Tag Archives: emma houghton

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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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.

@tension

The last theatrical presentation I attended that made such a strong connection between the medium and the message was The Genius Code, a Jon Lachlan Stewart creation exploring the concepts of recording interactions and replaying them and hearing individual viewpoints.

@tension is a new work, a collaborative creation of director Vlady Peychoff, performers Emma Houghton, Eric Smith, Sarah Ormandy, and Connor Suart, and dramaturg Savanna Harvey.   The performance was introduced by playing video clips on multiple screens, mostly clips from familiar TV shows about some aspect of the internet, texting, computer gaming, and so on.  While these clips were playing – sometimes different ones on different screens or the same ones with timelag – the performers were moving about the space not interacting with each other or speaking.  I’m not quite sure where the prologue stopped and the vignettes or live clips began, and I guess it’s because of my background in conventional theatre that I even looked for that structure.   Gradually four characters were introduced, Eevee, Alexa, Dennis, and Bill.  I realized later that each character had been identified by showing his or her browser history and some of the thought processes behind it, along with a recurring trick of having different people speak the one character’s words, sometimes without expression (this made me think about the difficulties of not having tone cues in text).   Various facets of each character were then illustrated using one- or two-person scenes and symbolically represented by animation of dragging various symbols or icons to each person’s folder on a desktop.  There were also several expressive movement bits with effective soundscape.  My favourite parts were an extended video sequence reminscent of PostSecret, where a long series of confessions of the form “They found out …” were shown and narrated, culminating in repetition of “They found me”, and the one scene in which all four characters meet in the same physical space, an exceptionally awkward party.  In that scene, the traditional ice-breaker strategies of delivering an official speech, drinking heavily, and playing truth or dare were supplemented by selfie-taking and by opening up a laptop to resume a game with other people who weren’t there, and then we saw some after-party text messages building connection between two of the characters and making a date.  The scene where one of the characters briefly misplaces a cell phone felt distressingly familiar.  And parts of it are hilarious.

The piece has narrative threads but they aren’t obvious.  There is a lot to see and hear and things that happen too quickly to grasp.  This too is McLuhanesque, just like the initial voiceover bits showing distracted people with multiple browser tabs and searches.  The props and tech details worked without being disruptive or distracting.

 

@tension is playing tomorrow and Friday at 7:30 pm, and tomorrow at 2 pm, at the Second Playing Space n the Timms Centre on the University of Alberta campus.  While admission is free, the creators are using a kickstarter campaign to try to cover expenses.

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.

 

 

More good plays

Assassins (the Sondheim musical) was the first musical I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  With a cast of ten and a musical ensemble, it’s well placed in the Westbury.  It’s a series of vignettes about everyone who assassinated or tried to assassinate a US president.  As I wasn’t familiar with many of the stories and I didn’t get a program until afterwards, I probably missed the ones in the middle – I remembered about John Wilkes Booth (Jacob Holloway), John Hinckley (Maxwell Lebeuf), and Squeaky Fromme (Emma Houghton, with Nancy Macalear as her collaborator Sara Jane Moore), and partway through I started wondering whether I’d missed the part about Lee Harvey Oswald killing President Kennedy – but that was the climax which came near the end, since I guess it’s the most memorable one for a lot of living Americans too.  Scott Shpeley, who had been playing with the musical ensemble, also turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald.  Chris W Cook, Jeff Page, Rory Turner, and Billy Brown played other assassins I wasn’t familiar with, and Dan Rowley, and Larissa Pohoreski other characters in the ensemble.

Typhoon Judy was also a performance focused on music, with Christopher Peterson playing an aging Judy Garland, in song, in reminiscence, in flirtation with accompanist (Nick Samoil), and in four fabulous costumes.  The portrayal was credible and touching.

MAN UP! was a wonderful dance show with social commentary.  It’s being held over at the Westbury next weekend, so you have a couple more chances to see it.  Four male performers dance in high heels, powerfully, poetically, and conveying a range of emotions.  Some pieces include all four (Gregory P Caswell, Joshua Wolchansky, Jordan Sabo, CJ Rowein) and some have smaller groups or solos.  Rowein and Wolchansky’s love duet was particularly moving, as well as Wolchansky’s barefoot solo on the side stage.  Monologues and video clips provide context and discussion-starters about the limitations of conventional gender expectations (as well as allowing time for costume changes).  I was fascinated to realize afterwards that the performance had been lacking the personal flirtation aspect of burlesque dancing.

Every Fringe I see Rocket Sugar Factory, the improv duo of Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby, because they are so much fun to watch.  Along with their local accompanist Jan Randall, they are masters of crafting long-form stories and playing them out with delightful characterizations.  This year their show involves creating the pilot episode for a new television show, and the one they created in front of me, Mister Jules Verne, was something I would watch if it existed.  I love the way these two switch characters seamlessly, borrowing mannerisms and language habits, and I’m also a fan of Jim Libby’s near-corpsing, letting his delight in the game show through the characters he’s embodying.  (One of the 2 For Tea performers, James, does this as well.)

I also made time to see a new comedy, Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests, written by University of Alberta acting student Jessy Ardern.  Take the premise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the older couple full of malice entertaining a couple of starry-eyed naive newlyweds, and wield them as weapons in their battles with each other – and make it funny instead of horrible – and that’s the start of Harold and Vivian.  David Feehan and Kristen Padayas play the eponymous hosts, and Rebecca Ann Merkley and Eric Smith play Janet and Mike, the young couple who arrive with over-the-top optimism and PDA and gradually crack into full-on hostility as well.  Corben Kushneryk (also seen this Fringe in Who am I?…) is credited as director and designer, so he must be responsible for the delightful set conveying the reality of a starkly divided household before the show even starts.  I was especially taken with Padayas’s portrayal, the perfect pink bouffant homemaker with twitches of panic and surges of rage.   Eric Smith’s brand of pomposity and pratfall may also be seen in Death Comes to Auntie Norma (one more show, Sunday 8 pm).