Monthly Archives: November 2013

Pains of Youth

in the director’s notes for the U of Alberta Studio Theatre production Pains of Youth last month, Kim McCaw commented that he found troubling parallels between the world of the young students in the play and the uncertain future for present-day students, who find that “holding on to hope and optimism is increasingly difficult”.  I cannot confirm this first-hand, being neither pessimistic nor exactly a youth, but I found the world of the 1920s German medical students easy to slip into.   Ferdinand Bruckner wrote the play in German in about 1929.

The play is set in the lodgings of graduating medical student Marie (Andrea Rankin).   The other students and young people in the play live in the same lodging house or nearby, and Lucy (Mariann Kirby) is an eighteen-year-old housemaid.  We don’t meet the landlady.  The detailed set created an appealing cozy environment for Marie, surrounded with books, desks, suitcases, anatomy posters, and even a bowl of knitting.  I was distracted by trying to figure out what house layout would be compatible with the bits we saw and were told.  The door backstage left opened to Desiree’s room but they talked as if there was another door to the hallway from Desiree’s room.  The door stage right opened to a hallway of the lodging house, and people visiting Marie always entered and left by that door.   Between the two doors there was a window over Marie’s bed, which was illuminated as if it were open to the outside.  I guess one way this could work would be if the hallway proceeded past Marie’s room in the imaginary space where the audience was sitting, but as this didn’t occur to me until afterwards I was stuck trying to think whether their set design was inconsistent.

At intermission I was thinking that Marie was the only likeable character in the whole menagerie.  We saw her helping Desiree prepare for an exam and walking her to the exam hall for luck, buying Petrell a writing desk, showing kindness and humanity towards Lucy the chambermaid, and preparing a party to celebrate her graduation with all her friends.  We also learn that she’s from humble origins and has been funding her studies (and possibly her friends’) through dressmaking.  I identified with her immediately.

But of course things got more complicated.  Marie’s friends include Petrell (Neil Kuefler) a poet and former student she’s been romantically involved with but also been nurturing, Alt (Kristian Stec) a doctor who lost his license to practice due to the kind of ethical/legal issue that would still be controversial today, and medical students Freder (Graham Mothersill), Desiree (Georgia Irwin), and Irene (Cristina Patalas).  By intermission it seemed to me that all of them were kind of messed up, and Graham Mothersill’s Freder was so awful that labels like “sociopath” or “evil” were crossing my mind.

Desiree, the more junior student who lives in a room adjoining Marie’s, is obviously her intimate.  Her clinginess and admiration for Marie made it hard for me to tell, at first, whether she saw Marie as a platonic friend or sister, or whether there was some romantic or sexual component to her affections.  She expressed that ambiguous needy affection in ways that made me uncomfortable, because she talked about wanting to cuddle in a bed with Marie like she and her little sister had as children, and at first I thought that her advances made Marie uncomfortable too.  But later in the story, after Petrell has taken up with Irene, Marie seems to be sexually involved with Desiree and the other characters all take this in stride.

The next play in the 2013-2014 U of A Studio Theatre mainstage series is Bloody Poetry, currently playing.

Bloody Poetry – an “atheist haunted by the spirit world”

With Bloody Poetry, The U of A Studio Theatre series continues to be provocative, in the senses of thought-provoking and disturbing.  I felt a little sorry for the person sitting next to me who said to her companion on arrival that she had no idea what it was going to be about and didn’t have time to read the program, and what were they going to see tomorrow, it sounded like something Greek maybe with naked women in it.   Oddly, the not-naked theme continued in a conversation I overheard at intermission between different patrons, one of whom explained while eating red licorice that the program said it was actually about naturism.  “NATurism??”  “No, THATcherism.  Like Margaret Thatcher.”  “Oh.”

The play, written in 1984 by Howard Brenton, is the story of the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Oscar Derkx, who played Jesus in the Studio Theatre production of Last Days of Judas Iscariot) and Lord Byron (Adam Klassen)  and some of the women in their lives, Mary Godwin Shelley the writer of Frankenstein (Merran Carr-Wiggin), her stepsister Claire Claremont (Zoe Glassman), and Harriet Westbrook, Bysshe’s first wife (Kelsey Visscher).   The other character on stage is Dr. William Polidori (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), Byron’s biographer and physician.  The production is directed by Glenda Stirling, the Calgary-based director, teacher, and artistic director of Lunchbox Theatre.

Throughout the play characters pay lip service to the ideals of free love, but they don’t seem to have the same understandings of the concepts of power-balance, autonomy, feminism, and informed consent in relationships that one might expect today.  Byron is overtly exploitive and self-centred.  Shelley, who is a younger less successful poet, starts out trying to make a good impression on the more famous man, smiling sycophantically and awkwardly agreeing with him.  Byron continues to make fun of him about being a teetotaller and a competent sailor, and flirts with him sexually throughout the play.  Shelley tries to ignore both the jokes and the advances.  It’s easy for the audience to share Shelley’s discomfort at some of Byron’s cruder comments, such as the ones about the venereal diseases he’s experienced.

