Tag Archives: citadel

Memories of Leonard Cohen

When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher played us some vinyl records with some Canadian poet/songwriters singing their stuff.  Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Leonard Cohen.  I didn’t like either of them as singers and I thought only teachers and other grownups would like that kind of music.

When I was taking Grade 12 English, we did a unit on Canadian poets and each group had to do a presentation on a modern Canadian poet.  My group studied James Reaney, who is clever but not especially accessible.  (Local theatre-connections:  he’s also a playwright, having written a trilogy about the infamous Donnelly family also featured in Jonathan Christensen’s Vigilante, and the writer of the Alice Through the Looking Glass adaptation that’s coming to the Citadel this spring.)  Another group studied Leonard Cohen.  Their presentation included one of his more sexually-themed works, which led our English teacher to a passionate defence of the subject matter as both appropriate subject for poetic celebration and a joyful part of an intimate relationship.  This was probably the best sex-ed lesson I had in school ever.

I really don’t know how I learned the tune for Cohen’s “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” (it’s easy to learn because it’s very repetitive).  I used to sing it, mostly to myself, when I was an undergrad, and I had the words written up on my bedroom wall.

And then Cohen wrote for Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat, First We Take Manhattan), and sang with Suzanne Vega (whose own lyrics spoke to me with painful poetic truth in the late 80s), and then the Jeff Buckley Hallelujah turned out to be actually a Leonard Cohen song which everyone seemed to know and love and argue about, and I have no idea when it happened, but Leonard Cohen was actually cool.

So cool that now there’s a theatrical staging of his words and music, created by Tracey Power for Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and now touring to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Chelsea Hotel.  The seven performers all sang and played instruments.  Jonathan Gould seemed to be playing Cohen, and the others (Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Benjamin Elliott, Tracey Power) seemed to be the voices in his head, the women in his memory, and his alter-egos.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of Suzanne, and the two versions of Hallelujah.

Other performances this season (Back to the 80s at the Mayfield, BOOM at the Citadel) have celebrated the music and pop culture of my lifetime, but tonight’s encounter withe Leonard Cohen’s music brought back different memories, because at the time I didn’t think the music was popular or know it was going to be important.

Chelsea Hotel continues at the Citadel to February 13th.

Vigilante: inexorable tragedy with Catalyst style

A new Catalyst Theatre production.  Their first show in the Maclab Theatre intimate thrust stage at the Citadel.  Part of the Citadel subscription series.  It didn’t matter what it was going to be about; I was going to see it for sure.

The fact that it was about the Black Donnellys of 19th century southwestern Ontario, their feuds with neighbours and their brutal mass murder, was a bonus.  I grew up in southern Ontario, and this was one of the true-crime stories that my classmates did fascinated book reports on (that and the story of Evelyn Dick and the murder of her husband even closer to home in the 1940s).  Although I hadn’t actually read The Black Donnellys, The Donnellys Must Die or James Reaney’s play cycle, I felt familiar with and connected to the story.   And with that superficial knowledge acquired as a young person, I think I probably reconciled the story in my brain as “fair” on some level – a family of outlaws commits various crimes on their law-abiding neighbours and gets murdered because of it.

But partway through last night’s first preview performance of Jonathan Christenson’s new rock musical about the family, I changed my mind.  Christenson’s version provided some sympathetic portraits of the young immigrants James and Johanna Donnelly (David Leyshon and Jan Alexandra Smith) fleeing their feuding families in Co. Tipperary, Ireland for a fresh start in Canada, discouraged and cheated in acquiring Ontario farmland, and discovering their immigrant neighbours tenacious in the grudges of the Old Country.   As in the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the family’s strengths (fierce loyalty to each other and determination to succeed) are also the qualities leading inevitably to their downfall.  The performance made me care about them and mourn them.

