Tag Archives: jake tkaczyk

Theatre out of the theatre

I attended three performances last week, none of them in conventional theatre spaces.  And I attended a rehearsal in a living room, for an indie production that may culminate in workshop/performance in equally unconventional space.

There is something truly inspiring and welcoming about using found space to create and share performance, about taking advantages of the quirks of the location to develop site-specific performance, and about bringing live entertainment to places the audience is already comfortable with, rather than trying to draw new audiences in to a conventional theatre with all its inherent cultural expectations (do I dress up?  do I fit comfortably in their seats?  what if I get restless?  can I afford it?  can I bring refreshments? etc).

Two of the performances I attended this week were staged readings rather than fully staged productions.  That means that the actors had the scripts in front of them, on music stands.  There were no sets or props, no fancy lighting or sound effects, just the narrative and the actors delivering it.

Alberta Playwrights’ Network hosts a “Script Salon” once a month, a public reading of a new script by one of their members.  This month it was Blaine Newton’s Bodice Ripper. (Blaine Newton’s play Bravo! about nuclear testing in the south Pacific was performed by Shadow Theatre a few years ago).  Tracy Carroll directed the reading, and the readers were Perry Gratton, Jenny McKillop, Sam Jeffrey, Patricia Cerra, Jacob Holloway, and Jake Tkaczyk.  The actors took turns reading the setting description notes and stage directions, and from these we learned that the action all took place in the main room of a small holiday cabin in the mountains, in the 1960s.  The premise is that a group of friends borrows the cabin retreat with a plan to write a novel collaboratively – maybe a romance, a bodice-ripper, maybe a murder mystery or thriller, they can’t agree.  Without a visible set, I pictured something like the cabin in Teatro’s Sleuth a few years ago, or maybe the Mayfield’s stylish Long Weekend, or the one in Ruth Ware’s thriller novel In a Dark, Dark Wood.   As was pointed out in the lively talkback discussion afterwards, setting it in the 1960s “raised the stakes” for female characters who had been resenting the men who underestimated them – and it also provided for a fully-staged production to benefit from the audible and visual business of feeding paper into a typewriter, typing (quickly, slowly, or clumsily with mitts on), and pulling paper out to crumple it or file it.  Script Salon is open to the public, admission by donation.  The April session will mark five years of the project, and promises to also have cake and live music.

The other staged read I attended was Social Studies, a play by Winnipeg playwright Trish Cooper.    The reading was in a suburban community league hall, hosted by a regular seniors’ social group there – there were folding chairs, a small stage, and a cheerfully-staffed snack bar, but no other theatre amenities – no dimmed lights, no sound amplification or hearing-assist loop, no reserved seats, no programs.  And of course no set pieces, props, or actor movement.  But I loved it regardless.  Kristin Johnston plays Jackie, a young woman who arrives with suitcases (and metaphorical baggage) at her childhood home after a breakup, only to find that her mother (Leona Brausen) has given away her room to a Sudanese refugee (Deng Leng).  Rebecca Merkley plays teenage sister Sarah.  The play’s narrative intersperses snippets of a class presentation Sarah gives to her class about the Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese refugees in Canada, with scenes of how this works out in real life in the household.  I thought the dialogue was well-written, credible, funny, and affectionate.  It reminded me of a mix of Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek, in the way it portrayed 21st-century mismatches between parents and children, and between well-meaning people of different cultural and religious backgrounds.   Specificity made it more powerful (audience members at the reading shared afterwards that they were familiar with the meat-packing plant in Brooks hiring Sudanese workers, as mentioned in the text).  The readers were all good, bringing life to the script with comic timing and pathos, with Leona Brausen particularly powerful as the slightly-hippie single-mother/activist.  The reading was directed by Jake Tkaczyk, who also read the stage directions.

In a change of pace from the staged readings, Tuesday night I attended opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Gregory Caswell in the title role, Marisa West playing her husband Yitzhak, and musicians Matt Graham, Sean Besse, Connor Pylypa, & Sam Malowany as the backup band.  Brennan Doucet directed.  It was fully staged, with all the rock/punk music and over-the-top costumes.  And it was performed in Evolution Wonderlounge, the small subterranean LGBT+ nightclub down the street from Rogers Place.  This worked perfectly with the musical’s storyline that Hedwig and her band are performing in a low-prestige venue near where her estranged former lover/protege Tommy Gnosis is playing an arena show – and every now and then Hedwig throws open a door and we “overhear” Tommy Gnosis’s over-amplified between-songs musings.