In some ways Shelley is a more honourable person than Byron:  he welcomes Claire and her child into his household, and he pursues Byron to Venice in an attempt to get the child back.  But the interactions with his first wife and her ghost show that he basically abandoned her for Mary, and then while he is with Mary he doesn’t seem to care whether she consents to his affairs with various other women.  Mary certainly believes that the peripatetic lifestyle that he insists on is a cause for at least one child’s death.   Mary’s (Carr-Wiggin’s) facial expression and body language while Shelley made a speech about bourgeois morality showed clearly that she didn’t agree with him and intended to challenge him, and her subsequent challenge had me silently cheering, while he tried to manipulate her by calling her cold and callous.  As portrayed in the play, Mary is a stronger and more interesting character than her older step-sister Claire.  There are fascinating glimpses of Mary’s own creative process and inner life working on Frankenstein.   Claire is just heartbreaking, from her introduction as a naive young woman wanting attention and affection from both Byron and Shelley, her conviction that Byron will marry her, and then her needy clinging to whoever will comfort her.

One of the best bits of staging is the bit where the group acts out the thought-experiment of Plato’s cave, tying up Dr. Polidori in front of a screen and then making shadow plays.    The set and blocking made good use of the deep stage space of the Studio Theatre, with lighting and set pieces breaking up the space to create the illusion of people strolling on beaches far away.   Costuming was period-appropriate, with women in Empire-waist drapery and men in white hose, breeches, wide-sleeve blouses, and neckcloths.  Having worn a dress of that period myself, I was impressed at how the performers experienced the freedom of movement possible in that style of dressing, while never tripping over their full skirts even when dancing recklessly or leaping onto piers.

I tended to focus on the personal side of their convictions and actions, but they also all made speeches about their political and theological disagreements with conventional English society, and about the exigencies of dealing with publishers and funding.  They seemed to use the word “libertarian” in senses where I might have used “libertine”, which made me think that to them it was the same thing – and this may express not just the ways in which Shelley’s life hurt the women around him, but many stories of the personal lives of activists in more recent eras.

I’m fascinated by watching this year’s Studio Theatre series build up.  The offerings are all challenging for the viewer, presenting different sets of complicated characters in settings I’m not personally familiar with.  Bloody Poetry continues until Saturday 7 December with tickets at Tix on the Square and in the New Year there are three more plays in the season.

Bitches and Money 1878

After Richard III, my next playgoing was to Northern Light Theatre’s production of Martin Henshell’s Bitches and Money 1878, directed by Trevor Schmidt.  It was a pleasant change.  I don’t know how to describe the genre of this show.  Maybe “period dark comedy heist story”? “Steampunk feminist version of Oceans Whatever”? “Betrayals and plot twists”?  The publicity materials call it “about gambling, greed, and time travel”.

It was confusing and fun.  I don’t think I got answers to all my questions about the plot, but I’m not sure whether they weren’t spelled out explicitly enough for me or whether they just weren’t explained.  But it didn’t really matter.

If the title wasn’t enough to set the period and approximate location, the audience entering the PCL Studio Theatre had time to study a shallow dark-wallpapered room with a hand-drawn map of London, the external pipes of gas heating fitted to an older building, ornate fussy furniture, ominous music, and oh!  some characters I didn’t even notice at first.  Black Jack (Ben Goradetsky) is seated facing the audience, looking down at a big pistol in his hand, shifting position occasionally and adjusting the gun.  He’s hard to miss because he’s wearing a vividly-yellow plaid suit, and his black-rimmed eyes add to the sense of menace.  A few minutes later I noticed two female characters, seated on opposite sides of the stage, both sitting completely still, apparently with hands bound behind them, and with bags over their heads.  Seeing the stage populated before the play starts always makes me curious but a bit uncomfortable – should I pretend not to see them? what if they make eye contact or talk to me like in snout? or (as in Ride) are they really naked under there and should I pretend not to be wondering about that?

The lights dropped and came up, and we saw Black Jack interacting with his two accomplices, Cora (Laura Gillespie),  wearing a dramatically sexy black and red outfit that I thought of as “Dawson-City Showgirl” and Patience (Andréa Jaworsky) wearing a severe black walking suit with a small dented hat decorated with a few gears.  Aha, I thought, could this be a steampunk inventor?  One of the best things about this show was the contrasts between the two women and the ways in which each character moved beyond the archetypes seen in the first few minutes.

