Monthly Archives: February 2014

A dream within a dream: Nevermore

The Westbury Theatre was sold out.  The Arts Barns lobby was filled with a queue folding back on itself like a pack of ramen noodles.  Lots of familiar faces from the Edmonton theatre scene and lots of twitter buzz reinforced what I’d heard: the opening night of the new Catalyst Theatre production of Jonathan Christenson’s Nevermore was a big deal.

Nevermore recounts the life story of Edgar Allan Poe, the American nineteenth-century writer of the creepy and suspenseful.  Compared to The Soul Collector,  a Christenson / Catalyst production I saw last spring, the narrative of Nevermore is direct and almost completely linear.  But it’s still a supremely weird show, set in a world where nothing is normal.  (Nothing is right-angled either!)  It was also interesting to view this show recalling Emily Winter’s portrayal of Poe in last summer’s Fringe hit Poe and Mathews.

Most of the story is told by one of the narrators speaking directly to the audience in rhyme, while the characters in that part of the story interact physically and sing together.  This works better than you might expect, conveying a literary and distanced mood but showing the affection and awkwardness among the flawed individual characters.

Scott Shpeley plays Edgar, from about age 8 to his death at 40.  He does the whole show in the same odd black and white costume and makeup, but his motions and postures show obvious changes from child to adolescent and young man to older man.   His appealing clear tenor voice works well for the character at all ages.   As a child, he frequently looked small, fearful, and pitiable, trembling all over.  In one of the glimpses of happiness, when he falls in love with his young cousin (Beth Graham), his face is illuminated by joy.  And in one of the moments of anguish he lifts a tear-streaked face to the audience.

The other six actors in the ensemble play several parts each, with various additions to hair or costume.  Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin are Edgar’s ill-fated parents (with the portrayal of his moody actress mother being especially poignant), and Gaelan Beatty and Beth Graham his siblings.  Ryan Parker’s characters include a Paul-Lynde-ish portrayal of the biographer Rufus Griswold.  Shannon Blanchet was Elvira Royster, a character seen as a teenager and again as a widow.  One of the best portrayals was Beth Graham as Fanny Allan, Edgar’s foster mother, trying to win over the orphaned boy despite her surly merchant husband (Garett Ross) and struggling with despair.

The visual designs for this production were fascinating and spare, consistent with what I understand of the Catalyst Theatre aesthetic.  Bretta Gerecke is credited as scenographer and resident designer for the company.  I was intrigued and then captivated.  All the costumes are black and white, twisted impressions of nineteenth century dress.  Black boots are made noticeable with white accents.  Rigid wires hint at hoop skirts and frock coats.  Harsh monochrome lights turn costume elements reddish or bluish.  Hats and hairdos are odd and extreme, from punkish spikes to one of the women’s updos looking very much like a stalk of Brussels sprouts.   Human and non-human characters with long mis-shapen claw-hands reminded me of similar imagery in The Soul Collector.   I loved the rhomboid oversized notebooks and asymmetric undersized trunks.   Many characters adopted odd hand and body positions like twisted sculptures.

Nevermore is playing at the Westbury Theatre until the afternoon of Sunday March 2nd.  If you like going to weird theatre, unconventional musicals, or shows that everyone in Edmonton will be referring to for years, then you should make time in your schedule for this.  You can get tickets at Tix on the Square.  There are also some $10 youth tickets available at the door for each performance.

“Did someone see me today?” the real question in A Craigslist Cantata

The show playing at the Citadel Theatre’s Club space until February 23rd is actually called Do You Want What I Have Got?: A Craigslist Cantata.  Two things attracted me to this show initially.  I’m fascinated by portrayals of internet culture, particularly affectionate perceptive ones, and I’ve always liked Bill Richardson’s writing on CBC Radio.  The writers credited on this show are Veda Hille, Bill Richardson, and Amiel Gladstone.  A third incentive was that I acquired a pair of tickets as part of an auction win at the Rapid Fire Theatre fundraising Date Night auction.

