Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Genius Code, from Surreal SoReal Theatre

The concept of The Genius Code intrigued me – putting different audience members into the viewpoint of different characters, by giving them headphones.   I am fascinated by the idea of piecing together the truths of different people’s experiences.  It’s easy to do and fairly common in written fiction.  And I’ve seen movies and tv shows where a scene is shown from one character’s viewpoint, maybe with some voice-over retrospective narration, and then repeated from another character’s viewpoint and voice with a very different impression.  It’s also doable on stage, although harder – it might be a fun improv game for experienced players.

But in The Genius Code, the writer and director (Jon Lachlan Stewart) doesn’t control which of the viewpoints an audience member chooses.  And in attending one performance, you only get one viewpoint – you can’t switch.  This performance-art choice leads to some fascinating differences in audience experience.

When the audience is wearing headphones, the lighting design has the house quite dark, and the logistics of cable management mean that the audience members tend to sit still.  I think that mostly people aren’t listening to the same commentary as their neighbours.  And the audiences for the two performances I’ve attended have been unusually quiet while we were wearing headphones.  Mostly, the characters’ inner thoughts were heard in one set of headphones only, and the conversations taking place on stage were transmitted by floor mics to all three sets of headphones.  But even when all of us were hearing the conversation, I thought the audience wasn’t very responsive.  I kept wanting to sigh and smile and gasp and chuckle and wince in recognition, but somehow the awareness of being surrounded by a room full of people listening quietly in headphones made me hesitate.   Later in the show, there’s a part where we’re instructed to take the headphones off.  The house lights came partway up, the story continued unamplified, and the audience immediately became more responsive.  This fascinated me, and I wondered if it was disconcerting to the actors when we were quieter.

Technically, I was relieved and impressed that the headphones thing worked.  I never heard any sound bleeding over from the other feeds, either in the full house of opening night when I was surrounded by people listening to different feeds or on the preview night when I had empty seats next to me.   Soundscapes (Aaron Macri and Jonathan Krawchuk) and video backgrounds projected on an unusual surface (Matt Schuurman) added to the atmosphere and provided more information.

I’ve attended two performances and listened to two points of view.  I’m planning to return one night next week to listen to the third one.  Listening to the second one made me re-think some opinions I’d formed during the first show, and then wonder whether the assumptions that led me to those opinions were unfair.  Things kept surprising me during the second show, things that I know rationally must have happened the same way both times but for some reason I didn’t remember them clearly.

The characters in the story are Sky (Jamie Cavanagh), Gyl (Laura Metcalfe), and Gene aka DJ Genius Code (Cole Humeny).  As the story starts, Gene has just brought his two friends together, and as they seem to hit it off, they agree to let Gene record all their conversations.  This is a convenient explanation allowing Gene to move about the stage adjusting microphones so that the audience will hear the conversations through our headphones, but it is also important in showing how Gene relates to the other two.  It provides some important plot movement, and the option to re-play or re-mix the recordings also gives some interesting framework.  The phrase “Let’s start again” is used several times during the performance, usually in a sense of “let’s play this recording again from the top” but in other senses as well.  And in fact, sometimes in life and relationships, sometimes one cannot just start again.

My first impressions of Gyl were that she’s a wacky outspoken young woman, talented and attractive.  Sky struck me as a glib provocative young man who enjoys playing with words and is also accustomed to being desirable.  And Gene was a puzzle.  Humeny plays the character with near-flat affect and an immobile face, usually looking down or to one side rather than making eye contact with his friends.  Costume/Set Designer Cory Sincennes has dressed him in a hooded shirt a bit too big for him with sleeves too long, making him look small and not in control (a very different impression than when I saw him as an enlisted Marine in A Few Good Men).  There were scenes of credible friendship and affection.  There were a couple of intensely erotic sequences of dialogue and movement, one of which turns disturbingly into a fight scene (choreography credit Ainsley Hillyard).

I had not seen any of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s work before, but now I will make a point of seeing anything else available.  I’d seen all the performers at least once – Metcalfe as the grasping sister-in-law in The Three Sisters, Humeny in Ride, Strike!, and a minor role in Clybourne Park as well as in A Few Good Men, and Cavanagh in several plays and improv shows over the last couple of years, starting with Sexual Perversity in Chicago and most recently Romeo and Juliet.