The story gets told in a series of scenes arranged in non-chronological order.  This is made more clear by numbers projected on the wall between scenes, which seemed to be the order in which they happened.  The setting was fun, the alliances and mistrusts and twists were not completely predictable, and the show was fast-paced with lots of repartée.

Playing until Nov 30th, with a late-night “Booty call” show Nov 29th, tickets through the Fringe Box Office. 

Shakespeare’s Richard III – pared down to brutal basics

I love the exercise of finding similarities and contrasts in two different productions that I see in rapid succession, whether something like Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead performed in repertory, or two movies or plays just coincidentally easy to see together.  But yesterday’s theatregoing adventures exploring the nature and powers of royalty were so different that I’m still kind of disoriented today.

See, yesterday I followed up a viewing of the Red Deer College musical adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass with a University of Alberta student production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed and adapted by Lucy Collingwood.

This may have been a mistake.  But both shows opened this weekend for short runs (Richard III had just two more performances this afternoon and tonight).  My schedule got compressed by being snowed in Thursday night, and it hadn’t occurred to me to use the snowed-in time to research Richard III at all, either the Shakespeare version or the historical canon.  I arrived at the FAB Media Room for Richard III still catching my breath from the drive, and entered a dark space with a set piece looming high in one corner of the room, smoke swirling high around the harsh lighting, and two sets of risers arranged at sharp angles bounding a long pointed flat space in front of the steep staircases.

I was confused at the start and had trouble figuring out who was who in the story.  Richard, played by Matthew Kloster, stood out immediately, of course, with an awkward gait and twisted shoulder.  The casting in the program listed one role for each actor “and others”.  The roles were mostly listed as the noble title only, without given names or modifiers such as “brother to Queen Margaret”, and since English nobility seemed to have a very limited pool of given names, there seemed to be several Edwards, Henrys, etc in the story.  At intermission I discovered a short historical note on the display board, but I was still wishing for more of a lineage chart to help me keep the characters straight.

The narrative arc I’m familiar with in tragedies such as the Scottish play has someone committing a first murder for a specific purpose, and then getting swept along a path of committing more crimes in order to protect the gains acquired by the first crime, with the character gradually losing his or her conscience along the way.  But Shakespeare’s Richard III was not portrayed like that.  He seemed to be villainous from the start, and if he didn’t have the whole thing planned out before he started, he sure thought quickly and didn’t seem to have any second thoughts.  And a lot of his plans worked … until they didn’t.  The night before his death in battle, his dreams tormented him with the spectres of various people he’d killed, and while this makes sense as a conventional plot element presaging his doom, it’s actually a little surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have any guilt at all before that.  I found Matthew Kloster’s Richard so frightening that during the character’s periodic addresses to the audience I noticed myself stilling, shrinking into my seat, and looking away so that I wouldn’t catch his eye.  Other particularly strong portrayals included Queen Margaret (Alyson Dicey, last seen in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit), widow of King Henry VI of Lancaster, with her curses, and Richard’s brother the Duke of Clarence (Colin Matty, improviser and spoken-word poet).

An ensemble of ten played too many characters to count.  One effective choice in making this work was to have all the actors both male and female play various male roles such as soldiers, lords, and assassins.  After the first disorienting few minutes, I was never confused as to the gender of a character because the female actors’ body language and voices always shifted to signal that their characters were male.  By the climactic battle scene near the end, when Richard’s and Richmond’s (Jimmy Hodges’) supporters were fighting with staves and in hand-to-hand combat, I’d almost stopped noticing that almost all the strong acrobatic fighters I was watching were female.

The designers for this production (Cheyenne Sykes for costumes, Alison Yanota for lighting, Josee Chartrand for set design), chose an almost colourless palette, with consistently harsh blue-tinged smoky light.  Richard dressed in white, but all the other characters were clothed in grey and two specific tones of taupe and mauve, usually barefoot.  Assassins wore black gloves, widows wore veils, soldiers wore polished boots and hair pulled back, but otherwise the costumes seemed plain, unremarkable and uniform, with identical hairstyles and similar black-ringed eyes.

Richard’s power was occasionally demonstrated symbolically in this production by having him make gestures characteristic of the way hypnotism or mind control are commonly represented, with the other characters respond silently as mesmerised or compelled.  As this was not so different than the results of his usual demeanour, it served to underline his control of the situations.  One specific such scene had me recalling a mirror-image representation in the production of Alice Through the Looking Glass I’d seen earlier that day.  In Through the Looking Glass, when Alice crosses the brook to the eighth square and is transformed from pawn to queen in the chess game, this is represented by the White King plucking a golden crown out of the air while he stands behind her and setting it on her head.  In Richard III, Richard has been talking to his brother, King Edward IV (Jimmy Hodges), who seems to be dying, and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Elissa Weinzimmer), when he freezes them all with a gesture, removes the circlet of rank from Elizabeth’s head, and replaces it gently with a black veil, before gesturing them all off stage.  It isn’t clear to me whether he’s hastened his brother’s death or not, but the symbolic actions demonstrate that it’s all part of his twisted plan.

