Tag Archives: chase cownden

Skin Deep: self-created, site-specific, scenes, stories, and sculptures

The last performance assignment on the curriculum for the 2014 graduating class in Theatre Performance and Creation at Red Deer College was to create and perform some site-specific work off campus in some space not normally used for theatre.

The class chose the Red Deer Lodge hotel, and took advantage of several different spaces around the central courtyard of the hotel, starting in the lobby and leading the audience around.  There was a general theme of self-discovery, exposure, and the choices of how much to reveal, but the various scenes and vignettes used a variety of techniques and tactics, giving the performance some flavour of a showcase of skills developed.

Continuity was maintained by having Julia Van Dam as a guide.  Although she had a challenging trickster demeanour, it was reassuring in an apparently unstructured situation to see her red-gloved figure glide up and point us to where we should go next.  After some bits in the lobby of the hotel, the audience members were led to explore various glimpses around the courtyard, fights and dances and conversations, and then directed to a murder investigation in a hotel conference room.  That was good to have early on the program, while the audience was feeling uncomfortable with what was expected, because the characters (Wayne DeAtley, Victoria Day, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, Bret Jacobs, and Julia Van Dam) were easy to identify and the narrative arc straightforward.

After that, things got weirder, but we got more comfortable with it.  Some of the scenes took place in hotel bedrooms – Jen Suter and Jessica Bordley did a powerful invocation of tormented teenage girls in a scene that I thought was probably called “So Fucking Angry”, and Brittany Martyshuk and Jake Tkaczyk had an interesting concept of speaking together in the solitude of separate rooms with the help of crackling baby-monitors.  Some happened on a balcony over our heads.   Another one seated the audience in a conference room while dancers reflected on a curtain formed Rorschach-blot-like shapes in response to a patient’s (Taylor Pfeifer) answers to a nurse (Constance Isaacs).  Dustin Funk and Tyler Johnson were two homeless people in conflict.  Richard Leurer and Megan Einarson had a particularly disturbing scene in the hotel pool.  Some of the narrative in the performance was in rhyme, and some of it was recited in chorus.  There was quite a lot of expressive movement, possibly a bit too much, and there was some stage fighting, some dance, and some good tableaux.  There was a movement scene with, I think,  Jessica Bordley, Tyler Johnson, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, and Richard Leurer, narrated in rhyme by Julia Van Dam about friendship and romance and shifting loyalties that I liked a lot.

I was impressed that all the traffic-directing was done in a very organic way and that none of the performers fell out of character at all even when the audience probably wasn’t doing what they wanted us to.  I thought that the performance might have been a bit too long or too repetitive, but in general I enjoyed it a lot.  I liked the sense of wandering around with more going on than I was able to see.  Skin Deep continues Wednesday and Thursday this week, with information available at this Facebook page. 

Escher-esque set for Three Musketeers

All for one and one for all, with Red Deer College Three Musketeers

The Red Deer College theatre program’s current production is The Three Musketeers, the 2006 Ken Ludwig adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel, first published as a newspaper serial in 1844.

I did not attempt to read the original, as I could not get through Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo after I saw a Stratford (Ontario) Festival production about ten years ago.  So my pre-show preparation was limited to reading Wikipedia, looking at the Red Deer College Performing Arts website, and looking at a video clip from this production posted in a newspaper preview.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the adaptation, and this production directed by Thomas Usher, managed to create for modern audiences a fast-paced, episodic, wish-fulfilling adventure which was probably true to the impression left on contemporary readers of the serial.   D’Artagnan, the young man from the country who travels to Paris with the goal of becoming a Musketeer like his father before him, was played with well-meaning earnestness by Tyler Johnson, like most of the cast a graduating student in Theatre Performance and Creation.   My favourite character in the story was an addition for the modern adaptation, D’Artagnan’s younger sister Sabine (Brittany Martyshuk).   D’Artagnan’s parents ask him to take his sister to Paris and enroll her in a convent school, but it turns out that she actually wants to seek her fortune as a swordfighter and maybe fall in love with a Musketeer.   I found her character both charming and credible.

