Monthly Archives: February 2015

Six new works

New Works Festival is a yearly event at the University of Alberta Department of Drama, a showcase of new plays written by students in the department.  Directors, cast, and crew for each play are also students and recent students.   Each bill of three plays had four performances, and I managed to see both programs yesterday at on their closing day.  I’m sure I saw complete credits for the festival on line somewhere, but I can’t find them now.  Here is a webpage with some of the information about each play.

Among the six offerings were a fairytale (Princess and the Sandman, by Maggie Paul), a science-fiction tale (Silence and the Machine, by Liam Salmon), a loose dramatization of the Dixie Chicks song Goodbye Earl (Killing Earl, by Josh Languedoc), and three more realistic stories (Gianmarco Visconti’s Grey Matters, Jordan Sabo’s An Inside Sick, and Julian Stamer’s F***, Marry, Kill).

Silence and the Machine was a fascinating exploration of some implications of artificial intelligence.  It reminded me of Bladerunner, which is one of my favourite movies ever, in the concepts of how to test the indistinguishable-from-human and in the starkly-lit simple setting of such a test.  It alluded explicitly to Alan Turing’s imitation-game test and to the test-for-humanity in Shylock’s monologue “Do we not bleed?”, and used the classic riddle of the twins at the crossroads and the uncanny valley hypothesis as well as a Rubik’s cube as evaluations of reasoning.  The script also said some important things about personal autonomy and ownership of one’s body, including when “carrying someone or something worth more”.  Creepy and satisfying.

My favourite comic performances were by Bob Gaudet, the misanthropic bartender in F***, Marry, Kill, and by the pair of friends Lisa Dawn Daniels and Brianna Kolybaba in Killing Earl.   The Princess and the Sandman had a framing technique which incorporated the audience as plot device and allowed some jokes about falling asleep while attending Hamlet.  If I was giving prizes, there would also be some comedy honourable mention for the stage hands of Killing Earl (Kiana Woo and Chris Pereira).

in Grey Matters, Jarrett Hennig gave a credible and moving portrayal of an awkward teenager struggling with grief and lack of ambition, frustrated with being asked how he is but also resenting when other people avoid talking about his sister’s death.  “It’s different with your grandparents,” his friend Lina (Maggie Salopek) offers, struggling to relate.  A silent character witnesses every scene from the periphery (Ashleigh Hicks as Nada, who seems to be the spirit of the dead sister), but then slips away as Adam (Hennig) begins to find a new intimacy with his old friend Farren (Bill Wong).  In An Inside Sick, Franco Correa is a younger teenager seeing a therapist (Afton Rentz) to deal with anger and family problems in a fairly straightforward narrative showing his interactions with equally frustrated and angry parents (Lauren Derman and Gabe Richardson).  One scene stood out for me in that play, the one in which Correa’s character, about six years old, encounters his father contemplating a noose and a bottle of pills.  The audience gasps and stills, and the child character asks innocent questions.  “It’s for adults.”  “Is it for exercising your neck?”  “Yes, that’s it.” “Can I try it?”  “No!”

 

Zombies and the Bard

Red Deer College’s William Shakespeare in the Land of the Dead, which played in October of last year, was a performance that didn’t fit tidily into a genre.  The title gave a hint of what to expect though – a juxtaposition of Shakespeare and zombies.

The play was written in 2008 or so by John Heimbuch, and directed by Kelly Reay of Calgary.   The cast of fourteen are all students in the graduating year of the Theatre Performance and Creation program, last seen as an ensemble in Ten Lost Years last spring.

The set, constructed in the black-box space of Studio A, created the sense of being in the greenroom or other backstage space at the Globe Theatre shortly after it had been built, with warm yellow lighting and a light mist or haze, rough wooden benches and table, and large exposed beams suspended overhead.  The scene opens with Kate (Pharaoh Amnesty), the ” ‘tiring girl” for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, starting to clear up the room while a performance is going on.  Shakespeare (Evan Macleod) and Burbage (Richie Jackson), friends and collaborators, then enter and discuss past and future productions, the politics of the day, the troubles of dealing with actors and patrons, and so on.  Will Kemp (Nate Rehman), the clown of the company who had been known for playing Falstaff, bounces in, pesters Shakespeare to write Falstaff into more scenes, and taunts him that audiences would rather see his jigging and foolishness than a story with a plot.  The parts that I knew about seemed consistent with canon, and this part introduced some of the main characters, but I felt like it dragged a little and was sometimes hard to hear or to follow.

