Category Archives: Travel

The backlog and the roundup

As last year, I think I’m giving up on writing good reviews of the backlog of shows, so that I can start the new season fresh when the Fringe festival opens tonight.  The shows mentioned here fell off the top of my to-do list for a variety of reasons, mostly because it didn’t feel urgent to share my thoughts after the shows had closed.

In February I saw an evening of powerful modern dance with the New York City company Ailey II.  There were four pieces some with several movements, and different numbers of dancers, so the evening felt full of novelty, as well as emotion and atheticism.  My favourite piece was the last long set, Revelations.

I also saw a Pride Week performance of Coming Out Monologues at the University of Alberta.  It was personal and powerful.

In early June, I took three friends to the Varscona Theatre to see the Teatro La Quindicina production of The Jazz Mother, a Stewart Lemoine play last produced in 1991.  I haven’t seen very many of the plays of this prolific playwright, but as I expected, The Jazz Mother was clever, affectionate, and thoroughly enjoyable,.  The surprise – a pleasant surprise – was that it was full of singing too!

The setting is the small village of Badger’s Bluff, Iowa, in 1937, specifically the dining room and parlour of a boarding house run by Polish immigrant Tomas (Mat Busby).  The cozy and charming room was designed by Belinda Cornish and Jeff Haslam.  Tomas’s two lodgers are Enid, a nurse (Kristi Hansen), and Bobbie Romayne (Jocelyn Ahlf) a free-spirited jazz singer who gets off the train in town looking for work.  One of the funniest moments of the show is Bobbie’s audition to sing at a funeral home.

I also enjoyed two musical performances by Two One Way Tickets to Broadway, The Drowsy Chaperone and La Cage Aux Folles.

And at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, the summer theatre in a tent in Saskatoon, I saw Taming of the Shrew.  I found it more upsetting than I had bargained for, and I wanted to think about it more before writing a review, and I still haven’t really figured out what to think.  I’d read the play many years ago, but never seen it or studied it.  And somehow, I’d had the idea that the title was ironic, and that the happy ending of the story had the smart independent woman finding love without compromising herself.  But the production I saw, directed by Johnna Wright, left me shocked and uncomfortable.  I loved Jenna-Lee Hyde in the role of Katherine, with her sarcastic tone, expressive eyebrows, and short-statured truculence.  I wanted her to win Petruchio over or trick him into believing she was tamed, and it was hard for me to read in that intention to the way the play was performed.  Petruchio (Joshua Beaudry) used the manipulative techniques of a Pick-Up Artist and an abuser, such as “negging”, gaslighting, and denying her food and sleep, and according to the canonical text, they worked.  That is realistic but at the same time awful.  The play seemed to be set in the early 1960s, with similar music and costuming choices to those in the Red Deer College production of Comedy of Errors directed by Jeff Page last fall.  In a way that’s a good choice for a story of shifts in power imbalance by genders, but the nearly-contemporary setting made me more uncomfortable with the outcome of the story.   It also provided for some fun musical interludes, with the characters of Lucentio, Gremio, Hortensio, and Grumio (Nathan Howe, Jacob Yaworski, Skye Brandon, and Matt Burgess) playing as a musical combo, and the performers of Katherine’s sister, mother, and housekeeper (Anna Seibel, Lisa Bayliss, Tara Schoonbaert) also singing harmony in 60s-girl-group style.   I didn’t get to see the Freewill Shakespeare production of Shrew this summer, with James Macdonald and Mary Hulbert, but I wish I’d been able to see it as well, to help me put my finger on what bothered me and to see whether different directoral choices would have made a difference.

So I think I’m caught up.  The Fringe opening ceremonies are this evening, and our show Sonder‘s first performance is at 10 pm tonight.  I can’t wait!

Cabaret

Listening to the musical soundtrack from a show evokes vivid memories of the show, sometimes more than expected.  That is why, after my trip to various US destinations this spring, I was sitting on a full airplane back to Edmonton, but I feel like I’m sitting in a theatre, specifically the Kit Kat Club Studio 54, swept into the world of Cabaret, and the nightclub in 1930s Berlin while the prospect of Nazi power loomed like the Nightwatch on Babylon 5.   This was not the most comfortable mood to be in on an airplane, but it was a wonderful show and I wanted to remember it as fully as I could.

The musical Cabaret was the last show I saw on my trip to New York City.  it opened recently with Alan Cumming (currently in the TV drama The Good Wife) as the Emcee, Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, and Bill Heck as the viewpoint character American novelist Cliff Bradshaw.  The poignant and tragic glimpses of ordinary people going about their lives ignoring or worrying about or unaware of the political and social shifts during what we know is the time immediately before World War II create a compelling story.  You can’t raise the narrative stakes much higher.  The plot line about Fraulein Schneider, the landlady, and about her late-in-life suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit seller, was particularly heartbreaking.  The Emcee’s speeches and songs addressing the imaginary cabaret audience give an impression of self-conscious parody of depravity, but the other narrative between the songs, like Sally Bowles’ matter-of-fact acknowledgement that various members of the chorus had male and female lovers, just felt like a way of illustrating that the culture of that time and place wasn’t very different from our own.

