Category Archives: Theatre

Letters from (and to) A Doll’s House

torvald nora

Tim Marriott, as Torvald, and Nicole English, as Nora, in A Doll’s House. Photo Kristen Finlay.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m worried about my old friend. I just moved to her city, and we’ve been spending time together for the first time since she got married.  Captain, I think she’s married to a Darth Vader Boyfriend.  She pretends to follow his order not to eat macaroons, but sneaks them behind his back.  When I offered to help her with some mending, she pushed me into the kitchen with the help, saying “Torvald can’t stand to see anyone sewing”.  And he totally mansplained me the other day about how knitting was an ugly low-class pastime and advised me how to do embroidery instead.  She goes along with his whims to a ridiculous extent and she thinks he’s wonderful.  Captain, what can I do?

  • (pronouns she/her). 

Dear Ask a Manager:

I don’t have good references because I made some mistakes in my past.  No charges were laid, but I was stuck using some sketchy schemes to make money for a while, until I got this entry-level job at the bank.  Now I’m keeping my record clean and looking forward to promotion.  When I found out one of my old school friends was hired as the new vice-president, I was sure this would be an advantage for me.  So I started dropping in at his office and reminiscing loudly about the things we got up to at school.  And now he says I’m being too familiar and he’s given me a written warning and a pink slip!  However, I’ve got something on his wife (see above, sketchy schemes), so I was thinking that I should just blackmail them into letting me keep my job and move up at the bank.  Nothing can go wrong with this, right?

NK


Dear Miss Manners:

As I am in chronic pain due to congenital syphilis (which my nanny told me was my father’s fault), I would like to die with dignity while I have some agency.  I don’t think my friends could handle seeing me in rough shape, so I’d like to tell them to stay away.  What’s the approved way of notifying them using visiting cards? 

Doc


From Dan Savage, Savage Love, confidential to NoNoNora:  DTMFA.


The conflicts and choices portrayed in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, first produced in 1879, are disturbingly timely in 2017.   Alex Hawkins directed the current Walterdale Theatre Associates production to show the complexity of all the characters and the ways class and gender affect their choices. Nicole English (last seen as Mrs. Lovett in ELOPE’s Sweeney Todd) is troubling and inspiring as Nora, and the rest of the cast is strong as well (Tim Marriott as Torvald, Dave Wolkowski as Krogstad, Marsha Amanova as Christine, dale Wilson as Dr. Rank, and Leslie Caffaro as Anne Marie).   The designers worked with the restrained palette of 1879 Norway to create an atmosphere embodying both oppression and beauty, with set by Joan Heys Hawkins, costumes by Geri Dittrich, lighting by Richard Hatfield and Rebecca Cave, sound by Kiidra Duhault, and props by Alayna Hunchak.

A Doll’s House continues at the Walterdale Theatre until Saturday October 21st, 8 pm Tuesday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday.  Same-day tickets are available at the door and advance tickets are through Tix on the Square.

Fringe 2017 – the last weekend

A Beautiful View – Perry Gratton directed Nikki Hulowski and Samantha Jeffreys in this Daniel MacIvor script, a lovely celebration of a hard-to-label relationship between two women. “You have to be very organized to be bisexual”, the one explains to herself/the audience while deciding not to follow up on an unexpected sexual encounter.   There are a lot of segments where a character speaks facing the audience – sometimes they are alternating in a conversation with each other as retold to the audience.  I don’t know how much of that is in MacIvor’s script, but I think I remember a lot of it in a play Gratton directed several years ago at Fringe, Letters to Laura.  The ending was … well, there was enough foreshadowing that the not-entirely-explicit awful/sad ending must have actually happened.  But I wish it hadn’t, since I really liked both characters.  They were quite different from each other, but there were things I identified with in both of them.  (A Beautiful View has one holdover performance on Thursday.)

Late Night Cabaret – Late Night Cabaret is an Edmonton Fringe tradition.  It happens at midnight, every night of the Fringe except the last Sunday when things wrap up early.  I only went to it once this year, but it wasn’t hard to pick up on the ongoing jokes and routines.  Hosts Amy Shostak and Julian Faid have guests from other shows every night as well as the very talented house band Ze Punterz.  The Backstage Theatre sells out with happy artists, volunteers, and dedicated fringegoers extending their evening and building community.  It runs about an hour and a half with an intermission, and I think maybe the bar stays open during the show.  Some people go to it every night.

