Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Photo

The Photo is about an hour long.  I’m glad that it wasn’t longer because I was so worried about the characters that I could hardly breathe.

Elena Porter and Michael Peng stagger separately onto the stage, not quite aware of each other.  At first they both seem shocked by something that’s just happened, but their responses are different enough that the nature of the awful thing wasn’t immediately clear to me.  But the basic sad event is clarified quickly, so that one character seems to be grieving in a conventionally comprehensible way and the other is alarmingly detached from reality.  I did keep wondering in the back of my mind whether I was wrong, or whether more horrible details would come out later, but I was relieved to have my guess confirmed, and could then watch the couple cope and connect.

I don’t think I’ve seen Michael Peng and Elena Porter on stage together before, but I’ve seen both of them in challenging roles in dark or painful stories – Peng in An Accident and in The Kite Runner, Porter in The Three Sisters and in The Clean House.  And they were both good in The Photo.   Peng’s thin-lipped quiet background anguish and Porter’s sparkling surface cheer over pain suited the roles well.  The script provided enough resolution that I could breathe again, and I felt as if the two characters were beginning to understand each other’s needs and would be able to take care of themselves and each other.

I do not have personal experience of the kind of loss experienced by the characters.  I don’t think I’d recommend this play to someone who has, without offering to warn him or her, but on the other hand without knowing what to expect I found the initial scene disturbingly effective, and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone else.

The Photo is playing at C103 until May 23rd.  It’s a Theatre of the New Heart production, written by Dana Rayment and directed by Michelle Kennedy.  Advance tickets are, of course, at Tix on the Square.

From Cradle to Stage 2015

From Cradle to Stage is a Walterdale Theatre spring tradition.  Playwrights submit new scripts. in the fall. One or two are chosen, and the playwrights work with a dramaturg over the winter before auditions and a production in May.  This year’s dramaturg was Mieko Ouchi.

This year you can watch two plays in the From Cradle To Stage evening:  a staged reading of Magpies by Mary-Ellen Perley (directed by Maia Pearson), and a full production of Jesus Master Builder by Mark Allan Greene (directed by Trish Van Doornum).

The first made me teary eyed and the second made me giggle uncontrollably when I wasn’t groaning at the puns.

Magpies is a three-hander, a set of conversations among a grandfather (Michael Schaar-Ney), grand-daughter (Shanni Pinkerton), and the mother/daughter of the in-between generation (Stephanie Swensrude).  It’s set locally in neighbourhoods I could picture easily from the few stage directions.   It worked very well as a staged reading because the important parts were the relationships, the interactions, and the conversations about the past, rather than the incidents taking place on- or off-stage during the time frame of the play.  Although in a fully-staged production it would be fun to see the grandfather trying to shoot magpies with a Super Soaker.  It touched on familiar themes – the allying of the older and younger generation against the uptight middle, the results of secrets kept, and the aftermath of death in the family and grief.

The second play, Jesus Master Builder – A Divine Comedy was a pun-filled exploration of the premise that although Jesus was canonically working with Joseph as a carpenter, he wasn’t necessarily any good at it.  The script referred to a very large number of the familiar New Testament stories and King James Version/Vulgate quotations, sometimes in appropriate context and sometimes almost randomly.  While we see Jesus (Michael Gordon) talking to God (the credibly awe-inspiring voice of Alex Hawkins), calling his disciples (Andrea Newman, Curtis Johnson, Michael Laplaunte, etc), and conducting his ministry, interspersed scenes tell the story of Jebediah (Brad Bishop) and his unnamed wife (Jenn Havens), on their own mission to have Jesus fix their badly-built house.  On that quest they collect their own followers, a Condo Association board of misfits (Sean Richard MacKinnon, Curtis Johnson, Monica Maddaford).  Havens and Bishop are especially funny.   Jenn Havens’ character uses a lot of Yiddish words and intonations but nobody else does, and this is eventually addressed in the text.  Jesus and his followers sometimes speak in a KJV-like dialect (thee, thou, -eth), modern youth slang which irritates his mother (Monica Maddaford).  Kirk Starkie is an emotionally-overwrought Joseph, a step-parent complaining about the “fun weekend dad”, and Michael Schaar-Ney is Michael Hutz, a reno-salvage contractor like a version of Mike Holmes in tunic, tzitzit, and steel-toed sandals.

I thought it ran a little long.  In the second half it slowed down a bit from a strong funny start.  You will find the writing particularly amusing if you have experience with New Testament stories, condominium politics and repair orders, and/or father-figure rivalries, but enough is going on that it’s okay if you miss some of the allusions.  I also liked the costumes (Geri Dittrich) a lot.

The double bill opens tonight (Monday May 18th) and continues until Saturday, May 23rd.  Advance tickets are available at Tix on the Square, with tickets available for purchase at the theatre starting at 7 pm each night.

Script submissions for the 2016 From Cradle to Stage project are due at the theatre September 15th.

tribes at the Timms

Nina Raine’s drama Tribes is the last show in the U of Alberta Studio Theatre season.  It was directed by Amanda Bergen as part of her MFA Directing studies, and design was by MFA Design student Robyn Ayles.