As I said, I’ve seen two viewpoints and I plan to return for the third.  I wondered whether it was fair to post about it before seeing the third side, but I want to encourage more people to see it, It’s playing until Sunday June 8th at C103, the theatre in the Strathcona Market parking lot.  And I imagine many theatregoers will see it only once, but will compare notes afterwards with other people about the versions they saw and what they thought.

I liked it.  There was one thing that I found unsatisfying, I found myself wanting to put the headphones back on and hear more about how things were unfolding later from my character’s POV.  I don’t really know why this bugged me – maybe because it felt asymmetric not finishing the way we started, or maybe because I liked the internal-monologue parts, or what.  And I guess the private-to-shared transition is part of how this story needs to get told – medium being the message and all that – but I kept wanting there to be a headphones ending.  I hope it was a legitimate artistic choice rather than some decision to put the audiences back into their comfort zones – because when I go to theatre I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone.  (SLIGHTLY out of my comfort zone.  That does not mean I sit on the aisle at a bouffon show.)

Citadel season ends with Make Mine Love

The first thing that made me happy about attending the Citadel Theatre production of Tom Wood’s new comedy Make Mine Love – no wait, the second one, after a visit with my season-ticket companion and a glass of red wine in the lobby – was recognising names in the program.  There were ten actors on stage, and I had seen all of them in other shows.  As well, there were many familiar names credited with performing or working on the video bits, including Patrick Lundeen and Lianna Makuch, Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Andrea Rankin.

And after that?  Well, there was Rebecca Northan.  As far as I’m concerned, Rebecca Northan makes this show.  The plot is fun, the other characters are amusing (especially those played by Mark Meer, Jana O’Connor, and Julien Arnold), the special effects are … I don’t know if they are simple or complicated, but there were several things that are seen in old-time movies but never or rarely seen on stage, except for here.  For example, there was a scene set on a train … and someone clinging to the side of the train and slipping backwards, one window at a time.  With the help of some video clips, there was a car chase scene with gunfire and the car spinning around.  The costumes, sets, and accents built the environments of New York City and Hollywood in 1938.  And the great love story of two movie stars, (John Ullyatt and Rebecca Northan) has some not quite predictable details, most of which were improvements.    But Rebecca Northan was great, and great fun.

Now I will note a few of those details, so don’t read further if you’d like to be surprised.  (I do – which is why I try to go to previews).

It is refreshing indeed to have the powerful demanding leading-lady turn out to be actually competent, not just in acting but in other skills like fixing cars.

The storyline about how she only gets to be friends with him because she thinks he is gay … it was a little weird how the writer had to find expressions for that which sounded period, but also sounded cute and not offensive to modern ears.  I did not entirely buy how quickly she forgave him for the layers of deception, but, hey, whatever.

I liked the subplot about the dancer (Alex McCooeye, who was in Spamalot) teaching the starlet (Lisa Norton, who was in Penelopiad) how to tell a story in her singing.  It was believable and satisfying.

And I liked the tiny romantic bit with a same sex couple (Sarah Machin Gale and Jana O’Connor) which was not played for laughs.  After spending most of my vacation budget on Broadway shows, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more queer and genderqueer men in the shows I was watching, than there were women of non-standard sexuality or gender expression.  So it was nice to come home and see two women together on stage at the Citadel.

Make Mine Love continues until June 1st at the Shoctor Theatre (the big auditorium at the Citadel).  It’s not great theatre but it’s good fun, and especially enjoyable if, like me, you like watching Rebecca Northan.

 

 

 

A few of the thousand faces

Last night a friend took me along to the Thousand Faces Festival, which explores myths from around the world in a variety of performance media.  We attended two events, a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a Mythic Poetry Brothel.

