Monthly Archives: February 2015

Waiting for the Parade

St Albert Theatre Troupe’s current show is Waiting for the Parade, by John Murrell, directed by Louise Large.   It’s set in Calgary during World War II, examining the lives of five women in wartime.  The set has five chairs set around the sides of the stage, each supported by some furniture and props representing the living environment for each woman.  The story unfolds in a series of vignettes and monologues.  The lighting shifts to the story being told, and the actors not involved in that scene are seated motionless and solitary in their own homes.

Not all the men in their lives are away at war, but they are all off-stage in one way or another.  What makes it more interesting is that the five women aren’t easily together as a group of friends.  Some have more in common than others.  When bossy Janet (Rhonda Kozuska) leads a group for some war-related project, the young teacher Eve (Jessica Andrews) tries hard to comply with her demands but older gloomier Margaret (Joanne Poplett) and independent-minded Catherine  (Andrea Newman) resist.   And after a while I realised that Marta (Samara von Rad), the German-Canadian woman running her father’s tailor shop while he is interned, is completely left out of the war work or the other women’s social lives.    This divide is expressed most poignantly early in the show when the group is singing the song Lili Marlene in English and Marta steps up to join in singing it in German.  “How odd.  I had forgotten it was one of theirs, first” sniffs Janet.   Later,  the other women gradually find more connection with Marta and she relaxes a bit with them, but never with Janet – the careful avoidance of a cemetery greeting at the end is sad but appropriate.

Like The Mothers or Atwood’s Penelopiad, this narrative explores the women’s version of a story that often focuses on the men’s actions.  The characters in this story end up confiding in each other about frustrations with husbands, fathers, and sons.  As the men are away or unavailable, the women’s bonds with each other are at least as significant as those within the families.  The performance ends with several of the women on a train platform waiting hopefully for Catherine’s husband to return home.  The war is over and so is this chapter.

Waiting for the Parade was directed with a light touch.  The performers found some of the humour in the character interactions without making any of them caricatures.  I was amused by Margaret’s straight-faced side comments (especially about pickles) and impressed by Marta’s never-resolved frustration with the situation she’s left in by her father.

Waiting for the Parade continues tonight and Thursday through Saturday next weekend, at the Kinsmen Korral in St Albert off Riel Drive.  Tickets are on their website here.  There is a well-stocked concession lounge available before the show and lots of parking.

The Mothers, by Nicole Moeller

Nicole Moeller’s new play The Mothers opened Thursday night and is running at the Alberta Avenue Community League until March 8th as parts of the Skirts Afire festival.   It’s a solo show performed by Annette Loiselle and directed by Glenda Sterling.  Like The Pink Unicorn, it is a story from a mother’s perspective, examining a parent’s role and responsibilities over a teenager’s choices.  Was the mother oblivious to some long-standing problem of her son?  Were the stories she told about him just ordinary stories that didn’t explain the current crisis?   Did it make a difference that she had been young and unprepared to parent?  What I liked best about this story is that the answers to those questions were not obvious.

Although the boy got himself into huge newsworthy trouble, the story on stage was the smaller story of the the mother’s life afterwards.  “Just start over,” is a recurring suggestion, but maybe she can’t and maybe she doesn’t want to.   Bit by bit, as she goes through her son’s belongings in a stark packed-up basement bedroom, she re-examines her life and her son’s life, trying to figure out how her son got to be the person he became, and whether she could have – should have – done anything differently.   Although her relationships with her husband and daughter are not smooth either, they don’t seem to be nearly as fraught as the link she’s had with her son, who’s had some of the same struggles she has.

I wondered before I went why the plural Mothers in the title, when it was going to be a solo show.  (I had similar thoughts about the drama Mothers and Sons which I saw on Broadway last year, and I ended up concluding that it was supposed to represent the universality of the story.)  But it did kind of make sense, with the narrating character Grace talking about her interactions with other mothers affected by the events, and wondering how it felt to be them.

Partway through the performance, I got wondering whether the narration was going to have a tidy or satisfying end, since it didn’t seem to follow a careful chronological order. It did end with a retelling of the son’s crisis and with the mother’s resolve to, not quite start over, but get on with the next things needed.

