Tag Archives: maxwell lebeuf

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.


More good plays

Assassins (the Sondheim musical) was the first musical I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  With a cast of ten and a musical ensemble, it’s well placed in the Westbury.  It’s a series of vignettes about everyone who assassinated or tried to assassinate a US president.  As I wasn’t familiar with many of the stories and I didn’t get a program until afterwards, I probably missed the ones in the middle – I remembered about John Wilkes Booth (Jacob Holloway), John Hinckley (Maxwell Lebeuf), and Squeaky Fromme (Emma Houghton, with Nancy Macalear as her collaborator Sara Jane Moore), and partway through I started wondering whether I’d missed the part about Lee Harvey Oswald killing President Kennedy – but that was the climax which came near the end, since I guess it’s the most memorable one for a lot of living Americans too.  Scott Shpeley, who had been playing with the musical ensemble, also turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald.  Chris W Cook, Jeff Page, Rory Turner, and Billy Brown played other assassins I wasn’t familiar with, and Dan Rowley, and Larissa Pohoreski other characters in the ensemble.

Typhoon Judy was also a performance focused on music, with Christopher Peterson playing an aging Judy Garland, in song, in reminiscence, in flirtation with accompanist (Nick Samoil), and in four fabulous costumes.  The portrayal was credible and touching.

MAN UP! was a wonderful dance show with social commentary.  It’s being held over at the Westbury next weekend, so you have a couple more chances to see it.  Four male performers dance in high heels, powerfully, poetically, and conveying a range of emotions.  Some pieces include all four (Gregory P Caswell, Joshua Wolchansky, Jordan Sabo, CJ Rowein) and some have smaller groups or solos.  Rowein and Wolchansky’s love duet was particularly moving, as well as Wolchansky’s barefoot solo on the side stage.  Monologues and video clips provide context and discussion-starters about the limitations of conventional gender expectations (as well as allowing time for costume changes).  I was fascinated to realize afterwards that the performance had been lacking the personal flirtation aspect of burlesque dancing.

Every Fringe I see Rocket Sugar Factory, the improv duo of Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby, because they are so much fun to watch.  Along with their local accompanist Jan Randall, they are masters of crafting long-form stories and playing them out with delightful characterizations.  This year their show involves creating the pilot episode for a new television show, and the one they created in front of me, Mister Jules Verne, was something I would watch if it existed.  I love the way these two switch characters seamlessly, borrowing mannerisms and language habits, and I’m also a fan of Jim Libby’s near-corpsing, letting his delight in the game show through the characters he’s embodying.  (One of the 2 For Tea performers, James, does this as well.)

I also made time to see a new comedy, Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests, written by University of Alberta acting student Jessy Ardern.  Take the premise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the older couple full of malice entertaining a couple of starry-eyed naive newlyweds, and wield them as weapons in their battles with each other – and make it funny instead of horrible – and that’s the start of Harold and Vivian.  David Feehan and Kristen Padayas play the eponymous hosts, and Rebecca Ann Merkley and Eric Smith play Janet and Mike, the young couple who arrive with over-the-top optimism and PDA and gradually crack into full-on hostility as well.  Corben Kushneryk (also seen this Fringe in Who am I?…) is credited as director and designer, so he must be responsible for the delightful set conveying the reality of a starkly divided household before the show even starts.  I was especially taken with Padayas’s portrayal, the perfect pink bouffant homemaker with twitches of panic and surges of rage.   Eric Smith’s brand of pomposity and pratfall may also be seen in Death Comes to Auntie Norma (one more show, Sunday 8 pm).



Threepenny Opera

Until this week, I don’t think I’d seen a musical as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series.  (I’ve seen a musical on that stage, Strike!, but it was produced by a different company.)   Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, playing this week and next, was directed by Brian Deedrick the opera conductor.

I didn’t know much about it beforehand, and on the preview night there were no programs so I didn’t get the advantage of Director’s Notes and other context explanations.  I also didn’t think to find out how long it would be and whether there would be an intermission.  (It is long.  There is an intermission.  Counting the intermission it runs close to 3 hours.)  And with the house filling up, I didn’t take time to read the bios posted outside the auditorium.  At the intermission I fumbled to look up who was who, and I discovered that the 2015 BFA class had been reinforced with Mark Vetsch (Grindstone Theatre, last seen at the Studio Theatre in Love’s Labours Lost), Lily Climenhaga (whose name I saw in the credits for the script of Orestes 2.0), and Neil Kuefler (BFA 2014).

