Category Archives: Festivals

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.

Onegin 1

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

Saturday inside the Fringe, and out.

For me, it was the second Saturday of Fringe.  Our show The Big Fat Surprise closed Friday night (with another sold-out house!) so Saturday I was washing show laundry, then celebrating the parking-space win, catching some shows, lending another artist some of my furniture for a prop, eating festival food (still love that Lunchpail grilled cheese with fresh chips and classic vegetable sticks), checking in at the Lost and Found, serving drinks in the North Tent, talking to friends, and going home in the rain.

I immerse myself in Fringe while the festival is on, after being preoccupied with show prep and publicity for weeks ahead of time, so it sometimes astonishes me that other important things are happening this week outside of the Fringe bubble.  New babies were born.  Couples got married.  Birthdays were marked on Facebook and off.  Students prepared for the next grade, the next diploma, the next degree, the next challenge.  A whole Summer Olympic Games happened and I didn’t watch or read any coverage at all or knit anything for the corollary Ravellenics celebration.  The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market shared the crowd and the parking spaces like an ordinary Saturday.  And last night I stepped into the Fringe North Beer Tent wondering about the music I was hearing, and I discovered they were using their new monitors and good speakers to share the CBC feed of the Tragically Hip’s last concert of their last tour, from the Rogers K-Rock Arena in Kingston Ontario.   While the Fringe went on outside, vendors and street performers, artists handbilling their last few shows, the High Level Trolley shuttling to downtown full of people – the tent was full of shared recognition of the Tragically Hip and of their lead singer Gord Downie, whose announcement of terminal cancer prompted the band’s decisions to tour one last summer and then retire.  I lived in Kingston for many years, and I saw the Hip’s first concert in that venue in 2008.  The CBC live feed and the social media streams reminded me how important they were and are to Kingston and to Canada and to music.  Go in peace, Gord Downie.  And Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay.


By the second weekend of Fringe, I’ve heard lots of other people’s recommendations of what to see.  And although I try not to think of anything as a must-see, because there would be so many that I’d always feel disappointed, the recommendations helped me choose three good shows yesterday and pick up some more tickets for today.

The Fall of the House of Atreus – A very clever comic take on the ancient Greek tragedies of Euripedes, from Jessy Ardern as playwright and Corben Kushneryk as director and designer, the same team that created last Fringe’s Westbury-stage delight Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests.  Fellow BFA Acting grads Graham Mothersill, Sarah Feutl, and Morgan Grau are the Chorus telling and enacting the connected tragedies of Euripides, with all the vaguely-familiar characters – Pelops, Atreus, Iphigenia, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Helen and Paris, etc.  Simple costume elements and hand gestures helped to keep track of who was who, and found-object puppetry added interest to different ways for characters to be killed.  The energetic performers embraced the material and found humour in the grim tales.  The pace was good and it looked like fun for them as well as for the audience.  It’s now closed.

Little Orange Man – Ingrid Hansen’s charming solo show also presents gruesome stories in a very funny way, in this case through the unique voice of a girl of ten or eleven, recounting her grandfather’s Danish folk tales and recruiting the audience’s help for a dreamscape quest.  It’s held over, so after a last show tonight at 8 pm it should move easily from King Edward Academy to the larger room of the Westbury.

Nighthawk Rules – Collin Doyle’s and James Hamilton’s ten-year-old script was directed by Taylor Chadwick in Theatre Network’s new space Roxy on Gateway (the old C103).  Comfortable wide chairs around a shallow thrust stage make the venue’s legendary summer heat more bearable, as do the cold drinks on sale at the venue.  Chris W Cook (3…2…1, Criminal Genius, Sequence, Bronte Burlesque)  and Christopher Schultz (Wish) play old friends approaching 30 and floundering in their party-bro lives, Schultz’s character trying to live up to his new girlfriend’s expectations about settling down, and Cook’s character trying to hang on to the old camaraderie of drinking games and all-nighters.  I had thought already that Chris Cook was good at bringing a mix of naïveté and good intention to vulgar characters, so he was well cast in the role of Dick, and Schultz’s character Barry seems competent and grown-up only by comparison to his buddy.  I had a great deal of sympathy for the girlfriend (Ellie Heath) until we met her and she talked about her boyfriend completely as a project she had invested time in developing in order to satisfy her perfect-wedding goals, quickly flouncing out again with threats to Barry about cleaning up the apartment and getting rid of the loser friend.   The story was very funny and the resolution of some of the problems delighted me with its unexpectedness and credibility.  Nighthawk Rules has one more performance today at 4:30 pm.

