Spooky October performances 2018

I’m not managing to see everything on Edmonton stages these days, but I wish I could.  I wish I’d seen Lenin’s Embalmers at U of A Studio Theatre, or the Maggie Tree production Blood: A Scientific Romance.  From what I’ve read about them, it looks like the creepy or paranormal themes could have fit into this Hallowe’en-week blog roundup, too.

At the Walterdale Theatre, I helped work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a script prepared by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans using various primary source materials, and directed here by Barbara Mah.   It was thought-provoking and disturbing, because the horrible fates of real people were depicted graphically, because the resulting legal case portrayed did not result in justice, and because the hazards of the garment industry juxtaposed with fashion advertising are not so different from their contemporary equivalents.   Watching this story play out every night as one of the booth operators, I kept cheering for some of the determined young women who lived to tell their own stories, particularly Rose Freedman (Danielle Yu), and Ethel Monick, (Stephanie Swensrude), and kept getting angry at the factory owners and their lawyer (Eric Rice, Kent Sutherland, and Matthew Bearsto).  It was a relief to close that show and watch some scary shows for fun.  

Dead Centre of Town XI has four more performances in the Blatchford hangar at Fort Edmonton Park.  This year the macabre true stories researched and written by Megan and Beth Dart of Catch the Keys all relate to air travel.  As usual, the audience members are guided through relevant settings to encounter the characters of various disasters and mysterious happenings, while super-creepy poet/narrator Colin Matty provides extra detail and atmosphere.  “If humans were intended to fly, why are they so Goddamned squishy?”, he muses.  More live-theatre than haunted-house, this annual immersive event does a great job at making the details build up the overall experience – even the ticket distribution (“boarding passes”) and the traffic-management (impersonal masked uniformed airport workers in a crowded “boarding lounge” with staticky announcements) are part of the adventure.

Dark! at Fort Edmonton is new this year, adding on food (with creepy nicknames like Bloody Balls and Skewered Rat), drinks, and adult-level haunted-house attractions.  I went to one of the haunts, and decided that I prefer the Dead Centre of Town style of horrifying imagery enhanced by narrative, to the unexplained jump-scares of Dark!

The Bone House, by Marty Chan, also has performances remaining on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  It was also very scary in a different style again.  At first it felt like a TV or movie experience, with a forensic-psychology expert presenting an illustrated lecture about serial killers, but it became more unsettling – it was easy to involve myself into the story enough that I could imagine being in danger, but I also began to feel somewhat complicit in choosing to listen to serial-killer narratives in any medium.  Brrr.

This weekend I also managed to fit in a performance of Northern Light Theatre’s Origin of the Species, by Bryony Lavery.  With direction and set/costume design by Trevor Schmidt and performances by Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner, it uses the ridiculous premise of a contemporary archaeologist encountering a live prehistoric woman, to touch on several important themes with a subtle touch.  I particularly enjoyed the very gradual transition of the prehistoric woman Victoria (Johnston) towards modern physicality and communication, and the many ways that both characters subvert assumptions about “traditional” gender roles.

Fringe 2018 – the first half

At midweek, I’m just catching my breath long enough to sit down with my program book (my second program book, after the first had an unfortunate beer accident) and start coming to terms with not being able to see everything I want to see.

What I’ve seen so far:

Don’t Frown at the Gown – I loved this new Guys in Disguise play set in a suburban bridal salon in 1962.  The characters are charming, the conflicts between mother (Darrin Hagen) and bride (Trevor Schmidt) and between mother and best friend (Jason Hardwick), are timeless although the details are a horrifying reminder of the unexamined sexism of the world I was born into, and the salon owner Lady Laura Lee (Jake Tkaczyk) provides a cryptic example of serenity, empowerment, and hope for better things “in the very near future”.

Cult Cycle – A new musical set in a spin-bicycle exercise studio of course needs a soundtrack of original dance-beat music with catchy tunes (Composer Daniel Belland, check.)  It needs a bitingly-clever book and lyrics touching on all the catchphrases and attitudes encountered in boutique fitness as well as a plot with enough stakes to create interest, and a little bit of cheese (writers Stephen Allred, Bethany Hughes, and Seth Gilfillan, check) .  It needs a cast who can tell stories in song, sometimes while cycling at spin cadence, doing arm choreography with weights and towels, and even doing parallel-bars type gymnastics moves on a bicycle (Jaimi Reese, Mark Sinongco, Geoff Ryzuk, Nadine Veroba, Kendra Humphrey, Stephen Allred, check check check.)  It is very very funny.

Red Bastard:  Lie With Me – Eric Davis’s performance is a wonderful example of what can be done with bouffon, alternately alluring and appalling the audience, compelling us to confess embarrassing things, and challenging us to re-examine conventional assumptions of morality.

