Tag Archives: natasha napoleao

To separate, to cling, to Cleave

One character in Elena Belyea’s new play Cleave explains the concept of words that are autoantonyms – words that have two near-opposite meanings, like screen, fast, or bound.  This gives the viewer a hint toward unpacking the play’s title, as it may refer to characters clinging together or being split apart, drawing towards new choices in their lives or detaching from unwanted ones.

Like many of my favourite stories on stage, on screen, or in library books, the narrative of Cleave shows the separate but intersecting objectives of several characters through a cusp time in their lives.  Four of the characters are part of a family, parents (Dave Horak and Elena Porter) who turn out to have their own secret unhappy histories and teenage children (Emma Houghton and Luc Tellier).  I was particularly delighted by the subtlety of Emma Houghton’s character journey, as I had misjudged her on first appearance as a sulky shallow cheerleader wheedling money out of her dad for new workout clothes in which to make an impression.

The other two characters are a new kid at school, 17 year old Aaron who is intersex and trans (Jordan Fowlie), and his therapist.  As he explains to his new therapist (Natasha Napoleao) in the first scene, he’s moved away from his parents in order to avoid the stigma of transition in a small town and in order to get the therapist’s recommendation he needs before gender-affirming surgery.  The therapy scenes provide useful exposition of the background concepts of intersex and trans lives.  Sometimes Aaron is explaining things to his therapist and sometimes she is providing vocabulary and information to the audience while connecting with Aaron.   They also give important insight into Aaron’s thoughtful sarcastic character by providing a context in which he is relatively open, compared to his careful cautious demeanour at school, with his new friend’s family, and in another situation.

I loved the scenes with the two outsider boys sitting on the school steps not quite looking at each other and not rushing into friendship.  And the wordless gestures of trust on both sides of that relationship in the final scene moved me immensely.  I can imagine happy endings in the future for at least some of the characters, but the play ends appropriately with the loose ends not all tied up.

I also want to write about another scene that horrified me and hypnotized me in ways that also thrilled me as a fan of compelling stories.  But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else.  So I will put a brief comment about it at the end of this post.

Cleave is playing at the Backstage Theatre until Saturday April 7th.  There is an allowance of Pay-What-You-Can tickets available at the door for every performance.

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The Rimers of Eldritch – disturbing glimpse of small town life

There is an improvisational-theatre narrative format known as a Spoon River, in which a set of monologues by residents of a small town tell the story of how an event on the town affected each of them.  The improv performers sit or stand facing the audience, and when it’s done well, the story unfolds with an interesting set of characters showing several viewpoints on an important event.

My first impression of The Rimers of Eldritch, the Lanford Wilson play directed by Jan Selman and performed this weekend by the second-year BFA Acting class at University of Alberta, was that the ensemble taking their places on various levels of risers and chairs, facing the audience without much interaction with each other, was about to perform a Spoon River.

I saw immediately that they were going to be speaking about a significant event, because one of the first identifiable characters was a Judge (Morgan Grau) swearing in a witness to a trial (Celeste Tikal as Nelly Windrod, a woman in work trousers contrasting with the other female performers in skirts and dresses).   Throughout the performance we have occasional glimpses of trial scenes, but we gradually piece together the truth of what happened as we see small-group scenes set before, during, and after the climactic night.

The ensemble of 12 plays about 17 characters.  Working out who they are, how they’re connected, and what’s significant in each of their conversations was like the pleasure of reading a murder mystery, the kind where everything mentioned in passing becomes meaningful.  Martha Truit and Wilma Atkins (Carmen Nieuwenhuis and Sarah Feutl) are a pair of older women discussing everyone and everything as they sew and fold linens, with a judgemental limited view.  Corben Kushneryk is Harry Windrod, a frail old man who insists he saw the crime, but I soon decided that he too was an unreliable narrator.  Kushneryk did a great job of conveying his character’s physical and mental frailties without caricaturing.  Kristen Padayas’s character Eva was a young girl with a physical disability, protected by her religious mother Evelyn (Natasha Napoleao), naive, joyful, and isolated.   Her only friend is Robert (Bradley Doré), a slightly older boy dealing with a family tragedy and some identity issues.   Other inhabitants of the failing US midwest town include café owner Cora (Jessy Ardern), Walter (David Feehan) a young man whose presence in the café leads to gossip, and the Johnson family of farmers, parents Peck and Mavis (Jordan Sabo and Jessy Ardern), restless daughter Patsy (Natasha Napoleao), and her casually cruel older brother Josh (Morgan Grau).  Various other townspeople are added by double-casting and simple costume shifts.  Many of the stories are about an unsavory homeless man, Skelly Mannor (Stuart McDougall), who lurks about the stage as about the town, in a hunched-over unnerving way.  McDougall plays the character with a slight Irish-like accent, which puzzled me a bit but added to the impression of him being a misfit in the town.

Near the end of the performance, I formed the theory that maybe the only reliable narrator in the whole performance was Skelly Mannor, whom most of them are ignoring or vilifying.  And that theory seemed to work.  Nobody else in the town really finds out the truth about what happened the night Skelly Mannor was shot, and mostly they don’t seem to want to.  And there aren’t any obvious positive outcomes or character developments from the set of events either.  People’s lives are just going to go on, messy and unhappy, trying to find comfort and cutting out people who don’t fit in.   It was disturbing and real and I liked it.

The multiple casting gave many of the ensemble members the opportunity to create characters of different ages and viewpoints, which was fascinating to watch.  I look forward to seeing what else this ensemble does over the next few years, together at U of A and separately in local productions.