Another couple of days at the Fringe

One of the things I do at the Fringe each year is watch for the little improvements that make things run more smoothly and more fairly.  Like at Folkfest, another 30+ year tradition in Edmonton, the tweaks are small but always done to make things more fair, more convenient, and more fun.  Last year one new thing was a spinning postcard rack in the Arts Barns lobby for artists to leave their handbills on display.  It wasn’t designed ideally for that high-traffic activity, so the handbills often fell out of it, and festival director Murray Utas spent a lot of time picking up spilled handbills and sorting them to return to the rack.  This year, the rack is back, but it has been rebuilt with Plexiglas shields to allow the postcards to be seen and not fall out.  Little things like that.

This year the Playwrights Canada Press booth will be open all week, with staffing help from Concrete Theatre.  And the beer tents take debit and credit including tap, which speeds things up for the ticket sellers and for the patrons.  Little things, but little things that keep improving my favourite festival.

Marv ‘ n Berry Presents: Imagination is a sketch-comedy show performed by members of Rapid Fire Theatre, Nikki Hulowski, Quinn Contini, Mike Robertson, and Sam Stralak.  It’s very funny and occasionally surreal/weird – not quite as odd/eerie as Gossamer Obsessions was though.  Although I had heard many of their punchlines while sitting in on part of their tech rehearsal, I still laughed hard during the show, because good sketches are all about quickly conveying characters and situations which become funnier and funnier.  Not sure what was my favourite – the suburban couple auditioning to be gangsters, the fishing-trip participant with safety concerns, the board-game store …

Mormonic, the Musical  Sister Pratt, Sister Olsen, and Brother Bradshaw have turned the El Cortez basement into a meeting room to host an information session and potluck for people curious about the LDS church, complete with bad Power-Point and excellent songs.  The touch of having the slides be skewed and distorted on the screen as in pre-digital-projector days delighted me with nostalgic detail.  The script and lyrics were written by performers Amanda Neufeld and Jaimi Reese, and the music was composed by performer Daniel Belland, who plays the piano during the show but also sings and acts, which I have not seen him do before.  It is cleverly funny watching the characters’ personalities become revealed and unravelled during their presentation, and the music is appealing and sometimes catchy.

Pompeii, LA This play by Declan Greene is produced by Cardiac Theatre, with Harley Morison (director) and Jessica Glover (stage manager).  The familiar names on stage include Cody Porter, Elena Porter, James Hamilton, Nikki Hulowski, Morgan Grau, and Sam Stralak.  It’s a drama about Hollywood life, switching between scenes to show the challenges and unhappinesses for various characters, from an aging Judy Garland to a former child star trying to succeed in a disaster movie (Pompeii, it’s a metaphor and not) and a make-up artist trying to live her dream.

Prophecy This is another take on Greek tragedy written by Jessy Ardern and directed by Corbin Kushneryk, the creative team behind last year’s award-winning Fall of the House of Atreus, a Cowboy Love Story.  This one focuses on a smaller part of the stories, and on a few women characters:  tormented Cassandra, gifted (under dub-con circumstances) to see the truth and cursed not to be believed, Hecuba the proper queen and the mother of Cassandra, Paris, and Hector, and Andromache the timid and modest wife of Hector.  All characters are played by Carmen Niewenhuis, with clever smooth clues to character change in her costuming, voice, and posture.  And this one is not a funny play, although some of the design and acting is inherently funny.  It is disturbing and provocative and surprisingly topical, gory only in our imaginations, with content/trigger warnings offered in an envelope on the door rather than in a way that lessens the surprises for people who are willing to be surprised.

Shadowlands is a solo show written and performed by Savanna Harvey.  I saw a reading of this script at NextFest in June, before the performer left on her CAFF-lottery tour of five Fringe festivals, so I was excited to see it properly staged.  It’s told in alternating voices of several characters – maybe four, maybe five or six depending on how one counts.  A different prop represents each character, as in the puppetry genre referred to as object theatre – only this show is performed in the dark, with each character being represented by a different kind of light.  I don’t want to tell you much about it, because for me part of the fun of this kind of play is figuring out who/what each character is and how they are going to connect.