Macbeth is a familiar enough story, full of archetypes and supernatural elements and sayings that have entered common use, that it fit easily into the theme of myth.  This production was not the most compelling one I have seen, but it was fast-paced and had some good moments.  Macbeth was played by Elliot James, who I last saw as a worse-than-archetypal asshole cop in Dirt.  He had some of that character’s swagger, and not very much regret.  Bobbi Goddard, a BFA Acting student at U of A, was Lady Macbeth (while also playing in When the Rain Stops Falling this week).   Other familiar local actors were also involved – Oscar Derkx, Mat Simpson, Lianna Makuch – but there were no printed programs and the headshot display in the lobby was incomplete and didn’t identify roles.  I also don’t remember who directed it and can’t find that information anywhere today.

The Mythic Poetry Brothel, a coffee-house style event, started in the beer garden behind the Alberta Avenue community hall but migrated smoothly into the hall when the night got cool.   Local poets (including Colin Matty and Tim Mikula) read or recited their work in character as various deities, and additional entertainment was provided by MC Morgan Smith and an interesting collection of musicians and dancers.  The “Brothel” part of the event title probably referred to the opportunity to get private readings by making a donation to a poet.  Sort of like table dances I guess.

The Thousand Faces festival resumes next Friday evening.  I love living in a city which has such an assortment of arts festivals, including small ones like this with admission by donation.

Studio Theatre season ends with When the Rain Stops Falling

The last play in the six-show season at U of A Studio Theatre was the MFA directing thesis project for Megan Watson, just as the first show last fall was directed by MFA candidate Nancy McAlear.  When the Rain Stops Falling was written by Andrew Bovell, and first produced in Australia in 2008.

There was a program insert with a family tree.  A quick study of the family tree and the cast of characters showed that it wasn’t going to be obvious who was who, with two women being portrayed by two performers each, with other performers playing more than one character, and with two characters named Gabriel (played by David Ley and by Tim Welham) and one named Gabrielle (played by both Sandra Nicholls and Bobbi Goddard).   Other performers included Christopher Hunt of Calgary, Nancy McAlear, and Kathleen Weiss.

The story started with a long monologue by performer David Ley (a faculty member in the Department of Drama, like Sandra Nicholls and Kathleen Weiss.  He seemed to be a solitary and self-justifying man, anxious about a reunion with his son.  The time seemed to be some unspecified future and the setting seemed somewhat dystopic and somewhat magic-realist, with a fish falling from the sky and a comment that nobody gets to eat fish from the sea any more.   Another clue was that the character, whose name turns out to be Gabriel York, had a subtle Australian accent.

I like plays with non-linear narrative, where I get to figure out gradually who everyone is and how they connect with each other.  I also like plays where people are coping with the aftermath of something sad or awful, and we gradually find out about that without having to see it directly.  This play hit both those buttons for me, as well as the one where I get to feel smart as an audience member when I figure something out for myself shortly before it’s explicitly revealed.

The story was told in many short scenes, with much repetition of dialogue and stage business.  The action moved smoothly as characters for the next scene usually took their places on stage silently before the previous scene had finished, adding to the sense of overlapping and repetition.  The sets/props were minimal and didn’t give much information about era or location – a long dining table moved about the stage, chairs, coat-hooks, a soup kettle and soup plates, a pile of diapers, driftwood and a big windowframe, behind which were projected various images of weather, seaside, and Uluru (Ayers Rock).

After the various disjointed scenes of abandonment and secrecy through generations, the final scene provides some satisfaction as the old man of the opening scene, David Ley as Gabriel York, gives his son Andrew (Tim Welham) a suitcase full of family mementos.  Each artifact is handed around the long table by the silent witnesses of the cast, and by this point the audience knows enough to place each of them even when the characters don’t.  My companion admired the complexity of the story and the closure in the storytelling.

I was particularly touched by Sandra M Nicholls’ portrayal of an aging woman aware that she is losing her memory, and impressed by the way David Ley distinguished between the two characters he played.  I was also impressed by watching Bobbi Goddard’s fairly straightforward portrayal of a young woman seeking to move past her unhappy family background, since last night I saw her play Lady Macbeth in the Theatre Prospero production at the Thousand Faces festival.

When the Rain Stops Falling is playing until May 24th.  Next year’s Studio Theatre season starts with Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour in mid-September.

