Monthly Archives: March 2014

Flowers and thorns – the tragedy of Blood Wedding

Federico Garcia Lorca’s compelling tale of dark passions, Blood Wedding, is playing at the U of Alberta Studio Theatre.  The director is Kathleen Weiss and the cast is the 2014 BFA Acting class, in their final large-cast show together.

As in all shows in the Studio Theatre series, the costumes, sets, lighting, and music combine to create a coherent world, in this case a parched and dangerous one.   Before the show starts, we see a few chairs painted with appealing folkloric motifs and a tumble of fancy linens on a table, along with a few set pieces and drapes to create the impression of a harsh landscape against a bloody sun.

The staging starts with a woman in black (Mariann Kirby as Mother) beginning to fold the linens, as a chorus of younger women mimes some physical task while sitting downstage and a chorus of men (Neil Kuefler, Adam Klassen, Oscar Derkx) tumbles, fights, and works with scythes in the background.  When her son (Kristian Stec as Groom) comes to tell his mother that he is heading to the vineyard, we begin to learn of her preoccupations, especially about knives, weapons, and her dead husband and elder son.  When her son tells her he wishes to marry, she is reluctant.  I couldn’t tell whether she already knew who her son was courting and had reservations about that specific young woman’s history and family, or whether her reluctance was all about the prospect of being abandoned.  When she questions him about “your fiancée”, I couldn’t tell whether she wasn’t naming the young woman just because that was the author’s style choice to make them more archetypal, or whether she was pretending not to know her or actually didn’t know who she was.  Eventually Mother gives in and says that she’ll participate in the customs of taking gifts to the bride’s family.   We also learn in that scene that the Bride was previously engaged to Leonardo, who is part of a family that the Mother holds a grudge against, probably due to whatever bloodshed led to her family’s deaths.

Everything is elliptical and not-quite-explained.  The story only makes as much sense as it does because of Zoe Glassman’s character Neighbour, a chatty woman friendly with all the families.  When Mother and Groom arrive at Bride’s family home, we meet the Maid (Cristina Patalas), the bride’s Father (Graham Mothersill), and then the Bride (Merran Carr-Wiggin).   Throughout the story, the Bride seems ambivalent about the Groom and the wedding, fond of him but sometimes flinching from his touch or from more direct mentions of affection to come.  The parents of the young people, both scarred from sad pasts and cautious of each other, gradually come to be allies, talking about prospects for land purchases and cultivation and their wishes for grandchildren.  The Maid ramps up the erotic intensity of the preparations a bit while she helps the Bride dress and do her hair.  And then we see all the characters swept up in wedding celebrations, dancing and singing and playing music.   Several times I was reminded of Svadba, last year’s opera production about a group of friends preparing a young woman for her wedding.

The third family in the story is seen earlier on, first in a sweet domestic scene where a young mother (Andrea Rankin) and her own mother (Georgia Irwin) sing to a baby, and then the baby’s father (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) appears equally devoted to his son.   At some point in there, someone calls Dowler-Coltman’s character Leonardo, so that part begins to fit together.  Leonardo is the former fiancé of Bride, the one who then married Bride’s cousin, and he’s also part of the family who was involved in Groom’s father and brother’s deaths.  The young mother seems worried about her husband taking off on his horse all the time and maybe lying about it.  She doesn’t like the idea of him going to the wedding – especially going on his horse by himself although he protests that he’s not the kind of man to ride passively in a carriage.

The whirling dancing, increasingly frenetic Spanish-guitar-type music, and Bride’s growing distress cue us to an upcoming crisis.  The Bride goes to take a rest, fending off the Groom’s suggestion that they might go to bed together.  While the party continues we see the Maid begin to rush frantically from one side of the stage to the other, eventually crying out that the Bride is missing and so is Leonardo.

A search begins, with ominous music and lighting and threatening scythe-waving.  By this point there was lots of evidence that Leonardo was obsessed with the Bride, but it wasn’t at all clear that the Bride was still stuck on him, so I began wondering how much choice and power she had in the situation.  When they were seen in their flight through the woods, though, she was clearly as drawn to Leonardo as he to her.  As the pursuers approach, I was impressed by Carr-Wiggin’s stage tumbling in a wedding gown, at the same time as being frightened about the outcome.