With Glowing Hearts:  A Canadian Burlesque Revue is just what the subtitle promises, a revue-style burlesque show with each act based on a woman or women from Canadian history.   The host is Ellen Chorley dressed as Famous Five activist Nellie McClung, and the panty zamboni (stagecrew) is Kiki Quinn dressed as a very cute beaver.  I never know whether to refer to burlesque performers by their stage names or by the names I’ve seen them listed by in other genres, but in this case both are in the program so you can figure out who is who.  Sweet Lady Night is a particularly strong singer, Scarlett Von Bomb is a great dancer, and Violette Coquette and LeTabby Lexington are experienced and talented burlesque performers.  The costumes are fabulous, the choreography is fun, and … and it was not only educational but inspiring, acknowledging the flaws of the historical characters by today’s higher standards of intersectional feminism and challenging the audience to take action.  The finale included a speech by Chorley that made me cry, and a Famous Five transition-to-the-present group dance number that had me clapping and cheering and fist-pumping.

Start of Edmonton Fringe 2017

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

Bash’d:  A Gay Rap Opera

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

Gemini

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

Gordon’s Big Bald Head

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

Interstellar Elder

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

How I Lost One Pound, The Musical

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

Urinetown, The Musical

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

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

 

Vignettes of Artstrek

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Trench entrance at Vimy Ridge

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

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

Follies performers dancing, 1941 and 1971 characters

Follies, and other celebrations of theatre

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

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

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

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

follies 2

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

 


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


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

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

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


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

 

Opera Nuova’s Carousel

Opera Nuova’s two mainstage productions this year are The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera composed by Leoš Janáček, and Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. 

Carousel is set in a coastal village in Maine (Wikipedia says in 1873).  In the opening scenes, a touring carnival has set up outside the town, with various circus-style performers (a strong-man, dancers, a fortune teller, a juggler), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Justin Kautz in tonight’s performance), and manager Mrs Mullin (Emily Stewart tonight).  The set includes three lovely carousel-horses, turned on a revolve during the opening waltz by members of the chorus.  (Apparently one can bid on the horses by contacting Opera Nuova before the end of the run).  Local mill girls Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge (Krista Paton and Brittany Rae) visit the carousel, but the carnival manager gets jealous when Billy Bigelow pays too much attention to Julie, banning Julie from the carousel and firing Billy.  Both Paton and Rae have lovely soprano voices in the solos and duet setting up their friendship and the story.  Kautz portrays Billy as a cocky flirt, confident in his charm, but with foreshadowing of physical threat in the way he grabs Mrs. Mullin’s forearm and threatens Carrie in the first scenes.

The larger ensemble then gathers on stage for clambake preparations, and the enthusiastic “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”, featuring Olivia Barnes tonight as Nettie Fowler.   This piece is echoed later by “That Was a Real Nice Clambake”, again with delightful choreography.  In between are important scenes advancing the tragic story – Julie and Billy lose their jobs, get married, and discover Julie expecting a baby before they have any money, so Billy agrees to help his no-good friend Jigger Craigin (Nolan Kehler tonight) with a robbery scheme.

After Billy’s death (with a spectacular fall off a pier by Kautz, one of the founders of Toy Guns Dance Theatre), the scenes 15 years later focus on Billy trying to make amends to his daughter Louise (Emily Steers tonight).  Louise’s barefoot dance piece explores solitary childhood joy on the shore with hopscotch, innocent celebration with local boy Enoch Snow Jr (Jordan Sabo of Man Up dance troupe), being picked on by a group of local children and taking petty revenge by snatching one girl’s hat, and then being swept up in a group of performers, the carnival workers of the opening scenes, particularly being drawn to a young man among them.   Later, she confides in Enoch Jr that after graduation she plans to run away with them and become an actress.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the musical is when Billy, granted visibility by the heavenly guides in order to help his daughter, gets frustrated when she won’t take his gift and slaps her hand.  Louise flees to her mother, who comforts her and seems to reminisce almost wistfully about a hit that feels like a kiss.  The underscoring music hints at this being sweetly nostalgic, which is jarring against the horrifying but realistic thought that Julie’s good memories of her abusive husband might be encouraging Louise to expect no better.   The more hopeful ending is that Billy’s spirit enables Louise to take in the graduation speech about not being limited by one’s parents’ failures and not being alone.  We can’t tell whether her happy ending will continue with running away to be an actress, marrying Enoch Jr, or perhaps something better than either.