Starless, by Eric Rice

This year’s selection for Walterdale Theatre’s From Cradle to Stage new plays project was one longer work instead of a series of one-acts, Eric Rice’s work Starless.  I saw it tonight, and I found it unexpectedly moving.  So much so that I had trouble articulating questions at the talkback after the show.

That is a compliment.   I guess it’s a compliment to share among the writer, the dramaturge Tracy Carroll, the director Marsha Amanova, and several of the cast members.

Starless is a story about two homeless people, Ralph (Mark Anderako) and Mary (Monica Maddaford), and the people they interact with during one difficult day, a police constable (Dave Wolkowski), a boy (Carter Hockley), a blog reporter (Stephanie O’Neill), an artist/art-vendor (Jim Zalcik), a priest (Zalcik), and a landlord (Wolkowski).  The title refers to an advantage of sleeping outdoors over sleeping under a roof, that outdoors you can see the stars.  Ralph, the main character, seemed both credible and interesting – physically frail, foulmouthed, dirty, cynical, but at the same time having a clear sense of fairness and a tendency to poetic metaphor.  The audience never finds out Ralph’s whole backstory, because he’s not someone who would tell any of the people he encounters that day, and as his love Mary says (approximately – I stopped taking notes), “We don’t tell those stories.  Those were just things that happened.  We just tell the story that ends with living happily ever after.”

The set was simple but evocative of various outdoor locations – a park, a church doorstep, a coffee shop patio, the back of a low-rent apartment building.  Stage lighting is still a mystery to me, so I was astonished to realize at intermission that the floor was actually not green; it was just lit that way during the park scenes.  The music at intermission and after the show (Don Henley’s “Starry Starry Night” and a familiar cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) was just perfect, fitting the story and the mood with emotionally familiar song, and I don’t remember now whether there was pre-show music or not.   I also appreciated the artist’s painting representing a monochrome version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (“I call it Van Gogh misplaces his palette”), recalling my recent visit to the original work in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Maddaford and Hockley also played characters with enough depth to be intriguing and their own personal challenges.   Maddaford played Mary with an appealing serenity and some native shrewdness, and it eventually turned out to be easy to see why she and Ralph were together.  Hockley had great facial expressions when he was listening, very believable for a kid who is accustomed to be on the edges of adult conversations that he might disagree with or worry about.  His speaking was occasionally difficult to follow, although I’m not sure whether he was too fast, too quiet, or just not making his words distinct.

The minor character who most caught my attention was Jim Valcik’s artist, identified in the program as Vendor, a glib and self-absorbed painter who jumps to assure Ralph he can identify with him but doesn’t listen to him.  “Chaos and bars?  Yep, that was our art-student life; it was great!”

Starless is playing at the Walterdale through Saturday night, 8 pm curtain.  Advance tickets  are at Tix on the Square (listed as From Cradle to Stage), and also available at the door.  Thursday is 2-for-1 night.

Raisin in the Sun

I wanted to see this play on Broadway for two reasons.  One was that I’d seen the movie earlier this year along with watching the Citadel Theatre performance of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, an intersecting story set in the same world.  The other was that Denzel Washington is in this production, in the role of Walter Lee Younger, the man of the family, the role played by a young Sidney Poitier in the movie.

Before the play started, the poem excerpt including the phrase “raisin in the sun” and the musings about dreams deferred was projected on a scrim.  And a radio interview was playing on a loop – I figured out quickly that the woman being interviewed was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and then I learned from the Playbill that the interviewer was Studs Terkel.

The curtain rises on the main room of a small apartment in Chicago.  Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo) is up and in the kitchen before the alarm goes off, and then she begins the tasks of helping her family get ready for the day.  Her small son (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) wakes groggy on the living room couch, and she hustles him into the shared bathroom across the hallway.  The set design was clever, showing the tiled hallway and bathroom door outside the door of the main set, lit in such a way that I wasn’t aware of it being part of the set until Travis scurries across the hall with his towel.  You could see the practised routine of a family in the way Ruth starts waking up her husband as soon as her son’s in the bathroom, rushing him into the bath ahead of the man down the hall, as she makes breakfasts, wraps sandwiches in waxed paper, and reminds her young sister-in-law, college-student Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), to tidy away Travis’s bedding.   Coming from a later generation, it took me some time to figure out that Ruth actually had a job herself, because in the first scene she was all about taking care of her family.  But in fact, both Ruth and her mother-in-law Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) worked as domestic help.  As we got to know the family and the routines of their lives, we also learned that Lena’s husband Walter had recently died and that they were all anticipating how the life insurance money might change their lives.