Hedwig is a cult phenomenon, an off-Broadway show that opened in 1998, a film version in 2001, and a first Broadway version in 2014-2015 (I saw that one, with Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall in their Tony-award-winning performances).  It’s a rather odd story, using the late-20th-century divided Berlin as a metaphor for love and gender and a seeking for wholeness and re-unification.   Caswell owns the role and the stage, from eyeshadow to stilettos, a fierce, tragic, brave genderqueer performer telling us her story and singing her songs.  Marisa West plays Hedwig’s Croatian husband Yitzhak, surly and resentful at the start but reborn in beautiful drag for the finale.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch has one more performance tomorrow night (Saturday Mar 16th).  It’s not quite sold out, but it probably will be.

 

Two storytellers facing forwards

KaldrSaga: stories and storytellers

It’s a Norse-inspired start to the dark and cold of the theatre year – from the chanting and thread-spinning witches of the Malachite Theatre production of the Scottish play being reminiscent of the Norns who control destinies in Norse mythology, to a more explicit tribute to the gods, goddesses, and other beings of the traditions in Harley Morison’s new work KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama for a Midwinter’s Night, playing at The Almanac until Jan 26th.

Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk play storytelling friends Saga and Kaldr, who meet once a year at a pub midway between their homes, to tell stories together and drink and catch up.  And Saga and Kaldr then play the characters in the stories they’re telling, stories from their own history (that include encounters with gods and goddesses, giants, a magpie named Pica, and other beings), and stories of the gods.  I don’t know a lot about Norse mythology (and I’d know even less if it weren’t for the Marvel Cinematic Universe reminding me about Thor and Loki, Asgard and Midgard and Bifröst.) but it didn’t really matter – it’s just a bonus to enjoying the stories that now I can look up the names I can remember – Kvasir, Mosey/Mothi, Sif, Freya.

Sometimes it appeared that the stories were part of a familiar repertoire and we saw the storytellers negotiating as part of clarifying how the game worked.  (“You started this one without me?” “I don’t want to do this one!” “The word fuckboy was not in my mother’s vocabulary!”)  Off the top, the first character to enter endowed the audience with being the pub audience waiting for stories – and this was easy, in the narrow back room of The Almanac with the performers moving back and forth between their tables and their bar (staffed during performance by their stage manager), and the audience seated along the opposite wall.  In telling the stories, they often shifted between characters, sometimes each of them taking a turn with a character as the narrative needed, using common physicality and voice to keep the continuity (like Jamie Cavanagh and Chris Cook in 3…2…1 or like Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan of Rocket Sugar Improv).  This was almost always easy to follow with their shifts of voice and physicality, and sometimes also delightful (the cats pulling Freya’s chariot, and then Freya driving the chariot).

The storytellers told the stories of how they’d met and how they’d come to be travelling.  We learned that they both identified as queer, and that they were both finding better lives on the road than the ones expected by their parents and in their home villages.  We learned how they got to be good storytellers (a deity is involved).  Kaldr, who’s left his home village because of taunts about being gay, seeks out Lofn, the goddess of forbidden love, in hopes she can make things right.  “I’m just like a marriage commissioner” she shrugs, “changing someone’s mind is harder.  For that, you need an army.”

They also told stories of the gods, often with an emphasis on queerness.  There’s a really great sequence at drag-queen open-mic night (including an original song composed by Rebecca Merkley and choreography by C.J. Rowein) And there’s a hopeful twist on how they get the aforementioned army for changing minds.

Near the end, there’s a bit that made my seat-mate and me both shiver with apprehension about what we thought was coming next … but then it didn’t seem to happen the way we were expecting, and we weren’t sure afterwards if it was just a more subtle version of the destiny hinted at, or if the more-open-ended finish suggested they were avoiding that destiny … we didn’t know, but we were both engaged with what would happen to these two likeable characters, Kaldr and Saga.

The play was a great opportunity for the actors to show us many different characters and make them distinct and interesting.  Nasra Adem is a former youth poet laureate of Edmonton.  Their storytelling benefited from the rhythms and style of their spoken-word performance, and it was great to watch their characters bantering and calling-out with joyful confidence.  Jake Tkaczyk’s acting roles have included Caliban in The Tempest, Lady Laura Lee the mysterious bridal shop owner in Don’t Frown at the Gown, a western sidekick of Pretty Boy Floyd the early 20th-century bank robber, and a badly-behaved young teenager in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever, and in KaldrSaga he created some very different characters.  One of my favourite stories was the one where a travelling carver/artist (Adem) barters with a hostile tavern owner (Tkaczyk), one carved chess piece for food and lodging.  Elise Jason was production designer – without making many changes in the bar venue, they used a few simple touches to set us into the pub of mythic storytelling, with the characters’ costumes just slightly set apart from the current norms by a bit more fur and a few more weapons.

