An evening of celebrating the Fringe

Part of building and acknowledging a community is making and sharing art about that community. Fringe has always offered opportunities about that, and in recent years has been more intentional about expanding those opportunities to communities who haven’t always been recognized and celebrated in the same way – this year the venue pehonan is an exciting part of that intention.

But the Edmonton Fringe is itself a community. So of course there is art about the Fringe. The poster wall outside the Orange Hall is a lot shorter this year, but the sense of joyful celebration is extended by a complete set of posters commemorating every festival to date, with the imagery used that year for the program book and other publications. There’s an Instagram-ready set of brightly-coloured letters spelling out Fringe, in such a high-traffic area that it’s hard to take a picture without strangers in the way. (Unless, like me, you happen to be on site at 7:30 am.)

On Saturday, I went to three performances that were all celebrations of the Fringe culture. Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre is a long-running improv tradition, in which a small troupe of experienced performers uses the short description in the festival program to create their own version of another show. Their self-imposed rules include skipping over any sketch or improv show, since, according to Mark Meer, that would collapse the space-time continuum. (they might also skip music-based performances too.) The troupe members are currently Jacob Banigan, Mark Meer, and Ron Pederson. It’s easy to see that they know each other well and are having fun together, as they set each other up to do some preposterous stunts while building and resolving a complex plot.

With no printed program book this year, and a relatively small number of suitable shows to choose from, they chose to start from a big stack of program books from past years, using a pseudorandom selection process to choose one show. So the audience (close to or at the 60%capacity limit in the big Varscona theatre space) probably isn’t going to be familiar with the source material. But that didn’t seem to matter. On the night I attended, the inspiration was Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, from a Toronto company in the 1994 Fringe. This allowed the performers another layer of comment/comedy about period customs and about what was okay to say in 1994 and not today. These are some of the best improvisers I have ever seen, and just fun to watch. Some of the remaining performances aren’t sold out. And no, I don’t know why it’s called Gordon’s Big Bald Head.

Die-Nasty is another long-running Edmonton improv troupe, this one in the soap-opera tradition of long convoluted character-driven stories. In a typical season, they have a 50-hour marathon show in the fall, then a series every Monday night all year, and every night of the Fringe there’s one episode of a story that unfolds at the Fringe. I don’t believe they’ve announced their 2021-2022 season plans yet, but the Die-Nasty at Fringe was just as I remembered. A collection of about 8 memorable characters – they have different guests added in each night – sweeps through a Fringe of beer tents, podcast reviews and mistaken slander, rehearsals and life-changing events, hints of romance and darker hints of murder. The night I saw it, the performers included Tom Edwards (a cowboy playwright trying to produce a musical cross between Oedipus and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Belinda Cornish as a famous actress, Hunter Cardinal trying to break away from his soccer-mad family to explore the arts, Stephanie Wolfe as a very strange psychotherapist, Mark Meer as a sort of Hunter S Thompson-esque podcaster, Wayne Jones, Jacob Banigan, and so on. The funniest moment was when one of Wolfe’s patients asked her a question about whether she can make people believe in a different reality or something like that, and she says “oh yes, I’ve been in charge of a whole province’s public health during a pandemic”.

Die-Nasty is sold out for tonight but seems to have some tickets available for tomorrow (Saturday Aug 21.)

The third tradition of performances celebrating the Fringe is Late Night Cabaret. In the Backstage theatre space as the last performance of the night, in a normal year it runs all through the week, filling the space with enthusiastic audience members who are still wide awake. An amazing house band, Ze Punters, with Audrey Ochoa the trombonist, entertains before and between the talk-show hosts and guests from various Fringe shows.

This year LNC has only four performances – on the Fridays and Saturdays of the Fringe. They all sold out quickly, but I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of last weekend’s shows. The music and energy filled the space, but the limited admission meant that there was lots of space for safety and comfort (also short bar queues and no bathroom lineups). It was great to see familiar sets of eyes in the audience, and performance guests both familiar and new to me.

Edmonton Fringe continues until Sunday early evening, August 22, in its small careful format. I’m very glad to be here – and it’s time to head to a show.

