Monthly Archives: April 2013

What it means that there’s a museum

Imagine how it would feel if you loved books and libraries, but every time you visited a small town or an unfamiliar city and asked about the library, they directed you to a library museum – a building that had once been a library, that had the architecture of the Carnegie library of your youth, with a bit of the musty smell and the tall shelves preserved, a nominal admission charge and a volunteer at the desk selling bookmarks for the books that weren’t there to borrow.

If church community was a big part of your life, what would it have been like to take a big trip  to Soviet Russia, where Intourist guides showed your group through empty spaces that had once been cathedrals, reciting what they’d memorized about the peripheral details of the building but not acknowledging that people there no longer had a worship space.

What if your childhood had been centred around the local ice rink, where you learned to play house league hockey, went to public skating with your friends, hung out in the lobby and in the stands while your parents and siblings played, and had your first kiss while sitting on the rink manager’s desk with your boyfriend?  But the culture and climate had changed so much within your lifetime that all the rinks were abandoned, except the few which were preserved as arena museums?

Or schools?  If later generations were all to be educated at home and on line, would all the schools be left empty, with local advocates arguing about how to preserve samples of each era of school architecture and fought off developers keen to get at parcels of serviced land?  So that no town would have a school, but every town would have an Old Schoolhouse Restaurant or two?

That’s how I feel about train stations.

I love trains.  I love passenger trains with a passion, but I also love freight trains, even when I am in a bus or car waiting at a level crossing.  I love hearing train whistles at night.  I almost rented an apartment where I could look out on a freight-switching yard, because I thought that would be fun.

I love old train stations that are still used to sell tickets and greet passengers on passenger trains.  I love train stations that now incorporate intermodal traffic as well, like Union Station in Toronto (VIA trains, GO commuter trains, GO commuter buses, and a TTC subway station), the station in Gravenhurst that until recently had Ontario Northland trains, intercity buses, and a taxi company, or the train station in Jasper AB which is also the Greyhound bus station.  I love simple new suburban train stations with their ease of access, friendly signage, clean bathrooms, and amenities suited for a commuting public.

But when I am exploring a town, city, or village that’s new to me and one of the attractions they talk about is a railway museum?  Yeah.  Almost always it means “Trains used to stop here.  But they don’t now, and probably never will again.”  I don’t love that.

Summertime at Red Deer College: confusing reality in a magical setting

In the Ontario city where I used to live, a few of the downtown commercial blocks had internal courtyards that you could access through twisty brick passages, so that you’d end up in a magical place in the middle where you couldn’t see or hear any cars.  In the best of these, there was a restaurant patio or two, with lattice sunshades and white fairy lights wound around the sunshades and trees, so that you could have a drink or a dinner in a place that felt like a couple of twists away from reality.

Last night I walked into Studio A at the Red Deer College Arts Centre to find it transformed into such a magical courtyard, for the Theatre Performance and Creation program’s production of Charles Mee’s Summertime, as directed by Lynda Adams, an instructor in the program.  The risers for the audience were arranged on three sides, with white cloth draperies over each chair pinned with an artificial flower, like at a wedding reception.  Clear twinkling light illuminated white garden furniture and several trees; closer inspection showed the tree branches full of white teacups.  Three identically-dressed actors were already present on the stage, three young women going through stylised synchronised motions of reading, writing, sitting and standing while seeming completely unaware of each other.

Looking at the program revealed that the three, Jessie Muir, Constance Isaac and Taylor Pfeifer, were all cast as Tessa, and several other roles were also filled by two or three actors.   This was a choice made by director Adams in order to include all 21 members of the ensemble in the production, and it turned out to work surprisingly well with Mee’s source text, particularly the first bit which is cryptic, full of awkward pauses and what I think of as gnomic.  The duplicate or triplicate actors sometimes recited the line together, and sometimes alternated.  Their actions were sometimes identical and symmetrical, with each of the three Tessas looking at one James (JP Lord, Dustin Funk, Lucas Hackl) and one François (Tyler Johnston, Chase Condon, and Richard Leurer), and sometimes the three would be responding differently or all rushing to one corner of the stage.  It took surprisingly little time to get accustomed to this narrative convention.

As the story unfolds, the self-possessed young woman Tessa is rattled by two unexpected suitors, then overwhelmed by a crowd of family and friends arriving.  As the characters interact we can see why Tessa soon exclaims

“This is what I grew up with!
What chance did I have with a family like this?
And you want to fall in love with me?
How can anyone expect me to form any kind of relationship
with another human being?”

