Monthly Archives: April 2014

Mothers and Sons – a new Terrence McNally play

The playwright Terrence McNally’s credits include Kiss of the Spider Woman (on next year’s Two One Way Tickets to Broadway season schedule), Love! Valour! Compassion!, and The Full Monty.  His new play, in its first Broadway run at the Golden Theatre, is Mothers and Sons.

Tyne Daly, of TV’s Cagney and Lacey, plays a mother coming to New York to visit the former partner of her dead son.  As the story starts, Katharine (Daly) is gazing out at the view over Central Park from a charming apartment, rigidly still in fur coat and handbag, while Cal (Frederick Weller) looks out beside her.  He is slightly more at ease because it is his apartment, but you can see immediately that the two are not comfortable together.  And the painfully familiar story unfolds, with the history between them of Andre’s mother having disapproved of his life and their relationship, now wondering about connecting with Cal but still angry and grieving and, well, squeamish.  I admired McNally’s writing and Daly’s acting in showing that resolution is not simple after years of hurt, especially for stubborn people.  It seemed very credible.  Cal’s currrent husband, Will (Bobby Steggert), is significantly younger than he is, and this allowed the playwright to explore some concepts of the differences between gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis years and gay men who were born later, who expected parental support and children and marriage.  The fourth actor in this piece is Grayson Taylor, playing Cal and Will’s 6 year old son Bud, with age-appropriate candour and enthusiasm.   The fathers are thoughtful parents, careful about language and devoted to their son.  Cal and Will are both protective of each other, recalling the years of Katharine’s rejection of her son, but Will is also understandably a little jealous of his husband’s history with Andre.  And as Katharine thaws slightly in her interactions with Cal, Will, and Bud, we learn more of the complexity and unhappiness of her own history, and her wry ability to laugh at herself and occasional glimpses of bereavement allow the other characters and the audience the opportunity to forgive her to the extent they choose to.  (I had a flash of recalling Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, having abandoned his youngest daughter after her too-outrageous choice of partner by saying he can only bend so far, then sharing eye contact with her and her husband as they are exiled.)

I was on the edge of my seat gripping my program in the dark and frequently taking off my glasses to wipe away tears of recognition, so the only line I wrote down was “Maple syrup doesn’t recognise state lines” (about one man’s family’s sugar bush in New Hampshire).  But there were lots of better ones.   Tyne Daly is amazing in this show, and the other actors are strong enough to keep up with her.  I hope it will play for a long time, and I hope it will lead to a production in Edmonton someday.   You should see this show if you like portrayals of complicated older women, troubled families, happy families, queer history, New York City, or credible children who are realistically charming. Or if you’re already a fan of Terrence McNally or any of the actors.

 

Avenue Q off Broadway

The musical-with-puppets Avenue Q is going to be part of next year’s Citadel Theatre season. Having just seen it off-Broadway, I’m looking forward to it even more than I had been.

It reminded me of Rent ( in being about a small community of struggling young people in New York City, but not sad), of “St. Elmo’s Fire” (being about the anomie of post-graduation), and of, well, “Sesame Street” for grownups.  This was a more effective mix than you might expect if you haven’t heard of the show.  Three of the seven performers play humans, Brian a wannabe comedian (Nick Kohn), Christmas Eve a wannabe social worker (Sala Iwamatsu), and Gary Coleman yes that Gary Coleman (Danielle K. Thomas).  The other four performers operate various Muppet-like characters, while on stage in full view mimicking their alter egos’ gestures.  Darren Bluestone plays Princeton the lead, as well as Rod who bears a distinct resemblance to Bert-from-Sesame-Street.  Veronica Kuehn plays Kate Monster the other lead.  The other two puppeteers are Maggie Lakis and Jason Jacoby.

It’s a fun show, the songs are catchy, the humour is topical and sometimes pointed (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), and the characters’ problems are very easy to identify with.

As someone who grew up with Bert and Ernie, and then who enjoyed speculating on their slashy subtext, I particularly enjoyed the subplot of Rod and his roommate Nicky, and how the writers managed to find both a happy same-sex romantic ending and a respect for non-sexual friendship.  I couldn’t think how that story would work out, and it did.