Multiple Organism – This piece by Vancouver’s Mind of a Snail troupe (Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel) was the most original and creative work I saw at this year’s Fringe, and I liked it a lot.  It made extensive use of unusual projection techniques.  Some of it was a little gross, but not gratuitously so.

Rivercity: The musical  – Rebecca Merkley wrote and directed this new musical which seems to be an homage to the Archie-comics characters without quite borrowing their names.   It’s full of amusing quick-changes for double&triple-cast actors, silly puns, and cartoon-inspired sound effects (especially the wind-up-and-dash running starts of red-headed Andrews (Molly MacKinnon), which sounded like the Road Runner or something).  In between, though, there were some touching and serious solos for various characters, particularly for the viewpoint character Bee (Vanessa Wilson) and for the Jughead-like Jonesy (Josh Travnik, also multiply-cast in Evil Dead).   The cast of four (Kristin Johnston plays Reggie and the principal among others) covers too many characters to count.  Live music is provided by Scott Shpeley and Chris Weibe, wearing Josie-and-the-Pussycats-style cat-ears. 

Tempting – Erin Pettifor and Franco Correa are a psychic and a sceptic in Ashleigh Hicks’ new script.  When the audience enters the Westbury Theatre auditorium, the large stage has been made into a cozy cluttered studio-space for psychic Alaura (Pettifor).  She is puttering about doing yoga poses in a disjointed distracted way and making tea.  At first it is not clear why Adam is dropping in before business hours, and it is also not clear why Alaura is so immediately adversarial.  Those things do become clear – Adam’s girlfriend Constance is a client, and Adam wants Alaura to recant the advice (or prediction, or support) she gave Constance in a decision Adam doesn’t like.   The problem as described is interesting – Constance is dying and in pain and wants to pursue medically-assisted death, which Alaura supports and Adam doesn’t.  But I don’t really feel compassionate for either of the characters on stage, as I find out more about their motivations and connections to Constance, and I found the ending unsatisfying. 


I think I saw 28 performances this Fringe (one a repeat) and I might see a couple more at holdovers this week.

Super powers of various kinds

Another little change at this year’s Fringe festival is that an artist pass or volunteer pass works as an ETS transit pass.  It used to be that artists and volunteers could request a separate transit pass.  I had the impression that they had a limited number of passes, so I usually didn’t get one, and it was a nuisance to carry around one more thing.  This way’s great – I’ve taken the bus several times for short journeys instead of driving or walking.  On the other hand, the festival also used to have a bus-ticket perq for ordinary festival-goers, and it seems they don’t have that any more.


Yesterday’s short bus trip down Whyte Avenue to 101 Street and then a short walk in the neighbourhood that might be called CPR Irvine or part of Ritchie or just “behind the A and W” brought me to Concrete Theatre’s Playhouse performance space for The Superhero Who Loved Me, a new play by Chris Craddock, directed by Wayne Paquette and starring Kristi Hansen and April Banigan.  At first I thought, this is great, it’s just like the comic-book superhero tales that are my usual cinema fare.  And about halfway through, I thought, they’ve already had more character development and logical plot points than most superhero movies.   Hansen is the secret-agent/superhero isolated by the requirement for secrecy and Banigan the old classmate looking for friends after her divorce, and when they meet again things get steamy pretty fast.  They have all the superhero/mundane mixed-relationship troubles you might expect, and I cared about them.  Staging was simple, painted rehearsal-boxes and a few props, and the obligatory show-you-the-world flying scene was acted out with Barbie dolls.  Two more performances this weekend, and then held over at the venue next weekend.

Another short trip away from the Fringe grounds brought me to the Garneau Theatre for fresh popcorn and the midnight showing of Mo’ Manada, the Boylesque T.O. sequel to O Manada from a couple of years ago.  This year’s revue was hosted by Justin Trudeau (Morgan Norwich) and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau (Johnnie Walker), and featured four talented men from Boylesque T.O. as well as stage-kitten (costumed stage-crew and occasional performer) Shagina Twain.  The hosts were just as entertaining as the dancers, and the midnight crowd was very enthusiastic.  One more show today.


