Author Archives: Ephemeral Pleasures

Theatre out of the theatre

I attended three performances last week, none of them in conventional theatre spaces.  And I attended a rehearsal in a living room, for an indie production that may culminate in workshop/performance in equally unconventional space.

There is something truly inspiring and welcoming about using found space to create and share performance, about taking advantages of the quirks of the location to develop site-specific performance, and about bringing live entertainment to places the audience is already comfortable with, rather than trying to draw new audiences in to a conventional theatre with all its inherent cultural expectations (do I dress up?  do I fit comfortably in their seats?  what if I get restless?  can I afford it?  can I bring refreshments? etc).

Two of the performances I attended this week were staged readings rather than fully staged productions.  That means that the actors had the scripts in front of them, on music stands.  There were no sets or props, no fancy lighting or sound effects, just the narrative and the actors delivering it.

Alberta Playwrights’ Network hosts a “Script Salon” once a month, a public reading of a new script by one of their members.  This month it was Blaine Newton’s Bodice Ripper. (Blaine Newton’s play Bravo! about nuclear testing in the south Pacific was performed by Shadow Theatre a few years ago).  Tracy Carroll directed the reading, and the readers were Perry Gratton, Jenny McKillop, Sam Jeffrey, Patricia Cerra, Jacob Holloway, and Jake Tkaczyk.  The actors took turns reading the setting description notes and stage directions, and from these we learned that the action all took place in the main room of a small holiday cabin in the mountains, in the 1960s.  The premise is that a group of friends borrows the cabin retreat with a plan to write a novel collaboratively – maybe a romance, a bodice-ripper, maybe a murder mystery or thriller, they can’t agree.  Without a visible set, I pictured something like the cabin in Teatro’s Sleuth a few years ago, or maybe the Mayfield’s stylish Long Weekend, or the one in Ruth Ware’s thriller novel In a Dark, Dark Wood.   As was pointed out in the lively talkback discussion afterwards, setting it in the 1960s “raised the stakes” for female characters who had been resenting the men who underestimated them – and it also provided for a fully-staged production to benefit from the audible and visual business of feeding paper into a typewriter, typing (quickly, slowly, or clumsily with mitts on), and pulling paper out to crumple it or file it.  Script Salon is open to the public, admission by donation.  The April session will mark five years of the project, and promises to also have cake and live music.

The other staged read I attended was Social Studies, a play by Winnipeg playwright Trish Cooper.    The reading was in a suburban community league hall, hosted by a regular seniors’ social group there – there were folding chairs, a small stage, and a cheerfully-staffed snack bar, but no other theatre amenities – no dimmed lights, no sound amplification or hearing-assist loop, no reserved seats, no programs.  And of course no set pieces, props, or actor movement.  But I loved it regardless.  Kristin Johnston plays Jackie, a young woman who arrives with suitcases (and metaphorical baggage) at her childhood home after a breakup, only to find that her mother (Leona Brausen) has given away her room to a Sudanese refugee (Deng Leng).  Rebecca Merkley plays teenage sister Sarah.  The play’s narrative intersperses snippets of a class presentation Sarah gives to her class about the Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese refugees in Canada, with scenes of how this works out in real life in the household.  I thought the dialogue was well-written, credible, funny, and affectionate.  It reminded me of a mix of Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek, in the way it portrayed 21st-century mismatches between parents and children, and between well-meaning people of different cultural and religious backgrounds.   Specificity made it more powerful (audience members at the reading shared afterwards that they were familiar with the meat-packing plant in Brooks hiring Sudanese workers, as mentioned in the text).  The readers were all good, bringing life to the script with comic timing and pathos, with Leona Brausen particularly powerful as the slightly-hippie single-mother/activist.  The reading was directed by Jake Tkaczyk, who also read the stage directions.