So that’s the story.  But it was a Catalyst Theatre production, with Jonathan Christenson credited as writer, director, composer, and librettist, and the Catalyst design aesthetic expressed in ragged near-colourless layers of costume by Narda McCarroll, in cold stark lighting by Beth Kates, and in the spare barn-skeleton set by Christenson and James Robert Boudreau, so it was told with style.   I’ve seen two other Catalyst productions, The Soul Collector and Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe (which is playing off-Broadway until the end of March).  I found Vigilante more passionate and more accessible than either of them, but still stylized and atmospheric.  Like the other two plays, much of the story is told in narration to the audience, in this case mostly by eldest son William Donnelly (Carson Nattrass).  Most of the text seems to be prose, unlike Nevermore which is full of rhyming couplets.   And there was music.  The music played by Matthew Skopyk, Morgan Gies, Emily Siobhan McCourt, Nathan Setterlund, and Kurtis Schultz had elements of screeching hard-rock guitar, frenetic Irish-dance fiddle, lyrical love-duet poetry, and persistent compelling drumming, and there was singing and movement.  I don’t have a very good memory for tunes, so I can’t recall anything well enough to sing it today, but I wish I could.   Oh, except for the repeated motif “tick…tock… goes the clock … light the lamp and lock the lock …” I loved the music, despite some occasional difficulty hearing the singers over the band in the first act.  There were also a few moments where the music, the powerful movement in boots, and the industrial shadow-lit set reminded me of the U of A’s recent Studio Theatre production of Threepenny Opera.

Neighbours and adversaries of the Donnellys were played by the same actors who also played the six sons, Nattrass (William), Scott Walters (Tommy), Kris Joseph (Daniel), Eric Moran (Robert), Lucas Meeuse (Johnny), and Benjamin Wardle as the youngest Michael.  All of the characters in the story had accents with enough Irish features to be credible yet comprehensible, consistent with growing up in an immigrant community.  The Donnelly sons also swore a lot when they were angered or when being wound up to fight by their mother.  Sometimes the modern-sounding vulgarities made audience members giggle nervously, and pulled me out of the story a bit.

The action started slowly in the first act, with William and his brothers giving an introductory narrative then Johanna and James falling in love in Ireland despite family opposition.  Things speeded up after intermission, with the family members’ doom coming closer and more unavoidable.

Vigilante is playing at the Citadel until March 29th.  Tickets are available here.  Tonight (Sunday March 8th) is the Pay What You Can performance, and I would imagine that the ticket line-up for that at the Citadel box office is forming as I write.  I liked it and I found it challenging, so I’m trying to figure out if I have time to see it again.  But on this week’s calendar I also have Fiddler on the Roof, The Falstaff Project, First Time/Last Time, and a U of A Drama production of A Winter’s Tale, and before the end of the month also Arcadia, dreamplay, and Book of Mormon.  So much theatre, so little time.

Life, Death, and the Blues

Before I went to the preview show of Life, Death, and the Blues, I had difficulty describing what it was going to be like, despite reading the various posters and previews.  All I knew was that it was going to have music in it and it was going to have Raoul Bhaneja in it.  And since I still remember being impressed by Raoul Bhaneja’s One-Man Hamlet at Edmonton Fringe in 2008, I knew I wanted to see what the artist was up to now.

And afterwards, my companions and I agreed that it had been different than we expected, and thought-provoking and enjoyable.  I had lots of blues music in it – played and sung by Raoul Bhaneja and his band (Chris Banks, Tom Bona, Jake Chisholm), by Divine Brown, near the end of the show by featured guest, local blues artist Kat Danser, and at intermission by local trio Old Jack Tap.  The featured “Legends” during the show are different every night, and so are the intermission Youth Blues Challenge acts.