The rest of the company tumbles backstage at the end of their performance, stripping off tabards for Kate and the company apprentice Rice (Robyn Jeffrey) to collect and fold, and calling for everyone to join them at a tavern.  But while Kemp and Shakespeare stay at the theatre, the tavern excursion encounters some zombies and comes back infected.  Other characters attempt to shelter in the theatre, unaware of the contamination, most notably Queen Elizabeth I (Emily Cupples) with a small retinue.  Cupples, in large starched ruff, was splendidly regal.

The production is a wonderful showcase of zombie makeup, because those bitten early in the show show more decay with their every entrance, while those who manage to survive until near the end appear nearly undamaged.  As I don’t have my program for this production at my fingertips I can’t tell you who to credit for this design and application.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

I’ve heard good things about Old Trout Puppet Workshop of Calgary for a while.  I’ve seen them mentioned in the credits for other people’s shows – for the rabbit puppets in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit for sure.  So I was excited to see one of their shows listed in the 2014-2015 Theatre Network season.

Theatre Network’s home, the Roxy Theatre on 124 Street, burned down just over three weeks ago.  The show in production there at the time, Human Loser Theatre’s Cheerleader, was able to have a staged reading in another venue almost immediately, and other shows and events are being relocated to take place on the original schedules.  This one is in an auditorium at Eastglen High School called Majestic Theatre, an attractive functional space with rounded wooden seats on a slightly raked floor.  The high school is near Rexall Place and the Highlands neighbourhood.  It is easy to get to by car and easy to park (except for the opening-night snowstorm).  When I arrived at the property of the large brick school building, trying to figure out how to get to the theatre from where I’d parked, it reminded me of my first trips to see Fringe shows at Strathcona Composite School, only with snow.  (The theatre is right by the front door of the school which faces 68 Street.)

Bradley Moss, Artistic Director of Theatre Network, spoke briefly before the performance about the support that Theatre Network has been receiving from the public, arts and government groups, and other theatres.  Everything seems to be coming into place for the short term (the rest of the season will be in the new Backstage Theatre at the Arts Barns, with the Varscona team delaying their own renovations to allow for this), and they hope to rebuild at their 124 Street location.   Online donations through Canada Helps are convenient.

Anyway, the show.  When my companion asked me afterwards what I thought of it, I said that they were skillful, funny, and warped.   Lots of deaths, of various manner and means.  An encyclopedic collection of kinds of puppets and puppetry, at various scales.  Separate short vignettes with a couple of reappearing characters.  I laughed, winced, felt pity, and often got caught up in the realities of the puppets.  I did not get to see the puppets up close because we sat farther back, but they seemed like beautiful detailed evocative artifacts.   (I suggest sitting closer if possible.)  Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs about an hour and a half without intermission.  It is playing until February 22nd as originally scheduled, and you can get tickets through Tix on the Square.

Threepenny Opera

Until this week, I don’t think I’d seen a musical as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series.  (I’ve seen a musical on that stage, Strike!, but it was produced by a different company.)   Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, playing this week and next, was directed by Brian Deedrick the opera conductor.

I didn’t know much about it beforehand, and on the preview night there were no programs so I didn’t get the advantage of Director’s Notes and other context explanations.  I also didn’t think to find out how long it would be and whether there would be an intermission.  (It is long.  There is an intermission.  Counting the intermission it runs close to 3 hours.)  And with the house filling up, I didn’t take time to read the bios posted outside the auditorium.  At the intermission I fumbled to look up who was who, and I discovered that the 2015 BFA class had been reinforced with Mark Vetsch (Grindstone Theatre, last seen at the Studio Theatre in Love’s Labours Lost), Lily Climenhaga (whose name I saw in the credits for the script of Orestes 2.0), and Neil Kuefler (BFA 2014).

There were two songs in this show that were familiar to me, the “Pirate Jenny” one (sung by Nikki Hulowski) and “Mack the Knife”.  The jazz standard “Mack the Knife” was written by Kurt Weill for the original 1928 production, although I have to admit that I learned it first through the McDonald’s Mac Tonight commercials in the late 1980s.  And there were a lot of familiar tropes.  When I left the theatre, I was thinking I could describe it as Cabaret crossed with, hmm, some kind of comic gangster king story, like the one in Anything Goes maybe.   But that’s not quite right, because the sense of impending danger from an imminent corrupt regime was not quite the same as in Cabaret, it was more like a critique of the capitalist kyriarchy or something.   The sense of familiarity in much of the story is illustrated in the very long list of recognizable character/plot elements on the TVTropes page for Threepenny Opera.

