Tag Archives: northern light theatre

Spooky October performances 2018

I’m not managing to see everything on Edmonton stages these days, but I wish I could.  I wish I’d seen Lenin’s Embalmers at U of A Studio Theatre, or the Maggie Tree production Blood: A Scientific Romance.  From what I’ve read about them, it looks like the creepy or paranormal themes could have fit into this Hallowe’en-week blog roundup, too.

At the Walterdale Theatre, I helped work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a script prepared by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans using various primary source materials, and directed here by Barbara Mah.   It was thought-provoking and disturbing, because the horrible fates of real people were depicted graphically, because the resulting legal case portrayed did not result in justice, and because the hazards of the garment industry juxtaposed with fashion advertising are not so different from their contemporary equivalents.   Watching this story play out every night as one of the booth operators, I kept cheering for some of the determined young women who lived to tell their own stories, particularly Rose Freedman (Danielle Yu), and Ethel Monick, (Stephanie Swensrude), and kept getting angry at the factory owners and their lawyer (Eric Rice, Kent Sutherland, and Matthew Bearsto).  It was a relief to close that show and watch some scary shows for fun.  

Dead Centre of Town XI has four more performances in the Blatchford hangar at Fort Edmonton Park.  This year the macabre true stories researched and written by Megan and Beth Dart of Catch the Keys all relate to air travel.  As usual, the audience members are guided through relevant settings to encounter the characters of various disasters and mysterious happenings, while super-creepy poet/narrator Colin Matty provides extra detail and atmosphere.  “If humans were intended to fly, why are they so Goddamned squishy?”, he muses.  More live-theatre than haunted-house, this annual immersive event does a great job at making the details build up the overall experience – even the ticket distribution (“boarding passes”) and the traffic-management (impersonal masked uniformed airport workers in a crowded “boarding lounge” with staticky announcements) are part of the adventure.

Dark! at Fort Edmonton is new this year, adding on food (with creepy nicknames like Bloody Balls and Skewered Rat), drinks, and adult-level haunted-house attractions.  I went to one of the haunts, and decided that I prefer the Dead Centre of Town style of horrifying imagery enhanced by narrative, to the unexplained jump-scares of Dark!

The Bone House, by Marty Chan, also has performances remaining on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  It was also very scary in a different style again.  At first it felt like a TV or movie experience, with a forensic-psychology expert presenting an illustrated lecture about serial killers, but it became more unsettling – it was easy to involve myself into the story enough that I could imagine being in danger, but I also began to feel somewhat complicit in choosing to listen to serial-killer narratives in any medium.  Brrr.

This weekend I also managed to fit in a performance of Northern Light Theatre’s Origin of the Species, by Bryony Lavery.  With direction and set/costume design by Trevor Schmidt and performances by Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner, it uses the ridiculous premise of a contemporary archaeologist encountering a live prehistoric woman, to touch on several important themes with a subtle touch.  I particularly enjoyed the very gradual transition of the prehistoric woman Victoria (Johnston) towards modern physicality and communication, and the many ways that both characters subvert assumptions about “traditional” gender roles.

Pink Unicorn, and other samples of diversity

I loved The Pink Unicorn.  I loved its narrator Trisha (Louise Lambert), a widowed mother in a small Texas town.  And I loved seeing how I misjudged Trisha, first seeing her tailored floral outfit, big hair,  and fussy mannerisms and hearing her Texas accent, and assuming that she would be overly concerned with appearances, tradition, and approval of authority.