It was a long intense show.  Richard’s death at the end comes as a relief, and we’re left with some hope that those left alive might begin to rebuild a more sane humane kingdom under Richmond.  I also left with the resolution to read at least a synopsis beforehand the next time I go to watch a Shakespeare history play.

Alice Through the Looking Glass, and what I found there

The audience is different at a matinee of a show advertised as suitable for families.  There are a lot more black velvet dresses and pink snow boots.  I overheard a discussion beforehand about how live theatre is different from movies, with an adult explaining that no, it’s not all going to be on that little screen, and I overheard a discussion afterwards with other audience members saying that they didn’t want to go home yet, they wanted to stay and talk to the characters.  It was also clear to me that some young members of the audience were restless during the long poems and songs, and they didn’t conceal that quite as effectively as I like to think that I do nowadays.  All that being said, I did not find any of the audience members badly behaved or disruptive of my enjoyment of the show.  And I did enjoy it.

Lewis Carroll’s story Alice Through the Looking Glass, written in 1873, was adapted for the stage by Jim DeFelice in 1974, with music written by Larry Reese.  The production currently playing at the Red Deer College Arts Centre Mainstage is directed by faculty member Lynda Adams, and the seven performers are all final year students in Theatre Performance and Creation.

Julia Van Dam played the eponymous Alice convincingly as an imaginative Victorian-era child of “seven years and six months”, daydreaming of imaginary worlds and then landing in an unexpected one where things don’t go the way she dreamed.  Her body language, more expressive than an adult’s but still restricted by custom and crinoline, conveys delight, responsibility, frustration, and relief, and her singing voice is up to the material while not seeming inappropriately adult.

The other six cast members all played multiple characters.  The story was simplified a little bit from the original, but they left in all the important characters – TweedleDum and TweedleDee (Jennifer Suter and Jessie Muir), Humpty Dumpty (Dustin Funk), and some of the chess pieces.  As in the original, and in the playing-card symbolism of Alice In Wonderland, it was interesting to see the chess pieces develop distinctive character traits – the Red King (Dustin Funk) is sleepy to the point of narcolepsy, the Red Queen (Jessica Bordley) is a stern parent/teacher figure hectoring Alice about manners and behaviour while the White Queen (Collette Radau) is endearingly gentle and bewildered, and the White King (Jake Tkaczyk) is forgetful and clumsy.  Except for the Red Queen and to some extent Humpty Dumpty, all the characters treat Alice as an adult with agency, and she readily takes on responsibilities of taking care of herself and of them.  This was satisfying to me as a child reader and was still so as an adult playgoer watching the story through her eyes.

I noticed other ways that my old reactions to the story coloured my responses to the play.  I started out scared of the Red Queen, but I think actually that came from being scared of the playing-card characters in Alice in Wonderland.  I thought the Walrus and Carpenter song was both too long and too disturbing, because that is how I felt about it when I first read it.  In this stage production, I really enjoyed the oysters-as-puppets though.  And I still felt impatient during Alice’s encounter with the White Knight (Jen Suter) in the penultimate square.  As in the book, it felt like an irrelevant delay in order to introduce yet another eccentric character and recite yet another poem.  Jen Suter plays the White Knight with a sort of cowboy accent, perhaps of a cowboy whose range extends from Montana to somewhere in the Old South, but her delivery of the repeated line about “it’s my oooown invention” was very funny, and I heard a lot of adult chuckles during that scene.  I loved the expressive movement and feathery menace of the Black Crow (Jessica Bordley) just before and just after intermission, as the White King flails around causing or harnessing a tornado with his queen’s long unmanageable shawl.

It’s not really a story with a conventional plot arc or a lot of continuity, just Alice’s goal of reaching the eighth row of the chessboard as a pawn so that she can become a queen.  One undercurrent of theme is about names and loss of identity, as several characters warn Alice about losing her name or challenge her to replace it.

In a pair of framing scenes at the beginning and end, Alice is a little girl in her own house interacting with her nurse (Collette Radau) and her cat Dinah (Jessie Muir, with amusingly-credible feline physicality).  The “real” world scenes are shown as silhouette shadows on a scrim, with black and white drawing showing a fireplace, mantelpiece mirror, and chessboard.  This created a magical contrast with the colourful three-dimensional Looking-Glass world, similar to the colour film effect in Wizard of Oz, although I did wonder whether it confused the family behind me, in which an adult had just explained that the live actors in the play weren’t going to be on the screen at all.  The initial scene also made very clever use of the optical trick of having one character farther from the light than the other, so that Alice standing up looked about the same height as her seated nurse.