And the pursuit didn’t end quite as badly as I’d expected in that the Bride didn’t end up dead.  But the show didn’t end with the fight and the other deaths either – then we got to see the Bride abandoned by her new husband’s mother and cast off by her own father, “a fallen woman and a virgin”.  This reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – well, okay, of the movie Tess because I’ve never actually read the book; the movie was depressing enough in showing a woman trapped in an unfair situation because of the expectations on women in that society.  In Blood Wedding, the deaths themselves aren’t the end of the story. But the Mother comments that she is more at peace now that everyone she loved is dead and no longer at risk, which is a disturbing commentary on the nature of revenge, grudges, and blood-feud.

Nice design touches:  the chenille rivers of blood, the beggar/oracle’s raven’s wings, the Maypole effect dressing the Bride in bright coloured sashes.   I loved the very active staging especially the woodcutters tumbling and scythe work.  And I noticed the repeated metaphor of comparing men and boys to various flowers and to thorns.

Blood Wedding continues at the Timms Centre until April 5th, including a Monday-evening performance and a midweek matinée.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square as well as at the door.

Solo Flight for RDC students

One of the assignments for the graduating students in Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program is to develop and perform a solo piece, about 10 minutes long, acting as multiple characters.  The solos were performed this week, some on Thursday and some on Friday.  I attended the Friday show, and afterwards I wished I’d been able to see the other nine performances as well.  The Friday show was MCed by class member Richard Leurer, and other classmates who were not performing managed the tech and front of house duties, creating a friendly relaxed environment in the black-box space of Studio A, where I had seen first seen them perform a first-semester Showcase in December 2012.

The performers all acted as three or more different characters, signaling the shifts clearly to the audiences by changing position, posture, voice, and/or accent.  Most of the female performers played both male and female characters, with the most entertaining and convincing male character being Victoria Day’s crotch-scratching homeless man.  Bret Jacobs’ family story included a kind and entertaining Granny who aged along with the young protagonist.  Both age shifts were communicated effectively and with affection.  Jen Suter, Jessie Muir, Bret Jacobs, and Jake Tkaczyk all incorporated small child characters in their stories.

Jen Suter’s story of an overworked restaurant server, her unappealing co-worker, and her demanding patrons was a good choice to start the show because it was easy to understand and very funny.  Several of the creators/performers ventured away from real-world settings to include elements of adventure-science fiction (J-P Lord’s mismatched crew on a voyage across the galaxy), disturbing encounters with metaphysical powers (Collette Radau’s visits from the fear of death, Jessie Muir’s angelic demon), or an imagined dystopic future (Taylor Pfeifer’s world of addiction to bottled emotions).

Victoria Day and Constance Isaac both told powerful contemporary-world stories of teenagers struggling to cope with difficult family situations.  In Jake Tkaczyk’s piece, a seven-year-old protagonist encounters a couple of differently dangerous adults in a playground, and escapes disaster only because of the hostility between the malefactors, both of whom warn him about the other.

The program finished with Collette Radau’s work about encounters with a personified Fear of Death, but more generally about the experience of moving into an uncertain future.  It made me cry.

The show poster, reproduced above, was designed by Miranda Radau.

The Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation class of 2014 has one more set of public performances.  Skin Deep is a site-specific ensemble piece created by the performers.  It will be performed April 20-24 at a site in Red Deer, and more information is at this Facebook page.

Mary Poppins

The first of P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins was published in 1934, and I read some of the books as a child, taking them out from a particular old library branch that my father used to like.  The Walt Disney movie came out in 1965, so I know I didn’t see it then, but I probably saw it at a drive-in theatre in one of the early re-releases, and I think I’ve also seen it as an adult but not recently.   I don’t know which I encountered first, but I don’t remember being bothered by any inconsistencies in the treatments.

