Tag Archives: lianna makuch

Memories and witnesses in Blood of Our Soil

One of the powers of live theatre is that it can educate audience members about horrible things that happened or are happening.  Sometimes people with privileged and busy lives like mine kind of missed reading about world events or unpleasant parts of history.  I’m not sure whether it’s worse nowadays, when first encounters with news might come through the filter of which stories from which sources the people on my Facebook feeds choose to link and when we get to hear about so many awful things happening that it’s easy to be distracted by the next one, or whether it was worse in the past when there was no way around mass media, nobody tweeting from war zones.

Live theatre can also be an effective way of making sense of traumatic stories experienced by parents and grandparents, placing them in context and sharing them with a wider public.  In Empire of the Son, which played earlier this year at the Citadel, the performer-creator Tetsuro Shigematsu tells some of his father’s stories, including being a Japanese child during World War II and experiencing fallout from Hiroshima (literal fallout).  In Children of God, which previews at the Citadel starting tomorrow, Corey Payette and his creative team will show us some stories of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, and how the experience affected them and their families later.  And in Blood of Our Soil, which opened last night at the Arts Barns Westbury Theatre, playwright and performer Lianna Makuch, director Patrick Lundeen, and the Pyretic Productions team show us some details of the hardships of Ukrainian people over the last 90 years or so, in a format that felt human-scale, touching and inspiring, and also showed me how much I just don’t know about that part of the world. 

The Westbury Theatre space was arranged in a way that felt more three-dimensional and alive than I’ve ever seen it.  Stephanie Bahniuk’s design had dim dappled lighting full of mist exposing a thrust stage area crisscrossed with laundry lines above, and damaged buildings towards the back, with projections (Nicholas Mayne) showing glimpses of life through the windows.  Closer inspection revealed that the buildings all seemed to be constructed of old wooden pallets/skids.  It reminded me of the set for Irma Voth, but come to life in three dimensions instead of being flat and behind the action.

The first act follows a fairly conventional solo-narration format, with Makuch switching back and forth between a character like herself and her Baba (grandma), signalling the switch by pulling her kerchief over her hair and sometimes changing her accent.  Larissa Pohoreski provides some musical background, and the other performers Oscar Derkx, Julia Guy, Maxwell Lebeuf, and Tanya Pacholok create a chorus of expressive movement, occasional song, and joyful folk-dance.

At the end of the first act, the dying Baba tells her granddaughter to go home for her, go to her home in Ukraine.

The second act is all contemporary.  Makuch relates how the narrator travels not only to the village and house of her grandmother’s memories, but to the current war zone of Eastern Ukraine.  In this act, the other performers all represent people she gets to know in the areas touched by war, young former soldiers (Derkx and Lebeuf), Russian-speaking sisters whose brother had been killed in Kyiv participating in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (Pohoreski and Pacholok), and a young mother, an internally displaced person living with her small child in a hostel and longing for an apartment and a job and hope (Guy).  I found this character particularly compelling, abrupt and mistrustful, with her fierce protectiveness expanding from herself and her daughter to cover the Canadian visitor as well.  Makuch is painfully honest in showing the visitor’s naiveté and questioning her motives, which impressed me.  Suddenly I remembered the first performance in which I had ever seen her, Greg MacArthur‘s The Missionary Position, which illustrated the harm done by well-meaning misguided Canadian visitors in a place like Haiti.   The audience gets to share in the narrator’s astonishment that in an area of recent/ongoing conflict, “veteran” doesn’t fit the connotations we might have here, old men and women in Legion jackets.  She gets drunk with the young former fighters, and they tell her stories, not just stories of fighting but of how the fighting affected their relationships with women, some of them very funny.

Blood of Our Soil runs at the Arts Barns until March 9th, with tickets available here.


Morgan Smith’s Cheerleader! – a reading at the Timms

After taking a couple months off from posting (I’ve still been doing theatre stuff and watching shows, and I hope to share my notes with you and get caught up soon), the first production I am posting about is the one I didn’t get to see, the ticket I didn’t get to use – Human Loser’s production of Morgan Smith’s Cheerleader, scheduled to open at the Roxy Theatre last week under Clinton Carew’s direction.