Bountiful – Rebecca Ann Merkley’s script about sister-wives in a contemporary polygamist settlement has a great balance of interpersonal frictions and cultural issues, with little touches that kept jolting me into realizing the characters were in some ways ordinary women of 2018 (Jameela McNeil’s sassy asides, Emma Wilmott’s “Cool”.)  Laura Raboud played the senior-wife leader of the group and Kayla Gorman played an awkward naive woman who reminded me a little bit of her child character in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant.  There was something especially disturbing about seeing this in sequence with Don’t Frown, with the scenes of married women trying to reassure young brides about wedding-night “responsibilities” in ways that show the audience their own unhappy memories of encounters with honeymoon sex.

Merk de Soleil – This vaudeville-esque amateur-circus revue is a very different creation from Rebecca Merkley.  It has all the variety-show tropes – a big buildup, some repeated gags, a cast of odd characters, and some underappreciated helpers (Kristina Hunszinger, Josh Travnik, Andrew Brostrom).  Lots of fun.

The Wilds – Classic Wonderheads production telling a tender story in an amusing way without any spoken words.

For Science! – Christine Lesiak’s new show doesn’t need spoken words either, although it makes good use of text in a slide-show and benefited from audience members who rushed to contribute when asked.

The Alien Baby Project – Impossible Mongoose always has something cool and weird.  This year it’s a script from Nicholas Walker Herbert performed by Jessy Ardern and directed and designed by Corben Kushneryk.  Cool and weird.

2 Queens and a Joker – Cheryl Jameson, Madelaine Knight, and Vance Avery play Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, and a messenger/spy go-between.  Dangerous-feeling design by Trevor Schmidt and script by Schmidt, Darrin Hagen, and Nick Green.

What I’m working on:

All Proceeds Go To:  Jake Tkaczyk, Alex Dawkins, Sarah Karpyshin, and I bring you a much-needed updating of the concept of seven deadly sins, and explore them using various performance genres including neo-bouffon, original music by Alex Dawkins, movement, dance, and audience contributions.  OSPAC on Gateway, three more shows.

A Golden Girls Tribute: Sofie’s Wild Ride is just what the title promises – a funny and nostalgic tribute to the characters of the TV show in some new adventures and to sitcom tropes in general (script by Amanda Leblanc, cast Brian Ault, Althea Cunningham, Nicole English, Ana Fassman, Rhonda Kosuska, and Amanda Leblanc).  Every afternoon at the Billiard Club, some shows selling out.

 

 

 

Russ Farmer as Bobby and Emily Smith as Marta. Photo credit Nanc Price.

In good Company

Russ Farmer as Bobby, Emily Smith as Marta.  Photo credits Nanc Price.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company shows us a group of friends in their 30s, five married couples and the single guy, Bobby (Russ Farmer in the current Foote in the Door production).

In a series of gentle vignettes, we see glimpses of each couple’s relationship and challenges.  We see that Bobby is friends with everybody, good company, as he spends time with each couple.  Harry and Sarah (Stefan Rumak and Melanie Lafleur) talk to Bobby as a way of complaining about each other’s habits (his drinking, her eating sweets).  He’s best man for Paul and Amy’s (Alan Cabral and Ruth Wong-Miller) wedding – or he would be, if they agree to get married.  Joanne (Kärin Thomas) enjoys flirting with Bobby and telling him about her past husbands while devoted present husband Larry (Joe Garreck) looks on.  Susan and Peter (Athena Gordon and Trevor J.) explain to Bobby that being divorced makes their marriage work.  Bobby smokes weed with David and Jenny (Simon Yau and Kara Little).  All of them fuss at Bobby about not being married and try to find out why he’s not married – and Bobby doesn’t seem to know either.

We also see Bobby with three love interests, naive flight attendant April (Victoria Suen, whom I last saw in Lizzie), Kathy, who’s moving away but says she would have liked to marry him (Alyssa Paterson), and Marta (Emily Smith), one of my favourite characters, who is wholeheartedly in love with New York City and with life.

And I should mention that it was fun to spot assistant director Gerald Mason playing bartender and what seemed to be a nightclub full of show orchestra members and assistant stage managers dancing in the dark.

It wasn’t the plot-heavy kind of production full of big character journeys and closure, but rather was full of lovely examples of longterm love and friendship and of people accepting who they are and being comfortable.  My favourite part was “Getting Married Today” in which Ruth Wong-Miller’s character has hilarious physical and emotional range in a wedding dress.  I also enjoyed “Side by Side by Side”, which was a great showcase of choreographer Adam Kuss’s contributions, and Bobby’s final solo “Being Alive”.  There are also many other touching and/or delightful moments which I won’t tell you about so you can discover them for yourself, with just one hint:  Trevor J. lets his hair down.