There were two songs in this show that were familiar to me, the “Pirate Jenny” one (sung by Nikki Hulowski) and “Mack the Knife”.  The jazz standard “Mack the Knife” was written by Kurt Weill for the original 1928 production, although I have to admit that I learned it first through the McDonald’s Mac Tonight commercials in the late 1980s.  And there were a lot of familiar tropes.  When I left the theatre, I was thinking I could describe it as Cabaret crossed with, hmm, some kind of comic gangster king story, like the one in Anything Goes maybe.   But that’s not quite right, because the sense of impending danger from an imminent corrupt regime was not quite the same as in Cabaret, it was more like a critique of the capitalist kyriarchy or something.   The sense of familiarity in much of the story is illustrated in the very long list of recognizable character/plot elements on the TVTropes page for Threepenny Opera.

The main character or anti-hero or whatever, Macheath (Hunter Cardinal) doesn’t appear early in the show.  The buildup adds to the sense of danger and mistrust around the man, who could so easily have become more simply ridiculous in yellow kid gloves and spats.   If I remember correctly, the show opens with the police commissioner Brown (Max Lebeuf) singing a song in German, then a couple of street singers (Natalie Davidson and Zvonimir Rac) talking and singing to the audience about the premise of the show as an opera for beggars and put on by beggars, and about the characters of Macheath the womanizing boss of the underworld, and Peachum (Joe Perry) who runs a business managing (franchising, almost) troupes of beggars.

We then meet Peachum, his drunken wife (Bobbi Goddard), and his daughter Polly (Kabriel Lilly), and observe the extremely cynical hiring and instruction of a new beggar (Dylan Parsons).  Plot conflicts begin to arise as Polly elopes to marry Macheath.  I generally don’t like the gangster’s-girlfriend stereotype with the high-nasal Brooklyn-baby-girl voice and curled blonde hair (like Lesley Ann Warren’s character in Victor Victoria), but Lilly’s version of Polly moves past the stereotype.   Peachum directs the police commissioner to arrest Macheath, but as they are old friends he wants Macheath to escape.  And Macheath misses chances to escape because he keeps stopping to visit his other romantic attachments, including his previous girlfriend Jenny (Hulowski), the commissioner’s daughter Lucy (Morgan Yamada), and a houseful of prostitutes (I don’t know whether the prostitutes were all female but a couple of them were cross-cast, or whether one or two of the prostitutes he’s visiting were male.)

The whole thing takes place around the time of a coronation (I think probably Queen Victoria), and in the end Mack is rescued from the gallows by a deus ex machina in the person of an imperial messenger descending from the sky (Dylan Parsons).

The beggars’-opera premise is reinforced by the costuming, in which each character seems to be wearing a few symbolic costume elements thrown over some approximately-period undergarments and shoes.  This led to some odd gender-presentation combinations.  The beggars’ rags given to Parsons’ character Filch are a beautifully layered concoction of ragged strips of weighted cloth.  Many of the male characters wear jackets without shirts, sometimes with collar and tie.  Cardinal’s Macheath has a disturbingly villanous mustache.   Lighting was generally harsh and cold – maybe that’s part of what reminded me of Cabaret.  Characters not in the scene were often seated on the various platform levels around the edge of the stage, and backlit motionless.

Music for the performance is provided by a small excellent jazz orchestra under the direction of Peter Dala.  Apart from the songs I mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed a solo by Morgan Yamada as Lucy, one of Macheath’s later songs that had a Les Mis-reminiscent anguish and resonance to it, and a few group dance numbers.

Threepenny Opera continues until February 14th, with tickets at Tix on the Square.

Loveplay, a speedy trip through a history of sex

Moira Buffini’s Loveplay opened last Thursday as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series, directed by faculty member Jan Selman.  I saw it the night before opening along with a very responsive preview crowd, full of sighs and squeals of delight and “Awww”s and “you owned him girl!“s, and I thought it was a lot of fun.

