Tag Archives: ainsley hillyard

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Two tales around times of disaster

It was going to be three.  I was planning to get to One Flea Spare this afternoon, the Trunk Theatre production about people quarantined during a bubonic plague, but that didn’t end up happening.  Colin MacLean’s review of that show is here. 

So the two shows I saw this weekend were Bears and The Laws of Thermodynamics.   Both of them were set around some kind of environmental disaster which wasn’t quite explained.  In Bears, it was a current or very-near-future setting, not too far from here, with oil spills and watershed damage and other familiar real or realistic problems.  In Laws of Thermodynamics, it was … pretty much the opposite of all that.  Can you say “magical realism” in an end-of-the-world story?  Nothing is explained about why the world seems to be ending, or why it is ending the way it is, and some of the things that happen really don’t fit current models of physics.  Oh, but while I’m thinking of it, there’s some magical-realism to the story of Bears too, it’s just not about the setting.

Bears is a new show written by Matthew Mackenzie, who wrote Sia.  Its short run at the PCL theatre had several sold-out houses.  It was produced by Pyretic Productions, with Patrick Lundeen credited as “Consulting Director”.  Sheldon Elter narrates the story, in the odd format of a third person narrative about Floyd while he seems to be portraying Floyd himself.  It is as if he is standing outside the person to whom the events happened, leaving it unclear whether he is actually still that person.  And that is probably not an accident.   As the story starts, Floyd is an oilpatch worker who is fleeing arrest for some kind of sabotage, heading west to the mountains and recounting memories of growing up with his Kokum (Cree for Grandma) picking berries, dancing at pow-wows, and watching the stars.  On his journey, he slips gradually from the man-made world of highways and diners to the natural world of the foothills and mountains, but continues to encounter evidence of human destruction such as dead animals, clearcutting, and avalanche.  He also experiences many delightful natural phenomena –  butterflies, chickadees, salmon, berries, and alpine-meadow flowers.

While Elter narrates the story actively as Floyd, stomping about the stage in high-visibility coveralls and work boots, he is backed up by a chorus of dance/movement artists (Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posyniak, Kate Stashko, Anastasia Maywood, Aimee Rushton)  They added visual interest and emotional intensity, with movements that were sometimes representational (I loved the churning salmon and the irritatingly-flittering butterflies), sometimes more loosely interpretive, and occasionally a more traditional unison choreography.  Bryce Kulak played and sang several clever original songs, in character and costume as the ghost of an old-time Mountie.  Lianna Makuch and Ainsley Hillyard had cameo appearances.  The simple set was made up of some jagged mountain set pieces with echoing outlines on the floor, with video projections and lighting changing with the story.   And the magical realism that I alluded to earlier – I’m not sure whether Floyd’s transformation during the voyage was real, metaphorical, or something in between, but I didn’t need to know that to appreciate the story and the message.

I was uncomfortable with the specific naming of a pipeline project and a pipeline company, but I’m okay with being uncomfortable.  Art with the power to make people squirm and think and examine cognitive dissonance and argue is a good thing.

The Laws of Thermodynamics, a new play by Cat Walsh directed by Heather Inglis, was playing in the Westbury Theatre, configured with a few rows of seats on risers close to the stage area.   I went to see it partly because Workshop West always has interesting productions and partly because Melissa Thingelstad was in it, and her characters fascinate me.  It also had James Hamilton and Julien Arnold in it, both with appearance and posture so unlike anything I’d seen them in before that I was looking through my program to see whether there was a bigger cast than I’d expected.  But no, there were just five, with Cody Porter having a large role and Paula Humby a small unspeaking one.  Theatre YES was credited alongside Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.

