Category Archives: festival

An evening of celebrating the Fringe

Part of building and acknowledging a community is making and sharing art about that community. Fringe has always offered opportunities about that, and in recent years has been more intentional about expanding those opportunities to communities who haven’t always been recognized and celebrated in the same way – this year the venue pehonan is an exciting part of that intention.

But the Edmonton Fringe is itself a community. So of course there is art about the Fringe. The poster wall outside the Orange Hall is a lot shorter this year, but the sense of joyful celebration is extended by a complete set of posters commemorating every festival to date, with the imagery used that year for the program book and other publications. There’s an Instagram-ready set of brightly-coloured letters spelling out Fringe, in such a high-traffic area that it’s hard to take a picture without strangers in the way. (Unless, like me, you happen to be on site at 7:30 am.)

On Saturday, I went to three performances that were all celebrations of the Fringe culture. Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre is a long-running improv tradition, in which a small troupe of experienced performers uses the short description in the festival program to create their own version of another show. Their self-imposed rules include skipping over any sketch or improv show, since, according to Mark Meer, that would collapse the space-time continuum. (they might also skip music-based performances too.) The troupe members are currently Jacob Banigan, Mark Meer, and Ron Pederson. It’s easy to see that they know each other well and are having fun together, as they set each other up to do some preposterous stunts while building and resolving a complex plot.

With no printed program book this year, and a relatively small number of suitable shows to choose from, they chose to start from a big stack of program books from past years, using a pseudorandom selection process to choose one show. So the audience (close to or at the 60%capacity limit in the big Varscona theatre space) probably isn’t going to be familiar with the source material. But that didn’t seem to matter. On the night I attended, the inspiration was Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, from a Toronto company in the 1994 Fringe. This allowed the performers another layer of comment/comedy about period customs and about what was okay to say in 1994 and not today. These are some of the best improvisers I have ever seen, and just fun to watch. Some of the remaining performances aren’t sold out. And no, I don’t know why it’s called Gordon’s Big Bald Head.

Die-Nasty is another long-running Edmonton improv troupe, this one in the soap-opera tradition of long convoluted character-driven stories. In a typical season, they have a 50-hour marathon show in the fall, then a series every Monday night all year, and every night of the Fringe there’s one episode of a story that unfolds at the Fringe. I don’t believe they’ve announced their 2021-2022 season plans yet, but the Die-Nasty at Fringe was just as I remembered. A collection of about 8 memorable characters – they have different guests added in each night – sweeps through a Fringe of beer tents, podcast reviews and mistaken slander, rehearsals and life-changing events, hints of romance and darker hints of murder. The night I saw it, the performers included Tom Edwards (a cowboy playwright trying to produce a musical cross between Oedipus and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Belinda Cornish as a famous actress, Hunter Cardinal trying to break away from his soccer-mad family to explore the arts, Stephanie Wolfe as a very strange psychotherapist, Mark Meer as a sort of Hunter S Thompson-esque podcaster, Wayne Jones, Jacob Banigan, and so on. The funniest moment was when one of Wolfe’s patients asked her a question about whether she can make people believe in a different reality or something like that, and she says “oh yes, I’ve been in charge of a whole province’s public health during a pandemic”.

Die-Nasty is sold out for tonight but seems to have some tickets available for tomorrow (Saturday Aug 21.)

The third tradition of performances celebrating the Fringe is Late Night Cabaret. In the Backstage theatre space as the last performance of the night, in a normal year it runs all through the week, filling the space with enthusiastic audience members who are still wide awake. An amazing house band, Ze Punters, with Audrey Ochoa the trombonist, entertains before and between the talk-show hosts and guests from various Fringe shows.

This year LNC has only four performances – on the Fridays and Saturdays of the Fringe. They all sold out quickly, but I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of last weekend’s shows. The music and energy filled the space, but the limited admission meant that there was lots of space for safety and comfort (also short bar queues and no bathroom lineups). It was great to see familiar sets of eyes in the audience, and performance guests both familiar and new to me.

Edmonton Fringe continues until Sunday early evening, August 22, in its small careful format. I’m very glad to be here – and it’s time to head to a show.

