Tag Archives: jake tkaczyk

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.

 

 

Devour Content Here / Of Love and Wheat: dustbowl drama in the dust

After Fringe and the Fringe Holdovers  – I saw Edgar Allan and In Search of Cruise Control.  They were both good.  I’ll tell you about them soon if I have time – my theatre world was quiet enough that I almost ended up going to a movie last week because I was bored.

Fortunately, the performance season is starting up again.  Next weekend Rapid Fire Theatre has four shows and Kaleido Fest has lots of interesting things on the schedule and it’s the Edmonton Burlesque Festival.

And this weekend Kristine Nutting is directing an original production in an old warehouse near the stadium.  I think the play was called Devour Content Here and it contained a play called Of Love and Wheat – but I’m not sure.  It had many of the challenges typical to mounting a production in an unconventional venue and requiring the audience to rove about – difficult acoustics, limited lighting choices, having to wait for the audience to move between scenes and being restricted in how they direct audience traffic by trying to stay in character.  An additional challenge of this space is that it is quite dusty.  Some of the audience members wore the provided dust masks, but the performers and crew did not.  I saw it on opening night and again last night.  The second night they were much more explicitly directive about showing people where to sit and stand, and they admitted fewer people, which also helped.

David Arial played a Narrator, but by the end he seemed to be part of the plot as well, with suspect motives of his own.  Or maybe he was two characters.  The ostensible setting was prairie drought dustbowl in a small town in the 1920s, but it had some mythical and fantastic elements.  The story was a little hard to follow, but fortunately a lot of it was fairytale archetype – the manipulative ambitious mother Liliette (Sarah Ormandy) wanting to make an advantageous match for her daughter (Sydney Campbell) with a visiting tycoon (Nathan Plumite), the daughter falling in love with the sewage man’s son (Steven Andrews), stories of leaving home for a better life and not succeeding, people being blackmailed or forced or tricked into various unappetizing agreements, etc.

There was a large chorus of despairing townspeople in makeup/costume/demeanour that reminded me of both bouffon and zombies, and there was a live band playing original music.  There were unexpected bits of circus-aerials performance, there were some solo songs and there were a few ensemble songs.  There were crass moments, horribly disturbing moments, ridiculously overdone and tongue-in-cheek bits, and a scene that shifted from absurd to compellingly intimate at different moments for each audience member (meaning that some people were giggling while I was nearly in tears).   And there were characters who seemed to be struck by nausea every time the word “economics” was spoken.

I liked the way that the young couple Harriet and Oscar seemed to be realistic awkward young people, surrounded by weirder-than-life characters speaking in some heightened or poetic register.  I appreciated Sarah Ormandy’s portrayal of the ambitious mother and former Chatauqua beauty queen, her jerky movements a parody of grace and her self-absorbed behaviour reminiscent of Snow White’s stepmother. (Late in the play, I thought I heard another character call her Lilith, which fitted.)  The best part of the music was the melodic motif “Come on down to the dark soul of the dustbowl, It’s the blackest place on earth”.  Other parts of the instrumental and vocal music suffered from the acoustic difficulties of the venue. 

If this sounds like your kind of thing, if you like performances that try out things that might not work, if you would rather see something original than something tidy, there is one more show Labour Day afternoon.  Doors open at 2:30.  Admission is by donation (they suggest $20 for the gainfully employed and $10 otherwise).  They provide dust masks, and some buckets and crates for patrons who don’t want to stand the whole time, and I saw them make accommodations for mobility impaired patrons.

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

Nextfest!

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.

Fringe Saturday

Ritchie Community League (Venue 36, 7727 98 Street) is a new BYOV.  They have five shows playing in their intimate auditorium with multilevel stage and licensed concession.  There is convenient parking,washrooms, level access, and cash ticket sales on site.   I started my day at the Ritchie Community League with Kurt Man: buyer and seller of souls, a new solo work by Brendan Thompson.  As the program description suggests, the story starts when Kurt Man, who has had a business buying and selling souls, takes early retirement and tries to find meaning in his life.  What made this quirky story interesting to watch was that it was told through the device of having other performers speaking lines while projected on a screen on stage.  The backgrounds of the video suggest scene changes and locations.  I recognised most of the video performers, but as the show didn’t have printed programs, I was distracted by trying to figure out who they were or what I’d seen them in before.  End credits moved too quickly for me to catch all of them, but they included Colin Matty, Ellen Chorley, Emma Houghton, Katie Hudson, Mark Vetsh, Holly Cinnamon, Eva Foote, Clinton Carew, and Mark Stubbing.