Liminality

Liminality is a solo performance by Dr. Steven Andrews, at the Grindstone Studio,a small well-appointed space underneath the Mill Creek Cafe (82 Avenue and 96 Street), entrance from 82nd Ave. (Same building as Sewing Machine Factory.) I last saw Steven Andrews in Kristine Nutting’s site-specific performance Devour Content Here in 2015.

I loved it and I don’t know why.

It’s a simple solo storytelling performance. I started to write that I hadn’t seen anything in this genre for ages, but then I realized that I’d seen quite a few solo shows online and in person since covid made close contacts and cohorts complicated – from We Had A Girl Before You, the last live indoor show I saw in 2020, to Woman Caught Unaware, which is playing at the Varscona Theatre this Fringe, and Deafy, Chris Dodd’s solo at the Backstage space. So why was this different?

Maybe what entranced me about Liminality was that it was so close to failing. The creator/performer was vulnerable, not just in telling anecdotes that purport to be about himself and his personal limitations and fears, but in performing them for paying audiences who might be expecting something more polished, funnier, or more conventionally structured with tidy connections that all fit together at the end. I kept doing the work of looking for the throughline and the callbacks. I found some but never was sure why some of the stories were included. There were a few important props and set pieces, and some sound and lighting cues helped reinforce the beats – possibly suggesting some insight or conclusion that might be drawn.

But like I said, I loved it. You might not.

Two more performances, Saturday and Sunday – and Liminality is also available online, pay what you will.

New local work from diverse perspectives

Edmonton Fringe is a great place to discover new work by local artists. The program (2021: the digital listings on the Fringe website) flags new work and indicates the hometown of the producing company (2021: they’re almost all local or nearby this year, with very few touring artists).

Yesterday I saw three new works by local artists, One Song, Chanzo, and Deafy. All of them were fictional narratives in various genres, and all of them benefited from the lived experiences of the creators.

One Song was advertised as a staged read or workshop performance of a new musical, but was significantly more polished than that description suggessts. Daniel Belland (composer and co-lyricist) played keyboard to accompany the four singer/actors, Jaimi Reese, Manny Agueriverre, Ceris Backstrom, and Josh Travnik. The actors carried scripts but moved through the story and knew the music well. The mood of the story reminded me a bit of Dear Evan Hansen – kind young people getting themselves into believable awkward difficulties, well-meaning adults on the sidelines being vulnerable themselves. Jaimi Reese is spot-on as the wise and feisty single mother to a young lesbian (Agueriverre) with an open door/ear for her daughter’s best friend (Travnik) – even before the song Not This I was thinking the mother probably had her own interesting story. Ceris Backstrom plays three of the mother’s friends, brought in (consensually) to provide some queer perspectives beyond the mother’s own expertise. Backstrom’s acting was good, distinguishing between music-nerd Paul in bow-tie, drag-queen Toast, and lesbian AIDS activist Jen. All of them provided some LGBTQ+ context and incidental education (the QR-code-accessed show program provided some footnotes for audience members curious about some of the details). Agueriverre and Travnik’s characters are about fourteen. Through them we explore some nuances of sexuality-coming-out decisions without the high-stakes consequences of bullying or romance, with a clear message of everyone getting to make their own choice of how/when to share this news. Calla Wright wrote the script and co-wrote the lyrics.

The melodies and accompaniment were interesting, melodic, and in a modern-musical-theatre vein. The duet between Reese and Agueriverre late in the show was particularly strong. I thought there was a bit too much info-dump from Backstrom’s characters, but at the same time I appreciated learning a bit more about LGBTQ+ musicians and activists.

Chanzo is a play written by local playwright, dramaturg, graduate student, and director Mukonzi Musyoki. The title character (David Shingai Madawo) returns from Canada to Kenya after his father’s death, without warning his sister (Onika Henry) that he’s bringing his white Canadian girlfriend Charlotte (Jasmine Hopfe) with him. Henry’s character Bezo speaks many of her lines in Swahili, but no translation is needed to see that she is furious with her brother and the situation and full of contempt for who she thinks Charlotte is. Predictable conflicts ensue and secrets come out. The characters were compelling and I longed for them to understand each other and come to a good resolution. Yet as a viewer I was also satisfied with the more ambiguous ending of the script. One thread of the plot was familiar from a scene written by Musyoki and performed by Madawo in the late-2020 roving theatre piece Here There Be Night.

