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Saturday inside the Fringe, and out.

For me, it was the second Saturday of Fringe.  Our show The Big Fat Surprise closed Friday night (with another sold-out house!) so Saturday I was washing show laundry, then celebrating the parking-space win, catching some shows, lending another artist some of my furniture for a prop, eating festival food (still love that Lunchpail grilled cheese with fresh chips and classic vegetable sticks), checking in at the Lost and Found, serving drinks in the North Tent, talking to friends, and going home in the rain.

I immerse myself in Fringe while the festival is on, after being preoccupied with show prep and publicity for weeks ahead of time, so it sometimes astonishes me that other important things are happening this week outside of the Fringe bubble.  New babies were born.  Couples got married.  Birthdays were marked on Facebook and off.  Students prepared for the next grade, the next diploma, the next degree, the next challenge.  A whole Summer Olympic Games happened and I didn’t watch or read any coverage at all or knit anything for the corollary Ravellenics celebration.  The Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market shared the crowd and the parking spaces like an ordinary Saturday.  And last night I stepped into the Fringe North Beer Tent wondering about the music I was hearing, and I discovered they were using their new monitors and good speakers to share the CBC feed of the Tragically Hip’s last concert of their last tour, from the Rogers K-Rock Arena in Kingston Ontario.   While the Fringe went on outside, vendors and street performers, artists handbilling their last few shows, the High Level Trolley shuttling to downtown full of people – the tent was full of shared recognition of the Tragically Hip and of their lead singer Gord Downie, whose announcement of terminal cancer prompted the band’s decisions to tour one last summer and then retire.  I lived in Kingston for many years, and I saw the Hip’s first concert in that venue in 2008.  The CBC live feed and the social media streams reminded me how important they were and are to Kingston and to Canada and to music.  Go in peace, Gord Downie.  And Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay.


By the second weekend of Fringe, I’ve heard lots of other people’s recommendations of what to see.  And although I try not to think of anything as a must-see, because there would be so many that I’d always feel disappointed, the recommendations helped me choose three good shows yesterday and pick up some more tickets for today.

The Fall of the House of Atreus – A very clever comic take on the ancient Greek tragedies of Euripedes, from Jessy Ardern as playwright and Corben Kushneryk as director and designer, the same team that created last Fringe’s Westbury-stage delight Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests.  Fellow BFA Acting grads Graham Mothersill, Sarah Feutl, and Morgan Grau are the Chorus telling and enacting the connected tragedies of Euripides, with all the vaguely-familiar characters – Pelops, Atreus, Iphigenia, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Helen and Paris, etc.  Simple costume elements and hand gestures helped to keep track of who was who, and found-object puppetry added interest to different ways for characters to be killed.  The energetic performers embraced the material and found humour in the grim tales.  The pace was good and it looked like fun for them as well as for the audience.  It’s now closed.

Little Orange Man – Ingrid Hansen’s charming solo show also presents gruesome stories in a very funny way, in this case through the unique voice of a girl of ten or eleven, recounting her grandfather’s Danish folk tales and recruiting the audience’s help for a dreamscape quest.  It’s held over, so after a last show tonight at 8 pm it should move easily from King Edward Academy to the larger room of the Westbury.

Nighthawk Rules – Collin Doyle’s and James Hamilton’s ten-year-old script was directed by Taylor Chadwick in Theatre Network’s new space Roxy on Gateway (the old C103).  Comfortable wide chairs around a shallow thrust stage make the venue’s legendary summer heat more bearable, as do the cold drinks on sale at the venue.  Chris W Cook (3…2…1, Criminal Genius, Sequence, Bronte Burlesque)  and Christopher Schultz (Wish) play old friends approaching 30 and floundering in their party-bro lives, Schultz’s character trying to live up to his new girlfriend’s expectations about settling down, and Cook’s character trying to hang on to the old camaraderie of drinking games and all-nighters.  I had thought already that Chris Cook was good at bringing a mix of naïveté and good intention to vulgar characters, so he was well cast in the role of Dick, and Schultz’s character Barry seems competent and grown-up only by comparison to his buddy.  I had a great deal of sympathy for the girlfriend (Ellie Heath) until we met her and she talked about her boyfriend completely as a project she had invested time in developing in order to satisfy her perfect-wedding goals, quickly flouncing out again with threats to Barry about cleaning up the apartment and getting rid of the loser friend.   The story was very funny and the resolution of some of the problems delighted me with its unexpectedness and credibility.  Nighthawk Rules has one more performance today at 4:30 pm.