Outside those scenes was a second framing, as the performance started with a single spotlight outside the curtain (and in fact, outside a “second frame” ornate-scrollwork
mirror-frame decoupaged with mirror-image text from the Jabberwock) illuminating a Storyteller (Jake Tkaczyk) in Victorian-period frock coat, top hat, and white gloves and still demeanour, who sings the Prelude song “Child of the pure unclouded brow”.  His well-trained mid-range voice would not be out of place in musical theatre and his changes in delivery for different parts of the song helped make sense of the rather abstract lyrical poetry.  After the ending scene with real-world Alice on the screen talking over the adventures with her cat, Tkaczyk begins to sing again in costume as the White King but with the Storyteller’s voice, and the curtain rises again on the Looking-Glass world as the other performers join in with the choral finale.  Again, this provides a pleasing symmetry while also covering the musical-theatre convention of an all-cast song leading to the curtain calls.

The chess-piece costumes were very clever, with wide padded stiff hoops at the rim of robes suspended from the performers’ shoulders.  Similar stiff hoops could be spotted at the bottom edges of the knights’ horses, at TweedleDum and TweedleDee’s trouser cuffs, and on various sleeve cuffs.  Alice’s costuming, pink white and black with ringlets and a big hairbow, suited the clear simple palette of the show, but drew attention with small patterns and details reminiscent of the little-girl fussiness of the Harajuku Girls (Gwen Stefani’s backup dancers).

The fantasy world’s set used a revolve painted with a chessboard grid, and a pile of different-height boxes consistent with the grid.  Various trees, flowers, and so on continue the theme of coloured squares.  As I had been spending time with a young nephew before the show I was immediately reminded of the video game Minecraft, but that may not have been intentional.  The momentary jarring sensation when I heard the phrase “grassy knoll” on the 50th anniversary of J.F. Kennedy’s death was certainly not intentional.  The backdrop included a whirling Fibonacci-sequence checkerboard cloud formation.  Four stage technicians, students in the Theatre Production program, (Michael Johnson, Jordan Kruithof, Astrid Olivares, Jesse Robbins) contributed visibly to the production, as hands appearing in tables to serve drinks, crew of the Fourth-Square Express train, and especially at discovering Humpty Dumpty after his fall.

In the early performances I saw, there was possibly a little bit of sound balancing inconsistency in the first choral number, “Through the Glass”, and a few places where a performer was not speaking clearly enough to be easily heard from the middle of the big auditorium.  But those are easy details which will likely be corrected before this week’s performances, running Tuesday through Saturday (Nov 26 through 30), with tickets available through Black Knight Ticket Centre as usual.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

Another Comedy of Errors

There are lots of Shakespeare plays that I’ve never seen, studied, or read.  I’ve heard of people who make a point of saving one Shakespeare play so they have something to look forward to … but it’s usually Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus, something after Shakespeare was on the way to jumping the shark.  Anyway, until this year, I hadn’t watched Comedy of Errors at all.  Or studied it, or even read it.  But this summer I enjoyed a production of Comedy of Errors in the tent at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and then I went to the rap adaptation Bomb-itty of Errors directed by Dave Horak at the Edmonton Fringe.  And then in October I attended a Comedy of Errors production done by Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation students and directed by Jeff Page.