I was wrong!  The more I got to know about Trisha, the more I respected her and enjoyed listening to her.  Because not only did she start out with a more complex background, she grew and changed over the course of the events she recounts, starting when her daughter Jolene tells her that she wants to start high school as Jo, a person without gender, genderqueer and pansexual.  The playwright Elise Forier Edie has been very clever in creating a protagonist who is uninformed to start with but eager to learn about concepts of gender in order to understand her child.  So Trisha reports that she began to research on Wikipedia, and at first you can hear the air quotes around every phrase that comes out of her mouth, “androgyne” “LGBTQ” and “gender continuum”.   At first she doesn’t see the point of it, just gamely goes on with supporting Jo because she’s always wanted her to be able to be herself.  The audience can feel a little superior because Trisha is bewildered, but the script gives the audience lots of information along the way and brings everyone up to speed on vocabulary and concepts.  And sometimes this is very funny.  Her description of the gender continuum first has Charles Bronson at one end and Marilyn Monroe at the other, herself close to the Marilyn end and Jo somewhere in the middle, but when she explains it to someone else later in the story, she starts at the hypermasculine end with Charles Bronson, then she adds Clint Eastwood, then Hilary Clinton, then a big gap before Brad Pitt.

The performance has Trisha aware of an audience, telling the story to outsiders like us and addressing us directly.   Her occasional bad language and vulgarity is startling and delightful, because we know that she doesn’t usually use it to other people.  And when she expresses some unkind thoughts and reveals prejudices, it matters.  She knows she shouldn’t be saying mean things about fat people, lesbians, or disabled people, and she isn’t doing it to get a laugh – she just needs to admit those thoughts because her mis-judgements matter to the story.

As Jo and her friends encounter resistance to forming a Gay-Straight Alliance at school, Trisha finds herself drawn into their fight and discovers unexpected allies of her own.  I especially loved the matter-of-fact part about her alcoholic brother – the script had no glib attempt to explain his alcoholism and bad choices with past-trauma tropes, and Trisha discovers that he can still offer her meaningful support despite his sickness.   Trisha’s Biblical interpretations and Jo’s speeches about freedom and diversity are useful background for anyone who needs to argue in support of Gay-Straight Alliances or other support for diverse genders and sexualities.

Trevor Schmidt directed the play and is also credited with designing the playful pink and peach set and costume.   In the show I attended, the performer had the best line-prompt call I’ve ever seen, staying completely in character and improvising a reaction to the prompt that had the audience laughing and on her side.

The Pink Unicorn is playing until February 28th at the PCL Studio at the Arts Barns.  It is an impressive solo performance of a good script, it is a story of contemporary queer lives that has a happy ending, it is a celebration of family love and personal growth that are not in contradiction, it is enjoyable for people who are familiar with LGBTQ issues and those who are not, and it is a valuable discussion-starter that has had me thinking ever since.   Tickets are through Fringe Theatre Adventures.  If you live far enough from Edmonton that you can’t see this show and you wish you could, you can buy an electronic copy of the script here.  You can arrange performance rights through the author, whose contact information is on the same publisher’s page.

Fun-raising, friend-raising, and fundraising events

“Friend-raising” is what a friend who worked with university Advancement used to call the university’s efforts to make and maintain positive connections with community members, recognizing that building connections and building community pays off in the long run in lots more ways than immediate financial donations.

So even though it sometimes seems odd to me to get people to come to a special event where they do something fun together, as a way of raising money for a cause they can agree on, I know that it works.  It works especially well when the fun can be had without a lot of extra paid work or paid-for refreshments and entertainment.  And it works by generating enthusiasm and connections, rekindling friendships, and reminding people of what the organization does and how to be more involved.  This worked well for Northern Light Theatre’s event last weekend, and I bet it’s also going to work for Opera Nuova’s event later this month.

I went to a fun fundraising event last weekend, Northern Light Theatre’s Battle for the Limelight.  In this event, teams from local theatre companies and organizations had the chance to raise money for their own organization through pledges, and also earned money for Northern Light Theatre through entry fees and other ways of generating cash.  And it was also a great opportunity for people involved in theatre to have a fun day together in one of the rare times of year when not much is happening on stage.  Teams from Northern Light, Rapid Fire, Nextfest, Promise Productions, Teatro Quindicina, Grindstone, Theatre Alberta, Theatre Network, Freewill Shakespeare, FAVA, and Workshop West competed in an Amazing-Race-style sequence of stunts and searches all over Old Strathcona on a beautiful early-September day.  Local businesses and artists helped by posing, hosting, and judging various challenges, from reproducing an original painting and decorating cupcakes to eating thousand-year-old eggs.   I was volunteering at the “Busking” challenge.  At this station, two talented drummers from taiko group “The Booming Tree” taught a drumming song to one of the participants, and then he or she would have to perform while the teammates attempted to drum up (see what I did there) spare change from passers-by.