Liminality

Liminality is a solo performance by Dr. Steven Andrews, at the Grindstone Studio,a small well-appointed space underneath the Mill Creek Cafe (82 Avenue and 96 Street), entrance from 82nd Ave. (Same building as Sewing Machine Factory.) I last saw Steven Andrews in Kristine Nutting’s site-specific performance Devour Content Here in 2015.

I loved it and I don’t know why.

It’s a simple solo storytelling performance. I started to write that I hadn’t seen anything in this genre for ages, but then I realized that I’d seen quite a few solo shows online and in person since covid made close contacts and cohorts complicated – from We Had A Girl Before You, the last live indoor show I saw in 2020, to Woman Caught Unaware, which is playing at the Varscona Theatre this Fringe, and Deafy, Chris Dodd’s solo at the Backstage space. So why was this different?

Maybe what entranced me about Liminality was that it was so close to failing. The creator/performer was vulnerable, not just in telling anecdotes that purport to be about himself and his personal limitations and fears, but in performing them for paying audiences who might be expecting something more polished, funnier, or more conventionally structured with tidy connections that all fit together at the end. I kept doing the work of looking for the throughline and the callbacks. I found some but never was sure why some of the stories were included. There were a few important props and set pieces, and some sound and lighting cues helped reinforce the beats – possibly suggesting some insight or conclusion that might be drawn.

But like I said, I loved it. You might not.

Two more performances, Saturday and Sunday – and Liminality is also available online, pay what you will.

New local work from diverse perspectives

Edmonton Fringe is a great place to discover new work by local artists. The program (2021: the digital listings on the Fringe website) flags new work and indicates the hometown of the producing company (2021: they’re almost all local or nearby this year, with very few touring artists).

Yesterday I saw three new works by local artists, One Song, Chanzo, and Deafy. All of them were fictional narratives in various genres, and all of them benefited from the lived experiences of the creators.

One Song was advertised as a staged read or workshop performance of a new musical, but was significantly more polished than that description suggessts. Daniel Belland (composer and co-lyricist) played keyboard to accompany the four singer/actors, Jaimi Reese, Manny Agueriverre, Ceris Backstrom, and Josh Travnik. The actors carried scripts but moved through the story and knew the music well. The mood of the story reminded me a bit of Dear Evan Hansen – kind young people getting themselves into believable awkward difficulties, well-meaning adults on the sidelines being vulnerable themselves. Jaimi Reese is spot-on as the wise and feisty single mother to a young lesbian (Agueriverre) with an open door/ear for her daughter’s best friend (Travnik) – even before the song Not This I was thinking the mother probably had her own interesting story. Ceris Backstrom plays three of the mother’s friends, brought in (consensually) to provide some queer perspectives beyond the mother’s own expertise. Backstrom’s acting was good, distinguishing between music-nerd Paul in bow-tie, drag-queen Toast, and lesbian AIDS activist Jen. All of them provided some LGBTQ+ context and incidental education (the QR-code-accessed show program provided some footnotes for audience members curious about some of the details). Agueriverre and Travnik’s characters are about fourteen. Through them we explore some nuances of sexuality-coming-out decisions without the high-stakes consequences of bullying or romance, with a clear message of everyone getting to make their own choice of how/when to share this news. Calla Wright wrote the script and co-wrote the lyrics.

The melodies and accompaniment were interesting, melodic, and in a modern-musical-theatre vein. The duet between Reese and Agueriverre late in the show was particularly strong. I thought there was a bit too much info-dump from Backstrom’s characters, but at the same time I appreciated learning a bit more about LGBTQ+ musicians and activists.

Chanzo is a play written by local playwright, dramaturg, graduate student, and director Mukonzi Musyoki. The title character (David Shingai Madawo) returns from Canada to Kenya after his father’s death, without warning his sister (Onika Henry) that he’s bringing his white Canadian girlfriend Charlotte (Jasmine Hopfe) with him. Henry’s character Bezo speaks many of her lines in Swahili, but no translation is needed to see that she is furious with her brother and the situation and full of contempt for who she thinks Charlotte is. Predictable conflicts ensue and secrets come out. The characters were compelling and I longed for them to understand each other and come to a good resolution. Yet as a viewer I was also satisfied with the more ambiguous ending of the script. One thread of the plot was familiar from a scene written by Musyoki and performed by Madawo in the late-2020 roving theatre piece Here There Be Night.