Because, as anyone in the Edmonton theatre scene already knows, the Roxy Theatre building burned down last Tuesday morning, just as Cheerleader was set to start preview performances.   The building was built in 1938 as a movie theatre, and had been home to Theatre Network since 1989.  Theatre Network, under the artistic direction of Bradley Moss, produces an annual schedule of challenging professional theatre, often new and often Canadian, hosts the emerging-artists festival Nextfest in the spring, and also curates a “Performance Series” of works from other theatre companies, like Cheerleader.  I had been looking forward to this play, being familiar with the work of local actors Joleen Ballandine (last seen in the Fringe Festival comedies Real Time and Excuse Me! and as a regular player at Rapid Fire improv), Patrick Lundeen (Kill Me Now, Sia, Christmas Carol, etc), and Lianna Makuch (U of A BFA grad I’ve also seen on several local stages since she graduated).

Playwright Morgan Smith hopes to have arrangements in place soon for a local production to do this script justice, after replacing the lost props, costumes, and set.  But they were able to do a bare-stage reading last night at the University of Alberta Timms Centre Mainstage, thanks to the generosity of the Timms Centre and the Department of Drama.

What I heard and saw last night confirmed that I will definitely take the opportunity to see the full production.

I had never been to a staged reading before.  The playwright and the actors were all on a simply lit bare stage with chairs and with scripts on music stands.  The playwright read the stage directions.  The actors stood when they were in the scene and sat down when they weren’t.  Instead of looking at each other or hitting each other or embracing each other as the script called for, they all faced the audience and mimed a bit as needed.  This was a bit distracting at first but was easy to get used to.  It reminded me of attending the recording of a radio show like The Irrelevant Show.

The two most enjoyable parts were the parts that were acted out, which is part of why I want to see the rest of the show acted out.  The show opened with a delightful cheerleading routine / dance number involving all four characters with pompoms.  And partway through there was a hilarious non-verbal scene set in a row of cinema seats, with people changing seats, sharing popcorn, making out, and disagreeing.

The characters in the story were four high school students, two football players (Patrick Lundeen and Matthew McKinney of Calgary) and two cheerleaders (Lianna Makuch and Joleen Ballandine).  The head cheerleader (Makuch) and the quarterback (Lundeen) seemed to be the “alpha couple” of the school, with the other two as their respective best friends.  Each of the characters was shown to have some familial or personal challenges, using the narrative techniques of monologue asides or scenes with the other actors standing in as teachers and family members.  There was also some narrative framing of Lianna Makuch’s character telling the story to the audience by directing the others to act it out, which was particularly amusing as the narrative ended, but because of the nature of the reading I found this framing a bit confusing.  I am sure it would be more clear in a fully-staged performance.

The story seemed to be taking place in a one-week timeframe, as the other characters planned a surprise birthday party for Lundeen’s character on the next Saturday night.  Some of the situations and attitudes seemed fairly predictable, although not boring or stereotypical, but the characters were interesting enough to intrigue me.

Joleen Ballandine’s character Sophie was the most interesting to me, as the cheerleader-sidekick in unrequited love with her female best friend.  The scene in which she vents her internalized homophobia in a vicious phone call to an offstage gay character is compellingly awful and unfortunately credible.

Donations to Theatre Network may be made on line through Canada Helps.  I know that Human Loser Theatre was collecting donations last night to re-mount Cheerleader, but I don’t know if they also have an on-line donation option.  (I’ll link later if I find out anything.)

Citadel season ends with Make Mine Love

The first thing that made me happy about attending the Citadel Theatre production of Tom Wood’s new comedy Make Mine Love – no wait, the second one, after a visit with my season-ticket companion and a glass of red wine in the lobby – was recognising names in the program.  There were ten actors on stage, and I had seen all of them in other shows.  As well, there were many familiar names credited with performing or working on the video bits, including Patrick Lundeen and Lianna Makuch, Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Andrea Rankin.

And after that?  Well, there was Rebecca Northan.  As far as I’m concerned, Rebecca Northan makes this show.  The plot is fun, the other characters are amusing (especially those played by Mark Meer, Jana O’Connor, and Julien Arnold), the special effects are … I don’t know if they are simple or complicated, but there were several things that are seen in old-time movies but never or rarely seen on stage, except for here.  For example, there was a scene set on a train … and someone clinging to the side of the train and slipping backwards, one window at a time.  With the help of some video clips, there was a car chase scene with gunfire and the car spinning around.  The costumes, sets, and accents built the environments of New York City and Hollywood in 1938.  And the great love story of two movie stars, (John Ullyatt and Rebecca Northan) has some not quite predictable details, most of which were improvements.    But Rebecca Northan was great, and great fun.