After the groups completed their challenges, everyone gathered back at the Queen Alexandra Community League to tell stories, eat delicious refreshments, and compare notes on their summers.  I had to leave for another event before the winners were announced, but blogger Finster Finds reported that the first place (Golden Handjob) went to Team AIEEEEE! (Teatro la Quindicina) , with the Silver and Bronze going to teams from Nextfest and Theatre Alberta.

I also want to mention another fun event coming up on September 27th, Opera Nuova’s Singalong Phantom of the Opera.  For $44 ($40 student/senior), you can have the fun of singing along with the hits of the Broadway show, led by experienced soloists and helped out by lyrics projected above the stage.  The event takes place at River Community Church, 11520 Ellerslie Road SW, at 7:30 pm.  Tickets are available at Tix on the Square.  It sounds like a lot of fun!

Also on the playbill for this week (have I mentioned yet how handy it is to have my own copy of the Theatre Alberta playbill stuck to my refrigerator where I can look at it every morning?) are previews/openings for The Violet Hour (U of A Studio Theatre), Fatboy (Roxy Theatre), and Kim’s Convenience (Citadel), as well as more Rapid Fire shows Friday and Saturday and a clown showcase by the final-year BFA students.

Mercy of a Storm, atmospheric and compassionate

The Northern Light Theatre / L’UniThéâtre co-production currently playing at La Cité Francophone is alternating between English performances and French performances, as Mercy of A Storm or De plein fouet dans la tempête. The original script by Jeffrey Hatcher was in English, and the translation was done by Gisele Villeneuve.  Trevor Schmidt is credited as director, with Isabelle Rousseau as assistant director and dialect coach.  I saw a performance in English.

The story is set on New Year’s Eve, 1945, in the pool house of a social club.  I had thought it was in a suburb somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, but the Northern Light website summary has it as the smallish city of Cambria Ohio.  The two characters, in period festive dress, enter separately and seem immediately to have some secrets from each other.  It turns out that Gianna Vacirca’s character Zanovia and Brian Dooley’s character George are estranged spouses, ostensibly meeting to negotiate their divorce settlement.  I was confused at first – I thought that when Zanovia talked about slipping away from Morrie, she was referring to a current husband and was having an affair with the other character in the play.  And I didn’t immediately catch on that when George was talking about being caught between Tootie and Zanovia, he was talking about his daughter.  Part of why this was confusing was that their unconventional arrangement had Zanovia continuing to live in George’s house along with his grown daughter, while George had been away on the Continent for post-war business negotiations.

I also didn’t figure out right away that Zanovia was somewhat of an outsider in the “club” scene, having been tolerated as George’s wife but coming from a background of having been the daughter of Polish immigrants, George’s family housekeeper and her labourer husband.  Once I began to pay attention, I saw reference to class/culture differences everywhere.  Zanovia’s rant about Tootie and her friends and their silly made-up names, George calling her Zan, Morrie being the first Jewish visitor or member in the club, and so on.

While they are discussing the prospective divorce settlement, we also learn more about the history of their marriage, the role played by Tootie, and their mixed feelings about each other in the present.  They are obviously both attracted to each other, but will they get together? Will they reconcile?  The outcome is poignant and thought-provoking.

I liked this play.  It was more subtle than the previous atmospheric period drama in the Northern Light season, Bitches and Money 1878.  I don’t know the name for the decor shown on set, possibly Danish Modern, all straight lines and blond wood, but it definitely created the context of wealth and looking-forward in 1945, and the music and Matt Schuurman’s video background bits added to the film-noir mood.

Tickets for both French and English performances are available through Tix on the Square here.  The last English performance is Sunday evening March 16th.