I saw an early preview performance of the Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary production of the Broadway musical Mary Poppins last week.  Blythe Wilson was in the title role with an appropriate combination of dignity and warmth, and Michael Shamata was the director.  It was a fun large-cast show with a lot of music and with fun things to watch (dancing, kite-flying, various stage-effect magics, and enchanting sets capturing the house and neighbourhood in Edwardian London), so I think it would be a better family outing than Christmas Carol, which is a little scary.  Young performers Zasha Rabie and Jack Forestier were poised and convincing in the roles of Mary Poppins’ charges Jane and Michael Banks.  Kate Ryan and Vincent Gale were the Banks adults whom Mary Poppins also helps to find more balanced happier lives.  Kendra Connor, a local actor who has been a favourite of mine in shows such as Fiorello!, Strike! The Musical, Nutcracker Unhinged, and The Minor Keys, was very funny in several small parts.

Because I’m preoccupied these days with learning the work of stage management, working as ASM on the upcoming Walterdale Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, (opens April 2nd, tickets here) I was completely in awe watching the smooth movement of complicated multi-level set pieces, some on a revolve.  Mary Poppins’ dignified descents and ascensions by umbrella had her in a completely upright immobile posture, which also impressed me.  In the early preview I saw, I think I saw one small delay probably due to a slow costume change and one wobble in the stage-magic, but they did not distract me from enjoying the show.

The underlying messages about valuing family life and personal happiness are just as timely today as when the books were written, and the story made me happy.

Mary Poppins continues to play at the Citadel until April 20th, but I hear that some performances are selling out.

Queen Lear – a play about a play

Part of the handful of theatre ticket vouchers that I acquired in the Rapid Fire Theatre Date Night auction in January was a pair of tickets to see Eugene Strickland’s Queen Lear, a Shadow Theatre production at the Varscona Theatre.  John Hudson directed, and the cast included Alison Wells as Jane, Ellie Heath as Heather, and Diana Nuttall as The Cellist.  The Cellist did not have a speaking role, but she was an active contributor to the story, as the music seemed to represent Jane’s inner thoughts and emotions.  Jane could hear the music, and sometimes it was loud enough to distract her or irritate her, even to the point of yelling “shut up!”  The Cellist also had an expressive face, showing what she was thinking about the various conversations and actions on stage.  I really enjoyed what the music and the musician added to the performance.

Jane is an actor in her 70s, who has been cast as Lear in an all-female production and who is anxious about being able to memorize her lines.  Heather is a 15yo family friend whom Jane has hired to run lines with her.  The show in which I’d seen Ellie Heath most recently, KIA Productions’ Closer,  also takes advantage of the actor’s skill at using unguarded facial expressions and casual postures to emphasize her character being younger than the others. As Heather, she’s a likeable young person with good manners but she is blunt, impatient, and uninterested in the problems of her elders.  In each scene, Jane and Heather work through a bit of the script in order, and they gradually get to knowing and trusting each other.  Heather lives with her widowed father.  Jane lives alone and is lonely and sometimes worried about being able to perform adequately in the play.

Costumes and stage dressing make a beautiful warm autumn-colours palette.  In the final scene, we see a small excerpt from the performance of Lear, with Jane in a rich gown too heavy for her and with Heather playing Cordelia, and it is so effective that it made me and my playgoing companion wish to see a whole production of King Lear with the title role being a woman.   Parts of the performance made me think about the third season of Slings and Arrows, and how easy it is to entwine the story of an aging performer with the struggles of playing King Lear.  Having it be a woman made me get it more, I think, too.

The run continues at the Varscona Theatre until March 30th.  More details are here along with a link to Tix on the Square.  It’s worth seeing, and generates lots to talk about.

Merchant of Venice

As I mentioned in a recent post, Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play I encountered in its entirety, in Grade 9 English. I think I saw a Stratford production a year or two later.  I don’t think I’ve read it, seen it or thought about it much since.    But when I heard that the 3rd year BFA students were going to be doing it this winter, I immediately recalled the first lines “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.  It wearies me; you say it wearies you” and the last “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing, so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”.  I didn’t have them quite word perfect, but surprisingly close.  Maybe that was because one of the Grade 9 assignments had me producing a radio play (cassette tape recording) of life in the 17th century, and I put in the start and end of a monotone performance of Merchant of Venice.