Deafy is a solo show written and performed by Chris Dodd, directed by Ashley Wright, with choreography by Ainsley Hillyard. It’s told in a mix of spoken English, ASL, and supertitles/captions. The character Nathan Jesper, on an informational speaking tour about being Deaf, decides to abandon his usual lecture script and tell stories about communication. Many of the stories are amusing anecdotes about how he and his friends get by in a hearing-centric world – the one about his friends helping him take his drivers’-license road test is particularly funny while still disappointing me with how unhelpful the bureaucracy is. The stories gradually begin to focus on his search for belonging, in a world where he is too deaf or in a group where he is not Deaf enough, as the choreography, music (Dave Clarke), and arguments with the unseen captioner escalate to express his increasing distress. As with the Swahili in Chanzo, I didn’t feel I was missing too much because I don’t understand ASL.

Brilliant Women on Stage

Two of the plays I saw early in Fringe 2021 featured familiar women on stage in sympathetic nuanced portrayals of women in their middle years. Both, unsurprisingly, were directed by Trevor Schmidt.

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Woman Caught Unaware, by Annie Fox, is a solo performance by Davina Stewart. The art history professor is in her office, planning to head home to her partner, when a student appears outside of office hours. I enjoyed the the confident academic’s wry observations on student behaviour and the changing expectations for faculty members as the student seems reluctant to confide about a problem, and the professor runs through the recent advice on what to do about cyberbullying and other issues. (I was reminded of Professor Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s mystery novels.)

But the student has come to tell – and show – her instructor that it’s actually Professor Conté’s nude image that’s being shared on-line, with harsh comments about her aging body. And while the narrator tries to ignore it, she discovers “allies” all around her, each responding in well-intentioned but self-centred ways to adopt a cause. A protest! A petition! A nude calendar!

We get to see why the professor anticipates the sanctuary of home, in brief affectionate images of her partner Gail (“I’m like a pin, she’s like a pincushion”), their cottage, their garden, the savoury aroma of Gail’s beef bourguignon on the stove (“we’re pescatarian in public, but …”). And she eventually addresses the issue directly (this is me resisting the full-frontal metaphors), in ways that left me satisfied about an articulate older woman taking back power. I loved watching and listening to Davina Stewart in this role.

Woman Caught Unaware has performances Monday through Sunday at the Varscona Theatre with some tickets available for each.

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Destination Wedding is a Whizgiggling Productions work, written and directed by Trevor Schmidt, and performed by Cheryl Jamieson, Kristin Johnston, and Michelle Todd.

Three women meet up after many years, having all been invited to be attendants at an old friend’s destination wedding in a tropical resort location that Honey (Jamieson) insists they not name. Johnston’s Marlene is an artist seated with powerful stillness in black. Todd’s Britt is a lesbian, a successful businesswoman, and the one who slips naturally into curbing the worst of Honey’s impulses (“No, you can’t go get your hair braided on the beach / wear a bride’s tribe t-shirt, that’s appropriative”) her affect suggesting that she does this all day long and she doesn’t expect Honey to learn.

With the three fascinating characters, this premise would be enough to make an entertaining Fringe show – as if the mother’s-friends-chorus in Mamma Mia were distinct interesting people. But it turns into a darker, more ambiguous, story. Various details were mentioned – the kinds of breadcrumbs that a less subtle narrative would explain as Clues. At one point I noticed that the painted backdrop of a resort veranda scene now seemed to have a dark sky and a stormy sea, which I guess was some magic of lighting design (also Schmidt).

While the three are waiting for their old friend the bride to show up, they meet some other significant characters, providing opportunity for these three talented actors to demonstrate their skill distinguishing multiple roles, and for the audience to be even more entertained and diverted from what was turning into a central mystery. I particularly liked Johnston’s Amy, the bride’s daughter, all eye-rolling and vocal fry.

The hints weren’t all tidily wrapped up into clues and exposition, but left in a delicious suspension. I wished I’d gone with a friend to have fun figuring those things out afterwards. Maybe I should go back. But if I do, I better buy a ticket soon, since some of the remaining seven performances are already sold out.

Both these shows are also available for online viewing.