Bitches and Money 1878

After Richard III, my next playgoing was to Northern Light Theatre’s production of Martin Henshell’s Bitches and Money 1878, directed by Trevor Schmidt.  It was a pleasant change.  I don’t know how to describe the genre of this show.  Maybe “period dark comedy heist story”? “Steampunk feminist version of Oceans Whatever”? “Betrayals and plot twists”?  The publicity materials call it “about gambling, greed, and time travel”.

It was confusing and fun.  I don’t think I got answers to all my questions about the plot, but I’m not sure whether they weren’t spelled out explicitly enough for me or whether they just weren’t explained.  But it didn’t really matter.

If the title wasn’t enough to set the period and approximate location, the audience entering the PCL Studio Theatre had time to study a shallow dark-wallpapered room with a hand-drawn map of London, the external pipes of gas heating fitted to an older building, ornate fussy furniture, ominous music, and oh!  some characters I didn’t even notice at first.  Black Jack (Ben Goradetsky) is seated facing the audience, looking down at a big pistol in his hand, shifting position occasionally and adjusting the gun.  He’s hard to miss because he’s wearing a vividly-yellow plaid suit, and his black-rimmed eyes add to the sense of menace.  A few minutes later I noticed two female characters, seated on opposite sides of the stage, both sitting completely still, apparently with hands bound behind them, and with bags over their heads.  Seeing the stage populated before the play starts always makes me curious but a bit uncomfortable – should I pretend not to see them? what if they make eye contact or talk to me like in snout? or (as in Ride) are they really naked under there and should I pretend not to be wondering about that?

The lights dropped and came up, and we saw Black Jack interacting with his two accomplices, Cora (Laura Gillespie),  wearing a dramatically sexy black and red outfit that I thought of as “Dawson-City Showgirl” and Patience (Andréa Jaworsky) wearing a severe black walking suit with a small dented hat decorated with a few gears.  Aha, I thought, could this be a steampunk inventor?  One of the best things about this show was the contrasts between the two women and the ways in which each character moved beyond the archetypes seen in the first few minutes.

The story gets told in a series of scenes arranged in non-chronological order.  This is made more clear by numbers projected on the wall between scenes, which seemed to be the order in which they happened.  The setting was fun, the alliances and mistrusts and twists were not completely predictable, and the show was fast-paced with lots of repartée.

Playing until Nov 30th, with a late-night “Booty call” show Nov 29th, tickets through the Fringe Box Office. 

Shows I forgot to tell you about!

Last spring I missed writing up several theatre excursions.  The programs were piling up on my table making me feel guilty, but the backlog didn’t stop me from going to more shows.

Since I’m going to count the Edmonton Fringe as the start of a new year of stage entertainment, I’m going to get caught up here, with a brief list of all the shows I didn’t tell you about earlier, and then I can start over.

  • The Penelopiad – Citadel Theatre – This show was done with an all-female cast.  I was particularly impressed by the performer who was playing Odysseus as well as her other roles, because her body language and voice transformed her instantly into a convincingly arrogant man.
  • Spamalot – Citadel Theatre – this musical was just fun, as a mix of the Monty Python source material and a send-up of Broadway-musical tropes.
  • Escape from Happiness – Citadel Theatre Young Acting Company – I remember being fascinated by how much darker this kind of story is nowadays than a generation ago.
  • Winter’s Tale Project – Citadel Theatre Young Musical Company
  • Strike! A Musical – This was a full production with a large company, including nine junior-high-age performers.  Apparently it’s going to be a movie soon.  A few of the songs are still occasionally stuck in my head a few months later.
  • An Accident – this Northern Light Theatre show with Michael Peng and Melissa Thingelstad, directed by Trevor Schmidt, was provocative and interesting.  Something about it didn’t quite work for me, but I didn’t figure out why.
  • The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – this was a U of A Department of Drama show.  I enjoyed it.  It was a great mix of original and canon-consistent.