I’ve got a few more drinks to pour, a few more tickets to use, a few more Festival snacks to consume, and then it’s over.  That was then, this is (still) Fringe.

Intense, bouncy, or dark: Fringe for all moods

On Thursday I viewed three performances by local emerging performers, students or recent graduates from the various post-secondary theatre programs.  They were all entertaining, and taken together made an interesting showcase of talent.  All the shows were published work, but I hadn’t read or seen any of them before.

Opera NUOVA’s production of the short musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was directed by Kim Mattice-Wanat, with live music and sound effects by Randy Mueller and choreography by Marie Nychka.  Jordan Sabo, Emma Houghton, Jake Tkaczyk, Sarah Ormandy, and Billy Brown play the Peanuts gang, with Corbin Kushneryk in the title role.  Brief scenes cover all the repeating motifs of the long-running comic strip: Lucy’s psychotherapy/advice booth, Charlie Brown’s daydreaming about the little red-haired girl, Linus’s blanket, Snoopy’s fantasy life with Sally, Schroeder playing classical piano on a toy instrument and ignoring Lucy’s advances, baseball, school bus, homework, kite-flying, and companionship. The short vignettes don’t really have a plot and touch only lightly on some of the loneliness and bullying that I remember being more disturbing to me as a child reading the daily strip and watching Charlie Brown Christmas and Great Pumpkin each season.  The tempera-paint colours of costumes and set pieces captured the Saturday-comics print palette.  One more show Sunday afternoon, probably sold out.

Philip Geller and Emily Howard perform in The Darling Family, by Canadian playwright Linda Griffith.  It is intense and provocative and occasionally funny, about two characters responding to an unplanned pregnancy.  Seeing this show reminded me that well-chosen dramas can work in small improvised spaces with emerging actors as well as in the big productions like the Citadel’s Other Desert Cities, and in some ways the intimacy of the venue can make the experience more powerful.  The Darling Family is playing in the Strathcona Community League building just north of the Scouts parking lot and King Edward School, and they have three more performances this weekend.

Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane is dark and amusing in the same style as George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel series.  The current production is directed by recent theatre grad Eric Smith, and performed by Chris Pereira, Chris Nadeau, Grace Miazga, and Dylan Rosychuk.  I particularly appreciated Chris Pereira’s odd motel clerk character.  They have two more performances this weekend.

Upstairs and downstairs at the Fringe

Kind Hearts and Coronets – I never saw the Alec Guinness movie of the same name, but my father loved it.  The stage version, directed by Ken Brown, is playing at L’Unitheatre at La cite francophone.  John D. Huston plays the Alec Guinness roles as well as miscellaneous servants and executioners, Alex Forsyth plays Israel Rank, the man who grows up poor but knowing he’s only a few deaths from inheriting a ducal coronet, and Julia Seymour plays a variety of other characters including Israel’s love interests, mother, and jailer.  Forsyth’s smug evil leer as Israel’s plans seem to come to fruition is a disturbing delight, a different flavour of bad than characters I’d seen Forsyth play in Deadmonton, Closer, and 7 Ways to Die: A love story.  Last show today, Saturday 2:45

