Tag Archives: blarney productions

Mr Burns: a post electric play

Patrick Howarth as storyteller Gibson, Jake Tkaczyk as Sam listening. Photo provided by production. Set &  costume design Brianna Kolybaba, lighting design Tessa Stamp.

It’s hard to tell you about Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play because you haven’t seen it yet.  What I really want is to talk to someone else who’s seen it about all the cool things I noticed and figured out, and hear what they figured out that I missed.  And I want people to go see it – but to go see it without knowing any of the surprises ahead of time, because for me the surprises and the figuring-outs were part of the fun.  Anne Washburn wrote it, Andrew Ritchie directed it here as a co-production of Blarney Productions and You Are Here Theatre, and it’s playing at the Arts Barns Westbury Theatre until December 7th.

So, what can I say that will reinforce my memory, but not give everything away?

Everything means something.  Even the audience seating.  There are two intermissions, but I chose to stay immersed in the realities of the worlds we were visiting rather than make my way out to the lobby.

Communal storytelling and retelling matters.  The first act is set in the plausibly-near future, with a small group of survivors after a disaster entertaining themselves around a fire by collaborating on retellings of shared stories, especially the 1993 Simpsons episode Cape Feare.  There are lots of cultural allusions that I recognized, and some that I didn’t  but it didn’t matter.  Lots of the hints of the first act get mentioned later – which makes sense in the story and is also helpful for audience members.   It felt very natural, since I’ve been in lots of campfire conversations re-telling favourite movies and TV shows or trying to figure out the lyrics of popular songs without internet.  Many current plays and movies are successful partly because the audience already has some expectations of and history with the story.  So many seasonal adaptations of A Christmas Carol (and I have my ticket for the new David Van Belle Citadel version tonight).  The star-crossed lovers from warring factions of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Shakespeare’s R & J, and whatever Shakespeare’s own story sources were.  The “Hallmark Christmas movie” trope.  Every Christmas pageant ever.  And the Simpsons itself is full of cultural callbacks and pastiche – I never think of 2001: A Space Odyssey without the image of Homer floating through a spaceship cabin chomping potato chips in Deep Space Homer.

Understated ritual is effective. Mr Burns is a post-disaster or post-apocalypse story, but it doesn’t wallow in the horror like Walking Dead or prolong the despair like Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It series of young adult novels.  But there is one custom of the post-disaster world, after many deaths and the loss of mass communication, that portrays the essence of unlikely hope and longing of that time – and it too is seen in the later acts.

The Simpsons matter.   Some audience members I talked to afterwards – possibly even a few members of the company or production team – said things like “I’ve actually never seen an episode of the Simpsons” or “I’ve seen a few, but I was never a regular watcher”.  But the characters and routines of the series (1989-present) were familiar enough that everyone in the audience was laughing with recognition.   When the cartoon series first came out, I was a graduate student without cable at home.  I heard that children were prohibited from wearing Bart t-shirts to school because he modelled disrespect and intentional under-achievement – but when I was able to watch a few episodes, I thought it was wholesome and funny, just very satirical.  In the program Director’s Notes, Ritchie notes that the taboo around the show was part of what originally attracted him to it.  In the second act, set seven years after the first, the characters are rehearsing to perform escapist re-creations of pre-disaster culture that their audiences will remember and want to see – and the narrative confirms that The Simpsons is more popular/enduring material in that situation than Shakespeare.

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Paula Humby, Nadien Chu, Madelaine Knight, Murray Farnell, Jake Tkaczyk. Photo provided by production. Set & costume design Brianna Kolybaba, lighting design Tessa Stamp.

Design and collaboration build the world.  Actors and directors bring it to life.  Watch for these names again.  Megan Koshka did some fabulous mask creation.  Ainsley Hillyard choreographed.  Brianna Kolybaba created brilliant sets and costumes that highlighted what found materials might have been available to the characters in those three settings, one of them reminding me subversively of the set for a particular Edmonton Opera production…  Lana Michelle Hughes provided sound design for moments of terror and humour.  Mhairi Berg’s musical direction and composition.  Sam Jeffery’s fight direction.  Tessa Stamp’s lighting design (and whoever created and executed the perfect glimpse at the very end explaining how they even had those lighting effects, just in case we got caught up in the story and forgot that there hadn’t been an electrical power grid for 80+ years by that point.)