The official Fringe holdover series in the Westbury Theatre was announced yesterday.  Tickets are available from the Fringe box office / website now for Prophecy, My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice, Legoland, and Drunk Girl.

Other independent venues make their own arrangements for holdovers.  Varscona Theatre will be doing one more performance of No Exit and several for An Exquisite Hour.  Holy Trinity is holding over Urinetown.  Concrete/Playhouse is adding two performances of The Superhero Who Loved Me (ticketing info not available yet).

And there’s two days left to see plays, eat mini donuts and green onion cakes, watch buskers, and hang out with other people who are passionate about theatre, until we’re back to ordinary life (which for me is more of the same, but at a slower pace and with more sleep.)

More performance genres at Fringe 2017

Note:  I don’t know why the caption isn’t showing up on my photo.  That’s Bethany Hughes from Evil Dead talking to the audience members seated in the Splash Zone. 

 

Animal Farm Treatment – I have never studied, read, or seen any version of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, but as with Sartre’s No Exit, I had a general idea of the theme and I knew one line.  During Animal Farm Treatment, a solo show by creator/performer Alice Nelson from Calgary, I wondered how it would appear to an audience member who didn’t know the expected outcome from the original cynical parable.  The playbill said that she has a study guide to accompany her show for high school audiences.  The performer skilfully switched among several speaking characters, using different physicalities and speech patterns as well as clues of having the characters refer to each other by name, and she used a few simple props to move the story forwards.  I knew that the experiment in democracy would not end well, but I kept hoping it would.  Two more shows, Friday 2:45 and Saturday 11:30 pm.

Evil Dead – Amanda Neufeld directed this lively, funny, gory musical, which is playing at L’Unitheatre.  Bethany Hughes stage managed, and in the picture above is reassuring the audience members in the Splash Zone.  Music is a four-piece instrumental group under the direction of Daniel Belland (also seen in Mormonic at this festival).  The narrative moves quickly through the tropes of horror fiction, the college students each with his or her own incentives to vacation at a lonely cabin (Matthew Lindholm, Jaimi Reese, Nadine Veroba, Stephen Allred, Josh Travnik), the eerie woods with limited access, the intrepid explorer returning from Egypt to finish her father’s work (Neufeld), the source of local knowledge Reliable Jake (Travnik), and the demons (uncredited here because that would give away some plot).  It’s very funny, and the songs are great. The action moves quickly and it’s over in 90 minutes as advertised.  Some tickets are available for tonight’s late show.

Puck Bunnies – This is another cleverly-scripted and poignant drag comedy in the spirit of Flora and Fawna’s Field Trip with Fleurette, from Guys in Disguise.  Darrin Hagen, Trevor Schmidt, and Jason Hardwick play the girlfriends of junior/minor-league hockey hopefuls, sharing support, gossip, and relationship troubles while in the bleachers for an intra-squad scrimmage.   Tammy, Tanya, and Tina are more than silly caricatures (although I have to say that the costumes are spot-on perfect), each with her own struggles.  The dramatic-irony part (where the audience knows something a character doesn’t realize) is great.  The gentle insertion of a more feminist awareness into a culture of “support the boys at all costs”, by Hardwick’s Tina, is credible and satisfying.  I last paid attention to this culture in the mid-90s, I found it disturbing and necessary to be reminded that, despite the pussyhat, some things have not changed.   Shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons.

You Fucking Earned It – At last year’s inaugural Edmonton Clown Festival (now renamed Play the Fool, and running Sept 28-Oct 1 2017), in a panel discussion Deanna Fleischer (aka Butt Kapinski) pointed out that traditional bouffon was criticizing the king in front of the king, and she challenged performers using bouffon techniques to ask themselves “Is the king in the room?”  There are two key points in this.  One is to punch up – make fun of the powerful instead of the powerless.  The other is that if it’s good bouffon serving its purpose, nobody in the audience should feel comfortable and safe.  At the start of the performance of You Fucking Earned It (a Naked Empire Bouffon work featuring Cara McLendon and Sabrina Wenske, directed by Nathaniel Justiniano whom you might recall from You Killed Hamlet), I wondered whether the piece would succeed at the second point for an Edmonton audience, but it definitely did.  One more show, 2:45 today (Friday).

