Monthly Archives: March 2015

First Time Last Time

Last night was the preview of the last Shadow Theatre show at the Varscona before they close for the long-awaited renovations – the first time of the last time.

John Hudson directed Scott Sharplin’s two-hander about the relationship between two awkward diffident quirky characters, Ben (Mat Busby) and Airlea (Madeleine Suddaby).  The characters start by addressing the audience directly, explaining that they’re going to tell the story of their relationship and then getting sidetracked in questions of the definition of story and the definition of relationship.  I’ve seen Mat Busby before doing characters whose social awkwardness was part of their charm (The Jazz Mother, The Invention of Romance), and although Ben was not the same character as either of those I appreciated him in a similar way.  Airlea was the more outgoing one of the pair, more resistant to romance or commitment, but a recurring theme is her wanting him to dance and him refusing.

A succession of scenes interspersed with bits of narration to the audience shows the progression of their lives and their interactions, from the night they first meet through deciding to stay together with “no ties and no lies”, the life-milestone of friends’ weddings, and then working out what they want as the original “contract” becomes less of a good fit. Their banter starts out charming and very believable, and the deeper issues encountered later in their lives are addressed with home truth and a light touch.

Cultural referents that wrapped around the story include “The Lady, or The Tiger?” (the Frank Stockton short story), “Let’s Do It” (the Cole Porter standard), and astrology vs astronomy.  A small symbolic gesture including the audience near the end brought me to tears with its simple perfection.  First Time Last Time runs until March 29th, with advance tickets available at Tix on the Square.


Fiddler on the Roof

The Holy Trinity Players just finished a brief run of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, and were close to sold out.  They’re already planning to remount the show for Edmonton Fringe 2015, so you’ll have a few more chances to see this production if you missed it this weekend.  The play was directed by Morgan Kunitz with Darlene Kunitz as musical director.

Fiddler on the Roof, as you probably know, is the story of the poor dairyman Tevye in a small Jewish village in Tsarist Russia at some time period probably just before the revolution.  He and his wife Golde (Cindy Gaffney) have five daughters, some of them of marrying age but without dowries, so the parents depend on the matchmaker Yente (Gail Boutilier).  However, the younger generation makes their own choices, defying arranged-marriage traditions bit by bit (a love match!  worse, a love match with a Communist who gets sent to Siberia!  even worse, a love match with a Russian Christian and an elopement to be married by a priest!)

in this production the demanding part of Tevye is played by local lawyer Andrew Hladyshevsky.  I was especially impressed by how he made the very familiar material seem fresh and original, with delight and indignation arising equally naturally on his expressive face.  There’s a cast of about 30 people, managed smoothly on a moderately-sized stage at the front of the church sanctuary.  The sanctuary space provided for effective staging of scenes such as many households chanting the Sabbath blessings and lighting candles along all the aisles, a wedding procession up the centre aisle, a secret Christian wedding at the altar at the far (upstage) end of the sanctuary, and the exile/emigration down the aisle at the end.


The Falstaff Project: hanging out in a bar with Thou art Here Theatre

  • Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I is a story about the prodigal Prince Hal, the heir to the throne of his father King Henry IV.  While the king is busy fighting rebels, the Prince of Wales is carousing with disreputable companions in taverns.
  • Thou Art Here Theatre is a local company focusing on site-sympathetic and immersive adaptations of Shakespeare.
  • The Artery is a small community-driven liquor-licensed arts and music venue near downtown.  (They’re being forced to close their doors at the end of the month, but are working to find a new location and continue with their mandate.  Their fundraiser is here.)

Put these three together and you can see where it’s going:  telling the story of Henry IV Part I as seen from inside a tavern, at The Artery.  Andrew Ritchie developed the adaptation and directed the show, cleverly bringing the important bits happening outside the tavern in using multimedia – clips of breaking TV news read by the Messenger (Katie Hudson), TV interviews with the rebel Hotspur hiding out in a cellar (Ben Stevens) and with the King giving press conferences in City Hall (James MacDonald), Hal’s texts and FaceTime calls with the King.  Prince Hal (Neil Kuefler) and his friend Falstaff (Troy O’Donnell) hang out in the tavern managed by Hostess Quickly (Nancy McAlear) and her employee Francis (Ben Stevens), and their bluff sidekicks Poins (Alyson Dicey) and Bardolph (Jesse Gervais) drop in with rowdy schemes.

If you’re feeling hesitant about what you have to do as an audience member in an immersive theatre experience, this is a good one to start with.  Because basically, you can just sit in the tavern with a drink and watch the story happen around you, with no more work than twisting your neck.  Or you can get up and go get another drink, or you can engage with the players a bit more if you want.

