Tag Archives: leona brausen

Betrayal, by Harold Pinter

Betrayal runs in reverse order – scenes from the end of an affair to its start several years earlier.  I didn’t know very much else about it beforehand, but that bit helped.   In the first scene, Elena Porter’s character Emma and Chris W Cook’s character Jerry are meeting for a drink a couple of years after their affair ended.  They both seemed terse, brittle, understated, and careful with each other.  Was that was due to their characters, the history between them, or just some mythical British reserve? It wasn’t clear.  Within a few more scenes I’d also watched each of them interact with Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend Robert (Cody Porter), and I was thinking that none of them seemed very happy, with each other or in general.

But as I learned in a playwriting class, flashbacks and hints raise the stakes.  How did these people get in this unhappy situation?  I wanted to find out, and I was primed to watch for clues.  In the first scene, Emma and Jerry share news of various people who had been in each other’s lives – Robert, Jerry’s wife Judith, their respective children, other associates.  None of these people ever appears on stage, but they are all mentioned as the story rewinds back through the years, and I realized that the conversations in the first scene weren’t so much awkward time-filling as significant information about what had happened.

The various scenes take place in bars and restaurants, in Emma and Robert’s home, in a tourist hotel, and in the flat Jerry and Emma had rented for afternoon rendezvous.  Director/designer Clinton Carew has made some fascinating choices in how to use the small black-box space of the Arts Barns Studio Theatre, with furniture for each setting poised not quite out of sight in multiple legs on either side, arranged asymmetrically.  The pub table where Jerry and Emma meet in the first scene is far upstage, constrained in a narrow space far from the audience.  As the story progresses backwards in time, the scenes are played closer and closer to the audience risers.  This reminded me of this company’s production of Three Sisters several years ago, in which the family’s gradual uprooting from their family home is paralleled by the actors gradually piling up abandoned furniture upstage and moving down until they end up almost in the audience moat.

All this furniture moving takes place with the help of a character moving with precise almost fussy physicality (Jake Tkaczyk, recently seen with Elena Porter in the Shadow Theatre production of Lungs).  He turns out to be a restaurant waiter in one of the later/earlier scenes.

Costume design is by Leona Brausen.  My impression in the first few scenes is that everything is colourless grey and beige, with all the characters in trenchcoats.   But as the years rewind to happier and more vulnerable times, the palette of costuming and lighting shifts warmer as well, towards a warm master-bedroom of affection and Emma’s splendid red party frock consistent with the characters’ feelings.

I’ve seen Chris W Cook playing many characters who are well-meaning stoner bros without a future, earnest and a little stupid, shortsighted and limited in worldview – the drugged-up guy in 3…2…1 bragging about contributing to his customers’ health as a Subway sandwich artist, the young fellow in Sweat getting out of jail with the swastika neck tattoo, the drinking buddy in Nighthawk Rules trying to drag his old friend away from his grownup boring girlfriend, the wannabe-artist in The Aliens.  But in some ways his turtleneck-sporting character in Betrayal is the opposite of those – a well-spoken successful literary agent and, as one of my preview-night companions said afterwards, “a complete cad.”

The playwright Harold Pinter is known for effective use of silences in conversation “the Pinter pause”, and having seen this production I can see why.   In the stillnesses I wondered what Robert wasn’t saying, what Emma wanted to say, what Jerry was being careful about.  I found Cody Porter’s constrained facial expressions particularly compelling.  I kept wanting him to smile – I kept wanting them all to smile – but he always seemed to be in pain.

I’d like to see Betrayal again, especially to watch those beginning scenes knowing where they come from.  But once is sufficient to understand the story, to have some sympathy for the not-entirely-likeable characters, and to be challenged and entertained.  Betrayal runs until the afternoon of Sunday June 2, with tickets through Fringe.

 

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 theatre adventures in Old Strathcona

The big ticket for my week was opening night of Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, at the Walterdale Playhouse, directed by Janine Waddell Hodder.

It was going to be my first encounter with Molière, so I picked up a copy of an English translation of the text in a used book store to prepare, and I used Wikipedia to learn that Molière was a 17th century writer of comedy, so working about a century later than Shakespeare and Cervantes.  I looked at the cast of characters, started reading, and was dismayed to realise a few pages in that it was not only written in poetry lines like Shakespeare but it rhymed.  Application to internet resources confirmed that it rhymed in the original too.  I don’t know why this annoyed me, since I am fond of rhyme in a stage-musical context.  But it did.  Anyway, I read the first couple of acts before going to see the play.