There was one bit of audience interaction that made me wish for once that I was sitting on the aisle – especially when their pass-the-hat came up with a Metrocard.

Avenue Q is playing at New World Stages, a new-looking complex of five underground performance spaces just north of Times Square on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City.  There are often discount tickets at TKTS.  And it will be playing at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton next winter.  I’ll be there for sure!

 

In the Heights! Scona Theatre production at the Westbury

This year’s big musical by the Strathcona (High School) Theatre Co. is In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation with book by Qiara Alegria Hudes, which opened on Broadway in 2008.   It was a good choice for this company and the venue (Westbury Theatre), where a huge crowd of exuberant performers and an interesting detailed set had enough space to tell the story and the risers were filled with parents, friends, and members of the local theatre community.  The Heights refers to the north Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a mostly-Dominican neighbourhood. The set for the Scona production had two three-story brick buildings flanking some steps and an elevated walkway at the back of the stage, then a projection screen showing views of the bridge in the background.  The main floors of the buildings were small shopfronts behind metal blinds (“grates”), a beauty salon, a bodega or convenience store, a car service (dispatched taxis) and one graffiti-marked storefront that just stayed closed.  That was never mentioned, but it added to the sense of a neighbourhood in transition.  Upstairs were windows and balconies, which usually had people hanging out of them or leaning on them or looking down from them.  My first thought on looking at the set was that it reminded me of Sesame Street, because that was the only place I’d seen that kind of streetscape as a child.  (That and my brother’s Fisher-Price village.) The main characters are introduced by the young bodega owner, Usnavi (Aidan Burke), whom I thought was a particularly strong all-around performer in this show.  Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (James Kwak) is an amusing comic foil.  The manager and employees of the beauty salon (Siobhan Galpin, Christina Nguyen, Jade Robinson), struggling owners and ambitious worker of the car service (Kirkland Doiron, either Monica Lillo or Jocelyn Feltham and Evans Kwak), and “everyone’s abuela” Claudia (Manuela Aguerrevere) all have big enough parts that we get to know their stories.  The female lead is Nina (Olivia Aubin), daughter of the car-service family, who is returning home after her first year at Stanford University. I was also impressed by the dance moves and general stage presence of the actor playing Graffiti Pete, but there were two performers platooning in the role and no sign in the theatre telling which one we were seeing.  Either Robbie Wickins or Michael Sulyma.

There were at least 65 energetic performers in the cast as well as a pit band of 14.  This meant that there was always lots to watch, although the ensemble members did not distract from the important plot points or lead character solos.   The Latin dancing in the nightclub scene was great, and the large-crowd dancing in the song “96,000”.  Jordan Mah is credited as AD/ Assistant Choreographer.  Linette Smith directed and choreographed, and the music director was Jenn McMillan. I thought this show was an ideal choice for this company, taking advantage of not only some talented young individual performers but the depth of talent and enthusiasm allowing the director to create a joyful busy community in a high-density neighbourhood.  The story was universal enough to grasp without knowing anything else about the demographics (business owners struggle in a shifting block, city utilities are unreliable in a disrespected neighbourhood, and there is a lot of pressure on the young person who has the chance to succeed outside.)

Attached are some recent photos from the real Washington Heights neighbourhood in upper Manhattan, NYC.  You can see the grates over closed stores, the convenience store, and the grey and black fire hydrants.  Don’t expect this level of background research for all my theatre reviews (especially the one set in Uganda!) but I loved having this prep for my NYC vacation and finding the connections.  And now, back to Broadway!

image image Subway to Washington Heights

Skin Deep: self-created, site-specific, scenes, stories, and sculptures

The last performance assignment on the curriculum for the 2014 graduating class in Theatre Performance and Creation at Red Deer College was to create and perform some site-specific work off campus in some space not normally used for theatre.

The class chose the Red Deer Lodge hotel, and took advantage of several different spaces around the central courtyard of the hotel, starting in the lobby and leading the audience around.  There was a general theme of self-discovery, exposure, and the choices of how much to reveal, but the various scenes and vignettes used a variety of techniques and tactics, giving the performance some flavour of a showcase of skills developed.