Deafy is a solo show written and performed by Chris Dodd, directed by Ashley Wright, with choreography by Ainsley Hillyard. It’s told in a mix of spoken English, ASL, and supertitles/captions. The character Nathan Jesper, on an informational speaking tour about being Deaf, decides to abandon his usual lecture script and tell stories about communication. Many of the stories are amusing anecdotes about how he and his friends get by in a hearing-centric world – the one about his friends helping him take his drivers’-license road test is particularly funny while still disappointing me with how unhelpful the bureaucracy is. The stories gradually begin to focus on his search for belonging, in a world where he is too deaf or in a group where he is not Deaf enough, as the choreography, music (Dave Clarke), and arguments with the unseen captioner escalate to express his increasing distress. As with the Swahili in Chanzo, I didn’t feel I was missing too much because I don’t understand ASL.

Brilliant Women on Stage

Two of the plays I saw early in Fringe 2021 featured familiar women on stage in sympathetic nuanced portrayals of women in their middle years. Both, unsurprisingly, were directed by Trevor Schmidt.

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Woman Caught Unaware, by Annie Fox, is a solo performance by Davina Stewart. The art history professor is in her office, planning to head home to her partner, when a student appears outside of office hours. I enjoyed the the confident academic’s wry observations on student behaviour and the changing expectations for faculty members as the student seems reluctant to confide about a problem, and the professor runs through the recent advice on what to do about cyberbullying and other issues. (I was reminded of Professor Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s mystery novels.)

But the student has come to tell – and show – her instructor that it’s actually Professor Conté’s nude image that’s being shared on-line, with harsh comments about her aging body. And while the narrator tries to ignore it, she discovers “allies” all around her, each responding in well-intentioned but self-centred ways to adopt a cause. A protest! A petition! A nude calendar!

We get to see why the professor anticipates the sanctuary of home, in brief affectionate images of her partner Gail (“I’m like a pin, she’s like a pincushion”), their cottage, their garden, the savoury aroma of Gail’s beef bourguignon on the stove (“we’re pescatarian in public, but …”). And she eventually addresses the issue directly (this is me resisting the full-frontal metaphors), in ways that left me satisfied about an articulate older woman taking back power. I loved watching and listening to Davina Stewart in this role.

Woman Caught Unaware has performances Monday through Sunday at the Varscona Theatre with some tickets available for each.

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Destination Wedding is a Whizgiggling Productions work, written and directed by Trevor Schmidt, and performed by Cheryl Jamieson, Kristin Johnston, and Michelle Todd.

Three women meet up after many years, having all been invited to be attendants at an old friend’s destination wedding in a tropical resort location that Honey (Jamieson) insists they not name. Johnston’s Marlene is an artist seated with powerful stillness in black. Todd’s Britt is a lesbian, a successful businesswoman, and the one who slips naturally into curbing the worst of Honey’s impulses (“No, you can’t go get your hair braided on the beach / wear a bride’s tribe t-shirt, that’s appropriative”) her affect suggesting that she does this all day long and she doesn’t expect Honey to learn.

With the three fascinating characters, this premise would be enough to make an entertaining Fringe show – as if the mother’s-friends-chorus in Mamma Mia were distinct interesting people. But it turns into a darker, more ambiguous, story. Various details were mentioned – the kinds of breadcrumbs that a less subtle narrative would explain as Clues. At one point I noticed that the painted backdrop of a resort veranda scene now seemed to have a dark sky and a stormy sea, which I guess was some magic of lighting design (also Schmidt).

While the three are waiting for their old friend the bride to show up, they meet some other significant characters, providing opportunity for these three talented actors to demonstrate their skill distinguishing multiple roles, and for the audience to be even more entertained and diverted from what was turning into a central mystery. I particularly liked Johnston’s Amy, the bride’s daughter, all eye-rolling and vocal fry.