The festival fusion of Freewill (Shakespeare) and Fringe

Normally the Freewill Shakespeare Festival happens at the end of June, beginning of July, with two of Shakespeare’s plays running in repertory at the big amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park. Big crowds enjoying beer and popcorn, squirrels and thunderstorms, along with a professional company of about 12 actors performing in both shows. That wasn’t a good plan for 2021, so the festival pushed back to August and scaled back to two separate cohorts, doing small cast versions suitable for touring to community league spaces and large backyards. Macbeth is coming to my own community league in Ritchie Park on Saturday August 28th, at 2pm, for pay what you Will, for example.

Both of this year’s productions, directed by festival AD David Horak, started with previews outdoors at Louise McKinney Waterfront Park, and are now joining the Edmonton Fringe Festival for performances this week in a convenient overlap of two traditions.

Much Ado About Nothing is being performed in the tent in Light Horse Park known as Vanta Youth Stage. The cast of five (Troy O’Donnell, Ian Leung, Sarah Feutl, Christina Nguyen, and Fatmi El Fassri El Fihri) runs through a fairly traditional adaptation of the romcom in a bit under 75 minutes – traditional except for having the five of them play all the roles. So, for example, Sarah Feutl is great as the quickwitted loyal Beatrice taking pleasure in banter with her cousin Hero and with Benedick, but she also plays Claudio (Hero’s love interest) and the old Sexton taking down the criminal charges. There was also a framing of the five actors arriving at a tour destination under Covid precautions, cut down from a company of 15 for an unexplained reason, and deciding which play to perform. A few times through the performance the actors reminded us of this layer, making the character-shifts amusing rather than clumsy. The funniest shift was when O’Donnell-as-Leonato-the-accuser was confronting O’Donnell-as-Borachio-the-accused, eventually frog-marching himself away.

I saw Macbeth in the preview, but at the Fringe it’s playing in the air-conditioned space known as Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, just north of the streetcar tracks and new crosswalk on Gateway Drive. It’s a less conventional adaptation, using just three actors (Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante, and Laura Raboud), skipping over many of the details in favour of exposition (with a bit of editorial) delivered by one or another. It sticks to the Shakespearean text for most of the familiar scenes and monologues, but adds in some ukelele-accompanied songs at some of the most brutal moments (Banquo’s murder, Lady Macduff’s murder) for a bizarre touch. Raboud is disturbingly good in the title role. Laplante plays Lady Macbeth and Malcolm among others; Chu covers King Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, etc.

Before the narrative started, the three performers occupy themselves in bouffon fashion, picking out a new leader from the audience, affirming the choice, then chorusing that their time’s up, nothing personal, but your leadership has come to an end, and then moving on to another selection. This was entertaining at the time and seemed to lead in to the action at the start of the play with Duncan being replaced by Macbeth and then being tormented by the idea of not being able to pass on the crown to his child.

At the end, the young Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland. The bouffon voice appears again reciting something about the cycle continuing. Suddenly I realized that in my whole long acquaintance with this play, since studying it in Grade 12, seeing two Stratford productions while living in Ontario, and more recently productions of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, Theatre Prospero/Thousand Faces Festival, Akpik Theatre’s Pawâkan Macbeth, and The Malachites, I have always thought of the end of the play as getting back to normal, a sigh of relief for the rightful ruler on the throne and an assumption that the new regime will be wise, kind, and stable, a time to shudder and shake myself for the end of the nightmare brought about by two people’s ambition. It had honestly never occurred to me that I don’t know nearly enough about Malcolm and his advisors to assume a happily-ever-after. Just as when a self-serving government has been voted out or overthrown, or when public-health measures and community co-operation are getting a pandemic wave under control, we cannot congratulate ourselves and walk away.

And maybe I’m not the only one who needs to hear that.

Curio Shoppe – disturbing and virtual

When we started to think about how the pandemic precautions and customs would affect our autumn traditions, some people thought about Thanksgiving, and how they could find safer alternatives to the sense of joy and connection they found in sharing a big meal with family and friends. Some people thought about Hallowe’en, what to do about the custom of children touring the neighbourhood in costume collecting candy. But I thought about Dead Centre of Town, the site-specific scary shows created by Catch the Keys, where creepy footnotes of local history are recreated and enhanced into spine-tingling ghost stories and haunting performances by Megan Dart and Beth Dart. In recent years, the productions have been held in different parts of the living-history museum Fort Edmonton Park. Colin Matty is the gravel-voiced host Wilf, providing a bare minimum of narration, and a handful of “henches” (Christine Lesiak, Adam Keefe, Vincent Forcier, et al.) lead or lure or chase the audiences from one scene to the next. The weather’s usually cold, but there’s usually a chance to warm up before or after the show at a bonfire. And I realized that this year we were going to miss out on all of that.