Studying the program before the performance started, I saw that some minor characters had been cut (Old Gobbo, assorted friends of Antonio, servants), to cover the rest with the ensemble of ten actors.  I also picked up that a couple of characters had been gender-switched, with Bobbi Goddard cast as Antonia and Morgan Yamada (in the performance I saw) cast as the Duchess of Venice.  Bobbi Goddard also played Shylock’s friend Tubal as male, with sidecurls and beard.

Having a female Antonia worked really well.  Bassanio’s affection for his old friend was obvious in his gestures and glances, and although she was in some ways less effusive about him, the text has her prepared to pledge her life to get him the money, so it feels credible.   The subtext about how it must feel to be the old friend when Bassanio is prepared to abandon everything for his new love, oblivious about how this shifts the friendship, is particularly obvious with a female Antonia, and I thought Ms. Goddard did this part very well, in an understated way that she doesn’t expect Bassanio to pick up on.  (I am always on Team Éponine.)

I didn’t know what to call the period of the costumes and stage-business, especially the part with the impressive cocktail mixing by Nerissa (Nicole Hulowski), until I saw Mary Poppins the next night and recognised that they were about the same.  So, approximately Edwardian.  Most of the men in business suits of generous cut, Shylock (Joseph Perry in the performance I saw) with a large black kippah and visible fringes of a tallit, businesswomen (Antonia and the Duchess) in fitted jackets/bodices and skirts like Mary Poppins and the other young women (Portia, Nerissa, Jessica) in high-necked gowns like Mrs Banks.   That was an interesting choice, making it modern enough that the female Antonia could be credible, but long enough ago that the treatment of Jews by the Venetian society was both easier to believe and easier to accept than in a modern setting.  It was still disturbing, though.  The audience around me was gasping or sighing most in the parts where people casually insult or tease Jessica (Natalie Davidson) about her religion/ethnicity, but I think I was even more bothered about the happy-ending resolution to the court case having Shylock forced to turn Christian.   In a powerful statement from stage design, after Shylock leaves the court (is hauled away?  I can’t remember) abandoning his well-worn Torah on the floor, lighting covers it in a cross shape.  I felt sorry for Shylock, even in the speech when he finds out that his daughter’s taken off with his money.   I was also thinking about how the way he dominates his daughter is characteristic of how we often expect to see patriarchs in ethnic minorities, whether or not it is a fair portrayal.

I did not feel sorry for him in the courtroom scene though.  And the part about preparing Antonia to lose a pound of flesh from her bosom was much more horrifying and effective for me with Antonia being female.   I thought it was convenient but not quite believable that the Duchess was prepared to accept the judgement of the unknown doctor of laws (Kabriel Lilly as Portia) on the basis of a letter of introduction, but the Duchess in this story was very similar to the Duke of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, being required to follow the law but wishing for excuses to be merciful.  Also, it reminded me that in the most recent production of Comedy of Errors that I’d seen, the ruler of Ephesus was played as a woman but referred to as Duke (by Julia Van Dam at Red Deer College) and that worked just as well as making Venice ruled by a Duchess.

Bassanio, Portia’s successful suitor, was played by Maxwell Lebeuf.  His decision-making speech “Tell me where is fancy bred” was done well as an unaccompanied song.  His impulsive irrepressible sidekick Gratiano is Hunter Cardinal, with Cheshire-cat grin.  I enjoyed watching the contrast between the two couples, the reserved Portia and cautious Bassanio compared to Gratiano and Nerissa’s more immediate joyful connection.  Lorenzo (Dylan Parsons) is a bit more of a puzzle, because Gratiano makes fun of him as being serious like Bassanio, but he also seemed somehow younger.   The scene with Lorenzo and Jessica canoodling on a riverbank while house-sitting was sweet.

