Monthly Archives: February 2013

Ride the Cyclone!

I saw Ride the Cyclone last weekend in a preview show.  I wanted to watch it again before writing it up, but I also wanted to post fast to encourage other people to see it if it sounds like their kind of thing.  So I’ll make some notes now, but also figure out whether the budget and the calendar can manage seeing it again later in the run.

By that you can conclude that I liked it, but that it wasn’t simple.

Ride the Cyclone is a new musical, by the company Atomic Vaudeville out of Victoria BC.  It’s written by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, and directed by Britt Small and Jacob Richmond.  The premise is that six teenage members of a school choir have been killed in a rollercoaster accident just before the show starts.  The characters are actually dead, but they each get to sing in a competition to win a fresh start.  These six songs, plus conversations in between and some other ensemble numbers, make up a fast-paced 90-minute show.  One of the most fun things about the show is the wide variation in genre of the songs, with accompanying dance, costume-changes, and props, from gangsta rap to Ukrainian folkdance.  I’m pretty sure that if I was more intimately familiar with the canon of musical theatre I might have picked out homages to lots of styles, writers, or specific shows – as it was, I was giggling away at the part that reminded me of Tim Curry in Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, and was touched by the bits that reminded me of “Journey to the Heaviside Layer” in Cats.

The writing and the actors were good at making the characters different from one another and all interesting.  Shortcut characterizations were apparent from the start:  the gay boy (Kholby Wardell), the would-be gangsta (Jameson Matthew Parker), the kid with elbow crutches (Elliott Loran), the fat sidekick (Kelly Hudson), the perky achiever (Rielle Braid), and the mystery Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer), each wearing Catholic-school uniforms but instantly distinguishable in how they wore them.  But as the show progressed, each of the characters became more interesting and likeable and the ways they reacted to each other also changed.  The main reason I don’t watch the TV show Glee (despite the fun music) is that when I did watch I found the characters flat and predictable, fitting various stereotypes about teenagers and teachers that I don’t find either true or helpful.  But even within the limitations of a short musical performance, I thought these six characters became real and intriguing.  Kelly Hudson’s song made me cry.  Sarah Jane Pelzer’s performance as Jane Doe, the girl nobody remembered, was enhanced by a fascinatingly awkward physicality – nothing as obvious as a limp, but just a sense from her walk and gestures that she wasn’t quite connected to her body.

The narrative says interesting things about the trope of every kid being somehow a misfit with his or her own troubles, but it also shows some of the complexity behind the trope of growing up in a dead-end town.

A seventh character, represented by Carey Wass in voice and James Insell in puppetry, was the carnival fortune-telling machine who acted as the sort of MC for the show.

A four-piece musical ensemble accompanied them and contributed to the moods and the exploration of musical genres.  In the first few songs the music was a bit too loud for me to hear the lyrics, but this problem was corrected later.  There were also some video bits, most notable of which was projected not onto a backdrop screen but onto a white circular folkloric skirt extended by the character who was wearing it.

Ride the Cyclone is playing at the Maclab Theatre in the Citadel until March 10th.  Tickets are available through the Citadel box office.

CaptainAwkward’s thoughts about friendship, affection, hunger, taking care of each other, and Valentines’ Day. I hope you all find ways to acknowledge the love in your life, in whatever shape it comes in.

Valentine’s day is tomorrow, right? These are pretty much still my thoughts about that. It’s a terrible night to eat out. Don’t buy anyone an expensive necklace that looks like two butts stuck together. People like to be told that they matter.

Today’s question is also a love story.

Dear Capt. Awkward,

I have depression. It’s diagnosed, I’m on happy pills and everything. It varies, sometimes I’ll be completely fine, other times I’ll have a sobbing emotional breakdown in the middle of a bar. The breakdowns don’t happen very often, and I’ve talked to my drug!shrink about my medication. Unfortunately it appears my options are to be more drugged during the good times in order to compensate for the bad times, which are sporadic and unpredictable. Since I don’t really like being on drugs in the first place, we decided to continue the meds I’m on and cope with the…

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The non-sparkly vampire swoops through Red Deer

Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program is producing Steven Dietz’s Dracula, a 1996 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.

I hadn’t read the novel or seen any of the movies or stage plays based on it, so I didn’t really know the story, just the cultural common ground about the bloodsucking Transylvanian count.  This meant that some of the plot twists surprised me, which was fun.

Dracula starts off with a prologue at one edge of the stage delivered by Renfield, a woman in an elegant dress of a previous era (Daryn Tessier), being served wine and a meal by a servant while discoursing on Bram Stoker and immortality.  The meal turns out to be a rat, and the woman is swept off to be clothed in rags and chains by attendants of an asylum.  I was a little confused later on because a reference to a “men’s asylum” left me unclear whether she was supposed to be a male character, as in the original novel, although the part otherwise worked well as a woman in thrall to her master Count Dracula.