The play showcases ten vignettes of some kind of sexual or romantic interaction, taking place at the same location at different times in history, from Roman Britain to the present.  Each scene starts with some kind of title card introducing the era, in some format consistent with the design (the Roman Britain one looked like chiseled stone).  The six performers in the show (Nikki Hulowski, Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf, Kabriel Lilly, Dylan Parsons, Zvonimir Rac, and Morgan Yamada) each played multiple roles, as well as assisting the running crew with transitions.

I appreciated the playwright’s choice to include a glimpse of sexual assault but not to make it either the first or the last story.  In a particularly disturbing Dark Ages scene, three men (Lebeuf, Parsons, and Rac) discuss the woman they are consecutively assaulting (Lilly) in chillingly dehumanized terms, and after they leave her for dead she howls in solitary anguish, conveying the impression of hopelessness with no expectation of revenge or justice.  The performers in this scene balance the horrific situation with the ordinary dialogue sensitively.

The most light-hearted scenes in the narrative are those of the Renaissance (1584) and the Age of Innocence (1969), both of which include Hulowski and Rac playing a couple of long duration.  The Renaissance scene opens with Lebeuf and Hulowski declaiming heightened dialogue about their true love, which turns out to be rehearsal of a playwright (Rac)’s autobiographical work-in-progress.  This offers lots of amusing opportunity for humour about the creative process, about 16th century theatre, and about the trajectory of a romantic relationship between a young woman and her tutor.  The Age of Innocence scene is about a young couple attempting to host some kind of free-love drop-in encounter for the first time and getting cold feet, while their guests (Parsons and Lilly) seek relief from their relationship ennui.

Various other scenes explore power imbalances in sexual relationships (Yamada as governess in Lebeuf’s 1823 household, Parsons as an artisan hired by Enlightenment-era scientist Lilly to satisfy her curiosity about the male form) and prostitution (Yamada’s two prostitute characters both seem to be independent businesswomen taking charge in their relationships with their clients).

More hopeful resolutions are seen in The Age of Empire (1898) and The Age of Excess (contemporary).  In The Age of Empire, two men who had been friends as boys find new connection and “the birth of love” despite one being an artist and the other a married vicar.  The Age of Excess is set in the office of a matchmaker (Lilly) who is preparing to introduce some clients despite her own romantic difficulties – her girlfriend/assistant (Hulowski) is angry with her for being unwilling to commit, and flirting with the clients in response.  One of the clients (Parsons) embodies all the worst characteristics of entitlement and pickupartistry, from putting down the woman he’s meeting to whining “It’s not fair, why wasn’t she like that with me?”  Yet the two clients who hit it off immediately and leave together (Yamada and Lebeuf) do so having each disclosed some aspects of their difficult history (she’s a divorcée and single parent; he’s a recovering alcoholic), so as an audience member I was left with the message that learning from mistakes and being open can lead to mutual happy relationships.

Throughout the journey through history, we encounter many observations on sexual politics and relationships that have relevance to current life.  A character in the Renaissance comments on the perceived difference between a lover’s kiss and that of a wife, as “what you bestow and what I own.”  A cloistered nun in the New Millennium (1099) scene wonders “why would a man choose such a life?”  A later character mentions that there is no insult like “man-whore”, that what is an insult for a woman translates to “lover” for a man.

The simple set focuses on a sharply raked square platform, representing the square of land through the ages.  Some of the set elements (walls, platforms) appeared for only one scene; others were seen later as ruins.  Characters in the various eras made reference to previous uses or buildings, sometimes with dramatic irony (the Roman soldier is building a latrine, which the Dark Ages characters then assume must have been some type of temple).

Loveplay is light-hearted but not lightweight.  Considering it along with the playwright’s Gabriel, I am looking forward to seeing her Blavatsky’s Tower cast with the other performers in the graduating BFA class at the end of this month.  Loveplay continues until this Saturday, with tickets available at the door and at Tix on the Square.

Frenetic Dreamtime, an evening of clown play

The University of Alberta’s BFA Acting class of 2015 will be on the Studio Theatre stage starting with Moira Buffini’s Loveplay at the end of October.  But you can see them tonight (Saturday) in an evening of original clown turns called Frenetic Dreamtime.

