Monthly Archives: December 2012

Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit – charming and satisfying Christmas fare

Margery Williams’ original Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922.  Chris Craddock’s adaptation, first produced last year, makes the story work for modern sensibilities and builds in enough exposition of unfamiliar concepts and customs to allow contemporary children to follow the tale, by using the framing story of a Dad (Chris Craddock) reading the old book to his youngest child (Alyson Dicey), while answering her questions and talking about their family.  “What’s the name of the Boy in the story?” the little girl asks, proposes her own name, suggests a few more changes “And there’s a robot, okay Dad?” and then leaps into acting it out.  The scenes then alternate between the period story and the contemporary bedtime reading.  The children’s ways of narrating and negotiating pretending games are spot-on, in the same way as the characters in Craddock’s Fringe 2012 play, “Apocalypse: A Period Piece” shifted seamlessly between making real plans and imagining themselves as Elvis, President Kennedy, and their father.

In the story, the Velveteen Rabbit and other non-human characters are appealing puppets (credited to Green Fools Theatre).  Jamie Cavanagh’s Skin Horse was particularly expressive.  Tatyana Rac as Nana, in white pinafore, showed her affection for the Boy and her own grief at having to dispose of the Velveteen Rabbit.  I was a bit distracted by trying to figure out whether her accent was supposed to be from Belfast, Glasgow, or somewhere else, and then got wondering about the relative class marking of having an Irish or Scottish nanny.

In the bedtime reading, the little girl asks whether the Boy’s parents are dead like her own mother, or whether they’re not in the story because they don’t love him.  The Dad explains that in those days the way loving parents took care of their kids was to hire a good Nana.  The little girl asks what scarlet fever is, and begs her father never to burn her toys if she gets sick.  The Dad reassures her that we have better ways of dealing with germs nowadays, and tries to slip into the story a line about washing your hands before meals.

You might remember that the happy ending of the book is that the toy, set aside to be incinerated because of germs, is magically reincarnated as a real flesh-and-blood rabbit to jump and dance with other rabbits forever.  The real rabbit later has a brief encounter in the garden with an older Boy, who almost recognises him.  I suppose that in that era, that’s one of the few positive ways of imagining a happy ending for a well-loved toy – although the hint that the Skin Horse had been kept around after being loved into reality by the Boy’s uncle suggests some tolerance of sentiment.  But I can’t help wondering whether the ending seems equally satisfying to contemporary young people who were encouraged to hang on to their own well-loved bears, taking them gently to university and giving them places of honour in their own homes.

The story of the toy being outgrown by the Boy is echoed by the Dad’s stories about cherishing the stages early in each of his children’s lives where they think he is awesome, before they move on to video games that he isn’t good at.  The happy ending of the contemporary narrative shows the little girl growing up, bringing a boyfriend home for Christmases, getting married, and then handing the Dad a little bundle of baby, for whom he will “get to be awesome” once again.

The show was at the newish Capitol Theatre venue in Fort Edmonton Park.  Its last performance for this season was this afternoon, but it’s worth watching for next year.

Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park

Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park

The key concept of the original story is that toys can become Real when children love them.  I wasn’t particularly fond of the story as a child, because I wasn’t attached to stuffed animals myself and because I found the story too sad.  But it’s a powerful concept, validating children’s lives of imagination and empowering them.  It’s also an image worth borrowing.  Jesse Green’s 1999 memoir Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood talks about what happened after he fell in love with a man who was adopting children.  Although he’d never anticipated being a parent, and although he had no biological or legal ties to the children, he became a real parent because the children loved him and made him a real parent.  On this Christmas Eve, I’m looking at the parcels under my tree from the faraway young people who made me a parent in the same way, real because children loved me, and I feel very fortunate to be a velveteen parent.  I hope that all of you will have love in your lives, no matter what form it comes in.

Sold-Out Newfoundland Pageant – the show I didn’t get to see

I took long enough to plan my weekend’s entertainment schedule that by the time I tried to buy a ticket to the last performance of Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever at the Varscona Theatre, Tix on the Square wasn’t selling the tickets any more.  So I figured I’d get one at the door.  But when I got there, the person in the box office just offered to put me on the waitlist, where I was seventeenth. I stocked up on red Twizzlers, and socialised in the lobby with other people on the waitlist, enjoying the background music of lively jigs and talking about whether having connections to Newfoundland or being able to step dance or play the spoons should bump us up the list.  The theatre staff seemed to have a bit of confusion about just exactly how many seats were in the theatre, and one of them was seen carrying chairs into the auditorium, but eventually they closed the doors and wished us Merry Christmas and encouraged us to come back next year.