I admired how Morgan Kunitz’ direction integrated everyday smartphone use into a script from 1970 without looking anachronistic.

Company is playing at L’UniThéâtre until April 28th.  And if you haven’t been to the big auditorium at La Cité yet this season, you will be pleasantly surprised by the new audience seating, which is much more comfortable than the previous seats.

Tracey Power’s Glory!

Kate Dion-Richard, Gili Roskies, Katie Ryerson, Morgan Yamada, and Kevin Corey in GLORY. Photo: Barbara Zimonick. (Set & Lights: Narda McCaroll. Costumes: Cindy Wiebe.)

When I read that Calgary’s ATP would be putting on a new play about women hockey players, and specifically the Preston Rivulettes of the 1930s, I knew I needed to go to Calgary to see it.  And I was right!

I cried a lot during the performance, because the portrayals of the young women and of their community’s responses were so familiar from my own experience of female hockey starting in the 1970s.  I felt represented, understood, and honoured.  “I’ve always wanted to play on a team!” enthuses future captain Hilda Ranscombe (Katie Ryerson).  “Girls don’t play hockey!” retorts reluctant coach Herbert Fach (Kevin Corey).

The playwright Tracey Power (Chelsea Hotel) chose two pairs of sisters, Hilda and Nellie Ranscombe (Ryerson and Edmonton’s Morgan Yamada) and Marm and Helen Schmuck (Gili Roskies and Kate Dion-Richard) to represent the players, and created interesting distinct characters with enough backstory, conflict, and connections to be compelling.  The historical background of the 1930s was essential to the story, filled in by the characters talking about their families and community and by listening to CRBC (later CBC) radio.  One player couldn’t go to university because her father’s business was struggling and her brothers had lost their jobs; another wasn’t admitted to law school because she was Jewish.

Hockey games were represented on stage in stylized choreography (Power), with different movements and music for each game.  Yamada was an agile and stubborn goaltender.  Hard shots (of imaginary pucks) had me ducking in my seat.  Set and lighting (Narda McCarroll) and costumes (Cindy Wiebe) support the storytelling.  I was particularly impressed with the rapid movement of the rink-boards pieces to become changerooms, factory workrooms, and even a baseball park.  Director James McDonald (formerly of the Citadel) and playwright Power paced the action well and kept the human stories to the forefront.

I have known of the Preston Rivulettes since I was a young hockey player and fan, looking at team photos and trophies in the old Preston Arena.  I vaguely remember meeting Hilda and Nellie much later in their lives, at a Preston Trianglettes game, and finding it hard to comprehend that forty years earlier, they had played for provincial and national championships.  In the 1970s there was no provincial or national governing body or championship for female hockey – but in the 1930s there was.   The play Glory included enough of the documented facts to make me happy as a scholar, but more importantly captured perfectly what it is like for women to play the game they love despite many obstacles.   I hope to tell some of the second-wave women’s-hockey stories on stage myself someday, and this play affirms my sense that they are worth telling.

“When we fight to win, we have a whole lot more at stake”, one of the characters in Glory says, explaining why fans find their matches exciting.  And Hilda Ranscombe finishes with a monologue daydreaming about what will happen someday, despite the loss of competitions and opponents on the eve of war.  Someday, she says to her teammates, there will be so many teams we won’t be able to play them all.  And there will be women coaches.  And women referees.  And women announcers.  And Olympic medals.

There are, Hilda, there are.  Thank you.

Glory is playing at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary until April 21st.

 

Blue Stockings, by Jessica Swale

Lucy Vogue and Aidan Thomas in Blue Stockings. Photo: Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

 

Blue Stockings is set at the University of Cambridge, in 1896, and mostly at Girton, a women’s college of the university.  It follows a study group of four young women in their first year at the college, Tess (Lucy Vogue), Carolyn (Monica Lefurgey), Celia (Jocelyn Jay), and Maeve (Maggie Salopek), showing their passion for learning science, their struggles with learning to disagree with sources and defend their ideas, and their commitment to future careers in teaching, research, and medicine.  The play also shows how they are treated by faculty male and female, by their male peers, and by College staff including a chaperone (Julie Sinclair) and a maid willing to circumvent the chaperone (Rebecca Collins).