The front rows of the orchestra and balcony sections in the theatre were all set up like little cabaret tables, with candle lights.  In the parts of the musical set during cabaret performances, the little table lights lit up, so that even though I was sitting in a cheaper seat I felt part of an intimate live performance.  The Club space at the Citadel feels similar, so I imagine I’ll recall Cabaret the next time I go to a show there.  The male ushers for the performance were not entirely clothed, adding to the impression of arriving somewhere exotic and slightly daring.   Before the show started, the orchestra musicians were wandering around and warming up on stage, before settling in to their platform above the main part of the stage.

Both Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams will be replaced by other performers for the extended run of this show.  While I loved seeing Alan Cumming in this role, the show would be good even without them.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

One of the hot tickets that I paid full price for on my Broadway excursion this spring was the new production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig and Lena Hall as Hedwig’s second husband Yitzhak.  Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) had played the role in a West End London production a few years ago, but never on Broadway.  (You might know NPH as the actor who played the title role in Doogie Howser MD, who played himself in the Harold and Kumar movies, and who was in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or the host of last year’s Tony Awards.)  I’m probably the only one who also had him confused with the guy who plays the FBI agent on White Collar, but that’s actually Tim De Kay, who looks kind of similar and is about 10 years older.   Lena Hall also has a long Broadway resume,

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also a movie, but having seen both I think it works better as a stage musical – and it’s definitely more fun in person.  The Belasco Theatre is an intimate setting and some of the audience members sitting near me had seen the production before.  It’s a fairly short show (95 minutes or so?) without an intermission, and the character Hedwig talks or sings for almost the whole time.  The musicians performing as the Angry Inch were Justin Craig (Skszp), Matt Duncan (Jacek), Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff), and Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko).  Hedwig has several dramatic costume changes and manages to climb over a car gracefully wearing platform boots.

The show uses the device of Hedwig and her band talking to the audience as they do a “one night only!” musical performance, and narrate Hedwig’s history.  They keep mentioning their more successful associate Tommy Gnosis who is supposedly performing across town in a bigger venue.  And at one point Hedwig makes an aside about having been kicked out of a dive like The Jane Hotel, which is funny because the original off-Broadway run of Hedwig was in a room at that inexpensive inn, but it was even funnier to me because that is where I was staying.

I enjoyed it and I’m glad I went to see it, but it hasn’t really stuck with me very hard.  I’m not sure why not.

Hilda’s Yard in Rosthern, Saskatchewan

I’m aiming to be caught up on reviews or at least quick mentions by the start of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (August 14-24, 2014), because that’s the start of my personal theatregoing year, and the anniversary of my move to Edmonton.  This year at the Fringe, besides volunteering at the beer tent, volunteering front of house for a Rapid Fire production or two, and seeing as many shows as I can fit into my schedule, I’m also going to be producing a new work.  Sonder, created and performed by The ? Collective under the direction of Jake Tkaczyk (a U of A BFA Acting student), will be playing at the King Edward Elementary School.

The most recent play I’ve attended was Norm Foster’s charming slice of 1950s family life, Hilda’s Yard, as directed by Stephen Heatley (formerly of Edmonton and now faculty at UBC) at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, Saskatchewan.  As a professional production by a summer company, it reminded me of the plays I used to go to at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque when I lived in Kingston.   I hear that doing the dinner/show package at the Tea Room in the arts centre is an even better experience, but by the time I decided to attend the dinner was sold out.  So I had a tasty club sandwich at a local restaurant called Chewie’s (after the Star Wars character I think), and then enjoyed strolling through the art gallery before the show started.

Hilda’s Yard opens with the title character (Cheryl Jack) hanging laundry in her backyard, while talking to a neighbour we can’t see.  We learn that she’s relieved that her two grown children have recently moved out, and that she’s a little apprehensive about her husband planning to buy their first television set.   I thought Hilda’s character was the most interesting part of the play.  Cheryl Jack portrayed her as confident, competent, wistful, and mostly in control, and her portrayal was enhanced by some very amusing gestures and hip wiggles.  I was pleased to see that she and her husband Sam (Bruce McKay) were both looking forward to the increased opportunities for intimacy afforded by having an empty nest, rather than playing that situation for the cheap laughs of imbalance.   The complication, of course, is that both adult children soon return home, for the same kinds of reasons that are common in 21st-century boomerang kids.  Gary (Jaron Francis) has lost his pizza-delivery job in the city and is on the run from a bookie he owes money to.  Sam’s prolonged pauses as he tries to figure out what to say to his son are priceless.  Daughter Janey (Angela Kemp) shows up back home due to marital troubles.  I’d seen both Jaron Francis and Bruce McKay in last season’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan productions of Macbeth and Comedy of Errors.