Here is Liz Nicholls’ review from the Journal.

Here are Meaghan Baxter’s notes from VUE

I love Barbara Robinson’s original story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, have never seen the television version, but saw a Domino Theatre (Kingston, Ontario) performance of Best Christmas Pageant Ever several years ago, with several out-of-town family members as my guests.  My notes at the time said I had been a little apprehensive about whether the younger boys (ages 10 and 7, without any more than the default of cultural Christianity) would appreciate it, but they all said they enjoyed it and repeated the funny and rude lines. The showing was sold out, and the set was very simple, and I thought it was probably making money for the theatre. But there were nineteen actors under fifteen. Some of them didn’t enunciate perfectly, but my mother and I knew the story well, so we didn’t mind.

The lesson of this blog entry is to book ahead.  I wish the rest of the year was like the Fringe, where I could buy tickets on line a few hours before a show, but since it isn’t, I need to plan better or I will miss good shows.  For your benefit and mine then, here are some useful box-office links:

With Bells On – subtle, silly, and slightly seasonal

When I read that the Guys in Disguise production With Bells On, written and directed by Darrin Hagen, was set in an elevator, I thought it might be mostly witty dialogue from two talking heads, because how much action could there actually be in an elevator.  Then, remembering that it was Guys in Disguise, I decided it would be two talking heads in interesting costumes.

Well, there was witty dialogue, and there were interesting costumes.  There was also a surprising amount of action and body language which added to the delightful characterizations and built the story.  The publicity posters show the obvious contrast between the two characters, Ted, a middle-aged guy in a suit (James Hamilton), and Natasha, a very tall drag performer in an astonishing costume (Paul Welch), so it was easy to see that the premise of the show would be people from different worlds thrown together.  I loved the ways that the characters quickly turned out to be more than archetypes, and the credible ways that they connected despite  Ted’s social awkwardness and Natasha’s fragile sarcasm.  I wasn’t sure, at first, whether Ted realised that Natasha was male, and I was hugely relieved when that discovery didn’t prompt a 20th-century over-the-top homophobic freakout à la Cage aux Folles, just some awkwardness and self-criticism.  It was clear that Natasha had experienced her share of hurtful responses and was braced for another one, but that wasn’t who Ted was.  In a longer play or in a short story, I would have hoped to learn more about the backgrounds sketched out for both characters, especially why they were both alone at this point in their lives.  I’m a sucker for credible happy endings, and this one brought tears to my eyes.  There was nothing at all in the story about Christmas except for Natasha’s costume, and I liked that.  The program notes (written in the first person but not signed) say “This play is for anyone who was left out of holiday celebrations because they didn’t fit in”.  Although I have some experience of that myself, I had not thought recently about what a ubiquitous experience that would be in some communities, and how shared experience of rejection can lead to connection.

The elevator set design worked well, and the sound and lighting conveyed changes as needed.  Natasha’s costume was just fun.  I noticed the contrast between her awkward steps in platform heels when walking or standing and her smooth dance moves in the same shoes when she was in performance mode.  Her whole face changed when she was lip-synching for an imaginary audience, compared to when she was protecting herself from a stranger and then getting to know him.

This was my first encounter with Guys in Disguise – except for encountering some performers parading and handbilling at the Fringe – and I would definitely go to more of their shows.  It was also my first visit to the Roxy Theatre, a classic movie theatre refurbished into a proscenium-stage performing-arts space with a beautiful wooden floor and comfortable seats.  It is more intimate than Zeidler Hall or Victoria School auditorium.

There’s one more performance of With Bells On this afternoon.  I’m also hoping to make it to Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and to Best Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever, to add to last weekend’s viewing of Nutcracker Unhinged as this year’s collection of untraditional Christmas theatre.  I haven’t seen A Christmas Carol on the stage and I haven’t seen Nutcracker live either, but I bet I can see them some other year!

