Tag Archives: oscar derkx

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.

 

A few of the thousand faces

Last night a friend took me along to the Thousand Faces Festival, which explores myths from around the world in a variety of performance media.  We attended two events, a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a Mythic Poetry Brothel.

Macbeth is a familiar enough story, full of archetypes and supernatural elements and sayings that have entered common use, that it fit easily into the theme of myth.  This production was not the most compelling one I have seen, but it was fast-paced and had some good moments.  Macbeth was played by Elliot James, who I last saw as a worse-than-archetypal asshole cop in Dirt.  He had some of that character’s swagger, and not very much regret.  Bobbi Goddard, a BFA Acting student at U of A, was Lady Macbeth (while also playing in When the Rain Stops Falling this week).   Other familiar local actors were also involved – Oscar Derkx, Mat Simpson, Lianna Makuch – but there were no printed programs and the headshot display in the lobby was incomplete and didn’t identify roles.  I also don’t remember who directed it and can’t find that information anywhere today.

The Mythic Poetry Brothel, a coffee-house style event, started in the beer garden behind the Alberta Avenue community hall but migrated smoothly into the hall when the night got cool.   Local poets (including Colin Matty and Tim Mikula) read or recited their work in character as various deities, and additional entertainment was provided by MC Morgan Smith and an interesting collection of musicians and dancers.  The “Brothel” part of the event title probably referred to the opportunity to get private readings by making a donation to a poet.  Sort of like table dances I guess.

The Thousand Faces festival resumes next Friday evening.  I love living in a city which has such an assortment of arts festivals, including small ones like this with admission by donation.

Flowers and thorns – the tragedy of Blood Wedding

Federico Garcia Lorca’s compelling tale of dark passions, Blood Wedding, is playing at the U of Alberta Studio Theatre.  The director is Kathleen Weiss and the cast is the 2014 BFA Acting class, in their final large-cast show together.

As in all shows in the Studio Theatre series, the costumes, sets, lighting, and music combine to create a coherent world, in this case a parched and dangerous one.   Before the show starts, we see a few chairs painted with appealing folkloric motifs and a tumble of fancy linens on a table, along with a few set pieces and drapes to create the impression of a harsh landscape against a bloody sun.

The staging starts with a woman in black (Mariann Kirby as Mother) beginning to fold the linens, as a chorus of younger women mimes some physical task while sitting downstage and a chorus of men (Neil Kuefler, Adam Klassen, Oscar Derkx) tumbles, fights, and works with scythes in the background.  When her son (Kristian Stec as Groom) comes to tell his mother that he is heading to the vineyard, we begin to learn of her preoccupations, especially about knives, weapons, and her dead husband and elder son.  When her son tells her he wishes to marry, she is reluctant.  I couldn’t tell whether she already knew who her son was courting and had reservations about that specific young woman’s history and family, or whether her reluctance was all about the prospect of being abandoned.  When she questions him about “your fiancée”, I couldn’t tell whether she wasn’t naming the young woman just because that was the author’s style choice to make them more archetypal, or whether she was pretending not to know her or actually didn’t know who she was.  Eventually Mother gives in and says that she’ll participate in the customs of taking gifts to the bride’s family.   We also learn in that scene that the Bride was previously engaged to Leonardo, who is part of a family that the Mother holds a grudge against, probably due to whatever bloodshed led to her family’s deaths.

Everything is elliptical and not-quite-explained.  The story only makes as much sense as it does because of Zoe Glassman’s character Neighbour, a chatty woman friendly with all the families.  When Mother and Groom arrive at Bride’s family home, we meet the Maid (Cristina Patalas), the bride’s Father (Graham Mothersill), and then the Bride (Merran Carr-Wiggin).   Throughout the story, the Bride seems ambivalent about the Groom and the wedding, fond of him but sometimes flinching from his touch or from more direct mentions of affection to come.  The parents of the young people, both scarred from sad pasts and cautious of each other, gradually come to be allies, talking about prospects for land purchases and cultivation and their wishes for grandchildren.  The Maid ramps up the erotic intensity of the preparations a bit while she helps the Bride dress and do her hair.  And then we see all the characters swept up in wedding celebrations, dancing and singing and playing music.   Several times I was reminded of Svadba, last year’s opera production about a group of friends preparing a young woman for her wedding.

The third family in the story is seen earlier on, first in a sweet domestic scene where a young mother (Andrea Rankin) and her own mother (Georgia Irwin) sing to a baby, and then the baby’s father (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) appears equally devoted to his son.   At some point in there, someone calls Dowler-Coltman’s character Leonardo, so that part begins to fit together.  Leonardo is the former fiancé of Bride, the one who then married Bride’s cousin, and he’s also part of the family who was involved in Groom’s father and brother’s deaths.  The young mother seems worried about her husband taking off on his horse all the time and maybe lying about it.  She doesn’t like the idea of him going to the wedding – especially going on his horse by himself although he protests that he’s not the kind of man to ride passively in a carriage.

