Category Archives: Theatre

My Pride weekend entertainment, ephemeral and re-playable

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn uprising, one of the milestones in LGBTQ+ activism against injustice.  And in honour of that, there are lots of LGBTQ+ cultural events and celebrations.  This weekend I watched and enjoyed four pieces that are making me think about LGBTQ+ experiences and how they’ve changed in my lifetime.

First, I watched ten Netflix-hours of Tales of The City, the update or reboot or whatever of Armistead Maupin’s serialized stories portraying life in San Francisco starting in the late 1970s.  Apparently the first three books were televised as miniseries a while ago and I completely missed them, but it was really cool to see new storylines about some of the characters I remembered from the books, and about a new generation of young queer artists and activists and community members who find a haven in the magical apartment building on Barbary Lane.  The original short-chapter stories varied in tone like poetry, some of them so ridiculous they’d be offensive if they weren’t written affectionately by an insider, some of them just poignant punches in the gut about being rejected for being different, and some gentle lessons about building chosen family and choosing hope rather than despair.  Anyway, the Netflix series captures this very well.  The only characters who seemed one-dimensional or comic-relief were the twins who  reinvent themselves as an Instagram sensation.  Everyone else had interesting character-arcs and also provided some opportunities for the writer to explore ideas about queerness, community, family, and aging.  Of the new main characters introduced in this series, I think all of them except Shawna (Ellen Page), who was present as a small child in the original books, were people of colour.   I especially liked Jake (Garcia), the young Hispanic trans man.   I also appreciated that aging trans landlady Anna Madrigal, played by Olympia Dukakis since the first miniseries in 1993, was played in 1966 flashback by a trans actor, Jen Richards.

After that binge-watch at home, I caught Rocketman on the big screen.  It was a lot of fun, with lots of great Elton John music dressing up scenes from his life as told in flashback from an addiction recovery group session.   One thing that stood out for me was the strength of his continuing friendship with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Today I attended Drag Queens in the House storytime at the Strathcona Library.  Three local performers read picture-books to the young audience members and led them in some singing and dancing.  It was wholesome and delightful, and I love living in a neighbourhood where people bring their little kids to an event like this.

I also wrapped up my Nextfest viewing for this year with Boy Trouble, a solo theatre piece written by Mac Brock and performed by Maxwell Hanic.   The wry likeable teenage protagonist tells the audience about his life – his neighbourhood park, his single mum, his best friend, how he realized he was gay – and then with help of projected video shows us some of his precocious explorations on Grindr.  The story is lyrical and relatable, capturing how Kay feels as he goes through ordinary schooldays with a secret adult life late at night.   And it becomes unexpectedly nuanced – the hookups have no harmful outcomes or cautionary tales, but his momentary longing to have an ordinary teenage experience, “what the rest of them have at every party, every dance”, an encounter where “I think he was as nervous as I was”, is the one where he’s betrayed and outed.  And even that doesn’t happen in a moralistic way – we see Kay’s support strategies, his visualization, his mum, his best friend, all rallying around enough that we don’t need to see what happens next to know it’s going to be okay.

It was a great wrapup to a good Nextfest, and an appropriate ending to a weekend of stories of LGBTQ+ lives over the years.

A Little Night Music

The other night, before the wildfire smoke blew in to town, I was walking in my neighbourhood in the evening about how lucky I am to be living at this latitude, with the magical long twilights as we approach the summer solstice.  The long light warm evenings feel rich with extra opportunity.  And I wondered how to share that feeling.

Last night I watched Foote in the Door’s production of A Little Night Music, a Sondheim musical based on an Ingmar Bergen movie directed by Mary-Ellen Perley.  It’s set in Sweden around 1900.  The second act takes place at a country estate, much of it outdoors.  And there are songs about that magical extended twilight, songs that describe the feelings better than I ever could, with lighting (Sarah Karpyshin) and abstract set pieces (Leland Stelck) to support them.

A Little Night Music has a cast of 18.  At first I kept referring to my program to figure out who was who and how they were connected.  But later on, it just made more delightful threads of plot arcs to follow, to wonder how the cat’s-cradle of romances and affairs would untangle itself.   Commenting on the liaisons and prospects of the others, and on the nature of love in general, are a grandmother (Pauline Farmer) and granddaughter  Fredrika (Rebecca Erin Curtis, a MacEwan grad I will watch for again).