I was pleased to see the way the script touched on many issues of women’s education which were not black-and-white.  The male faculty’s attitudes ranged from enthusiastically supportive (Dave Wolkowski as physics lecturer) to pseudoscientifically condescending (Martin Stout as renowned psychiatrist).  The head of the women’s college (Elizabeth Marsh) is single-minded in her attempts to gain degree-seeking status for the young women through the university Senate and vote of members.  This cause drives her to disavow any connection with the too-radical suffragist cause and to expel a student who is needed at home because letting her stay might be used as a demonstration that women’s education hurts families.  The students also sometimes find themselves torn between their passion for study and the temptations of romance, with significant consequences.

Director Laura Ly used a cast of 19 to portray the 25 characters, and set designer Alan Westen used rotating backdrops and moving furniture to present various university settings.

If, like myself, you learned about the history of women’s university education in England through Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful 1935 novel Gaudy Night, you may be unsurprised by the women’s constant need to justify their presence, but surprised by some of the history.  Gaudy Night is set at Oxford rather than Cambridge, which explains the main difference.

Blue Stockings plays at the Walterdale Theatre until Saturday April 14th, including a matinee today.  Advance tickets are at Tix on the Square and same-day tickets are at the door.

To separate, to cling, to Cleave

One character in Elena Belyea’s new play Cleave explains the concept of words that are autoantonyms – words that have two near-opposite meanings, like screen, fast, or bound.  This gives the viewer a hint toward unpacking the play’s title, as it may refer to characters clinging together or being split apart, drawing towards new choices in their lives or detaching from unwanted ones.

Like many of my favourite stories on stage, on screen, or in library books, the narrative of Cleave shows the separate but intersecting objectives of several characters through a cusp time in their lives.  Four of the characters are part of a family, parents (Dave Horak and Elena Porter) who turn out to have their own secret unhappy histories and teenage children (Emma Houghton and Luc Tellier).  I was particularly delighted by the subtlety of Emma Houghton’s character journey, as I had misjudged her on first appearance as a sulky shallow cheerleader wheedling money out of her dad for new workout clothes in which to make an impression.

The other two characters are a new kid at school, 17 year old Aaron who is intersex and trans (Jordan Fowlie), and his therapist.  As he explains to his new therapist (Natasha Napoleao) in the first scene, he’s moved away from his parents in order to avoid the stigma of transition in a small town and in order to get the therapist’s recommendation he needs before gender-affirming surgery.  The therapy scenes provide useful exposition of the background concepts of intersex and trans lives.  Sometimes Aaron is explaining things to his therapist and sometimes she is providing vocabulary and information to the audience while connecting with Aaron.   They also give important insight into Aaron’s thoughtful sarcastic character by providing a context in which he is relatively open, compared to his careful cautious demeanour at school, with his new friend’s family, and in another situation.

I loved the scenes with the two outsider boys sitting on the school steps not quite looking at each other and not rushing into friendship.  And the wordless gestures of trust on both sides of that relationship in the final scene moved me immensely.  I can imagine happy endings in the future for at least some of the characters, but the play ends appropriately with the loose ends not all tied up.

I also want to write about another scene that horrified me and hypnotized me in ways that also thrilled me as a fan of compelling stories.  But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else.  So I will put a brief comment about it at the end of this post.

Cleave is playing at the Backstage Theatre until Saturday April 7th.  There is an allowance of Pay-What-You-Can tickets available at the door for every performance.

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The broken beauty of Betroffenheit

First I need to tell you that Betroffenheit has one more performance in Edmonton, this afternoon at 2, and it is not quite sold out.  Yet.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the first performance of this short local run on Friday – Good Friday, which was somewhat fitting.  As the Citadel Theatre Beyond the Stage series and the Brian Webb Dance Company joined forces to bring this Kidd Pivot/Electric Company Theatre (Vancouver) production to town, it is performed in the large auditorium of the Shoctor Theatre rather than the smaller space of the Timms Centre (like the other BWDC shows) or the Citadel Cabaret.

It is weird, disturbing, and very compelling.  Program notes and other media articles provide a little background – that the piece is a response to playwright Jonathon Young’s horrific story of personal losses.  Choreography and direction were provided by Crystal Pite.  As I am more comfortable with conventional narrative in words, I kept wishing for explicit exposition, but the performance demonstrated the nightmarish and unnamable qualities of the main character (Jonathon Young)’s tormented responses with flashing repetition of cryptic voiceover, oppressive set, sound, and lighting (Jay Gower Taylor, Owen Belton/Alessandro Juliani/Meg Roe, and Tom Visser), and a creepy vaudeville revue by supporting ensemble Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, and Tiffany Tregarthen.   About two-thirds of the way through the performance, the stark dingy-industrial room trapping the protagonist appears to collapse, and after intermission the piece resumes as a somewhat more conventional modern-dance exploration of grief and support, with the performers now dressed in simple grey workout clothing.