Dead Centre of Town has done epidemic stories before – there was the one about the young teacher (Bobbi Goddard) last seen in 1920, while walking across the High Level Bridge to quarantine herself in a Spanish Flu sanitorium. And there was the one with the scary nurse (Elisa Benzer) telling about delivering the diphtheria vaccine by airplane in the North. And someday, I’d like to see what stories this team can tell about a pandemic like ours – but not yet.

This year, the Dead Centre of Town team has a virtual / multimedia production, called Curio Shoppe. As they say in their promotions, you can participate from “the discomfort of your own home”. It’s an interactive video stream, that works similarly to the performance platform used for Vena Amoris/Fringe virtual production Tracks last spring. The audience logs in from home, watches, listens, and clicks to make some choices of which stream to follow. But you also get text messages and phone calls from the characters at appropriate points in the performance, which adds immediacy.

It’s so cool. Parts of it are seriously disturbing – the warnings at the beginning mention violence, gendered violence, gore, and swearing, and they are warranted. And parts are just intriguing. Colin Matty introduces the performance in the character of a fussy formal Curio Shoppe owner sharing some artifacts and memories, but glimpses of his less-civilized alter-ego Wilf seem to break through the surface. And head henches Christine Lesiak and Adam Keefe are also looming.

The story that’s told – at least, the story that unfolded through the choices I clicked on – starts from one of the historical horrors that’s been examined in a previous version of Dead Centre of Town, a serial-killer story. It then adds in a contemporary story (which I really hope is fictional!) and ends in an ambiguous but somewhat satisfying way. The audience member gets to see and hear various bits of documentary evidence along with atmospheric video encounters with the historical characters.

Morgan Yamada and Jake Tkaczyk play the principals and the investigators. They are supported by a chorus of ghost voices, radio interviewers, and so on.

The ticket price for Curio Shoppe, for however many household/cohort members want to cluster around a computer screen, is about the same as the single-ticket price for last year’s Dead Centre of Town XII show at Fort Edmonton Park. The producers recommend that you put on headphones, turn out your lights, and log out of distractions – but you actually don’t have to, if that way seems too scary. Curio Shoppe is playing until (of course) Hallowe’en, every night except Mondays, and you can get tickets through Eventbrite. Some performances are already sold out.

Horizon Lab: Where are your stories?

I went to the theatre tonight.  Six months ago that would not have been unusual.  But this is 2020.  Tonight I went to the Citadel Theatre with my mask on, gave my name to the front-of-house staff instead of handing them a paper ticket, and I was back.  I saw some familiar (covered) faces in the audience, including at least two other arts bloggers and many regular theatregoers.

Horizon Lab:Where are your stories is a set of performances celebrating the stories of Albertan BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled artists.  Citadel Associate Artists Mieko Ouchi, Helen Belay, and Tai Amy Grauman welcomed the audience, with Grauman giving a moving personal acknowledgement of the land, the Treaty peoples, and her connection to the land.  Then there were five ten-minute performances, with a stage crew member rearranging set pieces and mopping anywhere that had been touched, in between.  During the third interlude, audience members were actually applauding the stage crew member.

My favourite parts of the performances were the parts where the performers acknowledged pandemic life or acknowledged that something unusual was happening on the stage in this production.  “I’m always a consultant here; I didn’t believe you actually wanted me to be a performer now” says Carly Neis in Part of This World, which she created along with Patricia Cerra and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks.  The disabled actor, accompanied by her service dog Oakley, demonstrates some barriers to theatre attendance from the box-office counters to the elevator design, spars with stage-management on God-mic, and concludes by acknowledging that performing on this stage is the start of her happily-ever-after.