There were six performers on stage.  Barry Mirochnick was mostly playing the drums, and Marguerite Witvoet was mostly playing the piano, but everybody sang and most of the other performers (Qasim Khan, Selina Martin, Josh Epstein, and Bree Greig) played an instrument at some point too.

Basically, the show was a set of monologues and songs which were all sourced in quirky ads on Craiglist, the big classified-ads website – stuff for sale, stuff to give away, looking for stuff to buy, roommates wanted, dating ads.  The Craigslist category of “missed connections” is one of the most fun parts to read on the actual website, with people taking a second chance at trying to talk to strangers they didn’t manage to talk to the first time, and the show recreates lots of those odd attempts – the mugger who “really felt a connection” with his victim, the woman whose bus-riding companion “smelled really really really good”, and the man who was attracted when “you dropped your Bible and I saw your thong”.    One of the stronger musical and thematic pieces was the song where they take turns singing “I was the one who..” “You were the one who …” as in many Missed Connections stories.

It would be easy for a show like this to stay a set of disconnected skits/songs, but several themes or through-lines keep it tied together just enough.  There’s a reader who corrects the posters’ common writing mistakes.  There are a few re-appearing characters and melodic recurrences, and some interesting segues – the woman wanting to convince her husband his long-lived pet dove has died, then a comment on Noah sending out a dove from the ark, then a reference to Noah’s covenant and “our covenant with Craig”.

My favourite bits included “Looking for a metal head roommate for a metal house” and the song listing all seventeen varieties of penguins in alphabetical order.  The title song “Do you want what I have got” was rhythmically interesting because it seemed to be using the same device I remember from the Devo punk track “Are we not men? We are Devo” where the same syllables are switched from stressed to unstressed beats.  Is there a name for that?

The characters almost never interact with each other during the songs and narratives.  I didn’t get a sense about any of the ads ever getting answered.  And that’s consistent with the experience of reading Craigslist on line, because it’s set up with all the responses being private rather than having the option of starting discussion threads that others can see.  Without seeing any happy endings or contacts made, the one-sided stories told in the show come out feeling lonely, unsuccessful, and isolated.  The more significant question asked by the characters is not so much “Do you want what I have got?” but the other repeated question of the show “Did you see me today?”, as the characters are all seeking to find connection and acknowledgement.   While I found this aesthetically coherent and satisfying, I tend to feel protective when I feel like people are making facile criticism of internet life as inherently isolating.  Just reading the ads, or watching their staged versions, without getting to see the other sides of the story and the connections found, can easily give misleading impressions.   I know I’m probably preaching to the converted here, because most of my readers either come across my blog posts because I mention them on Facebook or tag them on twitter or because someone retweets or posts a link.  But in case you don’t already know this, not all Craigslist posts are unsuccessful, not all Craigslist posters are lonely losers, and not everyone on the internet has no in-person social life.  Not even close.

The Club space worked really well for this minimally-staged intimate musical presentation.  The acoustics are good, and the small audience is close.  The performers did not drop out of character before or after the performance to speak directly to the audience.  I don’t know why that surprised me – maybe because it felt like something partly between a concert and a theatrical presentation.   Tickets for shows through next Sunday afternoon are available through the Citadel box office.

 

Brontë Burlesque, revisited

Earlier this month I saw the final show of A Brontë Burlesque, the Send in the Girls show that played at the Roxy Theatre.  I remembered seeing a version at Fringe 2012, in a basement space south of Whyte Avenue, but the bigger stage and better-designed auditorium improved the viewing experience a lot.  The show was directed by Lana Michelle Hughes.  Ellen Chorley and Delia Barnett were returning to the show as producers and performers (playing Emily and Anne Brontë), and the other two performers were new to the show, Chris W Cook as Branwell Brontë and Samantha Duff as Charlotte Brontë the eldest surviving sibling.

The scenes jump around in time, but are announced by the year “It is 1848” or whatever, and I soon got perspective on those dates by comparing them with the death dates of the various characters.  And, well, they all die.  But they don’t disappear from the stage – the scenes of the latest-surviving character have the spirits of the others clustered around the deathbed.

