Watching Copenhagen in 2022

image: Bob Klakowich as Niels Bohr, photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images

In about 2004 I saw a production of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen performed in the round and directed by Caroline Baillie of Critical Stage Theatre, in the atrium of a Queen’s University building dedicated to creative ways of doing engineering education. My memory of that production is overwhelmingly of circling and cycling, re-examining a memory from various directions with the characters orbiting each other like atomic particles.

Copenhagen is now on stage at Walterdale Theatre, in a production directed by Martin Stout on a set designed by Leland Stelck. With its gently-thrust stage floor and intimate audience seating the Walterdale space provides the opportunity for a more personal encounter with the characters and their questions and uncertainties, despite the Covid precautions of the 2-meter moat and the dispersed audience.

It’s mostly a recollective piece, with re-creations and re-tellings of meetings in the early 1920s, in 1941, and in 1947. The characters say directly early on that they are now all “dead and gone”, and they also help to anchor the individual scenes/memories in time by frequently mentioning the year. The characters are Niels and Margrethe Bohr, the Danish physicist and his wife/collaborator (Bob Klakowich and Donna Call), and Werner Heisenberg, the younger German physicist (Kendrick Sims). Most of the memories are set in the Bohrs’ home in Copenhagen or on the walking paths nearby, a city that in 1941 was occupied by Germany and under constant surveillance.

Donna Call as Margrethe Bohr side-eying her husband. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud periodically through this performance. Klakowich and Call’s dry delivery of ironic and witty lines, Sims’ expressive eye-rolling, and particularly Call’s full-body indignation when her contributions are ignored make the most of the precise and articulate script. The opening-night audience was full of sympathy for the Bohrs’ bitterness and rage at their occupiers in general, and at Heisenberg’s clumsy attempts to re-create their earlier social connections without acknowledging the current abyss between them. “Should I have Margrethe sew a yellow star on my ski jacket?” Bohr spits out in response to his colleague’s suggestion of an excursion to Norway. Later in the play, I came to identify with Heisenberg as well, trying to do the work he cared about under a hostile and then horrific regime, trying to minimize the long-term damage to humanity and hopefully looking forward to the prospect of a future not only after the war but after the Nazi regime.

Kendrick Sims as Werner Heisenberg in one of his meetings with colleague Niels Bohr. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

Stelck’s set, and the props (Debbie Tyson), costumes (Megan Reti), and multimedia design (Darrell Portz) provide effective support for the action reminiscent of 1941 but not clearly rooted in time or space, while lighting (Adam Luijks) and sound (Dylan Mackay) contribute to the shifts in mood, with one particularly chilling air-raid siren.

I kept thinking of present-day Київ (Kyiv), but I also kept thinking of conflict scenarios closer to home. And the characters of Copenhagen reminded me of resilience, of scientists and engineers asking questions about the ethics of their work, and of hope. All of which I appreciated.

Copenhagen is playing through Saturday March 19th at Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton. Mask and vaccine requirements are still in place to protect performers, audience members, and other volunteers. Tickets are available at Tix on the Square, and at the door half an hour before show time.

Fully Committed: a table for one in Red Deer

Before last night, I had never thought much about what was happening on the other end of the phone, when I was calling a restaurant to make a reservation. Mind you, I haven’t even done that in recent years – even before the pandemic, my standard of restaurant-going didn’t usually have that much planning-ahead, or if it did, I would have clicked on OpenTable until I found a time that worked. Anyway, I think I always pictured that someone whose main job was to seat patrons or manage the servers or cook would have gotten interrupted in their path by a phone ringing at the host station, and would be standing up in the hallway squinting at a datebook or iPad to match up my request with a schedule. I didn’t realize that taking and negotiating reservations could be a full time job.

Fully Committed, the solo-performer play by Becky Mode, was set in the booking office of a stylish and pretentious Manhattan restaurant around the turn of the 21st century. In the Central Alberta Theatre production directed by Tanya Ryga, Sam Callahan (Ash Mercia) spends her whole shift in this office, some levels below the dining room, kitchen, and chef’s office in literal terms as well as in restaurant hierarchy. She struggles to get signal for her personal cellphone, so that checking in with her father involves standing on a table or climbing a ladder, hollering up at a flip-phone held optimistically aloft.