I went to the preview Thursday night at the Timms Centre’s Second Playing Space.  Each of the ten class members had a character who did a turn, mostly solos but sometimes helping each other out.  The show was hosted by a character played by Maxwell Lebeuf.  As the audience enters, this character is seated at a dressing table facing away from the audience, doing makeup and getting in to nose and costume.   It was a bit unsettling to find it hard to distinguish the pre-show time where it was appropriate for us to chat with each other, send text messages, and knit (okay, I was probably the only one who wanted to knit) and the time when the show had started so respect would require us to observe silently.

Max’s character introduced each act by title and character name.  The custom of short clown turns each having a title, often involving wordplay, suddenly reminded me of classic animated cartoon style.   Because I don’t know all the members of the Class of 2015 by sight and because their CVs aren’t on the Drama department website yet, I can’t be certain which performers did what.  If you are reading this and you want to let me know, please feel free to email or post a comment on the entry.  But I think my favourites were the nesting hen laying eggs, the apprehensive mountain climber (Dylan Parsons), and the would-be bride of “White Wedding”.  All of these stories had an entertaining mix of some familiar emotions and some inventive physical expression of the narrative.  The ensemble worked together smoothly to set up quickly for each act, and I was particularly impressed by this because a few of the acts involved making a mess on the floor.

The show ended with Maxwell Lebeuf’s character singing a cabaret-style version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, and the nine other clowns doing a choreographed dance as backup.  That was a lot of fun too.

Frenetic Dreamtime has one more show tonight at 7:30 pm at the Timms Centre Second Playing Space.  Seating is limited (although they might bring out more chairs if there’s a bigger crowd).  Admission is free, and there’s an opportunity to donate to either or both of the Drama Department bursary fund and the class of 2015 audition tour.

Merchant of Venice

As I mentioned in a recent post, Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play I encountered in its entirety, in Grade 9 English. I think I saw a Stratford production a year or two later.  I don’t think I’ve read it, seen it or thought about it much since.    But when I heard that the 3rd year BFA students were going to be doing it this winter, I immediately recalled the first lines “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.  It wearies me; you say it wearies you” and the last “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing, so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”.  I didn’t have them quite word perfect, but surprisingly close.  Maybe that was because one of the Grade 9 assignments had me producing a radio play (cassette tape recording) of life in the 17th century, and I put in the start and end of a monotone performance of Merchant of Venice.

Studying the program before the performance started, I saw that some minor characters had been cut (Old Gobbo, assorted friends of Antonio, servants), to cover the rest with the ensemble of ten actors.  I also picked up that a couple of characters had been gender-switched, with Bobbi Goddard cast as Antonia and Morgan Yamada (in the performance I saw) cast as the Duchess of Venice.  Bobbi Goddard also played Shylock’s friend Tubal as male, with sidecurls and beard.

Having a female Antonia worked really well.  Bassanio’s affection for his old friend was obvious in his gestures and glances, and although she was in some ways less effusive about him, the text has her prepared to pledge her life to get him the money, so it feels credible.   The subtext about how it must feel to be the old friend when Bassanio is prepared to abandon everything for his new love, oblivious about how this shifts the friendship, is particularly obvious with a female Antonia, and I thought Ms. Goddard did this part very well, in an understated way that she doesn’t expect Bassanio to pick up on.  (I am always on Team Éponine.)

I didn’t know what to call the period of the costumes and stage-business, especially the part with the impressive cocktail mixing by Nerissa (Nicole Hulowski), until I saw Mary Poppins the next night and recognised that they were about the same.  So, approximately Edwardian.  Most of the men in business suits of generous cut, Shylock (Joseph Perry in the performance I saw) with a large black kippah and visible fringes of a tallit, businesswomen (Antonia and the Duchess) in fitted jackets/bodices and skirts like Mary Poppins and the other young women (Portia, Nerissa, Jessica) in high-necked gowns like Mrs Banks.   That was an interesting choice, making it modern enough that the female Antonia could be credible, but long enough ago that the treatment of Jews by the Venetian society was both easier to believe and easier to accept than in a modern setting.  It was still disturbing, though.  The audience around me was gasping or sighing most in the parts where people casually insult or tease Jessica (Natalie Davidson) about her religion/ethnicity, but I think I was even more bothered about the happy-ending resolution to the court case having Shylock forced to turn Christian.   In a powerful statement from stage design, after Shylock leaves the court (is hauled away?  I can’t remember) abandoning his well-worn Torah on the floor, lighting covers it in a cross shape.  I felt sorry for Shylock, even in the speech when he finds out that his daughter’s taken off with his money.   I was also thinking about how the way he dominates his daughter is characteristic of how we often expect to see patriarchs in ethnic minorities, whether or not it is a fair portrayal.

