Category Archives: Alberta

Fully Committed: a table for one in Red Deer

Before last night, I had never thought much about what was happening on the other end of the phone, when I was calling a restaurant to make a reservation. Mind you, I haven’t even done that in recent years – even before the pandemic, my standard of restaurant-going didn’t usually have that much planning-ahead, or if it did, I would have clicked on OpenTable until I found a time that worked. Anyway, I think I always pictured that someone whose main job was to seat patrons or manage the servers or cook would have gotten interrupted in their path by a phone ringing at the host station, and would be standing up in the hallway squinting at a datebook or iPad to match up my request with a schedule. I didn’t realize that taking and negotiating reservations could be a full time job.

Fully Committed, the solo-performer play by Becky Mode, was set in the booking office of a stylish and pretentious Manhattan restaurant around the turn of the 21st century. In the Central Alberta Theatre production directed by Tanya Ryga, Sam Callahan (Ash Mercia) spends her whole shift in this office, some levels below the dining room, kitchen, and chef’s office in literal terms as well as in restaurant hierarchy. She struggles to get signal for her personal cellphone, so that checking in with her father involves standing on a table or climbing a ladder, hollering up at a flip-phone held optimistically aloft.

The main tools of Sam’s job include a wireless headset and multiline business phone, an intercom to upstairs, a red-phone hotline to the chef, and an outsized Rolodex. From her various conversations with co-workers and others, we learn that Sam is also an actor, checking in with her agent about whether she’s getting a callback at the Lincoln Centre, but committed to the restaurant job to cover expenses. And the delight of this script and this production is that the performer plays both ends of all the calls, shifting her body language, voice, accent, and stage business to portray everyone Sam talks to, making the characters distinctive and amusing. Her co-workers include her reservations-office boss Bob, claiming to be stuck waiting for a tow truck on the Long Island Expressway, host Stephanie rolling napkins and cutlery while she chats, her kitchen allies Oscar and Hector, a hostile French chef on duty (Jean-Pierre? Jean-Claude?), and Chef, addressed only by title. Chef is especially memorable, because he takes calls through the earthy details of his morning’s routine and other crass personal habits particularly horrifying to see in someone who works in food service.

And I haven’t even started on the customers! From the name-dropping entitled to the out-of-towners intimidated by the “molecular gastronomy” menu and the indignant “senior citizen” wanting a discount and bigger portions, Sam isn’t unkind to any of them but she definitely loses patience.

For a script that is mostly about talking on the phone, director Ryga and performer Mercia have built in a lot of movement on the large stage with detailed realistic set dressing of all the clutter accumulated in a restaurant office (set designer Dawn Harkema). When the performer is voicing one of the offstage characters on the other end of the phone, she uses the supplies in the office to be whatever props the other character would be using – a cook using a clipboard as a frying pan and adding seasonings from a bowl, a Mafia-connected customer stroking a hefty black object as he demands a better table – I was sure it was actually a gun, and then realized it was a stapler, but the performer’s way of holding it sold it as a gun.

There is a plot arc, a crisis, a resolution, but I won’t detail them even though the show has closed, because I liked being surprised.

Appropriately, the performance I attended was accompanied by a roast-beef buffet dinner – the first time I’d been at a buffet in two years – no lavender foam or frozen polenta, but good food and drink provided by friendly masked staff and volunteers.

Worth the drive!

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. 

Alice Through the Looking Glass, and what I found there

The audience is different at a matinee of a show advertised as suitable for families.  There are a lot more black velvet dresses and pink snow boots.  I overheard a discussion beforehand about how live theatre is different from movies, with an adult explaining that no, it’s not all going to be on that little screen, and I overheard a discussion afterwards with other audience members saying that they didn’t want to go home yet, they wanted to stay and talk to the characters.  It was also clear to me that some young members of the audience were restless during the long poems and songs, and they didn’t conceal that quite as effectively as I like to think that I do nowadays.  All that being said, I did not find any of the audience members badly behaved or disruptive of my enjoyment of the show.  And I did enjoy it.