In a change of pace from the staged readings, Tuesday night I attended opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Gregory Caswell in the title role, Marisa West playing her husband Yitzhak, and musicians Matt Graham, Sean Besse, Connor Pylypa, & Sam Malowany as the backup band.  Brennan Doucet directed.  It was fully staged, with all the rock/punk music and over-the-top costumes.  And it was performed in Evolution Wonderlounge, the small subterranean LGBT+ nightclub down the street from Rogers Place.  This worked perfectly with the musical’s storyline that Hedwig and her band are performing in a low-prestige venue near where her estranged former lover/protege Tommy Gnosis is playing an arena show – and every now and then Hedwig throws open a door and we “overhear” Tommy Gnosis’s over-amplified between-songs musings.

Hedwig is a cult phenomenon, an off-Broadway show that opened in 1998, a film version in 2001, and a first Broadway version in 2014-2015 (I saw that one, with Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall in their Tony-award-winning performances).  It’s a rather odd story, using the late-20th-century divided Berlin as a metaphor for love and gender and a seeking for wholeness and re-unification.   Caswell owns the role and the stage, from eyeshadow to stilettos, a fierce, tragic, brave genderqueer performer telling us her story and singing her songs.  Marisa West plays Hedwig’s Croatian husband Yitzhak, surly and resentful at the start but reborn in beautiful drag for the finale.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch has one more performance tomorrow night (Saturday Mar 16th).  It’s not quite sold out, but it probably will be.

 

Unexpectedly touching and hilarious: Small Mouth Sounds

I have just seen some of the funniest stage business that I’ve seen in about a year.  And some touching character reveals that I didn’t see coming, despite thinking at the start that I recognized all these characters because I had been in yoga classes or support groups or retreats with all of them.

Wildside Productions’ Small Mouth Sounds, written by Beth Wohl and directed and designed by Jim Guedo, is playing at the Roxy on Gateway until March 24th.  I loved not knowing much at all about what to expect, and figuring out as it went along who all these characters were and why they were at the retreat.  I don’t want to give away any of the good bits, so you can have a similar experience.

It’s about six people who show up for a five-day silent retreat, and the retreat leader (Nathan Cuckow).  There is something marvelously uncomfortable and exposed about the set, especially in the harsh cold pre-show lighting – not at all like the cozy safe nest of Star of the North Retreat Centre where I attended a silent yoga day last year.   Audience seating is a bit farther back and higher up than it usually is at Roxy on Gateway, adding to the sense of distance.  There is an early scene which ends with each character rolling up their yoga mat – I realized that each of them was doing it in a way that showed who the character was and what their frame of mind was.  The other characters were played by Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Kristi Hansen, Richard Lee Hsi, David Horak, and Garrett Ross.

There is very little spoken dialogue in the narrative.  What there is, matters.  Most of the characters try to keep the discipline of silence, but fail or abandon it when it is important – just enough to give emphasis or provide a little bit more explanation to the audience.  I wondered ahead of time if the silence would feel gimmicky, but it really didn’t – it fit naturally with the context, and gave lots of opportunity for wordless communication of everything from pain to disdain.

I liked it a lot.

Sweat, at the Citadel

I’m at work the other day putting on high-visibility coveralls and safety boots.  And it occurs to me, I saw that on stage last night, middle-aged women matter-of-factly wearing Carhartt work trousers and boots for work without it being a joke or even worthy of comment.  And I have never seen that on stage before.

When I went to see the Citadel’s production of Sweat, the Lynn Nottage drama directed by Valerie Planche, I had not realized that the main characters, the group of co-worker/ friends disrupted when one gets promoted, were going to be women (Marci T. House, Nicole St Martin, Lora Brovold).  This confused me a bit, and then I felt a little silly, for assuming that I’d be seeing another story of men as blue-collar workers and family providers, a trope I’d accepted since childhood viewings of Archie Bunker and Fred Flintstone.  Instead, the script showed three women as the group of friends who had been working “on the line” their whole careers, expecting they’d do so until retirement.