In The Boy and The Sun, created by Lady Vanessa Cardona and Todd Houseman, Sheldon Stockdale plays a racist Alberta farm-boy who has died of COVID-19 after hosting a 300-person Big Valley Jamboree on his property (“COVID doesn’t kill people!” he exclaims indignantly) and is being held to account by a Trickster figure (Christina Nguyen).  Please Don’t Put Me in a Situation, by creator-performers Elena Belyea and Mohamed Ahmed with Mahalia Carter-Jamerson as an additional creator, was the most non-linear of the pieces, jumping exuberantly between scenes of different stories and then tying them together.  The Book of Persephone, performed by Tasana Clarke and created by Clarke and Mac Brock, was a clever retelling of the mythical character Persephone in a country-music context.  I liked the performer’s use of a plaid shirt, to represent the men they dated and also their own empowerment.  I occasionally had trouble hearing the performer and would like to see this one again to get what I missed.

The last performance, Delay, by Richard Lee Hsi and Morgan Yamada, starts with the two performers, in grey cloth masks, expressing their inner narratives of self-doubt and uncertainty during the pandemic through pre-recorded voice playback.  Will I remember what to do with my hands when I get back on stage?  Are they hiring me because I’m talented or because of tokenism?  How do I learn all those lines and what if I forget?  As you would expect from these two performers, the piece also included some lyrical and powerful movement.  They walk in the river valley – with untouched snow early in the pandemic,  “detouring around a 15-person picnic” more recently – and sit on the edge of the stage evoking the old End of the World viewpoint.  At one point the performers touch hands.  On August 2020, I found that simple gesture profoundly unsettling, and was reassured that they soon reached for hand sanitizer and did an ostentatious and humorous version of the familiar purifying ritual.

Admission was free, with the Citadel requesting donations to their BIPOC Artistic Fund.   Theatre is not really back to normal, but theatre is moving forward, and that’s a good thing.

How DO you solve a problem like Maria? Straight Edge Theatre has a new answer

In this surreal time of isolation, fakenews and fakeshows, the Straight Edge Theatre team is bringing to the Fringe that Never Was another of their brilliant and uncomfortable musical productions in Nun F*cks Given.  Or they would be if the Fringe that Never Was, was.  With book and lyrics by Steve Allred and Seth Gilfillian, composition and music direction by Daniel Belland, this premiere is gonna be something.  Not quite sure what  – director Bethany Hughes must be under the seal of the confessional – but the team that dressed the splash-zone audience in PPE for Evil Dead and forced their ensemble to sing while working out on spin bikes in Cult Cycle is bound to have something unique in their robes.   The creative team includes Bethany Hughes (director and choreographer), Chance Heck (fight director), and Jordan Campion, the stage manager who keeps them all in Holy Order.   Straight Edge has booked many amazing performers you haven’t seen on stage in months.  Casting the divine Sue Goberdhan as God was an inspired choice.  Jaimi Reese gives a standup performance as Father Long Johnson. The rest of the cast includes

  • Mother Superior – Seth Gilfillian
  • Mother Inferior – Steve  Allred
  • Mother Posterior – Lilith Fair/Zachary Parsons-Lozinski
  • Mother Anterior – Matthew Lindholm
  • Choir Mistress – Amanda Neufeld
  • Altar Boys turned zombies – Geoff Ryzuk, Mark Sinongco, Anthony Hurst, Josh Travnik
  • The Dancing Monks who become possessed – Daniella Fernandez, Ruth Wong – Miller, Larissa Pohoreski , Alyssa Joy, Aly Horne, Kendra Humphreys, Brittany Hinse and Bella King

After I had read this far in the promo materials, I must confess that I was actually sorry The Fringe That Never Was is not actually having real performances, because I want to see this show!   The plot teaser provides even more tease.  “After the breakdown of the nearby nuclear power plant, the nuns at a local nunnery start to realize that they have developed new abilities. The timing of these superpowers could not have come at a better time, as the clergy at the next door Catholic monastery have all been possessed by the spirits of dead saints turned evil. They must use their new powers to protect the city from the possessed monks and stop the source of the leak before their mutation leads to inevitable spontaneous combustion. Packed with nonsense, nun chucks and nun puns. So so so many puns. ”

Want to see it?  Out of luck.  Want to support the Edmonton Fringe and pay tribute to the work of Straight Edge Theatre?    Click here. Want to make a habit of it?  Keep clicking on the Fringe website and find more shows that don’t exist that you’d buy tickets to if you could.  Taken a vow of poverty?  Share the links.  Devout followers, novices, and skeptics alike should make a pilgrimage to Nun F*cks Given.