The set visible before the play started hinted at a fantasy setting, with playful pastel triangles painted on a city backdrop and courtyard flooring.  Then a drumroll and change in the lightning were followed by solemn standard-bearers and then the solemn entrance of the Duke of Ephesus (Julia van Dam) followed by her frail and bedraggled prisoner, Aegeon (JP Lord).  After the long exposition necessary in the first scene, where Aegeon explains about his wife having been lost at sea with one twin son and one twin slave-companion and the Duke explains that although she feels pity for him, she won’t make an exception to the law banning Syracusians, the action speeds up.  Antipholus of Syracuse (Jake Tkaczyk) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jen Suter), the bewildered travellers, stumble into a cheerful busy marketplace, with bubbly 1960s-inspired pop music in the background.  The costumes too seem to evoke the playful early 1960s, with ice-cream colours, argyle vests, and minidresses.  Soon the play’s theme of mistaken identity becomes clear, as various locals confuse the visiting Antipholus and Dromio for their identical-twin namesakes who live in the town, and the local pair (Richard Leurer as Antipholus of Ephesus and Brittany Martyshuk as Dromio of Ephesus) appear alternately with very similar body language and costuming, making the mix-up credible.  Leurer and Tkaczyk have almost identical jaw-hanging confused expressions.  Adriana, the impatient wife of Antipholus of Ephesus who is waiting the midday meal for her absent husband, is played with irritation and then increasing worry that her husband’s unexplained behaviour might mean that he is unfaithful, by Victoria Day.  Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana (Constance Isaac) has some amusing stage business with high heeled pumps that hurt her feet.  Other local characters complicating the plot include Angelo (Tyler Johnson) a pompous prosperous goldsmith with tailored Nehru jacket and walking stick, an unnamed courtesan (Megan Einarson) in gogo boots with some outrageously flirtatious audience interaction, the Duke’s overeager executioner (Wayne De Atley) and the soothsayer Doctor Pinch (Jessie Muir), an odd steampunk cross between a psychotherapist and a psychic.  The servant Luce, who horrifies Dromio of Syracuse when she mistakes him for her husband Dromio of Ephesus, is played by Bret Jacobs.  Casting Jacobs was an inspired choice for director Jeff Page, since he plays the bossy cook and affectionate wife with hilarious gusto, but also because Dromio of Syracuse’s speech about her being repulsive because she is fat and dark-skinned is both funnier and more acceptable to my modern ears when the character is played by a man.  Another aspect of Shakespeare’s tale that made me uncomfortable on reading and on viewing of the previous productions was the way that the Dromio characters are treated by the Antipholus characters who own them/employ them and were raised together with them, with physical beating as well as verbal abuse.  Again, a directorial choice in this production made that aspect a little more ridiculous and less disturbing, with most of the beating being done using rolled up newspapers.

The courtesan and her retinue performed an original musical number, Nothing but Love, by Edmonton musician Paul Morgan Donald, in a sort of bubbly sixties pop style.  It was fun to watch and listen to, and it is still stuck in my head more than a month later.  It didn’t really advance the plot, but that didn’t matter.

As things get more and more confused and messed up for the fellows from Syracuse, I noticed that they became more and more disheveled with every entrance, jackets lost, shirttails untucked, bow tie undone and almost falling off.  Their Ephesian twins, more domestic and prosperous, didn’t get quite as unravelled.

And then just before things fall apart completely, the tidy denouement worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan has the twins reuniting, the Abbess (Collette Radau, in full habit and wimple subduing audience and citizens with intimidating facial expressions) declaring herself to be the missing wife of Aegeon, and everyone getting their money and jewellery back.

I was particularly impressed by Julia Van Dam’s performance as the Duke of Ephesus.  Her physicality conveyed the character’s undoubted authority, and it was clear in the first scene that the Duke regretted being unable to pardon Aegeon but was unwilling to break the law.  She didn’t play the part as a man; the Duke was referred to with female pronouns and this worked just fine.

The next play in the Red Deer College performance series, featuring some of these performers, is a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, adapted by Jim DeFelice with music by Larry Reese.  It opens tomorrow night, Thursday November 21st, at 7:30 pm on the Mainstage at the RDC Arts Centre.

Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches: from almost 30 years later

Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, Part 1:  Millennium Approaches is set around 1985, and was written (along with Part 2:  Perestroika) in 1993.  The University of Alberta student-led performance group Abbedam chose this play as their 2013 production, and it opened last night at the Timms Centre Second Playing Space.  The director is Nick Eaton, director and co-creator of the Fringe 2013 show Into Oblivion

I had never seen or read the play before.  Unlike the majority of the opening-night attendees, I remember 1985, although I wasn’t particularly paying attention to American politics then, I wasn’t yet part of queer community, and I was just starting to be aware of AIDS.  Also, I’d never encountered any Mormons and had met very few Jewish people.  So the play has been making me think about changes in those issues and in my life in the last 30 years.  But if I waited ‘til I could say something articulate, I’d miss posting before the end of the run.  And I want to post, because it’s a good show and I think lots of people should go see it.

Knowing a little bit about the milieu of gay men in New York City in 1985 and about Mormon and Jewish attitudes to family and to ethical decision-making helped me appreciate the context of the story.  But I would also have benefited from knowing more about the McCarthy era in American politics, in particular about the lawyer Roy Cohn, who was a character in the play (played by Cristian Badiu, a PhD student).

I found this character one of the most intriguing and complex in the play, although definitely not the most likeable.  Cristian Badiu didn’t attempt one of the stereotypical New York City accents, but his mannerisms and way of speaking certainly pegged him right away as an arrogant NYC lawyer.  I was particularly fascinated by the speech in which he explains to his doctor that the label “homosexual” does not fit him, because although he has sex with men, his power and prestige define him in a way that’s not compatible with being considered homosexual.  His doctor eventually gives up or accepts what he’s saying, and suggests that he can use his White House connections to get into the experimental trials of the new drug AZT for the “liver cancer” that he insists he has rather than AIDS.  I was also fascinated by Cohn’s relationship with Joe Pitt (Roland Meseck) the young law clerk he tries to mentor and manipulate.  His speeches to Joe about choosing father figures were intriguing, as neither character acknowledges a facet of sexuality in their relationship.  It remains unclear to me whether Cohn was just drawn to young men like Joe in a platonic nurturing sense, whether he’s attracted to him and not expressing that openly, or what extent of his interactions with Joe are directed at getting Joe to do favours for him in Washington.