Now I will note a few of those details, so don’t read further if you’d like to be surprised.  (I do – which is why I try to go to previews).

It is refreshing indeed to have the powerful demanding leading-lady turn out to be actually competent, not just in acting but in other skills like fixing cars.

The storyline about how she only gets to be friends with him because she thinks he is gay … it was a little weird how the writer had to find expressions for that which sounded period, but also sounded cute and not offensive to modern ears.  I did not entirely buy how quickly she forgave him for the layers of deception, but, hey, whatever.

I liked the subplot about the dancer (Alex McCooeye, who was in Spamalot) teaching the starlet (Lisa Norton, who was in Penelopiad) how to tell a story in her singing.  It was believable and satisfying.

And I liked the tiny romantic bit with a same sex couple (Sarah Machin Gale and Jana O’Connor) which was not played for laughs.  After spending most of my vacation budget on Broadway shows, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more queer and genderqueer men in the shows I was watching, than there were women of non-standard sexuality or gender expression.  So it was nice to come home and see two women together on stage at the Citadel.

Make Mine Love continues until June 1st at the Shoctor Theatre (the big auditorium at the Citadel).  It’s not great theatre but it’s good fun, and especially enjoyable if, like me, you like watching Rebecca Northan.




A few of the thousand faces

Last night a friend took me along to the Thousand Faces Festival, which explores myths from around the world in a variety of performance media.  We attended two events, a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a Mythic Poetry Brothel.

Macbeth is a familiar enough story, full of archetypes and supernatural elements and sayings that have entered common use, that it fit easily into the theme of myth.  This production was not the most compelling one I have seen, but it was fast-paced and had some good moments.  Macbeth was played by Elliot James, who I last saw as a worse-than-archetypal asshole cop in Dirt.  He had some of that character’s swagger, and not very much regret.  Bobbi Goddard, a BFA Acting student at U of A, was Lady Macbeth (while also playing in When the Rain Stops Falling this week).   Other familiar local actors were also involved – Oscar Derkx, Mat Simpson, Lianna Makuch – but there were no printed programs and the headshot display in the lobby was incomplete and didn’t identify roles.  I also don’t remember who directed it and can’t find that information anywhere today.

The Mythic Poetry Brothel, a coffee-house style event, started in the beer garden behind the Alberta Avenue community hall but migrated smoothly into the hall when the night got cool.   Local poets (including Colin Matty and Tim Mikula) read or recited their work in character as various deities, and additional entertainment was provided by MC Morgan Smith and an interesting collection of musicians and dancers.  The “Brothel” part of the event title probably referred to the opportunity to get private readings by making a donation to a poet.  Sort of like table dances I guess.

The Thousand Faces festival resumes next Friday evening.  I love living in a city which has such an assortment of arts festivals, including small ones like this with admission by donation.

“Just because I’m a legend, doesn’t mean I’m not real”

The Snow Globe Festival of Children’s Theatre is happening until Saturday evening at C103 (next to the Yardbird Suite in the parking lot of the Strathcona Market).  There are three plays, and some interstitial amusements between.  The schedule allows for school groups on weekdays, and performances for the general public in the evenings and Saturday afternoon.  Two of the plays in this year’s festival are new work, Boogie Monster Club by Ben Gorodetsky and Brother Platypus & Sister SuKat Go To The Sea by Spirot with Khiara Quigley.  The third is How to Eat Like a Child, the musical based on Delia Ephron’s book.

This evening I enjoyed a performance of Boogie Monster Club, directed by Andrew Ritchie (most recently AD on Bitches and Money 1878) and featuring Ben Gorodetsky, Lianna Makuch, and Todd Houseman, all familiar faces. The premise of this show is that kids from different cultures grow up with different nightmare-monsters, and that those monsters have emigrated to Canada or moved to Edmonton following the kids they want to frighten.  Each of the performers plays an Edmonton kid about ten years old (Vovo from Ukraine, Maggie from South Africa, and Dustin from Hobbema the small mostly-Cree town south of the city), and also plays a monster (Wendigo the malevolent Cree spirit, Baba Yaga the mortar-and-pestle-flying witch, and Tikoloshe, an evil spirit from Zulu mythology that likes to bite sleeping people’s toes).  As the monsters, they wore character masks and cloaks, with appropriate body language, voice, and credible accent.  And they were quite different.  The Wendigo still had power over the child of his culture, and was noticeably the scariest of the three, with big black eyes in a blank mask.  Tikoloshe was almost cute, low to the ground and wearing something that reminded me of a costume from Cats.  And Baba Yaga, of whom I had been quite frightened when I read illustrated stories about her as a child, was hilarious in her attempts to be scarier and her mispronunciations.  I can imagine that she would have had a roomfull of ten-year-olds rolling on the floor and repeating her funny lines and gestures all day or until the teacher made them stop the peeing-my-pants action.   But the part that had me guffawing more was when she stood at the child’s bedside musing about how to be scarier and he sat up and said “You can’t monologue in here – I need my nap!”

