Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sapientia, a disturbing tale of child martyrs and a fascinating portrayal with puppets

The author credited for this play was Roswitha of Gandersheim, a 10th century playwright, poet, and (according to the Canoe Festival program and Wikipedia) secular canoness.  A Wikipedia link explains that this referred to a woman who lived in a monastery but did not take religious vows, so it might have been a handy way for a woman of the aristocracy to pursue a single scholarly life.

This adaptation as object theatre was made by Joseph Shragge of Montreal.  Mia van Leeuwen of out of line theatre was credited with direction and design.  Object theatre is a sort of puppetry using found objects.  The four puppet performers were David Barnet, Kara Chamberlain, Nancy McAlear, and Brendan Nearey.  The objects were simple and ordinary (a kettle for the emperor, teacups of diminishing size for the three little girls, a mirror for the mother), but the small gestures of the puppeteers and their voices made it easy to picture the characters as the story unfolded.

The subject matter of the tale was a Christian woman and her three young daughters, defying the Roman emperor Hadrian to the extent of torture and martyrdom.  It was a classic martyr story, with the satisfying ending being death without surrender leading to frustration and loss of authority of the murderer.  I imagine that in the 10th century it might have been particularly radical to have the woman and her young daughters being strong and determined and logical, while the male emperor and his advisor/executioner appear ineffective, emotional, and flailing.   The stories of my 20th century childhood might have found beauty in sacrifice and justice in choosing the right belief, but the responses from my 21st-century heart as a parent and aunt and leader of young people are so strongly opposed to the idea of encouraging children to die for a belief or ideal that I couldn’t finish this blog post last night.  I can admire the courage and honour the choice of Aitzaz Hasan, the 15-year-old Pakistani who tackled a suicide bomber to save his classmates, but I feel really uncomfortable about the idea of a parent encouraging his or her children to choose a principle or belief over staying alive.   And I don’t think I’m the only modern person who feels this way, or we wouldn’t have discussions about whether Christian-Scientist or Jehovah’s-Witness parents should be prevented by a just society from refusing their children conventional life-saving medical treatments or whether small children are able to make those decisions themselves.  Anyway, it’s upsetting, but the play made me think, and I’m glad of that.

I’ve also been interested to notice how the genre of the storytelling, with the simple symbols representing the characters and their fates, allowed some graphic but elliptical imagery to address the horror of the tortures and deaths more closely than would have been bearable for a more conventional acting genre.  For example, the executioner broke a teacup, or crushed a ripe pomegranate, and the audience gasped in shock for the brutal murder of a child represented.   I won’t record any more of the details because I need to be able to sleep – but it was fascinatingly well-done.

Canoe Festival 2014 continues this week with showings of National Elevator Project Part 2 Tuesday through Sunday, and Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North with one performance Wednesday.   Twitter hashtag #canoe2014 and a series of guest bloggers posting at http://canoetheatrefest.tumblr.com continue the conversations about performances and performers, theatre and life.

Static Electric

I’d seen mention of Mile Zero Dance and Gerry Morita around the Edmonton entertainment scene for some time, but I’d never attended a performance before.  Having now seen Static Electric, the Mile Zero Dance piece at Canoe Festival, I’d definitely seek them out again.

The two dancers, Gerry Morita of Mile Zero and Farley Johansson of Science Friction and Coastal City Ballet in Vancouver, explore a cluttered living space full of lamps, televisions, recordings, transmissions, a piano being played by Viktoria Reiswich-Dapp, a jukebox, and other electric apparatus.  At first, the two characters seem completely unaware of each other, although they overlap in space to the extent of tumbling over and around each other on an easy chair and a carpet.  Later, they come to interact more consciously, but eye contact is fleeting.  Sometimes they have normal-sounding conversation and exchange reminiscences through family-band radio walkie-talkies.  There is also some dialogue in German and, I think, in Russian (though it might have been Ukrainian or another similar-sounding language).  Morita plays with a cassette recorder, speaking into it and then playing it back, and she also disassembles a cassette tape, constructing streamers on a fan and then becoming tangled in a mass of tape.  Lighting designer Patrick Ares-Pilon moves intentionally through the space towing and adjusting carts of electrical gadgets.

The program says that the performance is improvised.  It works fascinatingly well.  Morita and Johansson are both powerfully athletic and expressive artists who are thrilling to watch.   My favourite bits were the ones with “Volare”, “Riders on the Storm”, and hockey play-by-play as the soundtrack.  The last bit of the show sounded as if Johansson was dancing in a box of broken glass, and the sound effects were so disturbing I could hardly bear it.

