Monthly Archives: December 2013

Long Day’s Journey a long time ago

Discussion of Long Day’s Journey into Night overheard in the audience before a different theatre performance the same month:

“It was long.  And depressing.”

“Yes.  It was supposed to be.  So you understood it.”

The Citadel production of Eugene O’Neill’s famous work that started their 2013-2014 season starred Tom Wood as the father, Brenda Bazinet as the mother, John Ullyatt and David Patrick Flemming as the sons, and Lisa Norton as the maid.

It was set in the 1920s, in the comfortable-looking New England summer home of a middle-aged theatre director, in one of those families where nobody talks about problems directly but circles around and around the unmentionable topics, changing the subject to some problem they’d rather talk about.  One of the unmentionable problems is the younger son’s health.  Eventually they need to admit that he has tuberculosis and needs to take a cure at a sanatorium, but even that relatively blunt declaration may have been slightly lost on a few young audience members because of course they used the word “consumption” rather than tuberculosis.   The mother has another unmentionable problem, which they are coy enough about that it took me a long time to figure out that it was a painkiller addiction rather than a drinking problem.

The play was well done, and in places so credibly intense that I found it difficult to sit through.  That is probably why I didn’t finish writing it up until now.

Pageant, down home style, second try.

Last year I didn’t manage to see Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever at the Varscona, because I left the ticket-buying too late and the only performance I could get to was sold out and I didn’t make it up to the top of the waitlist.

This year I got closer.  I actually saw the first half of the show before looking at the clock at intermission and realizing I’d mis-calculated the time of my later-evening commitment, so I wouldn’t be able to stay til the end.  So I’ve seen half of this show, and next year it is definitely going on my booking list earlier.

Like the Christmas Carol, I got the impression that many of the patrons at this show had seen the production in previous years and were anticipating the jokes, whereas my only familiarity was with the source material.  And I suddenly realised partway through the show that the fussy little girl Alice (Lindsey Walker), the one who gets ousted from her perennial pageant role as Mary by Imogene Herdman’s (Cheryl Jameson) and her brothers’ (Graham Mothersill, Corbin Kushneryk) threats, was missing the point complaining constantly about the way their story wasn’t sticking to the traditional telling of the Nativity, so I had better throw out the little list in my head of all the ways in which this adaptation deviated from the original Barbara Robinson novel since I was missing the point in the exact same way.

Fortunately, I had this realization, or generally got caught up in the show, early enough to be enjoying it.  There was a cast of only seven, including a piano player (Jeff Black), and a little bit of amusing double-casting.  That meant that not all the canonical Herdmans were on stage, just Ralf (“with an F”), Leroy, and Imogene. But it worked out fine.

In written fiction, I am always a little slow to recognize unreliable narrators or other quirks of a first-person point-of-view character.  In the stage version, then, I was surprised to find the narrator character Beth (Kayla Gorman) a bit of a caricature, with distinctive child-like can’t-stand-still and seeming to side with Alice’s disapproval of the Herdmans.  It wasn’t at all inconsistent with the source material; I was just caught by surprise.

Compared to the novel, then, Beth’s mother the pageant director has a bigger role.  Mrs. O’Brien is played with appealing earnestness, bewildered but coping, by Natalie Czar-Gummer.  She incorporates the audience in the story as kids showing up for auditions, and then has each section sing one of the carols as shepherds, wise men, or angels.

The adaptation was originally done by  a company in Newfoundland, with a few changes to the original story like the usual director having collided with a moose, and the church being Catholic.  The performers’ accents are credible and not overdone.  It felt like an affectionate tribute to a culture where lots of Edmonton residents have roots.

Note to self:  if this plays next Christmas, buy a ticket early and block off the whole evening.

Ukelelia, echolalia, wordplay

After picking up my Sunworks turkey at the Strathcona Market, I took in another Snow Globe Festival performance this afternoon, this time Brother Platypus & Sister SuKat Go To The Sea, by Spirot with Khiara Quigley, directed by Murray Utas.