I also loved the insertions of current cultural references (Beyoncé, Grindr, a god having not only subjects but “followers”) and cellphone use.

Tickets are available through the Cardiac Theatre website for performances to January 26th, including two performances today (Saturday Jan 12th) at 4 pm and 8 pm.

Spooky October performances 2018

I’m not managing to see everything on Edmonton stages these days, but I wish I could.  I wish I’d seen Lenin’s Embalmers at U of A Studio Theatre, or the Maggie Tree production Blood: A Scientific Romance.  From what I’ve read about them, it looks like the creepy or paranormal themes could have fit into this Hallowe’en-week blog roundup, too.

At the Walterdale Theatre, I helped work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a script prepared by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans using various primary source materials, and directed here by Barbara Mah.   It was thought-provoking and disturbing, because the horrible fates of real people were depicted graphically, because the resulting legal case portrayed did not result in justice, and because the hazards of the garment industry juxtaposed with fashion advertising are not so different from their contemporary equivalents.   Watching this story play out every night as one of the booth operators, I kept cheering for some of the determined young women who lived to tell their own stories, particularly Rose Freedman (Danielle Yu), and Ethel Monick, (Stephanie Swensrude), and kept getting angry at the factory owners and their lawyer (Eric Rice, Kent Sutherland, and Matthew Bearsto).  It was a relief to close that show and watch some scary shows for fun.  

Dead Centre of Town XI has four more performances in the Blatchford hangar at Fort Edmonton Park.  This year the macabre true stories researched and written by Megan and Beth Dart of Catch the Keys all relate to air travel.  As usual, the audience members are guided through relevant settings to encounter the characters of various disasters and mysterious happenings, while super-creepy poet/narrator Colin Matty provides extra detail and atmosphere.  “If humans were intended to fly, why are they so Goddamned squishy?”, he muses.  More live-theatre than haunted-house, this annual immersive event does a great job at making the details build up the overall experience – even the ticket distribution (“boarding passes”) and the traffic-management (impersonal masked uniformed airport workers in a crowded “boarding lounge” with staticky announcements) are part of the adventure.

Dark! at Fort Edmonton is new this year, adding on food (with creepy nicknames like Bloody Balls and Skewered Rat), drinks, and adult-level haunted-house attractions.  I went to one of the haunts, and decided that I prefer the Dead Centre of Town style of horrifying imagery enhanced by narrative, to the unexplained jump-scares of Dark!

The Bone House, by Marty Chan, also has performances remaining on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  It was also very scary in a different style again.  At first it felt like a TV or movie experience, with a forensic-psychology expert presenting an illustrated lecture about serial killers, but it became more unsettling – it was easy to involve myself into the story enough that I could imagine being in danger, but I also began to feel somewhat complicit in choosing to listen to serial-killer narratives in any medium.  Brrr.

This weekend I also managed to fit in a performance of Northern Light Theatre’s Origin of the Species, by Bryony Lavery.  With direction and set/costume design by Trevor Schmidt and performances by Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner, it uses the ridiculous premise of a contemporary archaeologist encountering a live prehistoric woman, to touch on several important themes with a subtle touch.  I particularly enjoyed the very gradual transition of the prehistoric woman Victoria (Johnston) towards modern physicality and communication, and the many ways that both characters subvert assumptions about “traditional” gender roles.

The festivals of summer, part 1.

When I was a little kid, the calendar was divided in two parts:  the school year, in which all the scheduled activities happened week by week and wrapped up in June, and the summer, which started with a parade in June for Flag Day (a local invention) and continued with drive-in movies, ice cream from the local Dairy, camping trips and time at the cottage, and being put to bed with the windows open while my parents and aunts and uncles talked quietly outside with beers, until the evenings started to get cool and the days started to get shorter and it was time to put on leather shoes again and head back to school.

Edmonton theatre life is kind of like that.  The professional companies mostly wrapped up their seasons in time for Sterling Award nomination deadlines, and are on to planning for next winter’s productions.  The awards get announced at a gala Monday night, and the summer celebrations, special treats, and traditions are already in action. Teatro, of course, has already had one play in its summer season, Salon of the Talking Turk, and has opened the second, Jana O’Connor’s Going Going Gone.   The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s just started.