Joe’s wife Harper Pitt (Emily Howard) was charming.  She apparently copes with her emotional troubles by taking a lot of Valium, but she is present enough to be funny and to wish for better things, and brave enough to eventually get her husband to acknowledge that he is “a homo”.

The other two main characters (a cast of 15 played about 20 characters) were Prior Walter (Gabe Richardson) and Louis Ironson (Joshua Edison), a 30ish couple who have been together several years, who are both witty and affectionate and very likeable.  In their first scene, we see Prior supporting Louis at his grandmother’s funeral, teasing him gently about acting butch around his family, but the balance shifts quickly as Prior then rolls up a shirtsleeve to show Louis what looks like a bruise, but in that context is undeniably a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion.  Throughout the rest of the play, the two of them go through the range of responses of a dying man and of someone who loves a dying man, together and separately, in compelling convincing anguish.

One of my favourite minor characters was Belize (Matt Ayache) a nurse of colour and sometime drag queen.  Without exaggerating the flamboyant stereotypes, he contrasts with the other characters’ gender presentation and also speaks the most directly about racism, changes in queer culture, and treatment of the dying.  Lauren Derman was also impressive in understated portrayals of a calm accepting hospital caregiver (I wasn’t clear whether she was a nurse or a doctor) and of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

The action took place in a simple set on a revolve.  Actors and additional crew shifted furniture quickly between the many short scenes, and sometimes two scenes would be alternating on different sides of the stage.  There were some eerie and/or amusing special effects, supernatural adventures, and dream sequences, of which my favourite was Harper’s dream of Prior in a sheer négligée and wig cap doing makeup for drag.

The original play was written as a continuous narrative running about 7 hours.  This production of Part 1 ran about 2.5 hours, and ended in a slightly disorienting way.  Wikipedia does not have a very good plot summary (it would be great if someone reading this who has access to the play text could improve it).  At least it could satisfy some of my curiosity about what would happen to these characters in Part 2.  But I wish I could see these actors finish the story.

The production continues until November 17th, Sunday night.  Ticket information is on the show’s Facebook page. 

Sia – painful but not unbearable story of the aftermath of war

Currently playing at the ATB Financial Arts Barns’ black-box theatre space PCL Studio Theatre is Pyretic Productions’ Sia, by Matthew Mackenzie.  There are about 50 seats arranged in two rows along one long side of the room, and the set visible before the play started included a piece of broken concrete-block wall, some debris, and steps up to a platform covered with some malevolently-twisted welded tube and old metal chairs, formed into shapes suggesting a large tree and some roots or vines.  Program notes mentioned a refugee camp in Ghana, Liberian child soldiers, and the Butcher of Liberia’s conviction for multiple war crimes, so I worried for a few minutes that I might find the portrayal too disturbing sitting in the front row.   But I didn’t, quite.

The lights then dimmed and I was swept away into the story, starting as Makambe K Simamba, playing a young girl (I first guessed her age between 9 and 15 but she later said she was eleven), recited a folktale about birds arguing over a mango and the snake advisor who betrays them.  In the next scene, we saw two young men staggering home together from a party.  The white Canadian student Nick Summers (Patrick Lundeen) was very drunk, and his friend Abraham, a black Liberian from the refugee camp where Nick has been volunteering (Thomas Olajide, who played the same part at Factory Theatre in Toronto last year) was helping him home and washing off the magic-marker tattoos he’s been covered with at his departure/birthday party.  We saw quickly that Abraham was sober and had some kind of plan that Nick didn’t know about, and even though they seemed to be friends, this was worrying.  I wasn’t even surprised when Abraham snapped handcuffs onto his half-conscious friend, and then video-recorded him as must be de rigeur for abductors.

Scenes then alternate between the interactions of Nick and Abraham, and interactions between Abraham and Simamba’s character, his well-loved precocious younger sister who is practising what she will say in a presentation she’ll give to some UN peace monitors expected in their village.   She tries out the Liberian Declaration of Independence, the symbolism of a Christian communion service, and a story about Poseidon and Atlantis, while her older brother encourages and teases and critiques her.

Abraham goads Nick about being a typical Canadian refugee-camp tourist, coming to “observe”, and this seems to be a fair accusation.  His attempt to do yoga sun salutations while chained up is classic.  His later behaviour under the influence is particularly amusing, and slightly reminiscent of the last character I’d seen Patrick Lundeen play, the “mildly retarded but it’s just fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m not stupid, eh?” character in Kill Me Now. I was also reminded of the naive missionaries of last year’s U of A Studio Theatre production The Missionary Position, and the jarring disconnect between their Canadian confidence and the setting they didn’t know they didn’t understand.

