Tag Archives: arts barns

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.

Bitches and Money 1878

After Richard III, my next playgoing was to Northern Light Theatre’s production of Martin Henshell’s Bitches and Money 1878, directed by Trevor Schmidt.  It was a pleasant change.  I don’t know how to describe the genre of this show.  Maybe “period dark comedy heist story”? “Steampunk feminist version of Oceans Whatever”? “Betrayals and plot twists”?  The publicity materials call it “about gambling, greed, and time travel”.

It was confusing and fun.  I don’t think I got answers to all my questions about the plot, but I’m not sure whether they weren’t spelled out explicitly enough for me or whether they just weren’t explained.  But it didn’t really matter.

If the title wasn’t enough to set the period and approximate location, the audience entering the PCL Studio Theatre had time to study a shallow dark-wallpapered room with a hand-drawn map of London, the external pipes of gas heating fitted to an older building, ornate fussy furniture, ominous music, and oh!  some characters I didn’t even notice at first.  Black Jack (Ben Goradetsky) is seated facing the audience, looking down at a big pistol in his hand, shifting position occasionally and adjusting the gun.  He’s hard to miss because he’s wearing a vividly-yellow plaid suit, and his black-rimmed eyes add to the sense of menace.  A few minutes later I noticed two female characters, seated on opposite sides of the stage, both sitting completely still, apparently with hands bound behind them, and with bags over their heads.  Seeing the stage populated before the play starts always makes me curious but a bit uncomfortable – should I pretend not to see them? what if they make eye contact or talk to me like in snout? or (as in Ride) are they really naked under there and should I pretend not to be wondering about that?

The lights dropped and came up, and we saw Black Jack interacting with his two accomplices, Cora (Laura Gillespie),  wearing a dramatically sexy black and red outfit that I thought of as “Dawson-City Showgirl” and Patience (Andréa Jaworsky) wearing a severe black walking suit with a small dented hat decorated with a few gears.  Aha, I thought, could this be a steampunk inventor?  One of the best things about this show was the contrasts between the two women and the ways in which each character moved beyond the archetypes seen in the first few minutes.

The story gets told in a series of scenes arranged in non-chronological order.  This is made more clear by numbers projected on the wall between scenes, which seemed to be the order in which they happened.  The setting was fun, the alliances and mistrusts and twists were not completely predictable, and the show was fast-paced with lots of repartée.

Playing until Nov 30th, with a late-night “Booty call” show Nov 29th, tickets through the Fringe Box Office. 

Sia – painful but not unbearable story of the aftermath of war

Currently playing at the ATB Financial Arts Barns’ black-box theatre space PCL Studio Theatre is Pyretic Productions’ Sia, by Matthew Mackenzie.  There are about 50 seats arranged in two rows along one long side of the room, and the set visible before the play started included a piece of broken concrete-block wall, some debris, and steps up to a platform covered with some malevolently-twisted welded tube and old metal chairs, formed into shapes suggesting a large tree and some roots or vines.  Program notes mentioned a refugee camp in Ghana, Liberian child soldiers, and the Butcher of Liberia’s conviction for multiple war crimes, so I worried for a few minutes that I might find the portrayal too disturbing sitting in the front row.   But I didn’t, quite.

The lights then dimmed and I was swept away into the story, starting as Makambe K Simamba, playing a young girl (I first guessed her age between 9 and 15 but she later said she was eleven), recited a folktale about birds arguing over a mango and the snake advisor who betrays them.  In the next scene, we saw two young men staggering home together from a party.  The white Canadian student Nick Summers (Patrick Lundeen) was very drunk, and his friend Abraham, a black Liberian from the refugee camp where Nick has been volunteering (Thomas Olajide, who played the same part at Factory Theatre in Toronto last year) was helping him home and washing off the magic-marker tattoos he’s been covered with at his departure/birthday party.  We saw quickly that Abraham was sober and had some kind of plan that Nick didn’t know about, and even though they seemed to be friends, this was worrying.  I wasn’t even surprised when Abraham snapped handcuffs onto his half-conscious friend, and then video-recorded him as must be de rigeur for abductors.

Scenes then alternate between the interactions of Nick and Abraham, and interactions between Abraham and Simamba’s character, his well-loved precocious younger sister who is practising what she will say in a presentation she’ll give to some UN peace monitors expected in their village.   She tries out the Liberian Declaration of Independence, the symbolism of a Christian communion service, and a story about Poseidon and Atlantis, while her older brother encourages and teases and critiques her.