I’ve got a few more drinks to pour, a few more tickets to use, a few more Festival snacks to consume, and then it’s over.  That was then, this is (still) Fringe.

Gabriel: first glimpse of Moira Buffini

I was looking forward to learning about contemporary English playwright through two of her works which will be produced as part of the U of A Studio Theatre season, but last week I had the chance to expand my knowledge of her work through seeing a production of her 1997 play Gabriel in the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre on campus (the former Media Room), directed by Amanda Bergen, MFA Directing candidate.

Gabriel is set in a gloomy farmhouse in occupied Guernsey during World War II.  The family occupying the house comprises Jeanne (Kristi Hansen), her daughter-in-law Lily (Zoe Glassman), her young daughter Estelle (Sadie Bowling, last seen in last year’s Christmas Carol), and their housekeeper Lake (Monica Maddaford).  Dave Clarke is Von Pfunz, an officer of the occupying army, and Graham Mothersill appears as an unidentified man discovered unconscious on the beach, to whom they refer as Gabriel.  One of the patterns in this tense situation is women confiding in men whom they believe won’t be able to understand them, Jeanne to the German-speaking officer and Lily to the unconscious man.  This is a convenient script device allowing the audience to learn more about the women’s points of view, but also a way of illustrating how each of them is private and alone in the crowded little house.   Estelle, who is aged about ten or eleven, resents the German occupiers and takes a variety of rebellious actions, from esoteric (chalking a ‘square of power’) to more practical (trying to make the soldiers think the house they’re staying in is haunted, vandalizing the commander’s boots).  Sadie Bowling captures her earnest stubbornness without being cute.  Jeanne’s quite different survival tactics are portrayed sympathetically by Kristi Hansen, whose set jaw and careful poise work well in the period piece.

Gabriel awakens and recovers his health but not his memory.  Lily dresses him in some of her late husband’s clothes which had not already been repurposed, giving him the odd appearance of being dressed for a cricket or tennis match surrounded by people in old dark-coloured garments as would seem more appropriate for rural people in wartime.  He appears to speak both English and German fluently, so while the family is determined to protect him from the occupying force, they are more interested in finding a safe background story than a true one.   Stakes are raised when we learn that Lily’s background is Jewish, that her documentation has been falsified, and that the German commander knows.

Personally, I’m usually suspicious about fictional characters named Gabriel because of how often they turn out to be either dead or angelic.  And enough ambiguity was left in the outcome of Gabriel that my theory still holds.

Flowers and thorns – the tragedy of Blood Wedding

Federico Garcia Lorca’s compelling tale of dark passions, Blood Wedding, is playing at the U of Alberta Studio Theatre.  The director is Kathleen Weiss and the cast is the 2014 BFA Acting class, in their final large-cast show together.

As in all shows in the Studio Theatre series, the costumes, sets, lighting, and music combine to create a coherent world, in this case a parched and dangerous one.   Before the show starts, we see a few chairs painted with appealing folkloric motifs and a tumble of fancy linens on a table, along with a few set pieces and drapes to create the impression of a harsh landscape against a bloody sun.

The staging starts with a woman in black (Mariann Kirby as Mother) beginning to fold the linens, as a chorus of younger women mimes some physical task while sitting downstage and a chorus of men (Neil Kuefler, Adam Klassen, Oscar Derkx) tumbles, fights, and works with scythes in the background.  When her son (Kristian Stec as Groom) comes to tell his mother that he is heading to the vineyard, we begin to learn of her preoccupations, especially about knives, weapons, and her dead husband and elder son.  When her son tells her he wishes to marry, she is reluctant.  I couldn’t tell whether she already knew who her son was courting and had reservations about that specific young woman’s history and family, or whether her reluctance was all about the prospect of being abandoned.  When she questions him about “your fiancée”, I couldn’t tell whether she wasn’t naming the young woman just because that was the author’s style choice to make them more archetypal, or whether she was pretending not to know her or actually didn’t know who she was.  Eventually Mother gives in and says that she’ll participate in the customs of taking gifts to the bride’s family.   We also learn in that scene that the Bride was previously engaged to Leonardo, who is part of a family that the Mother holds a grudge against, probably due to whatever bloodshed led to her family’s deaths.