The hints weren’t all tidily wrapped up into clues and exposition, but left in a delicious suspension. I wished I’d gone with a friend to have fun figuring those things out afterwards. Maybe I should go back. But if I do, I better buy a ticket soon, since some of the remaining seven performances are already sold out.

Both these shows are also available for online viewing.

The festivals of summer, part 1.

When I was a little kid, the calendar was divided in two parts:  the school year, in which all the scheduled activities happened week by week and wrapped up in June, and the summer, which started with a parade in June for Flag Day (a local invention) and continued with drive-in movies, ice cream from the local Dairy, camping trips and time at the cottage, and being put to bed with the windows open while my parents and aunts and uncles talked quietly outside with beers, until the evenings started to get cool and the days started to get shorter and it was time to put on leather shoes again and head back to school.

Edmonton theatre life is kind of like that.  The professional companies mostly wrapped up their seasons in time for Sterling Award nomination deadlines, and are on to planning for next winter’s productions.  The awards get announced at a gala Monday night, and the summer celebrations, special treats, and traditions are already in action. Teatro, of course, has already had one play in its summer season, Salon of the Talking Turk, and has opened the second, Jana O’Connor’s Going Going Gone.   The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s just started.

The emerging-artists’ festival Nextfest happened earlier in June.  I took in a few performances – the spoken-word poetry night Speak! hosted by Nasra Adem and Liam Cody, a reading of new work Shadowlands by Savanna Harvey (thoughtful, provocative, and amusing even as a reading – definitely watch for it at this year’s Edmonton Fringe (or at Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, or Vancouver Fringe), and the site-specific piece Everyone We Know Will Be There: A House Party in One Act, by Elena Belyea, directed by Andrew Ritchie.  This was a very cleverly managed piece of roving theatre, with small groups of audience members each invisibly shadowing a specific party-guest character, around the house and yard.  I didn’t know the whole story after one viewing, just the parts that our character (played by Eva Foote) was part of, and some other tantalizing bits we overheard while our character was storming through rooms or having meltdowns in bathrooms.  The piece was so skilfully directed and stage-managed that any adjustments of timing and traffic direction were completely invisible to me, which added to the feeling of eavesdropping on a real story.

Opera Nuova‘s festival of opera and musical theatre continues, with Carousel and The Cunning Little Vixen playing this weekend and next.  Rapid Fire Theatre’s biggest event of the year, Improvaganza, wraps up tonight with four shows.  And Found Festival continues today and tomorrow around McIntyre Park and Old Strathcona.

Found Festival is a small festival of site-specific and found-space performance, currently under the leadership of Beth Dart, multi-talented local theatre maker and event producer.  So if the description of Everyone We Know Will Be There made you curious, or intrigued, or skeptical, then you can come to Found Festival this weekend and see more performances created or curated for unexpected spaces.  McIntyre Park, the little green space with the gazebo in front of the library, is currently set up with a box office tent, live music in the gazebo for free, and a small friendly shaded beer-garden with the best of the Fringe’s furniture and Alley Kat products like Session Ale and Main Squeeze.  (Almost like my parents’ backyard in the old days, except that now I’m old enough to drink and the music is better!)

So far I’ve attended Julie Ferguson’s powerful and thought-provoking solo piece Glass Washrooms, which explores a journey to non-binary gender identity and concepts of spaces one belongs in.  Although originally created for the public-washroom building at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway, the later performances have been moved to the washrooms at the Backstage Theatre in order to reduce disruption to the people needing that essential community infrastructure on Whyte Ave.  There are two more performances today and one tomorrow, and I recommend it highly.