I did not feel sorry for him in the courtroom scene though.  And the part about preparing Antonia to lose a pound of flesh from her bosom was much more horrifying and effective for me with Antonia being female.   I thought it was convenient but not quite believable that the Duchess was prepared to accept the judgement of the unknown doctor of laws (Kabriel Lilly as Portia) on the basis of a letter of introduction, but the Duchess in this story was very similar to the Duke of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, being required to follow the law but wishing for excuses to be merciful.  Also, it reminded me that in the most recent production of Comedy of Errors that I’d seen, the ruler of Ephesus was played as a woman but referred to as Duke (by Julia Van Dam at Red Deer College) and that worked just as well as making Venice ruled by a Duchess.

Bassanio, Portia’s successful suitor, was played by Maxwell Lebeuf.  His decision-making speech “Tell me where is fancy bred” was done well as an unaccompanied song.  His impulsive irrepressible sidekick Gratiano is Hunter Cardinal, with Cheshire-cat grin.  I enjoyed watching the contrast between the two couples, the reserved Portia and cautious Bassanio compared to Gratiano and Nerissa’s more immediate joyful connection.  Lorenzo (Dylan Parsons) is a bit more of a puzzle, because Gratiano makes fun of him as being serious like Bassanio, but he also seemed somehow younger.   The scene with Lorenzo and Jessica canoodling on a riverbank while house-sitting was sweet.

The scenes with the unsuccessful suitors were also amusing, Hunter Cardinal as the Prince of Morocco with fez-like hat using his scimitar for a phallic reference (flashback to Lysistrata on that), and Dylan Parsons as the Prince of Arragon, in leather pants and Castilian lisp, reminding me of the Spaniard Don Armando in the recent Studio Theatre production of Love’s Labours Lost (Oscar Derkx).  I particularly enjoyed Nerissa’s grimaces behind their backs while Portia’s good manners prevented her from showing what she was thinking.   Launcelet Gobbo was the typical silly errand-runner character used in a lot of Shakespeare.  In the performance I saw he was played by Zvonimir Rac.

The Shakespearean language was managed coherently and dramatically by the whole ensemble (who were coached by Shannon Boyle).  I love when you don’t notice that you’ve been listening to unrhymed iambic pentameter until one character suddenly speaks in prose or in a rhyming couplet, and this production did that well.  I caught one small line fumble but it wasn’t distracting.

The last performance of this production was tonight.  You can look forward to seeing the BFA Class of 2015 in next year’s Studio Theatre season.   And if they’re doing anything before that, well, I hope someone sends me a Facebook invitation.


Unlike the eponymous Three Sisters of Chekov’s play, the women in Lysistrata band together and take some control over the circumstances of their lives.  After watching The Three Sisters last night, I watched the U of A Drama production of Lyistrata this afternoon and found the contrast satisfying.

It is also ridiculously funny and outrageously crude.

The adaptation from Aristophanes’ original was by Robert Brustein.  Jeff Page (recently of RDC, where he directed Comedy of Errors this fall) directed.  The cast members were from the BFA Acting class of 2015, and the play was performed on the Corner Stage of the U of A Fine Arts Building, an interesting intimate space with steep carpeted risers and higher-level performance areas around the outside of the room.  I was particularly amused by the characterisations of Lampito the Spartan woman (Nikki Hulowski), Penelope wife of Odysseus (Morgan Yamada), and by the comic timing and stage business of Kinesias (Hunter Cardinal).  The title role of Lysistrata was played with contrasting gravitas by Natalie Davidson, and I am particularly looking forward to seeing her act in more serious material in future.

The Facebook invitation to the event promised “free”, “fun, laughs, and phalluses”, and the play lived up to its billing.  When the audience entered the room, most of the cast was dancing around the room with glee and abandon to electronic dance music, wearing costumes of ancient Greece.  They then gathered on stage and dedicated the auditorium to Dionysus “with its original name, the Thrust Stage”.   The ending of the play was somewhat surprising to me, but I was still chuckling when I left.