Tag Archives: beth graham

Two samples of local history, the macabre and the hopeful

Already this theatre season, several great productions have been seen on Edmonton stages.  The Colour Purple at the Citadel was a powerful tale of resilience, with really great music and an inspiring performance from Tara Jackson.  Silent Sky at Walterdale was based on the true story of early-20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.  Teatro closed their summer season with Vidalia, which was confusing and ridiculous and very entertaining.

This week I was able to watch two performances with local roots and seasonal resonances, and I enjoyed both.

Dead Centre of Town XII is this year’s version of Catch the Keys Productions’ annual exploration of historical horror by Megan Dart and Beth Dart. This one is set at Mellon Farm, the 1920s-era farm property at Fort Edmonton Park.  Attending the Hallowe’en event is one of your few chances to get a look at the Park while the renovations are continuing.   The horrifying stories out of local history feel more intimate this year, with an audience of only 25 for each performance encountering the characters in the farmhouse and yard.   Fans of previous Dead Centre of Town shows will recognize the hench/guides played by Colin Matty, Christine Lesiak, and Adam Keefe.  Other characters and stories are unique to this year’s production, and there are other surprising and disturbing design elements.  Dead Centre of Town XII plays until November 1st, tickets here.  Wednesdays through Saturdays it’s part of the bigger Hallowe’en event Dark, and Tuesdays and Sundays you can experience it on its own.

I could tell you a lot more about it, but not without spoiling things – and in Dead Centre of Town, it’s better when unexpected.

E-Day, by Jason Chinn, opens tomorrow at Roxy on Gateway, a Roxy Performance Series offering by Serial Collective.  I got to see a preview show last night.  I try not to review previews because it seems not-quite-fair, but my calendar is quite busy this month and last night was my chance.

I loved it.  And I cried.  It was a little like Kat Sandler’s The Candidate / The Party, which were large-scale views of behind-the-political-scenes of a national leadership campaign and election.  But it was more like 10 out of 12 by Anne Washburn, the peek into technical-rehearsal week at a theatre company which Theatre Network produced a few years ago.    And for me it was … you know how Badlands Passion Play has the huge advantage of starting out with an evocative plot and characters that most of the audience not only knows but cares passionately about? Like, when I arrived on site, before I found my seat I looked around at the hills and saw the three crosses, and it took my breath away because I knew what was coming and it was going to be right there.  Yeah, like that.

E-Day takes place during the 2015 provincial election campaign, from E-28 to E+1.  The whole play is set in a campaign office for a local candidate, Candace Berlinguette (all the characters are named after the performers), who was unsuccessful in the 2012 election.  With credit to set/costume designer Beyata Hackborn, it looked like any campaign office I’ve visited or volunteered in.  The table of donated food, the phone bank of mismatched phones, the signs on the fridge, the beautiful coded maps,  the coloured floor tiles and alphabet squares left over from the daycare previously in the space.  Audience was seated on all four sides, and there was always lots to watch – the office manager in the corner (Amena Shehab), the teenagers on the phones (Asia Bowman and Shingai David Madawo), the comings and goings out the various doors and the mission-control of the voter contact organizer (Sheldon Elter) and his assistant (Kiana Woo).   As in The Candidate/The Party, the candidate has a same-sex partner who has limited patience for the compromises of politics (Beth Graham).

What I loved about this play was twofold.  First, the specifics felt so right.  I had been a little disappointed in the Kat Sandler scripts being about an imaginary electoral system that resembled the American one, because I felt hungry to find humour and hope within our own Canadian system that I work within.  (Like Michael Healey’s Proud, with its slightly-different-outcome of a real election, and the Parliamentary seating diagram with the red, blue, orange, and pale-blue post-its).   But this one was so believable and so local in scope – everything I knew about election volunteering, about identifying supporters and pulling the vote, about why people volunteer and who runs a campaign – it all fit.

And in E-Day, it all mattered.   Characters remind each other that the hard work and insight from the previous election loss are helping them run this campaign, and when they despair of winning this one, they repeat that every supporter gained this time makes things easier next time. Plot details are consistent with this.  And in the middle of the discouragement, someone with a laptop whoops and they cluster around to the voiceover and music of the announcement that their party will be forming the government.  And that was the other thing I loved – the message of long-term hope, that whether or not any particular campaign goes the way you want, it’s all worth it in the long term.   And this week, I appreciated getting those reminders.  They made me cry.

Dead Centre of Town tickets are here.  Many of their shows sell out, so get yours early.

E-Day tickets are here.

I’m off to Banff for the Community Theatre Summit, which I’m sure will inspire me with theatre ideas and make me a better artist and board member.  And when I come back, I want to see Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, and Fight Night, and The Roommate, all opening soon on local stages.

Another family at a cusp, in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble

Beth Graham’s play The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, directed by Bradley Moss at Theatre Network, explores a familiar family crisis time with some refreshing new thoughts.  In my adult acting classes, we’ve studied scenes from Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge and from The Attic, The Pearls, and Three Fine Girls by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, both of which are stories about adult children who return to the family home when a parent is dying.  I’ve been through similar experiences, twice, so I can understand why such crisis times work well for a playwright, with all the characters having old baggage and resentments with each other, all stuck in a current high-stakes situation.  And because I remember what it was like sharing our childhood home with my siblings while we spent our days at the hospital and our evenings scanning through Mum’s television channels and filling up her fridge with fast-food leftovers while the neighbours’ casseroles went uneaten, stories of interesting characters going through similar struggles resonate and appeal to me.