Another intriguing part of the Found Festival is the Admit One performances, short shows of various kinds performed for one audience member at a time.  I’ve seen four of them and I hope to catch the fifth.  They’re all different enough that I find myself delighted and intrigued by each one.   In Shoes and One Man’s Junk explore concepts of memory as the audience member experiences aspects of the neighbourhood space along with the performers.  The character in One Man’s Junk works in the antique store Junque Cellar, and the store background blends smoothly into the apparently-rambling thoughts of the employee on break, performer/creator Jake Tkaczyk.  In Shoes takes the audience member on a short walk around the immediate neighbourhood, on which performers portrayed various people important in a young woman’s life.  I won’t tell you who all was in it, because I liked it better being surprised.  Strife, by Matthew McKenzie and performed by Russell Keewatin, portrays a young man trying to decide on his response to a heartbreaking loss by violence, a loss shared by the audience member.  The Booth: Offerings is a set of improvised responses cascading from an audience member prompt, with Leif Ingebrigtsen’s original piano-playing inspiring Tim Mikula’s visual art and Rebecca Sadowski’s expressive contemporary dance.  Particular care was taken to create safe anonymous space for audience members, and I was glad to have a few minutes of quiet in their decompression space before exiting to a quieter side of the building.

None of the performances made me uncomfortable in that “are we done now?” “where am I supposed to go?” “am I supposed to say something or not?” way that is always a risk with performances abandoning the conventions of stage performance (you know, get a program, sit down on risers with everyone else, chat with background music til the lights go down, watch quietly until the lights come up, applaud, leave).  The performers, directors, and producers had anticipated what guidance each audience member would need, so I could let myself experience each performance in the moment without wondering what to do next or worrying that my responses would throw them off.

It’s the start of a wonderful summer of entertainment celebrations of all kinds in Edmonton, Interstellar Rodeo and Edmonton Folkfest, Street Performers Festival, K-Days, Heritage Days, and Taste of Edmonton, culminating for me at the Fringe, August 17-27.  Summer’s here!

Opera done differently

Last night I attended the Opera Nuova production of the Tchaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin.

It was fascinating.  It has one more performance, tonight at 7:30 at the Oasis Centre in northwest Edmonton.  If you like music or theatre and you aren’t sure if you like opera, this might be a good one to try.

Mind you, there are lots of other opportunities here to see outsider-accessible opera, thanks to the imaginative programming of Edmonton Opera.  But Opera Nuova tickets are less expensive, and this production makes fabulous use of its location.

I believe that’s called “site-sympathetic”.  On arrival at the Oasis Centre, audience members had an opportunity to buy food and drink in the lobby, and then we were directed to seats in a back garden amphitheatre.  I noticed that the audience included some families with children, and a wide range of dress from festive to casual.  (I was relieved about this, since I hadn’t gotten dressed up myself.)   We were seated on comfortable chairs around three sides of a courtyard (and some people were standing up too).  In the periphery I could see some attractive landscaping with pathways and an artificial waterfall.

Opera Nuova artistic director and this show’s director, Kim Mattice Wanat, spoke from the covered bandstand where the orchestra was seated, explaining that later scenes would be set indoors and we would be directed where and when to move.  The sung lyrics would be in Russian, but instead of supertitles we would be given additional glimpses into what was going to happen by a narrator reading some description between scenes or units, Kelly Handerek, There was also a plot summary in the program.

During some instrumental music (overture?) by a 12 piece orchestra under the direction of Gordon Gerrard, some performers entered and seated themselves on garden benches.  The younger women turned out to be sisters Olga (Amanda Weatherall) and Tatiana (Jordanne Erichsen).  The older woman with spectacles, kerchief, and apron was Filipievna, the girls’ old nurse.  I was immediately charmed and impressed that she knitted a sock on four needles throughout the first scene, with the practised ease of an experienced knitter.  The fourth woman in the scene was Madame Larina (Zoë Gotziaman) the girls’ mother.   As advised by the narrator, I could see that Olga was the more outgoing sister, swept away in romance with visiting Lensky (River Guard), while Tatiana seemed to be head-down in her novel for most of the first couple of scenes before becoming awkwardly aware of equally-awkward eponymous Onegin (Aaron Murphy).  I got thinking about Pride and Prejudice at this point, and about how the socially-awkward one who started out seeming rude was actually the happy-ending suitor in that story.  (And then I started thinking about Colin Firth, and then I started thinking about Cordelia in King Lear too, and I was trying to figure out whether I liked this Onegin character or not.  I definitely liked Tatiana right away though.)