Lewis Carroll’s story Alice Through the Looking Glass, written in 1873, was adapted for the stage by Jim DeFelice in 1974, with music written by Larry Reese.  The production currently playing at the Red Deer College Arts Centre Mainstage is directed by faculty member Lynda Adams, and the seven performers are all final year students in Theatre Performance and Creation.

Julia Van Dam played the eponymous Alice convincingly as an imaginative Victorian-era child of “seven years and six months”, daydreaming of imaginary worlds and then landing in an unexpected one where things don’t go the way she dreamed.  Her body language, more expressive than an adult’s but still restricted by custom and crinoline, conveys delight, responsibility, frustration, and relief, and her singing voice is up to the material while not seeming inappropriately adult.

The other six cast members all played multiple characters.  The story was simplified a little bit from the original, but they left in all the important characters – TweedleDum and TweedleDee (Jennifer Suter and Jessie Muir), Humpty Dumpty (Dustin Funk), and some of the chess pieces.  As in the original, and in the playing-card symbolism of Alice In Wonderland, it was interesting to see the chess pieces develop distinctive character traits – the Red King (Dustin Funk) is sleepy to the point of narcolepsy, the Red Queen (Jessica Bordley) is a stern parent/teacher figure hectoring Alice about manners and behaviour while the White Queen (Collette Radau) is endearingly gentle and bewildered, and the White King (Jake Tkaczyk) is forgetful and clumsy.  Except for the Red Queen and to some extent Humpty Dumpty, all the characters treat Alice as an adult with agency, and she readily takes on responsibilities of taking care of herself and of them.  This was satisfying to me as a child reader and was still so as an adult playgoer watching the story through her eyes.

I noticed other ways that my old reactions to the story coloured my responses to the play.  I started out scared of the Red Queen, but I think actually that came from being scared of the playing-card characters in Alice in Wonderland.  I thought the Walrus and Carpenter song was both too long and too disturbing, because that is how I felt about it when I first read it.  In this stage production, I really enjoyed the oysters-as-puppets though.  And I still felt impatient during Alice’s encounter with the White Knight (Jen Suter) in the penultimate square.  As in the book, it felt like an irrelevant delay in order to introduce yet another eccentric character and recite yet another poem.  Jen Suter plays the White Knight with a sort of cowboy accent, perhaps of a cowboy whose range extends from Montana to somewhere in the Old South, but her delivery of the repeated line about “it’s my oooown invention” was very funny, and I heard a lot of adult chuckles during that scene.  I loved the expressive movement and feathery menace of the Black Crow (Jessica Bordley) just before and just after intermission, as the White King flails around causing or harnessing a tornado with his queen’s long unmanageable shawl.

It’s not really a story with a conventional plot arc or a lot of continuity, just Alice’s goal of reaching the eighth row of the chessboard as a pawn so that she can become a queen.  One undercurrent of theme is about names and loss of identity, as several characters warn Alice about losing her name or challenge her to replace it.

In a pair of framing scenes at the beginning and end, Alice is a little girl in her own house interacting with her nurse (Collette Radau) and her cat Dinah (Jessie Muir, with amusingly-credible feline physicality).  The “real” world scenes are shown as silhouette shadows on a scrim, with black and white drawing showing a fireplace, mantelpiece mirror, and chessboard.  This created a magical contrast with the colourful three-dimensional Looking-Glass world, similar to the colour film effect in Wizard of Oz, although I did wonder whether it confused the family behind me, in which an adult had just explained that the live actors in the play weren’t going to be on the screen at all.  The initial scene also made very clever use of the optical trick of having one character farther from the light than the other, so that Alice standing up looked about the same height as her seated nurse.

Outside those scenes was a second framing, as the performance started with a single spotlight outside the curtain (and in fact, outside a “second frame” ornate-scrollwork
mirror-frame decoupaged with mirror-image text from the Jabberwock) illuminating a Storyteller (Jake Tkaczyk) in Victorian-period frock coat, top hat, and white gloves and still demeanour, who sings the Prelude song “Child of the pure unclouded brow”.  His well-trained mid-range voice would not be out of place in musical theatre and his changes in delivery for different parts of the song helped make sense of the rather abstract lyrical poetry.  After the ending scene with real-world Alice on the screen talking over the adventures with her cat, Tkaczyk begins to sing again in costume as the White King but with the Storyteller’s voice, and the curtain rises again on the Looking-Glass world as the other performers join in with the choral finale.  Again, this provides a pleasing symmetry while also covering the musical-theatre convention of an all-cast song leading to the curtain calls.