Two of them have young-adult sons also starting their working lives at the mill, played by Andrew Creightney and Chris W Cook.  Their aspirations to work in the mill or to get away from it reminded me of conversations among people I knew when we were teenagers in a mill town.  Chris Cook is so good at portraying dead-end characters I pull for and despair for and want to shake, characters whose naivete or lack of judgement or short-sighted well-intentioned impulses lead them into big trouble.  As soon as I saw his character on stage this time (and in fact, before I recognized the actor), I was internally groaning, oh, NO, you DIDN’T. His friend Chris (Andrew Creightney) has a plan to start studying at the local community college after a summer of saving his mill-work wages, looking beyond the neighbourhood and the mill even before his mother gets promoted and sees a different future for herself.  That it doesn’t work out as well as they dream is the Steinbeck-worthy gut punch.  But this one is happening in times I remember and in places like ones I know.  Oof.  Voice-over headlines read out between scenes show us some of the bigger context, the economic and political happenings over the year 2000 that might be affecting lives in a place like Pittsburgh, and allow jumps forward in time to 2008 to show the outcomes of some of those news items and of the characters’ responses.

The script is subtle, with the outcomes not entirely predictable despite the foreshadowing, and offering some hope and humanity.  Ashley Wright plays the manager of the bar where most of the action happens, Alen Dominguez his employee, and Anthony Santiago the ex-husband of Marci House’s character Cynthia.  I appreciated the understated acknowledgements of how race and gender matter, particularly in the speech where Cynthia talks about how there is more at stake for her, applying for the supervisory position and getting it, because she is female and African-American.  The vague offstage threat of the employers looking to replace everyone with immigrant workers for less money is made immediate and personal when the other characters (and the audience) realize that Oscar (Dominguez), who has been shuffling through the bar bussing tables and cleaning up, is an immigrant whose life would be improved by getting low-paying non-union factory work.

The one thing that I was a little dissatisfied with was that I wanted to find out more about what happened to Lora Brovold’s character Jessie, but maybe that is just because I appreciate the actor’s work.

Sweat is still making me think.  It is playing at the Citadel until February 3rd.

Two storytellers facing forwards

KaldrSaga: stories and storytellers

It’s a Norse-inspired start to the dark and cold of the theatre year – from the chanting and thread-spinning witches of the Malachite Theatre production of the Scottish play being reminiscent of the Norns who control destinies in Norse mythology, to a more explicit tribute to the gods, goddesses, and other beings of the traditions in Harley Morison’s new work KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama for a Midwinter’s Night, playing at The Almanac until Jan 26th.

Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk play storytelling friends Saga and Kaldr, who meet once a year at a pub midway between their homes, to tell stories together and drink and catch up.  And Saga and Kaldr then play the characters in the stories they’re telling, stories from their own history (that include encounters with gods and goddesses, giants, a magpie named Pica, and other beings), and stories of the gods.  I don’t know a lot about Norse mythology (and I’d know even less if it weren’t for the Marvel Cinematic Universe reminding me about Thor and Loki, Asgard and Midgard and Bifröst.) but it didn’t really matter – it’s just a bonus to enjoying the stories that now I can look up the names I can remember – Kvasir, Mosey/Mothi, Sif, Freya.

Sometimes it appeared that the stories were part of a familiar repertoire and we saw the storytellers negotiating as part of clarifying how the game worked.  (“You started this one without me?” “I don’t want to do this one!” “The word fuckboy was not in my mother’s vocabulary!”)  Off the top, the first character to enter endowed the audience with being the pub audience waiting for stories – and this was easy, in the narrow back room of The Almanac with the performers moving back and forth between their tables and their bar (staffed during performance by their stage manager), and the audience seated along the opposite wall.  In telling the stories, they often shifted between characters, sometimes each of them taking a turn with a character as the narrative needed, using common physicality and voice to keep the continuity (like Jamie Cavanagh and Chris Cook in 3…2…1 or like Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan of Rocket Sugar Improv).  This was almost always easy to follow with their shifts of voice and physicality, and sometimes also delightful (the cats pulling Freya’s chariot, and then Freya driving the chariot).