Letters to Laura is also new work, written by local actor Elisa Benzer (last seen in Honk!) and directed by Perry Gratton.  Benzer and Evan Hall (last seen in a small but essential part in Clybourne Park at the Citadel) perform in a gentle realistic contemporary story of people who meet, cautiously move toward romance, and awkwardly figure out whether their new relationship is sustainable long-distance.  I loved it that the story portrayed the use of electronic communication in a natural way rather than making fun of it.  Editing on the fly and accidentally sending an unplanned text message, not being prepared for the immediacy of a video call, the first escalation of hot messages in public and the awkward dance of backing off on that … all of that felt familiar and affectionate.   I liked the way both of them narrated some of the story directly to the audience, and I liked the parallels in the two viewpoints, especially as seen in Laura’s phone calls with her friend Beth and Marc’s phone calls with his mother.  The notes I took during the show also said “sex scene – pretty socks” which is not to imply that the rest of the view was unattractive at all, just that I also noticed that Marc had attractive patterned socks.

The Wonderheads‘ new show The Middle of Everywhere was, as expected, a wholehearted delight.  The troupe of Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix also included Emily Windler (Poe and Mathews) for a three-character story in mask with light and sound effects.  A little bit of voiceover at the beginning and end provided extra enjoyment but would not have been necessary to follow the story.   A lot of the story was just a fun exploration in a variety of fantasy settings.  I loved figuring out each new setting from the minimal clues, and at one point I was moved to tears by having bought in so completely that I’d forgotten it wasn’t a real possibility.  The Wonderheads are based in Portland Oregon, and they trained at the Del Arte school of physical theatre in California.

The last show I saw last night was The Show, or The Show to End All Shows (I’m not quite sure of the title), a new original work.  It was lightweight and short and it made me laugh.  It reminded me of a sort of vaudeville of various talent performances, strung together by the loose plot of what happens when most of the performers don’t show up for a show.  The Producer and Director (Rumi Jeraj and Roman Anthony) along with one of the techs (either Berkley Abbott or Griffin Schell) do a funny routine of putting on clown costumes before concluding that none of them know how to clown, for example.  An Opera Singer (Aniqa Charania) and a Musician (Sam Banigan, whom I last saw in Exposure, a Cradle to Stage production at the Walterdale last year) do a very funny duet of Averil Lavigne’s Skater Boy.  The program said that most of the performers are local high school students, but Jake Tkaczyk (U of A BFA class of 2017) was a late addition as Actor, bringing a hilarious manic energy as well as pomposity and vanity to the role.  Rumi Jeraj’s song-and-dance routine at the end was a delightful surprise.  The Show plays at Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, the one that advertises its air conditioning.

 

———–

The Fringe continues until Sunday August 24th.  Sonder‘s next show is tonight, Sunday at 9 pm at King Edward School. 

Cast of Sonder, postcard style

Sonder and the Fringe

The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is my favourite festival.   And counting down to the Fringe is like counting down to Christmas.  When I was a child, I used to ask my parents, Don’t you wish Christmas was tomorrow? Mum would sigh and Dad would grumble in their grownup ways saying that they didn’t wish Christmas was tomorrow because they weren’t ready.  I would explain that if Christmas was tomorrow they would be ready!  They didn’t buy it.

Anyway, every year as soon as Folkfest is over I start getting excited about the Fringe.  I already have my program and some show tickets, and my volunteering schedule for the beer tent.  I drove by the grounds last night and saw the barricades on some of the roads.  I’m clicking Maybe on all the Facebook events and trying to figure out how many I can see.  I’m looking forward to the parade, the food stands (especially Rustixx pizza), the out-of-town visitors, the excitement … but at the same time I’m feeling like one of those grown-ups who has a to-do list that has to happen first.