The other side of the stage is then revealed as the bedroom of a young woman, Lucy, (Kirsten Harper) as she talks with her friend Mina (Raegan Aleman) about Mina’s far-away fiancé and Lucy’s suitors.  The middle and upstage is still dark, but then a small glimpse of a rocky fortress is starkly lit while we hear Mina’s fiancé Jonathan (Nathan Johnson) recite a letter he’s writing to her from his business trip to inaccessible Transylvania.  The story progresses from there in brief scenes of foreboding and flashbacks, as Dracula (Callahan New) arrives in England and targets Lucy, and Mina, Jonathan, Lucy’s suitor and friend Dr. Seward (Mitchel Roelfsema), and Dr. Seward’s colleague Van Helsing (Steven Pecksen) try to protect her and then save her.  Among the other characters, Natascha Shulmeister and Elise Dextraze were particularly noteworthy as “vixens”, or seductive thralls of Dracula.

The shocking and creepy story was complemented with lots of special effect cues, flashing lights, smoke, holes opening in floor, walls, and somewhere else that I won’t write in order not to spoil future audiences, blood, dead creatures, and so on.  These all worked well and added to the horror.  The many shifts of scene required lots of furniture moving, which wasn’t always silent but was speedy and smooth.  The music was sometimes helpfully eerie, but sometimes that kind of minor-7th organ chord that’s so cliché as parody suspenseful music that it kind of pulled me out of the story for a minute.

On the other hand, I was interested to notice that Count Dracula’s accent was much more subtle than the parodies on parodies of “I vant to suck your blood” that everyone thinks of as a Dracula accent.  I have no idea if it was authentic, but it felt credible and not overplayed.  Similarly, the other characters had various hints of English accents, and in the case of Van Helsing, Dutch, just enough to feel atmospheric and not enough to make any of them hard to understand for a Canadian audience.

In the first few scenes, I found Mina and Jonathan both a little hard to understand.  I think it was because they were speaking quickly while being fairly far back on a large stage.  After that I had no problem hearing or understanding any of the characters as the grisly tale unfolded.

Dracula continues through next weekend, on the Mainstage of Red Deer College Arts Centre.  Tickets are available here.

Zodiac Arrest – a circus cabaret

The Westbury Theatre is the big theatre space at the Transalta Arts Barns.  I’d only ever seen it with the risers pulled out on one side and a flat proscenium stage, but the other night when I walked in, it was transformed with a few rows of seats on each of the four sides, zodiac symbols projected on a curtain on one side, and a big empty sprung floor, set up for a show by Firefly Theatre, the Edmonton troupe specialising in circus arts and physical theatre.

There were twelve performances, each introduced by patter from a costumed host evoking the characteristics of each zodiac archetype.  About half of them were arial acrobatics acts, and they were all amazing – Kadri Hansen, Lisa Feehan, Danny Gorham, Kim Precht, Meghan Watson, Kristi Wade, Annie Dugan, Michalene Giesbrecht, and Kim Precht.  The lighting, music, and costuming contributed to different moods from playful to romantic to creepy.  I don’t have any interest (or aptitude!) to attempt arial work myself, but the Firefly Theatre website has lots of information about workshops and beginner classes in their various disciplines.

Other acts included some clown performances (Candace Berlinguette and Mike Kennard), some stage magic by Billy Kidd, a dance version of the story of Ariadne (including Jamie Cavanagh as an egregiously self-absorbed Theseus), and some contortionists cum rhythmic gymnastics performers (Mackenzie Baert and Caitlin Marchak)

I thought that some of these acts dragged a bit, and that the astrological monologues were likewise too long, but on the whole I had enough awe and delight to make it a worthwhile evening.  Zodiac Arrest’s last show is tonight, Sunday at 8 pm, with tickets still available at Fringe Theatre Adventures. 

The Missionary Position is uncomfortable.

If you found this page while searching for advice on a sexual problem, let me pass on my best wishes for comfortable resolution, along with a link to the sexuality-information resource website Scarleteen, directed at young people but useful for anyone with questions or curiosity about sex.  This page is a good starting point, with lots of links elsewhere.  I’m sorry to detour you with my wordplay.


The Missionary Position was uncomfortable.

But I’m sure that was one of the intentions of playwright Greg MacArthur, in developing the play The Missionary Position for the U of A drama department and the BFA class of 2013.  The preview performance of this world premiere was tonight at the Studio Theatre in the Timms Centre for the Arts on campus.

It didn’t make me cry.  But it definitely made me squirm, and I got the feeling it made a lot of the audience members squirm too.  It touched on disaster tourism, international adoption, various shallow or pathological reasons people would go on a mission trip, and the potentially tragic consequences of well-intentioned badly-planned gestures.  In the play, the visitors are Canadian (from Edmonton) and the country suffering after an earthquake and tsunami is carefully not identified, but I kept thinking, This is Haiti.  This is everything the Haiti activists talk about.  And in fact, in the theatre lobby at intermission I noticed a news article about the New Life Children’s Refuge case, which had some similarities to the story of the play.