The storytellers told the stories of how they’d met and how they’d come to be travelling.  We learned that they both identified as queer, and that they were both finding better lives on the road than the ones expected by their parents and in their home villages.  We learned how they got to be good storytellers (a deity is involved).  Kaldr, who’s left his home village because of taunts about being gay, seeks out Lofn, the goddess of forbidden love, in hopes she can make things right.  “I’m just like a marriage commissioner” she shrugs, “changing someone’s mind is harder.  For that, you need an army.”

They also told stories of the gods, often with an emphasis on queerness.  There’s a really great sequence at drag-queen open-mic night (including an original song composed by Rebecca Merkley and choreography by C.J. Rowein) And there’s a hopeful twist on how they get the aforementioned army for changing minds.

Near the end, there’s a bit that made my seat-mate and me both shiver with apprehension about what we thought was coming next … but then it didn’t seem to happen the way we were expecting, and we weren’t sure afterwards if it was just a more subtle version of the destiny hinted at, or if the more-open-ended finish suggested they were avoiding that destiny … we didn’t know, but we were both engaged with what would happen to these two likeable characters, Kaldr and Saga.

The play was a great opportunity for the actors to show us many different characters and make them distinct and interesting.  Nasra Adem is a former youth poet laureate of Edmonton.  Their storytelling benefited from the rhythms and style of their spoken-word performance, and it was great to watch their characters bantering and calling-out with joyful confidence.  Jake Tkaczyk’s acting roles have included Caliban in The Tempest, Lady Laura Lee the mysterious bridal shop owner in Don’t Frown at the Gown, a western sidekick of Pretty Boy Floyd the early 20th-century bank robber, and a badly-behaved young teenager in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever, and in KaldrSaga he created some very different characters.  One of my favourite stories was the one where a travelling carver/artist (Adem) barters with a hostile tavern owner (Tkaczyk), one carved chess piece for food and lodging.  Elise Jason was production designer – without making many changes in the bar venue, they used a few simple touches to set us into the pub of mythic storytelling, with the characters’ costumes just slightly set apart from the current norms by a bit more fur and a few more weapons.

I also loved the insertions of current cultural references (Beyoncé, Grindr, a god having not only subjects but “followers”) and cellphone use.

Tickets are available through the Cardiac Theatre website for performances to January 26th, including two performances today (Saturday Jan 12th) at 4 pm and 8 pm.

The Malachites’ Macbeth

I think I’ve probably seen more productions of the Scottish play than of any other Shakespeare play.  At Stratford I saw Maggie Smith play Lady Macbeth, and in a later Stratford production the handwashing scene was played on a starkly-lit stage covered with a large piece of white cloth that the Lady scrunched up in turmoil as she tried to erase the consequences of their actions.  I saw a production at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in which the young lead couple had sizzling chemistry, a Theatre Prospero version at the Thousand Faces Festival with Bobbi Goddard playing the Lady and Elliot James playing the title role, and Reneltta Arluk’s Cree adaptation Pawâkan Macbeth, in which the stakes are raised by making Kâwanihot Iskwew (the Lady Macbeth analogue) pregnant and in which Macikosisân (Macbeth) is drawn further into evil as he is possessed by the cannibal spirit Wihtiko.