Continuity was maintained by having Julia Van Dam as a guide.  Although she had a challenging trickster demeanour, it was reassuring in an apparently unstructured situation to see her red-gloved figure glide up and point us to where we should go next.  After some bits in the lobby of the hotel, the audience members were led to explore various glimpses around the courtyard, fights and dances and conversations, and then directed to a murder investigation in a hotel conference room.  That was good to have early on the program, while the audience was feeling uncomfortable with what was expected, because the characters (Wayne DeAtley, Victoria Day, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, Bret Jacobs, and Julia Van Dam) were easy to identify and the narrative arc straightforward.

After that, things got weirder, but we got more comfortable with it.  Some of the scenes took place in hotel bedrooms – Jen Suter and Jessica Bordley did a powerful invocation of tormented teenage girls in a scene that I thought was probably called “So Fucking Angry”, and Brittany Martyshuk and Jake Tkaczyk had an interesting concept of speaking together in the solitude of separate rooms with the help of crackling baby-monitors.  Some happened on a balcony over our heads.   Another one seated the audience in a conference room while dancers reflected on a curtain formed Rorschach-blot-like shapes in response to a patient’s (Taylor Pfeifer) answers to a nurse (Constance Isaacs).  Dustin Funk and Tyler Johnson were two homeless people in conflict.  Richard Leurer and Megan Einarson had a particularly disturbing scene in the hotel pool.  Some of the narrative in the performance was in rhyme, and some of it was recited in chorus.  There was quite a lot of expressive movement, possibly a bit too much, and there was some stage fighting, some dance, and some good tableaux.  There was a movement scene with, I think,  Jessica Bordley, Tyler Johnson, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, and Richard Leurer, narrated in rhyme by Julia Van Dam about friendship and romance and shifting loyalties that I liked a lot.

I was impressed that all the traffic-directing was done in a very organic way and that none of the performers fell out of character at all even when the audience probably wasn’t doing what they wanted us to.  I thought that the performance might have been a bit too long or too repetitive, but in general I enjoyed it a lot.  I liked the sense of wandering around with more going on than I was able to see.  Skin Deep continues Wednesday and Thursday this week, with information available at this Facebook page. 

Ten Lost Years: Depression memories at Red Deer College

 Ten Lost Years is a book by Canadian Barry Broadfoot, a book of oral history of the Depression years, published in 1973.  It’s compelling reading, even for someone whose Depression memories and influences are second-hand or third-hand.  The initiative for the project collecting the memories and stories of older Canadians, and the title of the book, refer to Broadfoot’s observation that people didn’t tend to talk about those bad times and that they weren’t covered well in schools.

The book was also used as source material for the play Ten Lost Years by Jack Winter and Cedric Smith, first produced in Toronto in the mid-1970s.   Red Deer College’s first year Theatre Performance and Creation class performed the play last week, under the direction of instructor Tom Bradshaw.   The book of short narratives in multiple voices was translated effectively to the stage by making about half the performance short monologues, interspersed with scenes with small and large groups and a few ensemble songs.   The musical pieces, especially the opening and closing renditions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and the harmonica orchestra were effective in drawing together the disjointed individual stories to give a sense of community, whether in a small town or in a collection of transients huddling in a basement.   In the opening chorus, I was struck by the joy expressed by many of the performers, in particular Rina Pelletier.  Evan Macleod’s piano playing and singing, and Erin Pettifor’s solo of “Over the Rainbow” were also strong contributors to the performance.

All the performers played multiple characters, narrating the different stories and acting them out.  Katherine Walker, Damon Lutz, and Brock Beal evoked some middle- and upper- class characters, providing different perspectives but not without compassion.  Warren Stephens’ scene as the welfare officer reluctantly telling his new client (Michael Moore) that he’s required to surrender his liquor license was painfully effective.  Stories of rape by an employer in a desperately-needed job, and of watching a man at the end of his rope beat a child for losing the change on the way home from the corner store, were powerfully moving even though I had read the book a few days earlier and could recognize what was coming.