The show I’ve been working on, How I Lost One Pound, the Musical, also has one more show this festival, at 6:30 pm today in the Rutherford Room at the Varscona Hotel.  We are not sold out at the box office and I will have some tickets available at the door as well.  I’d love to show more people this quirky funny low-key narrative about a woman at mid-life.   Lesley Carlberg’s show will also be playing at Vancouver Fringe and at Guelph Fringe in October, if you miss it here.

 

Start of Edmonton Fringe 2017

Here are a few notes on shows I’ve seen so far, in alphabetical order by title.

Bash’d:  A Gay Rap Opera

Two talented local performers, Jezec Sanders and Kael Wynn, do a powerfully moving version of Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow’s 2008 rap musical.  The beats are slick, the rhymes are fine, the show-within-the-show about Dillon, the small-town boy kicked out when he comes out and Jack, the urban party boy who never expected to fall in love and settle down is charming, the context is Canadian and unfortunately not dated, and parts of it made me cry so hard that a stranger offered me a hug after the show.

Gemini

Louise Casemore and Vern Thiessen perform a script written by Casemore which fits perfectly into the basement bar space of El Cortez, using the flaws of the space (noise from upstairs, odd lighting, heat) to develop the mood and characters, showing how a sarcastic bartender and a grouchy overbearing customer get to know each other and care about each other as time passes.

Gordon’s Big Bald Head

This Fringe improv tradition, with Jacob Banigan, Chris Craddock, and Mark Meer, builds a long-form story every night out of one of the other show descriptions in the program book.  The one I saw included a plucky orphan (but not the Cockney one), a coffee shop next to a copy shop, some mobsters, a secret pope, an amulet (not as common nowadays as talismans), and other unlikely elements, all meshing into a convincing and ridiculous story.

Interstellar Elder

This new solo show from Ingrid Hansen (Little Orange Man) is original and delightful.  There is enough narration that we understand what’s going on, but Hansen’s on-stage character Kitt demonstrates her story mostly through movement.

How I Lost One Pound, The Musical

I’m working on this show as local crew for Toronto touring artist Lesley Carlberg.  There’s a performance every day in the Rutherford Room of the Varscona Hotel.  Lesley’s story has many familiar-sounding aspects, but is told in a charming, unassuming manner full of asides and tangents.

Urinetown, The Musical

Grindstone Theatre tackles the cynical and self-aware Broadway hit with a cast of 14, a small musical ensemble led by Vicky Berg, and a multilevel scaffolding set that manages to change the beautiful brick and wood worship space of Holy Trinity’s sanctuary into the depressing underbelly of a near-future dystopic city.   I loved the asides from Officer Lockstock (Bob Rasko) and Little Sally (Carol Chu) which made fun of the tropes of musicals at the same time as providing them.  Paul Morgan Donald was particularly strong as Cladwell P Caldwell, but the cast includes many experienced actors and talented singers.  Likely to sell out.

So that’s a start – some improv, some solos, some scripted drama, some musicals, and the busy schedule ahead of me includes more of the same as well as some comedy, some burlesque, some unplanned viewing, and some shifts selling drink tickets.  I love Edmonton Fringe!

 

Vignettes of Artstrek

Artstrek is a theatre camp for teenagers, run through Theatre Alberta at Red Deer College every July.  Today I had the opportunity to observe part of an Artstrek day, and I came away even more impressed by the program and the team than I had been beforehand.


A group of students tumbles out of a vocal-improvising class for a short break before the next session.  Some of them leap onto a bench in the hallway and start creating another song together.


A first-year Super (Super is short for Supervisor, the camp-counsellor equivalents of Artstrek, former campers who lead activities and support the teens through their camp week) tells me that she’s learned so much through Artstrek that she is now studying to be a drama teacher, and the Artstrek leaders are her role models.