The lighting and costumes for this production create a muted palette for the modest village and mists off the sea.  Vernacular dialects (slightly different for the carnival workers and the villagers) add to the vintage down-home atmosphere.

There is one more performance of Cunning Little Vixen tomorrow night (Friday 29 June) and one more of Carousel Saturday June 30th, both at Festival Place in Sherwood Park.  Julie

carousel 1

Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge at the Carousel

The festivals of summer, part 1.

When I was a little kid, the calendar was divided in two parts:  the school year, in which all the scheduled activities happened week by week and wrapped up in June, and the summer, which started with a parade in June for Flag Day (a local invention) and continued with drive-in movies, ice cream from the local Dairy, camping trips and time at the cottage, and being put to bed with the windows open while my parents and aunts and uncles talked quietly outside with beers, until the evenings started to get cool and the days started to get shorter and it was time to put on leather shoes again and head back to school.

Edmonton theatre life is kind of like that.  The professional companies mostly wrapped up their seasons in time for Sterling Award nomination deadlines, and are on to planning for next winter’s productions.  The awards get announced at a gala Monday night, and the summer celebrations, special treats, and traditions are already in action. Teatro, of course, has already had one play in its summer season, Salon of the Talking Turk, and has opened the second, Jana O’Connor’s Going Going Gone.   The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s just started.

The emerging-artists’ festival Nextfest happened earlier in June.  I took in a few performances – the spoken-word poetry night Speak! hosted by Nasra Adem and Liam Cody, a reading of new work Shadowlands by Savanna Harvey (thoughtful, provocative, and amusing even as a reading – definitely watch for it at this year’s Edmonton Fringe (or at Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, or Vancouver Fringe), and the site-specific piece Everyone We Know Will Be There: A House Party in One Act, by Elena Belyea, directed by Andrew Ritchie.  This was a very cleverly managed piece of roving theatre, with small groups of audience members each invisibly shadowing a specific party-guest character, around the house and yard.  I didn’t know the whole story after one viewing, just the parts that our character (played by Eva Foote) was part of, and some other tantalizing bits we overheard while our character was storming through rooms or having meltdowns in bathrooms.  The piece was so skilfully directed and stage-managed that any adjustments of timing and traffic direction were completely invisible to me, which added to the feeling of eavesdropping on a real story.

Opera Nuova‘s festival of opera and musical theatre continues, with Carousel and The Cunning Little Vixen playing this weekend and next.  Rapid Fire Theatre’s biggest event of the year, Improvaganza, wraps up tonight with four shows.  And Found Festival continues today and tomorrow around McIntyre Park and Old Strathcona.

Found Festival is a small festival of site-specific and found-space performance, currently under the leadership of Beth Dart, multi-talented local theatre maker and event producer.  So if the description of Everyone We Know Will Be There made you curious, or intrigued, or skeptical, then you can come to Found Festival this weekend and see more performances created or curated for unexpected spaces.  McIntyre Park, the little green space with the gazebo in front of the library, is currently set up with a box office tent, live music in the gazebo for free, and a small friendly shaded beer-garden with the best of the Fringe’s furniture and Alley Kat products like Session Ale and Main Squeeze.  (Almost like my parents’ backyard in the old days, except that now I’m old enough to drink and the music is better!)