Last night I saw the Malachite Theatre Collective version at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (playing until Jan 19th, tickets on EventBrite).  It was good and some things about it were great.  Directing choices by Benjamin Blyth had the witches (Monica Maddaford, Jaimi Reese, Kaleigh Richards) pacing near-silently up and down the aisles of the church observing and compelling the action, quietly keening and hissing and breathing like Darth Vader.  They also worked on a spinning wheel, and made a sort of cat’s-cradle with threads to wind up their charms.  Janine Waddell’s fight choreography included a splendid bit where young Fleance (Anna MacAuley) fights off the assassins using some credible martial-arts-type moves.  Banquo (Colin Matty) and Macduff (Sam Jeffrey) were both good, and the Banquo’s-ghost staging was disturbing.

Macbeth (Byron Martin)’s decay in the second half of the play was illustrated by his slumping on a throne too big for him.  I had some difficulty hearing/understanding him, both when he was shouting in this scene and near the start when he is speaking to the witches, to Duncan, and to his allies.   I also struggled to hear a couple of other characters speaking while facing away from the audience and into the choirloft space of the venue.  Lady Macbeth is played by Malachites’ principal Danielle LaRose.  She also directed/designed the music, eerie chanting, drumming, and Norse/Gaelic soundscapes which made hair-raising use of the acoustic properties of the venue space.   I liked the way that Lady Macbeth paced silently with her lantern through several scenes before the doctor and gentlewoman discussed her new tendency to sleepwalk.  I also liked seeing Macduff and Malcolm (Owen Bishop) play chess through what is sometimes a boring exposition of the state of the conflicts.  This production also did a good job of the heart-wrenchingly poignant scene where Lady Macduff (Monica Maddaford) and her child (in this case a daughter, Anna MacAuley) enjoy playful sass while the audience knows the assassins are coming.   Other actors for this production included Bob Greenwood, Dana Luebke, Brennan Campbell, Brann Munro, Naomi Aerlan, and Marie Boston – a big enough company to create the sensation of being surrounded when the soldiers march up the echoing wooden floors between audience pews.  There were a few places where I was confused about who the characters were, trying to figure out if they were double-cast.

Sarah Karpyshin’s set makes good use of the shape and existing furniture of the Holy Trinity sanctuary space, with one brilliant gun-on-the-mantle touch which I will not spoil.   Costumes (Dana Luebke) were simple, fighters in tunics and fur leggings and cloaks, women in simple robes, English soldiers in mail coifs and St George’s Cross tabards familiar from this company’s production of Henry V.

I usually have a hard time being convinced of the title character’s relatively quick transitions in this story from modesty to ambition to desperation, and this production was no exception.  If I went to see it again (I probably don’t have time), I would try to sit closer to the front and listen/watch closely in the early scenes.

If you have time and you like Shakespeare, or sword-and-dagger fighting, or stories of ambition and temptation and everything going wrong, then you should see Macbeth.

Christmas pleasures

It’s almost Epiphany, time for me to throw out the leftover turkey, finish the chocolate and mince tarts, unplug the tree, and get back to rehearsing and watching theatre.

But first, I want to tell you about two Christmas-ish theatre productions.  This year I didn’t see Christmas Carol, Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant, or Nutcracker Suite.  You probably already know what they’re like, though.

The panto is a Christmas tradition in England and other parts of the UK, and Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park has been presenting a pantomime around Christmas for five years now.  It’s one of the few theatre productions in town that has a performances on Christmas Eve (a matinee) and between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, so I always like going to it while the rest of my schedule is on pause.

This year’s production of Red Riding Hood was written and directed by Dana Anderson, and featured Madelaine Knight (as Red), Jeff Halaby (as Red’s mother and grandma as well as some other characters), Aaron Macri (on-stage DJ), Melissa MacPherson in various roles, and Davina Stewart as a wonderful Big Bad Wolf villain.  It was lots of fun, with clever topical humour (the beach-boy from Accidental Beach especially) and enthusiastic audiences.