At some point in the outdoor scenes, the large ensemble also entered as farm labourers presenting the landlords with sheaves and baskets to celebrate the harvest, and dancing and singing in approximately-folkloric dress.   During the outdoor scenes, various characters and couples made use of the attractive forest paths and lawns.  The actors were all wearing headset microphones (which is not the usual practice for opera, although it is common in musical theatre for larger auditoriums).   The sound quality was not perfect, but was surprisingly good given the industrial-park site with large trucks driving by and windy weather.

The audience was then invited indoors, first to seats around an area set up as Tatiana’s bedroom.  Jordanne Erichsen was especially impressive in this scene, singing solo through almost the whole scene while conveying the emotions of being unexpectedly in love and taking the risk of writing to Onegin to ask if he would consider marriage.

Subsequent scenes shifted to the other side of the auditorium.  Short intermissions were taken as needed, not necessarily when the traditional 3-act structure prescribed.  Onegin turns down Tatiana in what looked to me like an emo mansplaining condescension (“I wouldn’t make you a good husband.  I prefer to be alone”) but then kind of rubbed it in by dancing with her sister at her name-day ball.  This led to an argument with his friend Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, and to a duel in which Lensky dies.  In these scenes I liked Triquet (Sebastien Comtois) who regaled Tatiana with French poetry, and Zaretsky (Xuguang Zhang) who seemed keen on promoting the duel and brought them the pistols.

We didn’t get to find out much about what happened to Olga after that, although in the scene three years later, she was standing to the side with her mother and no escort, watching Tatiana and her high-ranking husband welcome guests to a ball.  The dancing and costumes for the three ensemble-dance pieces (the labourers at harvest, the local friends at the name-day dance, and Prince Gremin’s ball) increased in complexity and spectacle commensurate with the class differences and were all fun to watch.  Choreography was by Marie Nychka and costumes by Betty Kolodziej.  The convention of having the chorus members all freeze in place while the principals acted and sang solos was a bit jarring at first but became easy to ignore.  Onegin predictably comes to regret his earlier rejection of Tatiana, and she now turns him down.  This would be a happy and fair ending if Tatiana were in love with Gremin, but her acting conveys that she would rather be with Onegin, but alas! duty and honour and marital vows.  So it’s sad.

It’s a long performance, but I didn’t mind and mostly didn’t even notice. I don’t understand Russian, didn’t know the story ahead of time, and didn’t recognize the melodies except for a bit that was vaguely familiar from Bugs Bunny (I won’t tell you where!), but I’m very glad I was able to see this opera.   Opera Nuova’s festival of opera and musical theatre continues tonight with a second performance of Eugene Onegin, has a concert Saturday night, and later in the month moves to Festival Place for productions of The Cunning Little Vixen (with supertitles) and Carousel.  Tickets to all are available on-line and at the door.

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Simon Chalifoux, as Prince Gremin, and his wife Tatiana Gremina (Jordanne Erichsen), in front of an unhappy Eugene Onegin (Aaron Murphy)

 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience

My mother was very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan.  She and I went together to the Stratford Festival a few times, to see Iolanthe, and I think Pirates of Penzance.  The next year I thought I was giving her an extra treat by getting tickets to Hamlet.  (Later that season I also got to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in repertory with the same cast.)  But on the way home, she confessed with embarrassment that she hadn’t enjoyed the Shakespearean tragedy as much, and for the next Mother’s Day could we please go to another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?   For her, it seemed that watching Shakespeare was a virtuous duty, and watching Gilbert and Sullivan was such a guilty pleasure that she didn’t deserve it, even as a gift.  That seemed odd to me, even for a former high school English teacher, because I already had the idea that theatre should be fun, just like books and movies and other ways of telling stories.

A similar confusion of duty and pleasure lies at the heart of Patience, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta running until Sunday night (Jun 11) at Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.  Patience, a naive and earnest milkmaid, has so little experience of love (“only for a great-aunt” she says, when asked by one of the chorus of lovesick ladies) that from observing the pining chorus and hearing that love is unselfish, she comes up with the idea that if it’s joyful and pleasurable it isn’t true love.  Therefore, it is more virtuous for her to marry a man she detests.

