ridiculous and unexpected things on stage, along with my more thought-provoking theatre-going.

With Walterdale Theatre’s current production of The 39 Steps, directed by Kristen Finlay, I got that experience. There are only six actors (Lucas Anders, Lauren Tamke, and an ensemble of four: Samantha Beck, Bradley Bishop, Liam McKinnon, Rico Pisco), but I think there are more than a hundred characters. Some of them in disguise. All of them in different costumes (Nicole English) and many of them with different accents,

As for “ridiculous and unexpected”, I kept giggling with delight at what was happening in front of me. I’d read this script before, but there was so much happening on stage besides the dialogue. Even the movement of set pieces was fun and silly. And since the action took the protagonist Richard Hannay (Lucas Anders) from his new flat in 1930s London to a West End show, taking a train to Scotland, leaping from a moving train over the Forth Rail Bridge, to a Highland croft, a misty moor, and a few other atmospheric locations, what I thought were simple set pieces (set and prop design Taylor Howell) turned out to transform into convincing backgrounds for many locations. A complex atmospheric sound design (Anne Marie Szucs) helped to set the scenes clearly and added to the humour and the suspense.

One of my favourite little details was the way I could see quickly that the curved row of rehearsal boxes was a moving train, because of the way everyone’s movements illustrated the carriage’s bumpy movement. I also loved Margaret, Tamke’s understated portrayal of a young Scottish farm wife yearning for travel and cities and the for exotic visitor Hannay, and Mister Memory (Liam McKinnon), the quirky music-hall performer answering trivia questions from his audience (ensemble members who must have slipped in to the Walterdale audience). Lucas Anders plays only one character, the protagonist Richard Hannay, but maintains the high pace (often running across the stage) and clear motivation that drives the somewhat-farfetched plot to its not-quite-predictable happy conclusion.

Liam McKinnon and Rico Pisco hunting fugitives by air, in The 39 Steps. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

This story originated as a 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan, British writer and parliamentarian who later became Governor-General of Canada. My father was fascinated by Buchan, and shared his musty hardcover copies of The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, and Prester John with me. I also remember Dad showing me the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation, and delighting in the detail of Hannay being Canadian in the movie. This stage version was written by Patrick Barlow in 2005, and it pulls from both the book and the movie as well as from many tropes and expectations of film-noir, slapstick, and early-20th-century spy thrillers to create a great parody which is very funny whether or not you already know the source material.

The 39 Steps is playing at Walterdale Theatre until Saturday May 21st. You can get advance tickets at Tix on the Square. If a performance is not sold out you can also get them at the door an hour before showtime. Masks are required, house capacity remains limited, and auditorium ventilation has HEPA filters.

Three characters drink mimosas at brunch.

Teatro Returns with Caribbean Muskrat

Cast of Caribbean Muskrat: Rochelle Laplante, Rachel Bowron, Jackson Card @alwaysepicphotos

Teatro de Quindicina, the summer-season professional theatre at the Varscona specializing in the work of Stewart Lemoine, hasn’t had a season since 2019. I remember their last production “before”, the complicated and wacky Vidalia, involving three identical briefcases and a very big onion.

In 2022, they’re starting the season a bit earlier than usual, with Stewart Lemoine and Josh Dean’s Caribbean Muskrat, originally performed here in 2004. I love that Lemoine has such a lengthy back catalogue, because they often produce works that other people remember favourably but I haven’t seen before. Stewart Lemoine directed, Madeline Blondal designed the set conveying multiple locations with a few clever pieces, Alison Yanota designed the lighting, and Leona Brausen did the costume design.

Caribbean Muskrat has many of the common features of a Stewart Lemoine play. So a subscriber or occasional attendee could have a rough idea of what to expect, but could still be completely surprised by the plot and characters on stage.

The unique characters in this play include Dr Hadrien Burch (Jackson Card), an oddly-smug sleep clinician, his girlfriend (previously his patient) Cynthia Lodgepole, an ambitious restaurant owner/manager (yes, restaurateur and restaurateuse are the correct spelling) (Rachel Bowron), and Bess Wesley a Canada Customs official in charge of animal imports (Rochelle Laplante, most recently seen in Citadel’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong).

The unexpected plot starts with a rare rodent, the Caribbean muskrat, which Cynthia acquired when attending a resort time-share pitch in Bimini, and which is now being held at the local Customs office. While we don’t actually see most of the animals in the office (a dolly stacked high with travel crates and ventilated boxes emitting mysterious noises), the one we do see is handled so well that I had to look away and then look again to reassure myself it wasn’t real. The three characters’ lives intersect because of the muskrat. Various complications develop and the story takes several turns I didn’t predict.

Similar to many other Stewart Lemoine plays, Caribbean Muskrat includes specific details about a location which are funny to people who know the place while contributing to worldbuilding for those who don’t know it well. In this case, the play is set in Kelowna BC, so there was wine-tasting, side comments about the nearby community of Peachland, and an Ogopogo joke.

As I started to watch this play, I recalled another characteristic of the Teatro oeuvre that I’d forgotten, and I still don’t quite know what to call it. It’s not quite magical realism, but it’s just a few steps away from probability into a context where unlikely coincidences happen and are accepted. The odd things that happen in this story aren’t unlikely enough to pull me out of the story, but they are delightfully unexpected enough to pull me in. And I’ve missed that.

Caribbean Muskrat runs at the Varscona Theatre until April 17th. Tickets are available through the Varscona Theatre website as well as at the box office on show nights.