Everything is elliptical and not-quite-explained.  The story only makes as much sense as it does because of Zoe Glassman’s character Neighbour, a chatty woman friendly with all the families.  When Mother and Groom arrive at Bride’s family home, we meet the Maid (Cristina Patalas), the bride’s Father (Graham Mothersill), and then the Bride (Merran Carr-Wiggin).   Throughout the story, the Bride seems ambivalent about the Groom and the wedding, fond of him but sometimes flinching from his touch or from more direct mentions of affection to come.  The parents of the young people, both scarred from sad pasts and cautious of each other, gradually come to be allies, talking about prospects for land purchases and cultivation and their wishes for grandchildren.  The Maid ramps up the erotic intensity of the preparations a bit while she helps the Bride dress and do her hair.  And then we see all the characters swept up in wedding celebrations, dancing and singing and playing music.   Several times I was reminded of Svadba, last year’s opera production about a group of friends preparing a young woman for her wedding.

The third family in the story is seen earlier on, first in a sweet domestic scene where a young mother (Andrea Rankin) and her own mother (Georgia Irwin) sing to a baby, and then the baby’s father (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) appears equally devoted to his son.   At some point in there, someone calls Dowler-Coltman’s character Leonardo, so that part begins to fit together.  Leonardo is the former fiancé of Bride, the one who then married Bride’s cousin, and he’s also part of the family who was involved in Groom’s father and brother’s deaths.  The young mother seems worried about her husband taking off on his horse all the time and maybe lying about it.  She doesn’t like the idea of him going to the wedding – especially going on his horse by himself although he protests that he’s not the kind of man to ride passively in a carriage.

The whirling dancing, increasingly frenetic Spanish-guitar-type music, and Bride’s growing distress cue us to an upcoming crisis.  The Bride goes to take a rest, fending off the Groom’s suggestion that they might go to bed together.  While the party continues we see the Maid begin to rush frantically from one side of the stage to the other, eventually crying out that the Bride is missing and so is Leonardo.

A search begins, with ominous music and lighting and threatening scythe-waving.  By this point there was lots of evidence that Leonardo was obsessed with the Bride, but it wasn’t at all clear that the Bride was still stuck on him, so I began wondering how much choice and power she had in the situation.  When they were seen in their flight through the woods, though, she was clearly as drawn to Leonardo as he to her.  As the pursuers approach, I was impressed by Carr-Wiggin’s stage tumbling in a wedding gown, at the same time as being frightened about the outcome.

And the pursuit didn’t end quite as badly as I’d expected in that the Bride didn’t end up dead.  But the show didn’t end with the fight and the other deaths either – then we got to see the Bride abandoned by her new husband’s mother and cast off by her own father, “a fallen woman and a virgin”.  This reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – well, okay, of the movie Tess because I’ve never actually read the book; the movie was depressing enough in showing a woman trapped in an unfair situation because of the expectations on women in that society.  In Blood Wedding, the deaths themselves aren’t the end of the story. But the Mother comments that she is more at peace now that everyone she loved is dead and no longer at risk, which is a disturbing commentary on the nature of revenge, grudges, and blood-feud.

Nice design touches:  the chenille rivers of blood, the beggar/oracle’s raven’s wings, the Maypole effect dressing the Bride in bright coloured sashes.   I loved the very active staging especially the woodcutters tumbling and scythe work.  And I noticed the repeated metaphor of comparing men and boys to various flowers and to thorns.

Blood Wedding continues at the Timms Centre until April 5th, including a Monday-evening performance and a midweek matinée.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square as well as at the door.

Love’s Labours Lost, at the Studio Theatre

One thing all the U of Alberta Studio Theatre series productions have in common is interesting set and costume design with satisfying attention to detail.  Earlier this season I enjoyed the stark spareness setting the mood for pool (no water), and then the period costumes of Pains of Youth and Bloody Poetry.