The three musketeers of the title, whom D’Artagnan is challenged by and then befriended by, are Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  (The “h”s are silent because they are French – I didn’t know that before.)  Athos is the more serious musketeer whose sad personal backstory comes out later, and he is portrayed by Chase Cownden, a particularly impressive stage fencer.  Porthos (Bret Jacobs) is interested in fashion, and a scene in which he is showing off a new cloak leads to a fight scene with some impressive use of a length of cloth to tangle an opponent.  Aramis (Wayne DeAtley) aspires to religious life, and is the target of Sabine’s crush.

The musketeers’ archenemy is Cardinal Richelieu (Richard Leurer), remote and devious and a little slimy.  Richelieu’s collaborators and allies include Milady (Megan Einarson) and Rochefort (Victoria Day).   Other characters include the King and Queen of France (JP Lord and Taylor Pfeiffer), and Constance the queen’s lady-in-waiting and love-interest for D’Artagnan (Constance Isaacs).  Daniel Vasquez, a recent graduate of the RDC Theatre Performance program, plays Treville the head of the musketeers, Buckingham the Queen’s lover, and a few other minor parts.  Most of the other actors are multiply-cast as well, with some quick costume changes.

The set for the show was strongly reminiscent of the Escher print Relativity, and the similarity was underlined by pieces of staircase and balcony suspended in the air at odd angles. The actual stage was full of entrances and exits, balconies and crossing staircases, and they all got used, with almost no prop movement between scenes.  This helped underline the impressions of fast-paced action with complications and conspiracies.

There was, of course, a lot of stage combat, not just swordfighting but unarmed fighting, knifework, and other tools used as weapons.  At one point, all twelve cast members are engaged in a skirmish all over the stage between musketeers and Richelieu’s guards, with so much going on that it was hard for the audience to keep track of and easy to buy into the illusion of it being a real fight.

One of the things I liked best about this production was the women’s parts and the scope for female actors.  They weren’t just cast as men for fight scenes; the script included three fighters explicitly identified as female, who seemed like distinct interesting characters – Sabine, the young girl who grew up learning fighting with her older brother, Milady, with a dagger in her boot and a secret in her past, whose manipulative sexuality was reminiscent of the courtesan Einarson played in the troupe’s production of Comedy of Errors last year, and the guard captain Rochefort, in eyepatch and scar. Milady is a character in Dumas’ original story, and so is a male version of Rochefort.  I couldn’t tell whether Rochefort had been changed from male to female by the 2006 playwright or by the director of this production, but it didn’t matter and it worked well enough for me to enjoy it.

The production even passed the “Bechdel test” – the criterion expressed by a character in an early edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that she only reads/watches fiction in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man.   I can’t remember what the conversation was about in the second convent scene, when Constance is taking sanctuary and Milady is looking for her, but the scene at the convent school where Sabine has been enrolled definitely passes.

I’m not sure that everything shown on the stage was necessary to the plot – but it was fun and the pace was good and I didn’t mind.  The tavern singing and the masked-ball dancing were fun to watch.   The random musket battle with Huguenots confused me a bit more, because I was wondering whether there was a point to it other than giving Porthos a chance to make some funny comments about religion.

The costuming used a limited but rich palette of colours, allowing the audience to distinguish between the heroes in brown, burgundy, and gold, with Porthos having more dramatic choices, the household of royalty in purple, and the enemies in black and red.  I also noticed red hues in the lighting for Milady’s and Richelieu’s scenes.  And I loved the peacock dress Sabine wore to the masked ball.  There were lots of scruffy whiskers in evidence, with Richelieu’s waxed mustache and groomed-squirrel-tail goatee in sharp contrast.

In the show I saw early in the run, there were a few situations of stilted speech, but for the most part the actors spoke clearly, convincingly, and in character, and they made me care about what happened to the characters.   And the last line made me cry.

Three Musketeers plays Wednesday through Saturday of this week at the Red Deer College mainstage.  Advance tickets are available on line and by phone from the usual outlet.

Another Comedy of Errors

There are lots of Shakespeare plays that I’ve never seen, studied, or read.  I’ve heard of people who make a point of saving one Shakespeare play so they have something to look forward to … but it’s usually Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus, something after Shakespeare was on the way to jumping the shark.  Anyway, until this year, I hadn’t watched Comedy of Errors at all.  Or studied it, or even read it.  But this summer I enjoyed a production of Comedy of Errors in the tent at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and then I went to the rap adaptation Bomb-itty of Errors directed by Dave Horak at the Edmonton Fringe.  And then in October I attended a Comedy of Errors production done by Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation students and directed by Jeff Page.