It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on.  Which was okay, I think it was supposed to.  A traveller in hazardous times (Cody Porter) has a truck breakdown,  wanders into a small town looking for help, and meets weird people who maybe aren’t what they seem.   Thingelstad is Della, a diner waitress who seems to be in charge, with a huge ring of keys.  She and Jerry (Hamilton) each confides secrets in the traveller Daniel, with instructions not to tell the other.  Arnold’s place in the remnant society is clearly on the bottom of the heap, but it takes a while to find out why.  One of the ways that the eerie approaching doom was indicated on stage was the buzzing and swaying of the big electrical-transmission poles arranged in a false-perspective series extending backwards.  I don’t know why I liked that so much, but I did.  I liked the companionate relationship between Daniel and Della that formed as the end became closer, sharing a hoarded Twinkie under useless umbrellas.

The Laws of Thermodynamics was one of those shows that would have benefited from a second viewing, I think.  It was both darker and more elliptical than Bears, and in some ways less entertaining.  But I was not disappointed in seeing Melissa Thingelstad play another strange character, and there were some funny parts in the character interactions too.

I think the next play on my schedule will be Pink Unicorn.  And maybe by then I’ll be caught up posting about shows that I saw earlier.

The Genius Code, from Surreal SoReal Theatre

The concept of The Genius Code intrigued me – putting different audience members into the viewpoint of different characters, by giving them headphones.   I am fascinated by the idea of piecing together the truths of different people’s experiences.  It’s easy to do and fairly common in written fiction.  And I’ve seen movies and tv shows where a scene is shown from one character’s viewpoint, maybe with some voice-over retrospective narration, and then repeated from another character’s viewpoint and voice with a very different impression.  It’s also doable on stage, although harder – it might be a fun improv game for experienced players.

But in The Genius Code, the writer and director (Jon Lachlan Stewart) doesn’t control which of the viewpoints an audience member chooses.  And in attending one performance, you only get one viewpoint – you can’t switch.  This performance-art choice leads to some fascinating differences in audience experience.

When the audience is wearing headphones, the lighting design has the house quite dark, and the logistics of cable management mean that the audience members tend to sit still.  I think that mostly people aren’t listening to the same commentary as their neighbours.  And the audiences for the two performances I’ve attended have been unusually quiet while we were wearing headphones.  Mostly, the characters’ inner thoughts were heard in one set of headphones only, and the conversations taking place on stage were transmitted by floor mics to all three sets of headphones.  But even when all of us were hearing the conversation, I thought the audience wasn’t very responsive.  I kept wanting to sigh and smile and gasp and chuckle and wince in recognition, but somehow the awareness of being surrounded by a room full of people listening quietly in headphones made me hesitate.   Later in the show, there’s a part where we’re instructed to take the headphones off.  The house lights came partway up, the story continued unamplified, and the audience immediately became more responsive.  This fascinated me, and I wondered if it was disconcerting to the actors when we were quieter.

Technically, I was relieved and impressed that the headphones thing worked.  I never heard any sound bleeding over from the other feeds, either in the full house of opening night when I was surrounded by people listening to different feeds or on the preview night when I had empty seats next to me.   Soundscapes (Aaron Macri and Jonathan Krawchuk) and video backgrounds projected on an unusual surface (Matt Schuurman) added to the atmosphere and provided more information.

I’ve attended two performances and listened to two points of view.  I’m planning to return one night next week to listen to the third one.  Listening to the second one made me re-think some opinions I’d formed during the first show, and then wonder whether the assumptions that led me to those opinions were unfair.  Things kept surprising me during the second show, things that I know rationally must have happened the same way both times but for some reason I didn’t remember them clearly.

The characters in the story are Sky (Jamie Cavanagh), Gyl (Laura Metcalfe), and Gene aka DJ Genius Code (Cole Humeny).  As the story starts, Gene has just brought his two friends together, and as they seem to hit it off, they agree to let Gene record all their conversations.  This is a convenient explanation allowing Gene to move about the stage adjusting microphones so that the audience will hear the conversations through our headphones, but it is also important in showing how Gene relates to the other two.  It provides some important plot movement, and the option to re-play or re-mix the recordings also gives some interesting framework.  The phrase “Let’s start again” is used several times during the performance, usually in a sense of “let’s play this recording again from the top” but in other senses as well.  And in fact, sometimes in life and relationships, sometimes one cannot just start again.