One of the things on my personal to-do list is to get caught up writing about other performances I’ve seen, so I can start the season fresh.  That will appear here in the next few days.

The other things are about getting everything ready for the new show that I’m producing, Sonder, with our company The ? Collective (you can pronounce that however you want, but we usually say “the question mark collective” – our twitter handle is @theqmcollective).  A friend and I put together a lottery entry last fall and were lucky enough to get selected to perform in a Fringe lottery venue, King Edward School.  That’s Venue 5, the elementary school, the low white building closer to the Fringe grounds, as opposed to the Academy which is the older brick building across the street.  My friend, Jake Tkaczyk, took on the roles of director and creation facilitator, gathering a small group of Red Deer College students to explore themes of interconnectedness and meaningful moments in a collaborative creation process.  The title Sonder came from the tumblr blog Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, in which the writer, John Koenig, coins many words for interesting concepts – in this case the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as one’s own.  As the work slowly took shape, Collette Radau contributed as dramaturg, Alex Boldt responded with original music and soundscapes, and all of us told and listened to many stories.

What we’ve come up with uses the techniques of performance art, movement, recitation, and narrative scenes real and surreal to show a series of moments in different people’s lives, from the everyday to the magical, funny and poignant and sometimes disturbing.   We’re excited about showing our creation to the Fringe community, and we’re also excited about experiencing the Fringe from the inside.   I’m the only one who’s been involved with a show in the past (as stage manager for WaMo Productions’ God on God 2013, 3 stars in the VUE and the Journal).  Some of the company members will be attending their first Edmonton Fringe, and I’m almost as excited about showing them the festival that made me fall in love with theatre in the first place.

But as I said at the beginning, I’ve got a to-do list between me and opening night (Thursday Aug 14th at 10 pm by the way).  The rest of our company arrives in town today, and our tech rehearsal is this afternoon.  We have posters to hang, handbills to hand out, programs to print, buttons to sell, and a parade to entertain you in (Thursday Aug 14th, 7:30 pm, Fringe grounds). We have a blog, a website, a Facebook event and page, a twitter account, and an indiegogo campaign (running til the 21st).

And we have tickets at the box offices for all our performances, $11 adult, $9 student/senior.  We’d love to see you there!

  • Thurs Aug 14th, 10 pm (opening)
  • Sun Aug 17th, 9 pm
  • Mon Aug 18th, 12:15 pm
  • Wed Aug 20th, 11:30 pm
  • Thurs Aug 21st, 4:00 pm
  • Sat Aug 23rd, 6:45 pm (closing)
Sonder cast rehearses family scene.  Erin Pettifor as the mother comforts her children (Julia Van Dam, Evan Macleod).

Sonder cast rehearses family scene. Erin Pettifor as the mother comforts her children (Julia Van Dam, Evan Macleod).

Sonder cast creates funeral vignette.  Evan Macleod as Doug the deceased.  Mourners left to right: Julia Van Dam, Emily Cupples, Tyler Johnson, Brittany Martyshuk.

Sonder cast creates funeral vignette. Evan Macleod as Doug the deceased. Mourners left to right: Julia Van Dam, Emily Cupples, Tyler Johnson, Brittany Martyshuk.

Skin Deep: self-created, site-specific, scenes, stories, and sculptures

The last performance assignment on the curriculum for the 2014 graduating class in Theatre Performance and Creation at Red Deer College was to create and perform some site-specific work off campus in some space not normally used for theatre.

The class chose the Red Deer Lodge hotel, and took advantage of several different spaces around the central courtyard of the hotel, starting in the lobby and leading the audience around.  There was a general theme of self-discovery, exposure, and the choices of how much to reveal, but the various scenes and vignettes used a variety of techniques and tactics, giving the performance some flavour of a showcase of skills developed.

