Tag Archives: mat hulshof

Busy stages at the end of November

What a busy couple of weeks it is for Edmonton stages!  If your weekend isn’t already full, there’s lots of theatre to watch, with these four shows all closing this weekend.

Fen, by Caryl Churchill, is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday.  Amy De Felice’s Trunk Theatre production is fascinatingly atmospheric.  The trapped and oppressed lives of farm-workers in the cold drizzly fen country of England were portrayed with compelling credibility.  I looked at the women picking potatoes in ill-fitting gloves, on their knees on a cold day, and I remembered what it was like to be tying grapes in March, saying to myself that the money would get me out of here, the money would take me to university, I would never need to do this again.   Most of the people in the play don’t have any realistic hopes for escaping their lives, and their unrealistic hopes are heartbreaking.  Even the children in the story are joyless, trapped and powerless and sometimes abused (I found those scenes the most upsetting of the whole play, but not by a lot).  It is unusual to see a farm story about women’s lives not be a story of land-owning families.  But in this story, most of the women (Ellen Chorley, Monica Maddaford, Miranda Allen, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer) are employed as day labourers or crew foremen, and the men (all played by Cody Porter) include a labourer and a landowner who sells his land to a corporation and becomes a tenant.    The story reminded me a lot of the subgenre of Canadian literature about homestead isolation and despair.

Another hard important story to watch is on stage at the Backstage theatre behind the Arts Barns.  Guys in Disguise / Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre is premiering a rewrite of Darrin Hagen’s Witchhunt at the Strand.  Set in Edmonton in 1942 or so, the story is based on primary source material about criminal trials for homosexual behaviour.  Jesse Gervais, Mat Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart each play lawyers and police officers as well as the men caught up in the witchhunt and their friends and partners.  The scene where one of Hulshof’s young characters is on the stand being questioned in horribly intrusive detail about a sexual encounter was one of the most uncomfortable things I have witnessed in ages.  The main characters in the story were all involved in the Edmonton theatre scene, including Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, in whose honour the Sterling Awards are named.  Mrs Haynes is shown as what would nowadays be called an ally to the LGBT community.  I cannot imagine how the 1940s attitudes of privacy and discretion would have discouraged her choice to be a character witness for her theatrical colleague in a morals case, and I found the character as written very sympathetic.

Witchhunt at the Strand made me very grateful that I grew up mostly after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” and decriminalized same-sex sexual behaviours.  It also made me think about how I had been influenced as a child by the grownups around me who remembered the era of the play, not all of whom were straight.  And it made me cry.

Anxiety is a Theatre Yes co-production with several small theatre companies, brand new and unexpected and … and they asked the viewers not to post about it.  If that intrigues you, check whether they have any tickets left this weekend.

Twelfth Night is much funnier and easier to watch.  It’s playing until Saturday night at the Timms Centre.  Ashley Wright, an MFA directing candidate, directs a version with simple staging and a framework of watching a company of travelling players arrive at the theatre, warm up in their underthings, and get into costume.  Julien Arnold, Dave Clarke, Jaimi Reese, and Jake Tkaczyk play the broad-comedy roles of the script, with Reese as Olivia’s mischief-making gentlewoman companion, Arnold and Tkaczyk as the partying uncle Sir Toby Belch and his awkward trying-too-hard sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Clarke in a variety of clownish roles.  Clarke also created and performed interesting songs and underscoring for the production.  Contrast with the fun-loving quartet comes from Malvolio (Alex Dawkins), Olivia’s dour steward, whose pride makes him vulnerable to one of the most memorable practical jokes in the history of the stage.  Did he get what he deserved?  Or was it unfair that he was bullied and apparently driven mad, with the pranksters getting away with it?  I can’t decide.  Watching Malvolio try to smile and gesture as he expects his mistress wants is kind of painful, but it’s also very very funny.

Look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Chayla Day and Jordan Buhat.  Day’s physicality readily conveys a woman who is inexperienced at passing as a man.  Marc Ludwig is lovesick Orsino, courting Olivia (Emily Howard) who wants nothing to do with him, using her dead father and brother as an excuse until she is captivated by Orsino’s new pageboy Cesario (actually Viola).  Olivia’s reactions to Cesario are delightful, and her discovery that her crush is actually a woman is particularly so.

Fatboy, redux

I first saw the Edmonton Actors Theatre production of John Clancy’s Fatboy at the Fringe festival in 2012, on the recommendation of a new friend.  That seems like a long time ago, in my history of exploring Edmonton theatre.   I liked it at the time, but I think I was confused by not knowing what to expect in the unfamiliar genre.

Two years on, I was excited to hear that Fatboy was going to be part of the Roxy Theatre’s Performance Series, with Dave Horak directing the same cast (Frederick Zbryski, Melissa Thingelstad, Mathew Hulshof, Tim Cooper and Ian Leung).    Knowing more about what to expect, and having seen a bit more bouffon and other kinds of odd theatre in the interim, I did not feel as uncomfortable this time around and I enjoyed it more.  It was funny that I felt closer to the action in the auditorium of the Roxy than I had upstairs at the Armoury.