The interplay of the various combinations of characters was fascinating.  (I have several siblings myself, so I recognised some of this, but I hope my manipulations were more benign.  And we haven’t run about in our underwear since we were small children playing superheroes, either.)   The characters became distinct for me very quickly.

The conventions of burlesque allowed the costume designer (Tessa Stamp) to show us several layers of approximately-period clothing along with coloured draping used as props for the dancers.  The dance piece where the three sisters put on men’s dress shirts and ties to portray their literary noms de plume was particularly well done.  Each of the performers had a solo dance at some point during the show, and the choreography provided for character reveal as well as artistic allure.  The new performer for Branwell, Chris W. Cook, danced his solo with good audience rapport and apparent enjoyment, so it was a little disappointing to me that he didn’t disrobe further than slipping off his tie, dress shirt, and braces, when the female dancers had gone farther.

I can’t remember the previous production well enough to say for sure what is different.  The set detail of a portrait with faces that fade in and out (a Matt Schuurman video design detail of course) was in the previous production but it was done better this time.

As several of the characters in the story died of tuberculosis or related lung problems, the stage convention of a bloody handkerchief was used more than once.  I do not know whether people in previous eras ever coughed blood and didn’t die, because on stage and screen that convention always means Anyone seeing this now knows this person is about to die.   And I saw this device again the other night in Nevermore.

Love’s Labours Lost, at the Studio Theatre

One thing all the U of Alberta Studio Theatre series productions have in common is interesting set and costume design with satisfying attention to detail.  Earlier this season I enjoyed the stark spareness setting the mood for pool (no water), and then the period costumes of Pains of Youth and Bloody Poetry.

The designs for Love’s Labours Lost were playful and full of joy, with bright colours and silliness conveying the frivolous not-quite-real background for this comedy, set by the text in the Kingdom of Navarre.  Apparently there was a real place by this name, located on the French border of Spain.   Visitors to the kingdom included a “fantastical” Spaniard, Don Armando (Oscar Derkx), with exaggerated and very funny Hispano-Quixotic gestures and accent,  and the daughter of the King of France (Mariann Kirby) and some members of her court (Merran Carr-Wiggin, Zoe Glassman, Cristina Patalastc, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Sarah Ormandy).   Georgia Irwin plays the clown Costard with a consistent Scottish burr, for no explainable reason other than to make her character distinct from the local noblemen – but it’s funny.

The premise of the main plot is that the young King of France (Adam Klassen) convinces his male courtiers to join him for three years of studying, following a near-monastic rule with restrictions on food and sleep and a proscription on contact with women.  Berowne (Neil Kuefler) is particularly reluctant to sign on to this plan, although he eventually agrees along with the characters played by Kristian Stec and Graham Mothersill.  But almost immediately after they agree, they find out that the Princess of France and her attendants are on their way for a visit.  So they decide to keep the letter of the agreement by meeting the visitors in a park rather than in the palace.   And of course as soon as they meet, the men of Navarre are immediately struck with admiration for the women of France, conveniently aligned in non-conflicting pairs.

Meanwhile, bits of broader comedy (i.e. wacky hijinks) keep intervening, with the random cocky Spaniard and his saxophone-playing page (Andrea Rankin),  a country girl (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), the aforementioned clown Costard carrying messages and mixing them up, a constable (Brandon Nearey), a schoolmaster (Merran Carr-Wiggin), and a curate (Mark Vetsch).

The play runs almost two and a half hours (not counting the intermission) but I found that the time just flew by.

The story suits modern sensibilities and recent trends in popular culture by showing the Princess as competent with an air of authority, speaking mostly in prose, and in one scene hunting a deer with a bow and arrows.  I was most intrigued by the characters of the Princess and of Berowne, the courtier most willing to dispute with the King and then to declare his affection to Rosaline.  Berowne is also a leader in some affectionate trash-talking competition.