Making things for hobbits – tributes to Tolkien

I’ve been looking forward to the Peter Jackson Hobbit movie for ages, and I saw it yesterday at South Common Cineplex, in the fancy reserved-seats UltraAVX cinema in 3D.  I liked it.  I must be getting accustomed to Real3D projection, because I basically forgot about it during the movie and almost missed giving the glasses back afterwards.  Likewise, I have no opinion about whether the fast frame rate made a difference to the visual presentation.  Peter Jackson and company did a good enough job with Tolkien’s source material that I’ll be seeing the sequels as soon as they come out too.  They made some changes to the story, some of which I didn’t catch myself and the rest of which didn’t bother me, possibly because I didn’t read The Hobbit until many years after I’d been through our library’s copies of the Lord of the Rings books several times each.  In the same way as Lord of the Rings is like a bigger more important version of the quest story in The Hobbit, the movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” had a lot of scenes that were reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies.  So I didn’t find it breathtaking or thrilling.  It was what I expected and I enjoyed it.

I’ve always loved the word pictures Tolkien painted of the hobbits’ dwellings, and I thought that the movie versions almost did them justice.  They looked so cozy and comfortable, full of books and food and useful clutter, that I’ve often wished I lived in a place like that.  I live in a snug little apartment full of books and colourful clutter that feels like it’s set into the side of a creek ravine, looking out on bike paths and green space, so I sometimes imagine it being part of a smial, Tolkien’s word for a cluster of hobbit-dwellings in one hillside.  But of course I don’t have round doors and windows, and I don’t think I’d be successful convincing my neighbours on the condominium board that such an adaptation would be an asset to the neighbourhood.  I know there are a couple of buildings with round windows somewhere in Oliver, but I don’t like moving and I otherwise like it here.  So a couple of months ago I decided to fake it and make something that would look like a round doorway.

Sets of brown fabrics that looked like a hobbit hole to me.

Sets of brown fabrics that looked like a hobbit hole to me.

I started by pulling out my stash boxes.  For quilters or other textile or fabric artists, a stash doesn’t have illegal drugs in it, but bits of fabric or yarn bought without a specific purpose in mind, or leftovers saved from other projects.  I started pulling out bits of fabric that seemed appropriate to the picture in my mind – not so much the bright colours like green and yellow that Tolkien says hobbits loved to wear, but the warm golden-brown palette of natural sunlight and candlelight on adobe walls, books, wood, and pottery tableware.  I didn’t have enough, so I paid a visit to Quilter’s Dream and found more prints that fit the picture in my head – especially a paisley print, a print with old books on shelves, and ones with the names of kinds of tea and the names of varieties of red wine.  Although the employees are always friendly and interested to hear about the customers’ projects, I didn’t try explaining this one to them, because I wasn’t sure if it was going to work or whether they would have any idea what I was talking about.

Treehouse blocks, with bits of bright accent colours.

Treehouse blocks, with bits of bright accent colours.

At home I washed all the bits of fabric, and looked through my books to get some ideas of what to do with them.  In Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr’s book The Modern Quilt Workshop, I found instructions for a block called Treehouse, which used random cutting and bits of an accent colour in between chunks of a main colourway, so that seemed like it would work.  I added some rich dark reds, greens, and blues for the accent strips.

 

Blocks assembled, before sandwiching and cutting circular hole.

Blocks assembled, before sandwiching and cutting circular hole.

I cut and pieced some blocks and assembled them together in the rough shape of my patio doors with a hole in the middle.  Preliminary trials hanging the pieced top in front of the doorway showed that it was going to irritate me if the light shining through revealed the seam allowances as uneven dark bits, but that adding quilt batting would make it heavy enough to make it harder to hang, since I couldn’t just clip them or stick them to the plastic pelmet.  So off I went to a dollar store, to pick up some hook and loop tape, some bulldog clips, and a couple of cotton-polyester sheets.  Sheets are not recommended as quilt backings, and I can say after this project that they were unpleasant to work with, but they served their purpose this time, with a plain dark sheet sandwiched between a plaid-patterned sheet for the backing visible from outside and the piecework top visible from inside.