According to my datebook, starting with Fringe 2012 I saw

  • One orchestra performance
  • One band concert
  • One rock-band show (I used to see a lot of live rock music, but this year I’ve been focusing on theatre and I only have so much time and money, unfortunately)
  • One opera
  • Lots of music at Edmonton Folkfest 2013
  • One night of circus acrobatics
  • One open-mic night and one variety show at camp
  • At least five first-run movies, mostly with superheroes
  • Two story slams (but I was in one of them)
  • 35 Fringe shows counting holdovers and one show that I saw twice
  • 24 nights of improv with Rapid Fire Theatre, most of them as a volunteer and many of them with two shows in the evening
  • 40 non-Fringe theatrical performances, in Edmonton, Red Deer, Toronto, and Vancouver.

So I guess missing out on reviewing seven plays is not so bad.  I’d hoped to do a Sterling-awards post with my picks and the winners, but it’s almost time for the Fringe to start and I’m in an excited mood rather than a retrospective one.  The best play I saw all year was Collin Doyle’s Let the Light of Day Through.  The show I went to the biggest expense and effort to see was Book of Mormon in Toronto, and it was worth it.  It was all worth it.  And I can’t wait to see what’s coming in the next year of live entertainment in Edmonton and elsewhere!

Ride, by Jane Bodie

The audience for Northern Light Theatre’s latest play Ride, by Jane Bodie, arrives in the black-box space of the Transalta Arts Barns’ PCL Studio Theatre and we take our seats, before studying the set.  It looks like a large comfortable bedroom for a young adult, with a platform-futon, various shelves around the room with neat stacks of clothes and books, and then a couple of sets of last night’s clothes thrown around on top.  After a few minutes of studying the set, we realise that there are actually people in the bed!  They seem to be asleep under a comforter, and they seem to be naked.

The play opens with the two characters waking up and realising in shock that they aren’t alone – and that each has no memory of who the other character is and whether they had had sex.  The actors are Cole Humeny, whom I last saw as the younger accused soldier in A Few Good Men at the Citadel, and Sereana Malani, whom I remember from last summer’s Fringe production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

The last time I saw a play with a similar premise, it was by Erika Ritter, who at the time was the host of a CBC Radio afternoon show.  It may have been The Automatic Pilot, and I saw it a long time ago, when I thought that the characters who got drunk and picked up strangers in bars were at some kind of brittle cynical unhappy life-stage that I hadn’t gotten to yet.  But in Ride, both characters seemed like likeable reasonable people with understandable motivations, not overly unhappy, and, well, young.  (I’ll leave the exercise for the reader about what this says about my intervening life.)  But I don’t mean that the characters were the same; they had different responses to the situation they were in and I definitely had a favourite.

One interesting feature of this production is that it is crammed full of references to local Edmonton landmarks relevant to the characters, including delightful and familiar snarky asides about various bars on Whyte Avenue and downtown.  Application to the internet tells me that the playwright is Australian, so the local colour must have been added for this production.  It really works, especially in the context of the two characters struggling to figure out whether their social circles interlock but agreeing about their impressions of, say, the LRT and Filthy McNasty’s.

When I mentioned to a friend last night that I’d just come from seeing Ride, he said “Oh, the naked play!” which I guess is the other notable feature of this story.  Each character’s nudity is briefly visible to the audience as he or she gets out of bed to get dressed, but because they are making a point of not wanting the other character to ogle, it feels particularly inappropriate to do so as an audience member.  So if you want to know where to sit in the theatre for the best views of the full-frontal, you can ask someone other than me.

One of the things I liked about this play was that it wasn’t too big a story.  It probably wasn’t a life-changing moment for either character.  Neither of them turned out to be horrifyingly messed up.  There was some resolution to the plot, but not too much, and the resolution was completely consistent with the character-building.  And the actors didn’t overplay it; they were credible and subtle and like people I’ve known and people I’ve been.  Cole Humeny was particularly good at revealing some ordinary heartbreak in a quiet way that was completely consistent with his character.  Sereana Malani’s character was funnier, and she played the mix of self-protectively sarcastic and vulnerable in a believable way.

Ride plays until February 9th and it runs just under an hour and a half.  Tickets are available through Fringe Theatre Adventures – which means that you can buy tickets on-line for same day performances.  Last night’s show was sold out, though, so you should buy yours ahead of time.