It’s a horrifying compelling story, told in alternating scenes of the past and present.  In the present, the young people are being detained in some type of prison because of something about some children, while the scenes of the past and occasional video clips shown on a screen behind the stage develop the story of what happened and why.

The storytelling is much more effective on stage than it would be in a movie.  Because in a movie, they’d have to show the children, the people living under tin and tarps, the scenery, and the jail, rather than the way the audience of the play sees these things through the narration of the visitors.  “Like little brown dolls”, a character describes the children – and without real child actors to distract us, we are limited to this disturbing exoticised view.

There was some recurring imagery, in particular several sets of allusions to water.  A memory of baptism and a newspaper photo of a dead child underwater become analogous in a creepy way.  Glowing water is used in a story about visiting Chernobyl but also in attempts to evoke magical escapism.  And sprays of water pour onto the stage when one character takes a shower, and in another scene where I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be showers, tropical rainfall, or something more darkly symbolic.

The outsider character who seems like the most reliable narrator, the one through whom we find out the truth, is Ben Gorodetsky’s embassy employee, who is distracted by cocaine and celebrities and who also seems somewhat enthralled by Lianna (Lianna Makuch), the leader of the missionary group.  His partner Angie (Angelique Panther), a translator and aid worker who’s been in the country or the region for ten years (so she should know better), has her own smaller version of the tragedy arising through badly-thought-out actions from good intentions.

At the end, the audience didn’t start clapping right away.  Maybe people were sort of stunned.  Then I heard people around me discussing whether the results of the investigation were fair and how much responsibility people should bear for their uninformed parts in other people’s crimes.  Which was probably another of the playwright’s intentions, so I’d say he succeeded.

The Missionary Position plays until February 16th.  You can get tickets at the Timms Centre box office or through Tix on the Square.

Ride, by Jane Bodie

The audience for Northern Light Theatre’s latest play Ride, by Jane Bodie, arrives in the black-box space of the Transalta Arts Barns’ PCL Studio Theatre and we take our seats, before studying the set.  It looks like a large comfortable bedroom for a young adult, with a platform-futon, various shelves around the room with neat stacks of clothes and books, and then a couple of sets of last night’s clothes thrown around on top.  After a few minutes of studying the set, we realise that there are actually people in the bed!  They seem to be asleep under a comforter, and they seem to be naked.

The play opens with the two characters waking up and realising in shock that they aren’t alone – and that each has no memory of who the other character is and whether they had had sex.  The actors are Cole Humeny, whom I last saw as the younger accused soldier in A Few Good Men at the Citadel, and Sereana Malani, whom I remember from last summer’s Fringe production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

The last time I saw a play with a similar premise, it was by Erika Ritter, who at the time was the host of a CBC Radio afternoon show.  It may have been The Automatic Pilot, and I saw it a long time ago, when I thought that the characters who got drunk and picked up strangers in bars were at some kind of brittle cynical unhappy life-stage that I hadn’t gotten to yet.  But in Ride, both characters seemed like likeable reasonable people with understandable motivations, not overly unhappy, and, well, young.  (I’ll leave the exercise for the reader about what this says about my intervening life.)  But I don’t mean that the characters were the same; they had different responses to the situation they were in and I definitely had a favourite.

One interesting feature of this production is that it is crammed full of references to local Edmonton landmarks relevant to the characters, including delightful and familiar snarky asides about various bars on Whyte Avenue and downtown.  Application to the internet tells me that the playwright is Australian, so the local colour must have been added for this production.  It really works, especially in the context of the two characters struggling to figure out whether their social circles interlock but agreeing about their impressions of, say, the LRT and Filthy McNasty’s.

When I mentioned to a friend last night that I’d just come from seeing Ride, he said “Oh, the naked play!” which I guess is the other notable feature of this story.  Each character’s nudity is briefly visible to the audience as he or she gets out of bed to get dressed, but because they are making a point of not wanting the other character to ogle, it feels particularly inappropriate to do so as an audience member.  So if you want to know where to sit in the theatre for the best views of the full-frontal, you can ask someone other than me.

One of the things I liked about this play was that it wasn’t too big a story.  It probably wasn’t a life-changing moment for either character.  Neither of them turned out to be horrifyingly messed up.  There was some resolution to the plot, but not too much, and the resolution was completely consistent with the character-building.  And the actors didn’t overplay it; they were credible and subtle and like people I’ve known and people I’ve been.  Cole Humeny was particularly good at revealing some ordinary heartbreak in a quiet way that was completely consistent with his character.  Sereana Malani’s character was funnier, and she played the mix of self-protectively sarcastic and vulnerable in a believable way.

Ride plays until February 9th and it runs just under an hour and a half.  Tickets are available through Fringe Theatre Adventures – which means that you can buy tickets on-line for same day performances.  Last night’s show was sold out, though, so you should buy yours ahead of time.