Continuity was maintained by having Julia Van Dam as a guide.  Although she had a challenging trickster demeanour, it was reassuring in an apparently unstructured situation to see her red-gloved figure glide up and point us to where we should go next.  After some bits in the lobby of the hotel, the audience members were led to explore various glimpses around the courtyard, fights and dances and conversations, and then directed to a murder investigation in a hotel conference room.  That was good to have early on the program, while the audience was feeling uncomfortable with what was expected, because the characters (Wayne DeAtley, Victoria Day, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, Bret Jacobs, and Julia Van Dam) were easy to identify and the narrative arc straightforward.

After that, things got weirder, but we got more comfortable with it.  Some of the scenes took place in hotel bedrooms – Jen Suter and Jessica Bordley did a powerful invocation of tormented teenage girls in a scene that I thought was probably called “So Fucking Angry”, and Brittany Martyshuk and Jake Tkaczyk had an interesting concept of speaking together in the solitude of separate rooms with the help of crackling baby-monitors.  Some happened on a balcony over our heads.   Another one seated the audience in a conference room while dancers reflected on a curtain formed Rorschach-blot-like shapes in response to a patient’s (Taylor Pfeifer) answers to a nurse (Constance Isaacs).  Dustin Funk and Tyler Johnson were two homeless people in conflict.  Richard Leurer and Megan Einarson had a particularly disturbing scene in the hotel pool.  Some of the narrative in the performance was in rhyme, and some of it was recited in chorus.  There was quite a lot of expressive movement, possibly a bit too much, and there was some stage fighting, some dance, and some good tableaux.  There was a movement scene with, I think,  Jessica Bordley, Tyler Johnson, Chase Cownden, JP Lord, and Richard Leurer, narrated in rhyme by Julia Van Dam about friendship and romance and shifting loyalties that I liked a lot.

I was impressed that all the traffic-directing was done in a very organic way and that none of the performers fell out of character at all even when the audience probably wasn’t doing what they wanted us to.  I thought that the performance might have been a bit too long or too repetitive, but in general I enjoyed it a lot.  I liked the sense of wandering around with more going on than I was able to see.  Skin Deep continues Wednesday and Thursday this week, with information available at this Facebook page. 

Solo Flight for RDC students

One of the assignments for the graduating students in Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program is to develop and perform a solo piece, about 10 minutes long, acting as multiple characters.  The solos were performed this week, some on Thursday and some on Friday.  I attended the Friday show, and afterwards I wished I’d been able to see the other nine performances as well.  The Friday show was MCed by class member Richard Leurer, and other classmates who were not performing managed the tech and front of house duties, creating a friendly relaxed environment in the black-box space of Studio A, where I had seen first seen them perform a first-semester Showcase in December 2012.

The performers all acted as three or more different characters, signaling the shifts clearly to the audiences by changing position, posture, voice, and/or accent.  Most of the female performers played both male and female characters, with the most entertaining and convincing male character being Victoria Day’s crotch-scratching homeless man.  Bret Jacobs’ family story included a kind and entertaining Granny who aged along with the young protagonist.  Both age shifts were communicated effectively and with affection.  Jen Suter, Jessie Muir, Bret Jacobs, and Jake Tkaczyk all incorporated small child characters in their stories.

Jen Suter’s story of an overworked restaurant server, her unappealing co-worker, and her demanding patrons was a good choice to start the show because it was easy to understand and very funny.  Several of the creators/performers ventured away from real-world settings to include elements of adventure-science fiction (J-P Lord’s mismatched crew on a voyage across the galaxy), disturbing encounters with metaphysical powers (Collette Radau’s visits from the fear of death, Jessie Muir’s angelic demon), or an imagined dystopic future (Taylor Pfeifer’s world of addiction to bottled emotions).

Victoria Day and Constance Isaac both told powerful contemporary-world stories of teenagers struggling to cope with difficult family situations.  In Jake Tkaczyk’s piece, a seven-year-old protagonist encounters a couple of differently dangerous adults in a playground, and escapes disaster only because of the hostility between the malefactors, both of whom warn him about the other.