The backbone of the show was narrative, by Raoul Bhaneja about how he’d explored the blues genre throughout his life, and by both Bhaneja and Brown about the history and geography of the blues in general.  And what I loved most about the show was the head-on way the conversation addressed the issues of racial prejudice and assumptions, stereotypes and privilege, the difficulty of not being complicit and the “magical Negro” myth, all involved in having white people and people of other ethnicities exploring the history of the blues (mostly developed by and for African-Americans in the USA).  As a self-identified beige person, (he was born in England to an Indian father and Irish mother, and seems to have grown up attending private school and travelling with diplomatic-service parents who settled in Canada), Bhaneja told some of his own stories of encountering biases and overcoming challenges due to his colour and ethnicity.  But Brown, a Black Canadian woman, called him out repeatedly on his whitesplaining, reminding him that these experiences did not qualify him to speak for African-Americans or justify calling himself a blues insider.   She also pointed out that it’s not really appropriate for people of other ethnicities to criticize Black communities for not being quick to embrace retro movements and nostalgic preservation of times of unhappy memory.  She points out that even his childhood travel adventure to Egypt and the pyramids represented the death of many slaves.  Even though it was a scripted show written by Bhaneja, I was happy to see the aspects which might have been problematic being identified by Brown, a confident talented Black female performer.  The banter between the two of them also illustrated and challenged the expectations of sexual tension in the blues – and then the jam session with local blues performer Kat Danser shook that up some more, both in the way she glossed over Bhaneja’s glib flirtation and then in her performance of the Ma Rainey song, “Prove it on Me”, a 1928 celebration of butch culture and lesbian romance.

Early in the show, Bhaneja mentioned a hip-hop harmonica player from Montreal, Bad News Brown (Paul Frappier).  The “Death” part of the title became explicit late in the performance when he talked about Bad News Brown’s death from apparently-random violence on a Montreal street, four years ago that night.   The next song was a version of Jim Croce’s Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which the band had played in the first act, but with lyrics paying tribute to Bad News Brown.

Another noteworthy bit was Bhaneja singing a Hindu song about the Indus river that he’d learned from his father, Nale Alakh Je, accompanied by his upright-bass player Chris Banks, and with Divine Brown singing an English translation in harmony.

Life, Death, and the Blues continues in the Citadel Theatre Club space until March 1st, with tickets available here.  And then, Vigilante!

One-man weekend

This weekend I saw two great solo performances.  At Canoe Festival I saw Alan Williams in The Girl with Two Voices, and at the Citadel I saw Shawn Smyth in Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story.  I could also have seen Jon Lachlan Stewart’s Lavinia, which I had been looking forward to, but I didn’t end up seeing it.  I will definitely watch for another opportunity to see that though.

Alan Williams’ story was told to small groups of twenty at a time, sitting around a meeting-room table in Knox Evangelical Free Church, across the walkway from the Arts Barns.  The performer took a seat at the end of the table and started telling his story without introduction, explanation, a pause, or even much eye contact with the audience, as if we had walked in while he was telling a longer story to someone else.  He talked for more than an hour and a half while we listened, sometimes chuckling, and the passage of time was only noticeable because the room was too cold.  He used no notes, and his narration was so well prepared that it felt off-the-cuff.

He told the story of moving to London without much money or prospects, finding a place to live, making the Kew Gardens neighbourhood home, and trying to get acting work, in the late 1990s.  The story was partly chronological, with interruptions explaining the background of friendships and choices, and it was full of odd characters that he described both pointedly and affectionately.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes with his friends Janet and Jim.  Jim, he told us, who was about two years old at the time – rather than treat the child as an adjunct of his friend, the narrator kept talking about Jim as an individual with some odd behaviours.

There was some symbolism, some repetition of theme, and some conclusion, but all of them very subtle.  He is one of the best pure storytellers I have ever seen in person.  One of the festival announcements compared him to Spaulding Grey, whose recorded narrative Swimming to Cambodia about making the film The Killing Fields was my first exposure to first-person storytelling as a performance option, many years ago.

Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story is currently running at the Maclab stage in the Citadel Theatre complex, as a co-production with Prairie Theatre Exchange of Winnipeg.  Ron Jenkins directed. The script is credited to Kirstie McLellan Day, co-author of Theoren Fleury’s autobiography of the same name.  Shaun Smyth originated the role of Theo Fleury in the premiere production at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2012.

