Tag Archives: shannon blanchet

Evelyn Strange at Teatro

Oscar Derkx and Gianna Vacirca, in Evelyn Strange. Photo credit Marc J Chalifoux Photography and Video

It doesn’t take me long to say yes when a friend offers me a ticket to opening of a Stewart Lemoine play at Teatro la Quindicina. I didn’t read anything about it ahead of time, though a glance at the program told me that Evelyn Strange was first performed in 1995, and that Shannon Blanchet, this production’s director, had played the title role in a 2006 production at Teatro.

The curtains open on a box at the opera. The Metropolitan Opera in NYC, in 1955. So it’s ornate and private and expensive — and somehow set designer Chantel Fortin and lighting designer Narda McCarroll make it feel like that, with just a few pieces that get slid away to become something else in the next scene.

The occupants of the luxury box are Nina Farrar, whose sophistication and snark are a perfect fit for Belinda Cornish, and her husband’s earnest young employee Perry Spangler (Oscar Derkx), tidy and respectful in Clark-Kent-esque glasses. Perry explains that Nina’s husband Henry gave him the ticket because he was tied up, charging him to keep Nina company and see her safely to her commuter train. And which opera is it that neither of them really wanted to see? Siegfried, a five-hour segment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (By the way, Sing Faster: the Stagehands’ Ring Cycle is a fascinating 1-hour documentary video, if you can find it.)

Evelyn Strange is a great example of Stuart Lemoine’s work and why Teatro does it well. The opening situation has unexplained threads, but the details and characters that appear next don’t resolve those questions but create others. The dialogue and action is amusing but never predictable. Jesse Gervais is Perry’s pushy colleague, poking into Perry’s secrets and holding his own. The eponymous confused woman who slips into the opera box after the lights go down, and slips away again before intermission, is Gianna Vacirca.

Things get odder. Some things seem to fall into place but other things are hinted. Settings like a publishing sub-editor’s office, an automat vending-machine restaurant, a hotel suite, Grand Central Station, and a bachelor’s apartment provide glimpses of mid-century modern chic, with a few well-selected details. Vacirca’s character, Miss Strange, claims to have no memory of her past – which would explain her, um, strange behaviour, assuming she’s now telling the truth.

There is a missing husband, a double-booked hotel room, evidence of trenchcoats and opera tickets and a $20 bill – in some plays, the details might never all fall into place and from other playwrights the hints would all be so obvious that we could figure out the outcomes at intermission. But not with Stewart Lemoine. At intermission my friend and I chatted about some of the possible explanations – we were right about some and wrong about others. And when the play ended, a patron behind us read out the list of predictions he’d jotted down at intermission to note how many of them he’d gotten right. It was that kind of play, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle.

And speaking of elegant, the 1950s-era costumes were designed by Leona Brausen. And speaking of jigsaw puzzle, one of the questions I had afterwards was “what did she have under that? and why didn’t it fall off?”

There are so many Stewart Lemoine plays that I haven’t yet seen, that I don’t want to use superlatives like “best”. But this production is most entertaining, with the directing and acting adding to a very clever script.

Evelyn Strange is running at the Varscona Theatre until June 12th. Tickets are available here and at the door. Masks are required when not eating or drinking – the usual list of refreshments including red licorice and Bloom cookies is available from the cheerful artistic associates staffing the lobby booth.

A dream within a dream: Nevermore

The Westbury Theatre was sold out.  The Arts Barns lobby was filled with a queue folding back on itself like a pack of ramen noodles.  Lots of familiar faces from the Edmonton theatre scene and lots of twitter buzz reinforced what I’d heard: the opening night of the new Catalyst Theatre production of Jonathan Christenson’s Nevermore was a big deal.

Nevermore recounts the life story of Edgar Allan Poe, the American nineteenth-century writer of the creepy and suspenseful.  Compared to The Soul Collector,  a Christenson / Catalyst production I saw last spring, the narrative of Nevermore is direct and almost completely linear.  But it’s still a supremely weird show, set in a world where nothing is normal.  (Nothing is right-angled either!)  It was also interesting to view this show recalling Emily Winter’s portrayal of Poe in last summer’s Fringe hit Poe and Mathews.

Most of the story is told by one of the narrators speaking directly to the audience in rhyme, while the characters in that part of the story interact physically and sing together.  This works better than you might expect, conveying a literary and distanced mood but showing the affection and awkwardness among the flawed individual characters.

Scott Shpeley plays Edgar, from about age 8 to his death at 40.  He does the whole show in the same odd black and white costume and makeup, but his motions and postures show obvious changes from child to adolescent and young man to older man.   His appealing clear tenor voice works well for the character at all ages.   As a child, he frequently looked small, fearful, and pitiable, trembling all over.  In one of the glimpses of happiness, when he falls in love with his young cousin (Beth Graham), his face is illuminated by joy.  And in one of the moments of anguish he lifts a tear-streaked face to the audience.

The other six actors in the ensemble play several parts each, with various additions to hair or costume.  Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin are Edgar’s ill-fated parents (with the portrayal of his moody actress mother being especially poignant), and Gaelan Beatty and Beth Graham his siblings.  Ryan Parker’s characters include a Paul-Lynde-ish portrayal of the biographer Rufus Griswold.  Shannon Blanchet was Elvira Royster, a character seen as a teenager and again as a widow.  One of the best portrayals was Beth Graham as Fanny Allan, Edgar’s foster mother, trying to win over the orphaned boy despite her surly merchant husband (Garett Ross) and struggling with despair.

The visual designs for this production were fascinating and spare, consistent with what I understand of the Catalyst Theatre aesthetic.  Bretta Gerecke is credited as scenographer and resident designer for the company.  I was intrigued and then captivated.  All the costumes are black and white, twisted impressions of nineteenth century dress.  Black boots are made noticeable with white accents.  Rigid wires hint at hoop skirts and frock coats.  Harsh monochrome lights turn costume elements reddish or bluish.  Hats and hairdos are odd and extreme, from punkish spikes to one of the women’s updos looking very much like a stalk of Brussels sprouts.   Human and non-human characters with long mis-shapen claw-hands reminded me of similar imagery in The Soul Collector.   I loved the rhomboid oversized notebooks and asymmetric undersized trunks.   Many characters adopted odd hand and body positions like twisted sculptures.

Nevermore is playing at the Westbury Theatre until the afternoon of Sunday March 2nd.  If you like going to weird theatre, unconventional musicals, or shows that everyone in Edmonton will be referring to for years, then you should make time in your schedule for this.  You can get tickets at Tix on the Square.  There are also some $10 youth tickets available at the door for each performance.