Last night was the preview of the last Shadow Theatre show at the Varscona before they close for the long-awaited renovations – the first time of the last time.
John Hudson directed Scott Sharplin’s two-hander about the relationship between two awkward diffident quirky characters, Ben (Mat Busby) and Airlea (Madeleine Suddaby). The characters start by addressing the audience directly, explaining that they’re going to tell the story of their relationship and then getting sidetracked in questions of the definition of story and the definition of relationship. I’ve seen Mat Busby before doing characters whose social awkwardness was part of their charm (The Jazz Mother, The Invention of Romance), and although Ben was not the same character as either of those I appreciated him in a similar way. Airlea was the more outgoing one of the pair, more resistant to romance or commitment, but a recurring theme is her wanting him to dance and him refusing.
A succession of scenes interspersed with bits of narration to the audience shows the progression of their lives and their interactions, from the night they first meet through deciding to stay together with “no ties and no lies”, the life-milestone of friends’ weddings, and then working out what they want as the original “contract” becomes less of a good fit. Their banter starts out charming and very believable, and the deeper issues encountered later in their lives are addressed with home truth and a light touch.
Cultural referents that wrapped around the story include “The Lady, or The Tiger?” (the Frank Stockton short story), “Let’s Do It” (the Cole Porter standard), and astrology vs astronomy. A small symbolic gesture including the audience near the end brought me to tears with its simple perfection. First Time Last Time runs until March 29th, with advance tickets available at Tix on the Square.
Shadow Theatre’s current production Sequence is their last in the Varscona Theatre before it closes for major renovations. Calgary playwright Arun Lakra entwines two stories to explore the topics of luck, probability, providence, genetics, free will, religion, dramatic coincidence, Fibonacci series, and disability. John Hudson was director.
In one story, Coralie Cairns plays a cranky tenacious genetics professor and researcher who is going blind, and Chris W. Cook plays an unusual student. In the other story, Frank Zotter plays a very lucky man, on a book tour to promote his book about luck, and Caley Suliak plays an audience member who wants to benefit from or to disprove his streak of luck. The action switches from one side of the stage to the other, at first with no apparent connections between the themes or narratives but various similarities gradually arising. The show program includes two pages of glossary for the scientific terms and science-fiction-culture terms used by Cairns’ character. I’d like to say that I didn’t need any of it, but reading them ahead of time did add to my understanding. The cleverly-plotted piece seems to follow the Chekov’s gun rule strictly, but near the end I was not completely sure that I knew what the playwright had intended the connections and resolutions to be.
The set (designed by Lisa Hancharek) was also filled with fascinating details such as wall shelves reminiscent of representations of DNA spirals.
Sequence continues at the Varscona until this Sunday afternoon, November 16th, with advance tickets at Tix on the Square and cash tickets at the door.
Part of the handful of theatre ticket vouchers that I acquired in the Rapid Fire Theatre Date Night auction in January was a pair of tickets to see Eugene Strickland’s Queen Lear, a Shadow Theatre production at the Varscona Theatre. John Hudson directed, and the cast included Alison Wells as Jane, Ellie Heath as Heather, and Diana Nuttall as The Cellist. The Cellist did not have a speaking role, but she was an active contributor to the story, as the music seemed to represent Jane’s inner thoughts and emotions. Jane could hear the music, and sometimes it was loud enough to distract her or irritate her, even to the point of yelling “shut up!” The Cellist also had an expressive face, showing what she was thinking about the various conversations and actions on stage. I really enjoyed what the music and the musician added to the performance.
Jane is an actor in her 70s, who has been cast as Lear in an all-female production and who is anxious about being able to memorize her lines. Heather is a 15yo family friend whom Jane has hired to run lines with her. The show in which I’d seen Ellie Heath most recently, KIA Productions’ Closer, also takes advantage of the actor’s skill at using unguarded facial expressions and casual postures to emphasize her character being younger than the others. As Heather, she’s a likeable young person with good manners but she is blunt, impatient, and uninterested in the problems of her elders. In each scene, Jane and Heather work through a bit of the script in order, and they gradually get to knowing and trusting each other. Heather lives with her widowed father. Jane lives alone and is lonely and sometimes worried about being able to perform adequately in the play.
Costumes and stage dressing make a beautiful warm autumn-colours palette. In the final scene, we see a small excerpt from the performance of Lear, with Jane in a rich gown too heavy for her and with Heather playing Cordelia, and it is so effective that it made me and my playgoing companion wish to see a whole production of King Lear with the title role being a woman. Parts of the performance made me think about the third season of Slings and Arrows, and how easy it is to entwine the story of an aging performer with the struggles of playing King Lear. Having it be a woman made me get it more, I think, too.
The run continues at the Varscona Theatre until March 30th. More details are here along with a link to Tix on the Square. It’s worth seeing, and generates lots to talk about.