The main tools of Sam’s job include a wireless headset and multiline business phone, an intercom to upstairs, a red-phone hotline to the chef, and an outsized Rolodex. From her various conversations with co-workers and others, we learn that Sam is also an actor, checking in with her agent about whether she’s getting a callback at the Lincoln Centre, but committed to the restaurant job to cover expenses. And the delight of this script and this production is that the performer plays both ends of all the calls, shifting her body language, voice, accent, and stage business to portray everyone Sam talks to, making the characters distinctive and amusing. Her co-workers include her reservations-office boss Bob, claiming to be stuck waiting for a tow truck on the Long Island Expressway, host Stephanie rolling napkins and cutlery while she chats, her kitchen allies Oscar and Hector, a hostile French chef on duty (Jean-Pierre? Jean-Claude?), and Chef, addressed only by title. Chef is especially memorable, because he takes calls through the earthy details of his morning’s routine and other crass personal habits particularly horrifying to see in someone who works in food service.

And I haven’t even started on the customers! From the name-dropping entitled to the out-of-towners intimidated by the “molecular gastronomy” menu and the indignant “senior citizen” wanting a discount and bigger portions, Sam isn’t unkind to any of them but she definitely loses patience.

For a script that is mostly about talking on the phone, director Ryga and performer Mercia have built in a lot of movement on the large stage with detailed realistic set dressing of all the clutter accumulated in a restaurant office (set designer Dawn Harkema). When the performer is voicing one of the offstage characters on the other end of the phone, she uses the supplies in the office to be whatever props the other character would be using – a cook using a clipboard as a frying pan and adding seasonings from a bowl, a Mafia-connected customer stroking a hefty black object as he demands a better table – I was sure it was actually a gun, and then realized it was a stapler, but the performer’s way of holding it sold it as a gun.

There is a plot arc, a crisis, a resolution, but I won’t detail them even though the show has closed, because I liked being surprised.

Appropriately, the performance I attended was accompanied by a roast-beef buffet dinner – the first time I’d been at a buffet in two years – no lavender foam or frozen polenta, but good food and drink provided by friendly masked staff and volunteers.

Worth the drive!

Live in Calgary!

Photo shows Chris Enright, Trevor Schmidt, and Jake Tkaczyk, in Flora and Fawna Have Beaver Fever (And So Does Fleurette!). Picture from Lunchbox Theatre Facebook, credit TBD.

J Kelly Nestruck, the theatre reviewer for The Globe and Mail, said in a recent column, “Is any theatre scene in Canada as hopping right now as the one in Calgary?

I can’t judge that, but last week I viewed performances of two of the three productions he mentions. The creators of both shows have Edmonton connections.

Flora and Fawna have Beaver Fever (and so does Fleurette!) by Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt has three more shows as of this writing – two on Saturday afternoon and one Sunday Feb 5th at noon. In this Lunchbox Theatre production, Schmidt as 10-year-old Fawna is joined by Jake Tkaczyk and Chris Enright (Flora and Fleurette, respectively), in the roles played in the past by Hagen and by Brian Dooley.

This was my first time seeing a Lunchbox production. It had a full-enough-for-pandemic-comfort house for a show at noon on a weekday. The performers interact a bit with audience members in character before the show, reminiscent of a Fringe performance, and then the play starts with welcoming the audience as the new “junior probationary members” of the group started by these three awkward misfits and their mothers. There are rituals and activities and informational skits as earnest and clumsy as the girls themselves – the Naturelle Girls theme song is nearly as painful as an unfamiliar church congregation struggling through “He Who Would Valiant Be” – but interactions between the girls while they are running the meeting tell us more about the characters and their lives. I loved the running joke of saying that certain mean girls “shall not be named”, but watching Fawna take delight in actually telling on them. The version of history performed in their skits skewers both white capitalist colonialism and the ways it might be understood by 21st-century children. (“And then the Hudson’s Bay Company discovered Hudson’s Bay! What a coincidence!”)