When I read the show notes ahead of time, I assumed that the plot would focus on Gary and Janey now insisting on staying with their parents in order to watch the television.  But Norm Foster’s stories are not quite that predictable.  Although the (off-stage) television figures in the plot, it doesn’t quite work out like that.  Additional characters who show up and get invited for supper include Gary’s new girlfriend Bobbi, a jazz trombonist (Shannon Harasen) and Gary’s bookie Beverly (Matt Josdal).  Bobbi’s idiolect is noticeably different from the language used by the rest of the characters, with jazz lingo like “cat” but also in careful details like her pronunciation of “Mom” contrasting with Janey’s old-Ontario pronunciation of “Mum”. Present-day audiences are amused by any mention of the 1956 prices and wages, but also by Gary’s unrealistic schemes to make money with such unlikely products as a “baby-on-board” sign or a hula hoop.  I appreciated the light touch by director and actors throughout the play, because the story is funny enough without hitting the audience over the head.

The set (design by David Granger) portrayed a backyard like the ones of my childhood with simple clean lines – an artificial-turf lawn, a wooden-siding wall, a white picket fence with bits of weed growing between the pickets, a perfectly-recreated pulley clothesline and a wicker laundry basket, vintage lawn chairs and a credibly-dented metal garbage can.

Hilda’s Yard continues until July 27th, and is definitely worth the short drive from Saskatoon.

Raisin in the Sun

I wanted to see this play on Broadway for two reasons.  One was that I’d seen the movie earlier this year along with watching the Citadel Theatre performance of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, an intersecting story set in the same world.  The other was that Denzel Washington is in this production, in the role of Walter Lee Younger, the man of the family, the role played by a young Sidney Poitier in the movie.

Before the play started, the poem excerpt including the phrase “raisin in the sun” and the musings about dreams deferred was projected on a scrim.  And a radio interview was playing on a loop – I figured out quickly that the woman being interviewed was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and then I learned from the Playbill that the interviewer was Studs Terkel.

The curtain rises on the main room of a small apartment in Chicago.  Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo) is up and in the kitchen before the alarm goes off, and then she begins the tasks of helping her family get ready for the day.  Her small son (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) wakes groggy on the living room couch, and she hustles him into the shared bathroom across the hallway.  The set design was clever, showing the tiled hallway and bathroom door outside the door of the main set, lit in such a way that I wasn’t aware of it being part of the set until Travis scurries across the hall with his towel.  You could see the practised routine of a family in the way Ruth starts waking up her husband as soon as her son’s in the bathroom, rushing him into the bath ahead of the man down the hall, as she makes breakfasts, wraps sandwiches in waxed paper, and reminds her young sister-in-law, college-student Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), to tidy away Travis’s bedding.   Coming from a later generation, it took me some time to figure out that Ruth actually had a job herself, because in the first scene she was all about taking care of her family.  But in fact, both Ruth and her mother-in-law Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) worked as domestic help.  As we got to know the family and the routines of their lives, we also learned that Lena’s husband Walter had recently died and that they were all anticipating how the life insurance money might change their lives.

Each of them had some dreams and wishes for better life – Lena wants a garden and sunlight, Ruth wants comfort and space for her growing family, Travis wants his own bedroom, and Beneatha wants to be a doctor after embracing college student life, exploring African roots, and trying various creative pursuits like guitar lessons and horseback riding.  But Walter Lee seems to be the most unhappy with his current life, working as a chauffeur and depending on his mother’s and wife’s earnings to help pay the bills.  He yearns to be his own boss, to take care of his family and be in charge.  So of course they don’t all agree about what to do with the money.

I thought Latanya Richardson Jackson was especially strong, but the whole cast was good and balanced.  I felt like I was watching an important story and I was lucky to be seeing it with such good actors.    Many of my seat neighbours in the mezzanine were very well dressed and had bouquets to deliver at the stage door, adding to my impression that I was seeing something important.

Raisin in the Sun intersects with Clybourne Park in the part of the story where a representative of the currently all-white neighbourhood tries to dissuade the family from moving to the house Lena buys, but that is not the main focus of either play.   It was also useful to think about the second act of Clybourne Park which is set in contemporary times, showing that although people nowadays have different customs of how to talk about race, the misunderstandings and misconceptions still continue.

Kinky Boots!

I keep meeting interesting people at the theatre, not just in Edmonton but now on Broadway too.  Tonight I enjoyed some wonderful conversation about theatre and life and as a bonus, one of the people I’d been talking to pointed out Giorgio Armani returning to his seat after intermission.