Other stories were humorous, affectionate portraits of struggling families and stubborn individuals getting through hard times.  Emily Cupples was amusing as the school principal, calling pupils to listen to the near-inaudible radio broadcast of the Prince of Wales abdicating.  Several scenes used the premise of radio narrative or radio drama, mostly in a good way but I thought that the living-in-an-igloo scene done as radio was just kind of odd.

One very effective directorial choice was to have Michael Moore, a non-white member of the cast, deliver the caution at the beginning about how the real people’s real words might include some expressions that we would find offensive.  And then the first time that the script included a racial slur, the characters on stage all gasped and glanced at the performer of colour in exactly the same way that the audience was doing. He repeated his caution about the real words of the time, everyone sighed, and the scene resumed.

The costumes, with muted shades of cotton and knitwear, and the authentic-looking props, were interesting to look at and valuable in maintaining the sense of the time.  I was particularly moved by looking at the piano light and the washboard, because I remember my parents using ones quite like them.  City Centre Stage is a multipurpose space which is probably primarily a movie theatre, and the production used the screen at the back of the stage to project a photo-album of relevant images.  The raised stage made the first few rows crane our necks to watch, and next time I go there I will sit farther back.

Ten Lost Years has now closed.  The Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation class of 2015 will be seen in next academic year’s Performance Art Series, starting in October.  The plays for next year’s series have not yet been announced.

HONK! if you love family musicals

The Ugly Duckling is the Hans Christian Anderson tale of a misfit chick raised by ducks and made to feel inferior for being different, who then matures into a graceful beautiful swan and is welcomed by a flock of other swans.  Stories of happy resolution and appreciation for young people who don’t fit in have always been in demand, although the expectations of the story tropes have changed even within my memory, as, for example, some modern viewers find the bullying in the 1960s television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to be egregiously cruel, even with some happier resolutions at the end for the red-nosed reindeer, the dentist elf, the kind abominable snow monster, and other picked-on characters.

Honk! is a musical version of the story, with music by George Stiles and book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, which debuted in England in 2003.  And I liked this version better than previous versions I’d encountered, partly because the audience and the ugly duckling (played here by Mathew Bittroff, appropriately awkward in mismatched socks and lopsided stance) could see right from the start that the mother duck (Kayla Nickel) cared about him and admired his unusually good swimming ability, and because even when he was lost, the device of overhearing a television appeal let him see that his mother still loved him and hadn’t given up.  During the performance I got wondering whether the happy ending would still have him flying off with the flock of swans, as in the original, and I was relieved to see that after he’s both discovered himself as a swan and found his duck family, he decides to stay on the lake with the ducks and with his swan sweetie Penny (Paula Humby).  It was also nice that after some initial jokes about Drake avoiding family responsibilities and not bonding with Ugly, he stays home to take care of the ducklings and the nest while his partner Ida goes searching for Ugly, and is happy to have him return.

This version of the story has an obvious villain outside of the sibling/community bullying: a Cat, played with feline grace and predatory instincts by David Johnston of The 11 O’Clock Number and Two One-Way Tickets’ The Full Monty.  A young audience member behind me was complaining with satisfaction at intermission that he or she Didn’t Like That Cat.   I found the analogy with human would-be predators equally disturbing.  The way that the Cat concentrated on the youth who was distanced from his family and discouraged him from checking in with his mother was very similar to the grooming and luring behaviour of a child molester portrayed by Jake Tkaczyk in his original piece Play Date at Red Deer College a few weeks ago.

Johnston’s feline mannerisms were readily identifiable and very funny, particularly the way he shot his claws and caressed his astonishing facial hair.  Elisa Benzer as Turkey, and Will Mitchell as Drake and Bulldog were also particularly impressive in capturing the essence of their characters’ species in posture and movement.

In the musical, once Ugly has been separated from his family and farmyard community by the Cat and after he escapes the cat, he spends a long time searching for home and encountering various other characters – a military formation of migratory geese, a couple of domesticated pets, a bullfrog and his chorus, and a mother and daughter swan – before being found by his mother and discovered to have molted into a recognizable swan.  This gave the story more structure, and also provided opportunities for some funny characters, puns, and song/dance numbers.   Most of the cast played two or three parts.  The duckling siblings were Laena Anderson, Rachel Kent, and Lindsay Phillips, in yellow bows and shirts.  Nicole English shifted posture, demeanour, and a few costume details to distinguish between Maureen (a moorhen friend of the mother duck), Lowbutt (a domesticated chicken), and Mother Swan.

