Tag Archives: dave horak

To separate, to cling, to Cleave

One character in Elena Belyea’s new play Cleave explains the concept of words that are autoantonyms – words that have two near-opposite meanings, like screen, fast, or bound.  This gives the viewer a hint toward unpacking the play’s title, as it may refer to characters clinging together or being split apart, drawing towards new choices in their lives or detaching from unwanted ones.

Like many of my favourite stories on stage, on screen, or in library books, the narrative of Cleave shows the separate but intersecting objectives of several characters through a cusp time in their lives.  Four of the characters are part of a family, parents (Dave Horak and Elena Porter) who turn out to have their own secret unhappy histories and teenage children (Emma Houghton and Luc Tellier).  I was particularly delighted by the subtlety of Emma Houghton’s character journey, as I had misjudged her on first appearance as a sulky shallow cheerleader wheedling money out of her dad for new workout clothes in which to make an impression.

The other two characters are a new kid at school, 17 year old Aaron who is intersex and trans (Jordan Fowlie), and his therapist.  As he explains to his new therapist (Natasha Napoleao) in the first scene, he’s moved away from his parents in order to avoid the stigma of transition in a small town and in order to get the therapist’s recommendation he needs before gender-affirming surgery.  The therapy scenes provide useful exposition of the background concepts of intersex and trans lives.  Sometimes Aaron is explaining things to his therapist and sometimes she is providing vocabulary and information to the audience while connecting with Aaron.   They also give important insight into Aaron’s thoughtful sarcastic character by providing a context in which he is relatively open, compared to his careful cautious demeanour at school, with his new friend’s family, and in another situation.

I loved the scenes with the two outsider boys sitting on the school steps not quite looking at each other and not rushing into friendship.  And the wordless gestures of trust on both sides of that relationship in the final scene moved me immensely.  I can imagine happy endings in the future for at least some of the characters, but the play ends appropriately with the loose ends not all tied up.

I also want to write about another scene that horrified me and hypnotized me in ways that also thrilled me as a fan of compelling stories.  But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else.  So I will put a brief comment about it at the end of this post.

Cleave is playing at the Backstage Theatre until Saturday April 7th.  There is an allowance of Pay-What-You-Can tickets available at the door for every performance.

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Fatboy, redux

I first saw the Edmonton Actors Theatre production of John Clancy’s Fatboy at the Fringe festival in 2012, on the recommendation of a new friend.  That seems like a long time ago, in my history of exploring Edmonton theatre.   I liked it at the time, but I think I was confused by not knowing what to expect in the unfamiliar genre.

Two years on, I was excited to hear that Fatboy was going to be part of the Roxy Theatre’s Performance Series, with Dave Horak directing the same cast (Frederick Zbryski, Melissa Thingelstad, Mathew Hulshof, Tim Cooper and Ian Leung).    Knowing more about what to expect, and having seen a bit more bouffon and other kinds of odd theatre in the interim, I did not feel as uncomfortable this time around and I enjoyed it more.  It was funny that I felt closer to the action in the auditorium of the Roxy than I had upstairs at the Armoury.

The eponymous Fatboy (Frederick Zbryski) and his wife Fudgie (Melissa Thingelstad) have that kind of affectionate and acrimonious relationship that is central to a lot of comedy, but taken to extremes and excesses.  Their struggles and adventures take them through three scenes, in their home, in a courtroom, and then in a throne room, with some funny addresses to the audience and musical interludes in between.   The stock characters of courtroom and throne room (Mat Hulshof, Tim Cooper, Ian Leung) were funny, particularly in a sort of shared delayed guffaw,  but I was most entertained by Mat Hulshof’s first-scene Tenant.   I was also amused by some occasional breaking the fourth wall and conventions of theatre to comment on a double-cast character going to change costume, a comment about the Sterling awards, and so on.

Partway through, I found myself completely startled by how much this over-the-top obscene ridiculous farce was actually relevant to current government and politics.  I think that in 2012 I was too busy trying to make literal sense of what I was seeing to pick up on the ways that it was saying familiar things “more truthful than fact”.

It ran about an hour and a half, which I think was a bit longer than the Fringe version.  Mostly they made good use of the extra time, although a couple of bits of business dragged a bit.  The costumes (Melissa Cuerrier) added to the exaggeration.

