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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!

She Loves Me!

The other night I watched a musical that was new to me.  Not new to other people, She Loves Me (book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock) first hit Broadway in 1964, and is opening again next spring.  The Hungarian play on which it’s based was also the basis for the 1998 romantic comedy movie You’ve Got Mail.

The current production, in the Amphitheatre at Faculte St Jean (across the street from La Cite), by Foote in the Door Productions, is directed by Barb Mah, with music direction by Michael Clark.  The setting, a 1930s perfume shop in Budapest, was simply evoked with shades of pink and green in backdrops, counters, and sales-staff shopcoats.  The shop seemed like the equivalent of something like The Body Shop or Lush – selling a variety of necessities and luxuries, focusing on customer experience, and doing a huge business in presents before Christmas.

As in the usual workplace-set story, there’s a cast of characters that includes a boss (James Toupin) with some unreasonable demands and prejudices, an eager-to-please errand boy (Sam Banigan), and a loyal sidekick (Dustin Berube), and in this case there’s also some sub-plot material in the affair between co-workers (Christina O’Dell and Mitch Caddick).  The story soon focuses on Georg (Russ Farmer), a senior employee mistrusted by the boss, who confides that he’s been writing letters through a lonely-hearts correspondence club to Dear Friend.

On a busy day in the shop, then, in bounces Amalia (Ruth Wong-Miller), costumed in a beautiful peacock shade of blue that stands out dramatically from the rest of the show palette, and she quickly talks herself into sales work with a very funny demonstration.  Amalia is also a member of the Lonely Hearts correspondence club, and you can guess the broad strokes of where the story goes from there.

My favourite bits of the show were some of the ensemble numbers with dancing, the stylized couples in the restaurant with the snooty waiter (Kent Sutherland), and the Twelve Days of Christmas shopping crowds in the store.  Six musicians behind the scenes provided accompaniment, atmosphere, and extra entertainment, and the singing was delightful.  Ruth Wong-Miller has a strong pleasant soprano voice and is particularly well cast in this show.  The part with her jumping on the couch in pajamas is also charming.

The last show of the run is tonight (Saturday 28 November) at 7:30.  If you haven’t seen it yet, they should have tickets available at the door, and it’s a lot of fun!

Two solos and two physical duos

Mike Delamont’s Mama’s Boy was a great example of autobiographical storytelling.  He has a good natural delivery and the comic timing which enhances Scottish Drag Queen helps this kind of narrative as well.  It was a loving, respectful, realistic, painful story about growing up with an alcoholic.

James and Jamesy’s 2 for Tea was a delight.  I’d missed this playful British duo last year and now I can see why everyone was talking about them.

Beau and Aero was another physical-theatre escape, very well paced so that one turn or game led directly to the next one.  They had particularly creative explorations of balloons, and some impressive acrobatic stunts.

Both 2 For Tea and Beau and Aero incorporated some audience interaction, and they chose people who participated with initiative and humour, especially the young girl who played a cardiologist and gave her thoughts on life in 2 For Tea, and the man who bopped them with balloons in Beau and Aero.

The other solo performance I saw yesterday was Naked Ladies, by Thea Fitz-James.  After the show, the performer acknowledged that a lot of intense material had been touched on, and invited audience members who had responses to connect with her later.  I appreciated the invitation to process – it reminded me of the similar invitation at the end of a performance in a funeral home a couple of years ago, acknowledging discomfort and giving people a chance not to be alone with their thoughts.   I didn’t have anything to say at the time, and I’m not sure I do yet.  The performance jumped around to different moods and concepts, and the performer kept reminding us that all stories are edited, all memories curated.  The parts that made me most uncomfortable – and I mean that in a good way – were the parts where she was reading from her childhood diary about trying not to masturbate.  That bothered me in ways that seeing the performer naked didn’t.

An 18+ Monday night

Last night I saw two burlesque shows and went to the Late Night Cabaret.  I guess there are some themes there.

O Manada had five dancers (all male) performing as various Canadian archetypes, in solos and larger ensemble pieces, and the hosts were a 1975-era Pierre and Maggie Trudeau.  I have misplaced my program, so I can’t tell you who the rest of this Toronto-based troupe are, but Maggie Trudeau was Morgan Norwich.  The show was fast-paced and full of topical humour leading up to a hilarious speculation that followed naturally from the premise of the show.  The performers engaged some audience members (thank you!) and were a lot of fun to watch.

Burlesque-Prov is hosted by local improviser Lee Boyes.  He introduced the two regulars of the show, Kiki Quinn (who is also in Second Breakfast Club) and LeTabby Lexington (who is also in Die-Nasty this Fringe), along with tonight’s guest performers, one called Fiona who was from out of town, and one from Man Up (his name in that show is Tres Debonair but I think he was introduced last night as Givenchy or something like that).  Kristen Welker was stage kitten in a catsuit complete with claws.  Each performer did a solo act to music selected by the audience, with some kind of theme or limitation also provided randomly.  They also had a box of props to use as they chose. I don’t have the background to know how hard this is, but it was also fun to watch.  The show ended with all performers on stage alternating short bits with high energy.