Love’s Labours Lost is directed by Kevin Sutley.  It is playing at the Timms Centre until Saturday, including a 2-for-1 ticket deal Monday (tomorrow).   If you click here on the Department of Drama website within the next few weeks, you can see a gallery of photos from the production showing the colourful costumes (the academic gowns and hoods are University of Alberta doctoral/faculty style).   And I’ll also offer you one more related link to click, the indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to help the young performers of this BFA Acting class take a modest audition tour together after they graduate in the spring.

Escher-esque set for Three Musketeers

All for one and one for all, with Red Deer College Three Musketeers

The Red Deer College theatre program’s current production is The Three Musketeers, the 2006 Ken Ludwig adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel, first published as a newspaper serial in 1844.

I did not attempt to read the original, as I could not get through Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo after I saw a Stratford (Ontario) Festival production about ten years ago.  So my pre-show preparation was limited to reading Wikipedia, looking at the Red Deer College Performing Arts website, and looking at a video clip from this production posted in a newspaper preview.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the adaptation, and this production directed by Thomas Usher, managed to create for modern audiences a fast-paced, episodic, wish-fulfilling adventure which was probably true to the impression left on contemporary readers of the serial.   D’Artagnan, the young man from the country who travels to Paris with the goal of becoming a Musketeer like his father before him, was played with well-meaning earnestness by Tyler Johnson, like most of the cast a graduating student in Theatre Performance and Creation.   My favourite character in the story was an addition for the modern adaptation, D’Artagnan’s younger sister Sabine (Brittany Martyshuk).   D’Artagnan’s parents ask him to take his sister to Paris and enroll her in a convent school, but it turns out that she actually wants to seek her fortune as a swordfighter and maybe fall in love with a Musketeer.   I found her character both charming and credible.

The three musketeers of the title, whom D’Artagnan is challenged by and then befriended by, are Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  (The “h”s are silent because they are French – I didn’t know that before.)  Athos is the more serious musketeer whose sad personal backstory comes out later, and he is portrayed by Chase Cownden, a particularly impressive stage fencer.  Porthos (Bret Jacobs) is interested in fashion, and a scene in which he is showing off a new cloak leads to a fight scene with some impressive use of a length of cloth to tangle an opponent.  Aramis (Wayne DeAtley) aspires to religious life, and is the target of Sabine’s crush.

The musketeers’ archenemy is Cardinal Richelieu (Richard Leurer), remote and devious and a little slimy.  Richelieu’s collaborators and allies include Milady (Megan Einarson) and Rochefort (Victoria Day).   Other characters include the King and Queen of France (JP Lord and Taylor Pfeiffer), and Constance the queen’s lady-in-waiting and love-interest for D’Artagnan (Constance Isaacs).  Daniel Vasquez, a recent graduate of the RDC Theatre Performance program, plays Treville the head of the musketeers, Buckingham the Queen’s lover, and a few other minor parts.  Most of the other actors are multiply-cast as well, with some quick costume changes.

The set for the show was strongly reminiscent of the Escher print Relativity, and the similarity was underlined by pieces of staircase and balcony suspended in the air at odd angles. The actual stage was full of entrances and exits, balconies and crossing staircases, and they all got used, with almost no prop movement between scenes.  This helped underline the impressions of fast-paced action with complications and conspiracies.

There was, of course, a lot of stage combat, not just swordfighting but unarmed fighting, knifework, and other tools used as weapons.  At one point, all twelve cast members are engaged in a skirmish all over the stage between musketeers and Richelieu’s guards, with so much going on that it was hard for the audience to keep track of and easy to buy into the illusion of it being a real fight.

One of the things I liked best about this production was the women’s parts and the scope for female actors.  They weren’t just cast as men for fight scenes; the script included three fighters explicitly identified as female, who seemed like distinct interesting characters – Sabine, the young girl who grew up learning fighting with her older brother, Milady, with a dagger in her boot and a secret in her past, whose manipulative sexuality was reminiscent of the courtesan Einarson played in the troupe’s production of Comedy of Errors last year, and the guard captain Rochefort, in eyepatch and scar. Milady is a character in Dumas’ original story, and so is a male version of Rochefort.  I couldn’t tell whether Rochefort had been changed from male to female by the 2006 playwright or by the director of this production, but it didn’t matter and it worked well enough for me to enjoy it.