The main character or anti-hero or whatever, Macheath (Hunter Cardinal) doesn’t appear early in the show.  The buildup adds to the sense of danger and mistrust around the man, who could so easily have become more simply ridiculous in yellow kid gloves and spats.   If I remember correctly, the show opens with the police commissioner Brown (Max Lebeuf) singing a song in German, then a couple of street singers (Natalie Davidson and Zvonimir Rac) talking and singing to the audience about the premise of the show as an opera for beggars and put on by beggars, and about the characters of Macheath the womanizing boss of the underworld, and Peachum (Joe Perry) who runs a business managing (franchising, almost) troupes of beggars.

We then meet Peachum, his drunken wife (Bobbi Goddard), and his daughter Polly (Kabriel Lilly), and observe the extremely cynical hiring and instruction of a new beggar (Dylan Parsons).  Plot conflicts begin to arise as Polly elopes to marry Macheath.  I generally don’t like the gangster’s-girlfriend stereotype with the high-nasal Brooklyn-baby-girl voice and curled blonde hair (like Lesley Ann Warren’s character in Victor Victoria), but Lilly’s version of Polly moves past the stereotype.   Peachum directs the police commissioner to arrest Macheath, but as they are old friends he wants Macheath to escape.  And Macheath misses chances to escape because he keeps stopping to visit his other romantic attachments, including his previous girlfriend Jenny (Hulowski), the commissioner’s daughter Lucy (Morgan Yamada), and a houseful of prostitutes (I don’t know whether the prostitutes were all female but a couple of them were cross-cast, or whether one or two of the prostitutes he’s visiting were male.)

The whole thing takes place around the time of a coronation (I think probably Queen Victoria), and in the end Mack is rescued from the gallows by a deus ex machina in the person of an imperial messenger descending from the sky (Dylan Parsons).

The beggars’-opera premise is reinforced by the costuming, in which each character seems to be wearing a few symbolic costume elements thrown over some approximately-period undergarments and shoes.  This led to some odd gender-presentation combinations.  The beggars’ rags given to Parsons’ character Filch are a beautifully layered concoction of ragged strips of weighted cloth.  Many of the male characters wear jackets without shirts, sometimes with collar and tie.  Cardinal’s Macheath has a disturbingly villanous mustache.   Lighting was generally harsh and cold – maybe that’s part of what reminded me of Cabaret.  Characters not in the scene were often seated on the various platform levels around the edge of the stage, and backlit motionless.

Music for the performance is provided by a small excellent jazz orchestra under the direction of Peter Dala.  Apart from the songs I mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed a solo by Morgan Yamada as Lucy, one of Macheath’s later songs that had a Les Mis-reminiscent anguish and resonance to it, and a few group dance numbers.

Threepenny Opera continues until February 14th, with tickets at Tix on the Square.

Dark humour and a celebration of love: Jeffrey

Earlier this week I was fortunate to being able to attend a preview show for Walterdale Theatre Associates’ new production of Jeffrey, the 1992 comedy by Paul Rudnick about a young single gay man in New York City, frustrated by the precautions and disclosures and negotiations around sex in the era of AIDS.  It was directed by Kyle Thulien and Sarah Van Tassel.   Jeffrey (Sean Richard MacKinnon) decides that he’s just going to stop having sex.  This works out about as well as you might expect, starting with him going to the gym for distraction and encountering handsome Steve (Logan Boon).   Thus follows a whirlwind of glimpses of Jeffrey’s life as a catering waiter and aspiring actor, with his close friends Sterling (Gerald Mason), an interior designer and his younger boyfriend Darius (Simon Müller), a chorus performer in the musical Cats!  Jeffrey works at fundraisers and funerals, takes his laundry to the cleaner on Pride Parade day, sits with Sterling in the hospital where Darius is dying, and explores a church, a kind of sex club, and a game-show panel in some of the less narrative-reality-based scenes.   The rest of the ensemble (Trevor Talbott, Mark Kelly, Catherine Wenschlag, and Morgan D. D. Refschauge) play various characters in all these settings.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jeffrey imagines his conservative kind Wisconsinite parents (Wenschlag and Talbott) giving him homey but disturbingly explicit advice about sex, and Wenschlag as an overbearingly-enthusiastic mother on Pride day, reminiscent of Sharon Gless’s character Debbie on Queer As Folk (the Toronto/Pittsburgh version).