François, who at first seemed the more appropriate suitor for Tessa than the painfully awkward stranger James, seems to have previously been involved with not just the family friend Mimi (Victoria Day), but also with Tessa’s mother Maria (Julia VanDam, Megan Einarson and Brittany Martyshuk), glamorous, remote, and somehow European, with a flowered scarf in her hair or thrown around her neck.  Two staid slouching middle-aged men outfitted from an LL Bean catalogue for cottage weekends, with baggy khakis and brightly coloured sweaters, turn out to be Tessa’s father Frank (Jake Tkaczyk), and Edmund (Bret Jacobs), Frank’s friend, companion, and lover.  Other friends, connections, and a pizza delivery man (Sasha Sandmeier, Victoria Day, Wayne De Atley) react to each other showing that everything is more complicated than originally assumed, and that nobody is happy with the situations.  Barbara, who seems to be the housekeeper (Jennifer Suter and Collette Radau), interrupts with an over-the-top and very funny tirade about men.  Frank starts out as a sort of genial absentminded host and observer, but we soon find out that even the calm Edmund is full of resentments, in his case against Frank.  The first act ends with all this discontent stirred up into a wonderfully-chaotic choreographed piece by the whole cast stomping and whirling about the crowded space to percussion accompaniment, bouncing off each other and exclaiming their frustrations with love, while Frank periodically shouts “Excuse me!” You can tell this ensemble has some rigorous training in physical theatre and has been working together for many months.

In the second act, things are quieter and the dialogue a bit more conventional, but it seems unlikely that any of these people would be happy together.  Frank makes a speech which starts with the repeated motif of the play that love is complicated these days, and leads to a long thoughtful observation about life changing continuously and the past disappearing as it is lived.  Tessa seems to be considering both James and François as suitors.  Maria reconciles with Frank.  An odd challenge leads to all the male characters doffing their trousers to lie down in plaid boxer shorts and colour-co-ordinated socks.  A few neighbours, Gunther, Bertha, and Hilda (Wayne De Atley, Jessica Bordley, and Rebecca Lozinski), drop in and add to the complications, until a tilt towards resolution is hinted at by Hilda, who makes a delightful and impassioned speech in favour of pursuing love.  Eventually there are happy romantic resolutions for some of the couples, but things don’t work out as tidily as in Anything Goes, particularly for Frank, who slumps alone at the side of the stage as some of the happy couples dance tenderly and the lights dim.

I don’t know any words for the genre of this play.  Some of the marketing materials suggested a light drawing room comedy, but trying to read the script before I’d seen it was as much a struggle as trying to read Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Maybe it was like Noel Coward done in the absurdist tradition?

The set design, colour choices for the costumes (both by Sheena Haug), and lighting (Heather Cornick) contributed effectively to the not-quite-real mood.  As someone who loves both bright colours and socks, I was immediately enchanted to see many of the characters wearing bright co-ordinated socks, Tessa in rainbow-stripes, James matching their turquoise shirts, and François in a bright purple that complemented their outfit.  Original music was written and performed by Jordan Galloway.

I enjoyed this performance very much, but I am still thinking about it.  Like all of Charles Mee’s work, the script is available on line.  It’s easier to read after seeing the play than it was beforehand.  I’m considering seeing it again before its run ends Sunday night, and if this sounds intriguing you should too.  Tickets are available through Black Knight Ticket Centre out of Red Deer, and at the door.  Red Deer College and its Arts Centre are easy to find right off Highway 2 in Red Deer.

Anything Goes!

Before last night, I would have said that the Westbury Theatre at the Transalta Arts Barns had a large stage.  That was before I saw Strathcona Theatre’s performance of Anything Goes, which left me with the impression that the stage was just barely large enough for the cast of 50+ (I tried to count a couple of times, but they kept dancing!)  A clever stage design evoked the multiple decks, spiral staircases, and porthole-covered swinging doors of an Art Deco cruise liner, while also providing space for the pit musicians to play on an upper deck.  Last night’s preview show played to a full house, and since many of the family, friends, and fans of Strathcona Theatre got there earlier than I did, I was grateful for being able to watch some of the action as well as musicians not so far down from where I was sitting.

Early in the show, I thought that Sydney Williams, playing the nightclub singer and former evangelist Reno Sweeney, was dominating the show as a strong singer with good stage presence.  Adam Houston, as Billy Crocker, seemed a bit outmatched at first, with a difficult first song, but he hit his stride quickly and was more convincing later in the show.  The audience was particularly delighted with David Unsworth as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh when he broke out of his rather predictable exaggerated-aristocracy role late in the show (you can’t miss it).  I will definitely keep an eye out for this young actor in future productions.

The lyrics and music of this classic show (first staged in … with several revivals and revisions since) are by Cole Porter.  A few of the songs were quite familiar, especially “You’re the Top” and “I get a Kick Out of You”.   P.G. Wodehouse (also known for Jeeves and Wooster) had a hand in the book, and you can tell.   There were love triangles, gangsters, mistaken identities, tap-dancing sailors, an exceptionally well-behaved live dog in the cast (credited as Teddy Gorman), evangelists, missionaries, and converts, puns, innuendoes, and assorted happy endings.   When two or three actors were speaking or singing, there were often many other characters on the edges of the stage doing things that were interesting but not distracting, adding to the sense that more was happening than we could watch.

I was a little uncomfortable with the portrayals of the two Chinese converts Luke and John (James Kwak and Spencer Lloyd), complete with Mao jackets and the stereotypical accents common in fictional portrayals of the early 20th century, and the later adoption of “Chinese” disguises by other characters.  I’m not sure why the humorous portrayal of the English aristocrat didn’t disturb me the same way.   Maybe it felt a bit like blackface.   I would not be surprised if it had been toned down from Broadway versions, though.