The emerging-artists’ festival Nextfest happened earlier in June.  I took in a few performances – the spoken-word poetry night Speak! hosted by Nasra Adem and Liam Cody, a reading of new work Shadowlands by Savanna Harvey (thoughtful, provocative, and amusing even as a reading – definitely watch for it at this year’s Edmonton Fringe (or at Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, or Vancouver Fringe), and the site-specific piece Everyone We Know Will Be There: A House Party in One Act, by Elena Belyea, directed by Andrew Ritchie.  This was a very cleverly managed piece of roving theatre, with small groups of audience members each invisibly shadowing a specific party-guest character, around the house and yard.  I didn’t know the whole story after one viewing, just the parts that our character (played by Eva Foote) was part of, and some other tantalizing bits we overheard while our character was storming through rooms or having meltdowns in bathrooms.  The piece was so skilfully directed and stage-managed that any adjustments of timing and traffic direction were completely invisible to me, which added to the feeling of eavesdropping on a real story.

Opera Nuova‘s festival of opera and musical theatre continues, with Carousel and The Cunning Little Vixen playing this weekend and next.  Rapid Fire Theatre’s biggest event of the year, Improvaganza, wraps up tonight with four shows.  And Found Festival continues today and tomorrow around McIntyre Park and Old Strathcona.

Found Festival is a small festival of site-specific and found-space performance, currently under the leadership of Beth Dart, multi-talented local theatre maker and event producer.  So if the description of Everyone We Know Will Be There made you curious, or intrigued, or skeptical, then you can come to Found Festival this weekend and see more performances created or curated for unexpected spaces.  McIntyre Park, the little green space with the gazebo in front of the library, is currently set up with a box office tent, live music in the gazebo for free, and a small friendly shaded beer-garden with the best of the Fringe’s furniture and Alley Kat products like Session Ale and Main Squeeze.  (Almost like my parents’ backyard in the old days, except that now I’m old enough to drink and the music is better!)

So far I’ve attended Julie Ferguson’s powerful and thought-provoking solo piece Glass Washrooms, which explores a journey to non-binary gender identity and concepts of spaces one belongs in.  Although originally created for the public-washroom building at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway, the later performances have been moved to the washrooms at the Backstage Theatre in order to reduce disruption to the people needing that essential community infrastructure on Whyte Ave.  There are two more performances today and one tomorrow, and I recommend it highly.

Another intriguing part of the Found Festival is the Admit One performances, short shows of various kinds performed for one audience member at a time.  I’ve seen four of them and I hope to catch the fifth.  They’re all different enough that I find myself delighted and intrigued by each one.   In Shoes and One Man’s Junk explore concepts of memory as the audience member experiences aspects of the neighbourhood space along with the performers.  The character in One Man’s Junk works in the antique store Junque Cellar, and the store background blends smoothly into the apparently-rambling thoughts of the employee on break, performer/creator Jake Tkaczyk.  In Shoes takes the audience member on a short walk around the immediate neighbourhood, on which performers portrayed various people important in a young woman’s life.  I won’t tell you who all was in it, because I liked it better being surprised.  Strife, by Matthew McKenzie and performed by Russell Keewatin, portrays a young man trying to decide on his response to a heartbreaking loss by violence, a loss shared by the audience member.  The Booth: Offerings is a set of improvised responses cascading from an audience member prompt, with Leif Ingebrigtsen’s original piano-playing inspiring Tim Mikula’s visual art and Rebecca Sadowski’s expressive contemporary dance.  Particular care was taken to create safe anonymous space for audience members, and I was glad to have a few minutes of quiet in their decompression space before exiting to a quieter side of the building.

None of the performances made me uncomfortable in that “are we done now?” “where am I supposed to go?” “am I supposed to say something or not?” way that is always a risk with performances abandoning the conventions of stage performance (you know, get a program, sit down on risers with everyone else, chat with background music til the lights go down, watch quietly until the lights come up, applaud, leave).  The performers, directors, and producers had anticipated what guidance each audience member would need, so I could let myself experience each performance in the moment without wondering what to do next or worrying that my responses would throw them off.

It’s the start of a wonderful summer of entertainment celebrations of all kinds in Edmonton, Interstellar Rodeo and Edmonton Folkfest, Street Performers Festival, K-Days, Heritage Days, and Taste of Edmonton, culminating for me at the Fringe, August 17-27.  Summer’s here!

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.