What a busy couple of weeks it is for Edmonton stages! If your weekend isn’t already full, there’s lots of theatre to watch, with these four shows all closing this weekend.
Fen, by Caryl Churchill, is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday. Amy De Felice’s Trunk Theatre production is fascinatingly atmospheric. The trapped and oppressed lives of farm-workers in the cold drizzly fen country of England were portrayed with compelling credibility. I looked at the women picking potatoes in ill-fitting gloves, on their knees on a cold day, and I remembered what it was like to be tying grapes in March, saying to myself that the money would get me out of here, the money would take me to university, I would never need to do this again. Most of the people in the play don’t have any realistic hopes for escaping their lives, and their unrealistic hopes are heartbreaking. Even the children in the story are joyless, trapped and powerless and sometimes abused (I found those scenes the most upsetting of the whole play, but not by a lot). It is unusual to see a farm story about women’s lives not be a story of land-owning families. But in this story, most of the women (Ellen Chorley, Monica Maddaford, Miranda Allen, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer) are employed as day labourers or crew foremen, and the men (all played by Cody Porter) include a labourer and a landowner who sells his land to a corporation and becomes a tenant. The story reminded me a lot of the subgenre of Canadian literature about homestead isolation and despair.
Another hard important story to watch is on stage at the Backstage theatre behind the Arts Barns. Guys in Disguise / Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre is premiering a rewrite of Darrin Hagen’s Witchhunt at the Strand. Set in Edmonton in 1942 or so, the story is based on primary source material about criminal trials for homosexual behaviour. Jesse Gervais, Mat Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart each play lawyers and police officers as well as the men caught up in the witchhunt and their friends and partners. The scene where one of Hulshof’s young characters is on the stand being questioned in horribly intrusive detail about a sexual encounter was one of the most uncomfortable things I have witnessed in ages. The main characters in the story were all involved in the Edmonton theatre scene, including Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, in whose honour the Sterling Awards are named. Mrs Haynes is shown as what would nowadays be called an ally to the LGBT community. I cannot imagine how the 1940s attitudes of privacy and discretion would have discouraged her choice to be a character witness for her theatrical colleague in a morals case, and I found the character as written very sympathetic.
Witchhunt at the Strand made me very grateful that I grew up mostly after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” and decriminalized same-sex sexual behaviours. It also made me think about how I had been influenced as a child by the grownups around me who remembered the era of the play, not all of whom were straight. And it made me cry.
Anxiety is a Theatre Yes co-production with several small theatre companies, brand new and unexpected and … and they asked the viewers not to post about it. If that intrigues you, check whether they have any tickets left this weekend.
Twelfth Night is much funnier and easier to watch. It’s playing until Saturday night at the Timms Centre. Ashley Wright, an MFA directing candidate, directs a version with simple staging and a framework of watching a company of travelling players arrive at the theatre, warm up in their underthings, and get into costume. Julien Arnold, Dave Clarke, Jaimi Reese, and Jake Tkaczyk play the broad-comedy roles of the script, with Reese as Olivia’s mischief-making gentlewoman companion, Arnold and Tkaczyk as the partying uncle Sir Toby Belch and his awkward trying-too-hard sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Clarke in a variety of clownish roles. Clarke also created and performed interesting songs and underscoring for the production. Contrast with the fun-loving quartet comes from Malvolio (Alex Dawkins), Olivia’s dour steward, whose pride makes him vulnerable to one of the most memorable practical jokes in the history of the stage. Did he get what he deserved? Or was it unfair that he was bullied and apparently driven mad, with the pranksters getting away with it? I can’t decide. Watching Malvolio try to smile and gesture as he expects his mistress wants is kind of painful, but it’s also very very funny.
Look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Chayla Day and Jordan Buhat. Day’s physicality readily conveys a woman who is inexperienced at passing as a man. Marc Ludwig is lovesick Orsino, courting Olivia (Emily Howard) who wants nothing to do with him, using her dead father and brother as an excuse until she is captivated by Orsino’s new pageboy Cesario (actually Viola). Olivia’s reactions to Cesario are delightful, and her discovery that her crush is actually a woman is particularly so.