The designs for Love’s Labours Lost were playful and full of joy, with bright colours and silliness conveying the frivolous not-quite-real background for this comedy, set by the text in the Kingdom of Navarre.  Apparently there was a real place by this name, located on the French border of Spain.   Visitors to the kingdom included a “fantastical” Spaniard, Don Armando (Oscar Derkx), with exaggerated and very funny Hispano-Quixotic gestures and accent,  and the daughter of the King of France (Mariann Kirby) and some members of her court (Merran Carr-Wiggin, Zoe Glassman, Cristina Patalastc, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Sarah Ormandy).   Georgia Irwin plays the clown Costard with a consistent Scottish burr, for no explainable reason other than to make her character distinct from the local noblemen – but it’s funny.

The premise of the main plot is that the young King of France (Adam Klassen) convinces his male courtiers to join him for three years of studying, following a near-monastic rule with restrictions on food and sleep and a proscription on contact with women.  Berowne (Neil Kuefler) is particularly reluctant to sign on to this plan, although he eventually agrees along with the characters played by Kristian Stec and Graham Mothersill.  But almost immediately after they agree, they find out that the Princess of France and her attendants are on their way for a visit.  So they decide to keep the letter of the agreement by meeting the visitors in a park rather than in the palace.   And of course as soon as they meet, the men of Navarre are immediately struck with admiration for the women of France, conveniently aligned in non-conflicting pairs.

Meanwhile, bits of broader comedy (i.e. wacky hijinks) keep intervening, with the random cocky Spaniard and his saxophone-playing page (Andrea Rankin),  a country girl (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), the aforementioned clown Costard carrying messages and mixing them up, a constable (Brandon Nearey), a schoolmaster (Merran Carr-Wiggin), and a curate (Mark Vetsch).

The play runs almost two and a half hours (not counting the intermission) but I found that the time just flew by.

The story suits modern sensibilities and recent trends in popular culture by showing the Princess as competent with an air of authority, speaking mostly in prose, and in one scene hunting a deer with a bow and arrows.  I was most intrigued by the characters of the Princess and of Berowne, the courtier most willing to dispute with the King and then to declare his affection to Rosaline.  Berowne is also a leader in some affectionate trash-talking competition.

Love’s Labours Lost is directed by Kevin Sutley.  It is playing at the Timms Centre until Saturday, including a 2-for-1 ticket deal Monday (tomorrow).   If you click here on the Department of Drama website within the next few weeks, you can see a gallery of photos from the production showing the colourful costumes (the academic gowns and hoods are University of Alberta doctoral/faculty style).   And I’ll also offer you one more related link to click, the indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to help the young performers of this BFA Acting class take a modest audition tour together after they graduate in the spring.

Pageant, down home style, second try.

Last year I didn’t manage to see Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever at the Varscona, because I left the ticket-buying too late and the only performance I could get to was sold out and I didn’t make it up to the top of the waitlist.

This year I got closer.  I actually saw the first half of the show before looking at the clock at intermission and realizing I’d mis-calculated the time of my later-evening commitment, so I wouldn’t be able to stay til the end.  So I’ve seen half of this show, and next year it is definitely going on my booking list earlier.

Like the Christmas Carol, I got the impression that many of the patrons at this show had seen the production in previous years and were anticipating the jokes, whereas my only familiarity was with the source material.  And I suddenly realised partway through the show that the fussy little girl Alice (Lindsey Walker), the one who gets ousted from her perennial pageant role as Mary by Imogene Herdman’s (Cheryl Jameson) and her brothers’ (Graham Mothersill, Corbin Kushneryk) threats, was missing the point complaining constantly about the way their story wasn’t sticking to the traditional telling of the Nativity, so I had better throw out the little list in my head of all the ways in which this adaptation deviated from the original Barbara Robinson novel since I was missing the point in the exact same way.

Fortunately, I had this realization, or generally got caught up in the show, early enough to be enjoying it.  There was a cast of only seven, including a piano player (Jeff Black), and a little bit of amusing double-casting.  That meant that not all the canonical Herdmans were on stage, just Ralf (“with an F”), Leroy, and Imogene. But it worked out fine.