For this show, the staging and effects were a big part of the fun and the mood creation.  The performer spends the whole performance on skates and in hockey equipment, skating and shooting on a small artificial skating surface with a realistic-looking backdrop of hockey arena boards and bench, which worked for all the settings from the small-town arena of his childhood to the NHL and Olympic games.  The seats at the far edges of the Maclab were blocked off, possibly due to blocked views but also possibly as a precaution in case any of the performer’s shots missed the nets.  (But none of them did!  Shaun Smith’s skating, stickhandling, and wristshot/snapshot abilities were impressive enough to be convincing and to allow him to move smoothly on the small cluttered surface and create excitement.)   The sound effects and the projected video images provided additional content and made the Maclab feel so much like a hockey rink that I kept thinking I felt a draft.

Most of the performance involved the actor speaking directly to the audience as the player Theo Fleury telling the story of his life and career, from his first skating steps around age 5 to his senior-league games after a comeback in his 40s.  I found it a difficult story to hear, because of what the performer wryly called “the part about the molestation” (Theoren Fleury having been one of the players who was sexually abused as a teenager by coach Graham James).  He told that part of the story while sitting down on the front edge of the stage, with painful credible directness and the self-awareness of adult hindsight.

Milestones of his career and hockey events that I remembered included the bench-clearing brawl at the World Juniors in 1987, the Flames Stanley Cup win in his rookie season in 1989, the Olympic championship in Salt Lake City in 2002.  He told the key parts of these stories with the help of scoreboards and hockey cards on the video screen – and as an interesting touch, the hockey cards all had an A-Tee-Pee logo in the style of the real O-Pee-Chee one (ATP being Alberta Theatre Projects, the production company of the premiere).  The foreshadowing in the first act – the abuse that he tried to forget, the first taste of alcohol, the first experience with cocaine, the affairs with strippers and the failed relationships – then escalated as his life got more out of control and his playing career fell apart.  The sports water-bottles sitting on the nets were used as props for tales of binge-drinking, and projection of a craps table onto the stage floor/ice surface backed up the episodes of transferring his addiction to gambling.

Except for the convicted child abuser Graham James, and possibly the player’s flawed parents, the narrative doesn’t name names to criticize anyone else, consistent with AA testimony custom of taking responsibility but also convenient for anyone worried about liability issues.   Various other team officials and family members were mentioned as supporting him and challenging him to get his life under control.  The only other player whose personality came through was Wayne Gretzky, in two flattering anecdotes, one where he is playing on the opposing team and hauls Fleury out of a fight after he’s injured, and another when he recruits Fleury to the 2002 Olympic squad.   This narrative choice also emphasized the solitary nature of Fleury’s personal struggles.

Playing With Fire continues at the Citadel until February 15th.  Tickets are available here.

 

Inspired silliness and spontaneous hilarity all over the Citadel.

Ronnie Burkett’s The Daisy Theatre is in the Club downstairs.

One Man, Two Guvnors is upstairs in the Shoctor.

And in between, Rapid Fire Theatre is at Ziedler Hall with two Theatresports shows every Friday, a Chimprov long-form improv show every Saturday at 10 pm, and next weekend also a public-workshops student show Thursday at 7:30 (I am going to be in this one, probably singing) and a Maestro elimination game Saturday night at 7:30.   Tickets for all Rapid Fire shows are available through EventBrite and at the door.

Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre  is returning after a long Citadel booking last year.  Some of the same puppet characters are in the show this year, but there are some new ones, and all new stories with the old ones, and apparently different things happen every night.  I saw it once last year and enjoyed it, but I thought this year’s show was even better.   Mrs. Edna Rural is still one of my favourites.  This year’s bits with Schnitzel, the poignant little creature who wishes for wings, were not as disturbing to me as last year’s (which reminded me of Robertson Davies’ World of Wonders), and they were still charming, especially watching Schnitzel climb the curtains.  As last year, Ronnie Burkett includes various audience members or takes amusing liberties with them, and he also makes lots of jokes about local establishments and politics.  I wish I had time to see it again.