Tonight’s show was Kinky Boots.  When the movie of the same name was new, I saw it and thought that it was pleasant, but just part of that subgenre with Full Monty and Brassed Off, where plucky English working class factory workers cope in a post-industrial world, and also bore some similarity to Billy Elliot as well as Full Monty in discussing how definitions of masculinity need to change in that world.

But I followed recommendations I’d been hearing from friends and from theatregoers I met earlier in the week here, and lined up at the TKTS same-day discounts booth this afternoon to get a ticket to the musical version of Kinky Boots, book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics and music by Cyndi Lauper.  And I was not disappointed.  I liked the musical a lot more than I liked the movie.  The two main characters, Lola (Billy Porter) and Charlie (Andy Kelso), both grew up feeling like they’d let down their fathers in wanting to be themselves, but both ended up using the skills they learned from their fathers in finding their own destinies.  I loved how the ensemble seemed credible as factory workers, men and women of a variety of ages and body types.  An article in the Playbill pointed out that the women at the factory gradually dress in brighter colours as they spend more time with Lola, which I hadn’t picked up on.  I loved how the finale at the Milan footwear show had everyone wearing different spectacular thigh-high boots.  And I loved the glimpses into design problem-solving, with problem definition (male performers need sturdier stilettos than the ones available for women), iteration (burgundy boots with a low heel are comfortable but not acceptable to the target market), group idea generation (Charlie and Lauren mostly), and prototyping.

The set was full of moving bits shifting around to be inside the factory, outside the factory, in various pubs and the drag queen nightclub, etc.  And there was some impressive use of conveyor belts.

Kinky Boots has been running on Broadway for about a year.  It won a bunch of Tony awards last year and is about to go on tour.

Having watched costumer friends struggle to assemble enough sandals to outfit the cast of Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I’m guessing that the footwear will be one big obstacle to eventual local productions of this show.  Maybe MTI will rent the boots along with the books and orchestra scores.  Meanwhile – see it here.  It seems to be available at TKTS most days, for 40% or 50% off the face value of the tickets.

 

 

Casa Valentina, a new play by Harvey Fierstein

Casa Valentina opened this week after a few weeks of previews, at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club).  It’s been nominated for Best Play for the 2014 Tony Awards (the nominations came out a couple of days ago).

I saw it from the mezzanine, at a midweek matinee.  Many of the people sitting near me turned out to be very frequent Broadway theatregoers attending alone. “I just couldn’t live anywhere else!” “These plays would close if it weren’t for women in the audience, and women writing cheques!” Some of them had opera glasses like my grandmother’s.  They gave me lots of recommendations  and heads-ups about what else to see, where to sit for various performances, and so on.

Casa Valentina is set in 1962 at a rustic resort in the Catskills, a safe meetup spot for cross-dressing men to spend a weekend living as their “girls within”. The resort is run by George (Patrick Page) and his wife Rita (Mare Winningham, also nominated for a Tony).  George’s alter ego is Valentina.  During the play we hear that George and Rita’s marriage, the second for both, is unusual in that Rita not only knows about George’s cross-dressing but accepts it.  In an endearing scene early on, we see Rita (who runs a wig store too) helping George prepare for his transformation to Valentina to greet the guests.

The other visitors have families who don’t know or families who know but don’t accept.  The visiting activist who has served time in jail for cross-dressing (Reed Birney as Charlotte) urges them to go public, but also to improve their group’s chances of being accepted by signing affidavits to say that they are neither drag queens or homo-sexuals.  The anti-queer sentiments that he expresses assuming that they will be shared by the other characters had the 2014 audience gasping and hissing, until the line “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.” at which we all cracked up laughing.  Genius.

There was also lots of audible audience sentiment (but of the “awww” kind) directed towards Jonathon/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), a young high school teacher making a first visit to the resort and a first outing in women’s clothing outside of the basement at home.  He explains that his wife found it hilarious when he tried on her wedding gown on their honeymoon, but he didn’t think she’d laugh more than once so he never told her or showed her again. And the transformation from Jonathan to Miranda when Miranda appears for dinner isn’t nearly as impressive as Miranda’s subsequent makeover with the help of the other characters, from an awkward ashamed young woman in shapeless dress and limp shoulder-length straight hair, to a delighted fashionable confident young woman and the centre of attention.

I loved the set design for this play.  It created the impression of an old-fashioned resort with weathered wood, porches and decks and lots of stairs.  It also created the impression of lots of cozy small rooms for the guests, using some shifting staircases, the hints of eaves, and lighting on four or five mismatched dressing tables in different corners (because of course the important thing about the bedrooms at this resort isn’t as places to sleep, but as places to get dressed up and made up).

This play is making me think about a different side of LGBTQ history, but also about how oppressed and threatened people can isolate themselves from other marginalised people in an attempt to be accepted, and why that’s problematic.