I loved the detail, consistent through the show, that star actress Desiree (Glynis Price) was surrounded by clutter and chaos – stockings and scarves draped over her furniture, enough male visitors that they cross paths in her apartment – her current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Russ Farmer) and her former lover Fredrik Egerman (Morgan Smith), both sporting mustaches of importance.  Count Malcolm’s indignant wife Charlotte (Monica Roberts), a likeably sarcastic character, comes up with a unlikely scheme to defend both herself and Egerman’s young wife Anne (Ruth Wong-Miller) from Desiree’s designs on their husbands.   Anne is an astonishingly naive 18 year old.  She claims to love married life but seems oblivious to being more passionate about teasing her stepson (Allan Cabral) than about her much-older husband.   It was “amusing” (as the character often says) to watch Wong-Miller in this role, since she usually plays characters with more agency but was completely believable as the protected and petted young wife.   Desiree’s daughter Fredrika, canonically about 13, seemed to be wiser with more understanding of the world and relationships, just from listening to her grandmother’s stories of liaisons and from having toured with her mother’s acting troupes.

Monica Morgan night music

Monica Roberts, as Charlotte, and Morgan Smith, as Fredrik, in A Little Night Music. Photo by Nanc Price Photography.

There were a lot of bits in this production that had me laughing out loud – some of them were funnier to me than to other members of the audience.  The part where Fredrika’s grandmother says that she brought Fredrika home to do a better job raising her because “ Stage managers are not nannies, dear; they don’t have the talent.”  The bit where Fredrika takes Anne to watch Desiree on stage in a French comedy, the play-within-a-play a more exaggerated version of the grandmother’s liaison stories and the contemporary affairs and intrigues, and Brian Ault playing a footman or herald in a truly bizarre wig.

One of the common features of Sondheim musicals is complex music.  Daniel Belland is musical director, with an ensemble of eight other musicians.   As well as the characters named above, there are several servants, some with their own romantic plotlines, and a chorus of six, singing clever harmonies and hinting at further layers of complication (“Remember”) that we don’t get to see.

A Little Night Music is a musical for people who like musicals, a change from this company’s last production, the stage-musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  It’s long but it moves along at a good pace and I was surprised when it was already time for intermission.  It’s playing at La Cité Francophone, until June 8th, with tickets through Tix on the Square.

 

 

 

Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls, and other stories

My calendar was full for a while working on Cabaret for ELOPE Musical Theatre (timely and chilling and also entertaining), but now I have a little more time for watching theatre as well as helping to make it.

Two weeks ago I attended the monthly Script Salon organized by Alberta Playwrights Network and Playwrights Guild of Canada, because the new work to be read was Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls.  It was wonderful and it made me cry.  Kristin Johnson, Rebecca Sadowski, Jayce Mackenzie, and Karina Cox played students in a girls’ junior-high robot-building club.  Stage directions were read by assistant director Patricia Cerra.

The playwright said in the talkback session afterwards that he had tried to consistently have his characters in this play choose to be kind.  I also had the impression that the playwright was kind to the characters, making them quirky and interesting but not at all parodies or objects of amusement.  And there was still enough challenge and drama in their lives to make it interesting listening/viewing – even in a staged read.  The wide social gaps between Grade Nine soccer-star (Johnston) and naive less-popular-twin Grade Seven (Mackenzie), between the student council president (Sadowski) and the new kid (Cox) were accepted by all the characters.  Watching them awkwardly navigate the group norms and transition to productive teamwork and cautious friendship made me happy.  The premise of the story – a continually-absent teacher-advisor, a school rule against cell phone use – gives us a situation where the four girls have to interact with each other while they work on the project.  And the incidental conversations ring true – about embarrassing parents, about annoying siblings, about various understandings of menstruation, about teachers and classmates and dreams of the future.  I loved that the characters are not preoccupied with boys, romance, or sex – this script passes the Bechdel-Wallace test easily, with the few conversations about boys mostly limited to the problems of having brothers or the ways in which boys in a mixed-gender school would take over the building project.

I thought that it was a play for adults, but that young people of the characters’ ages or five years older would also enjoy it and feel like it was a fair portrayal.  In an epilogue, we hear not only how the team fares at the robot competition/festival, but how each of the characters goes on in science and in life.