The Garneau Block: Local, timely, and delightful!

Video is not typically ephemeral, but this one is.  If you’re intrigued by my description, check it out before tomorrow, May 3rd, at noon MDT.  That’s … hmm … 15 hours from now.  If I type fast.

The Garneau Block Act 1  #CanadaPerforms

I have a ticket on the shelf by my keys, for the first ticketed performance of The Garneau Block at the Citadel Theatre, on Saturday March 14th.  I didn’t get to use the ticket because the performance was cancelled sometime after the previous night’s dress rehearsal, that week when the theatres all went dark.

I’m always excited about Citadel new work, but I was especially looking forward to this one.  Shortly after I moved to Edmonton I borrowed Todd Babiak’s newish (2006) novel The Garneau Block from the Strathcona Branch library.  Like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, it was originally a series of affectionate and funny newspaper columns about characters in a fictionalized neighbourhood – only he was writing about a neighbourhood I rode my bike through every day en route to work.  Just like Janice MacDonald’s mystery novels and Gayleen Froese’s Grayling Cross, Babiak’s novel affirmed my sense of belonging here, because the setting and the people felt so familiar.

When I heard that Belinda Cornish was adapting the novel for the stage, I decided not to re-read it.  I didn’t remember much about the novel, and I wanted to enjoy the play for itself.

With support from the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms program, the Citadel did a live Zoom reading of Act 1 the other night, and it’s on Youtube until tomorrow morning.  And it’s great.

I almost don’t want to read the novel again and find out how many of the timely quips about the mixed-gentrifying neighbourhood near the university were in the original work and how many were from Cornish’s clever observation.   But there are a lot! I recognized trends, local businesses, and even a subtle reference to the Make Something Edmonton campaign that Babiak inspired as Magpietown around 2012.  There are no overt big-picture provincial or world politics in the characters’ concerns but it could easily have been last summer.

The casting and characterization were so good.  Julian Arnold as a philosophy professor who thinks he understands #MeToo.  Stephanie Wolfe being performatively-woke but excruciatingly uncomfortable seeing an indigenous homeless person (Ryan Cunningham).  Andrew Kushnir as theatre artist Jonas Pond, friend to Madison (Rachel Bowron).  It was lovely to have a gay character who wasn’t a flamboyant caricature.  Nadien Chu, Alana Hawley Purvis, Shawn Ahmad, George Szilagyi – the characters were all familiar but not completely predictable.  By the end of Act 1 some things were explained and some were hinted at, and I am so impatient to see where the story goes after this.

During this time of social distancing, I’ve been fortunate to participate in some on-line script reading.   From that experience, I can say that this on-line distanced presentation was very well done.  The necessary props were managed smoothly – there was even a small dog on screen! – and everyone was audible with good lighting and background.  The stage directions were read by director Rachel Peake.  She mentions at the end that the set (Narda McCarroll), costumes (Joanna Yu) and sound design (Matthew Skopyk) are waiting at the Maclab Theatre for rescheduled performances as soon as they can open their big wooden doors again.

But for right now – and for free! – you can enjoy Act 1.  Do it.

 

Fictions in a pandemic reality

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember thinking that I might be less anxious if I hadn’t watched or read some effective disaster-fiction.  I had watched the first season or two of Walking Dead, where clean attractive suburban neighbourhoods with empty streets would be unexpectedly filled with looters, gangs, or unspeakable zombie horrors.  And the first episodes of Black Summer had the same feel.  The post-disaster young adult novel series by Susan Beth Pfeffer that started with Life as We Knew It kept coming to mind too – the teenage viewpoint characters and their families trying to cope with increasing isolation and decreasing food supplies, a contagious illness, the little excursions and temporary hopes dashed … I was trying to think why the post-disaster-isolation trope in the young adult fiction felt so resonant and recalled a couple of other kids’ books.

One I read in a school library was Hills End, by Australian Ivan Southall.  In this novel, a group of contemporary (to 1962) children is trapped by a storm and flood.  One scene that had stuck with me clearly involved a boy who had no sense of smell, exploring the abandoned or destroyed town, and experimenting with the sausage-making equipment at the butcher shop not realizing the meat had spoiled.