The production even passed the “Bechdel test” – the criterion expressed by a character in an early edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that she only reads/watches fiction in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man.   I can’t remember what the conversation was about in the second convent scene, when Constance is taking sanctuary and Milady is looking for her, but the scene at the convent school where Sabine has been enrolled definitely passes.

I’m not sure that everything shown on the stage was necessary to the plot – but it was fun and the pace was good and I didn’t mind.  The tavern singing and the masked-ball dancing were fun to watch.   The random musket battle with Huguenots confused me a bit more, because I was wondering whether there was a point to it other than giving Porthos a chance to make some funny comments about religion.

The costuming used a limited but rich palette of colours, allowing the audience to distinguish between the heroes in brown, burgundy, and gold, with Porthos having more dramatic choices, the household of royalty in purple, and the enemies in black and red.  I also noticed red hues in the lighting for Milady’s and Richelieu’s scenes.  And I loved the peacock dress Sabine wore to the masked ball.  There were lots of scruffy whiskers in evidence, with Richelieu’s waxed mustache and groomed-squirrel-tail goatee in sharp contrast.

In the show I saw early in the run, there were a few situations of stilted speech, but for the most part the actors spoke clearly, convincingly, and in character, and they made me care about what happened to the characters.   And the last line made me cry.

Three Musketeers plays Wednesday through Saturday of this week at the Red Deer College mainstage.  Advance tickets are available on line and by phone from the usual outlet.

Clybourne Park: optimal discomfort

Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, is a story – or two stories – about racial shifts in neighbourhoods in Chicago.  The concept of this play has two interesting notes.  One is that the two acts are set in the same house in 1959 and in 2009.  The other is that it’s intended to connect with the 1957 play Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry.

I haven’t watched or read the play Raisin in the Sun, but the movie of the same name, with Sidney Poitier, is conveniently available on iTunes.   That story focuses on an African American family, living together in a small apartment, who use some life-insurance money to buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood.  In one scene, a delegate of a neighbourhood association attempts to buy the house back from them, using the 1959 version of trying to justify the segregated neighbourhood while claiming that they aren’t acting out of race prejudice.  My impression from the movie was that while it was a fascinating portrayal of the lives and limitations of African American people in a northern city in that era, the conflict with the new neighbours was not the main focus of the story.

The first act of Clybourne Park is set the same day as that visit, in the house that the white family has just sold.  And similar to the source material, the fact that the buyers are non-white does not come up until late in the first act and is not even very important to the couple who are selling, Russ and Bev (Doug Mertz and Kerry Sandomirsky).   Their bigger troubles are revealed gradually, as friends and neighbours (Cole Humeny as Jim in clerical collar and hernia truss, Martin Happer and Tracey Power as Karl and Betsy) drop in and awkwardly express concern, and their household help Francine (Sereana Malani) finishes her work for the day and is collected by her husband Albert (Michael Blake) who gets roped in to carry a trunk.   Because the audience is aware that the play focuses on race issues, the details of how the white people treat Francine and Albert are immediately uncomfortable.  A poignant telling example is the way that after Bev makes a little speech about how she and Francine are such close friends, she’d be glad to have Francine and Albert and their two lovely children as neighbours – but the audience already knows that Francine has three children.

However, there are lots of other details about 1959 life and customs that were equally jarring to me.  Tracey Power’s character is Deaf, and the 21st-century audience was frequently gasping about how her friends talked about her and treated her.  And in the initial conversation between Russ and Bev, a long-married couple, there was an accepted dynamic of the husband being the expert and the wife being unaware of geography, politics, or other significant facts – and I never did make up my mind how much of that was put on, Bev kind of choosing to play that role to support her husband.

The story explains why they want to sell the house, and why they’ve been relieved to find a buyer.  We don’t actually meet the buyers, but the first act ends with us feeling glad that Russ and Bev will be able to move on.