So far I’ve attended Julie Ferguson’s powerful and thought-provoking solo piece Glass Washrooms, which explores a journey to non-binary gender identity and concepts of spaces one belongs in.  Although originally created for the public-washroom building at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway, the later performances have been moved to the washrooms at the Backstage Theatre in order to reduce disruption to the people needing that essential community infrastructure on Whyte Ave.  There are two more performances today and one tomorrow, and I recommend it highly.

Another intriguing part of the Found Festival is the Admit One performances, short shows of various kinds performed for one audience member at a time.  I’ve seen four of them and I hope to catch the fifth.  They’re all different enough that I find myself delighted and intrigued by each one.   In Shoes and One Man’s Junk explore concepts of memory as the audience member experiences aspects of the neighbourhood space along with the performers.  The character in One Man’s Junk works in the antique store Junque Cellar, and the store background blends smoothly into the apparently-rambling thoughts of the employee on break, performer/creator Jake Tkaczyk.  In Shoes takes the audience member on a short walk around the immediate neighbourhood, on which performers portrayed various people important in a young woman’s life.  I won’t tell you who all was in it, because I liked it better being surprised.  Strife, by Matthew McKenzie and performed by Russell Keewatin, portrays a young man trying to decide on his response to a heartbreaking loss by violence, a loss shared by the audience member.  The Booth: Offerings is a set of improvised responses cascading from an audience member prompt, with Leif Ingebrigtsen’s original piano-playing inspiring Tim Mikula’s visual art and Rebecca Sadowski’s expressive contemporary dance.  Particular care was taken to create safe anonymous space for audience members, and I was glad to have a few minutes of quiet in their decompression space before exiting to a quieter side of the building.

None of the performances made me uncomfortable in that “are we done now?” “where am I supposed to go?” “am I supposed to say something or not?” way that is always a risk with performances abandoning the conventions of stage performance (you know, get a program, sit down on risers with everyone else, chat with background music til the lights go down, watch quietly until the lights come up, applaud, leave).  The performers, directors, and producers had anticipated what guidance each audience member would need, so I could let myself experience each performance in the moment without wondering what to do next or worrying that my responses would throw them off.

It’s the start of a wonderful summer of entertainment celebrations of all kinds in Edmonton, Interstellar Rodeo and Edmonton Folkfest, Street Performers Festival, K-Days, Heritage Days, and Taste of Edmonton, culminating for me at the Fringe, August 17-27.  Summer’s here!

Carousel: a musical to think about

Foote in the Door Productions has taken another big step with their latest production, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic Carousel.  Their first mainstage show was She Loves Me, a light workplace romance with a spunky determined shopgirl heroine.  Their second mainstage show was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last fall, a lighthearted 1960s look at corporate-workplace problems such as sexual harassment, nepotism, and the Peter principle, with the spunky determined officegirl’s happy ending being the suburban-homemaking wife to her upwardly-mobile sweetheart Ponty.

But Carousel covers tougher material, and includes some bits that are harder for modern audiences to deal with.  This post contains spoilers.  It’s mostly set in 1917, in a small town in Maine where the men mostly fish for a living and the women have jobs too, like working in a textile mill, or working at the inn owned by Nettie (Carolyn Ware).  Protagonist Julie Jordan (Ruth Wong-Miller) and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Natasha Mason) are millworkers, constrained to live in the millgirls’ dorm and follow chaperonage and curfew rules to keep their jobs.

Julie1ftd

Ruth Wong-Miller, as Julie Jordan, in Foote in the Door’s production of Carousel. (Nanc Price Photography)