My first impressions of Gyl were that she’s a wacky outspoken young woman, talented and attractive.  Sky struck me as a glib provocative young man who enjoys playing with words and is also accustomed to being desirable.  And Gene was a puzzle.  Humeny plays the character with near-flat affect and an immobile face, usually looking down or to one side rather than making eye contact with his friends.  Costume/Set Designer Cory Sincennes has dressed him in a hooded shirt a bit too big for him with sleeves too long, making him look small and not in control (a very different impression than when I saw him as an enlisted Marine in A Few Good Men).  There were scenes of credible friendship and affection.  There were a couple of intensely erotic sequences of dialogue and movement, one of which turns disturbingly into a fight scene (choreography credit Ainsley Hillyard).

I had not seen any of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s work before, but now I will make a point of seeing anything else available.  I’d seen all the performers at least once – Metcalfe as the grasping sister-in-law in The Three Sisters, Humeny in Ride, Strike!, and a minor role in Clybourne Park as well as in A Few Good Men, and Cavanagh in several plays and improv shows over the last couple of years, starting with Sexual Perversity in Chicago and most recently Romeo and Juliet.

As I said, I’ve seen two viewpoints and I plan to return for the third.  I wondered whether it was fair to post about it before seeing the third side, but I want to encourage more people to see it, It’s playing until Sunday June 8th at C103, the theatre in the Strathcona Market parking lot.  And I imagine many theatregoers will see it only once, but will compare notes afterwards with other people about the versions they saw and what they thought.

I liked it.  There was one thing that I found unsatisfying, I found myself wanting to put the headphones back on and hear more about how things were unfolding later from my character’s POV.  I don’t really know why this bugged me – maybe because it felt asymmetric not finishing the way we started, or maybe because I liked the internal-monologue parts, or what.  And I guess the private-to-shared transition is part of how this story needs to get told – medium being the message and all that – but I kept wanting there to be a headphones ending.  I hope it was a legitimate artistic choice rather than some decision to put the audiences back into their comfort zones – because when I go to theatre I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone.  (SLIGHTLY out of my comfort zone.  That does not mean I sit on the aisle at a bouffon show.)

Movement and emotion: Raw at Expanse Festival

Expanse Festival is tagged “Edmonton’s Movement and Dance Festival” and “An Electric Four-Day Celebration of Art in Motion”.  It’s a busy time of year for me, but I managed to attend one event on Saturday afternoon, the ticketed show “Raw” in the Westbury Theatre at the ATB Arts Barns.  The program for the festival showed other interesting events and conversations happening throughout the weekend, from movement workshops to drop-in performances and discussions.  I hope to see more of it next year.   (And to get to Skirts Afire, which I missed completely and which sounded really neat.)

The afternoon program contained four movement-focused performances, each I guess about 15-20 minutes long with recorded sound as needed.

Blue Eyes, Black Hair had some spoken word as well as expressive movement, so it was easy to grasp the narrative of the situation.  A man on a beach (I don’t know how I knew he was on a beach, maybe he said so and maybe it was in the program) (Mat Simpson) has one of those moments of life-changing eye contact with a black-haired, blue-eyed man (Liam Coady)  who walks by without speaking.  It’s not clear whether the response is mutual.  But Mat Simpson’s character is so bowled over by the handsome stranger that he seems to lose control of his limbs and face, twitching in awkward-looking ways as he tries to express himself.  A third character, a woman who bears a certain resemblance to the black-haired blue eyed man (Ainsley Hillyard), arrives on scene and the main character makes contact with her in an attempt to relive his connection with the man and understand it.  The two of them then share a poignant scene of moving about each other and exchanging energy while never quite touching in physical space, even executing what appears to be a non-contact lift.  Meanwhile, the black-haired man Apparently this piece was inspired by a French novel of the same name.   And while I thought it was great as a dance/movement vignette that didn’t need any more exposition or resolution, I’m a little curious about how it could be a novel.