The scenes with the unsuccessful suitors were also amusing, Hunter Cardinal as the Prince of Morocco with fez-like hat using his scimitar for a phallic reference (flashback to Lysistrata on that), and Dylan Parsons as the Prince of Arragon, in leather pants and Castilian lisp, reminding me of the Spaniard Don Armando in the recent Studio Theatre production of Love’s Labours Lost (Oscar Derkx).  I particularly enjoyed Nerissa’s grimaces behind their backs while Portia’s good manners prevented her from showing what she was thinking.   Launcelet Gobbo was the typical silly errand-runner character used in a lot of Shakespeare.  In the performance I saw he was played by Zvonimir Rac.

The Shakespearean language was managed coherently and dramatically by the whole ensemble (who were coached by Shannon Boyle).  I love when you don’t notice that you’ve been listening to unrhymed iambic pentameter until one character suddenly speaks in prose or in a rhyming couplet, and this production did that well.  I caught one small line fumble but it wasn’t distracting.

The last performance of this production was tonight.  You can look forward to seeing the BFA Class of 2015 in next year’s Studio Theatre season.   And if they’re doing anything before that, well, I hope someone sends me a Facebook invitation.

Mercy of a Storm, atmospheric and compassionate

The Northern Light Theatre / L’UniThéâtre co-production currently playing at La Cité Francophone is alternating between English performances and French performances, as Mercy of A Storm or De plein fouet dans la tempête. The original script by Jeffrey Hatcher was in English, and the translation was done by Gisele Villeneuve.  Trevor Schmidt is credited as director, with Isabelle Rousseau as assistant director and dialect coach.  I saw a performance in English.

The story is set on New Year’s Eve, 1945, in the pool house of a social club.  I had thought it was in a suburb somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, but the Northern Light website summary has it as the smallish city of Cambria Ohio.  The two characters, in period festive dress, enter separately and seem immediately to have some secrets from each other.  It turns out that Gianna Vacirca’s character Zanovia and Brian Dooley’s character George are estranged spouses, ostensibly meeting to negotiate their divorce settlement.  I was confused at first – I thought that when Zanovia talked about slipping away from Morrie, she was referring to a current husband and was having an affair with the other character in the play.  And I didn’t immediately catch on that when George was talking about being caught between Tootie and Zanovia, he was talking about his daughter.  Part of why this was confusing was that their unconventional arrangement had Zanovia continuing to live in George’s house along with his grown daughter, while George had been away on the Continent for post-war business negotiations.

I also didn’t figure out right away that Zanovia was somewhat of an outsider in the “club” scene, having been tolerated as George’s wife but coming from a background of having been the daughter of Polish immigrants, George’s family housekeeper and her labourer husband.  Once I began to pay attention, I saw reference to class/culture differences everywhere.  Zanovia’s rant about Tootie and her friends and their silly made-up names, George calling her Zan, Morrie being the first Jewish visitor or member in the club, and so on.

While they are discussing the prospective divorce settlement, we also learn more about the history of their marriage, the role played by Tootie, and their mixed feelings about each other in the present.  They are obviously both attracted to each other, but will they get together? Will they reconcile?  The outcome is poignant and thought-provoking.

I liked this play.  It was more subtle than the previous atmospheric period drama in the Northern Light season, Bitches and Money 1878.  I don’t know the name for the decor shown on set, possibly Danish Modern, all straight lines and blond wood, but it definitely created the context of wealth and looking-forward in 1945, and the music and Matt Schuurman’s video background bits added to the film-noir mood.

Tickets for both French and English performances are available through Tix on the Square here.  The last English performance is Sunday evening March 16th.

Movement and emotion: Raw at Expanse Festival

Expanse Festival is tagged “Edmonton’s Movement and Dance Festival” and “An Electric Four-Day Celebration of Art in Motion”.  It’s a busy time of year for me, but I managed to attend one event on Saturday afternoon, the ticketed show “Raw” in the Westbury Theatre at the ATB Arts Barns.  The program for the festival showed other interesting events and conversations happening throughout the weekend, from movement workshops to drop-in performances and discussions.  I hope to see more of it next year.   (And to get to Skirts Afire, which I missed completely and which sounded really neat.)