Contrasting with this orderly and rigid culture is the carnival life, with manager Mrs Mullin (Rebecca Bissonette), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Russ Farmer) and assorted non-speaking midway performers.  Billy and Julie meet each other, and then linger chatting on a bench despite both of them losing their jobs for the dalliance.  The speed and inevitability of these consequences seemed unconvincing to me as a modern audience member accustomed to more workplace rights.   Julie is fired because she defies the mill owner’s offer to drive her back to the dorm before curfew and Billy is fired by the carnival manager who is jealous of whatever unspecified relationship she has with him.  Both of these firings seemed to happen before either character knew the other one well enough to judge beyond some degree of attraction – and both of them have attitudes of “nobody tells me what to do!” that cause them trouble.   And that sets in motion one of those tragic unstoppable trajectories – they’re stuck together because of losing their livelihoods and accommodations, he is unsuccessful getting work, she gets pregnant, he gets drawn into a criminal plan in order to provide for his family, etc.  Farmer’s Billy is not a classic hero at all – he’s shortsighted (gambling away the criminal takings before they even do the crime), cocky with women, and stubborn (unwilling to take work on a fishing boat), still defiant after death as a soul in the afterlife.  He’s ill-equipped for adult life, his schemes don’t work, and he kills himself rather than go to jail.  His own outcome follows directly from his bad qualities and the culture he’s in, and his afterlife redemption only comes after his second attempt to give his daughter Louise (Megan Beaupre) a better chance than he had.

The part that was most uncomfortable for me was that Billy hits Julie, and she excuses or accepts it.  The hitting took place off stage.  We learn when Julie confides in her friend, and then the other women overhear and make sure everyone knows.  Everyone who responds to Julie lets her know it’s not appropriate and she didn’t deserve it, and Carrie challenges her when she makes excuses for Billy.  So after Billy dies and we see Julie carrying on, working with her cousin Nettie to run the former inn as a boarding house and raising her daughter, I’m thinking this is the best possible solution in fiction, anyway, because I don’t want to see her getting abused on an ongoing basis and I don’t believe he could reform.  But then when the heavenly powers (Pauline Farmer and Shauna Rebus) give Billy a day on earth to take care of “unfinished business” his first attempt to reach his daughter and inspire her ends in him losing his temper and slapping her hand.  The audience, like Louise, is horrified.  Perhaps she has not been raised with violence and the cycle has been broken.  However, when Louise tells her mother about the slap that “felt like a kiss”, Julie, reminiscing, says “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard and have it not hurt at all.”  Does Louise take this as her mother’s encouragement to accept relationship violence?  Is Julie at risk of accepting abuse in a future relationship?  Is the pattern doomed to continue?  I desperately want to believe all the answers are no. but after the performance ended I had to go walking in the rain by myself instead of standing around in opening-night crowds in the lobby, so I could think.  I thought about how hard it is to change abusive patterns of behaviour, and I thought about what a good job director Mary-Ellen Perley and her cast and team had done, to make me that disturbed.

More subtle commentaries on the prevailing attitudes and the patriarchal culture come from Julie’s friend Carrie.  It’s clear that she’s marrying for love as well as marrying up, when she introduces her fiance Mr. Enoch Snow (Rory Turner).  He’s full of plans for expanding his fleet of fishing boats and expanding his household to include a wife and many children.  She’s thrilled with her handsome beau, but he’s quick to judge her as unvirtuous when he surprises her with scoundrel Jigger Craigin (Morgan Smith), without hearing her side or considering her character of naive kind enthusiasm.  And in the 1945 scenes at the end, she tells Julie “If I had more sense I wouldn’t have had nine children.”  Natasha Mason’s Carrie is a gentle reminder that the “proper” path for women in that town was also lacking in autonomy and flawed by modern ideals.

Carrie ftd

Natasha Mason, as Carrie, in Foote in the Door’s production of Carousel (Nanc Price Photography)

Foote in the Door is partnering with WIN House, the local domestic abuse shelter.  Brochures with information on the issue and the organization are available at the show, and donations are solicited from the audience afterwards.

My favourite songs in this production were Nettie singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and Billy’s “The Highest Judge of All” which had a particularly interesting orchestral accompaniment.

Foote in the Door has also taken a practical step with this production, across the street from the auditorium of Faculté St-Jean to the bigger stage of L’UniThéâtre at La Cité.  This facility gives them better lighting options, and the space for a fifteen piece orchestra as well as a large active ensemble.  Carousel runs this weekend and next week, closing Saturday June 24th.  Advance tickets are available through Tix on the Square, same-day and weekend tickets at the door until they sell out.