One of the layers of entertainment in this show is that the actors deliver lots of doubles entendres, mostly about beaver(s), plus it’s just really funny to see adult men playing these 10yo girls in shapeless tunics and practical haircuts, Fawna playing with her dress, Flora slouching to be less of a target, and Fleurette eager to participate but usually cut off by her Anglophone friends.

There’s also a storyline with some suspense – what is Fawna trying to avoid talking about? – and some truly touching resolution and message, completely consistent with the character development.

Tickets for the remaining performances are available here. Lunchbox participates in the REP and takes the usual precautions.


Louise Casemore in Undressed. Photo by Erin Wallace.

Alberta Theatre Projects is also in downtown Calgary, in the Arts Commons building. It’s currently hosting a run of Louise Casemore’s Undressed, an original solo performance exploring the idea of auctioning off used wedding dresses. Casemore plays the auctioneer but also embodies several of the dress donors. The auctioneer talks about various kinds of single-use and extravagant artifacts used in weddings, and says that the event tries to find new homes for as many of them as possible. Finding another couple with the same names to use leftover personalized napkins amused me, and the callback gag about herding a flock of peacocks to its new owner was also droll. I was a little puzzled about how the proceeds of the auction were intended to benefit an organization called “Zero Waste Canada” (it seems to be a real thing), but in one part of the story a woman sells one wedding dress in order to buy another, more aspirational one, and I was distracted by wondering how that worked. I liked the shy lesbian who had never expected she’d get to have a wedding.

I have been to ATP before, for Waiting for the Parade and for Glory. This time, the main level of the Martha Cohen auditorium was arranged cabaret/coffeehouse style, with seating around tables, presumably with parties seated separately. Undressed runs until February 13th, with tickets available here.

Female actor in draped purple costume playing The Witch

Back to the theatre and Into The Woods

[Image above shows Nicole English as The Witch. Photo by Nanc Price Photography]

The other day, something reminded me of the feeling of watching a stage musical. I don’t remember if it was reminiscing about the Walterdale production of Light in the Piazza, looking at a Facebook memory of Chess, or watching tick, tick, BOOM on Netflix … but I was suddenly longing for that sensation of being in the room while live actors sang in harmony as part of a story that I cared about, especially when they were surrounded by a large movement ensemble in beautiful costumes lit strikingly on an interesting set.

So when I was offered the opportunity to attend opening night of Foote in the Door’s production of the Steven Sondheim musical Into the Woods, I signed up immediately.

And I got what I wanted. Into the Woods has music – lots of music, with hummable melodies and satisfying harmonies and lots of reprises of the good bits, and a backstage orchestra led by Daniel Belland. It has a movement ensemble bringing the forest to life (Julia Stanski, Andrew Kwan, James Velasco, Nick Davis). The large cast performs intertwined versions of several familiar fairy tales, with help from narrator Brian Ault and throughline of a Baker and Baker’s Wife (Jason Duiker and Melanie Lafleur) who are sent on a quest to acquire objects from the various archetypal characters in order to fulfill their wish for a child. The quest, and the other wishes in the familiar fairytales, are all complete by intermission, giving the impression of happily-ever-after.

Actor in gold and silver ball gown, with dancer moving tiny birds around her
Ruth Wong-Miller as Cinderella going to the festival, and Julia Stanski animating a flock of birds. Photo by Nanc Price Photography.

I had never seen the stage musical before, and had only vague memories of the movie, so I was very curious about what would happen in Act 2. And it turned out there was a lot to happen in Act 2 – mostly not tidy and definitely not all happy. While the quick pace and smooth dovetailing of plot bits in Act 1 was satisfying, Act 2 was more challenging and far less predictable. I have often thought that fairytale princes aren’t particularly inspiring or interesting – so I loved that the Into the Woods versions (Russ Farmer and Scott McLeod) became over-the-top prats and cads but were also completely bewildered about why they weren’t happy. Cinderella’s endearing down-to-earth sincerity was well portrayed by Ruth Wong-Miller. Due to an illness in the cast, Trish Van Doornum, the production’s director, was playing Jack’s Mother and Melanie Lafleur moved from that role to play the Baker’s Wife, including the powerful solo “Moments in the Woods”. One of my favourite characters was the Witch, played by Nicole English.