We learn that Steve is HIV-positive and we watch Sterling and Jeffrey cope with Darius’s illness and death, and Jeffrey’s reaction goes from seeming funny and overly squeamish to grippingly understandable.  Jeffrey’s determination to avoid the complications of sex looks very much like anyone’s determination to avoid the risk of heartbreak by not falling in love – and by the end we are all cheering for him and Steve to get together.

This story is set several years after the events portrayed in The Normal Heart and in Angels in America Part I.  It was set in the same city and about the same year as the most recent Walterdale show, Six Degrees of Separation, which gives perspective to the society matron’s question in that show “Are you infected? do you have AIDS?” as quite a reasonable worry.  The dark humour of this script around finding new cultural norms for sexual behaviour must have been very powerful when it was first produced, with audiences who remembered the time before safer sex and were themselves learning how their lives would change.    As I was volunteering at a student preview show, I was privileged to attend a cast/crew talkback session, in which participants in the show provided some of their perspectives and some context to the young audience.  I think it is still funny for modern audiences, and its message celebrating the joy in committed love is universal.

Jeffrey is playing at the Walterdale Theatre until Saturday February 14th (another option for your Valentines’ Day date!) with tickets at Tix on the Square.

 

Six Degrees of Separation

My posting hiatus of December and January started with being too busy, and I kept meaning to tell you why.   (Not the parts about work, Christmas-present knitting, needing a tire repair in a snowstorm, or straining my knee – those don’t make such interesting reading.)

In the fall I was  working on the play Six Degrees of Separation.  I enjoyed watching the production develop through the rehearsal process and it was a delight to share it with thoughtful audiences and hear/see them chuckle and sigh and applaud.

Six Degrees of Separation is a drama, written by John Guare and inspired by anecdotes of an incident he heard about from friends in New York City society in the early 1990s, in which several people were taken in by a young man claiming to be a movie star’s son and a university classmate of their children.  Back then it was a little harder or a little less natural to fact-check a new acquaintance, compared to today when it doesn’t feel like an unusual effort or a sign of mistrust to quickly check Facebook and other databases and follow up with questions.  In this case, one might use Facebook to find the visitor connected to the student family members and see which of one’s Facebook friends might know the movie star mentioned, as well as looking up the movie star on imdb.com and Wikipedia.  You might do this even when you don’t mistrust the new acquaintance, just to further the conversation and enhance your memory.  So if this story happened today it wouldn’t happen in quite the same way.  “Try the public library.” “Try Who’s Who“, the socialites suggest as a way of verifying what they’d been told.  “Who do we know who knows Sidney Poitier?” they wonder.  Confirming with their children away at school is delayed by difficulty getting through on the phone.  And the smooth-talking young man has slipped away long before they find a book in a bookstore confirming that Sidney Poitier, the movie star, has no sons.

So the details of the story set it firmly in a slightly dated period, but the attitudes remain familiar.  Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge (Nicolle Lemay and Nelson Niwa) are the wealthy Manhattan art-dealer couple recounting the story to the theatre audience.  Mary Ellen Perley and Darrell Portz, dale Wilson, and Bob Klakowitz are other members of their social circle taken in by the charming young man (Jordy Kieto).  Macalan Boniec-Jedras, Samara Von Rad, Frank Keller, and Julian Stamer are their children, hostile to their parents while assuming the privileges of their birth.

After the first round of deceptions is uncovered, with some sense of betrayal especially to Ouisa but no material losses, things get darker.  Paul, the charming mysterious manipulator at the heart of the story, goes on to draw in some more vulnerable young people, played by Rudy Weibe, Kate Jestadt Hamblin, and Kyle Tennant, and to leave each of them devastated.   The ending is cryptic and unsettling.  Paul is the central character in the story, but in the playwright’s convention of having various characters step out of scene to provide narrative to the audience, we never ever hear from Paul directly.  We never do get to find out what he’s thinking or why he does anything he does, and I don’t believe anything he says.   It’s a fascinating script and a complex story.  I kept finding more in it throughout the rehearsal process, and the cast did it justice.  Apart from the main characters mentioned above, the story was filled out with Mark McGarrigle (a detective), Sonja Gould (a building concierge and a police officer), and Selina Collins and Greg Kroestch (ubiquitous servants).

One-man weekend

This weekend I saw two great solo performances.  At Canoe Festival I saw Alan Williams in The Girl with Two Voices, and at the Citadel I saw Shawn Smyth in Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story.  I could also have seen Jon Lachlan Stewart’s Lavinia, which I had been looking forward to, but I didn’t end up seeing it.  I will definitely watch for another opportunity to see that though.