The music for the show was provided by Erik Mortimer on keyboard.  (The small child behind me commented after intermission “He’s really good!”)  The songs were pleasant and catchy and the choreography fun to watch and suitable to the characters and species.  I had trouble discerning the words in one or two of the early songs, which was irritating because the words I could make out were very clever, and I’m not sure whether the problem was tempo or balance with the keyboard.  I particularly enjoyed Kayla Nickel’s singing voice.  I think the last thing I saw her in was MacEwan’s Spring Awakening, although I may have seen her in something since.

HONK is a production of Grindstone Theatre, the people who do The 11 O’Clock Number.  It’s playing at the PCL Studio space at the Arts Barns until April 26th.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square or at the door.

Mump and Smoot in “Anything”

Since I started paying attention to the breadth of live theatre available in Edmonton, I’ve gradually discovered that Edmonton has an unusually strong tradition of clown and physical theatre, in part due to the teaching and mentoring of master clowns like Jan Henderson and Michael Kennard, at University of Alberta and elsewhere.  I’ve seen many of their students and former students perform, but never had the chance to see either of them on stage.

Mump and Smoot are the creations of Michael Kennard and John Turner.  According to the program for Mump and Smoot in Anything, the artists met at Second City in Toronto, both studied with Richard Pochinko who basically started the Canadian style of clowning, and have been performing Mump and Smoot for twenty-six years.   For those who hadn’t heard of the duo before or who hadn’t noticed that the title on the program cover seemed to be written in dripping blood, the program also helpfully mentioned that they are referred to as “clowns of horror”.   This and their general reputation cued me to expect something a little more gory and gross than a typical clown show – and the hints were welcome.

Like many clowns from the Pochinko tradition, Mump and Smoot vocalize but not always in comprehensible vernacular.  (A show I saw last winter from Calgary’s PIE Factory Collective had the interesting variation of using a gibberish that contained bits of French and bits of English.)  Their unique language, “Ummonian”, contains enough English words and near-English along with gestures and unmistakable facial expressions that after the first framing sequence it was fairly easy to follow the narrative of the three following vignettes and final sequence.  Mump (Michael Kennard) was the taller one, a higher-status older-brother type of role.  Smoot (John Turner) was the one who connected with the audience and drew the audience’s sympathies.  Prop changes and scene introductions were managed by a silent white-faced woman in straggly white draperies with a very Catalyst-Theatre aesthetic, Candace Berlinguette as Knooma.   The three scenes were titled “The Escape”, “The Romp”, and “The Remedy”.  They fit together somewhat but were mostly separate stories.  They were funny and poignant and occasionally really gross and creepy, but in ways that the audience seemed to enjoy sharing.  There was a little bit of audience participation, generally consensual and not too embarrassing.

I laughed a lot and I found the stories satisfying.  Part of why I don’t enjoy clowns from the American circus traditions or a lot of mimes is that I don’t enjoy perpetual-victim stories like RoadRunner and Coyote.  But these two characters Mump and Smoot, for all their weird troubles and disagreements, didn’t seem to be trying to beat each other or trick each other.  They liked each other.  As with the Rocket and SheShells duo (Adam Keefe and Christine Lesiak, seen in Fools for Love and in Sofa So Good) or the Nona and Squee partnership of Life After Breath (Amy Chow and Neelam Chattoo), they argued in ways that were familiar enough to be funny, and came to fair resolutions.   I can see that both performers were very good at what they did, at communicating just enough of their emotions and intentions to captivate the audience and developing a story with just enough unpredictability to delight.  I don’t know how they did it.  I would definitely watch them again.  In anything.  Or, well, in Anything, if my schedule permitted.

Mump and Smoot in Anything is playing at the Roxy Theatre on 124 Street until April 27th.  Tickets are available through Theatre Network.