The program finished with Collette Radau’s work about encounters with a personified Fear of Death, but more generally about the experience of moving into an uncertain future.  It made me cry.

The show poster, reproduced above, was designed by Miranda Radau.

The Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation class of 2014 has one more set of public performances.  Skin Deep is a site-specific ensemble piece created by the performers.  It will be performed April 20-24 at a site in Red Deer, and more information is at this Facebook page.

Alice Through the Looking Glass, and what I found there

The audience is different at a matinee of a show advertised as suitable for families.  There are a lot more black velvet dresses and pink snow boots.  I overheard a discussion beforehand about how live theatre is different from movies, with an adult explaining that no, it’s not all going to be on that little screen, and I overheard a discussion afterwards with other audience members saying that they didn’t want to go home yet, they wanted to stay and talk to the characters.  It was also clear to me that some young members of the audience were restless during the long poems and songs, and they didn’t conceal that quite as effectively as I like to think that I do nowadays.  All that being said, I did not find any of the audience members badly behaved or disruptive of my enjoyment of the show.  And I did enjoy it.

Lewis Carroll’s story Alice Through the Looking Glass, written in 1873, was adapted for the stage by Jim DeFelice in 1974, with music written by Larry Reese.  The production currently playing at the Red Deer College Arts Centre Mainstage is directed by faculty member Lynda Adams, and the seven performers are all final year students in Theatre Performance and Creation.

Julia Van Dam played the eponymous Alice convincingly as an imaginative Victorian-era child of “seven years and six months”, daydreaming of imaginary worlds and then landing in an unexpected one where things don’t go the way she dreamed.  Her body language, more expressive than an adult’s but still restricted by custom and crinoline, conveys delight, responsibility, frustration, and relief, and her singing voice is up to the material while not seeming inappropriately adult.

The other six cast members all played multiple characters.  The story was simplified a little bit from the original, but they left in all the important characters – TweedleDum and TweedleDee (Jennifer Suter and Jessie Muir), Humpty Dumpty (Dustin Funk), and some of the chess pieces.  As in the original, and in the playing-card symbolism of Alice In Wonderland, it was interesting to see the chess pieces develop distinctive character traits – the Red King (Dustin Funk) is sleepy to the point of narcolepsy, the Red Queen (Jessica Bordley) is a stern parent/teacher figure hectoring Alice about manners and behaviour while the White Queen (Collette Radau) is endearingly gentle and bewildered, and the White King (Jake Tkaczyk) is forgetful and clumsy.  Except for the Red Queen and to some extent Humpty Dumpty, all the characters treat Alice as an adult with agency, and she readily takes on responsibilities of taking care of herself and of them.  This was satisfying to me as a child reader and was still so as an adult playgoer watching the story through her eyes.

I noticed other ways that my old reactions to the story coloured my responses to the play.  I started out scared of the Red Queen, but I think actually that came from being scared of the playing-card characters in Alice in Wonderland.  I thought the Walrus and Carpenter song was both too long and too disturbing, because that is how I felt about it when I first read it.  In this stage production, I really enjoyed the oysters-as-puppets though.  And I still felt impatient during Alice’s encounter with the White Knight (Jen Suter) in the penultimate square.  As in the book, it felt like an irrelevant delay in order to introduce yet another eccentric character and recite yet another poem.  Jen Suter plays the White Knight with a sort of cowboy accent, perhaps of a cowboy whose range extends from Montana to somewhere in the Old South, but her delivery of the repeated line about “it’s my oooown invention” was very funny, and I heard a lot of adult chuckles during that scene.  I loved the expressive movement and feathery menace of the Black Crow (Jessica Bordley) just before and just after intermission, as the White King flails around causing or harnessing a tornado with his queen’s long unmanageable shawl.

It’s not really a story with a conventional plot arc or a lot of continuity, just Alice’s goal of reaching the eighth row of the chessboard as a pawn so that she can become a queen.  One undercurrent of theme is about names and loss of identity, as several characters warn Alice about losing her name or challenge her to replace it.