It all gradually makes sense, and has a sort of hopeful ending, but not without living through and reliving some horrible events consistent with the bigger story of that place and time.  Thomas Olajide’s character is the most developed and complex.  His smooth shifts back and forth between the young patriot teasing his sister and the tormented man using his friend in order to get something he needs desperately made me like and feel sorry for his character.

Sia is playing until Sunday, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.  It’s not for the squeamish or easily upset, but it’s a good story.  I’m glad I saw it.

pool (no water) at the U of A Studio Theatre

The U of A Drama Studio Theatre season started in September with Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water).  This disturbing story of unspoken resentments within a longtime group of artistic collaborators featured Ainsley Hilliard, Vince Forcier, Brett Dahl, Kristi Hansen, and Gianna Vacirca, who I believe are all recent BFA grads of the department.

Much of the story is told by the five unnamed group members in overlapping monologues, interspersed with scenes where they interact as they re-enact the events they’re recounting.  They tell a story about their dealings with a sixth person, speaking of her as She and often having one of them play Her role in their re-enactments.  It seems that She was originally another participant in their group, but she became more distant as she got more conventionally successful.  They mimic her and make fun of her, talking about her boasts about her commissions and swimming pool, but when she invites them to her poolside home for a visit they all accept.  None of the locations are identified in the not-quite-real storytelling – I was picturing their home as the “bohemian quarter” of some big city, maybe New York or London or even Toronto or Vancouver, and the place where they visit their old friend as some island warm and full of wealthy expats, maybe in the Caribbean or somewhere like Mallorca or the Canary Islands if they’d travelled from London.  The visitors comment on the large beautiful house with several servants, and then describe how they immediately plunge into partying, which leads naturally into all of them getting naked (on stage this was represented with various white undergarments) and preparing to dive into the pool in the dark.

Here I should describe the stage.  It was mostly bare, with a cool blue light and some chrome furniture and gallery displays around the sides.  But projecting out from the apparent front of the stage were five diving boards, with the space between them and under them and out into the audience being the pool.  It was lit with that eerie blue swimming-pool-at-night colour, but when She plunges in, she lands on hard empty concrete and is badly injured.  It was one of those shocks that’s almost a relief, since it was clear from the storytelling that something horrible was going to happen.

As She lies unconscious in hospital, the group still resents her, but overlaid on that is a mix of guilt, of relief that it wasn’t them, of enjoying her beach house without her around, and of a fascination with the whole concept of being comatose, which they express freely in front of each other.  And they start taking pictures of Her when the hospital staff aren’t looking.

Eventually, she begins to recover, and when she finds out about the photos, she plans an exhibition, assuming ownership of the art.  As you can imagine, this makes the group of friends even more resentful.  The whole story is really about undercurrents of resentment in nominal friendships, and the heartless reactions and behaviours were entirely too credible for my comfort.  It was thought-provoking, disturbing in a good way, and occasionally quite funny.  Also, as one could expect from seeing Vince Forcier’s and Ainsley Hillyard’s names in the program, there was some very powerful expressive movement.  It was a good start to the Studio Theatre season that left me wondering what would come next.

Ronnie Burkett’s The Daisy Theatre

Ronnie Burkett’s The Daisy Theatre, playing at the Citadel’s Club cabaret-style space until November 17th, is a sort of revue show with marionettes.  The title is a tribute to a tradition of marionettes in occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII.

I’ve only seen one performance, but I’d love to see it again.  Apparently the performances vary quite a bit, with different puppet characters making an appearance, sometimes chosen spontaneously.  In the one I saw, there was an old-style English Colonel singing a music-hall song to piano accompaniment, a retired diva, and Edna Rural, a determined farm widow finally travelling after her husband’s death.  The puppeteer, Burkett, is completely visible above the puppet stage, but I was surprised at how easily I forgot he was there and just watched the puppets.  He also solicited some audience participation, which was fun.  There were lots of topical and local jokes about politics, theatre, and other Edmonton issues.

I would have described the overall mood of the performance I saw as affectionate and silly, but a friend who saw the same show was struck by recurring sadness, not just in the character Schnitzel (an odd non-human creature who bore some resemblance to the abused-child-in-the-circus narrator of Robertson Davies’ World of Wonder) but in the aging diva and other stories.  Yet others commented that the evening was more light-hearted than some of Burkett’s earlier works.

Tickets are available through the Citadel Box Office for shows until November 17th (a week today).  There’s also a Movember fundraising opportunity to have your picture taken with a character after performances.