Monthly Archives: May 2013

Spelling Bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an unwieldy name for a musical, but everything else about this Elope production went smoothly.   Kristen Finlay was the director.  The names and faces of the cast were mostly unfamiliar to me, but I haven’t been around the Edmonton musical-theatre scene very long so that isn’t a negative sign.

The story involves six junior-high-school-age children (played by adult actors Mark Sinongeo, Kristin Johnston, Curtis Knecht, Meredith Honda, Nadine Veroba, and John Evans) competing on stage in a spelling bee, their families, and the people managing the spelling bee.  For extra fun, four adult audience members were recruited in the lobby beforehand to be extra competitors.  The treatment was generally lighthearted, but there was also a consistent message about the difference between young people following their own passions and eccentric interests, and children being pushed or promoted by their families.   At the end of the show, each character tells the audience where his or her life has taken him or her since the time of the spelling bee, and each of them has a satisfying outcome.

My favourite character was Mitch (Kate Wylie), a contest support worker with a fairly small role.   The most impressive portrayals, In my opinion, were by John Evans (Leaf) and Nadine Veroba (Olive).  The choreography (Jake Hastey) was fun to watch and the live music  (musical director Sally Hunt and three additional musicians) was catchy, although not sufficiently so for me to be humming it two weeks later.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues tonight (Thursday), tomorrow (Friday), and Saturday.  Tickets are available at the door and at Tix on the Square.

From Cradle to Stage: new short works at the Walterdale

Meeting up with an actor friend and going to an evening of short theatre at the Walterdale Playhouse on a warm spring evening reminded me of the Fringe festival.  Except for a few details like the parking lot being nearly empty, and  there being no food vendors or crowds or street performers.  Oh, and in August I love the air conditioning in the Walterdale, but in May I ended up a bit underdressed, just too involved in the story in front of me to fish out my jacket from under my seat.

From Cradle to Stage is a festival of new short plays, a tradition at the Walterdale.  Playwrights make submissions earlier in the season, and the winners then work with dramaturges (is that the plural?) to develop the scripts for production in May.  This year’s event had two plays, “The Ugly Spot” by Lisa Lorentz-Gilroy and “Exposure” by Stephen Allred, Bethany Hughes, and Jessie McPhee.

“The Ugly Spot” showed a brief encounter between two young strangers who had both come to the same isolated place (the Ugly Spot of the title) for solitude.  As you might expect, they are both indignant and defensive about having to share the bit of public land that they’d thought of as private.  But because this is a play rather than real life, they don’t both get up and leave; they stay and communicate enough that we find out interesting things about both of them.  Chance Heck and Cayley McConaghy both portray unhappy lonely twitchy young people.  There was one apparent inconsistency in the related backstory that distracted me disproportionately, but I won’t write it here since it might not bother you the same way.  On the other hand, the ending was done in a more subtle way than I had expected, leaving some things for the audience to know and a character left not knowing.  I thought that was the strongest thing about the writing.

“Exposure” was a more complex portrayal, as you would expect from the longer running time (55 minutes vs 25 minutes).  There was some similarity in plot device with “The Ugly Spot”.  One or two of the people tweeting about the shows thought this juxtaposition was effective; I thought it was unfortunate.  It made the second one easier to guess and it stretched my tolerance for coincidence a bit past credulity.  The premise of this show was three different characters, each struggling with a debilitating fear, encountering each other in an inpatient treatment program and moving towards healing in their interactions with each other.  There were no counsellors or other staff members of the facility shown on stage, although there were a couple of voiceover announcements and the characters referred to their assignments and therapy-group exercises.  As the program blurb said, “sometimes it’s the people you meet there, not the program, that allows you to move forward”.  I might quibble with the grammar, but the story was effective in demonstrating how troubled people who are motivated to change can help each other.

Early on, the characters are not yet interacting with each other – we learn about their thoughts through alternating monologues with each sitting on a straight chair facing forwards.  Each of the three characters has a different set of body language for portraying his or her state of fear and avoidance – Eric (Morgan D. D. Refshauge)’s twitchiness, Anna (Sarah Culkin)’s continual chatter, and most compellingly Will (Sam Banagan)’s demeanour of completely avoiding eye contact with anyone while actually sitting front and centre facing the audience.  As the story progresses and the characters begin to reach out to each other, we see each of them begin to drop these mechanisms, relaxing a bit and then retreating a bit when challenged.  Eric seemed to recover a bit too easily for me to believe, but I found all of them likeable intelligent people and I wanted them to succeed.  There were glimpses of affectionate humour all through what was in some ways a disturbing story.  As a long-time digital immigrant, I was pleased to see Internet-friendship not being portrayed as pathological in itself, although it had been part of at least one character’s coping tools.