Linette Smith is Director and Choreographer, and Stephen Delano is Musical Director.  There were a few technical glitches in this first preview performance – some sound balancing or sound cuing that was a bit slow, and one door that came off its hinges distractingly – but nothing that should interfere with the audience’s appreciation during the run of the show.  It continues until Saturday night at the Westbury Theatre, with tickets available at Tix on the Square .

Two fun shows I forgot to write about, or, a Blind Date with Billy Elliot

In February I went to Rebecca Northan’s show Blind Date at the Club/Rice space at the Citadel Theatre.  I giggled a lot, but I guess I didn’t have anything pressing to say about it and it slipped out of the posting queue of my brain.  Like a real blind date, it was unexpected, occasionally awkward and embarrassing, and kind of sweet.

The show played last year around Valentine’s Day as well.  The concept is that the main character, named Mimi, asks someone from the audience to participate in the play as her date.  In the performance I saw, the participant was a very good sport and amusing fellow named Travis.  There were also several minor characters; I can’t find my program to give proper credits but my notes say they were played by Jamie and Christian.

I think it might be a fun show to see more than once, to see how much it varies with a different participant.  It would also be fun to do gender-flipped or with a same-sex date.

In late March, I saw the Broadway Across Canada production of Billy Elliot at the Jubilee Auditorium.  I was lucky that I hadn’t got an opening-night ticket, as the first night performance got cancelled due to some of the trucks of properties got delayed at the border due to the snowstorm.  The production travels with four actors taking turns as Billy, and two as Michael.  We saw Mitchell Tobin (age 12) as Billy.  The movie Billy Elliot, which came before the musical, overlaps in my memory with The Full Monty, Brassed Off!, and Kinky Boots as a genre of late 1990s-early 2000s comedies about working class people in England coping with hard financial times in creative ways – and the musical is the same story with an Elton John score.  (That reminds me – am I the only person entertained by the bizarrely detailed genre categories that Netflix comes up with as it tries to work out what else I’d like to watch based on what I’ve seen so far?)

The show was polished, fun, and touching.  There was at least as much wooden-chair choreography as in a production of Spring Awakening.  In one particularly surreal dance number, there was a chorus of striking miners and a chorus of police with riot shields, sharing the stage with a crowd of little girl ballet dancers.  The miners’-families Christmas party scene included some puppets like the Spitting Image political-caricatures.

I was disturbed that I had no recollection of the miners’ strike portrayed in the show at the time it was happening, even though background reading for the show illustrated its monstrous import in destroying coal mining in Britain.  And although the show illustrates the excitement and determination of the new strikers, and the persistence and sacrifice as they held out, later history showed their efforts to be as heartbreakingly futile as those of the 1832 Paris Uprising shown in the plot events of Les Misérables.

Saturday excursions

Last Saturday, the bookends of my day were two more Edmonton entertainment traditions, thanks to invitations from improv-class friends.

In the morning I went to Saturday Morning Cartoons at the Garneau/Metro Theatre.  For $12 (cheaper for kids, seniors, and students) you get to sit in the semi-dark theatre all morning and watch an odd assortment of cartoons and vintage Saturday-morning TV ads, while replenishing your bowl from the lobby buffet of cereal and milk.  Many of the patrons were in pajamas or reasonable comfortable facsimile.  The entertainment seemed to mostly be from the 1970s, and the familiar-seeming bits were as odd as the parts I’d never seen before.  An ITV ad showing the attractions of modern Edmonton, on a backdrop of brand-new concrete and artificially-green grass.  Scooby-Doo.  A classic McDonaldland ad.  American public service announcements reminding people not to litter, smoke cigarettes, or light forest fires.  Kid Power, which was probably considered (by white people) to be a charmingly progressive treatment of post-racial society in 1972, but which kept us muttering to each other, did they really say that??  There were lots of choices of cereal and milk options.  The lights in the theatre were dim but not extinguished, so that it wasn’t difficult to come and go during the screening.  I would definitely go again.

I’d also definitely go again to Oh! Susanna, a late night variety show at the Varscona Theatre hosted by the character Susanna Patchouli, who bears surprisingly little resemblance to Mark Meer, and her assistant the Duchess of Capilano, who sounds a little like Belinda Cornish.  The friend who was with me goes to the show regularly.  He was unsurprised that part of the show involved a bartender concocting a tasty mixed drink for the hosts and giving the recipe, and then handing out tastes of it to the whole audience, and that then something similar happened with grilled sandwich bites.  There were several other guests discussing other shows and entertainment options coming up soon in Edmonton, with the most memorable being James McClennan, a tenor who will be performing in the Edmonton Opera’s Eugene Onegin, and Lisa Norton, who will be playing Odysseus in the Citadel’s Penelopiad.  Both of them were interesting to listen to and seemed to be having fun with both the conversation about the arts and the more bizarre aspects of the Game they competed in.