Their last show is in about half an hour (Saturday afternoon) but there’s lots of other good stuff to see and hear and think about at Canoe Festival.

Testament

Friday night I described the two Canoe Festival performances that evening to a friend as “six naked people, and then Mary the mother of Jesus”.  My friend laughed.

But of course that superficial description didn’t do either of the plays justice.  Body 13 had interesting things to say about sexuality, ethnicity, assumptions, and failed connections.  And Testament was a powerful one-woman show about a determined woman preserving her self and her sanity while surrounded by tragedy, personal danger, and wishful thinking and revisionism.

The story is based on Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary, which I have not read yet but now I want to.  (I also left the theatre thinking “I want to read the book!” but I didn’t say that to anyone because I thought they might misunderstand.  I have actually read the, um, more primary source materials, just in English but in more than one translation.)   It was adapted for the stage by Guido Tondino, and this Théâtre Archéologique production is the world premiere.

The actor, Isabelle Rousseau, has a compelling controlled stillness and deliberation to her movements.  Whether she was narrating the story while sitting in a chair, or moving about the set of her house arrest / protection lighting candles while the story continued with her recorded voice playing, I focused mostly on the spoken words.  Interestingly, I found it more difficult to dismiss her or assume she was equivalent to the iconic Mary because the actor did not have long hair.  Her short haircut with bangs was one of the first reminders to hear the story fresh.

The viewpoint ascribed to her by the author and dramaturge is compelling and moving, completely consistent with the sparse written versions provided by the original unreliable narrators.   Referring to the disciples, Mary talks about “the enormity of their actions and the innocence of their belief”.  She also used a concise expression that I didn’t write down for their urge to shrink the story to a more consistent narrative of symbols – and I could see how her version wouldn’t fit with the conventional one.  For example, she tells the audience that she was not present for her son’s death and burial, because she had fled the hill fearing for her safety, and by the time that the play is set (maybe a few months later? years?) the accepted version is that she had been there for all of it.

In the play she alludes to the story of her pregnancy and the one of misplacing her son as a child, but mostly sticks to a few important scenes – the raising of Lazarus, the wedding at Cana, the arrest, the crucifixion, a vision afterwards.  Her stage business with the hammer while narrating the crucifixion was a powerful and disturbing underlining of the horror of the scene she is describing, although I may have been missing some explanation for the details of the symbolism as I was expecting her to do something more obvious (form a cross-shape, lie in the canonical posture herself, etc).

Testament has two more performances in the Canoe Festival, 9 pm on Saturday (today) and 7 pm on Sunday at C103.  Tickets are available from Workshop West or at the door.

Body 13 – “One moment you’re waiting, the next you’re 89”

Body 13 is the Canoe Festival offering from the company MT Space (Multicultural Theatre Space), of Kitchener, Ontario.   It was created by the ensemble and director Majdi Bou-Matar, and they started working on it about four years ago.

It’s an intriguing piece that kept shaking up my expectations, about what kind of story it was going to be, how the story was going to be told, and who the characters were.   The seven characters all spend time on a Canadian beach over the course of a cool-weather day, arriving as strangers but gradually interacting and making various connections.  The impression of shared public space is created early on, first in one vignette where all the performers are representing funeral attendees and then in a set of glimpses where the beach seems crowded with different odd solitary people each doing his or her own thing.  Later, the narrative focuses more on one or two people at a time, while one or two others might be still on another part of the stage.  And “doing her own thing” reminds me that one of my favourite characters in the story was Iman, played by Nada Humsi, a middle-aged woman refugee claimant from Syria.  Those phrases might evoke a picture for you, as they did for me, but I was delighted to have my assumptions shattered, as this character took off not only her headscarf (a kerchief like my mother used to wear on windy days) but her red lace brassiere, told funny stories, made fun of Canadian custom (“So we’ll talk of nothing.  Like Canadians”), and was outspoken and determined.  I was delighted by Humsi’s way of acting out her cat.

Jessalyn Broadfoot was Rae, Iman’s immigration officer, caught between her affection for Iman and her professional duty not to get involved.  Her expressions and body language showed a careful self-contained woman uncomfortable with personal disruptions on the quiet day off she’d been anticipating, and the occasional awkward moments of of a self-conscious white person dealing with neighbours of different cultures were endearing, such as her clumsy Namaste gesture at the Gujarati funeral.