In a pair of framing scenes at the beginning and end, Alice is a little girl in her own house interacting with her nurse (Collette Radau) and her cat Dinah (Jessie Muir, with amusingly-credible feline physicality).  The “real” world scenes are shown as silhouette shadows on a scrim, with black and white drawing showing a fireplace, mantelpiece mirror, and chessboard.  This created a magical contrast with the colourful three-dimensional Looking-Glass world, similar to the colour film effect in Wizard of Oz, although I did wonder whether it confused the family behind me, in which an adult had just explained that the live actors in the play weren’t going to be on the screen at all.  The initial scene also made very clever use of the optical trick of having one character farther from the light than the other, so that Alice standing up looked about the same height as her seated nurse.

Outside those scenes was a second framing, as the performance started with a single spotlight outside the curtain (and in fact, outside a “second frame” ornate-scrollwork
mirror-frame decoupaged with mirror-image text from the Jabberwock) illuminating a Storyteller (Jake Tkaczyk) in Victorian-period frock coat, top hat, and white gloves and still demeanour, who sings the Prelude song “Child of the pure unclouded brow”.  His well-trained mid-range voice would not be out of place in musical theatre and his changes in delivery for different parts of the song helped make sense of the rather abstract lyrical poetry.  After the ending scene with real-world Alice on the screen talking over the adventures with her cat, Tkaczyk begins to sing again in costume as the White King but with the Storyteller’s voice, and the curtain rises again on the Looking-Glass world as the other performers join in with the choral finale.  Again, this provides a pleasing symmetry while also covering the musical-theatre convention of an all-cast song leading to the curtain calls.

The chess-piece costumes were very clever, with wide padded stiff hoops at the rim of robes suspended from the performers’ shoulders.  Similar stiff hoops could be spotted at the bottom edges of the knights’ horses, at TweedleDum and TweedleDee’s trouser cuffs, and on various sleeve cuffs.  Alice’s costuming, pink white and black with ringlets and a big hairbow, suited the clear simple palette of the show, but drew attention with small patterns and details reminiscent of the little-girl fussiness of the Harajuku Girls (Gwen Stefani’s backup dancers).

The fantasy world’s set used a revolve painted with a chessboard grid, and a pile of different-height boxes consistent with the grid.  Various trees, flowers, and so on continue the theme of coloured squares.  As I had been spending time with a young nephew before the show I was immediately reminded of the video game Minecraft, but that may not have been intentional.  The momentary jarring sensation when I heard the phrase “grassy knoll” on the 50th anniversary of J.F. Kennedy’s death was certainly not intentional.  The backdrop included a whirling Fibonacci-sequence checkerboard cloud formation.  Four stage technicians, students in the Theatre Production program, (Michael Johnson, Jordan Kruithof, Astrid Olivares, Jesse Robbins) contributed visibly to the production, as hands appearing in tables to serve drinks, crew of the Fourth-Square Express train, and especially at discovering Humpty Dumpty after his fall.

In the early performances I saw, there was possibly a little bit of sound balancing inconsistency in the first choral number, “Through the Glass”, and a few places where a performer was not speaking clearly enough to be easily heard from the middle of the big auditorium.  But those are easy details which will likely be corrected before this week’s performances, running Tuesday through Saturday (Nov 26 through 30), with tickets available through Black Knight Ticket Centre as usual.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

An audience member studies the set for Through the Looking Glass at intermission.

Another Comedy of Errors

There are lots of Shakespeare plays that I’ve never seen, studied, or read.  I’ve heard of people who make a point of saving one Shakespeare play so they have something to look forward to … but it’s usually Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus, something after Shakespeare was on the way to jumping the shark.  Anyway, until this year, I hadn’t watched Comedy of Errors at all.  Or studied it, or even read it.  But this summer I enjoyed a production of Comedy of Errors in the tent at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and then I went to the rap adaptation Bomb-itty of Errors directed by Dave Horak at the Edmonton Fringe.  And then in October I attended a Comedy of Errors production done by Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation students and directed by Jeff Page.