On the same trip I also scored some ten-cent poster board from a Zellers closing sale, so I taped it together, devised a compass with a measuring tape and some pins, and cut a circular template.  Sandwiching the assembly taped down on the floor worked well enough to mark the circle, but wasn’t good enough to let me pin-baste the sandwich without wrinkles.  I machine-quilted the sandwich with concentric circles, added a French binding on the circular doorway and around the edges, and sewed the hook and loop tape to the top to hang it up.

And there it is, my Doorway to the Shire.  Any day now I expect a band of adventurers to come tramping through the snow looking for a burglar.

Doorway to the Shire

Doorway to the Shire

Nutcracker – unplugged, unleashed, unhinged.

I kept blanking on the title of Teatro La Quincidina’s current Christmas show at the Varscona Theatre.  I called it “Nutcracker Unplugged” when a friend asked about my plans for last evening.  I had “Nutcracker Unleashed” written in my calendar.  But now that I’ve seen the show, I’ll remember that the actual title is “The Nutcracker Unhinged”, because that fits in a clever playful way typical of the show.

I was about to write that some other short entertainments preceded the Nutcracker story on the program, but that reminded me that there did not seem to be any printed programs.  I might have been the only one bothered by this, in an audience who all seemed to recognize all the performers immediately and like them already, especially Jeff Haslam, Leona Brausen, and Kendra Connor.  I got the impression that many of the audience members were subscribers or longtime supporters who immediately recognized every allusion to an old production.  Since I’m relatively new in Edmonton and much newer as a follower of live theatre here, much of that was not only lost on me but a bit discouraging.  Anyway, a little application to the internet this morning has sorted out one of my sources of confusion, which was that I had Stewart Lemoine mixed up with David Belke, so that whether I had enjoyed David Belke’s work The Minor Keys at the Fringe wouldn’t have anything to do with whether I was going to enjoy Stewart Lemoine’s works last night.  (Well, except that both of the performances featured Kendra Connor, who I liked in both.)

Before intermission, there was a reading of A Visit from Saint Nicholas, some amusing reminiscences of toy commercials of my childhood, some singing, and a short play by Lemoine called Christmas in Patagonia.

At the intermission, some of my concerns about being an outsider in a group of friends were alleviated when the theatre provided tasty seasonal beverages in the lobby, and I found myself in conversations with some interesting people I hadn’t known before, talking about why young people do and don’t go to live performances and whether it’s a problem.

The second half of the evening was the new work “Nutcracker Unhinged”.  It was full of shared-culture jokes but you only needed to know a bit of the Nutcracker ballet story and a few things about Old Strathcona to be guessing and giggling about where the story was going – Block 1912 café, Bulk Barn, K and K Foodliner, and the Justik Clinic (now called Strathcona Health Centre) were all involved in the plot.

A reference to the very sad building fire in a pet store about ten years ago, which I had heard about at the time despite not living in Edmonton yet, seems to have been long enough ago and tastefully enough done to be a suitable tribute.  All over the theatre you could hear people sighing as they worked out that allusion and then murmuring as they explained to their neighbours or discussed what they remembered.  It was the setup for a portrayal of the ghost of a snake, which was a marvel of costuming and body language with the woman’s arms being neither obviously bound-up nor visibly separate from her body, drapey mottled clothing and sinuous movement that totally avoided the predatory sexuality usually inherent in anthropormorphic serpents.  If I knew the names of the performer and the costume designer I would tell you, because it was possibly the best thing about the show.

On the whole, the play was silly and fun.  The evening ended with the performers all singing “White Christmas” and the audience joining in, evoking memories of singing in community in Advent seasons all my life, when people set aside their to-do lists for long enough to relax together before heading back out into a cold night.

Last performances this afternoon and tonight at the Varscona Theatre, tickets available at the door.

All That We Are – or a sampling

Near the end of the first semester of Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program, the new ensemble/class puts on a performance with samples of many of the exercises and disciplines they’ve been studying, from stage fighting to clowning, original monologues and scenes including some in character mask, ensemble singing and dancing and choric recitation, interpretive movement in the Laban tradition, and – I think that covers everything, but it might not.  I don’t know if there is a genre word to describe this kind of performance – it’s like a portfolio on stage.