While the narrative pacing of the play was fairly linear, it was often interrupted by movement and music.  Rae did a wonderful dance of helpless rage, accompanied by the composers and musicians (Nick Storring, Colin Fisher, Germaine Liu) as she thrashed her blue beach throw in defiance.  Tristan, a young man from Newfoundland, (Trevor Copp) confided that he had been subject to anxiety attacks since he was a boy at hockey camp, and this launched the two most powerful movement portions of the performance, the first an expression of Tristan’s response to a homophobic epithet on the beach, turning into his sense that he is surrounded by people picking at him, prodding him, and pointing at him while he cowers trying to get the lid off his medication.  Lighting changes and music add to the tension and anguish, and on my second viewing I found myself wincing in anticipation.  In a later part of the performance, Tristan’s anxious response first manifests in all the performers playing hockey, and a gradual shift into a set of physically intimate and blatantly-sexual encounters between and among various characters.

Assaf from Lebanon (Badih Abou Chakra), Rita from India (Pam Patel), Thomas a white Canadian (John Havens),  and Ato from Ghana (Tawiah Ben M’Carthy) turn out to be similarly intriguing characters, and not everyone turns out to be likeable.  Quirks of movement and expression – Assaf’s laugh and his wiping-a-tear gesture, Thomas’s slicking his hair back, Rita’s bearing of the chest containing her father’s ashes, Ato’s stylised jogging – helped to distinguish the individuals quickly.  The one who came to annoy me through the course of the story ended up alone, while the rest of them all found some resolution, as predicted by Ato’s early comment to Thomas trying to find a cufflink on the beach “You will find something, but you will not find what you look for.”  And then the rest of them all shed their clothes, ran behind a screen, and were seen and heard giggling and shrieking the way you do when you’re wading into cold water in the dark with your friends.

The musicians played a variety of instruments, also behind the screen, and I could not identify all of them.  Some of the lighting revealed that all the costuming was in hues of solid clear colours, each distinct.  Also, as an easily-distracted mechanical engineer, I was fascinated to observe the pattern formed when the chest of ashes (visually fine sand) was poured slowly onto a smooth surface.  In water that pattern is called “hydraulic jump“, and you can recreate it easily in a flat-bottomed sink like a stainless steel kitchen sink.  I don’t think the sand formation has the same explanation, but I don’t yet know what the explanation is.

Joel Crichton tweeted a challenge to count biblical references in the performance, and I actually didn’t notice any.  So I guess I lose the challenge, but as the character predicted, I found other things in the performance which I didn’t expect and which pleased me a lot.

Body 13 has one more performance at Canoe Festival, 1:30 Sunday at C103.  Tickets are available through Workshop West and at the door.

January speeds up

After the end-of-year break and an unrushed start to the theatre year, the calendar fills up starting this weekend.  In the meantime I’ve enjoyed watching some improv with Rapid Fire Theatre (Fridays and Saturdays at Ziedler Hall) and with Die-Nasty (Monday nights at the Varscona).

Watch this space for more about Canoe Festival:

  •  Body 13, by MT Space from Kitchener
  • Static Electric, by Mile High Dance
  • Sapientia, by out of line theatre
  • Testament, by Théâtre Archéologique
  • and some of the National Elevator Project (Theatre YES)

Also I’ll have some thoughts on Clybourne Park at the Citadel (previews start Saturday), Closer (opens Wednesday), die Fledermaus (opens next Friday), and the Josh Ritter concert next Friday in St. Albert.

And then we get into February, where there’s so much going on that  have some hard decisions of what I most want to see, and I’ll be getting into rehearsals for the Walterdale Theatre show that I’ll be helping out as ASM.  I guess I should probably do my laundry and my dishes and get some rest now!

Silence is powerful

Punctuate! Theatre‘s The Silence Project is an original work of theatre that takes place in almost complete silence.   There was no music before the show started, just the hushed talk of patrons getting seated in the darkened room of the TACOS space.  After a prologue with several characters chattering over top of each other and one playing a singing bowl, there were no sounds at all other than the unavoidable sounds of breathing and movement.  This made me very aware of those incidental sounds.