This odd interpretation leads to various nearly-implausible repercussions for all the characters’ romantic aspirations, but of course this being a Gilbert and Sullivan work, almost everyone ends up happily paired at the end.

There are many other ways this production, directed by Robert Herriot and conducted by Kathleen Lohrenz Gable, is an admirable example of what Gilbert and Sullivan were known for.  There is a large chorus of ladies and of Dragoon Guards, and lots of romantic happy endings.  There are long verses of rapid rhyming iambic feet as clever as rap lyrics, there are ridiculous characters with preposterous motivations, and there are opportunities to show off some very impressive voices.  

Of particular note are the singing of Patience (possibly Charlotte Stewart-Juby, soprano, in the performance I saw), and the comedic portrayals of Meghan Goguen (mezzo-soprano) as Lady Jane and Justin Kautz (baritone, better known locally as one of the principals in Toy Guns Dance Theatre) as Reginald Bunthorpe.   Timothy Carter (tenor) was also delightful as Archibald Grosvenor.

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Justin Kautz as Reginald Bunthorpe, garlanded by two of the lovesick maidens.

 

The chorus of “twenty lovelorn maidens” – actually about fifteen, which probably didn’t distract anyone else except me – was delightfully costumed in faux-Hellenic draperies in a pastel rainbow of shades, striking a series of expressive aesthetic poses in attempts to emulate and attract flamboyant poet/poseur Reginald.  I giggled a lot during this show, starting with the maidens’ first entrance.  Later in the play the robes and art-book poses are repeated in an even funnier way.  Good use was made of the various entrances to the auditorium, which helped make the proscenium-stage space more intimate.  Musical accompaniment was provided by one pianist, Kerry Agnew.

Opera Nuova’s festival of opera and musical theatre continues over the next two weeks with performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel as well as some other concerts and master classes.   Performances occur in various venues around the city and with a range of prices, allowing more audience members to attend.

History + storytelling = autobiography

The first show I watched from the audience at this year’s Fringe was the new work The Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, by Savanna Harvey.  The performer credits for the show listed Kendra Lamothe as Leone, Savanna as The Writer, Vina Nguyen as Freud, and Heather Janzen as The Stagehand, and the performance starts with the Stagehand seated on the stage beside a box of props, putting a script up on an overhead projector and making notes on it as the narrative progressed.  This was an interesting layer, reminding me of lectures of a certain era.  Sometimes I would look at it ahead of what was happening on stage, in the same way that subtitles don’t always reveal the key points of a story at the same time as the French or foreign-language spoken dialogue does.  Sometimes the Stagehand’s presentation would prevent that by covering sections of the page with paper, and I remembered that teaching technique as well.  One page even contributed the inner dialogue of an imaginary reader in a classroom setting struggling to keep up with the text on the page.

But that was just a side thing – most of the storytelling evolved in a fairly linear and visual way, showing the life story of Leone McGregor, born in Saskatchewan early in the previous century to poor parents, attending Normal School at a young age and teaching school to raise money for university, then studying medicine as the only woman in the first medical-school class at U of Alberta, continuing to graduate school in pathology, the only medical research discipline that would offer her fellowships.  And eventually she was able to study and practice her real calling, psychotherapy.  “Until I acquired the word, how could I know what I wanted to be?” the character says.  This fits with musings earlier on, “concept without words, meaning without text, what is the point?” says the Writer, which is funny because this performance (as most) endows the non-verbal with layers of meaning.  The movement piece that expresses young Leone’s being teased and bullied and “just a game” assaulted by classmates, and its soundscape, was evocative and disturbing, as were other movement-heavy segments of the piece.

Leone’s letters (handwritten on the projections, read out by the actors) added pieces of the biography and also demonstrated the importance Leone placed on her friendships with other women, keeping in touch through her travels for career and new husband.   The samples of psychological counselling advice were odd, mostly seeming to include suggestions of resolving the problem by spending money on something – self-care, a romantic weekend, other indulgences.  I was reminded of the newspaper-advice segments of the 1960s in Shout.

I found the story satisfying, and the writing clever but not so clever it distracted me. Karlie Christie’s costuming is also worthy of mention, particularly Leone’s period-appropriate and movement-friendly outfit.  As Autobiography is playing in a BYOV space, it has more performance times than a lottery-venue show, and if this intrigues you, you should seek it out.