The chess-piece costumes were very clever, with wide padded stiff hoops at the rim of robes suspended from the performers’ shoulders.  Similar stiff hoops could be spotted at the bottom edges of the knights’ horses, at TweedleDum and TweedleDee’s trouser cuffs, and on various sleeve cuffs.  Alice’s costuming, pink white and black with ringlets and a big hairbow, suited the clear simple palette of the show, but drew attention with small patterns and details reminiscent of the little-girl fussiness of the Harajuku Girls (Gwen Stefani’s backup dancers).

The fantasy world’s set used a revolve painted with a chessboard grid, and a pile of different-height boxes consistent with the grid.  Various trees, flowers, and so on continue the theme of coloured squares.  As I had been spending time with a young nephew before the show I was immediately reminded of the video game Minecraft, but that may not have been intentional.  The momentary jarring sensation when I heard the phrase “grassy knoll” on the 50th anniversary of J.F. Kennedy’s death was certainly not intentional.  The backdrop included a whirling Fibonacci-sequence checkerboard cloud formation.  Four stage technicians, students in the Theatre Production program, (Michael Johnson, Jordan Kruithof, Astrid Olivares, Jesse Robbins) contributed visibly to the production, as hands appearing in tables to serve drinks, crew of the Fourth-Square Express train, and especially at discovering Humpty Dumpty after his fall.

In the early performances I saw, there was possibly a little bit of sound balancing inconsistency in the first choral number, “Through the Glass”, and a few places where a performer was not speaking clearly enough to be easily heard from the middle of the big auditorium.  But those are easy details which will likely be corrected before this week’s performances, running Tuesday through Saturday (Nov 26 through 30), with tickets available through Black Knight Ticket Centre as usual.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

Meanwhile, Back on the Couch – enjoyable community theatre comedy with one glaring flaw

The Camrose Morning News is a small printed folder of announcements, ads, and pastimes.  Something interesting caught my eye as I leafed through it at work, an invitation to a play.  The Beaverhill Players, based in Holden AB, were putting on Meanwhile, Back on the Couch, by Jack Sharkey, and touring to Ryley and to the Bailey Theatre in Camrose (Nov 16th) as well as playing in Holden (Nov 2-3).

The tour opened in Ryley last night, as part of a celebration of local businesses.  Nearly 200 people attended and enjoyed a delicious overflowing buffet provided by local caterer Grethe’s Kitchen.  I don’t usually attend dinner theatre by myself (still haven’t made it to the Mayfield) but I enjoyed sitting at a table full of friendly people from all over the region, and I took moderate advantage of the cheapest theatre bar in Central Alberta.  Door prizes, an ice-breaking game, and various business awards added to the fun.

Director Julianne Foster introduced the play, and the traditional stage drapes drew apart to reveal an art-deco-styled office suite with a cleverly-lit New York City skyline out the window.  The skyline art was credited to Inez White.  The main character, psychoanalyst Victor Karleen (Ernie Rudy) wants to publish a memoir of his cases so he can afford a Caribbean honeymoon with his fiancée (Debbie Perkins).  But we soon see that he also wants to be a more successful author than his rival colleague (Ray Leiren).  Add in a sassy nurse-receptionist (Laura Rudy), two quirky patients (Dave Maruszeczka and Inez White), a pompous publisher (Gary Kelly), and a college student neighbour on a scavenger hunt (Crystal Hedeman), and madcap hijinks begin to follow, because it’s that kind of farce.  Hijinks include an eavesdropper falling into the room, someone undressing while someone else is turned away pouring drinks, and an awful lot of kissing.  Jokes about predictable psychotherapists, single people, married people, and Reader’s Digest might have worked a bit better when the play was first performed in the early 1970s, but the audience still enjoyed them.  I laughed a lot, as did the people around me.