Each of them had some dreams and wishes for better life – Lena wants a garden and sunlight, Ruth wants comfort and space for her growing family, Travis wants his own bedroom, and Beneatha wants to be a doctor after embracing college student life, exploring African roots, and trying various creative pursuits like guitar lessons and horseback riding.  But Walter Lee seems to be the most unhappy with his current life, working as a chauffeur and depending on his mother’s and wife’s earnings to help pay the bills.  He yearns to be his own boss, to take care of his family and be in charge.  So of course they don’t all agree about what to do with the money.

I thought Latanya Richardson Jackson was especially strong, but the whole cast was good and balanced.  I felt like I was watching an important story and I was lucky to be seeing it with such good actors.    Many of my seat neighbours in the mezzanine were very well dressed and had bouquets to deliver at the stage door, adding to my impression that I was seeing something important.

Raisin in the Sun intersects with Clybourne Park in the part of the story where a representative of the currently all-white neighbourhood tries to dissuade the family from moving to the house Lena buys, but that is not the main focus of either play.   It was also useful to think about the second act of Clybourne Park which is set in contemporary times, showing that although people nowadays have different customs of how to talk about race, the misunderstandings and misconceptions still continue.

Long form improv with UCB

When I asked my improv teachers for recommendations of what to see in New York City, I immediately started hearing recommendations for Upright Citizens’ Brigade, a famous long-form improv company in Chelsea (they also have a theatre in San Francisco).Some of their shows are free (after lining up), and some have advance sales.  So I bought a ticket for an early show Sunday evening called ASSSCAT 3000.  That might stand for something but I haven’t figured out what yet.

UCB has their own theatre, and they have shows every night of the week.  When I got there, there was a line for people with reservations for the show, another line for people hoping to get in if some with resservations didn’t show, and yet another lineup (before 7 pm?) for the free 9:30 show.  And the people in line looked like the people who go to see improv in Edmonton, so I felt right at home.

The performance space is below ground level, and the ceiling is a bit low, but it is otherwise an excellent space to do shows with audience connection.  There are five rows of seats on three sides of a medium-size stage.  They sell pop, Pabst Blue Ribbon, more interesting beer, and the textbook for their improv classes.  (They apparently also sell t-shirts but they were sold out this week.)

The way ASSSCAT 300 works is that a guest monologist gets a word from the audience, then tells some stories provoked by that word, and then the troupe does several scenes inspired from that monologue.  After a while the monologist tells another story, they do more scenes, they have intermission, and they do it again.

The guest monologist for the show I saw was Scott Auckerman, a self-effacing charming man with a dry wit who is a leading light in the UCB Los Angeles company.  (Imagine if David Francey the Scottish-Canadian folksinger was doing improv.)  And the evening’s host, who also participated in the scenes, was Amy Poehler (who I know as Leslie from the TV show Parks and Recreation, but she’s also been on Saturday Night Live and other comedy things I think.  (Did I mention that I was in the second row?)  When she came out to start the show, lots of people cheered and squealed, and others whipped out their cameras but she made them shut off their cameras.  So I guess it was kind of a big deal to other people that she was there too.

It was a very funny show.  It was risque without being in poor taste.  Four of the seven improvisers were women.  I didn’t catch everyone’s name in the speedy introductions, but I particularly enjoyed Tami Sagher, Shannon O’Neill, and another fellow who said he was out of practice.  I think probably Anthony Atamaniuk, and Chad Carter were also performing.  There were stories about working as a Disneyland character, applying to homeschool/college and not getting in, having a lesbian foursome, trying to date when stuck with a not-cool friend, a Disney funeral, auditioning to be a princess, a restaurant specialising in last-dates, and other amusing scenarios.

I would definitely see them again.   I’ll link their website when I get back to a more familiar computer.