The set visible before the play started hinted at a fantasy setting, with playful pastel triangles painted on a city backdrop and courtyard flooring.  Then a drumroll and change in the lightning were followed by solemn standard-bearers and then the solemn entrance of the Duke of Ephesus (Julia van Dam) followed by her frail and bedraggled prisoner, Aegeon (JP Lord).  After the long exposition necessary in the first scene, where Aegeon explains about his wife having been lost at sea with one twin son and one twin slave-companion and the Duke explains that although she feels pity for him, she won’t make an exception to the law banning Syracusians, the action speeds up.  Antipholus of Syracuse (Jake Tkaczyk) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jen Suter), the bewildered travellers, stumble into a cheerful busy marketplace, with bubbly 1960s-inspired pop music in the background.  The costumes too seem to evoke the playful early 1960s, with ice-cream colours, argyle vests, and minidresses.  Soon the play’s theme of mistaken identity becomes clear, as various locals confuse the visiting Antipholus and Dromio for their identical-twin namesakes who live in the town, and the local pair (Richard Leurer as Antipholus of Ephesus and Brittany Martyshuk as Dromio of Ephesus) appear alternately with very similar body language and costuming, making the mix-up credible.  Leurer and Tkaczyk have almost identical jaw-hanging confused expressions.  Adriana, the impatient wife of Antipholus of Ephesus who is waiting the midday meal for her absent husband, is played with irritation and then increasing worry that her husband’s unexplained behaviour might mean that he is unfaithful, by Victoria Day.  Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana (Constance Isaac) has some amusing stage business with high heeled pumps that hurt her feet.  Other local characters complicating the plot include Angelo (Tyler Johnson) a pompous prosperous goldsmith with tailored Nehru jacket and walking stick, an unnamed courtesan (Megan Einarson) in gogo boots with some outrageously flirtatious audience interaction, the Duke’s overeager executioner (Wayne De Atley) and the soothsayer Doctor Pinch (Jessie Muir), an odd steampunk cross between a psychotherapist and a psychic.  The servant Luce, who horrifies Dromio of Syracuse when she mistakes him for her husband Dromio of Ephesus, is played by Bret Jacobs.  Casting Jacobs was an inspired choice for director Jeff Page, since he plays the bossy cook and affectionate wife with hilarious gusto, but also because Dromio of Syracuse’s speech about her being repulsive because she is fat and dark-skinned is both funnier and more acceptable to my modern ears when the character is played by a man.  Another aspect of Shakespeare’s tale that made me uncomfortable on reading and on viewing of the previous productions was the way that the Dromio characters are treated by the Antipholus characters who own them/employ them and were raised together with them, with physical beating as well as verbal abuse.  Again, a directorial choice in this production made that aspect a little more ridiculous and less disturbing, with most of the beating being done using rolled up newspapers.

The courtesan and her retinue performed an original musical number, Nothing but Love, by Edmonton musician Paul Morgan Donald, in a sort of bubbly sixties pop style.  It was fun to watch and listen to, and it is still stuck in my head more than a month later.  It didn’t really advance the plot, but that didn’t matter.

As things get more and more confused and messed up for the fellows from Syracuse, I noticed that they became more and more disheveled with every entrance, jackets lost, shirttails untucked, bow tie undone and almost falling off.  Their Ephesian twins, more domestic and prosperous, didn’t get quite as unravelled.

And then just before things fall apart completely, the tidy denouement worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan has the twins reuniting, the Abbess (Collette Radau, in full habit and wimple subduing audience and citizens with intimidating facial expressions) declaring herself to be the missing wife of Aegeon, and everyone getting their money and jewellery back.

I was particularly impressed by Julia Van Dam’s performance as the Duke of Ephesus.  Her physicality conveyed the character’s undoubted authority, and it was clear in the first scene that the Duke regretted being unable to pardon Aegeon but was unwilling to break the law.  She didn’t play the part as a man; the Duke was referred to with female pronouns and this worked just fine.

The next play in the Red Deer College performance series, featuring some of these performers, is a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, adapted by Jim DeFelice with music by Larry Reese.  It opens tomorrow night, Thursday November 21st, at 7:30 pm on the Mainstage at the RDC Arts Centre.