I identified with the mother.  I’ve never needed to deal with the kinds of decisions and consequences she was dealing with, and I’m glad I haven’t.  It would be interesting to see how this story is heard by people who would be more inclined to identify with the son.  Tickets for shows up to March 4th are available at Tix on the Square, with same-day tickets at the venue until they sell out, and during the festival weekend March 6-8 admission is by donation at the door.

Pink Unicorn, and other samples of diversity

I loved The Pink Unicorn.  I loved its narrator Trisha (Louise Lambert), a widowed mother in a small Texas town.  And I loved seeing how I misjudged Trisha, first seeing her tailored floral outfit, big hair,  and fussy mannerisms and hearing her Texas accent, and assuming that she would be overly concerned with appearances, tradition, and approval of authority.

I was wrong!  The more I got to know about Trisha, the more I respected her and enjoyed listening to her.  Because not only did she start out with a more complex background, she grew and changed over the course of the events she recounts, starting when her daughter Jolene tells her that she wants to start high school as Jo, a person without gender, genderqueer and pansexual.  The playwright Elise Forier Edie has been very clever in creating a protagonist who is uninformed to start with but eager to learn about concepts of gender in order to understand her child.  So Trisha reports that she began to research on Wikipedia, and at first you can hear the air quotes around every phrase that comes out of her mouth, “androgyne” “LGBTQ” and “gender continuum”.   At first she doesn’t see the point of it, just gamely goes on with supporting Jo because she’s always wanted her to be able to be herself.  The audience can feel a little superior because Trisha is bewildered, but the script gives the audience lots of information along the way and brings everyone up to speed on vocabulary and concepts.  And sometimes this is very funny.  Her description of the gender continuum first has Charles Bronson at one end and Marilyn Monroe at the other, herself close to the Marilyn end and Jo somewhere in the middle, but when she explains it to someone else later in the story, she starts at the hypermasculine end with Charles Bronson, then she adds Clint Eastwood, then Hilary Clinton, then a big gap before Brad Pitt.

The performance has Trisha aware of an audience, telling the story to outsiders like us and addressing us directly.   Her occasional bad language and vulgarity is startling and delightful, because we know that she doesn’t usually use it to other people.  And when she expresses some unkind thoughts and reveals prejudices, it matters.  She knows she shouldn’t be saying mean things about fat people, lesbians, or disabled people, and she isn’t doing it to get a laugh – she just needs to admit those thoughts because her mis-judgements matter to the story.

As Jo and her friends encounter resistance to forming a Gay-Straight Alliance at school, Trisha finds herself drawn into their fight and discovers unexpected allies of her own.  I especially loved the matter-of-fact part about her alcoholic brother – the script had no glib attempt to explain his alcoholism and bad choices with past-trauma tropes, and Trisha discovers that he can still offer her meaningful support despite his sickness.   Trisha’s Biblical interpretations and Jo’s speeches about freedom and diversity are useful background for anyone who needs to argue in support of Gay-Straight Alliances or other support for diverse genders and sexualities.

Trevor Schmidt directed the play and is also credited with designing the playful pink and peach set and costume.   In the show I attended, the performer had the best line-prompt call I’ve ever seen, staying completely in character and improvising a reaction to the prompt that had the audience laughing and on her side.

The Pink Unicorn is playing until February 28th at the PCL Studio at the Arts Barns.  It is an impressive solo performance of a good script, it is a story of contemporary queer lives that has a happy ending, it is a celebration of family love and personal growth that are not in contradiction, it is enjoyable for people who are familiar with LGBTQ issues and those who are not, and it is a valuable discussion-starter that has had me thinking ever since.   Tickets are through Fringe Theatre Adventures.  If you live far enough from Edmonton that you can’t see this show and you wish you could, you can buy an electronic copy of the script here.  You can arrange performance rights through the author, whose contact information is on the same publisher’s page.

Two tales around times of disaster

It was going to be three.  I was planning to get to One Flea Spare this afternoon, the Trunk Theatre production about people quarantined during a bubonic plague, but that didn’t end up happening.  Colin MacLean’s review of that show is here. 