One Man, Two Guvnors had its first preview tonight.  It had a long cast list with many familiar names and faces, John Ullyatt, Lisa Norton, Julien Arnold, Jesse Gervais, Cole Humeny, Louise Lambert, Orville Charles Cameron, Mat Busby, Andrew Macdonald-Smith, and all of the Be Arthurs.  Performers I hadn’t seen before were Jill Agopsowicz as the young romantic lead Pauline and Glenn Nelson as Harry Dangle the lawyer (of the firm Dangle, Berry, and Bush).  Bob Baker was the director, and the script was written by Richard Bean based on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters.  John Ullyatt is the main character Francis Henshall, the quick-talking easily-confused small-time crook who starts the show so broke that he hasn’t eaten, and desperate for money he hires himself out to two different people, the gangster Roscoe  – who turns out to be Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel in disguise, Lisa Norton –  and the higher-class criminal Stanley Stubbers (Jesse Gervais).  Assorted wacky hijinks ensue, as Francis tries to get some food and then the affections of the accountant Dolly (Louise Lambert), various other romances play out, prison-trained chef Lloyd manages a “pub with food” (apparently a novelty in 1963 Brighton) with the help of servers Alfie (Andrew Macdonald-Smith who should probably have a massage therapist or physiotherapist lined up for the run of the show) and Gareth (Mat Busby), and criminal mastermind Charlie The Duck (Julien Arnold) is involved in some financial negotiations with his solicitor Harry Dangle that I never did quite follow, but it didn’t matter.  There was slapstick, physical comedy, bad puns, lots of asides to the audience, musical interludes by the Be Arthurs playing as The Craze (Ryan Parker, Scott Shpeley, Bob Rasko, Sheldon Elter), and other funny business.  The pace did not drag at all and although it was a fairly long show I wasn’t restless, I was just giggling all the way through.  It was a little tiresome that Pauline’s defining character trait was a cluelessness or stupidity, but there was good contrast with Louise Lambert’s character Dolly, a 1963 model of feminist sass and control of her sexuality reminiscent of Joan on Mad Men, and with Lisa Norton’s character Rachel, who disguises herself as her brother and tracks down her missing lover (hence leading to a priceless reunion scene with a glimpse of two characters making out in matching boxer shorts and gartered socks.)  The script also had lots of scope for ridiculousness in male characters, notably Cole Humeny as Alan (Orlando) Dangle, would-be actor in black turtleneck and leather and overdramatic anguish.   This might be the best pure comedy I have seen on the Shoctor stage.  I liked it better than Make Mine Love and possibly better than Spamalot.

 

The Daisy Theatre runs in the Club until November 2nd.  One Man, Two Guvnors runs in the Shoctor until November 16th.  Tickets to both are available through the Citadel website.

The Inspector General – ridiculously topical

The Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company show this spring is The Inspector General, as translated/adapted by Michael Chemers in 2010 from the 1836 Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol Russian original.   A report of the 2010 production mentions that many references to local Pittsburgh politics were incorporated.

This production, directed by Dave Horak, is said to be set in the city of Edmoronto, and it is enhanced by references that are sometimes generally Canadian and sometimes specifically Edmontonian.   It’s satirical and broadly comedic and I laughed a lot.  The mayor of Edmoronto (Eric Smith) is both corrupt and incompetent.  Most of the cast play officials in his administration (to use those terms loosely), from the City Controller (Marie Mavko, organized and imposing) down to the Co-chairs of the Emergency Crisis Centre, Frick and Frack (Philip Geller and Matt Ness, a hilarious slapstick pair in bowler hats and confused expressions).  The Mayor’s ambitious wife (Morgan Donald) was previously “dancing at the Moulin Spooge”.  The mayor’s surly cynical art-student daughter (Courtney Wutzke) was one of my favourite characters, because her portrayal of disaffected text-speaking young person was spot-on but she was actually a more complex character as well.