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Tickets for the short run in the Westbury Theatre at the ATB Arts Barns were sold through Eventbrite – but they may be completely sold out for the remaining shows in the short run.

The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921

Northern Light Theatre’s season starts off with a conflagration, at the Varscona Theatre, with Linda Wood Edwards’ play The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921, directed by Trevor Schmidt. Sue Huff plays Mrs. Hastings and Twilla Macleod plays Mrs. Smith, both independent businesswomen in the small Central Alberta mining town of Big Valley. The social distance between them is large, as the blunt joyful pragmatic Hastings runs a whorehouse and Smith, a devotee of Queen Victoria and of propriety, runs a boardinghouse for unwed pregnant girls/women and helps to place their children for adoption. The costumes (production designer Alison Yanota) emphasize their differences, with Hastings in flamboyant reds and flapper style, and Smith in cool buttoned-up floorlength blues. Although both of them operate business/social enterprises dependent on men for their existence, the interactions between these two women and descriptions of offstage characters and action pass the Bechdel-Wallace test easily (“do two women have a conversation that is not about a man?”)

Productions of Northern Light Theatre often keep me guessing a bit about their genre or mood, which makes them more interesting to me than a more predictable play. As you might expect, the two characters start out hostile to each other and full of assumptions based on past hurts, but later find some similarities in their grief and in their ambitions. The funniest part is … something I’m not going to spoil, but the advice about avoiding unnecessary clothing repairs. It’s not a tidy ending, but it’s a satisfying one, leaving me thinking about middle-aged women making their own way and starting over, and about the harm done by mistrust and prejudice among groups of women.

The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921 runs to Sunday November 28, with tickets available for digital viewing as well as in-person performance under the Restrictions Exemption Program. The Varscona Theatre is a large auditorium and audience members are asked to leave space between each party. The concession and washrooms are open. Running time is a bit under 70 minutes.

The next play I’ll be watching is the one I’m directing now, Walterdale Theatre’s 5@50 – another look at women in middle age, how they can support each other and how they can wound each other. Tickets are available at the link.

Metronome: the lyric of memoir

With our own 5@50 rehearsal cancelled due to bad weather and unsafe driving on Tuesday, I realized that I had an evening free for an excursion close to home, so I went to see the Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre production of Darrin Hagen’s new solo piece Metronome at the Backstage Theatre.

Metronome is lovely, a polished and moving example of the kind of solo performance I seek out at the Fringe festival. As part of the WWPT season in a spacious configuration of the Backstage space at the Arts Barns, it also has an exciting set design, floor to ceiling, from Beyata Hackborn.

Hagen is an relaxed performer and an understated writer, telling stories of growing up musical in a family without much money. The details of the Royal Conservatory examinations, (List A, List B, sight reading, ear tests, checking out the other candidates in the waiting room, wanting the extra 2% for being off-book) all came back to me with the memories of my own waits outside examination cubicles. The underscoring and the re-creation of teenage scenes cruising Main Street with the windows down or auditioning for some stoner dudes (sound design Jason Kodie) were all songs I didn’t remember until I heard them and then could hardly stay in my seat for the joy and movement they evoked.

I also appreciated that the story acknowledged the isolation and hazards of growing up LGBTQ+ in a small town in the 1970s, but left those as matter-of-fact background, a poignant reminder for those of us who experienced those settings and a gentle context-setting for those who didn’t, just as Hagen set the context of being less well-off than his classmates.

Metronome sold out on Friday and Saturday, but I believe there are a few tickets available for the closing performance on the evening of Sunday November 21st.

An evening of celebrating the Fringe

Part of building and acknowledging a community is making and sharing art about that community. Fringe has always offered opportunities about that, and in recent years has been more intentional about expanding those opportunities to communities who haven’t always been recognized and celebrated in the same way – this year the venue pehonan is an exciting part of that intention.