It was poetic, funny, musical, allegorical, and kind of free-associational in a similar way to other Steve Pirot/Murray Utas work, but at the same time appropriate for young audiences.  There was a story with problem and resolution, but it was not entirely plot-driven.   So, it was pretty much what I expected but at the same time enjoyably surprising.

Both performers, Sydney Gross and Steve Pirot, were playing ukeleles and singing. I’ve seen Sydney Gross behind the lights/sound boards lots of times but I don’t think I’d ever seen her on stage, but in this role she was enchantingly childlike but not childish, easy to identify with.  There was a little bit of dance, a little bit of audience participation, and wordplay for both kids (that name rings a bell!  Literally, and every time!) and adults (random apposite quotation from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)  There was also fantastical Matt Schuurman background video.

I’m not going to be able to catch the third show in the Snow Globe Festival, but each of the three plays has one more performance tonight.  One suggestion for Promise Productions:  next year, it would be great if people could find your schedule with fewer clicks – your website has the 2012 schedule and your Facebook event requires a bit of scrolling-down.

“Just because I’m a legend, doesn’t mean I’m not real”

The Snow Globe Festival of Children’s Theatre is happening until Saturday evening at C103 (next to the Yardbird Suite in the parking lot of the Strathcona Market).  There are three plays, and some interstitial amusements between.  The schedule allows for school groups on weekdays, and performances for the general public in the evenings and Saturday afternoon.  Two of the plays in this year’s festival are new work, Boogie Monster Club by Ben Gorodetsky and Brother Platypus & Sister SuKat Go To The Sea by Spirot with Khiara Quigley.  The third is How to Eat Like a Child, the musical based on Delia Ephron’s book.

This evening I enjoyed a performance of Boogie Monster Club, directed by Andrew Ritchie (most recently AD on Bitches and Money 1878) and featuring Ben Gorodetsky, Lianna Makuch, and Todd Houseman, all familiar faces. The premise of this show is that kids from different cultures grow up with different nightmare-monsters, and that those monsters have emigrated to Canada or moved to Edmonton following the kids they want to frighten.  Each of the performers plays an Edmonton kid about ten years old (Vovo from Ukraine, Maggie from South Africa, and Dustin from Hobbema the small mostly-Cree town south of the city), and also plays a monster (Wendigo the malevolent Cree spirit, Baba Yaga the mortar-and-pestle-flying witch, and Tikoloshe, an evil spirit from Zulu mythology that likes to bite sleeping people’s toes).  As the monsters, they wore character masks and cloaks, with appropriate body language, voice, and credible accent.  And they were quite different.  The Wendigo still had power over the child of his culture, and was noticeably the scariest of the three, with big black eyes in a blank mask.  Tikoloshe was almost cute, low to the ground and wearing something that reminded me of a costume from Cats.  And Baba Yaga, of whom I had been quite frightened when I read illustrated stories about her as a child, was hilarious in her attempts to be scarier and her mispronunciations.  I can imagine that she would have had a roomfull of ten-year-olds rolling on the floor and repeating her funny lines and gestures all day or until the teacher made them stop the peeing-my-pants action.   But the part that had me guffawing more was when she stood at the child’s bedside musing about how to be scarier and he sat up and said “You can’t monologue in here – I need my nap!”

Interestingly, the play managed happy endings for both conflicting groups, the children who wanted to banish the nightmares and the monsters who wanted to be scary again.  There was a little bit of summing up the life lessons that struck me as too heavy-handed for my taste, but was probably appropriate for the intended elementary-school audience.   It was clever and fun and had a sweet relevant message.  Tix on the Square has tickets for all three shows, but the schedule for the rest of the festival is easiest to read on Facebook.

My first Nutcracker!

I’d never been to a performance of the Nutcracker before.  Actually, I don’t think I’d ever been to a full-length ballet, except once when I took my little sister and her friend to use some free tickets to a performance based on The Emperor’s New Clothes, many years ago, and all I remember about it was getting a parking ticket.  I do like modern dance and less traditional ballet and other forms of expressive movement performance.  I’ve seen Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and various student dance performances.  But this year I decided to include the Alberta Ballet Nutcracker in my pre-Christmas festivities.    My mother always used to play her LP of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on high rotation in the Christmas season, and I think maybe we once watched part of a performance on television, and our high school band sometimes played an arrangement of the highlights.   So I felt like I knew the story.