The plays run every night until Saturday, with tickets at Tix on the Square or at the door.  And I’d love to know what you thought of them too.

snout – even weirder theatre

My next experience with weird theatre was an Azimuth Theatre / Catch the Keys production called Snout, in the little playing space at the Arts Barns.  I believe it was written by Megan Dart and directed by Beth Dart, but that is from memory because there weren’t any paper programs.  As people entered the theatre, we saw a small tented space, draped with sheets and decorated with living room furniture, which also seemed to be where we should sit.  Atmospheric music was playing, and mysterious video images (Matt Schuurman’s work of course) were projected on the sheets.  An awkwardly-hunched character in bare feet and a burlap poncho (Ben Stevens) welcomed the theatregoers to his house and directed us to the couches, chairs, and cushions on the floor, while steering people away from a kitchen-table set at one end of the room.

We had lots of opportunity to study the space, especially those of us who were a little bit uncomfortable about engaging with the unpredictable character scuttling around.  The draped sheets made a football-shaped space, with openings at either end and at a few other places in the perimeter.  After a while I became aware of a looming bearded presence watching us from the various rents in the draping, but again I kind of averted my attention so as not to engage.  (As I’ve probably already said here, I love weird theatre – but I’m still awkward about being dragged in to participate.)

The main character turned out to be named Ori, and this was his home.  He also introduced us to a Wolf (Steve Pirot), as a friend that he played with and fought with.  The wolf stalked on his hands and feet, hair covering his face, and snarled convincingly enough that my neck got shivers.  The character felt dangerous in that form.  Later, he walked upright and delivered a monologue about possessions, theft, and exchanging valuables, while returning to people various objects of theirs that he had somehow pilfered earlier – in my case, a book about improv theatre that I’d borrowed from one of my teachers.  I was probably easy to steal from because of having tried so hard to ignore him!

The other two characters in the play were an ordinary couple, (Ainsley Hilliard and Mat Simpson), who had been together long enough to remember happier more romantic times, but unsure how and whether to try recapturing those feelings.

And the rest of the performance (I was going to say “story”, but that would suggest something more linear and less lyrical and cryptic) was just those characters interacting with each other and rebounding off each other and hurting each other.  I probably missed a lot – the box-office flyer suggested some resonance with an Isis and Osiris myth, for one thing – but I didn’t mind, because I liked it.

The Soul Collector: Eerie and elliptical

On Friday night, I attended the Catalyst Theatre production The Soul Collector, written, directed, and composed by Jonathan Christenson.  Early on, I thought that it was never going to make sense to me, and I worried that I’d have to ask my theatregoing companions, both actors, to explain to me what had happened.  My first impressions were about chill and dark and gloom. The stage was set with upside-down bare white trees, a glistening black roadway or path down a hill with white markings, wind, eerie music, and periodic snowfalls.  At first, all the characters had costumes in shades of brown and grey, with bits of black and white.  It was hard to identify them as contemporary or from any specific other period, but the colours and hats and one character’s dark glasses evoked a somewhat steampunk aesthetic.

A story began to be built, with anecdotes from the past being told to an apparently-present-day character, Memory McQuade (Karyn Mott).  Many of the two-person stories involved a death.  Early on, people started warning of a Soul Collector.  At first I thought the Soul Collector referred to the mythical horned-man figure dressed in white shorts and disturbingly uneven clawed hands, but I was confused because they seemed to be warning of “She”.  The horned figure was the Winter Hart (Brett Dahl, seen recently in The Missionary Position at U of A), and the Soul Collector turned out to be female, an Ice Queen archetype just as scary as the White Witch of Narnia (Elinor Holt).  Memory McQuade’s guides to the world or near-underworld or whatever it was were the blind mortician Mortimer (Clinton Carew) and the boy Gideon Glumb (Benjamin Wardle).  My eye kept being drawn to the boy Gideon because of an awkwardly-contorted arm, which made his hands look abnormally large.  I noticed that in some scenes (dancing) he didn’t have a deformity, but in the present-day ones he did, and I kept looking for an acknowledgement or explanation.  One character offering a bit of comic relief was Popcorn Pete (Garett Ross).  The storytelling patterns and the not-quite-realistic setting began to remind me of Charles de Lint’s stories.