The afternoon program contained four movement-focused performances, each I guess about 15-20 minutes long with recorded sound as needed.

Blue Eyes, Black Hair had some spoken word as well as expressive movement, so it was easy to grasp the narrative of the situation.  A man on a beach (I don’t know how I knew he was on a beach, maybe he said so and maybe it was in the program) (Mat Simpson) has one of those moments of life-changing eye contact with a black-haired, blue-eyed man (Liam Coady)  who walks by without speaking.  It’s not clear whether the response is mutual.  But Mat Simpson’s character is so bowled over by the handsome stranger that he seems to lose control of his limbs and face, twitching in awkward-looking ways as he tries to express himself.  A third character, a woman who bears a certain resemblance to the black-haired blue eyed man (Ainsley Hillyard), arrives on scene and the main character makes contact with her in an attempt to relive his connection with the man and understand it.  The two of them then share a poignant scene of moving about each other and exchanging energy while never quite touching in physical space, even executing what appears to be a non-contact lift.  Meanwhile, the black-haired man Apparently this piece was inspired by a French novel of the same name.   And while I thought it was great as a dance/movement vignette that didn’t need any more exposition or resolution, I’m a little curious about how it could be a novel.

The second piece, The Feeling of Not Being Empty, was a wordless communication among an ensemble of three women in black dresses (Anastasia Maywood, Bridget Jessome, Krista Posyniak), as choreographed by Tatiana Cheladyn.  For me it kind of suffered by being between pieces that had more obvious narrative, so without paying a lot of attention I just felt as if I was watching interesting shapes and shifting alliances, but I don’t have more coherent observation.

Next was The Uprights, directed by Murray Utas and performed by Alyson Dicey.  (I’ve seen Alyson on stage before, as a child in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and I can’t remember where else.)   The solo performer conveyed frustration with limitations and exploration of new postures and freedoms.

The final performance, Untitled, was a Good Women Dance Collective work in progress.  The performers were Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, and Kate Stashko, and Ainsley Hillyard was credited as choreographer.  Early on, I thought that it was all about comparing and keeping score, and that impression continued to fit.  Two characters repeatedly measured themselves against each other, in movement and in words.  As the story became clearer and the personalities of the two characters became more distinct with more animosity, it became funnier but it wasn’t just funny, it also mattered.  The competitiveness seemed more overt than usually seen between adults, so it reminded me a lot of siblings or small children.  The third character seemed to be an authority, someone asking the comparison questions and judging the responses.   Like two kids and a teacher, or two employees and an employer, or something.

The Eleven O’Clock Number

Grindstone Theatre started doing a musical improv show at the Varscona sometime last winter, at first every couple of weeks, and now every Friday night.  But I didn’t get around to going to see one of their shows until last week, on a painfully-cold Friday night.  And I had to look it up more than once to be sure, but yes, The Eleven O’Clock Number does start at 11 pm.   Apparently, “eleven o’clock number” is also an expression in musical theatre for a big memorable song in the second act.  So it’s a good title for a late-night musical improv show.

In the performance I saw, Katie Hudson was the on-stage host/narrator, Erik Mortimer provided musical inspiration and accompaniment on keyboards, and the improvisers were David Johnston, Jessica Watson, Mark Vetsch, Nathania Bernabe, and, I think, Brianne Jang.  After singing a theme song together, they started by collecting some audience suggestions, and generating a title for their production of “Never Cold”.  They then immediately launched into a catchy classical-show-tune finale scene, then jumped back in time to create the plot leading to that scene.   Mostly the narrator would call for breaks and mention the setting or maybe characters for the next scene, but did not give hints as to what would happen the way the Die-Nasty narrator/director does.

The performers built an interesting set of characters, created some plot problems that started with David Johnston’s character being infertile and his wife (Brianne Jang) having a creepy boss (Mark Vetsch) while being newcomers to the cold snowy climate from Baja California (or possibly the state of California, it wasn’t clear).  They then sang and acted their way through a not-too-convoluted story to a resolution, introducing a few more characters along the way.  Jessica Watson’s small child character was probably my favourite, with age-appropriate reasoning, self-focus, and way of speaking.  Nathania Bernabe played the small child’s mother and also had an amusing cameo as Brianne Jang’s character’s mother with an accent that I couldn’t quite place, possibly the Californian version of Brooklyn/Jewish.