Interestingly, the play managed happy endings for both conflicting groups, the children who wanted to banish the nightmares and the monsters who wanted to be scary again.  There was a little bit of summing up the life lessons that struck me as too heavy-handed for my taste, but was probably appropriate for the intended elementary-school audience.   It was clever and fun and had a sweet relevant message.  Tix on the Square has tickets for all three shows, but the schedule for the rest of the festival is easiest to read on Facebook.

Rent, Borderland, and other stories: Fringe 2013

On Sunday I arranged to take a night off from working backstage at God on God, because that was the only way I could see RentGod on God’s VUE review has three stars, by the way, and is running every night at 8 pm and Friday and Saturday at 10pm too.

Of course, I fitted in a few more shows as well.

Borderland – Izad Etamadi’s one-person show about a gay man leaving Iran, one of the eleven countries where homosexuality or sodomy is a crime legally punishable by death.   The performer plays three characters – Navid the would-be refugee, Zia who helps him escape, and Leila, a woman who takes care of him after he moves to Turkey and gives us glimpses of her own story as an “ugly woman” in a patriarchal culture.  His portrayal of Leila, and his transformation to the female character by turning his back and flirting his hips while donning a headscarf, were amusing without quite crossing into ridicule.  I wanted to hear more of that character’s story.  The performer also sang unaccompanied, both in Persian (I think) and in English.  The English material was original and in the musical-theatre idiom, and it reminded me somehow of local musician Joel Crichton.

Nashville Hurricane – I missed seeing Chase Padgett’s 6 Guitars at last year’s Fringe, so I was curious about his 2013 show.  This year’s solo performance reminded me of a short story, the kind of short story that’s an affectionate sad portrayal of characters in the rural South and in the music business.  He spoke as four characters, each with his or her own mannerisms and accent.  The eponymous character was a young musician who was probably autistic, and the others were various adults in his life.  The show I attended was sold out, and I didn’t look at my watch once.  Chase Padgett was so good that for a little while I felt like my own storytelling aspirations were futile.

Capital City Burlesque’s Elvis Odyssey – This show had solo pieces and group numbers, loosely tied together with the themes of Elvis Presley music and a global survey of cultures.  Along with nine or ten burlesque dancers, all talented, attractive, and seeming to enjoy themselves, other features of the show included Tim Mikula (of Rapid Fire Theatre and Doctor Jokes) as master of ceremonies, an impressive troupe of belly dancers called Les Trois Femmes, and costumed support staff – the Panty Zamboni and the Merch Girl.  I hadn’t seen this troupe before and I definitely want to watch for their shows in future.  An interesting note is that their Sunday-afternoon Fringe shows are “covered”, meaning that the dramatic finish of an act usually involves sparkly pasties on top of a bra.  This is a bit odd, but probably a nice touch to expose them (ahem) to a wider audience.    The show started a little late and ran a bit later than scheduled, which was frustrating to me at a satellite venue during Fringe when I had another show elsewhere to get to shortly afterwards.

Excuse Me … This is the Truth – This well-done story gently poked fun at the culture of contemporary enthusiastic Christianity, as backdrop to the sweet tale of a boy (Jessie McPhee) caught between his bossy longtime girlfriend (Joleen Ballandine) and a new friend (Lianna Makuch) who appreciates his interests and makes him notice that his girlfriend has been making all his decisions for him.   Also, they throw candy into the audience.  Really good candy.

Rent:  the Musical –Strathcona Alumni Theatre, the Linette Smith company that did Spring Awakening last year, is doing a production of the recent Broadway musical Rent, about a group of struggling artists in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Many of the characters are HIV positive.  As the story starts Christmas Eve they’re all unhappy for various reasons, including the threatened eviction alluded to in the title.