Some things became clear by the end.  Not everything.  And several of the odd things I recalled from early on ended up falling into place, not explained explicitly but easy enough to figure out that I felt satisfied by the narrative.  I was also astonished at the curtain call to realise that there had only been nine performers, since I hadn’t always gotten a good look at the characters in the dark and in their bundles of winter clothing, and I hadn’t realised that I’d been seeing the same actors over and over.  I remained somewhat frustrated that I had had trouble picking up the words of the sung bits over the projected music, but one of my companions pointed out that the words were almost superfluous to the point of the musical bits which were to communicate mood, and they certainly did that.

When I left the theatre, I decided it was the most elliptical and cryptic storytelling I’d encountered since Free-Man on the Land last January.  And it continued to hold that record for almost 24 hours.

Blown away by Let the Light of Day Through

Last night I saw Collin Doyle’s play Let the Light of Day Through.

I have a huge backlog of performances I haven’t written about yet, but I couldn’t go to sleep last night until I wrote about this play, and none of my usual correspondents were on line or answering their text messages.

Let the Light of Day Through is a Theatre Network production, starring Lora Brovold and Jesse Gervais, and directed by Bradley Moss.  I didn’t read much about it ahead of time – just took a tip from a reliable friend – so I just had a vague idea that it was about a couple dealing with something sad or unmentionable in their past.

That wasn’t wrong.  And if you’d rather not know any more than the fact that I cried all the way home and am now telling you to go see it, stop here and go to the theatrenetwork website to buy tickets (it’s only playing until Sunday afternoon).


But if you don’t mind spoilers, or if you have already seen it or you aren’t going to be able to anyway, I can go into more detail.  The show posters show a door opening from a dark hallway into a room flooded with eerie light.  The set visible before the show had a brick wall, a wooden door, and a purplish light escaping from behind it.

I was expecting to meet a couple who were angry with each other, distanced, or with some obvious psychiatric troubles.  Those are the obvious tropes for survivors of family traumas of the kind that is gradually revealed here.  I’ve been fortunate not to have relevant personal experience, but that’s how it usually is in books, movies, or theatre (Next to Normal, for example).  But the characters Rob and Chris in this play still like each other, still find joy in life and hope for their future, and are still very funny people who enjoy each other’s compatible playfulness with the shorthand of people who have known each other a long time.   These two people who have endured an awful senseless loss are the most in-tune with each other, the most respectful of any male-female couple I’ve seen in fiction in ages.  Their tolerance and mild irritation with each other’s quirks are so affectionate at base compared to many fictional couples who are supposed to be happy together but display an ongoing tension that makes me wince.  Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Mad About You on Netflix.

The common fictional trope is that a person or family who experiences unbearable trauma will somehow almost forget the whole thing or make it completely unmentionable.  But it becomes clear that Rob and Chris have done something different in order to get on with their lives.  They’ve made an agreement to pretend, and in fact when they discover that they’ve both forgotten a milestone date, they are at first horrified by the idea that they might ever forget.  This consensual pretending then turns out to be a big part of how they work through their traumatic past and how the audience gets to learn the story as they come to terms with it.  Rather than asking the audience to accept the usual convention of narrative flashback, in which the actors are suddenly playing different characters or playing the usual characters at a younger age, in this play the playwright uses the playful storytelling and reminiscing of the characters as they remain their contemporary selves but re-tell the story to each other.  “Remember that time?  Okay, I’ll be your mother in this one…”  This technique made me more fond of the characters, and it also made the story flow very easy to follow.  In a couple of places where it might have been ambiguous, the characters themselves made the clarification “Wait, is this now, or are we being seventeen?”

The funniest parts of the play were two sex scenes. One is in the contemporary story where they’re obviously both interested in each other and making fun of fantasy conventions but have slightly different expectations for how the scene will play out.  The other is a hilarious acting-out of an awkwardly acrobatic teenage encounter.

The play runs about two hours with no intermission.  This was a good choice because the trajectory of the story didn’t have a good breakpoint.  The set seemed simple but was important, and the lighting made the plain wall and door fit many different settings.   The actors were both very good, playing different people who were both likeable and sympathetic.  And Collin Doyle’s treatment of how these people cope with the events of their lives is just different enough, both in plot and in the way the story is told, that I was completely drawn in.  It didn’t feel melodramatic or emotionally manipulative at all.  Near the end of the play, the only sound I could hear from around me was an awful lot of sniffling. I definitely wasn’t the only one weeping.

One of the best performances I’ve seen since starting this blog.  Seriously.