Tag Archives: emily howard

Busy stages at the end of November

What a busy couple of weeks it is for Edmonton stages!  If your weekend isn’t already full, there’s lots of theatre to watch, with these four shows all closing this weekend.

Fen, by Caryl Churchill, is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday.  Amy De Felice’s Trunk Theatre production is fascinatingly atmospheric.  The trapped and oppressed lives of farm-workers in the cold drizzly fen country of England were portrayed with compelling credibility.  I looked at the women picking potatoes in ill-fitting gloves, on their knees on a cold day, and I remembered what it was like to be tying grapes in March, saying to myself that the money would get me out of here, the money would take me to university, I would never need to do this again.   Most of the people in the play don’t have any realistic hopes for escaping their lives, and their unrealistic hopes are heartbreaking.  Even the children in the story are joyless, trapped and powerless and sometimes abused (I found those scenes the most upsetting of the whole play, but not by a lot).  It is unusual to see a farm story about women’s lives not be a story of land-owning families.  But in this story, most of the women (Ellen Chorley, Monica Maddaford, Miranda Allen, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer) are employed as day labourers or crew foremen, and the men (all played by Cody Porter) include a labourer and a landowner who sells his land to a corporation and becomes a tenant.    The story reminded me a lot of the subgenre of Canadian literature about homestead isolation and despair.

Another hard important story to watch is on stage at the Backstage theatre behind the Arts Barns.  Guys in Disguise / Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre is premiering a rewrite of Darrin Hagen’s Witchhunt at the Strand.  Set in Edmonton in 1942 or so, the story is based on primary source material about criminal trials for homosexual behaviour.  Jesse Gervais, Mat Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart each play lawyers and police officers as well as the men caught up in the witchhunt and their friends and partners.  The scene where one of Hulshof’s young characters is on the stand being questioned in horribly intrusive detail about a sexual encounter was one of the most uncomfortable things I have witnessed in ages.  The main characters in the story were all involved in the Edmonton theatre scene, including Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, in whose honour the Sterling Awards are named.  Mrs Haynes is shown as what would nowadays be called an ally to the LGBT community.  I cannot imagine how the 1940s attitudes of privacy and discretion would have discouraged her choice to be a character witness for her theatrical colleague in a morals case, and I found the character as written very sympathetic.

Witchhunt at the Strand made me very grateful that I grew up mostly after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” and decriminalized same-sex sexual behaviours.  It also made me think about how I had been influenced as a child by the grownups around me who remembered the era of the play, not all of whom were straight.  And it made me cry.

Anxiety is a Theatre Yes co-production with several small theatre companies, brand new and unexpected and … and they asked the viewers not to post about it.  If that intrigues you, check whether they have any tickets left this weekend.

Twelfth Night is much funnier and easier to watch.  It’s playing until Saturday night at the Timms Centre.  Ashley Wright, an MFA directing candidate, directs a version with simple staging and a framework of watching a company of travelling players arrive at the theatre, warm up in their underthings, and get into costume.  Julien Arnold, Dave Clarke, Jaimi Reese, and Jake Tkaczyk play the broad-comedy roles of the script, with Reese as Olivia’s mischief-making gentlewoman companion, Arnold and Tkaczyk as the partying uncle Sir Toby Belch and his awkward trying-too-hard sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Clarke in a variety of clownish roles.  Clarke also created and performed interesting songs and underscoring for the production.  Contrast with the fun-loving quartet comes from Malvolio (Alex Dawkins), Olivia’s dour steward, whose pride makes him vulnerable to one of the most memorable practical jokes in the history of the stage.  Did he get what he deserved?  Or was it unfair that he was bullied and apparently driven mad, with the pranksters getting away with it?  I can’t decide.  Watching Malvolio try to smile and gesture as he expects his mistress wants is kind of painful, but it’s also very very funny.

Look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Chayla Day and Jordan Buhat.  Day’s physicality readily conveys a woman who is inexperienced at passing as a man.  Marc Ludwig is lovesick Orsino, courting Olivia (Emily Howard) who wants nothing to do with him, using her dead father and brother as an excuse until she is captivated by Orsino’s new pageboy Cesario (actually Viola).  Olivia’s reactions to Cesario are delightful, and her discovery that her crush is actually a woman is particularly so.

Intense, bouncy, or dark: Fringe for all moods

On Thursday I viewed three performances by local emerging performers, students or recent graduates from the various post-secondary theatre programs.  They were all entertaining, and taken together made an interesting showcase of talent.  All the shows were published work, but I hadn’t read or seen any of them before.

Opera NUOVA’s production of the short musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was directed by Kim Mattice-Wanat, with live music and sound effects by Randy Mueller and choreography by Marie Nychka.  Jordan Sabo, Emma Houghton, Jake Tkaczyk, Sarah Ormandy, and Billy Brown play the Peanuts gang, with Corbin Kushneryk in the title role.  Brief scenes cover all the repeating motifs of the long-running comic strip: Lucy’s psychotherapy/advice booth, Charlie Brown’s daydreaming about the little red-haired girl, Linus’s blanket, Snoopy’s fantasy life with Sally, Schroeder playing classical piano on a toy instrument and ignoring Lucy’s advances, baseball, school bus, homework, kite-flying, and companionship. The short vignettes don’t really have a plot and touch only lightly on some of the loneliness and bullying that I remember being more disturbing to me as a child reading the daily strip and watching Charlie Brown Christmas and Great Pumpkin each season.  The tempera-paint colours of costumes and set pieces captured the Saturday-comics print palette.  One more show Sunday afternoon, probably sold out.

Philip Geller and Emily Howard perform in The Darling Family, by Canadian playwright Linda Griffith.  It is intense and provocative and occasionally funny, about two characters responding to an unplanned pregnancy.  Seeing this show reminded me that well-chosen dramas can work in small improvised spaces with emerging actors as well as in the big productions like the Citadel’s Other Desert Cities, and in some ways the intimacy of the venue can make the experience more powerful.  The Darling Family is playing in the Strathcona Community League building just north of the Scouts parking lot and King Edward School, and they have three more performances this weekend.

Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane is dark and amusing in the same style as George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel series.  The current production is directed by recent theatre grad Eric Smith, and performed by Chris Pereira, Chris Nadeau, Grace Miazga, and Dylan Rosychuk.  I particularly appreciated Chris Pereira’s odd motel clerk character.  They have two more performances this weekend.

The other mysterious island

The Island was the main setting of the 2000s-decade JJ Adams tv show LOST.  It didn’t have a name.  Groups of attractive castaways found themselves on its shores, explored, encountered mysterious others, and were threatened and assisted by unexplained supernatural phenomena.  And the 5-season series had an epilogue or attempt at explanation that I never did understand.

And so, Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Un-named island.  Old castaways, new castaways split up in the crash, magic and supernatural elements, backstory and old enmities, and a quick wrapup that I wasn’t quite sure about.

Until this weekend, I don’t think I’d actually seen a full production of The Tempest anywhere.  I’d known something about it because of references in other stories, notably the children’s book Roller Skates (Ruth Sawyer’s 1937 Newbery Medal winner) and the Robertson Davies classic Tempest-Tost and more recently John Lazarus’s play Rough Magic.  I’ve read the play, I’ve seen part of the movie version with Helen Mirren as Prospera (it’s on Netflix), and I’m familiar enough with it to recognize the same plot used in Forbidden Planet (the 1956 science fiction film mentioned in the Rocky Horror Picture Show theme song).

The production I saw this weekend was at the University of Alberta, directed by Ian Leung and featuring the actors of the penultimate year of the BFA Acting program.  (It’s got performances today, Sunday at 2pm and 7:30 pm, if I get this posted in time.)  Jaimi Reese plays Prosperine, usurped Duke of Milan, magic-user, and mother to Miranda.  Miranda is double-cast. I watched both Emma Houghton’s and Sarah Culkin’s interpretations of the isolated teenager, Culkin’s more dreamy and Houghton’s more sulky, and enjoyed seeing two versions of the girl’s first glimpses of the eligible young prince Ferdinand (Marc Ludwig).  The king’s (Jacob Holloway’s) wise old counselor Gonzales (Chayla Day) and the king’s sibling Bastiana (Emily Howard) were both switched from male characters of the traditional script, Gonzalo and Sebastian.   Having Bastiana be female added a convincing nuance of attraction to the snickering and scheming with Antonio (Jordan Buhat), Prosperine’s usurper brother.  The sequence where the two of them slouch on the auditorium stairs, muttering cynically about everything Gonzales says, was particularly good.

Prosperine has used her magic to compel two slaves, Ariel (Sarah Ormandy) and Caliban (Jake Tkaczyk), until her epilogue speech sets both of them free.   Tkaczyk’s Caliban was hunched over, growling and cowering and resentful like a larger version of Gollum.  I pitied Caliban and I was afraid of him and was amused by him.  In his version of the story, Prosperine and her daughter had nurtured him and taught him and then later began to exploit him harshly as a slave.  In Prosperine’s version, Caliban had been a trusted member of the household until he attempted sexual assault on young Miranda, and his bad treatment since then was a consequence of that.   I was reminded of the colonialist/xenophobic trope of needing to protect white daughters from the uncontrolled urges of savage others.  But Caliban’s salacious gesture and leer made me shudder and look away, convinced of his evil intent and unrepentance.

But the one who caught me by surprise was Ariel.  Somehow, the representations I’d encountered in the past led me to picture Ariel as sort of ethereal, a graceful gowned being singing gently, the young Griselda Webster in Tempest-Tost.  But this Ariel was a different sort 0f non-human.  Ormandy’s portrayal never let me forget for a minute that the spirit was powerful beyond her master Prosperine, gentle only by choice, and beyond human sentiment.  Her awkward postures, standing on one leg, never pointing her toes, and her blue morphsuit costume and face paint helped to place her more in the tradition of Puck than of Tinkerbell.  And her singing was strikingly powerful.

Stephano and Trincula (Philip Geller and Alex Dawkins), part of the king’s retinue who get separated from the rest of the ship’s company in the cast and spend most of the play sharing a butt of sack with Caliban, are the Shakespearean version of comic relief. Their first entrances, where Trincula discovers Caliban hiding from the storm under a tarp and decides that he must be a fish because of his smell, and then when Stephano sees both Trincula and Caliban with their feet sticking out from the tarp and concludes that they’re a four-footed monster, are particularly well done.  It is easy to see that students in the U of A BFA Acting program get a good grounding in the skills of clowning and physical theatre.

I loved the first scene, the choreography of the sailors and passengers aboard the ship.  I have been on sailboats in rough weather (and on a tall ship in calm weather) and I found it a convincing portrayal of struggling to work and hang on as the decks lurched and the sails flapped.  The simple staging customary for Corner Stage shows was sufficient to support good performances.  A few well-chosen design details stood out memorably (especially Prosperine’s ornate and heavy magical cloak) as I still remember the chilling shadow of the cross on the stage floor two years ago in Merchant of Venice when Shylock is forced by the court to give up his religion and abandon his Torah.  Like Merchant of Venice, some aspects of the story are uncomfortable for me as a 21st-century feminist trying to be conscious of colonialism and patriarchy (a parent’s investment in a daughter’s virginity is super-creepy, for example) but the language and imagery and character studies make it worth being uncomfortable.

Sunday April 10th, Corner Stage (second floor) in the Fine Arts Building at U of Alberta, 2 pm and 7:30 pm, admission by donation.



Fringe takes off

I guess I’ve been estivating along with the blog, so I haven’t had any Fringe previews.  Fortunately, other bloggers and reviewers have given me lots of suggestions, which I’ve used along with the program book (better than the Christmas catalogues from Sears and Eatons when we were kids!) to buy my first tickets.  If you’re just starting to look at what’s out there, I recommend the following pre-festival resources.

I’ve been busy working on Death Comes to Auntie Norma, which opens in the Westbury tomorrow (Saturday) evening and isn’t sold out yet.  It’s a satirical look at the dark side of the American dream, written by Zach Siezmagraff.

Last night as the grounds filled up with festivalgoers and handbilling artists and food and music and happy buzz, I caught two shows.

Second Breakfast Club, from the River City Revue burlesque troupe, was a thoroughly enjoyable burlesque show threaded along the premises of Lord of the Rings characters/archetypes in the scenario of the Breakfast Club 1980s movie about mismatched kids stuck in Saturday detention – a rebellious hobbit, an archery jock, a teacher-pleasing elf, a princess, a bearded dwarf headmaster, and a … what is Gollum anyway?  It also slipped in tongue-in-cheek nods to Harry Potter, Star Wars, and other fictional universes along the way.  Kiki Quinn is credited as playwright and performer, with Lilly Whyte, Lady de Winter, Lucie Lemay, Forbsie Flare, and Beau Creep also performing.

Pinniped and Other Poems, an evocative lyrical musing by Skye Hindeman, is playing at C103.  I saw a version of this show at Nextfest, but here at the Fringe it’s tighter, more coherent, and more visually interesting, with some fascinating stage business.  U of Alberta drama students Alexandra Dawkins, Emily Howard, Connor Suart, and Jake Tkaczyk perform, Vik Chu contributes an original score playing a piano and a violin not always in conventional ways, and Phillip Geller directs.

Today I’ll be serving customers in the South beer tent, and then seeing at least three shows.  It’s going to be cloudy and not too hot today, and it is Fringe and it will be wonderful.  Hope to see you there!

Today I


One of the events of an Edmonton June that I had missed in previous years is Nextfest, the celebration of emerging artists in various disciplines which used to be run out of the Roxy Theatre.  There is no Roxy right now, but Nextfest continues, with more events and performances than I’ll have time to catch.  High school performers (#NextNextfest) have a full schedule at the Mercury Theatre (former Azimuth/Living room).  Some things are along 124 Street.  And the mainstage performances are in the lower-level auditorium at Faculté St-Jean on 91 Street.

I’ve seen several mainstage shows.  Evolve was a set of short dance/movement pieces, solos and bigger ensembles.

Blackout was an hour of sketch comedy and improv. The pace was quick, the characters clever, and the inclusion of recent political events spot-on.  I liked it a lot.  It reminded me of the work of Hot Thespian Action, the troupe out of Winnipeg which was at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.

Pinniped and Other Poems was a play written by Skye Hyndman and directed by Philip Geller, a lyrical indirect piece including flashback scenes, walrus mustaches, live goldfish named x0 and y0, an intriguing set making use of twine, rope, and translucent flats, and some effective and unusual stage business.  Alex Dawkins’ demeanour and costuming portrayed a mysterious woman from the protagonist’s past, while Connor Suart, Emily Howard, and Jake Tkaczyk all seemed to be presenting aspects of the main character.  Live music was provided by Vik Chu.  From a vocal production viewpoint I was impressed by how all the performers managed the dense text with clear articulation despite wearing what looked like straw and twine all over their jaws, and particularly how Jake Tkaczyk’s character managed to sound like an old man without losing volume or clarity.  If time permits I will definitely be watching this one again because I think there is more in the text than I picked up.

Shorts is a program of five short pieces.  I’m not sure if they’re all parts of longer works in development, but at least some of them are.  Louise Large and Andrew Dool each had solo pieces, both with unconventional treatments of fourth-wall conventions.  Kali Wells’s Forms of Communication was an entertaining escapade that started from a situation anyone might find himself or herself in, and then escalated.  It reminded me of some of the scenarios in Suburban Motel.  I also appreciated the value placed on hand-knitted socks by the characters!   Liam Salmon’s Un(known) Stories was a natural-sounding chat among three friends, exploring LGBT terminology and concepts, lived experience, and respectful disagreement.  Leif Ingebrigtsen’s Echoes of a Lost King was perhaps the most ambitious project, two songs and a scene from what seemed to be a fully designed original musical about a group of D & D players and their characters on quest, with Joleen Ballandine, Gabriel Richardson, Eva Foote, and Hunter Cardinal.   All four are strong performers and musicians, but in this short piece I noticed that the music was a particularly good showcase for Gabriel Richardson’s voice.

Desirée Leverenz’s Husk is playing in a space on 124 Street just south of 111 Avenue.  The space seems to be intended as some kind of semi-institutional residence, so it has good potential for site-specific work, with an intimate stage/risers room on one side, and the opportunity to wander through various small rooms and spaces on two floors.   The piece included a couple of full-ensemble scenes with cryptic story, movement, and sound exploration, along with a more experiential session in between where audience wandered among displays interacting with the performers as much as they chose.  Philip Geller’s and Morgan Grau’s interactions were particularly compelling, eliciting audience help or response; some of the others were more distant or diorama-like.  All seemed to be isolated, and to be embracing or struggling with some aspect of fluid and mess.  I think my favourite part of this piece was when I gradually became aware that what I thought was a completely comprehensible conversation among odd characters was actually a repetition of nonsensical phrases, imbued with actor intention as in some kind of Meisner class exercises.  (I did not actually notice this right away because I think I was assuming I hadn’t heard right and my brain was filling in more comprehensible narrative.)  Other performers in this piece were Roland Meseck, Emily Howard, Sophie Gareau-Brennan,  Stuart McDougall, Connor Suart, and a couple of others I didn’t know.

Nextfest continues until tomorrow, Sunday 14 June.

Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches: from almost 30 years later

Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, Part 1:  Millennium Approaches is set around 1985, and was written (along with Part 2:  Perestroika) in 1993.  The University of Alberta student-led performance group Abbedam chose this play as their 2013 production, and it opened last night at the Timms Centre Second Playing Space.  The director is Nick Eaton, director and co-creator of the Fringe 2013 show Into Oblivion

I had never seen or read the play before.  Unlike the majority of the opening-night attendees, I remember 1985, although I wasn’t particularly paying attention to American politics then, I wasn’t yet part of queer community, and I was just starting to be aware of AIDS.  Also, I’d never encountered any Mormons and had met very few Jewish people.  So the play has been making me think about changes in those issues and in my life in the last 30 years.  But if I waited ‘til I could say something articulate, I’d miss posting before the end of the run.  And I want to post, because it’s a good show and I think lots of people should go see it.

Knowing a little bit about the milieu of gay men in New York City in 1985 and about Mormon and Jewish attitudes to family and to ethical decision-making helped me appreciate the context of the story.  But I would also have benefited from knowing more about the McCarthy era in American politics, in particular about the lawyer Roy Cohn, who was a character in the play (played by Cristian Badiu, a PhD student).

I found this character one of the most intriguing and complex in the play, although definitely not the most likeable.  Cristian Badiu didn’t attempt one of the stereotypical New York City accents, but his mannerisms and way of speaking certainly pegged him right away as an arrogant NYC lawyer.  I was particularly fascinated by the speech in which he explains to his doctor that the label “homosexual” does not fit him, because although he has sex with men, his power and prestige define him in a way that’s not compatible with being considered homosexual.  His doctor eventually gives up or accepts what he’s saying, and suggests that he can use his White House connections to get into the experimental trials of the new drug AZT for the “liver cancer” that he insists he has rather than AIDS.  I was also fascinated by Cohn’s relationship with Joe Pitt (Roland Meseck) the young law clerk he tries to mentor and manipulate.  His speeches to Joe about choosing father figures were intriguing, as neither character acknowledges a facet of sexuality in their relationship.  It remains unclear to me whether Cohn was just drawn to young men like Joe in a platonic nurturing sense, whether he’s attracted to him and not expressing that openly, or what extent of his interactions with Joe are directed at getting Joe to do favours for him in Washington.

Joe’s wife Harper Pitt (Emily Howard) was charming.  She apparently copes with her emotional troubles by taking a lot of Valium, but she is present enough to be funny and to wish for better things, and brave enough to eventually get her husband to acknowledge that he is “a homo”.

The other two main characters (a cast of 15 played about 20 characters) were Prior Walter (Gabe Richardson) and Louis Ironson (Joshua Edison), a 30ish couple who have been together several years, who are both witty and affectionate and very likeable.  In their first scene, we see Prior supporting Louis at his grandmother’s funeral, teasing him gently about acting butch around his family, but the balance shifts quickly as Prior then rolls up a shirtsleeve to show Louis what looks like a bruise, but in that context is undeniably a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion.  Throughout the rest of the play, the two of them go through the range of responses of a dying man and of someone who loves a dying man, together and separately, in compelling convincing anguish.

One of my favourite minor characters was Belize (Matt Ayache) a nurse of colour and sometime drag queen.  Without exaggerating the flamboyant stereotypes, he contrasts with the other characters’ gender presentation and also speaks the most directly about racism, changes in queer culture, and treatment of the dying.  Lauren Derman was also impressive in understated portrayals of a calm accepting hospital caregiver (I wasn’t clear whether she was a nurse or a doctor) and of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

The action took place in a simple set on a revolve.  Actors and additional crew shifted furniture quickly between the many short scenes, and sometimes two scenes would be alternating on different sides of the stage.  There were some eerie and/or amusing special effects, supernatural adventures, and dream sequences, of which my favourite was Harper’s dream of Prior in a sheer négligée and wig cap doing makeup for drag.

The original play was written as a continuous narrative running about 7 hours.  This production of Part 1 ran about 2.5 hours, and ended in a slightly disorienting way.  Wikipedia does not have a very good plot summary (it would be great if someone reading this who has access to the play text could improve it).  At least it could satisfy some of my curiosity about what would happen to these characters in Part 2.  But I wish I could see these actors finish the story.

The production continues until November 17th, Sunday night.  Ticket information is on the show’s Facebook page.