So the two shows I saw this weekend were Bears and The Laws of Thermodynamics.   Both of them were set around some kind of environmental disaster which wasn’t quite explained.  In Bears, it was a current or very-near-future setting, not too far from here, with oil spills and watershed damage and other familiar real or realistic problems.  In Laws of Thermodynamics, it was … pretty much the opposite of all that.  Can you say “magical realism” in an end-of-the-world story?  Nothing is explained about why the world seems to be ending, or why it is ending the way it is, and some of the things that happen really don’t fit current models of physics.  Oh, but while I’m thinking of it, there’s some magical-realism to the story of Bears too, it’s just not about the setting.

Bears is a new show written by Matthew Mackenzie, who wrote Sia.  Its short run at the PCL theatre had several sold-out houses.  It was produced by Pyretic Productions, with Patrick Lundeen credited as “Consulting Director”.  Sheldon Elter narrates the story, in the odd format of a third person narrative about Floyd while he seems to be portraying Floyd himself.  It is as if he is standing outside the person to whom the events happened, leaving it unclear whether he is actually still that person.  And that is probably not an accident.   As the story starts, Floyd is an oilpatch worker who is fleeing arrest for some kind of sabotage, heading west to the mountains and recounting memories of growing up with his Kokum (Cree for Grandma) picking berries, dancing at pow-wows, and watching the stars.  On his journey, he slips gradually from the man-made world of highways and diners to the natural world of the foothills and mountains, but continues to encounter evidence of human destruction such as dead animals, clearcutting, and avalanche.  He also experiences many delightful natural phenomena –  butterflies, chickadees, salmon, berries, and alpine-meadow flowers.

While Elter narrates the story actively as Floyd, stomping about the stage in high-visibility coveralls and work boots, he is backed up by a chorus of dance/movement artists (Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posyniak, Kate Stashko, Anastasia Maywood, Aimee Rushton)  They added visual interest and emotional intensity, with movements that were sometimes representational (I loved the churning salmon and the irritatingly-flittering butterflies), sometimes more loosely interpretive, and occasionally a more traditional unison choreography.  Bryce Kulak played and sang several clever original songs, in character and costume as the ghost of an old-time Mountie.  Lianna Makuch and Ainsley Hillyard had cameo appearances.  The simple set was made up of some jagged mountain set pieces with echoing outlines on the floor, with video projections and lighting changing with the story.   And the magical realism that I alluded to earlier – I’m not sure whether Floyd’s transformation during the voyage was real, metaphorical, or something in between, but I didn’t need to know that to appreciate the story and the message.

I was uncomfortable with the specific naming of a pipeline project and a pipeline company, but I’m okay with being uncomfortable.  Art with the power to make people squirm and think and examine cognitive dissonance and argue is a good thing.

The Laws of Thermodynamics, a new play by Cat Walsh directed by Heather Inglis, was playing in the Westbury Theatre, configured with a few rows of seats on risers close to the stage area.   I went to see it partly because Workshop West always has interesting productions and partly because Melissa Thingelstad was in it, and her characters fascinate me.  It also had James Hamilton and Julien Arnold in it, both with appearance and posture so unlike anything I’d seen them in before that I was looking through my program to see whether there was a bigger cast than I’d expected.  But no, there were just five, with Cody Porter having a large role and Paula Humby a small unspeaking one.  Theatre YES was credited alongside Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.

It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on.  Which was okay, I think it was supposed to.  A traveller in hazardous times (Cody Porter) has a truck breakdown,  wanders into a small town looking for help, and meets weird people who maybe aren’t what they seem.   Thingelstad is Della, a diner waitress who seems to be in charge, with a huge ring of keys.  She and Jerry (Hamilton) each confides secrets in the traveller Daniel, with instructions not to tell the other.  Arnold’s place in the remnant society is clearly on the bottom of the heap, but it takes a while to find out why.  One of the ways that the eerie approaching doom was indicated on stage was the buzzing and swaying of the big electrical-transmission poles arranged in a false-perspective series extending backwards.  I don’t know why I liked that so much, but I did.  I liked the companionate relationship between Daniel and Della that formed as the end became closer, sharing a hoarded Twinkie under useless umbrellas.