Alan Williams’ story was told to small groups of twenty at a time, sitting around a meeting-room table in Knox Evangelical Free Church, across the walkway from the Arts Barns.  The performer took a seat at the end of the table and started telling his story without introduction, explanation, a pause, or even much eye contact with the audience, as if we had walked in while he was telling a longer story to someone else.  He talked for more than an hour and a half while we listened, sometimes chuckling, and the passage of time was only noticeable because the room was too cold.  He used no notes, and his narration was so well prepared that it felt off-the-cuff.

He told the story of moving to London without much money or prospects, finding a place to live, making the Kew Gardens neighbourhood home, and trying to get acting work, in the late 1990s.  The story was partly chronological, with interruptions explaining the background of friendships and choices, and it was full of odd characters that he described both pointedly and affectionately.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes with his friends Janet and Jim.  Jim, he told us, who was about two years old at the time – rather than treat the child as an adjunct of his friend, the narrator kept talking about Jim as an individual with some odd behaviours.

There was some symbolism, some repetition of theme, and some conclusion, but all of them very subtle.  He is one of the best pure storytellers I have ever seen in person.  One of the festival announcements compared him to Spaulding Grey, whose recorded narrative Swimming to Cambodia about making the film The Killing Fields was my first exposure to first-person storytelling as a performance option, many years ago.

Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story is currently running at the Maclab stage in the Citadel Theatre complex, as a co-production with Prairie Theatre Exchange of Winnipeg.  Ron Jenkins directed. The script is credited to Kirstie McLellan Day, co-author of Theoren Fleury’s autobiography of the same name.  Shaun Smyth originated the role of Theo Fleury in the premiere production at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2012.

For this show, the staging and effects were a big part of the fun and the mood creation.  The performer spends the whole performance on skates and in hockey equipment, skating and shooting on a small artificial skating surface with a realistic-looking backdrop of hockey arena boards and bench, which worked for all the settings from the small-town arena of his childhood to the NHL and Olympic games.  The seats at the far edges of the Maclab were blocked off, possibly due to blocked views but also possibly as a precaution in case any of the performer’s shots missed the nets.  (But none of them did!  Shaun Smith’s skating, stickhandling, and wristshot/snapshot abilities were impressive enough to be convincing and to allow him to move smoothly on the small cluttered surface and create excitement.)   The sound effects and the projected video images provided additional content and made the Maclab feel so much like a hockey rink that I kept thinking I felt a draft.

Most of the performance involved the actor speaking directly to the audience as the player Theo Fleury telling the story of his life and career, from his first skating steps around age 5 to his senior-league games after a comeback in his 40s.  I found it a difficult story to hear, because of what the performer wryly called “the part about the molestation” (Theoren Fleury having been one of the players who was sexually abused as a teenager by coach Graham James).  He told that part of the story while sitting down on the front edge of the stage, with painful credible directness and the self-awareness of adult hindsight.

Milestones of his career and hockey events that I remembered included the bench-clearing brawl at the World Juniors in 1987, the Flames Stanley Cup win in his rookie season in 1989, the Olympic championship in Salt Lake City in 2002.  He told the key parts of these stories with the help of scoreboards and hockey cards on the video screen – and as an interesting touch, the hockey cards all had an A-Tee-Pee logo in the style of the real O-Pee-Chee one (ATP being Alberta Theatre Projects, the production company of the premiere).  The foreshadowing in the first act – the abuse that he tried to forget, the first taste of alcohol, the first experience with cocaine, the affairs with strippers and the failed relationships – then escalated as his life got more out of control and his playing career fell apart.  The sports water-bottles sitting on the nets were used as props for tales of binge-drinking, and projection of a craps table onto the stage floor/ice surface backed up the episodes of transferring his addiction to gambling.

Except for the convicted child abuser Graham James, and possibly the player’s flawed parents, the narrative doesn’t name names to criticize anyone else, consistent with AA testimony custom of taking responsibility but also convenient for anyone worried about liability issues.   Various other team officials and family members were mentioned as supporting him and challenging him to get his life under control.  The only other player whose personality came through was Wayne Gretzky, in two flattering anecdotes, one where he is playing on the opposing team and hauls Fleury out of a fight after he’s injured, and another when he recruits Fleury to the 2002 Olympic squad.   This narrative choice also emphasized the solitary nature of Fleury’s personal struggles.

Playing With Fire continues at the Citadel until February 15th.  Tickets are available here.