Late Night Cabaret, hosted by Amy Shostak and Julian Faid, included some sketch comedy from Hip Bang, a story from Martin Dockery, a glimpse of Release the McCrackin, another burlesque performer (C.R. Avery, who is in Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It), and some risque country songs from Shirley Gnome.

What with visiting friends in the beer tent in between shows, I almost didn’t put my ID away all evening.  And that’s not a complaint.

Fringe Sunday

Mild weather made it comfortable everywhere on site yesterday, from C103 to the beer tents.  I saw four shows for the first time, as well as working backstage at Death Comes to Auntie Norma and seeing Pinniped and Other Poems a second time.  Death Comes to Auntie Norma plays this afternoon (Monday) at 4 pm, Wednesday at 12:15, Thursday at 2:15, and closing Sunday at 8:00 pm.  The Edmonton Journal gave us 4 stars and the compliment of comparisons with classic 1980s sitcoms like Roseanne and Golden Girls.

I appreciated more of the subtle description and lyricism in Pinniped more the second time through.  Skye Hindman’s writing is epigrammatic, the erstwhile love interest (Alex Dawkins) is wry and controlled, and the three actors playing the ineffectual protagonist (Emily Howard, Connor Suart, Jake Tkaczyk) have intriguingly similar mannerisms.  Suart seems to be portraying JR Morse in the past, Tkaczyk in the present, and Howard … I’m not sure if her persona is a future one, a dream one, or simply another aspect of Morse’s self.

My favourite show so far this Fringe is Kiss Around Pass Around, a delightful solo physical theatre piece by Yanomi.  Unlike in some of the wonderful physical theatre pieces I’ve seen in the past, like Loon and 7 Ways to Die, the character in this show does speak, engaging with the audience in simple accented English to enhance the impression of being juvenile and alien “Are you human?  Are you kind?”  Music and props add to the magic of the character’s journey to find her father.

Deadmonton was written by Andy Garland and directed by David Johnston, and it is very different from the last work I’d seen from this team, the tongue-in-cheek film-noir pastiche And Then, The Lights Went Out. Deadmonton is a serious portrait of what might happen when two serial killers encounter each other, as well as a look at credible backgrounds for people who are compelled to kill.  Carmen Nieuwenhuis and Alex Forsyth are both disturbingly convincing, and the props and effects are simple enough not to pull me out of the story.  There was one supremely disturbing moment when I was excruciatingly aware of a weapon being close to hand for Gil, Forsyth’s character, willing desperately for him not to use it in that particular situation, despite the spoken text not even mentioning that possibility – which is when I realized that the story had sucked me in completely to their horrifyingly twisted reality.

Who Am I:  Unauthorized stories from the Varscona Parkade was a typical Toy Guns Dance Theatre show, unpredictable, playful, funny, and full of unlikely props.  The unusual venue – the top floor of the parking garage beside the Varscona Hotel – meant that they did less floor work than usual and there were fewer classical-dance elements, but they made very creative use of several couches.

No Belles is a storytelling show from Portland Oregon in which performers use a variety of speaking styles to tell the stories of eight women scientists, women who won Nobel prizes and women who didn’t.  The narrative style and content were something between a very good lecture (like a TED talk) and a typical Fringe storytelling, but I was riveted the whole time, and brought to tears twice.

A busy theatre weekend at the end of May.

It’s a week of wrapping up seasons, celebrating, and honouring excellence.  It’s also rehearsals or tech week for everyone who’s in Nextfest, and rehearsal for the Fringe.

And in the middle of all that, Fringe Theatre Adventures hosted another excellent workshop in their Professional Development Series yesterday.  Charles Netto and Mark Hopkins of Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre in Calgary conducted an all-day series of experiences and conversations about found space and site-sympathetic theatre.  This is the second of the Professional Development series I’d participated in.  If the series continues next year, I recommend them strongly.

The nominees for the 2014-2015 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes awards for professional theatre in Edmonton were announced this afternoon in a smooth and speedy ceremony at the Next Act.  Mat Hulshof introduced the special award winners and Louise Lambert and Ben Stevens read the nominees.  I was able to reminisce about many wonderful shows I’d seen, and marvel about how many more good performances I must have missed, especially at the Fringe.

The Foote Theatre School’s Young Companies closed their instructional year with performances this weekend too.  I missed seeing the Young Musical Company in Chris Wynters and Jocelyn Ahlf’s new musical Measures, but I enjoyed the Young Acting Company’s performance of Robert Chafe’s Afterimage, an ensemble piece that starts out as narrative spoken to the audience by various company members, who seem to be inhabitants of a small east coast community.  This impression of a narrative chorus is continued by having all members of the company sit on chairs at the sides of the stage when not engaged in scenes.  Gradually, I discovered who was who in the story they were telling.  Kieran Dunch was Winston, a man badly burned while trying to repair a downed electrical line, Monica Lillo was the nurse Maggie, and Jasmine Zyp was Lise, who worked in the hospital laundry but seemed to be drawn to the injured man by foresight or some other unusual power.  I appreciated the way the story gradually fitted together, with Leonard (Daniel Greenways) and Connie (Kathryn Robinson) crossing paths with Lise at important points in their lives.  Aidan Burke, Clayton Plamondon, and Jade Robinson played child characters credibly without parody.  Katelyn Trieu was credited as The Storyteller, continuing the role of chorus throughout the play.  I was particularly struck by the plight of Clayton Plamondon’s character, the misfit among misfits, (like Wednesday Addams, but serious).  Brian Dooley directed.