Dave Maruszeczka was especially good, portraying Albert with an endearing consistent mixture of bewilderment and insistence.  The pacing was good except for a few places where the script belabours things a bit.  The blocking worked well for the small proscenium stage and everyone was easy to hear.  There were three acts (two intermissions), and there was too much information about the plot in the act synopses in the program.

I would be recommending this whole-heartedly to anyone who likes community theatre and comedy, except for one jarring directorial choice.  Laura Rudy’s nurse-receptionist character Miss Charlotte Hennebon was played in blackface makeup, with red lips, Afro wig, and eye-rolling, and with the exaggerated gestures of a stereotyped sassy African-American woman over 30.  The actor’s impeccable delivery and timing would have made her scenes a lot of fun to watch, except that I was figuratively wincing in embarrassment every time I saw her.  The Samuel French website listing casting requirements for each play they own says that this one has colourblind casting, and there is nothing in the text suggesting that a character of unmarked ethnicity or different ethnicity wouldn’t work.  I believe that gratuitous blackface is inappropriate in 21st century Canada.  The director and actor should rethink this choice before the remainder of the run.

After that warning and disclaimer, I will tell you that more information about acquiring tickets is at the Beaverhill Players website.

What it means that there’s a museum

Imagine how it would feel if you loved books and libraries, but every time you visited a small town or an unfamiliar city and asked about the library, they directed you to a library museum – a building that had once been a library, that had the architecture of the Carnegie library of your youth, with a bit of the musty smell and the tall shelves preserved, a nominal admission charge and a volunteer at the desk selling bookmarks for the books that weren’t there to borrow.

If church community was a big part of your life, what would it have been like to take a big trip  to Soviet Russia, where Intourist guides showed your group through empty spaces that had once been cathedrals, reciting what they’d memorized about the peripheral details of the building but not acknowledging that people there no longer had a worship space.

What if your childhood had been centred around the local ice rink, where you learned to play house league hockey, went to public skating with your friends, hung out in the lobby and in the stands while your parents and siblings played, and had your first kiss while sitting on the rink manager’s desk with your boyfriend?  But the culture and climate had changed so much within your lifetime that all the rinks were abandoned, except the few which were preserved as arena museums?

Or schools?  If later generations were all to be educated at home and on line, would all the schools be left empty, with local advocates arguing about how to preserve samples of each era of school architecture and fought off developers keen to get at parcels of serviced land?  So that no town would have a school, but every town would have an Old Schoolhouse Restaurant or two?

That’s how I feel about train stations.

I love trains.  I love passenger trains with a passion, but I also love freight trains, even when I am in a bus or car waiting at a level crossing.  I love hearing train whistles at night.  I almost rented an apartment where I could look out on a freight-switching yard, because I thought that would be fun.

I love old train stations that are still used to sell tickets and greet passengers on passenger trains.  I love train stations that now incorporate intermodal traffic as well, like Union Station in Toronto (VIA trains, GO commuter trains, GO commuter buses, and a TTC subway station), the station in Gravenhurst that until recently had Ontario Northland trains, intercity buses, and a taxi company, or the train station in Jasper AB which is also the Greyhound bus station.  I love simple new suburban train stations with their ease of access, friendly signage, clean bathrooms, and amenities suited for a commuting public.

But when I am exploring a town, city, or village that’s new to me and one of the attractions they talk about is a railway museum?  Yeah.  Almost always it means “Trains used to stop here.  But they don’t now, and probably never will again.”  I don’t love that.

Christmas in the Mountains

The last couple of years, I’ve taken VIA Rail to Jasper for Christmas.  The Canadian’s only running two days a week this winter instead of the thrice a week that it’s been running for the last couple of decades, but both years it’s worked out that a westbound train leaves Edmonton early Christmas morning and gets in to Jasper station shortly after noon.