I’m not very familiar with the source text, so I can’t tell you how the adaptation varies.  It seems to have much of the original language, but all the performers are comfortable enough with the Shakespearean text that it’s easy to follow and not distracting.  McAlear is especially natural as a timeless tavern-keeper.  Kuefler manages Prince Hal’s transition from irresponsible scamp to a smooth officer for his father with a surprising shift in body language as well as costume.  And O’Donnell was a delight as the lazy greedy opportunistic middle-aged knight Falstaff.  I got a little tired of all the fat jokes, but I guess I should take that up with Shakespeare and the audiences he was writing for.

The Falstaff Project is playing at The Artery until Sunday night – and oh! I forgot to tell you the other cool thing.  There’s music afterwards.  Different local musicians are playing after every performance, and admission to that is free with the play ticket, or $5 just for the music.  Advance tickets are here.


Vigilante: inexorable tragedy with Catalyst style

A new Catalyst Theatre production.  Their first show in the Maclab Theatre intimate thrust stage at the Citadel.  Part of the Citadel subscription series.  It didn’t matter what it was going to be about; I was going to see it for sure.

The fact that it was about the Black Donnellys of 19th century southwestern Ontario, their feuds with neighbours and their brutal mass murder, was a bonus.  I grew up in southern Ontario, and this was one of the true-crime stories that my classmates did fascinated book reports on (that and the story of Evelyn Dick and the murder of her husband even closer to home in the 1940s).  Although I hadn’t actually read The Black Donnellys, The Donnellys Must Die or James Reaney’s play cycle, I felt familiar with and connected to the story.   And with that superficial knowledge acquired as a young person, I think I probably reconciled the story in my brain as “fair” on some level – a family of outlaws commits various crimes on their law-abiding neighbours and gets murdered because of it.

But partway through last night’s first preview performance of Jonathan Christenson’s new rock musical about the family, I changed my mind.  Christenson’s version provided some sympathetic portraits of the young immigrants James and Johanna Donnelly (David Leyshon and Jan Alexandra Smith) fleeing their feuding families in Co. Tipperary, Ireland for a fresh start in Canada, discouraged and cheated in acquiring Ontario farmland, and discovering their immigrant neighbours tenacious in the grudges of the Old Country.   As in the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the family’s strengths (fierce loyalty to each other and determination to succeed) are also the qualities leading inevitably to their downfall.  The performance made me care about them and mourn them.

So that’s the story.  But it was a Catalyst Theatre production, with Jonathan Christenson credited as writer, director, composer, and librettist, and the Catalyst design aesthetic expressed in ragged near-colourless layers of costume by Narda McCarroll, in cold stark lighting by Beth Kates, and in the spare barn-skeleton set by Christenson and James Robert Boudreau, so it was told with style.   I’ve seen two other Catalyst productions, The Soul Collector and Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe (which is playing off-Broadway until the end of March).  I found Vigilante more passionate and more accessible than either of them, but still stylized and atmospheric.  Like the other two plays, much of the story is told in narration to the audience, in this case mostly by eldest son William Donnelly (Carson Nattrass).  Most of the text seems to be prose, unlike Nevermore which is full of rhyming couplets.   And there was music.  The music played by Matthew Skopyk, Morgan Gies, Emily Siobhan McCourt, Nathan Setterlund, and Kurtis Schultz had elements of screeching hard-rock guitar, frenetic Irish-dance fiddle, lyrical love-duet poetry, and persistent compelling drumming, and there was singing and movement.  I don’t have a very good memory for tunes, so I can’t recall anything well enough to sing it today, but I wish I could.   Oh, except for the repeated motif “tick…tock… goes the clock … light the lamp and lock the lock …” I loved the music, despite some occasional difficulty hearing the singers over the band in the first act.  There were also a few moments where the music, the powerful movement in boots, and the industrial shadow-lit set reminded me of the U of A’s recent Studio Theatre production of Threepenny Opera.

Neighbours and adversaries of the Donnellys were played by the same actors who also played the six sons, Nattrass (William), Scott Walters (Tommy), Kris Joseph (Daniel), Eric Moran (Robert), Lucas Meeuse (Johnny), and Benjamin Wardle as the youngest Michael.  All of the characters in the story had accents with enough Irish features to be credible yet comprehensible, consistent with growing up in an immigrant community.  The Donnelly sons also swore a lot when they were angered or when being wound up to fight by their mother.  Sometimes the modern-sounding vulgarities made audience members giggle nervously, and pulled me out of the story a bit.

The action started slowly in the first act, with William and his brothers giving an introductory narrative then Johanna and James falling in love in Ireland despite family opposition.  Things speeded up after intermission, with the family members’ doom coming closer and more unavoidable.

Vigilante is playing at the Citadel until March 29th.  Tickets are available here.  Tonight (Sunday March 8th) is the Pay What You Can performance, and I would imagine that the ticket line-up for that at the Citadel box office is forming as I write.  I liked it and I found it challenging, so I’m trying to figure out if I have time to see it again.  But on this week’s calendar I also have Fiddler on the Roof, The Falstaff Project, First Time/Last Time, and a U of A Drama production of A Winter’s Tale, and before the end of the month also Arcadia, dreamplay, and Book of Mormon.  So much theatre, so little time.