The play explores some of the difficulties and felicities occurring with overlaps between Deaf culture, hearing culture, and the idiosyncratic culture that’s built up within a family.  In the first scene, the family is gathered around a dining table, probably at breakfast time.  The parents, played by Ashley Wright and Judy Ferran, have three young-adult children living at home (Zoe Glassman, Mathew Hulshof, and Connor Yuzwenko-Martin). Conversations are chaotic, loud, acrimonious, repetitive, and obscene.  After a while my attention was drawn to the one person on stage who wasn’t engaged in argument but mostly sitting upstage eating his cereal, Connor Yuzwenko-Martin’s Billy.  Nobody else in the family seems to expect him to be part of the conversations.  A few side comments and responses indicate that he is deaf, and mostly ignored even when he tries to participate.  Other family members all seem self-absorbed, troubled, and wrapped up in their own creative projects.

Billy’s life begins to change when he meets Sylvia (Bobbi Goddard), a young woman who was raised hearing in Deaf culture but is now going deaf herself.  The two of them do not communicate easily either because Billy speaks with difficulty and does not sign and Sylvia doesn’t lip-read well.   However, they are drawn to each other.  Sylvia motivates Billy to learn ASL, suggests a job which would reward his skilled lip-reading, and challenges his family’s hostility towards Deaf community while opening up about the problems she sees there.  In one of the most telling exchanges, the father Christopher asks her condescendingly what Deaf culture is like, and when she replies “hierarchical” it’s clear that he has no idea how to respond to a perceptive and critical answer.

I did not feel as if the play told me anything I didn’t already know about the issues around contemporary Deaf, deafened, and hearing-world interactions or about ASL linguistics, but it illustrated them in a compassionate thought-provoking way.  But it was not just the story of Billy encountering a world where he could communicate easily and Sylvia having to cope with losing her hearing.  The issues around Billy’s job interpreting video-recordings for court testimony, standards of proof and ability to fill in stories by assumptions, were fascinating.   Various balances in family expectations and culture are upset when the former “mascot” of the family develops outside life and confronts his parents and siblings.  None of them ever listens to each other.  They always counted Billy as the sympathetic listener, but it didn’t seem to matter whether he could understand them.  Another level of irony is that the father is shown studying conversational Chinese language, but has never tried to learn sign.  The story ends with a small sentimental gesture of outreach, but problems are mostly left unsolved in a credible way.

I am hearing and I do not sign.  I had a good enough understanding of what was taking place on the stage with the help of surtitling for some of the Sign conversations and some of Billy’s speech, as well as his postures and facial expressions and the responses of the other characters.  I was uncomfortable and embarrassed about not understanding more of what he was saying with his voice, but I felt like that was appropriate.  It also reminded me of the first time I saw Mat Hulshof on stage, when he was playing a disabled teenager with speech difficulties in Kill Me Now.  The inclusion of Bobbi Goddard’s character Sylvia, someone who could speak clearly and also discuss nuances of Deaf and deafened life, enriched the story and also made it logistically easier for a hearing person to be engaged.  I found Goddard’s performance particularly moving, alluding to the flaws in the community she’d been raised in but still feeling protective of them, and especially in the scene where she struggles with losing the last bits of hearing her own voice.  At first I thought her character might be a device like William Hurt’s in Children of a Lesser god or Donald Wood’s character in the Steven Biko biopic Cry Freedom, a dominant-culture ally who is easier to identify with than the uncomfortable-making minority character, but I changed my mind, as I came to see that her conflicts were as significant a part of the story as Billy’s.

The performance I saw was interpreted by four ASL interpreters, who moved smoothly to the sides of the stage as needed, each interpreting for one of the characters in the conversation.  Although I did not understand what they were saying, I could easily tell who was speaking for which character because of their gestures and attitudes.

Tribes continues at the Timms Centre until Saturday May 23rd, with tickets at Tix on the Square.  The Saturday closing performance will have live ASL interpretation, as did an earlier one.

The Ugly One

The Ugly One, written originally in German by Marius von Mayenberg, is currently playing at PCL Studio, a Kill Your Television production directed by Kevin Sutley.

Harsh clear lighting and a stark set (Kerem Çetinel) lead into a story with distanced and stylized dialogue, with original musical underscoring (Dave Clarke and Rhys Martin).  The premise is that Lette, a middle-aged male engineering designer (Nathan Cuckow) suddenly discovers that his colleagues and his wife (Nadien Chu) have always considered him unspeakably ugly and never mentioned it.  His wife claims not to mind, but his employer (David Ley) is about to send Lette’s assistant (Chris Bullough) to present their new product, since of course Lette’s face makes it inappropriate for him to go.  It was interesting to explore the concept of how his unattractiveness limits his opportunities with a character for whom that was a completely new concept, rather than a fact of life and society that he’d grown up with.

When a surgeon (Ley) offers Lette the opportunity to change his face, he is apprehensive but agrees.  Surgery takes place on stage, in a dental-office-type chair, with disconcerting and convincing sound effects.  The subsequent unveiling displays Lette as an unusually attractive man, with various consequences.  At this point, I was reminded of various fables and archetypes in which getting what one’s wished for destroys one’s life, like the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw” that we studied in high school English class.  Because it turns out to be not that simple – even getting to present the invention at a trade show brings unwanted complications.

Things get weirder and worse as the surgeon goes on to perform the surgery on others, giving them all the same handsome face as Lette, so that his popularity is temporary, his marriage and employment break down, and he finds ultimate comfort only in a disturbingly narcissistic contact. In a brilliant demonstration of theatre’s ability to convince an audience without the realistic special effects of film, Cuckow’s face, voice, and physical presentation are sufficiently different before and after the surgery to make him look homely beforehand and attractive afterwards with no external assistance that I could detect.  All the other actors in the piece play multiple characters, with subtle shifts in vocal intonation and posture making them easy to distinguish.

The Ugly One continues at the PCL Studio until May 23rd, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.