The second piece, The Feeling of Not Being Empty, was a wordless communication among an ensemble of three women in black dresses (Anastasia Maywood, Bridget Jessome, Krista Posyniak), as choreographed by Tatiana Cheladyn.  For me it kind of suffered by being between pieces that had more obvious narrative, so without paying a lot of attention I just felt as if I was watching interesting shapes and shifting alliances, but I don’t have more coherent observation.

Next was The Uprights, directed by Murray Utas and performed by Alyson Dicey.  (I’ve seen Alyson on stage before, as a child in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and I can’t remember where else.)   The solo performer conveyed frustration with limitations and exploration of new postures and freedoms.

The final performance, Untitled, was a Good Women Dance Collective work in progress.  The performers were Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, and Kate Stashko, and Ainsley Hillyard was credited as choreographer.  Early on, I thought that it was all about comparing and keeping score, and that impression continued to fit.  Two characters repeatedly measured themselves against each other, in movement and in words.  As the story became clearer and the personalities of the two characters became more distinct with more animosity, it became funnier but it wasn’t just funny, it also mattered.  The competitiveness seemed more overt than usually seen between adults, so it reminded me a lot of siblings or small children.  The third character seemed to be an authority, someone asking the comparison questions and judging the responses.   Like two kids and a teacher, or two employees and an employer, or something.

snout – even weirder theatre

My next experience with weird theatre was an Azimuth Theatre / Catch the Keys production called Snout, in the little playing space at the Arts Barns.  I believe it was written by Megan Dart and directed by Beth Dart, but that is from memory because there weren’t any paper programs.  As people entered the theatre, we saw a small tented space, draped with sheets and decorated with living room furniture, which also seemed to be where we should sit.  Atmospheric music was playing, and mysterious video images (Matt Schuurman’s work of course) were projected on the sheets.  An awkwardly-hunched character in bare feet and a burlap poncho (Ben Stevens) welcomed the theatregoers to his house and directed us to the couches, chairs, and cushions on the floor, while steering people away from a kitchen-table set at one end of the room.

We had lots of opportunity to study the space, especially those of us who were a little bit uncomfortable about engaging with the unpredictable character scuttling around.  The draped sheets made a football-shaped space, with openings at either end and at a few other places in the perimeter.  After a while I became aware of a looming bearded presence watching us from the various rents in the draping, but again I kind of averted my attention so as not to engage.  (As I’ve probably already said here, I love weird theatre – but I’m still awkward about being dragged in to participate.)

The main character turned out to be named Ori, and this was his home.  He also introduced us to a Wolf (Steve Pirot), as a friend that he played with and fought with.  The wolf stalked on his hands and feet, hair covering his face, and snarled convincingly enough that my neck got shivers.  The character felt dangerous in that form.  Later, he walked upright and delivered a monologue about possessions, theft, and exchanging valuables, while returning to people various objects of theirs that he had somehow pilfered earlier – in my case, a book about improv theatre that I’d borrowed from one of my teachers.  I was probably easy to steal from because of having tried so hard to ignore him!

The other two characters in the play were an ordinary couple, (Ainsley Hilliard and Mat Simpson), who had been together long enough to remember happier more romantic times, but unsure how and whether to try recapturing those feelings.

And the rest of the performance (I was going to say “story”, but that would suggest something more linear and less lyrical and cryptic) was just those characters interacting with each other and rebounding off each other and hurting each other.  I probably missed a lot – the box-office flyer suggested some resonance with an Isis and Osiris myth, for one thing – but I didn’t mind, because I liked it.