I went to a matinee.  I did not have any children with me and I was not wearing either sparkles or black.  So I felt a little bit out of place that way.  But the Jubilee Auditorium is a comfortable venue, with coat check (that you have to pay for), London bar service, and ballet-themed souvenirs for sale.   And I had a good seat, in the middle of the orchestra, without anyone wiggly sitting in front of me.   Before the show started, many of the audience members were peering over the edge of the orchestra pit, some of them making me nervous by sitting on the lip of the barricade.  I was also interested to see that many smaller audience members were using the same kind of plastic booster seats available at cinemas nowadays.

Someone from the Alberta Ballet made a speech beforehand, and then introduced a special guest who would be participating in the performance, Mayor Don Iveson.  His Worship then marched onto stage rigidly wearing a top hat, tails, and white gloves, to talk briefly about the city’s support of the arts and to promise us that he would not be dancing.

And then the performance started.  I found it a little bit harder to follow than I’d expected, because it turned out I didn’t actually remember the story as well as I thought, the plot summary in the program was white printed on uneven-dark and hard to read, and there wasn’t something in the program like a list of scenes or musical movements.  The first half of the show was more story-driven, with the big Christmas party, the gift of the Nutcracker, the fight between the Nutcracker and the Rat Tsar, and so on.  The second half was mostly just a series of dance pieces with interesting varied costumes and music, put on for the entertainment of Klara and Karl/Nutcracker-boy and Drosselmeier.   The first part was a lot more familiar to me, maybe because the story part was more interesting to me as a child and maybe because we listened more to the first side of the record, back when that was a thing.  I had completely forgotten that Klara was instrumental in the Rat King/Tsar’s defeat, though.  I thought it was interesting that in the program notes and the acting for this production, it was clear that Klara’s brother breaks the nutcracker unintentionally and feels bad about it, whereas the versions that had been stuck in my head since I was a small child with younger brothers had the breakage being at least somewhat intentional.  If I had not been paying attention to Mayor Iveson, I don’t think I would have noticed that one of the adult party guests in the background of the party scenes did not actually dance, because he looked completely at home mingling, bowing, and so on.  Maybe next year he will get to waltz or something.  While I was watching the first scene, set on a city street while the well-dressed guests were arriving for the party, warmly-lit stone houses and gold onion-domes on the backdrop, I suddenly thought, “Oh, this is the Moscow that Chekov’s eponymous three sisters were longing for!” And that is slightly anachronistic, but I still liked the idea of it. 

In the performance I saw, Klara was Akiko Ishii, Karl was Yukichi Hattori, the Sugar Plum Fairy was Nicole Caron, and her Cavalier was Kelley McKinlay.   From the program, it looks like most of the dancers were taking turns performing different parts in the different performances.  I didn’t know they would do that.

And that was my first Nutcracker.

Christmas stage traditions in Edmonton

Last year I saw and enjoyed the following Christmas-time shows which are playing again.   I’m providing links to my previous posts and to information about buying tickets.  I hope you have some live entertainment in your Christmas celebrations!

  • With Bells On – the funny and touching Darrin Hagen story about an awkward duo trapped in an elevator, playing at the Roxy until December 22
  • Velveteen Rabbit – Chris Craddock’s charming and clever version, at Fort Edmonton Park’s Capitol Theatre until the afternoon of December 24
  • Nutcracker Unhinged – Evening of entertainment at the Varscona Theatre with Stuart Lemoine play and other diversions – December 12 – 14 only

Already on my calendar for this month:

  • A Christmas Carol, the Tom Wood version – at the Citadel Theatre until Dec 23rd
  • Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever – December 19 to 22 at the Varscona Theatre
  • The Nutcracker Ballet – playing at the Jubilee Auditorium December 12-15 (this weekend)

Edmonton traditions I still haven’t participated in:

  • Snowglobe Festival of Children’s Theatre, December 17-21 at C103
  • Handel’s Messiah, especially a sing-along version (I keep forgetting to look for one until they’re done for the year)
  • Singing Christmas Tree, Jubilee Auditorium December 19-22
  • Candy Cane Lane

The picture at the top is credited to Brittney Le Blanc and licensed through Creative Commons

Proof, at the Walterdale

“She’s not my friend. She’s my sister.”