But the Edmonton Fringe is itself a community. So of course there is art about the Fringe. The poster wall outside the Orange Hall is a lot shorter this year, but the sense of joyful celebration is extended by a complete set of posters commemorating every festival to date, with the imagery used that year for the program book and other publications. There’s an Instagram-ready set of brightly-coloured letters spelling out Fringe, in such a high-traffic area that it’s hard to take a picture without strangers in the way. (Unless, like me, you happen to be on site at 7:30 am.)

On Saturday, I went to three performances that were all celebrations of the Fringe culture. Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre is a long-running improv tradition, in which a small troupe of experienced performers uses the short description in the festival program to create their own version of another show. Their self-imposed rules include skipping over any sketch or improv show, since, according to Mark Meer, that would collapse the space-time continuum. (they might also skip music-based performances too.) The troupe members are currently Jacob Banigan, Mark Meer, and Ron Pederson. It’s easy to see that they know each other well and are having fun together, as they set each other up to do some preposterous stunts while building and resolving a complex plot.

With no printed program book this year, and a relatively small number of suitable shows to choose from, they chose to start from a big stack of program books from past years, using a pseudorandom selection process to choose one show. So the audience (close to or at the 60%capacity limit in the big Varscona theatre space) probably isn’t going to be familiar with the source material. But that didn’t seem to matter. On the night I attended, the inspiration was Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, from a Toronto company in the 1994 Fringe. This allowed the performers another layer of comment/comedy about period customs and about what was okay to say in 1994 and not today. These are some of the best improvisers I have ever seen, and just fun to watch. Some of the remaining performances aren’t sold out. And no, I don’t know why it’s called Gordon’s Big Bald Head.

Die-Nasty is another long-running Edmonton improv troupe, this one in the soap-opera tradition of long convoluted character-driven stories. In a typical season, they have a 50-hour marathon show in the fall, then a series every Monday night all year, and every night of the Fringe there’s one episode of a story that unfolds at the Fringe. I don’t believe they’ve announced their 2021-2022 season plans yet, but the Die-Nasty at Fringe was just as I remembered. A collection of about 8 memorable characters – they have different guests added in each night – sweeps through a Fringe of beer tents, podcast reviews and mistaken slander, rehearsals and life-changing events, hints of romance and darker hints of murder. The night I saw it, the performers included Tom Edwards (a cowboy playwright trying to produce a musical cross between Oedipus and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Belinda Cornish as a famous actress, Hunter Cardinal trying to break away from his soccer-mad family to explore the arts, Stephanie Wolfe as a very strange psychotherapist, Mark Meer as a sort of Hunter S Thompson-esque podcaster, Wayne Jones, Jacob Banigan, and so on. The funniest moment was when one of Wolfe’s patients asked her a question about whether she can make people believe in a different reality or something like that, and she says “oh yes, I’ve been in charge of a whole province’s public health during a pandemic”.

Die-Nasty is sold out for tonight but seems to have some tickets available for tomorrow (Saturday Aug 21.)

The third tradition of performances celebrating the Fringe is Late Night Cabaret. In the Backstage theatre space as the last performance of the night, in a normal year it runs all through the week, filling the space with enthusiastic audience members who are still wide awake. An amazing house band, Ze Punters, with Audrey Ochoa the trombonist, entertains before and between the talk-show hosts and guests from various Fringe shows.

This year LNC has only four performances – on the Fridays and Saturdays of the Fringe. They all sold out quickly, but I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of last weekend’s shows. The music and energy filled the space, but the limited admission meant that there was lots of space for safety and comfort (also short bar queues and no bathroom lineups). It was great to see familiar sets of eyes in the audience, and performance guests both familiar and new to me.

Edmonton Fringe continues until Sunday early evening, August 22, in its small careful format. I’m very glad to be here – and it’s time to head to a show.

Liminality

Liminality is a solo performance by Dr. Steven Andrews, at the Grindstone Studio,a small well-appointed space underneath the Mill Creek Cafe (82 Avenue and 96 Street), entrance from 82nd Ave. (Same building as Sewing Machine Factory.) I last saw Steven Andrews in Kristine Nutting’s site-specific performance Devour Content Here in 2015.