The eponymous Fatboy (Frederick Zbryski) and his wife Fudgie (Melissa Thingelstad) have that kind of affectionate and acrimonious relationship that is central to a lot of comedy, but taken to extremes and excesses.  Their struggles and adventures take them through three scenes, in their home, in a courtroom, and then in a throne room, with some funny addresses to the audience and musical interludes in between.   The stock characters of courtroom and throne room (Mat Hulshof, Tim Cooper, Ian Leung) were funny, particularly in a sort of shared delayed guffaw,  but I was most entertained by Mat Hulshof’s first-scene Tenant.   I was also amused by some occasional breaking the fourth wall and conventions of theatre to comment on a double-cast character going to change costume, a comment about the Sterling awards, and so on.

Partway through, I found myself completely startled by how much this over-the-top obscene ridiculous farce was actually relevant to current government and politics.  I think that in 2012 I was too busy trying to make literal sense of what I was seeing to pick up on the ways that it was saying familiar things “more truthful than fact”.

It ran about an hour and a half, which I think was a bit longer than the Fringe version.  Mostly they made good use of the extra time, although a couple of bits of business dragged a bit.  The costumes (Melissa Cuerrier) added to the exaggeration.

Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, at Workshop West

KILL ME NOW is the kind of play that wins awards.  The kind of play that deserves to win awards.  I’ve seen it twice so far, because after the first time I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It’s written and directed by Brad Fraser (5@50, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love / Love and Human Remains, some episodes of Queer as Folk/North America, etc).  If you’ve ever seen or read anything of his, you know to expect blunt, funny, tough, affectionate portrayals of people dealing with hard issues, and possibly naked men.

The Workshop West production of Kill Me Now is the world premiere of the play.  It’s playing until September 22nd at L’UniThéâtre in La Cité Francophone, which is becoming one of my favorite venues in town, with a large flat stage, good acoustics, and comfortable seats on risers and wrap-around balconies.

The main characters are a father and son, played by Dave Horak and Mat Hulshof.  I don’t think I’ve seen Dave Horak on stage before, but I’ve seen plays he directed, including Fatboy (the Ubu Roi-inspired farce at Fringe 2012) and Bombitty of Errors (the rap version of Comedy of Errors  at Fringe 2013).  I saw Mathew Hulshof most recently in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  Jake, the dad, seems like an ordinary likeable middle-aged guy, coping as a widowed single parent to Joey, a disabled 17 year old.   The other characters are Twyla, Jake’s younger sister (Melissa Thingelstad, who I remember from An Accident and Fatboy), Joey’s school friend Rowdy (Patrick Lundeen), and Robyn (“with a Y”) (Linda Grass) a long-time lover who meets Jake once a week but isn’t otherwise involved with his life.

At the start of the play, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand Joey’s slurred speech and I was uncomfortable looking at the actor’s portrayal of his limited mobility and awkward posture.  But I don’t know how much of this was very clever acting and directing, and how much of it was that he really wasn’t hard to understand once I got more used to him.  I wasn’t even aware of the gradual change until we saw Robyn meeting him for the first time, being embarrassed by failing to understand him.  Robyn is so obviously trying to gamely continue the conversation while hiding that she has no idea what he said, and at the same time talking to him like he’s deaf, stupid, and childish.  In both performances that I saw, the audience gasped in exasperation with her and sympathy with Joey at that point, so I guess that like me, they were all understanding him just fine and appreciating him too.

I thought that Dave Horak and Mathew Hulshof were both amazing in their roles.  Mat Hulshof readily expresses the wide range of a 17-year-old’s emotions within the limited palette of his character’s physical limitations.  Dave Horak’s character starts out settled within the fragile balance of the life he’s built for himself and Joey, but unprepared for Joey’s growing need for independence and autonomy, and then everything goes wrong and he has to change his plans and ask for more help.

The two women’s roles were more straightforward, but still not obvious.  I didn’t like Robyn at the beginning, but the way she worked to overcome her initial discomfort with Joey and the whole messy house and uncomfortable situation won me over.  And I liked Melissa Thingelstad in this play more than I liked her in An Accident, as the young aunt who has always helped out and who is frustrated with her own life and who doesn’t always agree with her brother’s decisions.

Patrick Lundeen’s Rowdy was a charmingly earnest young adult who is “mildly retarded, but I’m not stupid, it’s mostly Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, eh?”  He was a valuable comic relief, but I did not feel like his portrayal was mean-spirited or stereotypical.

Parts of the story were excruciatingly intimate.  And while they made me squirm, I did not feel like any of them were gratuitous.  They brought the audience into acknowledging that people who love each other can do awkward and hard things when they need to take care of each other, which is probably the theme of the play.

In the writer’s notes in the program, Brad Fraser explains that he has a family member who is severely disabled, and that he wanted to portray the complexities of everyday life and emotional response for a disabled person.  As far as I can tell, the actors Mathew Hulshof and Patrick Lundeen are not disabled themselves.  And I think I should leave it to people with personal experience of living with disability to comment on whether their portrayals are appropriate and respectful.

In his opening-night welcome words, Workshop West artistic director Michael Clark encouraged people to tweet about the show and tell their friends about it, but not to give away any plot points in their tweets, because the show is better when encountered without expectations.  I’m not sure that’s completely true because I still found it provocative, moving, amusing, and fascinating the second time through, but I’ve tried to respect the spirit of that request in this post anyway.  I liked it as much as I liked Let the Light of Day Through last year, and that one won the 2013 Stirling Award for Outstanding Production of a Play.  Tickets for the remainder of the run are available through Tix on the Square and at the door.  And you might see me there again.