Bella Culpa – Amica Hunter and David Cantor of Portland are A Little Bit Off, the troupe that did the delightful Beau and Aero at last year’s Fringe.  For Bella Culpa, they’re in the Westbury, the big theatre in the Arts Barns, and their stuff is just as engaging and fun to watch in the bigger house.  The two characters in Bella Culpa are servants in a formal household, doing their work of cleaning and preparing for guests, but frequently sidetracked into playful adventures and explorations.   They make clever use of minimal props (buckets, a sponge, a duster, a table) and introduce some impressive acrobatics at beautifully unexpected moments.  They communicate their story mostly through physical expression and action, but occasionally speak a few words in French.  Their tagline describes them as “Downton Abbey meets the Three Stooges”, but I thought afterwards that one of the things I appreciated most about them was that the relationship between the characters was not hostile, not a predictable she-likes-him/he-ignores-her, and not a constant status difference like many physical-theatre/clown duos.  Worth catching (they have two more shows this weekend) and worth watching for in future.

This is Fringe!

Letters from Battle River – I went to this because it got a shoutout at the end of Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, both being narratives about early women doctors in/from Alberta.  Laura Raboud plays the very energetic Dr Mary Percy, who travels from England to work for the Alberta government as a doctor in the Peace country in the 1920s.  I think indomitable would be the appropriate descriptor for this character, of rarely-flagging good cheer, delighting in her life and her work and the country and the people.   My two favourite specifics about this performance were the brilliant use of two wheeled coatracks and a chair to be all the props and set pieces, and the way of handling the racism of the time.  Early on, the character’s narrative (either a series of letters home or one very very long letter home, it’s not entirely clear) is steeped in throwaway racist assumptions about Eastern European immigrants, about First Nations and Metis inhabitants of the land, and occasionally about “Yankees”.  I found it jarring every time this likeable character used racial slurs, although I could see that she was fond of her “Russian” and “Frenchman” and “‘breed” patients and neighbours.  When she began to relate a visit to the “Indian boarding school”, I worried about whether she’d be equally cavalier about the residential school … but fortunately the playwrights had made a different choice (I do not know how much of the text came from the historical artifact letters).  Instead she said something like, it was beautifully light and airy, but of course they hated it, how could anyone like living in a dormitory when they could be curled up with family in a tent in the forest, and then she went on to muse about whether the British Empire was actually wrong to impose their way of life on indigenous peoples.  I did not feel as if the character integrity had been damaged by this viewpoint, and I was comforted that I could still find her sympathetic.

My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend – A new musical by Jamie Price (aka musician Must Be Tuesday) plays in the Telus Building.  It is impressive for a new work by young artists, a fully staged three-actor show with a storyline, songs with clever lyrics and varying melody styles, and musical accompaniment by Price on keyboard and guitar.  The narrative is probably valuable both as a demonstration of queer, polyamorous, and transgender lives for people who are not familiar with these variables, and as positive representation for people who don’t often see their lives on stage.  Just the simple stage business of a character turning away from the audience to take off a bra and put on a tank-top style binder was effective as storytelling and as education, without being enough nudity to distract.  It is hard to plot a story with those goals and show realistic problems and still make the problems solvable, but Price, director Alicia Maedel, and performers Mandi Molloy, Emanuelle Dubbeldam, and Matthew Oliver van Diepen have made a good start.  I could easily imagine this show on a bigger stage with fuller orchestration, a little less didactic and a little funnier or more dramatic, being the next Rent or Avenue Q.  Or it could just be what it is, and a lot of people will enjoy it, see themselves or their friends or family, or learn something.

A Woman of a Certain Age – This was another show full of satisfying representation, with writer/performer Wendy Froberg playing six characters, all women in their late 40s or older, with interconnected lives.  Important common thread was provided by the interactions the other women all had with esthetician Magda, each of them having different reasons for wanting to look younger or look pretty again.  Magda often tried to talk to them about other ways of resolving their problems, suggesting that youth and beauty were not a panacea, but she loses her salon job, and it’s not clear if they don’t like her attitude or her age.  The performance follows all the rules of a good multiple-character solo show, (if you don’t know what they are, this is demonstrated in The Big Fat Surprise) and I enjoyed it.