The Laws of Thermodynamics was one of those shows that would have benefited from a second viewing, I think.  It was both darker and more elliptical than Bears, and in some ways less entertaining.  But I was not disappointed in seeing Melissa Thingelstad play another strange character, and there were some funny parts in the character interactions too.

I think the next play on my schedule will be Pink Unicorn.  And maybe by then I’ll be caught up posting about shows that I saw earlier.

Life, Death, and the Blues

Before I went to the preview show of Life, Death, and the Blues, I had difficulty describing what it was going to be like, despite reading the various posters and previews.  All I knew was that it was going to have music in it and it was going to have Raoul Bhaneja in it.  And since I still remember being impressed by Raoul Bhaneja’s One-Man Hamlet at Edmonton Fringe in 2008, I knew I wanted to see what the artist was up to now.

And afterwards, my companions and I agreed that it had been different than we expected, and thought-provoking and enjoyable.  I had lots of blues music in it – played and sung by Raoul Bhaneja and his band (Chris Banks, Tom Bona, Jake Chisholm), by Divine Brown, near the end of the show by featured guest, local blues artist Kat Danser, and at intermission by local trio Old Jack Tap.  The featured “Legends” during the show are different every night, and so are the intermission Youth Blues Challenge acts.

The backbone of the show was narrative, by Raoul Bhaneja about how he’d explored the blues genre throughout his life, and by both Bhaneja and Brown about the history and geography of the blues in general.  And what I loved most about the show was the head-on way the conversation addressed the issues of racial prejudice and assumptions, stereotypes and privilege, the difficulty of not being complicit and the “magical Negro” myth, all involved in having white people and people of other ethnicities exploring the history of the blues (mostly developed by and for African-Americans in the USA).  As a self-identified beige person, (he was born in England to an Indian father and Irish mother, and seems to have grown up attending private school and travelling with diplomatic-service parents who settled in Canada), Bhaneja told some of his own stories of encountering biases and overcoming challenges due to his colour and ethnicity.  But Brown, a Black Canadian woman, called him out repeatedly on his whitesplaining, reminding him that these experiences did not qualify him to speak for African-Americans or justify calling himself a blues insider.   She also pointed out that it’s not really appropriate for people of other ethnicities to criticize Black communities for not being quick to embrace retro movements and nostalgic preservation of times of unhappy memory.  She points out that even his childhood travel adventure to Egypt and the pyramids represented the death of many slaves.  Even though it was a scripted show written by Bhaneja, I was happy to see the aspects which might have been problematic being identified by Brown, a confident talented Black female performer.  The banter between the two of them also illustrated and challenged the expectations of sexual tension in the blues – and then the jam session with local blues performer Kat Danser shook that up some more, both in the way she glossed over Bhaneja’s glib flirtation and then in her performance of the Ma Rainey song, “Prove it on Me”, a 1928 celebration of butch culture and lesbian romance.

Early in the show, Bhaneja mentioned a hip-hop harmonica player from Montreal, Bad News Brown (Paul Frappier).  The “Death” part of the title became explicit late in the performance when he talked about Bad News Brown’s death from apparently-random violence on a Montreal street, four years ago that night.   The next song was a version of Jim Croce’s Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which the band had played in the first act, but with lyrics paying tribute to Bad News Brown.

Another noteworthy bit was Bhaneja singing a Hindu song about the Indus river that he’d learned from his father, Nale Alakh Je, accompanied by his upright-bass player Chris Banks, and with Divine Brown singing an English translation in harmony.

Life, Death, and the Blues continues in the Citadel Theatre Club space until March 1st, with tickets available here.  And then, Vigilante!