The whirling dancing, increasingly frenetic Spanish-guitar-type music, and Bride’s growing distress cue us to an upcoming crisis.  The Bride goes to take a rest, fending off the Groom’s suggestion that they might go to bed together.  While the party continues we see the Maid begin to rush frantically from one side of the stage to the other, eventually crying out that the Bride is missing and so is Leonardo.

A search begins, with ominous music and lighting and threatening scythe-waving.  By this point there was lots of evidence that Leonardo was obsessed with the Bride, but it wasn’t at all clear that the Bride was still stuck on him, so I began wondering how much choice and power she had in the situation.  When they were seen in their flight through the woods, though, she was clearly as drawn to Leonardo as he to her.  As the pursuers approach, I was impressed by Carr-Wiggin’s stage tumbling in a wedding gown, at the same time as being frightened about the outcome.

And the pursuit didn’t end quite as badly as I’d expected in that the Bride didn’t end up dead.  But the show didn’t end with the fight and the other deaths either – then we got to see the Bride abandoned by her new husband’s mother and cast off by her own father, “a fallen woman and a virgin”.  This reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – well, okay, of the movie Tess because I’ve never actually read the book; the movie was depressing enough in showing a woman trapped in an unfair situation because of the expectations on women in that society.  In Blood Wedding, the deaths themselves aren’t the end of the story. But the Mother comments that she is more at peace now that everyone she loved is dead and no longer at risk, which is a disturbing commentary on the nature of revenge, grudges, and blood-feud.

Nice design touches:  the chenille rivers of blood, the beggar/oracle’s raven’s wings, the Maypole effect dressing the Bride in bright coloured sashes.   I loved the very active staging especially the woodcutters tumbling and scythe work.  And I noticed the repeated metaphor of comparing men and boys to various flowers and to thorns.

Blood Wedding continues at the Timms Centre until April 5th, including a Monday-evening performance and a midweek matinée.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square as well as at the door.

Love’s Labours Lost, at the Studio Theatre

One thing all the U of Alberta Studio Theatre series productions have in common is interesting set and costume design with satisfying attention to detail.  Earlier this season I enjoyed the stark spareness setting the mood for pool (no water), and then the period costumes of Pains of Youth and Bloody Poetry.

The designs for Love’s Labours Lost were playful and full of joy, with bright colours and silliness conveying the frivolous not-quite-real background for this comedy, set by the text in the Kingdom of Navarre.  Apparently there was a real place by this name, located on the French border of Spain.   Visitors to the kingdom included a “fantastical” Spaniard, Don Armando (Oscar Derkx), with exaggerated and very funny Hispano-Quixotic gestures and accent,  and the daughter of the King of France (Mariann Kirby) and some members of her court (Merran Carr-Wiggin, Zoe Glassman, Cristina Patalastc, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Sarah Ormandy).   Georgia Irwin plays the clown Costard with a consistent Scottish burr, for no explainable reason other than to make her character distinct from the local noblemen – but it’s funny.

The premise of the main plot is that the young King of France (Adam Klassen) convinces his male courtiers to join him for three years of studying, following a near-monastic rule with restrictions on food and sleep and a proscription on contact with women.  Berowne (Neil Kuefler) is particularly reluctant to sign on to this plan, although he eventually agrees along with the characters played by Kristian Stec and Graham Mothersill.  But almost immediately after they agree, they find out that the Princess of France and her attendants are on their way for a visit.  So they decide to keep the letter of the agreement by meeting the visitors in a park rather than in the palace.   And of course as soon as they meet, the men of Navarre are immediately struck with admiration for the women of France, conveniently aligned in non-conflicting pairs.

Meanwhile, bits of broader comedy (i.e. wacky hijinks) keep intervening, with the random cocky Spaniard and his saxophone-playing page (Andrea Rankin),  a country girl (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), the aforementioned clown Costard carrying messages and mixing them up, a constable (Brandon Nearey), a schoolmaster (Merran Carr-Wiggin), and a curate (Mark Vetsch).

The play runs almost two and a half hours (not counting the intermission) but I found that the time just flew by.

The story suits modern sensibilities and recent trends in popular culture by showing the Princess as competent with an air of authority, speaking mostly in prose, and in one scene hunting a deer with a bow and arrows.  I was most intrigued by the characters of the Princess and of Berowne, the courtier most willing to dispute with the King and then to declare his affection to Rosaline.  Berowne is also a leader in some affectionate trash-talking competition.

