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.)