And I haven’t even mentioned the actors yet! They are a strong ensemble of ten performers:  Nadien Chu, Murray Farnell, Kristi Hansen, Patrick Howarth, Madelaine Knight, Jenny McKillop, Paula Humby, Elena Porter, Rebecca Sadowski, Jake Tkaczyk.  I’ve seen them all on stage before – but when I was watching Mr Burns, I kept forgetting who they were, because I was so caught up in the layers of storytelling – this one’s an actor who is rehearsing as Homer, this one’s a director, now this is an actor of a later generation playing Bart as a hero in a tragic opera … Director Andrew Ritchie and Assistant Director Morgan Henderson made it work.  They all made me laugh, think, appreciate the need for art in terrible times, and leave feeling hopeful.  Which is probably their intent.

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Patrick Howarth as Mr Burns / or maybe Sideshow Bob / or Archetypical Villain. Photo provided by production. Set & costume design Brianna Kolybaba, lighting design Tessa Stamp.

Advance tickets available through the Fringe, accessibility considerations including a relaxed performance on Tuesday and pay-what-you-will arrangements.  I’m definitely going back.

Have you seen it?  What did you notice that I missed?

Another week of Edmonton fun, mostly theatrical!

There’s lots going on in Edmonton this week too.  Yesterday, for example, the choices included the Folkfest ticket lottery at Telus Field (popular and well-organized and a sell-out again), the Edmonton Pride Festival parade (Pride events continue throughout the month), Sprouts New Play Festival for Kids (continuing this afternoon) and Nextfest, the emerging artist’s festival continuing until June 14th with music, theatre, dance, comedy, improv, film, visual arts, and more.

Most years I’m out of town for all of July and I spend June getting ready, so I’ve been missing out on lots of the Edmonton June events.  But this year I’m going to be around in July, which also means I get more of the fun of the long days of June.

Thou Art Here, the local troupe doing site-sympathetic versions of Shakespeare’s work, had a remount of last year’s successful Much Ado About Nothing at Rutherford House, the historic site preserving the residence of the first premier of Alberta .  The audience followed the actors around outdoors and indoors, upstairs and down, as the banter, schemes, betrayals and amends of the story took place.  Director Andrew Ritchie said that this play was a great choice for their company because the whole play takes place at Leonato’s house (Kris Joseph, recently seen in Vigilante).  They did some clever things including all the audience members in the story – guests at a masquerade, deputized citizens assisting the officers Dogberry (Amy Shostak) and Verges (David Barnet), wedding guests – and they also had individual audience members standing in for some of the minor roles which they hadn’t cast.  This was fun and not embarrassing.  It was an easy play for me to enjoy, because unlike some of Shakespeare’s comedies this one had the sharp-tongued woman (Beatrice, played by Gianna Vacirca) happily ending up with a man who appreciates her and gives as good as he gets (Benedick, played by Ben Stevens), and because nobody was killed to make a plot point (I’m looking at you, Winter’s Tale …).  Conflict was provided through the machinations of Don Joan (Alyson Dicey) and her henchman Borachio (Mark Vetsch), and eventually there was a happy ending for the other couple Hero (Marlee Yule) and Claudio (Hunter Cardinal).  I thought Neil Kuefler was particularly good as Don Pedro, Don Joan’s good-guy brother, although I was a little confused about why the character was using sitcom tricks to manage his friends.

Teatro La Quindicina has moved into the Arts Barns renovated Backstage space until the Varscona renovations are complete.  Their production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, with Mat Busby and Julien Arnold, directed by Stewart Lemoine, is the start of their 2015 season.  It runs until June 13th.  Blarney Productions’ season is wrapping up with A Steady Rain, by Keith Huff, directed by Wayne Paquette and performed by Jesse Gervais and John Ullyatt.  It closes today (Sunday June 7th) with a 1:30 show.  Tickets for both are available at Tix on the Square.

This week I also attended Let There Be Height, the Firefly Theatre performance of circus/aerials students and teachers.  It was enchanting and impressive, with different turns set to music and strung on a storyline of dreams and a dreamer.

I also attended the Mayfield Dinner Theatre’s production of Cabaret, which I saw on Broadway last year.  This production included some local familiar faces, Cheryl Jameson (Helga), Benjamin Wardle (Bobby), Lucas Meeuse (Hans), Chelsea Preston (Angel), Pamela Gordon (Sally Bowles) and Jeff Haslam as Ernst Ludwig, the ingratiating small-time smuggler whose unveiling as a Nazi serves as unavoidable demonstration of the perilous chasm looming before all the characters in 1930s Berlin.  The viewpoint character Clifford Bradshaw is played with convincing awkwardness and wistfulness by Aiden Desalaiz, and the Emcee is Christian Goutsis.  I thought the shocking ending was particularly well done, in a polished performance.