In written fiction, I am always a little slow to recognize unreliable narrators or other quirks of a first-person point-of-view character.  In the stage version, then, I was surprised to find the narrator character Beth (Kayla Gorman) a bit of a caricature, with distinctive child-like can’t-stand-still and seeming to side with Alice’s disapproval of the Herdmans.  It wasn’t at all inconsistent with the source material; I was just caught by surprise.

Compared to the novel, then, Beth’s mother the pageant director has a bigger role.  Mrs. O’Brien is played with appealing earnestness, bewildered but coping, by Natalie Czar-Gummer.  She incorporates the audience in the story as kids showing up for auditions, and then has each section sing one of the carols as shepherds, wise men, or angels.

The adaptation was originally done by  a company in Newfoundland, with a few changes to the original story like the usual director having collided with a moose, and the church being Catholic.  The performers’ accents are credible and not overdone.  It felt like an affectionate tribute to a culture where lots of Edmonton residents have roots.

Note to self:  if this plays next Christmas, buy a ticket early and block off the whole evening.

Pains of Youth

in the director’s notes for the U of Alberta Studio Theatre production Pains of Youth last month, Kim McCaw commented that he found troubling parallels between the world of the young students in the play and the uncertain future for present-day students, who find that “holding on to hope and optimism is increasingly difficult”.  I cannot confirm this first-hand, being neither pessimistic nor exactly a youth, but I found the world of the 1920s German medical students easy to slip into.   Ferdinand Bruckner wrote the play in German in about 1929.

The play is set in the lodgings of graduating medical student Marie (Andrea Rankin).   The other students and young people in the play live in the same lodging house or nearby, and Lucy (Mariann Kirby) is an eighteen-year-old housemaid.  We don’t meet the landlady.  The detailed set created an appealing cozy environment for Marie, surrounded with books, desks, suitcases, anatomy posters, and even a bowl of knitting.  I was distracted by trying to figure out what house layout would be compatible with the bits we saw and were told.  The door backstage left opened to Desiree’s room but they talked as if there was another door to the hallway from Desiree’s room.  The door stage right opened to a hallway of the lodging house, and people visiting Marie always entered and left by that door.   Between the two doors there was a window over Marie’s bed, which was illuminated as if it were open to the outside.  I guess one way this could work would be if the hallway proceeded past Marie’s room in the imaginary space where the audience was sitting, but as this didn’t occur to me until afterwards I was stuck trying to think whether their set design was inconsistent.

At intermission I was thinking that Marie was the only likeable character in the whole menagerie.  We saw her helping Desiree prepare for an exam and walking her to the exam hall for luck, buying Petrell a writing desk, showing kindness and humanity towards Lucy the chambermaid, and preparing a party to celebrate her graduation with all her friends.  We also learn that she’s from humble origins and has been funding her studies (and possibly her friends’) through dressmaking.  I identified with her immediately.

But of course things got more complicated.  Marie’s friends include Petrell (Neil Kuefler) a poet and former student she’s been romantically involved with but also been nurturing, Alt (Kristian Stec) a doctor who lost his license to practice due to the kind of ethical/legal issue that would still be controversial today, and medical students Freder (Graham Mothersill), Desiree (Georgia Irwin), and Irene (Cristina Patalas).  By intermission it seemed to me that all of them were kind of messed up, and Graham Mothersill’s Freder was so awful that labels like “sociopath” or “evil” were crossing my mind.

Desiree, the more junior student who lives in a room adjoining Marie’s, is obviously her intimate.  Her clinginess and admiration for Marie made it hard for me to tell, at first, whether she saw Marie as a platonic friend or sister, or whether there was some romantic or sexual component to her affections.  She expressed that ambiguous needy affection in ways that made me uncomfortable, because she talked about wanting to cuddle in a bed with Marie like she and her little sister had as children, and at first I thought that her advances made Marie uncomfortable too.  But later in the story, after Petrell has taken up with Irene, Marie seems to be sexually involved with Desiree and the other characters all take this in stride.

The next play in the 2013-2014 U of A Studio Theatre mainstage series is Bloody Poetry, currently playing.