The Eleven O’Clock Number plays every Friday at the Varscona Theatre, at, yes, 11 pm.  It’s a good addition to the strong improv-theatre scene in Edmonton. There’s an intermission and you’re allowed to bring drinks in to the theatre (if you buy them there, of course).  I think the show I saw finished a bit before 1 am.    You can get tickets ahead of time at Tix on the Square until sometime early on the Friday, and then you can buy them at the door.  I was also going to tell you that they’d been chosen in the Fringe venue lottery for next summer, but when I went to confirm the Fringe webpage wasn’t working.  So I’ll fix this note if I’m wrong.

Little One at Theatre Network. Wow.

The last time I saw Jesse Gervais on stage with Theatre Network he and Lora Brovold were making me cry in Let the Light of Day Through, as directed by Bradley Moss.  This week I saw him and Amber Borotsik in the Theatre Network production of Hannah Moskovitch’s Little One, also directed by Bradley Moss.  And I did tear up a bit again, but mostly I just found it so gripping that I kind of forgot to breathe and completely lost awareness of the passage of time.  One of my theatregoing companions said that his foot fell asleep and he didn’t want to move.

The character telling the story, Aaron (Gervais), is a doctor, a surgical resident about 30 years old.  He spends most of the play talking to the audience or maybe his off-stage colleagues about his memories of life with his troubled younger sister.  His narrative is interspersed with scenes where he and his sister Claire (Borotsik) are children and young teenagers. With subtle shifts in body and voice and credible dialogue, Gervais made a convincing child of eight to fourteen years old, the older brother who is trying to be the good kid, who cares about his sister but is frustrated and sometimes angry or frightened or resentful at her behaviour and her effect on the family.  It was very clear that Borotsik was portraying a child a couple of years younger than Aaron in each scene, but also that something was a little off about her affect.

The other people recurring in the stories, Mum and Dad and the neighbours Kim-Lee and Roger, are not represented directly, and the story feels sufficient with just the two characters, through the past and in the present.  In the present, the siblings are not interacting face-to-face.  It seems that they have been out of touch for some time, but Aaron receives a cassette tape letter in the mail from his sister and plays it, as we see Claire telling the story on the tape.   Basically everything on stage is storytelling, either acting out in flashback, Aaron’s direct narrative, or Claire’s story on tape – but the performance is still very intense.  The audience was very quiet on the preview night, chuckling nervously at a few appropriate places but otherwise I think other people were as gripped by the story as I was.

And what was the story?  Part of why it was so effective for me was that I didn’t know much about it ahead of time, so I think I won’t recount the narrative here.  It’s got some elements of awfulness, but every time I thought, I see where this is going, I know what all these stories mean, I was not quite right.  My companions agreed with me that the writing was very clever, with some plot elements being surprising when they happened and then making such complete sense afterwards that we felt as if we should have guessed but didn’t.

One of the most effective things in the way this story was told was Aaron’s way of hinting at things he couldn’t bear to say.  He’d use circumlocutions “that day” “the … incident …” but he’d also start lots of sentences that he couldn’t finish, sometimes trying two or three times before finding a way in to a painful story.  Gervais as the adult Aaron seemed to have a very tense jawline, as he struggled to tell things that the character said he didn’t often talk about.  And you could see that the careful, self-controlled surgical resident was who the younger Aaron had turned into, the little boy who lost two families and the teenager whose parents needed him to be an adult too young.

I’m writing a lot more about Gervais’s character than about Borotsik’s, because part of her effective portrayal was showing that Claire did not have normal attachment to her family or others, and she basically didn’t seem to make eye contact with the audience either.  She was heartbreaking and frightening and occasionally funny.

I don’t actually remember if there were any stage-manager warnings about content posted at the box office.  There isn’t an intermission, which is how I prefer it for an emotionally intense show.  There is some swearing.  And there are some disturbing concepts.