Another kids book with intrepid siblings coping in isolation, which I read at a public library in the mid-1980s, was set on a small farm near Guelph Ontario.  I haven’t been able to track this one down or find anyone else who remembered it, so I’d love leads or confirmations.  Anyway, on a winter day the parents head to town to do provisioning but by the time the school bus drops the kids at the end of their lane, it’s snowing so hard that the parents stay in town and the kids manage with feeding the animals, keeping themselves warm, and resorting to making porridge out of pig food and sugar to feed themselves without needing to kill a pig.

I tried to reassure myself that small disasters and temporary crises, managed by civic infrastructure that was mostly adequate to the task, were probably much more likely but just didn’t make exciting fiction.  But it was hard – it still is – to observe current events, as a lover of speculative fiction, and not imagine what worse things could happen.  So I turned to fictions where the disastrous situation was more historical.

In Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery’s 1921 novel of a teenage Canadian girl growing up in World War I, there is a bit early in the war where

“The war will not be over before next spring now,” said Dr. Blythe. […]

Rilla was murmuring “knit four, purl one” under her breath, and rocking the baby’s cradle with one foot. […] She laid down her knitting for a moment and said, “Oh, how can we bear it so long?” – then picked up her sock and went on. The Rilla of two months before would have rushed off to Rainbow Valley and cried.

This bit sounded familiar and comforting, so I got out the copy I’d received as a child and read the rest of the story once again.  Sure enough, the wartime worries and challenges that felt overwhelming at the start became matter-of-fact background over the four years of the story.  I also recognized the way community members learn and enforce new etiquette or ethics of consumption – snatching up scarce everyday goods and provisions or trying not to take more than their share.  Feeling ashamed of buying a too-extravagant velvet hat reminded me of current discussions of about non-essential goods and a certain multinational delivery service.   In this story as in history, the war did end, and the novel has a happy-enough ending for marketable young adult fiction.  When I read it as a child and teenager, the wartime setting seemed like ancient history.  It’s only recently that I began to realize the significance of being raised by adults for whom the deaths and worries and financial hardships of World War II were not long ago.  For them, the world was probably still an unpredictable and dangerous place, in a way that it wasn’t for me.

Wanting something to watch while I knitted that was well-crafted television but was familiar enough that I would anticipate the sad or shocking parts, I worked through all five seasons of The Wire, the David Simon work of fifteen years ago focusing on crime, policing, and society in Baltimore.  It is my third or fourth straight-through viewing and I still think it’s one of the best television dramas ever.

Then I moved on to the same creators’ project Treme, about life in post-Katrina New Orleans.  So far I’ve re-watched the first two seasons, but my original viewing of those was always spotty and mostly on Air Canada planes with their free HBO selections.  It’s hard to believe this month that I used to fly often enough that I had a preferred airline because of their televisions, and that I could keep up to date on a series that way.

And as you’d expect, it’s very topical.  There’s almost nothing showing the characters during the hurricane or immediately afterwards, and I am glad of that choice.  But watching people rebuild their houses, their businesses, and their lives when they’ve all survived the same disaster gives me hope.  I appreciated seeing the discussions of when and how to open the schools, how unsophisticated people struggle to navigate the application processes for rebuild funding, and how disaster and post-disaster collapse can contribute extra stresses to small businesses, to families, and to individuals at risk.

I also appreciate the frequent demonstration of the resilience and necessity of the arts and artists, in the many musician characters of the series.  As a theatre artist and member of the arts community, I know that there will be arts, storytelling, and theatre after this pandemic.  I don’t know the details of when it will resume and what it will be like, but I know that we will be performing and telling stories and watching and listening and talking about them.  And I am so grateful to the team that brought Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play to Edmonton last year, because I keep coming back to its message of hope – that even in the kind of destroyed civilization that has no Diet Coke, there are still theatre makers and theatre viewers and it matters.

Fiction is powerful. It can enhance my despair, but it can also remind me of reasons to hope and reasons to rejoice.  So I’ll keep reading and watching and listening and discussing.  If you are up for reading something about life in a fictional pandemic, this is a strong recommendation for Naomi Kritzer’s 2015 story So Much Cooking.  And if you’d like a general list of books that can suck you in, Jo Walton’s list of Books that Grab You is great.