Glenda Stirling, Artstrek Curriculum Director, shows the visitors the curriculum chart in the instructors’ office, so all the teachers can see on one wall what every class covers each day, which parts of the play texts they will be focusing on and what kinds of activities they’ll be doing.  This helps them make connections between classes and keep in touch with what the students need each day.


A  movement teacher gives her class lively warmup activities “Show us your sassiest pose! Your Toddlers & Tiaras smile!  Now the Charleston!” and then quietly gestures them into respectful listening for exercises evocative of movement in trench warfare.  The students shift gears immediately and follow the exercises with commitment and compassion that brings tears to my eyes.


In a design class, groups of students are given a few minutes to arrange props, set, lighting, and sound for an assigned scene of the play.  Each group then acts as audience for the other group’s creation, and responds to instructor questions like “Where is the focus of this scene?  What is the mood?  What has been happening?” and “Why did the groups make different choices?”


After lunch, students bus their cafeteria dishes and rush outside to play organized games with the Supers.  Super-Super Sarah (the Super-Supers are the lead supervisors, also acting as extra administrative helpers for the program) challenges the teenagers to pick up three pieces of litter each, and the resulting whirlwind scours the courtyard in a few minutes.  Then there are a few rounds of lost-and-found, reminders of which groups are heading to which classes next, and attendance-taking in small groups.  Nobody has cell phones out at all.


Acting class takes place on the main stage in the beautiful arts centre auditorium.  Exercises include everything from text work on a monologue with a partner, to (optional) playing with simulated vomit.


In another class, the students are given a series of exercises to work towards creating original monologues in the world of the play.  An instructor reminds them to trust the step-by-step process given, with idea-clustering, sense descriptions, and other stepping stones coming first.  While the students are writing, he sketches stepping stones in a river which look a little like Pac-Man ghosts.


A design teacher asks students how it felt to have awkward prop, set, and costume elements to deal with while reading dialogue.  Students comment that it’s distracting, yet also helps them to understand what their characters would be feeling.  The instructor relates this to the limitations of realism as a design choice.  I have never quite understood this – and now I do.


Every summer, the Artstrek curriculum team chooses a “play of study” to focus on – not to perform, but to use as a starting point for exercises in every aspect of theatre that summer.  The play of study might be a musical, a classical work like a Shakespeare play, or a contemporary work. Each week of the camp, from Exploration 1 for 12-14 year olds to Exploration 3 for 17-18 year olds, covers the same play, with age-appropriate exercises.  A student or an instructor who returns to the program for multiple years will get all new experiences.  Today I watched groups who were part of Exploration 2, kids around 15 or 16 years old, some of them at Artstrek for the first time and some who had been coming every summer since they finished Grade 7.

This year, Vern Thiessen’s play Vimy, about Canadian soldiers and a nurse at the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917), is the Artstrek play of study.  As a companion piece, Thiessen also contributed an additional short play, Bluebirds, about Canadian nurses in World War I, to add more diversity of women’s experiences along with the characters in Vimy.  He wrote this play specifically as a commission for Artstrek 2017.  My paternal grandfather was in the Canadian Expeditionary Force Signal Corps.  He did not talk about his wartime experiences, but we believe he was at Vimy Ridge.  And today I learned about the frightening isolating agonizing experience of that war from Artstrek exercises in an unfurnished studio classroom, in ways that I did not grasp when I toured the restored trenches and the tidy monuments and cemeteries of the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site.  That was another demonstration, for me, of how realism isn’t necessarily the best or only way of sharing emotional truth.

Trench entrance at Vimy Ridge

Restored trench entrance at Vimy Ridge National Historic Site, July 2003. Sign says “Canadian Front Line”.

Over three hundred teenagers experience Artstrek every summer.  Kids whose families cannot afford the registration fee can request scholarship assistance.  The scholarship budget of $15,000 is still in need of donations to support this year’s campers, and you can make a tax-deductible contribution through CanadaHelps.