Stories and songs

After an early performance of Sonder at King Edward School, I saw four more shows yesterday, all of them with a focus on story.

Little Monsters, written and directed by Kristen Finlay at the Walterdale Theatre, is the subtle and familiar story of a mother who is determined to do the best for her child, and how that understandable conviction can lead to some imbalance and unhappiness.  It wasn’t quite the story that I was expecting and I liked it better for that.  Erin Foster-O’Riordan was very believable as the earnest mother, not overplaying or ridiculous.  Cory Christensen and Julie Sinclair as her husband and her best friend had smaller parts in the story, but each brought his or her own issues to the encounters, as we saw gradually.  Anne-Marie Szucs played the uncompromising preschool director with intimidatingly still body language.   The Fringe-style simple set and lighting cues created an office, a living space at home, a parent-viewing room at the preschool, and a park bench.   I loved the line about the expectant mother only feeling perfect until other people knew her secret and started giving her advice.

The one thing I didn’t enjoy about the experience of watching this play had nothing to do with what was unfolding on stage.  In choosing a seat near the action, I had unwittingly chosen one that squeaked with every small shift in movement, so my seat kept making noise and nearby patrons kept looking at me.  I wish someone would either fix that seat or discourage people from sitting in it.

Sundogs, by Michaela Jeffery, directed by Louise Large, is playing in the small proscenium space of the Telus Building.  Holly Cinnamon was compelling as a slightly-out-of-control woman living alone on a farm, first encountered wearing a white cotton nightgown and rubber boots.  Police officer Mike (Evan Hall, also in Letters to Laura) and book acquisitions editor Dan (Brendan Thompson, also in Kurt Man buyer and seller of souls) each visit her to discuss some disturbing events that happened recently, and as their visits occur we find out more about her life.  Something about the sequence of the various scenes did not fall into place for me until later in the story.  I can never decide whether that pleases me as the narrative catches me by surprise and suddenly makes a different kind of sense, or whether I feel foolish for not catching on earlier.  This play had the most convincing and horrifying example of the consequences of living surrounded by clutter and hoarded possessions that I have ever heard or read, and it made me think anxiously about the boxes I’ve moved to the edges of all my rooms to make space for actors to sleep this week.  I hope to be able to see Holly Cinnamon’s original solo performance This is the kind of animal that I am later in the week.

I had not seen Bruce Horak’s This is Cancer before, although it had played at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.  It’s … disturbing but in an aesthetically satisfying way.  Bruce Horak plays the title role in costume and makeup that are both eye-catchingly sparkly and nastily damaged.  Dave Horak (director of Fatboy and Bombitty of Errors, actor in Kill Me Now, and Bruce’s brother) plays Cancer’s stage assistant.  There is some singing.  There is a very gentle poke at the cancer-fundraising industry.  There is a chance for a few audience members to insert obituaries for dead loved ones.  There are some other forms of audience interaction some easier than others.   As with most performances that have an actor personifying something horrible like Death or the Devil, I found myself torn between liking the personification and wanting him to have a bad outcome.  I wondered how the show would manage to reconcile those, and I was moved to tears by the way the ending put the narrative on the side of life and health.  Those whose cancer connection is more recent or ongoing might have found it a bit too facile for their truth, but for me it worked well enough to start breathing easily again.  There is a short question and answer period afterwards with the performers out of costume.

Going from This is Cancer to Off Book the Musical was a bit emotionally disruptive.  But the performance of Off Book was well worth the warm stickiness of a full house at C103.   Leif Ingebrigsten accompanied on piano as Matt Alden, Amy Shostak, Hunter Cardinal, Joleen Ballandine, Vince Forcier, and Kory Matheson created and performed an hour-long musical based on audience suggestions of “a wedding” and “a discount warehouse store”, using four rehearsal boxes as the only visible props.  The main characters’ problems were both compelling and amusing.  The mayor (Matt Alden) wants to marry Mary (Joleen Ballandine) as well as winning an election, but she’s been married four times before, avoided finalising any of the divorces, and considers herself unmarriable.  Side plots involve a discount warehouse going out of business (major improv points to Hunter Cardinal who tied up that loose thread of plot right at the end when I had almost forgotten it), and a little boy (Vince Forcier) asking his parents (Amy Shostak and Kory Matheson) how to respond to a proposal he’s received on the playground.  There was a little bit of dance, and songs created in a wide range of styles including rap.   Off Book also plays frequently at the Rapid Fire Theatre Saturday night CHiMPROV longform shows during the season, but if you like musical improv you should definitely try to catch a show at the Fringe.

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.

 

The rest of the Fringe, 2013

The venue lottery for next year’s Edmonton Fringe shows has already been held, with the winners listed here, and other companies are setting up their BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) arrangements before the BYOV entry deadline in February.  Wondering about what shows various companies are putting together for next summer reminded me that I never did finish posting about the shows I saw at Fringe 2013.  I guess I’m still prioritising seeing more theatre over writing up what I’ve seen. But since everything is dark from Christmas to Epiphany (except Cats at Festival Place, and it sold out before I noticed) I have a chance to get caught up.

I wrote about the shows I saw early, the solo shows, long-form improv shows, a day of stories, the one I stage-managed, and the shows exploring themes of death.  That leaves the following.

Poe and Mathews – brilliant creepy character portrayals by Brian Kuwabara and Emily Windler, ridiculous desert-island premise, fun.

Kilt Pins – this was a sweet sad unsurprising story about teenagers at a Catholic school in Ontario, with friendship and sex and family problems.  It was a contemporary setting, so I was a little disappointed to see the more-traditional story trope of “he (Morgan Grau) pushes her to have sex, she (Sarah Culkin) gives in to get affection and regrets it”.

Kayak – I don’t know why I didn’t find this one more compelling, because the concept was interesting – a woman (Christie Mawer) struggles to relate to her grown son (Justin Kautz) and his new partner the eco-activist (Emily McCourt).

Bombitty of Errors – a rap version of Comedy of Errors directed by Dave Horak.  Having read the script and seen a serious production of the play a few weeks earlier in Saskatoon, I was greatly amused to see how closely the four actors in the rap version could stick to the plot details and in some cases the actual Shakespearean lines, and still be coherent, credible, and very funny.  There was also a bit where they did some freestyle / spontaneous rhyming about audience members, which I enjoyed in part because some of it was directed at me.  The four actors were the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios, but they also played Adriana, Luciana, and any other characters needed – and it worked.

Hot Thespian Action – This sketch comedy troupe from Winnipeg (Shannon Guile, Jacqueline Loewen, Garth Merkeley, Ryan Miller, Jane Testar) made me really happy.  I can’t put my finger on why I liked their material and attitude so much.  Their timing was good and nothing was dragged out.  Their jokes didn’t feel mean-spirited or excluding, and I would not hesitate to recommend them to my progressive friends.  But that might make them sound boring, and they really weren’t.  Rutherford School isn’t the best venue, with several rows of seats on a flat gym floor making it a bit hard to see from the back especially the title cards that they used to introduce each sketch.

In the holdovers at the Westbury Theatre, I also saw three shows.

Weaksauce – this was a one-person storytelling show by Sam S Mullins about a first job working at a hockey camp, and the ups and downs of a first romance.  It was good but not great.

Jake’s Gift – this one-person show by Julia Mackey was an original fictional story of a Canadian veteran of World War II attending a reunion in Normandy, and meeting an inquisitive little local girl on the beach.  The performer’s body language and voice made charming convincing shifts to portray the little French girl, the old Canadian man, and the girl’s very proper grandmother.  The show was very well received, particularly by audience members with old enough memories to find it evocative.

Port Authority – In this story set in present-day Dublin, each of three characters told a story about a current struggle in his life.  Isaac Andrew was a young man clumsily trying to impress a female flatmate.  Cody Porter was a middle-aged man who took too long to realize that his career ambitions weren’t quite working out.  And Keiran O’Callahan was an older man who gets a mysterious package.  They all flailed unhappily, and I felt for all of them.

So that was it for From Fringe With Love.  Next up, Fringed and Confused.

Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, at Workshop West

KILL ME NOW is the kind of play that wins awards.  The kind of play that deserves to win awards.  I’ve seen it twice so far, because after the first time I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It’s written and directed by Brad Fraser (5@50, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love / Love and Human Remains, some episodes of Queer as Folk/North America, etc).  If you’ve ever seen or read anything of his, you know to expect blunt, funny, tough, affectionate portrayals of people dealing with hard issues, and possibly naked men.

The Workshop West production of Kill Me Now is the world premiere of the play.  It’s playing until September 22nd at L’UniThéâtre in La Cité Francophone, which is becoming one of my favorite venues in town, with a large flat stage, good acoustics, and comfortable seats on risers and wrap-around balconies.

The main characters are a father and son, played by Dave Horak and Mat Hulshof.  I don’t think I’ve seen Dave Horak on stage before, but I’ve seen plays he directed, including Fatboy (the Ubu Roi-inspired farce at Fringe 2012) and Bombitty of Errors (the rap version of Comedy of Errors  at Fringe 2013).  I saw Mathew Hulshof most recently in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  Jake, the dad, seems like an ordinary likeable middle-aged guy, coping as a widowed single parent to Joey, a disabled 17 year old.   The other characters are Twyla, Jake’s younger sister (Melissa Thingelstad, who I remember from An Accident and Fatboy), Joey’s school friend Rowdy (Patrick Lundeen), and Robyn (“with a Y”) (Linda Grass) a long-time lover who meets Jake once a week but isn’t otherwise involved with his life.

At the start of the play, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand Joey’s slurred speech and I was uncomfortable looking at the actor’s portrayal of his limited mobility and awkward posture.  But I don’t know how much of this was very clever acting and directing, and how much of it was that he really wasn’t hard to understand once I got more used to him.  I wasn’t even aware of the gradual change until we saw Robyn meeting him for the first time, being embarrassed by failing to understand him.  Robyn is so obviously trying to gamely continue the conversation while hiding that she has no idea what he said, and at the same time talking to him like he’s deaf, stupid, and childish.  In both performances that I saw, the audience gasped in exasperation with her and sympathy with Joey at that point, so I guess that like me, they were all understanding him just fine and appreciating him too.

I thought that Dave Horak and Mathew Hulshof were both amazing in their roles.  Mat Hulshof readily expresses the wide range of a 17-year-old’s emotions within the limited palette of his character’s physical limitations.  Dave Horak’s character starts out settled within the fragile balance of the life he’s built for himself and Joey, but unprepared for Joey’s growing need for independence and autonomy, and then everything goes wrong and he has to change his plans and ask for more help.

The two women’s roles were more straightforward, but still not obvious.  I didn’t like Robyn at the beginning, but the way she worked to overcome her initial discomfort with Joey and the whole messy house and uncomfortable situation won me over.  And I liked Melissa Thingelstad in this play more than I liked her in An Accident, as the young aunt who has always helped out and who is frustrated with her own life and who doesn’t always agree with her brother’s decisions.

Patrick Lundeen’s Rowdy was a charmingly earnest young adult who is “mildly retarded, but I’m not stupid, it’s mostly Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, eh?”  He was a valuable comic relief, but I did not feel like his portrayal was mean-spirited or stereotypical.

Parts of the story were excruciatingly intimate.  And while they made me squirm, I did not feel like any of them were gratuitous.  They brought the audience into acknowledging that people who love each other can do awkward and hard things when they need to take care of each other, which is probably the theme of the play.

In the writer’s notes in the program, Brad Fraser explains that he has a family member who is severely disabled, and that he wanted to portray the complexities of everyday life and emotional response for a disabled person.  As far as I can tell, the actors Mathew Hulshof and Patrick Lundeen are not disabled themselves.  And I think I should leave it to people with personal experience of living with disability to comment on whether their portrayals are appropriate and respectful.

In his opening-night welcome words, Workshop West artistic director Michael Clark encouraged people to tweet about the show and tell their friends about it, but not to give away any plot points in their tweets, because the show is better when encountered without expectations.  I’m not sure that’s completely true because I still found it provocative, moving, amusing, and fascinating the second time through, but I’ve tried to respect the spirit of that request in this post anyway.  I liked it as much as I liked Let the Light of Day Through last year, and that one won the 2013 Stirling Award for Outstanding Production of a Play.  Tickets for the remainder of the run are available through Tix on the Square and at the door.  And you might see me there again.