It reminded me a little bit of the wonderful 1999 movie October Sky, about boys from a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1957 who pursue rocket-building.  And it also reminded me of the recent movies Eighth Grade and Booksmart, films about present-day bright feminist girls navigating social challenges at school that show their young characters in respectful ways.  In both those films, there are no villains, nobody being gratuitously mean.  The protagonists get embarrassed, and they get into awkward and potentially risky situations, but they get themselves out of them.  They aren’t stories where the writers punish the girls for aiming too high, for acting on the crush, for going to the party with more popular kids.  In both films, things don’t quite work out as hoped for the protagonists, but they aren’t disastrous.  And after I saw Eighth Grade, I realized that there are an awful lot of stories where the plot punishes the outsider girl with humiliation, with slut-shaming, with sexual assault. It’s awful that I’m impressed when that doesn’t happen in a story.  But it doesn’t always happen in life, and it shouldn’t always happen in stories.

Maybe we’re into a new kind of stories about teenage girls, and I like them.   Trevor Schmidt’s Robot Girls is a good one.  I hope to see it on stage soon.

Betrayal, by Harold Pinter

Betrayal runs in reverse order – scenes from the end of an affair to its start several years earlier.  I didn’t know very much else about it beforehand, but that bit helped.   In the first scene, Elena Porter’s character Emma and Chris W Cook’s character Jerry are meeting for a drink a couple of years after their affair ended.  They both seemed terse, brittle, understated, and careful with each other.  Was that was due to their characters, the history between them, or just some mythical British reserve? It wasn’t clear.  Within a few more scenes I’d also watched each of them interact with Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend Robert (Cody Porter), and I was thinking that none of them seemed very happy, with each other or in general.

But as I learned in a playwriting class, flashbacks and hints raise the stakes.  How did these people get in this unhappy situation?  I wanted to find out, and I was primed to watch for clues.  In the first scene, Emma and Jerry share news of various people who had been in each other’s lives – Robert, Jerry’s wife Judith, their respective children, other associates.  None of these people ever appears on stage, but they are all mentioned as the story rewinds back through the years, and I realized that the conversations in the first scene weren’t so much awkward time-filling as significant information about what had happened.

The various scenes take place in bars and restaurants, in Emma and Robert’s home, in a tourist hotel, and in the flat Jerry and Emma had rented for afternoon rendezvous.  Director/designer Clinton Carew has made some fascinating choices in how to use the small black-box space of the Arts Barns Studio Theatre, with furniture for each setting poised not quite out of sight in multiple legs on either side, arranged asymmetrically.  The pub table where Jerry and Emma meet in the first scene is far upstage, constrained in a narrow space far from the audience.  As the story progresses backwards in time, the scenes are played closer and closer to the audience risers.  This reminded me of this company’s production of Three Sisters several years ago, in which the family’s gradual uprooting from their family home is paralleled by the actors gradually piling up abandoned furniture upstage and moving down until they end up almost in the audience moat.

All this furniture moving takes place with the help of a character moving with precise almost fussy physicality (Jake Tkaczyk, recently seen with Elena Porter in the Shadow Theatre production of Lungs).  He turns out to be a restaurant waiter in one of the later/earlier scenes.

Costume design is by Leona Brausen.  My impression in the first few scenes is that everything is colourless grey and beige, with all the characters in trenchcoats.   But as the years rewind to happier and more vulnerable times, the palette of costuming and lighting shifts warmer as well, towards a warm master-bedroom of affection and Emma’s splendid red party frock consistent with the characters’ feelings.

I’ve seen Chris W Cook playing many characters who are well-meaning stoner bros without a future, earnest and a little stupid, shortsighted and limited in worldview – the drugged-up guy in 3…2…1 bragging about contributing to his customers’ health as a Subway sandwich artist, the young fellow in Sweat getting out of jail with the swastika neck tattoo, the drinking buddy in Nighthawk Rules trying to drag his old friend away from his grownup boring girlfriend, the wannabe-artist in The Aliens.  But in some ways his turtleneck-sporting character in Betrayal is the opposite of those – a well-spoken successful literary agent and, as one of my preview-night companions said afterwards, “a complete cad.”