Follies performers dancing, 1941 and 1971 characters

Follies, and other celebrations of theatre

Walterdale Theatre’s production of Follies, the 1971 Sondheim musical, opens tonight.  I was able to see a preview last night, and I found it touching, sometimes sad, and sometimes so funny that I couldn’t stop giggling.   As suits a show about retired showgirls, it has interesting music (under the direction of Michael Clark) a large ensemble cast, production dance numbers (choreography by Barb Mah and Alyssa Paterson), sparkly festive costumes with headpieces (Karin Lauderdale), and some beautiful solos.

The premise of the show seemed not unusual to me, the idea of middle-aged former performers reuniting before an old theatre is torn down, and reminiscing about past life.  What seemed more original about this story is the concept of the characters having shadows or ghosts or echoes of their former selves, living their 1941 lives around and in between the returnees living their 1971 lives.  In 1941, there were eight showgirls and a couple of young sailors, each identified as the earlier self of one of the 1971 characters.  As the reunion visitors catch up with each other about their lives and play out current conflicts, we see the shadows of their past selves dancing and singing and speaking about their dreams and romances and ambitions in 1941.

I can’t readily say what was my favourite part of this show.  I loved the song “Who’s That Woman”, led by Stella (Joyanne Rudiak), in which the 1971 women make it look hard to reproduce a tap number of their youth, blended with the 1941 women making it look easy.  I loved how the blue-grey playsuits of the 1941 dancers and the cold blue-tinged lighting (Brad Melrose) showed them to be memories, while the warmer palettes for the 1971 characters were often present at the same time.  I laughed hard at the over-the-top costumes for the fantasy sequences starting with “Loveland”.  I was moved by Carlotta Campion’s (Kristen M Finlay’s) triumphant solo about her existence and persistence, “I’m Still Here”.  And I was deeply disconcerted watching Ben’s (Gavin Belik’s) brash confidence in “Live, Laugh, Love” gradually crumble into a complete breakdown, while the spirits of chorus dancers flutter gaily around him as if nothing is wrong or he is a figure of fun.  Leslie Caffaro is a strong actor in the lead role of Sally and Aaron Schaan has an amusing cameo as Kevin the Waiter.

Same-day tickets are available at the door, and advance tickets through Tix on the Square.  Follies plays until Saturday July 15th.

follies 2

Monica Roberts and Leslie Caffaro play Phyllis and Sally, former roommates and rivals and friends.  Photo credit Barb Mah.

 


Last week the Edmonton theatre community celebrated the 2016-2017 season at the Sterling Awards Gala.  Productions taking home multiple awards included the Citadel’s Crazy for You, Edmonton Actors’ Theatre’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Theatre Network’s Irma Voth, and Impossible Mongoose’s The Fall of the House of Atreus: A Cowboy Love Story.  But as usual, the night reminded me of the wide breadth of talents and passions and visions in the Edmonton theatre scene, amateur as well as professional, and I look forward to watching and discussing many more delightful and challenging performances in the future.   As usual at the Sterlings, the script was entertaining and the tech and stage-management invisible, making the evening go quickly and amusingly.


After Found Festival was over, I was still thinking about some of the productions I’d seen, and wanted to make some additional notes.

In the Admit One show In Shoes, the viewer is guided on a quick walk around a popular block of Old Strathcona, encountering various characters who all connect in ways that become clear.  Although I had seen all the performers in other roles in the past, I was never aware of any of them until the moment at which they figuratively stepped on stage to take over from the previous actor.  It was as if they were non-playing characters on Whyte Avenue, part of the streetscape, until that moment.  This fascinated me.  It reminded me of the TV show Being Erica, and how Erica often encountered the therapist Dr. Tom on the street, appearing as a hot dog vendor or bartender or pedestrian just as she needed him.  It also reminded me of some video game – I don’t know if it’s World of Warcraft or if it’s a common custom – where everything in the environment that the player can interact with has a sort of halo outline that’s lacking in other parts of the background.

On the last day of Found Festival, I was able to attend a performance of Before The River, a roving performance along the pathways by Mill Creek. Colin Matty, Shannon Hunt, Katrusia Pohoreski, Jameela McNeil, and Liam Coady performed an eerie folkloric tale from Ukrainian tradition.


And now it’s summer!  Time for Freewill Shakespeare and the rest of the summer festivals and looking forward to Fringe.  Enjoy!