There’s a cast of 14 and four musicians, squeezed onto the small stage along with a couple of scaffolding fire-escapes.  But they use the space well (and look more comfortable than the audience squeezed onto risers).  I haven’t seen other productions of the live show, just the movie, but in this production I was immediately captivated by the story of Collins (Hunter Cardinal) and Angel (Jordan Mah), rather than focusing on Mark and Roger (Cameron  Kneteman and Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf) and their parts of the story.  Hunter Cardinal stood out for me because he projected his character’s emotions so powerfully.  The scene in which Angel dies in thrashing agony as Collins tries to comfort him and himself was particularly effective.  Cynthia Hicks was also delightful to watch, portraying Mimi with a mix of allure and loneliness.  Maureen (Emmy Kate Devine)’s defiance and performance-art show, Joanne’s and Benny’s (Morgan Melnyk and Christopher Scott) uptown discomfort with the bohemian crowd, and the minor characters’ contributions to the plot and strong musical support (especially from Gabriel Richardson and Lauren Derman).  It’s a long show (two hours ten minutes plus a short intermission), but it is well-paced and everything moved smoothly.  (As a brand-new stage manager, this impresses me more than it used to.)  The musical accompaniment was well balanced, allowing all lyrics to be heard in the small space but still sufficiently powerful when needed.

I believe that it’s sold out for the remainder of its run.  This is no surprise, with the cast list full of names to watch in musical theatre, and a production worthy of them.   Sometimes for BYOV shows there are a few tickets at the door, though.

The Missionary Position is uncomfortable.

If you found this page while searching for advice on a sexual problem, let me pass on my best wishes for comfortable resolution, along with a link to the sexuality-information resource website Scarleteen, directed at young people but useful for anyone with questions or curiosity about sex.  This page is a good starting point, with lots of links elsewhere.  I’m sorry to detour you with my wordplay.


The Missionary Position was uncomfortable.

But I’m sure that was one of the intentions of playwright Greg MacArthur, in developing the play The Missionary Position for the U of A drama department and the BFA class of 2013.  The preview performance of this world premiere was tonight at the Studio Theatre in the Timms Centre for the Arts on campus.

It didn’t make me cry.  But it definitely made me squirm, and I got the feeling it made a lot of the audience members squirm too.  It touched on disaster tourism, international adoption, various shallow or pathological reasons people would go on a mission trip, and the potentially tragic consequences of well-intentioned badly-planned gestures.  In the play, the visitors are Canadian (from Edmonton) and the country suffering after an earthquake and tsunami is carefully not identified, but I kept thinking, This is Haiti.  This is everything the Haiti activists talk about.  And in fact, in the theatre lobby at intermission I noticed a news article about the New Life Children’s Refuge case, which had some similarities to the story of the play.

It’s a horrifying compelling story, told in alternating scenes of the past and present.  In the present, the young people are being detained in some type of prison because of something about some children, while the scenes of the past and occasional video clips shown on a screen behind the stage develop the story of what happened and why.

The storytelling is much more effective on stage than it would be in a movie.  Because in a movie, they’d have to show the children, the people living under tin and tarps, the scenery, and the jail, rather than the way the audience of the play sees these things through the narration of the visitors.  “Like little brown dolls”, a character describes the children – and without real child actors to distract us, we are limited to this disturbing exoticised view.

There was some recurring imagery, in particular several sets of allusions to water.  A memory of baptism and a newspaper photo of a dead child underwater become analogous in a creepy way.  Glowing water is used in a story about visiting Chernobyl but also in attempts to evoke magical escapism.  And sprays of water pour onto the stage when one character takes a shower, and in another scene where I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be showers, tropical rainfall, or something more darkly symbolic.

The outsider character who seems like the most reliable narrator, the one through whom we find out the truth, is Ben Gorodetsky’s embassy employee, who is distracted by cocaine and celebrities and who also seems somewhat enthralled by Lianna (Lianna Makuch), the leader of the missionary group.  His partner Angie (Angelique Panther), a translator and aid worker who’s been in the country or the region for ten years (so she should know better), has her own smaller version of the tragedy arising through badly-thought-out actions from good intentions.

At the end, the audience didn’t start clapping right away.  Maybe people were sort of stunned.  Then I heard people around me discussing whether the results of the investigation were fair and how much responsibility people should bear for their uninformed parts in other people’s crimes.  Which was probably another of the playwright’s intentions, so I’d say he succeeded.

The Missionary Position plays until February 16th.  You can get tickets at the Timms Centre box office or through Tix on the Square.