While the curtain was down for intermission, the house was aging 50 years and the set underwent an astonishing transformation.  I loved looking at both sets – the fussy details of the well-cared for 1959 living-room covered with moving boxes, and then the graffiti and broken banisters of the living room of the abandoned house in 2009.   The situation of the second act was that a young white couple (Happer and Sandomirsky) are buying the house with plans to fix it up and expand it.  They, their real estate agent (Power), and a lawyer (Humeny) meet with delegates from the current neighbourhood association (Malani and Blake) who have some concerns about the proposed renovations.   But the conversation soon reveals the 2009 versions of condescensions and flawed assumptions, men talking over women and white people patronizing black people, and also the 2009 version of reluctance to talk directly about racial issues – which then descends painfully into some telling jokes full of horrible stereotypes, as the audience winces while anticipating punchlines and then laughs out of sheer awfulness.  Eventually we learn that the real estate agent is the daughter of Karl and Betsy from the first act, and that Malani’s character is the niece (or some kind of relative?) of the first African American woman to own the house in 1959 (she’s not in this play, but in Raisin in the Sun that would be the grandmother Lena who uses her husband’s life-insurance money).  So we see that a circle has been turned, and we also see the similarities between attitudes in the two eras despite surface differences.

There is a short coda with Evan Hall filling in a hinted-at piece of the 1959 story, and then we went home with a lot to think about.   It made me uncomfortable, but it didn’t make me too uncomfortable.  And I liked it that it wasn’t a bigger story – that a lot of it was just about people getting by, with the big family issues and the bigger social issues in the background.  I identified easily with almost everyone in the second act, but the character I liked best was Bev (Sandomirsky) in the first act.

Clybourne Park is playing at the Citadel until February 16th.

Die Fledermaus – a very fun opera!

The Edmonton Opera is currently performing Die Fledermaus, the light comedy written by Johann Strauss Jr.  The music is very waltzy with catchy almost-familiar tunes, as you might expect.  The story is silly, the characters are clever, funny, and not too complex, and the sets and costumes are delightful.  In this production, all the singing and spoken dialogue is in English.  The song lyrics are displayed on the supertitles the same way they are for operas in other languages.  All of this makes it a very accessible opera experience.

I was fortunate to be offered a chance to attend a dress rehearsal with members of the media and with a lot of school children.   The children sitting near me seemed to love it, laughing at the physical comedy, cheering at the curtain call, and even making “rock on” signs with their fingers.  There was a lot of snickering when one character sang that she hoped the party would be gay.

The part that had me slapping my thighs and laughing til I had to take my glasses off, though, was something that probably went over the heads of some of the younger attendees at least in part.  See, apparently there’s a tradition that one particular monologue gets enhanced for local audiences from the Strauss book.    In this production, it was written by local playwright Stewart Lemoine, and if I hadn’t known that ahead of time from the press release I think I would have guessed.  It was exactly the same kind of topical humour that makes me laugh at the Varscona Theatre, and I had to fumble with my media package in the dark to see who was performing because it seemed so much like Jeff Haslam lines.  (It wasn’t Jeff Haslam; it was Julien Arnold, another local actor.)

The story is full of complications and cheerful deceits.  It has all the elements of a successful farce – a chambermaid with social and theatrical aspirations (Jacqueline Woodley, whom I saw as Miliça in Svadba last year), a marriage with both partners restless (Gordon Gietz and Betty Waynne Allison), an incompetent lawyer (Aaron Ferguson), a bed to hide under, and lots of doorways to pop in and out of.  It also has lots of music, about equally mixed between catchy singable waltz rhythms and what I think of as classic opera solos without significant rhythm, rhyme, or repetition.  The plot is full of broad dramatic irony and sarcasm.  Count Orlofsky (Gerald Thompson) was a counter-tenor with an astonishing vocal range and spot-on comic timing.

There are two more performances, Tuesday and Thursday evenings this week.  Tickets are available on line, and parking at the Jubilee Auditorium garage is free.

Scene from first act of Die Fledermaus

Scene from first act of Die Fledermaus

Die Fledermaus curtain call

Die Fledermaus curtain call

Choris members stroll towards the stage at intermission before party scene.

Choris members stroll towards the stage at intermission before party scene.