Abraham goads Nick about being a typical Canadian refugee-camp tourist, coming to “observe”, and this seems to be a fair accusation.  His attempt to do yoga sun salutations while chained up is classic.  His later behaviour under the influence is particularly amusing, and slightly reminiscent of the last character I’d seen Patrick Lundeen play, the “mildly retarded but it’s just fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m not stupid, eh?” character in Kill Me Now. I was also reminded of the naive missionaries of last year’s U of A Studio Theatre production The Missionary Position, and the jarring disconnect between their Canadian confidence and the setting they didn’t know they didn’t understand.

It all gradually makes sense, and has a sort of hopeful ending, but not without living through and reliving some horrible events consistent with the bigger story of that place and time.  Thomas Olajide’s character is the most developed and complex.  His smooth shifts back and forth between the young patriot teasing his sister and the tormented man using his friend in order to get something he needs desperately made me like and feel sorry for his character.

Sia is playing until Sunday, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.  It’s not for the squeamish or easily upset, but it’s a good story.  I’m glad I saw it.

Ride, by Jane Bodie

The audience for Northern Light Theatre’s latest play Ride, by Jane Bodie, arrives in the black-box space of the Transalta Arts Barns’ PCL Studio Theatre and we take our seats, before studying the set.  It looks like a large comfortable bedroom for a young adult, with a platform-futon, various shelves around the room with neat stacks of clothes and books, and then a couple of sets of last night’s clothes thrown around on top.  After a few minutes of studying the set, we realise that there are actually people in the bed!  They seem to be asleep under a comforter, and they seem to be naked.

The play opens with the two characters waking up and realising in shock that they aren’t alone – and that each has no memory of who the other character is and whether they had had sex.  The actors are Cole Humeny, whom I last saw as the younger accused soldier in A Few Good Men at the Citadel, and Sereana Malani, whom I remember from last summer’s Fringe production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

The last time I saw a play with a similar premise, it was by Erika Ritter, who at the time was the host of a CBC Radio afternoon show.  It may have been The Automatic Pilot, and I saw it a long time ago, when I thought that the characters who got drunk and picked up strangers in bars were at some kind of brittle cynical unhappy life-stage that I hadn’t gotten to yet.  But in Ride, both characters seemed like likeable reasonable people with understandable motivations, not overly unhappy, and, well, young.  (I’ll leave the exercise for the reader about what this says about my intervening life.)  But I don’t mean that the characters were the same; they had different responses to the situation they were in and I definitely had a favourite.

One interesting feature of this production is that it is crammed full of references to local Edmonton landmarks relevant to the characters, including delightful and familiar snarky asides about various bars on Whyte Avenue and downtown.  Application to the internet tells me that the playwright is Australian, so the local colour must have been added for this production.  It really works, especially in the context of the two characters struggling to figure out whether their social circles interlock but agreeing about their impressions of, say, the LRT and Filthy McNasty’s.

When I mentioned to a friend last night that I’d just come from seeing Ride, he said “Oh, the naked play!” which I guess is the other notable feature of this story.  Each character’s nudity is briefly visible to the audience as he or she gets out of bed to get dressed, but because they are making a point of not wanting the other character to ogle, it feels particularly inappropriate to do so as an audience member.  So if you want to know where to sit in the theatre for the best views of the full-frontal, you can ask someone other than me.

One of the things I liked about this play was that it wasn’t too big a story.  It probably wasn’t a life-changing moment for either character.  Neither of them turned out to be horrifyingly messed up.  There was some resolution to the plot, but not too much, and the resolution was completely consistent with the character-building.  And the actors didn’t overplay it; they were credible and subtle and like people I’ve known and people I’ve been.  Cole Humeny was particularly good at revealing some ordinary heartbreak in a quiet way that was completely consistent with his character.  Sereana Malani’s character was funnier, and she played the mix of self-protectively sarcastic and vulnerable in a believable way.

Ride plays until February 9th and it runs just under an hour and a half.  Tickets are available through Fringe Theatre Adventures – which means that you can buy tickets on-line for same day performances.  Last night’s show was sold out, though, so you should buy yours ahead of time.