The set visible before the play started hinted at a fantasy setting, with playful pastel triangles painted on a city backdrop and courtyard flooring.  Then a drumroll and change in the lightning were followed by solemn standard-bearers and then the solemn entrance of the Duke of Ephesus (Julia van Dam) followed by her frail and bedraggled prisoner, Aegeon (JP Lord).  After the long exposition necessary in the first scene, where Aegeon explains about his wife having been lost at sea with one twin son and one twin slave-companion and the Duke explains that although she feels pity for him, she won’t make an exception to the law banning Syracusians, the action speeds up.  Antipholus of Syracuse (Jake Tkaczyk) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jen Suter), the bewildered travellers, stumble into a cheerful busy marketplace, with bubbly 1960s-inspired pop music in the background.  The costumes too seem to evoke the playful early 1960s, with ice-cream colours, argyle vests, and minidresses.  Soon the play’s theme of mistaken identity becomes clear, as various locals confuse the visiting Antipholus and Dromio for their identical-twin namesakes who live in the town, and the local pair (Richard Leurer as Antipholus of Ephesus and Brittany Martyshuk as Dromio of Ephesus) appear alternately with very similar body language and costuming, making the mix-up credible.  Leurer and Tkaczyk have almost identical jaw-hanging confused expressions.  Adriana, the impatient wife of Antipholus of Ephesus who is waiting the midday meal for her absent husband, is played with irritation and then increasing worry that her husband’s unexplained behaviour might mean that he is unfaithful, by Victoria Day.  Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana (Constance Isaac) has some amusing stage business with high heeled pumps that hurt her feet.  Other local characters complicating the plot include Angelo (Tyler Johnson) a pompous prosperous goldsmith with tailored Nehru jacket and walking stick, an unnamed courtesan (Megan Einarson) in gogo boots with some outrageously flirtatious audience interaction, the Duke’s overeager executioner (Wayne De Atley) and the soothsayer Doctor Pinch (Jessie Muir), an odd steampunk cross between a psychotherapist and a psychic.  The servant Luce, who horrifies Dromio of Syracuse when she mistakes him for her husband Dromio of Ephesus, is played by Bret Jacobs.  Casting Jacobs was an inspired choice for director Jeff Page, since he plays the bossy cook and affectionate wife with hilarious gusto, but also because Dromio of Syracuse’s speech about her being repulsive because she is fat and dark-skinned is both funnier and more acceptable to my modern ears when the character is played by a man.  Another aspect of Shakespeare’s tale that made me uncomfortable on reading and on viewing of the previous productions was the way that the Dromio characters are treated by the Antipholus characters who own them/employ them and were raised together with them, with physical beating as well as verbal abuse.  Again, a directorial choice in this production made that aspect a little more ridiculous and less disturbing, with most of the beating being done using rolled up newspapers.

The courtesan and her retinue performed an original musical number, Nothing but Love, by Edmonton musician Paul Morgan Donald, in a sort of bubbly sixties pop style.  It was fun to watch and listen to, and it is still stuck in my head more than a month later.  It didn’t really advance the plot, but that didn’t matter.

As things get more and more confused and messed up for the fellows from Syracuse, I noticed that they became more and more disheveled with every entrance, jackets lost, shirttails untucked, bow tie undone and almost falling off.  Their Ephesian twins, more domestic and prosperous, didn’t get quite as unravelled.

And then just before things fall apart completely, the tidy denouement worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan has the twins reuniting, the Abbess (Collette Radau, in full habit and wimple subduing audience and citizens with intimidating facial expressions) declaring herself to be the missing wife of Aegeon, and everyone getting their money and jewellery back.

I was particularly impressed by Julia Van Dam’s performance as the Duke of Ephesus.  Her physicality conveyed the character’s undoubted authority, and it was clear in the first scene that the Duke regretted being unable to pardon Aegeon but was unwilling to break the law.  She didn’t play the part as a man; the Duke was referred to with female pronouns and this worked just fine.

The next play in the Red Deer College performance series, featuring some of these performers, is a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, adapted by Jim DeFelice with music by Larry Reese.  It opens tomorrow night, Thursday November 21st, at 7:30 pm on the Mainstage at the RDC Arts Centre.