I loved it and I don’t know why.

It’s a simple solo storytelling performance. I started to write that I hadn’t seen anything in this genre for ages, but then I realized that I’d seen quite a few solo shows online and in person since covid made close contacts and cohorts complicated – from We Had A Girl Before You, the last live indoor show I saw in 2020, to Woman Caught Unaware, which is playing at the Varscona Theatre this Fringe, and Deafy, Chris Dodd’s solo at the Backstage space. So why was this different?

Maybe what entranced me about Liminality was that it was so close to failing. The creator/performer was vulnerable, not just in telling anecdotes that purport to be about himself and his personal limitations and fears, but in performing them for paying audiences who might be expecting something more polished, funnier, or more conventionally structured with tidy connections that all fit together at the end. I kept doing the work of looking for the throughline and the callbacks. I found some but never was sure why some of the stories were included. There were a few important props and set pieces, and some sound and lighting cues helped reinforce the beats – possibly suggesting some insight or conclusion that might be drawn.

But like I said, I loved it. You might not.

Two more performances, Saturday and Sunday – and Liminality is also available online, pay what you will.

New local work from diverse perspectives

Edmonton Fringe is a great place to discover new work by local artists. The program (2021: the digital listings on the Fringe website) flags new work and indicates the hometown of the producing company (2021: they’re almost all local or nearby this year, with very few touring artists).

Yesterday I saw three new works by local artists, One Song, Chanzo, and Deafy. All of them were fictional narratives in various genres, and all of them benefited from the lived experiences of the creators.

One Song was advertised as a staged read or workshop performance of a new musical, but was significantly more polished than that description suggessts. Daniel Belland (composer and co-lyricist) played keyboard to accompany the four singer/actors, Jaimi Reese, Manny Agueriverre, Ceris Backstrom, and Josh Travnik. The actors carried scripts but moved through the story and knew the music well. The mood of the story reminded me a bit of Dear Evan Hansen – kind young people getting themselves into believable awkward difficulties, well-meaning adults on the sidelines being vulnerable themselves. Jaimi Reese is spot-on as the wise and feisty single mother to a young lesbian (Agueriverre) with an open door/ear for her daughter’s best friend (Travnik) – even before the song Not This I was thinking the mother probably had her own interesting story. Ceris Backstrom plays three of the mother’s friends, brought in (consensually) to provide some queer perspectives beyond the mother’s own expertise. Backstrom’s acting was good, distinguishing between music-nerd Paul in bow-tie, drag-queen Toast, and lesbian AIDS activist Jen. All of them provided some LGBTQ+ context and incidental education (the QR-code-accessed show program provided some footnotes for audience members curious about some of the details). Agueriverre and Travnik’s characters are about fourteen. Through them we explore some nuances of sexuality-coming-out decisions without the high-stakes consequences of bullying or romance, with a clear message of everyone getting to make their own choice of how/when to share this news. Calla Wright wrote the script and co-wrote the lyrics.

The melodies and accompaniment were interesting, melodic, and in a modern-musical-theatre vein. The duet between Reese and Agueriverre late in the show was particularly strong. I thought there was a bit too much info-dump from Backstrom’s characters, but at the same time I appreciated learning a bit more about LGBTQ+ musicians and activists.

Chanzo is a play written by local playwright, dramaturg, graduate student, and director Mukonzi Musyoki. The title character (David Shingai Madawo) returns from Canada to Kenya after his father’s death, without warning his sister (Onika Henry) that he’s bringing his white Canadian girlfriend Charlotte (Jasmine Hopfe) with him. Henry’s character Bezo speaks many of her lines in Swahili, but no translation is needed to see that she is furious with her brother and the situation and full of contempt for who she thinks Charlotte is. Predictable conflicts ensue and secrets come out. The characters were compelling and I longed for them to understand each other and come to a good resolution. Yet as a viewer I was also satisfied with the more ambiguous ending of the script. One thread of the plot was familiar from a scene written by Musyoki and performed by Madawo in the late-2020 roving theatre piece Here There Be Night.