Red Deer College Pride and Prejudice

The graduating class of Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program is currently performing in the Jon Jory adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, under the direction of instructor Lynda Adams and coaching by fellow student Evan Macleod.  The adaptation is said to have kept much of Austen’s original written language including the oft-quoted lines.  I am not enough of an Austen fan to verify this, except for the one about the truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  But there were certainly enough long convoluted sentences to convey the essential comedy-of-manners nature, in which an insult can be delivered so cleverly and politely that it takes the recipient (and the theatre audience) a beat or more to work out that something cutting has been said.  “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet; I send no compliments to your mother” was part of a harsh speech from one of the more blunt characters, Lady Catherine de Burgh (Katie Walker), but it took me a few moments to work out what a snub it was, as I could hear a slow chuckle make its way through the audience.  

I thought that Rina Pelletier as Mrs. Bennet was particularly good at portraying the enthusiasms and motivations of her character through the unfamiliar idiom, and she was an audience favourite.  There was a flouncing-in-her-chair moment in the second act that was especially memorable.   Her husband was played by Richie Jackson, with a lovely contrast of his understated wry asides to his wife’s excesses.  Despite similar costuming and hairdos, the five Bennet sisters gradually became distinguishable from each other, the agreeable eldest Jane (Pharaoh Seeley), clever blunt Elizabeth the protagonist (Kassidee Campbell), Mary the bookworm (Emily Cupples), Lydia who longs to meet soldiers (Emily Seymour), and Lydia’s flighty sidekick Kitty (Robyn Jeffrey).  The characterizations of the clergyman Mr Collins (Brock Beal) and of Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline (Erin Pettifor) were pointed and amusing.  The more successful suitors for the Bennet sisters, the pleasant neighbour Mr Bingley, the aloof Mr Darcy, and the untrustworthy Mr Wickham were played by Damon Lutz, Nate Rehman, and Michael Moore.  Warren Stephens was a butler supervising a staff of stage-crew/footmen, as well as other small parts.

The stage sets, with moving backdrops and furniture and sturdy doors, conveyed the appropriate formality and simplicity.  Garden strolls and private conversations were conveyed by having the characters step down from the main stage level to a lower promenade downstage.   Scenes taking place at balls had appropriate-looking dancing groups in the background.  I enjoyed watching the dancing so much that I wish some of it had been easier to see.  A scene with Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle the Gardiners (Erin Pettifor and Brock Beal) riding in a carriage was mimed so amusingly with rocking over the bumpy road in unison that I didn’t listen to what they were saying.

Pride and Prejudice is playing at the Red Deer College Arts Centre mainstage until Saturday night, with tickets available through Black Knight Inn. 

Starting the year off with a SHOUT!

Over the winter-solstice theatre dark nights I had intended to post my notes on everything I saw in December, but it didn’t seem to work that way.  I’ll work through the backlog as I can, even though the busier schedules of January and February mean that programs are piling up again.

SHOUT! is a 1960s musical revue produced by Round Barns Productions, which played at C103 in early January.  Kristen Finlay directed it, and Sally Hunt was the musical director.  During the show, five young women in England (Leslie Caffaro, Nicole English, Kristen Finlay, Erin Foster-O’Riordan, Monica Roberts) move through the years from 1962 to 1970, with songs, dancing, and glimpses of their lives in that era.  They’re called “The Red Girl”, “The Orange Girl”, “The Yellow Girl” and so on, after one of those magazine-article personality quizzes (voiceover by John Dolphin), and the quick lists of traits are turned into five distinct and attractive characters by the performers.

A magazine called Shout provided a framework moving through the show, with the characters reading articles about 1960s phenomena like Twiggy, the Beatles, and the sexual revolution.  John Dolphin’s voiceovers provided assorted magazine content, and the characters also wrote letters to “Gwendolyn Holmes” a women’s-magazine advice columnist of the era (voice by Elizabeth Marsh) who responded to most problems with suggestions like cheering oneself up by getting a new hairstyle.  Much of the advice and other magazine content was terrible from a 2015 point of view (the cigarettes diet, the asbestos dress).

The music was great, mostly songs I was familiar with.  I loved the “Coldfinger” parody of the James Bond theme, “I Only Want to Be With You”, and “Shout!”, and the “You’re My World/All I See is You” medley made me cry.  And there was enough character development arc under the mostly-lighthearted show to provide satisfying outcomes for the characters “I got pregnant!”, “I got sober”, and “I got Penelope!”  Especially the one who takes over for the advice columnist.