Given the variety of skills and genres covered and the size of the class (22 performers), the show was surprisingly coherent.  The prop-shifting and interludes between main pieces were done as vignettes by clowns, and there was some repeating imagery and background characters (Death, prison guards, etc) that made things fit together.  I don’t know whether the students were involved in making the performance fit together or if that was done by the instructors directing it, but it worked.  In the first act, which was more light-hearted with shorter pieces, I actually lost track a couple of times about whether I was seeing something on the program or something interstitial.  But it didn’t really matter – the show was fast-paced and there were no noticeable delays or cue-mismatches, so things just swept along uninterrupted for an hour until intermission and then built more intensity with longer, more serious, and larger-cast work.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen women do stage fighting before, at least not enough to be impressed.  And today I was.  Several fight scenes were set into bits of familiar plays – Sasha Sandmaier and Megan Einarson’s fight scene was Rizzo and Sandy at the pajama party in Grease, AJ Collins and JP Lord’s was the Capulet-Montague thumb-biting scene although the Drop Dead Juliet lines instead of the original, and a third fight scene (Tyler Johnson and Becky Lozinski) was staged around the dialogue of the disturbing scene in Spring Awakening where Wendla asks Melchior to show her what it feels like to be beaten.  In that scene I was distracted from the skill of the fighters by thinking how powerful and confusing the original scene had been in context.  It was satisfying seeing Wendla kind of kick Melchi’s ass, though.

I don’t know very much about the training of performers, but these performers must be getting a good grounding in the physicality of their profession.  Besides the fights, the clowns, and several expressive solo movement pieces, there were four large-group choreographed numbers, one of them created collaboratively by the ensemble and the others starting from existing songs.  They were all well-done and fun to watch.

I found several monologues or mask vignettes particularly moving.  In an original piece, Jessie Muir was a child waiting for Daddy to come home from Away, with enough foreshadowing and dramatic irony that I am convinced there is a whole story there and would pay Fringe prices to see it.  Constance Isaac and Richard Leurer both did monologues from existing work that I now want to read or see.  Jake Tkaczyk’s masked character had the audience gasping in shock and sympathy when he dropped the egg he’d planned to hatch into a pet, and then kneeled on the floor sadly piecing bits of shell together.  Next time I go to a show like this I need to make notes during the show, because there were other really great bits but I can’t remember who they were.  I expect I will see many of these young performers and creators on the wider Alberta theatre scene in future.

The final performance of Showcase:  All That We Are is tomorrow, Saturday 15 December 2012, at 2 pm, in Studio A of Red Deer College Centre for the Performing Arts.

Teatro Quindicina’s The Nutcracker Unhinged and Walterdale Theatre’s Le Misanthrope both close tomorrow night. If you’re closer to Red Deer or you like this description, see Showcase:  All That We Are.  If you are in the mood to think and pay attention, see Le Misanthrope.  Here’s what I said about it.  If you want to laugh and celebrate Old Strathcona, see The Nutcracker Unhinged (it’s got a matinee as well as a Saturday evening show).  More notes on The Nutcracker Unhinged will follow here in a few hours.

Winter Winds – an evening with Festival City Winds.

On Saturday I interrupted my recent obsession with live theatre to attend a concert of Festival City Winds.  The concert, entitled Winter Winds, included performances by all four ensembles in the community band association, from the Novice band to the Advanced band.

Very clever selection of short pieces, or single movements from long pieces, allowed all four bands to demonstrate their technique and feel for a variety of musical genres:  marches, folksongs, famous pieces like an arrangement of Holst’s “The Planets” by the Novice band, and interesting contemporary compositions like Brant Karrick’s “They Shall Run and Be Free”, played by the Advanced band.

I haven’t really listened to band music much in years, since being a high school clarinetist and then listening to marching band entertainment at football games at an American university.  The Festival City musicians were well-prepared, focused, and a delight to watch and to listen to.  The atrium space at Concordia University College worked surprisingly well, with the musicians in front of a large curved window-wall, and the audience on chairs on the floor, on carpeted risers to one side, and around a second-floor mezzanine.  A photographer in the audience behind me probably did not realise that although his flash illumination was turned off, the red lights that flashed every time he took a picture were reflected in the window in a distracting way.  The conductors were welcoming and made the music accessible, explaining a little bit about the context of each piece and what to listen for.

The Festival City Winds Music Society offers instrument instruction for adult beginners or those who want to start again, as well as the four performance bands.  They accept new participants in January as well as in the fall.  They will have another public concert on Saturday May 25th, 2013.