The other play I saw before Christmas was about Christmas traditions, about an engaged couple first discovering their mismatched preferences and trying to figure out how to be happy and together despite them.  Conni Massing was the writer of Oh! Christmas Tree and Brian Deedrick directed the co-production by Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart.  Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle were perfectly cast, she embracing her overbearing Swedish family’s traditions and he preferring to avoid the whole thing.  They alternated scenes in front of a curtain (outdoors, and talking to an unseen clergyman at premarital counselling) with pulling back the curtain to reveal a living room which was decorated differently every time.  (I was impressed with the running crew!)  The ending was happy without being glib, and felt fair to me.

 

 

The other Miss Bennet, in Christmas at Pemberley

I have not always been a Jane Austen fan.  When I was young, I had some difficulty understanding irony, cutting politeness, and the dry humour of understatement, so I think my early attempts to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma probably left me missing most of the point.   A performance of Pride and Prejudice at Red Deer College a few years ago,  some Austenophile friends who shared movie versions of Pride and Prejudice and of Lost in Austen, and the PD James mystery novel Death Comes to Pemberley have given me a better appreciation of the comedy of manners style and the story of the Bennet sisters.

The current Citadel Theatre production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margaret Melcon, directed by Nancy Macalear, is a lot of fun, given that I already knew the basics of the story and had wondered what happened afterwards, especially to the younger Bennet sisters.  I don’t think it would have been quite as amusing if I didn’t already know the characters. This play takes place a couple of years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice, with Jane (Emma Lalshram) and Elizabeth (Allison Edwards-Crewe) happily married to Mr Bingley (Cameron Kneteman) and Mr Darcy (Mat Hulshof), Lydia (Emma Houghton) not so happily married to Mr Wickham, Kitty off in London with some aunts and uncles and not part of this story, and Mary — middle sister Mary (Mikaela Davies), the bookish and musical one who kept butting into conversations with awkward pronouncements about facts, had at first enjoyed having her sisters away from home, because she could play the piano and read as much as she wanted, but had gradually become dissatisfied and restless, realizing that she would be expected to remain at home caring for her aging parents until they died, and then would lose her home as some distant male relative would inherit the estate.  One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about the story in this play was that the girls’ parents, Mr and Mrs Bennet, were not really part of it, but they were not dead either.  The grown sisters manage their own lives and each other’s, acknowledging their parents’ flaws affectionately and finding their own solutions.   I enjoyed seeing how the sisters still knew exactly how to irritate each other, and at the same time worried about each other and had fun together.  Like the Bennet sisters, I too have four siblings whom I don’t see very often, and this felt realistic to me.

Mary and Lydia are the interesting ones in this play – Lydia’s outrageousness made me laugh and wince and feel sorry for her, and Mary’s isolation and longing for study, travel, and kindred minds made it easy for me to identify with her.

The cast of characters was rounded out with Anne de Bourgh (Gianna Vacirca), a canonical status-conscious cousin and former fiancee of Fitzwilliam Darcy, and added character Arthur de Bourgh (Umed Amin), Anne’s own cousin who has just inherited Anne’s home Rosings after the death of her mother the awful Lady Catherine.

I was a little disappointed in the portrayal of Elizabeth and Darcy, because the conflicts between her snarkiness and his shyness-coming-across-as-rude were the most interesting feature of the original book/movies/play.  Elizabeth can still be a bit sarcastic, but she and Darcy seem almost boringly in tune with each other (except about one item of household decor).  In a couple of charming scenes, Mat Hulshof’s Darcy shares his own muddled romantic history  with the even more awkward Arthur and gives him useful advice – while Bingley’s more generic courting advice doesn’t fit at all.

I enjoyed the bits where one character complains about feeling trapped, and another character calls him or her on it, pointing out the existence of choices – especially when Arthur is griping about the burdens of inherited estate and familial expectations and Mary points out that his situation actually has much more flexibility than her own, the female side of property-entailment.

Miss Bennet:  Christmas at Pemberley continues until December 9th in the Shoctor Theatre, meaning that it overlaps with Christmas Carol in the Maclab downstairs.