There are lots of good lines in David Auburn’s play Proof, currently playing at the Walterdale Theatre and directed by Kristen Finlay, but that was one of my favourites.  Two of the characters in the story are sisters, Catherine (Gabby Bernard) and Claire (Jessica Watson).  Catherine, the younger, had been living at home and taking care of her mentally ill father Robert until his death just before the play starts, and Claire is the successful stylish older sister who breezes in from New York City to manage things.  The tensions between them are understandable but not clichéd.

Robert (dale Wilson), seen in some flashback scenes and other devices, was a likeable character who reminded me of my own father.  He had been a mathematician and math professor.  The fourth character in the play is his protégé Hal (Jordan Ward, previously seen in The Full Monty and the Fringe show God on God).  Hal has been reading through the notebooks in Robert’s study looking for anything important or publishable that might have appeared among Robert’s graphomaniac gibberish.

All four actors portray their characters as interesting and complex.  One might assume that Claire, the conventional non-mathematician in the group, is going to be socially competent where the rest are awkward, but in the company of her sister and Hal she turns out to have her own brand of awkwardness and insensitivity, and Jessica Watson occasionally shows her as being wistful about being excluded.  Claire and her father, and then Claire and Hal, all share a kind of delight in literal thinking and wordplay-argument that is very familiar to me.  In a flashback scene, a younger Catherine tells Robert that she’s been accepted to Northwestern University and will be moving out soon to resume her studies.  He is resistant, flailing to make up various objections, but when his graduate student Hal shows up to drop off a thesis draft, Robert immediately begins bragging to Hal about Catherine’s good news and bright future, making sure that she overhears.  Another thing that impressed me about this scene was Jordan Ward’s different body language and voice as a 24-year-old student at his advisor’s home, compared to how we’d seen him in the previous scene, aged 28, talking to Catherine who is younger and without academic credentials.  As the student, he’s hunched over, hesitant, out of place, over-eager to agree with his advisor, but as the young instructor he’s got a veneer of superficial confidence and condescension.

Hal’s interactions with Catherine were fascinating and infuriating to watch throughout the play, because although they have shared interests and are attracted to each other, he reveals over and over the kinds of casually-sexist and educationally-elitist assumptions that are unfortunately not uncommon in young male academics.  For example, he asks her how old she is but responds indignantly when she asks him the same question.  He obviously thinks that her age is relevant and his isn’t, and that he is entitled to assess her credibility as a scholar.

I thought Gabby Bernard was very strong in her portrayal of the main character Catherine.  The character’s unguarded facial expressions were perfect, especially in the scene where she thinks she’s caught Hal stealing something but his backpack turns out to be empty, and in the scene where Hal tells Claire about finding some unpublished work in the study.  That scene, ending the first act, is the critical point of the play.  Catherine is standing outside of Hal’s field of view, and it’s clear that the other two characters are completely unaware of her, but the lighting designer’s choices and the actor’s stance and facial expressions of growing disbelief led me to focus on her.

As Robert, dale Wilson appears in only a few scenes.  But the scene in which he is convinced that he’s ready to resume productive mathematics after his previous bout of mental illness is heartbreaking.  He encourages Catherine to read out his draft notes and he nods with self-congratulation as she reads gently “The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September…”

The story of this play gave me lots to think about, not just about family relationships and about attitudes of men and women, but also about fields of discovery, about the fear of being too old to do good work, and about watching oneself for signs of instability. 

There are three more performances, tonight through Saturday night at the Walterdale Theatre.  Tickets are available at Tix on the Square and at the door.