Gossamer Obsessions:  Wilt – is a set of “parable” sketches, funny and sort of delightfully weird, in a magical or not quite real way, by masters of improv Amy Shostak and Paul Blinov.   Their costumes are reminiscent of fairy-tales, and their stories hover over the abyss between ordinary life and the just plain strange.  The hour flew by.

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!

More good plays

Assassins (the Sondheim musical) was the first musical I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  With a cast of ten and a musical ensemble, it’s well placed in the Westbury.  It’s a series of vignettes about everyone who assassinated or tried to assassinate a US president.  As I wasn’t familiar with many of the stories and I didn’t get a program until afterwards, I probably missed the ones in the middle – I remembered about John Wilkes Booth (Jacob Holloway), John Hinckley (Maxwell Lebeuf), and Squeaky Fromme (Emma Houghton, with Nancy Macalear as her collaborator Sara Jane Moore), and partway through I started wondering whether I’d missed the part about Lee Harvey Oswald killing President Kennedy – but that was the climax which came near the end, since I guess it’s the most memorable one for a lot of living Americans too.  Scott Shpeley, who had been playing with the musical ensemble, also turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald.  Chris W Cook, Jeff Page, Rory Turner, and Billy Brown played other assassins I wasn’t familiar with, and Dan Rowley, and Larissa Pohoreski other characters in the ensemble.

Typhoon Judy was also a performance focused on music, with Christopher Peterson playing an aging Judy Garland, in song, in reminiscence, in flirtation with accompanist (Nick Samoil), and in four fabulous costumes.  The portrayal was credible and touching.

MAN UP! was a wonderful dance show with social commentary.  It’s being held over at the Westbury next weekend, so you have a couple more chances to see it.  Four male performers dance in high heels, powerfully, poetically, and conveying a range of emotions.  Some pieces include all four (Gregory P Caswell, Joshua Wolchansky, Jordan Sabo, CJ Rowein) and some have smaller groups or solos.  Rowein and Wolchansky’s love duet was particularly moving, as well as Wolchansky’s barefoot solo on the side stage.  Monologues and video clips provide context and discussion-starters about the limitations of conventional gender expectations (as well as allowing time for costume changes).  I was fascinated to realize afterwards that the performance had been lacking the personal flirtation aspect of burlesque dancing.

Every Fringe I see Rocket Sugar Factory, the improv duo of Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby, because they are so much fun to watch.  Along with their local accompanist Jan Randall, they are masters of crafting long-form stories and playing them out with delightful characterizations.  This year their show involves creating the pilot episode for a new television show, and the one they created in front of me, Mister Jules Verne, was something I would watch if it existed.  I love the way these two switch characters seamlessly, borrowing mannerisms and language habits, and I’m also a fan of Jim Libby’s near-corpsing, letting his delight in the game show through the characters he’s embodying.  (One of the 2 For Tea performers, James, does this as well.)

I also made time to see a new comedy, Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests, written by University of Alberta acting student Jessy Ardern.  Take the premise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the older couple full of malice entertaining a couple of starry-eyed naive newlyweds, and wield them as weapons in their battles with each other – and make it funny instead of horrible – and that’s the start of Harold and Vivian.  David Feehan and Kristen Padayas play the eponymous hosts, and Rebecca Ann Merkley and Eric Smith play Janet and Mike, the young couple who arrive with over-the-top optimism and PDA and gradually crack into full-on hostility as well.  Corben Kushneryk (also seen this Fringe in Who am I?…) is credited as director and designer, so he must be responsible for the delightful set conveying the reality of a starkly divided household before the show even starts.  I was especially taken with Padayas’s portrayal, the perfect pink bouffant homemaker with twitches of panic and surges of rage.   Eric Smith’s brand of pomposity and pratfall may also be seen in Death Comes to Auntie Norma (one more show, Sunday 8 pm).