If you aren’t already a VIA Rail enthusiast, the trip to Jasper is a good way to try it out.  You can enjoy the comfortable seats in economy class with lots of leg room, fold-out leg rests, and electrical sockets at every pair of seats.  If you’re a larger party, the train personnel will often rearrange other travellers and rotate some of the seats backward so that you can all sit together and face each other.  Economy-class passengers can go to the snack bar or dining car, and you can enjoy the view from the dome car.  It’s probably obvious that I’m already a VIA Rail enthusiast.  On longer trips I take a lower berth, because I love the meals and the comfort of being able to sleep under a duvet while listening to the sound of the train and watching the stars.  I used some of my VIA Preference frequent-traveller points so this trip was free – and with VIA Preference, free means free, not paying a hundred dollars or more worth of taxes and extra charges like on an airline frequent-traveller ticket.

An etiquette nuance that some train newcomers might not pick up on right away is that when you board in Edmonton, you’re joining people who have been on the train all night, and who might still be trying to sleep.  That’s why the lights are off, and even if you’re excited about the adventure, you should try to moderate your voice in the economy car, and go to the lounge car if you want to play games or talk loudly.

The trip to Jasper starts in darkness if you are travelling in winter, but later in the year the whole westbound leg is in daylight.  You travel through the industrial backyards of northwestern Edmonton, then through countryside, along the edge of Lake Wabamun, then stop at Edson and Hinton.  Shortly after Hinton, you start getting glimpses of mountains and water.  There is one short tunnel.  The service manager sometimes points out features of interest.  The historic train station is central to Jasper townsite.  There’s a coffee shop / train giftshop in the station as well as some car rental agencies and a Greyhound bus depot, and there are taxis and shuttles to the hotels and the youth hostel.

Several of the Jasper hotels offer Christmas packages.  The chatty personal welcome that’s common for service-industry people in Jasper is even stronger at Christmas.  I chose the Sawridge Inn last year because it sounded both appealing and affordable, and I liked it well enough to return this year.  Many of the Christmastime guests are families with children, but not all of them.  Activities for children included decorating gingerbread houses and hanging stockings by the hotel fireplace to be filled overnight.  Jasper Park Lodge has a longer list of activities for adult guests, but it’s more expensive.

sawridge dinner

Selection from Christmas-dinner buffet, Sawridge Inn

For Christmas dinner, this year’s buffet offered roast beef, stuffed pork loin, and two kinds of smoked salmon as well as turkey.  The turkey was served with a good bread stuffing, together in a pan with clear “pan gravy”; there was also an opaque thickened gravy served separately.  They ran out of turkey before service had ended, and substituted another meat dish.  I can’t remember seeing a vegetarian entrée.  My favourite of the side dishes was a “partridge in a pear tree” salad, with roasted beets, pink grapefruit, feta cheese, spinach, and a citrus vinaigrette.  The wine list had many options by the glass as well as by the bottle, including more Niagara Peninsula favourites than are often seen in Alberta.

My room package included a breakfast buffet as well.  It wasn’t particularly exciting, but everything I tried was good.  There was a problem with my dinner reservation which was not handled as professionally as I would have preferred, and I haven’t yet had a response to my email about it or my note on the customer feedback form.  In all other respects the hotel service was good and the amenities were superior.  The Sawridge is on the eastern edge of the townsite, a pleasant walk in last year’s mild Christmas weather.  There is a free shuttle to the train station, and a ski bus also stops at the hotel.

Some but not all of the Jasper restaurants and stores are open on Boxing Day.  Stychen Tyme, the yarn, quilting, and needlework store, is open and worth a visit.  The park visitor centre and museum are closed.  Jasper Brewing Company has an assortment of tasty in-house brews, a short menu of good food including a moist bison burger, and an oddly-disturbing painting of an encounter between the child actor Gary Coleman and the Edmonton Oiler Mark Messier.

Bison burger and side salad at Jasper Brewing Company

Bison burger and side salad at Jasper Brewing Company

Painting at Jasper Brewing Company

Painting at Jasper Brewing Company

Will I go back?  I like the idea of not being bound to a Christmas tradition, even one as easy as this, but I would definitely consider it, either with company or on my own.