The five performers and creators, Julie Ferguson, Elizabeth Hobbs, Elliott James, Andréa Jorawsky, and Sheiny Satanove, combined to portray about twelve distinct characters.  The main character was wearing a silver mask with some peripheral decoration which made me think of an alien.  The others appeared with various stylized costume elements (an apron, a raggedy overcoat, a cleanroom suit, a sparkly bra) and props (a hipflask, a twinkly ball, a pocketwatch) allowing them to be distinguished.  There was also some effective use of lengths of shiny fabric to hide faces or turn bodies into non-human shapes.  It was the kind of setup which I would have classified as a modern dance piece if there had been background music … but there wasn’t.  Instead there was the rhythm of breath, and heightened awareness of the main character’s anxious and uncertain body language.

Like a modern dance piece, I started by just enjoying the shapes and wondering what I was missing, but gradually I was able to tell myself a consistent enough story that I felt as if I understood.  The repetition and patterns of encounters helped in this.  The confused isolated traveller is first unable to communicate with each of the strangers she encounters, although they all try to connect with her.  (I say “she” and “her” because the performer appeared to be female, but the character did not seem to be strongly gendered.) After the traveller receives a gift enabling her to share a language of gesture with each stranger, she encounters each of them again, learns from each of them, and communicates using the collection of gestures acquired, moving towards a climax involving the triumph of community over despair or death.

The program notes say

We follow our main character, a traveler, as she enters into a dream world in order to escape the isolation of her everyday life.  Through the use of a dream mask, she enters the world of her imagination.  On her journey she encounters a myriad of characters that represent psyche, her hopes and fears.  What will the outcome of this expedition be?  Will our traveler be able to recognize herself in each character and connect honestly in order [to] return as a whole being to her world of reality?

So I was close.

Since attending this performance, I’ve been interested to see some of its techniques echoed in my Rapid Fire Theatre improvisational theatre workshop, where we worked on the skills needed to create an environment without props, miming objects and maintaining consistency with the definitions created by our fellow players.  Similarly, in my Foote Theatre School acting class this week we produced some tableaux, moments frozen in time that could tell a story to our classmates from our facial expressions, body position, and interactions.  Both classroom experiences made me aware of how effectively the performers and show creators of The Silence Project had communicated their emotions and narrative to the audience, without dialogue, scenery, musical background, or sound effects to help them.  It worked.

One measure of how well it worked was that during the performance, I kept forgetting that the silver-faced character was wearing a neutral-expression mask, and thinking I’d seen changing expressions on a painted face.  But it was a mask, supported by very expressive eyes, head position, shoulder movement, and convincing story.  It really worked.

Edmonton Theatre 2013 – what I remember

I saw 104 theatre performances this year, counting repeats but not counting improv shows I volunteered at (about 43 of them I think).  Most of them were in Edmonton (although I also travelled to Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Red Deer, and Ryley and saw shows in all those places).  And that wasn’t even half of the available theatre here.

The best shows I saw in 2013 were Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, at Workshop West in September, and Collin Doyle’s Let the Light of Day Shine Through, directed by Bradley Moss at Theatre Network in the spring.   Honourable mentions would start with The Kite Runner at the Citadel.

The best student shows I saw in 2013 were The Missionary Position, the show written for the University of Alberta graduating BFA class by playwright-in-residence Greg MacArthur, Charles Mee’s Summertime done by Theatre Performance and Creation students at Red Deer College, and the Abbedam (University of Alberta student-led company) production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.

The best musicals I saw locally were The Full Monty (Two One Way Tickets to Broadway) and Ride the Cyclone (Citadel).  I also enjoyed the Broadway touring production Book of Mormon in Toronto.

As for Fringe choices … I’m looking at my lists again and I loved so much of what I saw.  Grim & Fischer Rocket Sugar FactoryRiderGirl.  Dykeopolis.  Nashville Hurricane.  ScratchRent. 

My personal theatre accomplishments in 2013

  • kept studying improv with Rapid Fire Theatre
  • started studying acting at Foote Theatre School
  • competed at the Blue Chair Cafe’s Story Slam
  • served a lot of drinks and red licorice
  • stage managed a Fringe show
  • joined Theatre Alberta and started borrowing books from their amazing library
  • joined Walterdale Theatre Associates
  • was inspired by a lot of performers, directors, playwrights, arts administrators, reviewers, production crews, designers, teachers, and bigger fans than I am.

Finster Finds’ 2013 theatre retrospective is here.  I didn’t peek until after I wrote mine – it’s interesting to see where our favourites overlap, and it’s also amazing to me that there were so many good shows that she saw and I didn’t manage to get to.

What were your favourites this year?