The playwright Harold Pinter is known for effective use of silences in conversation “the Pinter pause”, and having seen this production I can see why.   In the stillnesses I wondered what Robert wasn’t saying, what Emma wanted to say, what Jerry was being careful about.  I found Cody Porter’s constrained facial expressions particularly compelling.  I kept wanting him to smile – I kept wanting them all to smile – but he always seemed to be in pain.

I’d like to see Betrayal again, especially to watch those beginning scenes knowing where they come from.  But once is sufficient to understand the story, to have some sympathy for the not-entirely-likeable characters, and to be challenged and entertained.  Betrayal runs until the afternoon of Sunday June 2, with tickets through Fringe.

 

Shadow Theatre’s Lungs

Photo of Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

The play I saw last weekend, Small Mouth Sounds, was like an exercise in telling a story on stage after removing almost all of the spoken words.  All the other parts of how a story is supported on stage, the costumes, the props, the actions and stage business, the set, the lighting and sound effects … they were enough.  I watched various characters arrive at a retreat centre, and I could tell what they were like and how the retreat was going to work for them.  One arrived late and on her phone, one slipped his flipflops gracefully into the shoe rack at the side and sank into a meditation pose that was in everyone else’s way, one wore a Tilley hat with chinstrap and an MEC catalogue full of outdoor clothing … I was anticipating all the ways these people might get on each other’s nerves over the weekend, and I was kind of right.

The current production in the Shadow Theatre season, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, could be the opposite exercise.  It’s as if the playwright, and the director John Hudson, and the designer Elise Jason, all sat down and said, what if we gave them great words, but almost nothing else –  a big bare stage, no props, one simple costume each, no sound cues, near-imperceptible lighting shifts – and launched them into the narrative of two people in the middle of a conversation they’ve never had before.  “A baby?” , Elena Porter’s character responds incredulously to a question Jake Tkaczyk’s character must have asked just before the lights came up.  He’d been thinking about it for a while, and although she’d assumed it would happen sometime in her future, she hadn’t thought of the future being now.   So they talk.  And they avoid talking.  And they talk some more.

Is it the right time for us?  Is it okay for us to want a child when the planet is already overpopulated?  The couple jumps between their personal anxieties “I want to still read books and do things” “I don’t want to be one of those fathers who never notices his kids unless they’re winning.” “What if I don’t bond with it?” and their bigger-picture worries about the state of the environment.   They reassure each other they are good people who bicycle, recycle, and buy coffee from local independent shops “even when it tastes like dirt” – but here they are, trying to create another person anyway.  In some ways, the script is specific to the 2019 flavour of those big-picture anxieties – partly about climate change and partly about doing the culturally-agreed right things – but the motivations and worries would be familiar to people of previous generations as well.  “This isn’t the best time, I take it, to be giving hostages to fortune?” as fictional character Lady Peter Wimsey (nee Harriet Vane) announces her pregnancy to Lord Peter in Thrones, Dominations in 1936.

Mostly, Porter’s character is the one whose worries are full of words, spilling over each other and contradicting each other, but Tkaczyk’s character (they don’t have names) also gets an anxiety monologue when he can’t sleep.

The script cuts brilliantly from the middle of one conversation to the important bit of the next one.  We don’t see the characters having sex – we see them looking at each other realizing they both want to, and then we see them collapsed in bed afterwards appreciating it.  Or, in one marvelous scene, we see them after the concept of conception has actually ruined the mood.  Not in the more-commonly-portrayed way of people feeling required to perform on schedule, but she wants the act to be romantic and symbolic, and she is put off by what she calls his “porno face”.

And, true to my own perception of life, things seem to speed up as life goes on, until the important bits flash by with one poignant line each (and usually a “where’s the camera?”)   It matters that the action starts in a near-contemporary time, because by skipping ahead to later in the characters’ lives, we also get disturbing hints of what the playwright is imagining for what the environment and the world might be like in the future by the time the characters get old.  I don’t think I’ve seen this done before, much.

Lungs is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday March 31st.  Because the performers both joined the production on short notice, in the early performance I saw they were both carrying scripts – but it didn’t matter much.  I didn’t find it distracting, and it didn’t seem to prevent them from connecting with the audience and with each other.  I cried.

 

 

Theatre out of the theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unexpectedly touching and hilarious: Small Mouth Sounds

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

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

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

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

I liked it a lot.