The main plot premise is that the mayor and administration find out that some kind of government inspector is arriving incognito from Ottawa, and they are worried about getting in trouble.   So when they hear that someone has been staying at a hotel in town for two weeks, they conclude he must be the inspector, and they descend on him with excuses and bribes.  But of course the visitor (Nico Ouellette) is actually a drifter and minor civil servant, with his equally hapless travelling companion Zippo (Lauren Derman).  When he catches on that the city officials haven’t landed in his hotel room to arrest them but to pay court to him and try to influence him, he smoothly begins to take advantage of the situation, stuffing the bribes in his pockets and drinking the mayor’s brandy. “Everything he says means something else”, says one of the officials, explaining all his behaviour in light of seeing him as the undercover inspector.

The comedy dictum “rule of three”, meaning to find humour in slightly varying repetitions, is well incorporated here by the writer, translator, and director.  Each of the mayor’s cronies and associates (Mavko, Hayley Moorhouse, Chayla Day, Eva Foote, Alex Dawkins, Marc Ludwig, Ness, and Geller) has his or her own distinct character traits and motivation, all interesting and funny.  Each of them has amusing stage business, a unique attempt to bribe, a funny way of arranging his or her chair for a business meeting.  Eric Smith’s mayor character was not exactly likeable but engaging, and his frenzied dance number near the end was delightful.  Niko Ouellette was a crowd favourite as the scoundrel they assume is the inspector.   I also enjoyed Chayla Day’s understated portrayal of the Mormon liquor-store owner and president of the Chamber of Commerce, and the subtle humour in her costuming and lines.

The short run of The Inspector General is complete, and the Young Musical Company’s show finishes tonight.  The Young Playwriting Company has staged readings Tuesday and Wednesday.  The old Citadel website had bios of the Young Company participants.  I’m disappointed that the new one doesn’t, because I liked getting to know the names of some of the talented emerging artists to watch out for around the Edmonton theatre scene in future.

 

Mary Poppins

The first of P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins was published in 1934, and I read some of the books as a child, taking them out from a particular old library branch that my father used to like.  The Walt Disney movie came out in 1965, so I know I didn’t see it then, but I probably saw it at a drive-in theatre in one of the early re-releases, and I think I’ve also seen it as an adult but not recently.   I don’t know which I encountered first, but I don’t remember being bothered by any inconsistencies in the treatments.

I saw an early preview performance of the Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary production of the Broadway musical Mary Poppins last week.  Blythe Wilson was in the title role with an appropriate combination of dignity and warmth, and Michael Shamata was the director.  It was a fun large-cast show with a lot of music and with fun things to watch (dancing, kite-flying, various stage-effect magics, and enchanting sets capturing the house and neighbourhood in Edwardian London), so I think it would be a better family outing than Christmas Carol, which is a little scary.  Young performers Zasha Rabie and Jack Forestier were poised and convincing in the roles of Mary Poppins’ charges Jane and Michael Banks.  Kate Ryan and Vincent Gale were the Banks adults whom Mary Poppins also helps to find more balanced happier lives.  Kendra Connor, a local actor who has been a favourite of mine in shows such as Fiorello!, Strike! The Musical, Nutcracker Unhinged, and The Minor Keys, was very funny in several small parts.

Because I’m preoccupied these days with learning the work of stage management, working as ASM on the upcoming Walterdale Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, (opens April 2nd, tickets here) I was completely in awe watching the smooth movement of complicated multi-level set pieces, some on a revolve.  Mary Poppins’ dignified descents and ascensions by umbrella had her in a completely upright immobile posture, which also impressed me.  In the early preview I saw, I think I saw one small delay probably due to a slow costume change and one wobble in the stage-magic, but they did not distract me from enjoying the show.

The underlying messages about valuing family life and personal happiness are just as timely today as when the books were written, and the story made me happy.

Mary Poppins continues to play at the Citadel until April 20th, but I hear that some performances are selling out.