Deafy is a solo show written and performed by Chris Dodd, directed by Ashley Wright, with choreography by Ainsley Hillyard. It’s told in a mix of spoken English, ASL, and supertitles/captions. The character Nathan Jesper, on an informational speaking tour about being Deaf, decides to abandon his usual lecture script and tell stories about communication. Many of the stories are amusing anecdotes about how he and his friends get by in a hearing-centric world – the one about his friends helping him take his drivers’-license road test is particularly funny while still disappointing me with how unhelpful the bureaucracy is. The stories gradually begin to focus on his search for belonging, in a world where he is too deaf or in a group where he is not Deaf enough, as the choreography, music (Dave Clarke), and arguments with the unseen captioner escalate to express his increasing distress. As with the Swahili in Chanzo, I didn’t feel I was missing too much because I don’t understand ASL.

Brilliant Women on Stage

Two of the plays I saw early in Fringe 2021 featured familiar women on stage in sympathetic nuanced portrayals of women in their middle years. Both, unsurprisingly, were directed by Trevor Schmidt.

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Woman Caught Unaware, by Annie Fox, is a solo performance by Davina Stewart. The art history professor is in her office, planning to head home to her partner, when a student appears outside of office hours. I enjoyed the the confident academic’s wry observations on student behaviour and the changing expectations for faculty members as the student seems reluctant to confide about a problem, and the professor runs through the recent advice on what to do about cyberbullying and other issues. (I was reminded of Professor Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s mystery novels.)

But the student has come to tell – and show – her instructor that it’s actually Professor Conté’s nude image that’s being shared on-line, with harsh comments about her aging body. And while the narrator tries to ignore it, she discovers “allies” all around her, each responding in well-intentioned but self-centred ways to adopt a cause. A protest! A petition! A nude calendar!

We get to see why the professor anticipates the sanctuary of home, in brief affectionate images of her partner Gail (“I’m like a pin, she’s like a pincushion”), their cottage, their garden, the savoury aroma of Gail’s beef bourguignon on the stove (“we’re pescatarian in public, but …”). And she eventually addresses the issue directly (this is me resisting the full-frontal metaphors), in ways that left me satisfied about an articulate older woman taking back power. I loved watching and listening to Davina Stewart in this role.

Woman Caught Unaware has performances Monday through Sunday at the Varscona Theatre with some tickets available for each.

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Destination Wedding is a Whizgiggling Productions work, written and directed by Trevor Schmidt, and performed by Cheryl Jamieson, Kristin Johnston, and Michelle Todd.

Three women meet up after many years, having all been invited to be attendants at an old friend’s destination wedding in a tropical resort location that Honey (Jamieson) insists they not name. Johnston’s Marlene is an artist seated with powerful stillness in black. Todd’s Britt is a lesbian, a successful businesswoman, and the one who slips naturally into curbing the worst of Honey’s impulses (“No, you can’t go get your hair braided on the beach / wear a bride’s tribe t-shirt, that’s appropriative”) her affect suggesting that she does this all day long and she doesn’t expect Honey to learn.

With the three fascinating characters, this premise would be enough to make an entertaining Fringe show – as if the mother’s-friends-chorus in Mamma Mia were distinct interesting people. But it turns into a darker, more ambiguous, story. Various details were mentioned – the kinds of breadcrumbs that a less subtle narrative would explain as Clues. At one point I noticed that the painted backdrop of a resort veranda scene now seemed to have a dark sky and a stormy sea, which I guess was some magic of lighting design (also Schmidt).

While the three are waiting for their old friend the bride to show up, they meet some other significant characters, providing opportunity for these three talented actors to demonstrate their skill distinguishing multiple roles, and for the audience to be even more entertained and diverted from what was turning into a central mystery. I particularly liked Johnston’s Amy, the bride’s daughter, all eye-rolling and vocal fry.

The hints weren’t all tidily wrapped up into clues and exposition, but left in a delicious suspension. I wished I’d gone with a friend to have fun figuring those things out afterwards. Maybe I should go back. But if I do, I better buy a ticket soon, since some of the remaining seven performances are already sold out.

Both these shows are also available for online viewing.