Tonight was the first of three nights of staged readings for the Young Playwrights’ Company.  I watched Winky & Rex by Joshua Wiśniewski and Prodigy by Hayley Moorhouse.  Reading was done by local performers, Candace Berlinguette, Jason Chinn, Joel Crichton, Eva Foote, Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, and Lee Boyes.  In both scripts the dialogue flowed smoothly and provided enough scope for the readers to develop memorable characters.   I particularly appreciated the way the writing made each character sound different.  There were also some repeated catchphrases which amused the audience, “as previously stated” in Winky & Rex, and “Obviously!” in Prodigy.

Winky & Rex was a snapshot of life for three uniquely awkward young adults, two roommates and their longtime friend.  It was set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  That mattered because one character had grown up in East Germany and his father could finally travel to visit him.  I had some confusion early on about the relationship between the roommates and about what country they were living in (I thought they were in the former West Germany but later it seemed to be the USA).

The main characters in Prodigy were three Grade Eight students, angry and disappointed about the cancellation of their band program, and taking out their frustrations on their teacher (Lee Boyes).   The young people had age-appropriate lapses in judgement on big issues (the likely consequences of assassinating school officials for example) but were careful to correct each other on word usage that might hurt people’s feelings, which was charming and credible.

There are more staged readings of new work Tuesday and Wednesday of this week at 7:30 in the Club at the Citadel, pay-what-you-can admission.

From Cradle to Stage 2015

From Cradle to Stage is a Walterdale Theatre spring tradition.  Playwrights submit new scripts. in the fall. One or two are chosen, and the playwrights work with a dramaturg over the winter before auditions and a production in May.  This year’s dramaturg was Mieko Ouchi.

This year you can watch two plays in the From Cradle To Stage evening:  a staged reading of Magpies by Mary-Ellen Perley (directed by Maia Pearson), and a full production of Jesus Master Builder by Mark Allan Greene (directed by Trish Van Doornum).

The first made me teary eyed and the second made me giggle uncontrollably when I wasn’t groaning at the puns.

Magpies is a three-hander, a set of conversations among a grandfather (Michael Schaar-Ney), grand-daughter (Shanni Pinkerton), and the mother/daughter of the in-between generation (Stephanie Swensrude).  It’s set locally in neighbourhoods I could picture easily from the few stage directions.   It worked very well as a staged reading because the important parts were the relationships, the interactions, and the conversations about the past, rather than the incidents taking place on- or off-stage during the time frame of the play.  Although in a fully-staged production it would be fun to see the grandfather trying to shoot magpies with a Super Soaker.  It touched on familiar themes – the allying of the older and younger generation against the uptight middle, the results of secrets kept, and the aftermath of death in the family and grief.

The second play, Jesus Master Builder – A Divine Comedy was a pun-filled exploration of the premise that although Jesus was canonically working with Joseph as a carpenter, he wasn’t necessarily any good at it.  The script referred to a very large number of the familiar New Testament stories and King James Version/Vulgate quotations, sometimes in appropriate context and sometimes almost randomly.  While we see Jesus (Michael Gordon) talking to God (the credibly awe-inspiring voice of Alex Hawkins), calling his disciples (Andrea Newman, Curtis Johnson, Michael Laplaunte, etc), and conducting his ministry, interspersed scenes tell the story of Jebediah (Brad Bishop) and his unnamed wife (Jenn Havens), on their own mission to have Jesus fix their badly-built house.  On that quest they collect their own followers, a Condo Association board of misfits (Sean Richard MacKinnon, Curtis Johnson, Monica Maddaford).  Havens and Bishop are especially funny.   Jenn Havens’ character uses a lot of Yiddish words and intonations but nobody else does, and this is eventually addressed in the text.  Jesus and his followers sometimes speak in a KJV-like dialect (thee, thou, -eth), modern youth slang which irritates his mother (Monica Maddaford).  Kirk Starkie is an emotionally-overwrought Joseph, a step-parent complaining about the “fun weekend dad”, and Michael Schaar-Ney is Michael Hutz, a reno-salvage contractor like a version of Mike Holmes in tunic, tzitzit, and steel-toed sandals.

I thought it ran a little long.  In the second half it slowed down a bit from a strong funny start.  You will find the writing particularly amusing if you have experience with New Testament stories, condominium politics and repair orders, and/or father-figure rivalries, but enough is going on that it’s okay if you miss some of the allusions.  I also liked the costumes (Geri Dittrich) a lot.

The double bill opens tonight (Monday May 18th) and continues until Saturday, May 23rd.  Advance tickets are available at Tix on the Square, with tickets available for purchase at the theatre starting at 7 pm each night.

Script submissions for the 2016 From Cradle to Stage project are due at the theatre September 15th.