And now, back to the grounds!  See you at the Fringe!

Nextfest!

One of the events of an Edmonton June that I had missed in previous years is Nextfest, the celebration of emerging artists in various disciplines which used to be run out of the Roxy Theatre.  There is no Roxy right now, but Nextfest continues, with more events and performances than I’ll have time to catch.  High school performers (#NextNextfest) have a full schedule at the Mercury Theatre (former Azimuth/Living room).  Some things are along 124 Street.  And the mainstage performances are in the lower-level auditorium at Faculté St-Jean on 91 Street.

I’ve seen several mainstage shows.  Evolve was a set of short dance/movement pieces, solos and bigger ensembles.

Blackout was an hour of sketch comedy and improv. The pace was quick, the characters clever, and the inclusion of recent political events spot-on.  I liked it a lot.  It reminded me of the work of Hot Thespian Action, the troupe out of Winnipeg which was at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.

Pinniped and Other Poems was a play written by Skye Hyndman and directed by Philip Geller, a lyrical indirect piece including flashback scenes, walrus mustaches, live goldfish named x0 and y0, an intriguing set making use of twine, rope, and translucent flats, and some effective and unusual stage business.  Alex Dawkins’ demeanour and costuming portrayed a mysterious woman from the protagonist’s past, while Connor Suart, Emily Howard, and Jake Tkaczyk all seemed to be presenting aspects of the main character.  Live music was provided by Vik Chu.  From a vocal production viewpoint I was impressed by how all the performers managed the dense text with clear articulation despite wearing what looked like straw and twine all over their jaws, and particularly how Jake Tkaczyk’s character managed to sound like an old man without losing volume or clarity.  If time permits I will definitely be watching this one again because I think there is more in the text than I picked up.

Shorts is a program of five short pieces.  I’m not sure if they’re all parts of longer works in development, but at least some of them are.  Louise Large and Andrew Dool each had solo pieces, both with unconventional treatments of fourth-wall conventions.  Kali Wells’s Forms of Communication was an entertaining escapade that started from a situation anyone might find himself or herself in, and then escalated.  It reminded me of some of the scenarios in Suburban Motel.  I also appreciated the value placed on hand-knitted socks by the characters!   Liam Salmon’s Un(known) Stories was a natural-sounding chat among three friends, exploring LGBT terminology and concepts, lived experience, and respectful disagreement.  Leif Ingebrigtsen’s Echoes of a Lost King was perhaps the most ambitious project, two songs and a scene from what seemed to be a fully designed original musical about a group of D & D players and their characters on quest, with Joleen Ballandine, Gabriel Richardson, Eva Foote, and Hunter Cardinal.   All four are strong performers and musicians, but in this short piece I noticed that the music was a particularly good showcase for Gabriel Richardson’s voice.

Desirée Leverenz’s Husk is playing in a space on 124 Street just south of 111 Avenue.  The space seems to be intended as some kind of semi-institutional residence, so it has good potential for site-specific work, with an intimate stage/risers room on one side, and the opportunity to wander through various small rooms and spaces on two floors.   The piece included a couple of full-ensemble scenes with cryptic story, movement, and sound exploration, along with a more experiential session in between where audience wandered among displays interacting with the performers as much as they chose.  Philip Geller’s and Morgan Grau’s interactions were particularly compelling, eliciting audience help or response; some of the others were more distant or diorama-like.  All seemed to be isolated, and to be embracing or struggling with some aspect of fluid and mess.  I think my favourite part of this piece was when I gradually became aware that what I thought was a completely comprehensible conversation among odd characters was actually a repetition of nonsensical phrases, imbued with actor intention as in some kind of Meisner class exercises.  (I did not actually notice this right away because I think I was assuming I hadn’t heard right and my brain was filling in more comprehensible narrative.)  Other performers in this piece were Roland Meseck, Emily Howard, Sophie Gareau-Brennan,  Stuart McDougall, Connor Suart, and a couple of others I didn’t know.

Nextfest continues until tomorrow, Sunday 14 June.