Can I say I liked it?  It’s not that simple.  I’m very glad I went, I’d go again if I had time, and I bet it will be nominated for more than one Sterling Award category.  You should see it too, if you can tolerate some painful subject matter in a good story well done.  Tickets are here. 

Punctuate! Theatre’s Dirt

When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher Mr. Hillen handed out six or seven books at the start of the year.  (Merchant of Venice, an Agatha Christie mystery, Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, anthologies of short stories, poetry, and plays, and maybe something else I can’t remember. )  Being introduced to Shakespeare made a difference to my life in the long run, but the immediate change came from the implied permission to start reading my parents’ collection of murder mysteries.  Mr. Hillen told us the order that we’d encounter the works on the curriculum, and said we could feel free to read ahead in any of them, except that we should not read the last play in the anthology because he wanted us to encounter it fresh in class.  That of course was an irresistible briar patch to an enthusiastic reader, even one who already loved the English teacher, so over the year I would sneak glances at different bits of that last play, and I never did encounter it fresh and all of a piece.  As it turned out, we didn’t get around to reading it in class anyway, so I never got to discuss it, but Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery stuck in my head as a very strange dangerous world, that sounded normal until it suddenly didn’t.

That was a very long time ago, and it hasn’t been a foundation of my literary framework in the meantime either.  But partway through watching the opening-night performance of Punctuate! Theatre’s production of Ron Chambers’ Dirt, I thought, Ooh, this scapegoating is working like The Lottery.  Whether that shows the benefit of English class or the more devious benefit of telling kids not to read something, I’ll leave for the, ahem, reader.

Anyway.  Dirt is directed by Liz Hobbs, and performed by Elliott James, Cliff Kelly, Andréa Jorawsky, Jeff Page, and Rebecca Starr.  It starts out with a familiar-seeming setting and characters – police investigating a murder, a suspect living on the margins of society.  But it gets odd, a little bit at a time.   The pair of investigating officers were immediately identifiable as the conscientious anxious young one (Cliff Kelly), and the confident preeningly-masculine and politically-right-wing more experienced officer (Elliott James).   When the performance started, the two officers were standing in front of a rough burlap-bag curtain, which they then opened to reveal the home of their chief suspect, where the rest of the story was set.  Murphy (Jeff Page) was under suspicion because he was the boyfriend of the murdered woman, and because he was a foulmouthed dirty loner on welfare.

The senior officer Falkin bullies Murphy and threatens him with the death penalty.  When Murphy protests that we don’t have the death penalty any more, Falkin goes off on a rant about how it might be reinstated and would be cheaper than keeping people in prison.  He then says that as a cheaper alternative to keeping him in custody while the case is investigated, he is leaving Murphy under house arrest with an armed guard, Greta (Andréa Jaworsky).   The fifth character in the story, a local woman making deliveries of homemade food to Murphy, is played by Rebecca Starr. She was playing a very familiar kind of character that I recognized from life and she was doing it in a very funny way.  I really enjoyed her.

The story progresses with Murphy and Greta clashing in predictable ways and starting to get to know each other.  He doesn’t like having a fussy outsider in his house, and complains about the police sealing up the window in his unventilated bathroom.  She thinks his house is dirty and doesn’t want him to keep his “long gonch” (long underwear, for those not familiar with the regionalism) on the kitchen table.  But gradually he begins telling her some of his hard-luck stories, and she gets won over along with the audience (or at least me!).  I could see why his projects never worked out, but at the same time I liked him for trying and felt sorry for him for not being able to think them through.

Yet every time Falkin burst back in to the house, he seemed more offensive.  It took me a long time to decide that he was objectively out-of-line, because he was a classic example of that trope of bigoted bullying cop.   By the end of it, I was completely on the side of Murphy and/or of Greta.  And around about then, I started thinking in a horrified way about planned scapegoating.

Dirt was an interesting, thought-provoking contribution to the Punctuate! Theatre season.  Upcoming they have a dance show and then Hannah Moskovitch’s East of Berlin.