Love’s Labours Lost is directed by Kevin Sutley.  It is playing at the Timms Centre until Saturday, including a 2-for-1 ticket deal Monday (tomorrow).   If you click here on the Department of Drama website within the next few weeks, you can see a gallery of photos from the production showing the colourful costumes (the academic gowns and hoods are University of Alberta doctoral/faculty style).   And I’ll also offer you one more related link to click, the indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to help the young performers of this BFA Acting class take a modest audition tour together after they graduate in the spring.

Bloody Poetry – an “atheist haunted by the spirit world”

With Bloody Poetry, The U of A Studio Theatre series continues to be provocative, in the senses of thought-provoking and disturbing.  I felt a little sorry for the person sitting next to me who said to her companion on arrival that she had no idea what it was going to be about and didn’t have time to read the program, and what were they going to see tomorrow, it sounded like something Greek maybe with naked women in it.   Oddly, the not-naked theme continued in a conversation I overheard at intermission between different patrons, one of whom explained while eating red licorice that the program said it was actually about naturism.  “NATurism??”  “No, THATcherism.  Like Margaret Thatcher.”  “Oh.”

The play, written in 1984 by Howard Brenton, is the story of the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Oscar Derkx, who played Jesus in the Studio Theatre production of Last Days of Judas Iscariot) and Lord Byron (Adam Klassen)  and some of the women in their lives, Mary Godwin Shelley the writer of Frankenstein (Merran Carr-Wiggin), her stepsister Claire Claremont (Zoe Glassman), and Harriet Westbrook, Bysshe’s first wife (Kelsey Visscher).   The other character on stage is Dr. William Polidori (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), Byron’s biographer and physician.  The production is directed by Glenda Stirling, the Calgary-based director, teacher, and artistic director of Lunchbox Theatre.

Throughout the play characters pay lip service to the ideals of free love, but they don’t seem to have the same understandings of the concepts of power-balance, autonomy, feminism, and informed consent in relationships that one might expect today.  Byron is overtly exploitive and self-centred.  Shelley, who is a younger less successful poet, starts out trying to make a good impression on the more famous man, smiling sycophantically and awkwardly agreeing with him.  Byron continues to make fun of him about being a teetotaller and a competent sailor, and flirts with him sexually throughout the play.  Shelley tries to ignore both the jokes and the advances.  It’s easy for the audience to share Shelley’s discomfort at some of Byron’s cruder comments, such as the ones about the venereal diseases he’s experienced.

In some ways Shelley is a more honourable person than Byron:  he welcomes Claire and her child into his household, and he pursues Byron to Venice in an attempt to get the child back.  But the interactions with his first wife and her ghost show that he basically abandoned her for Mary, and then while he is with Mary he doesn’t seem to care whether she consents to his affairs with various other women.  Mary certainly believes that the peripatetic lifestyle that he insists on is a cause for at least one child’s death.   Mary’s (Carr-Wiggin’s) facial expression and body language while Shelley made a speech about bourgeois morality showed clearly that she didn’t agree with him and intended to challenge him, and her subsequent challenge had me silently cheering, while he tried to manipulate her by calling her cold and callous.  As portrayed in the play, Mary is a stronger and more interesting character than her older step-sister Claire.  There are fascinating glimpses of Mary’s own creative process and inner life working on Frankenstein.   Claire is just heartbreaking, from her introduction as a naive young woman wanting attention and affection from both Byron and Shelley, her conviction that Byron will marry her, and then her needy clinging to whoever will comfort her.

One of the best bits of staging is the bit where the group acts out the thought-experiment of Plato’s cave, tying up Dr. Polidori in front of a screen and then making shadow plays.    The set and blocking made good use of the deep stage space of the Studio Theatre, with lighting and set pieces breaking up the space to create the illusion of people strolling on beaches far away.   Costuming was period-appropriate, with women in Empire-waist drapery and men in white hose, breeches, wide-sleeve blouses, and neckcloths.  Having worn a dress of that period myself, I was impressed at how the performers experienced the freedom of movement possible in that style of dressing, while never tripping over their full skirts even when dancing recklessly or leaping onto piers.

I tended to focus on the personal side of their convictions and actions, but they also all made speeches about their political and theological disagreements with conventional English society, and about the exigencies of dealing with publishers and funding.  They seemed to use the word “libertarian” in senses where I might have used “libertine”, which made me think that to them it was the same thing – and this may express not just the ways in which Shelley’s life hurt the women around him, but many stories of the personal lives of activists in more recent eras.

I’m fascinated by watching this year’s Studio Theatre series build up.  The offerings are all challenging for the viewer, presenting different sets of complicated characters in settings I’m not personally familiar with.  Bloody Poetry continues until Saturday 7 December with tickets at Tix on the Square and in the New Year there are three more plays in the season.