The first exciting difference about Bernice Trimble was that the widowed mother, Bernice (Susan Gilmour, recently seen in Drowsy Chaperone and in Spamalot), was a character on stage, rather than an invalid in an offstage bedroom.  She turns out to be a fascinating character too, honest and determined and accepting of each of her children’s differences.   Having the mother on stage interacting with her children made this a rich fascinating story of earlier stages of illness and aging than the stories I alluded to in the first paragraph.  It also helped to illustrate the title.  “Gravitational pull” is the playwright’s expression for how, for better or for worse, an extended family is often drawn together by one specific person (maybe a parent or grandparent).  Astronomical metaphors were used throughout the narrative but not in a contrived way.

The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Iris, the middle child (Clarice Eckford) on whom Bernice depends for the most difficult requests.  The narrative jumps back and forth between one later important day and a series of scenes of family members interacting over several months.  Iris frequently addresses the audience, narrating what happens between the scenes from her point of view.  The set represents both Iris’s kitchen and their mother’s.  It is generally clear which location is being presented, even without narrator Iris’s clue of setting out salt and pepper shakers every time the set is her mother’s house.   Many family traditions and customs are referred to and repeated, from Bernice’s habits of embracing her children and her endearments for them, to the rituals of family meeting and  making a classic 1960s-style casserole.  As Iris tells the story, she often uses the expression “That was that … only it wasn’t” as a transition.

The other two siblings, older sister Sarah (Patricia Zentilli) and younger brother Peter (Jason Chinn), respond to the mother’s announcement that she has Alzheimer’s disease in their own fashions, Sarah with denial and plans for second opinions and treatments, and Peter with awkward taciturn acceptance.  Sarah and Iris are also caught up by disputing who is “last to know” important family business, another familiar touch.  I thought that Peter’s small role was presented effectively and with sympathy by the playwright and the actor, because his quiet avoidance and flashes of kindness could so easily have been overplayed into humour, and they were not.

The audience gets only a single disturbing glimpse of the progression of Bernice’s illness before she enlist’s Iris’s commitment to be accessory to her suicide.  And Iris, the one who might appear least successful or least mature by some of her family ‘s measures (chatty and scattered, still single, no children, working as a temp) is the one who accepts and supports her mother’s right to make that choice, despite the pain it causes her.

I found it emotionally evocative and not manipulative, a believable portrait of a family and an illness.  The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble continues at Theatre Network until November 23rd, with tickets available here.

A dream within a dream: Nevermore

The Westbury Theatre was sold out.  The Arts Barns lobby was filled with a queue folding back on itself like a pack of ramen noodles.  Lots of familiar faces from the Edmonton theatre scene and lots of twitter buzz reinforced what I’d heard: the opening night of the new Catalyst Theatre production of Jonathan Christenson’s Nevermore was a big deal.

Nevermore recounts the life story of Edgar Allan Poe, the American nineteenth-century writer of the creepy and suspenseful.  Compared to The Soul Collector,  a Christenson / Catalyst production I saw last spring, the narrative of Nevermore is direct and almost completely linear.  But it’s still a supremely weird show, set in a world where nothing is normal.  (Nothing is right-angled either!)  It was also interesting to view this show recalling Emily Winter’s portrayal of Poe in last summer’s Fringe hit Poe and Mathews.

Most of the story is told by one of the narrators speaking directly to the audience in rhyme, while the characters in that part of the story interact physically and sing together.  This works better than you might expect, conveying a literary and distanced mood but showing the affection and awkwardness among the flawed individual characters.

Scott Shpeley plays Edgar, from about age 8 to his death at 40.  He does the whole show in the same odd black and white costume and makeup, but his motions and postures show obvious changes from child to adolescent and young man to older man.   His appealing clear tenor voice works well for the character at all ages.   As a child, he frequently looked small, fearful, and pitiable, trembling all over.  In one of the glimpses of happiness, when he falls in love with his young cousin (Beth Graham), his face is illuminated by joy.  And in one of the moments of anguish he lifts a tear-streaked face to the audience.

The other six actors in the ensemble play several parts each, with various additions to hair or costume.  Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin are Edgar’s ill-fated parents (with the portrayal of his moody actress mother being especially poignant), and Gaelan Beatty and Beth Graham his siblings.  Ryan Parker’s characters include a Paul-Lynde-ish portrayal of the biographer Rufus Griswold.  Shannon Blanchet was Elvira Royster, a character seen as a teenager and again as a widow.  One of the best portrayals was Beth Graham as Fanny Allan, Edgar’s foster mother, trying to win over the orphaned boy despite her surly merchant husband (Garett Ross) and struggling with despair.

The visual designs for this production were fascinating and spare, consistent with what I understand of the Catalyst Theatre aesthetic.  Bretta Gerecke is credited as scenographer and resident designer for the company.  I was intrigued and then captivated.  All the costumes are black and white, twisted impressions of nineteenth century dress.  Black boots are made noticeable with white accents.  Rigid wires hint at hoop skirts and frock coats.  Harsh monochrome lights turn costume elements reddish or bluish.  Hats and hairdos are odd and extreme, from punkish spikes to one of the women’s updos looking very much like a stalk of Brussels sprouts.   Human and non-human characters with long mis-shapen claw-hands reminded me of similar imagery in The Soul Collector.   I loved the rhomboid oversized notebooks and asymmetric undersized trunks.   Many characters adopted odd hand and body positions like twisted sculptures.

Nevermore is playing at the Westbury Theatre until the afternoon of Sunday March 2nd.  If you like going to weird theatre, unconventional musicals, or shows that everyone in Edmonton will be referring to for years, then you should make time in your schedule for this.  You can get tickets at Tix on the Square.  There are also some $10 youth tickets available at the door for each performance.