This was my first time attending anything at the Walterdale other than Fringe shows.  It has comfortable seats on risers on two sides of a biggish thrust stage, and good acoustics.

I thought the play was very funny, and it probably would have been funnier for someone with a more intimate knowledge of the source text.  For one thing, the dialogue (some of it possibly a different Molière translation than I’d read, and some of it completely modern) was in the same kind of rhyme and metre used in the source text.  The actors – especially Brennan MacGregor who played Alceste – did a great job phrasing the long speeches for sense rather than emphasising the metre.  In the first scene, Alceste and his sidekick John (Zachary Parsons-Lozinski) were talking very quickly, which was part of the humour but it took a bit more effort to follow.  Some of the rhymes were gratuitous enough to be inherently funny:  boring and Andy Warhol drawing, for example, which works as a rhyme in the sort of Estuary English that character was using.  The characters had a variety of English and American accents consistent with their origins (with a little bit of French and a minor character something else – maybe Northern Irish?), and I thought the accents were well done, enhancing the story rather than detracting from it.

In the Molière story, the main character Alceste (the eponymous misanthrope) insists he prefers blunt direct speech, but he is in love with a woman named Célimène, who says cutting things to everyone but only behind their backs.  One early scene illustrating Alceste’s character has him and his sidekick Philinte listening to a bad poem someone else has written about Célimène, and then Alceste telling the writer how crap it is.

In the version I saw, Alceste is a modern-day playwright in London, and the catty woman he’s in love with is Jennifer (Afton Rentz), an American movie star.  The equivalent critique scene involves a drama critic (Bill Roberts) who begs Alceste to listen to a play he has written – well, more like a draft, a scene, notes for a scene.  It’s awful, of course.  Bill Roberts’ delivery is painfully good, and Alceste and John’s different ways of responding are very funny.  Jennifer’s naïve repetition of good lines at her friends’ expense goes bad in the way a more media-savvy person would expect, and wacky hijinks ensue.

One of the funniest things about this play was the way that every now and then there would be some allusion to Molière or the 17th century, culminating in everyone except Alceste showing up at the end in period costume for a party, while delivering the lines that worked equally well in the movie start’s hotel suite and in the French court.

It was also thought-provoking for me because I’m definitely not a person like Alceste who enjoys delivering blunt critique directly, and I don’t like receiving it either.  I’m more like John, preferring a world where people are kind to each other first. This probably makes me not a very interesting reviewer, especially since I admire people who take creative risks in public so much that I just want to be a fangirl.  Is it possible to be kind in person without being cutting in private?  Sometimes sharing the good lines is hard to resist, so does that make me like Jennifer?   Food for thought.

As you can see from my example, you don’t need to know very much about the original play to enjoy the adaptation and pick up on some of the inside jokes.  The Misanthrope is playing at the Walterdale Playhouse until December 15th, tickets at Tix on the Square.  Also, the program says it’s 3 hours long – that’s a typo; it’s about 2 hours with intermission.

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My other new theatregoing experience this week was that I went to Die-Nasty for the first time.  Die-Nasty is a very-long-form improv show at the Varscona Theatre: a season-long soap-opera with an installment every Monday night.  This year it’s a Tennessee-Williams’-flavoured story of the lives of interconnected families in the Deep South, which leads itself easily to parody.  Most of the audience seemed to be regulars, familiar with the characters and the routine of the show, and many of them had season passes with reserved seats.  There was a brief summary of story-to-date in the program, and each character got a brief monologue to introduce himself or herself before the action got going.  And there were lots of odd characters, similar to stock characters of that setting but with enough specifics to be original.  There was one line with a possible interpretation in poor enough taste to disturb me (calibration – this rarely happens for me at improv performances), but in general it was just silly.  I couldn’t work out how much of it was planned ahead of time – the narrator would introduce each scene or vignette like “meanwhile, back at the Beaumont plantation, the lawyer has some bad news”, and then the actors would do that scene.

A bonus for Edmonton theatregoers is the number of familiar faces on the stage, including Peter Brown of the CBC, Donovan Workun, Leona Brausen, Mark Meer, Matt Alden, and others.  Die-Nasty tickets are also available at Tix on the Square, with performances every Monday (except Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve).