Tag Archives: theatre

@tension

The last theatrical presentation I attended that made such a strong connection between the medium and the message was The Genius Code, a Jon Lachlan Stewart creation exploring the concepts of recording interactions and replaying them and hearing individual viewpoints.

@tension is a new work, a collaborative creation of director Vlady Peychoff, performers Emma Houghton, Eric Smith, Sarah Ormandy, and Connor Suart, and dramaturg Savanna Harvey.   The performance was introduced by playing video clips on multiple screens, mostly clips from familiar TV shows about some aspect of the internet, texting, computer gaming, and so on.  While these clips were playing – sometimes different ones on different screens or the same ones with timelag – the performers were moving about the space not interacting with each other or speaking.  I’m not quite sure where the prologue stopped and the vignettes or live clips began, and I guess it’s because of my background in conventional theatre that I even looked for that structure.   Gradually four characters were introduced, Eevee, Alexa, Dennis, and Bill.  I realized later that each character had been identified by showing his or her browser history and some of the thought processes behind it, along with a recurring trick of having different people speak the one character’s words, sometimes without expression (this made me think about the difficulties of not having tone cues in text).   Various facets of each character were then illustrated using one- or two-person scenes and symbolically represented by animation of dragging various symbols or icons to each person’s folder on a desktop.  There were also several expressive movement bits with effective soundscape.  My favourite parts were an extended video sequence reminscent of PostSecret, where a long series of confessions of the form “They found out …” were shown and narrated, culminating in repetition of “They found me”, and the one scene in which all four characters meet in the same physical space, an exceptionally awkward party.  In that scene, the traditional ice-breaker strategies of delivering an official speech, drinking heavily, and playing truth or dare were supplemented by selfie-taking and by opening up a laptop to resume a game with other people who weren’t there, and then we saw some after-party text messages building connection between two of the characters and making a date.  The scene where one of the characters briefly misplaces a cell phone felt distressingly familiar.  And parts of it are hilarious.

The piece has narrative threads but they aren’t obvious.  There is a lot to see and hear and things that happen too quickly to grasp.  This too is McLuhanesque, just like the initial voiceover bits showing distracted people with multiple browser tabs and searches.  The props and tech details worked without being disruptive or distracting.

 

@tension is playing tomorrow and Friday at 7:30 pm, and tomorrow at 2 pm, at the Second Playing Space n the Timms Centre on the University of Alberta campus.  While admission is free, the creators are using a kickstarter campaign to try to cover expenses.

Memories of Leonard Cohen

When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher played us some vinyl records with some Canadian poet/songwriters singing their stuff.  Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Leonard Cohen.  I didn’t like either of them as singers and I thought only teachers and other grownups would like that kind of music.

When I was taking Grade 12 English, we did a unit on Canadian poets and each group had to do a presentation on a modern Canadian poet.  My group studied James Reaney, who is clever but not especially accessible.  (Local theatre-connections:  he’s also a playwright, having written a trilogy about the infamous Donnelly family also featured in Jonathan Christensen’s Vigilante, and the writer of the Alice Through the Looking Glass adaptation that’s coming to the Citadel this spring.)  Another group studied Leonard Cohen.  Their presentation included one of his more sexually-themed works, which led our English teacher to a passionate defence of the subject matter as both appropriate subject for poetic celebration and a joyful part of an intimate relationship.  This was probably the best sex-ed lesson I had in school ever.

I really don’t know how I learned the tune for Cohen’s “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” (it’s easy to learn because it’s very repetitive).  I used to sing it, mostly to myself, when I was an undergrad, and I had the words written up on my bedroom wall.

And then Cohen wrote for Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat, First We Take Manhattan), and sang with Suzanne Vega (whose own lyrics spoke to me with painful poetic truth in the late 80s), and then the Jeff Buckley Hallelujah turned out to be actually a Leonard Cohen song which everyone seemed to know and love and argue about, and I have no idea when it happened, but Leonard Cohen was actually cool.

So cool that now there’s a theatrical staging of his words and music, created by Tracey Power for Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and now touring to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Chelsea Hotel.  The seven performers all sang and played instruments.  Jonathan Gould seemed to be playing Cohen, and the others (Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Benjamin Elliott, Tracey Power) seemed to be the voices in his head, the women in his memory, and his alter-egos.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of Suzanne, and the two versions of Hallelujah.

Other performances this season (Back to the 80s at the Mayfield, BOOM at the Citadel) have celebrated the music and pop culture of my lifetime, but tonight’s encounter withe Leonard Cohen’s music brought back different memories, because at the time I didn’t think the music was popular or know it was going to be important.

Chelsea Hotel continues at the Citadel to February 13th.

The Ugly One

The Ugly One, written originally in German by Marius von Mayenberg, is currently playing at PCL Studio, a Kill Your Television production directed by Kevin Sutley.

Harsh clear lighting and a stark set (Kerem Çetinel) lead into a story with distanced and stylized dialogue, with original musical underscoring (Dave Clarke and Rhys Martin).  The premise is that Lette, a middle-aged male engineering designer (Nathan Cuckow) suddenly discovers that his colleagues and his wife (Nadien Chu) have always considered him unspeakably ugly and never mentioned it.  His wife claims not to mind, but his employer (David Ley) is about to send Lette’s assistant (Chris Bullough) to present their new product, since of course Lette’s face makes it inappropriate for him to go.  It was interesting to explore the concept of how his unattractiveness limits his opportunities with a character for whom that was a completely new concept, rather than a fact of life and society that he’d grown up with.

When a surgeon (Ley) offers Lette the opportunity to change his face, he is apprehensive but agrees.  Surgery takes place on stage, in a dental-office-type chair, with disconcerting and convincing sound effects.  The subsequent unveiling displays Lette as an unusually attractive man, with various consequences.  At this point, I was reminded of various fables and archetypes in which getting what one’s wished for destroys one’s life, like the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw” that we studied in high school English class.  Because it turns out to be not that simple – even getting to present the invention at a trade show brings unwanted complications.

Things get weirder and worse as the surgeon goes on to perform the surgery on others, giving them all the same handsome face as Lette, so that his popularity is temporary, his marriage and employment break down, and he finds ultimate comfort only in a disturbingly narcissistic contact. In a brilliant demonstration of theatre’s ability to convince an audience without the realistic special effects of film, Cuckow’s face, voice, and physical presentation are sufficiently different before and after the surgery to make him look homely beforehand and attractive afterwards with no external assistance that I could detect.  All the other actors in the piece play multiple characters, with subtle shifts in vocal intonation and posture making them easy to distinguish.

The Ugly One continues at the PCL Studio until May 23rd, with tickets available through the Fringe box office.

Red Deer College Pride and Prejudice

The graduating class of Red Deer College’s Theatre Performance and Creation program is currently performing in the Jon Jory adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, under the direction of instructor Lynda Adams and coaching by fellow student Evan Macleod.  The adaptation is said to have kept much of Austen’s original written language including the oft-quoted lines.  I am not enough of an Austen fan to verify this, except for the one about the truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  But there were certainly enough long convoluted sentences to convey the essential comedy-of-manners nature, in which an insult can be delivered so cleverly and politely that it takes the recipient (and the theatre audience) a beat or more to work out that something cutting has been said.  “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet; I send no compliments to your mother” was part of a harsh speech from one of the more blunt characters, Lady Catherine de Burgh (Katie Walker), but it took me a few moments to work out what a snub it was, as I could hear a slow chuckle make its way through the audience.  

I thought that Rina Pelletier as Mrs. Bennet was particularly good at portraying the enthusiasms and motivations of her character through the unfamiliar idiom, and she was an audience favourite.  There was a flouncing-in-her-chair moment in the second act that was especially memorable.   Her husband was played by Richie Jackson, with a lovely contrast of his understated wry asides to his wife’s excesses.  Despite similar costuming and hairdos, the five Bennet sisters gradually became distinguishable from each other, the agreeable eldest Jane (Pharaoh Seeley), clever blunt Elizabeth the protagonist (Kassidee Campbell), Mary the bookworm (Emily Cupples), Lydia who longs to meet soldiers (Emily Seymour), and Lydia’s flighty sidekick Kitty (Robyn Jeffrey).  The characterizations of the clergyman Mr Collins (Brock Beal) and of Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline (Erin Pettifor) were pointed and amusing.  The more successful suitors for the Bennet sisters, the pleasant neighbour Mr Bingley, the aloof Mr Darcy, and the untrustworthy Mr Wickham were played by Damon Lutz, Nate Rehman, and Michael Moore.  Warren Stephens was a butler supervising a staff of stage-crew/footmen, as well as other small parts.

The stage sets, with moving backdrops and furniture and sturdy doors, conveyed the appropriate formality and simplicity.  Garden strolls and private conversations were conveyed by having the characters step down from the main stage level to a lower promenade downstage.   Scenes taking place at balls had appropriate-looking dancing groups in the background.  I enjoyed watching the dancing so much that I wish some of it had been easier to see.  A scene with Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle the Gardiners (Erin Pettifor and Brock Beal) riding in a carriage was mimed so amusingly with rocking over the bumpy road in unison that I didn’t listen to what they were saying.

Pride and Prejudice is playing at the Red Deer College Arts Centre mainstage until Saturday night, with tickets available through Black Knight Inn. 

Michael Healey’s Proud

Tonight I saw a preview of theatre no. 6’s presentation of Proud.  Director Ian Leung said ahead of time that there might be technical glitches, but I didn’t notice any.   Parking around La Cité Francophone was unusually challenging, probably due to the Alberta NDP leadership debate taking place across the street at Faculté St. Jean, and afterwards I found that a cheering thought.

Proud is a story about politicians and about some parts of the political process, and about beliefs and emotions and what kind of government people want.  I hated some of what I saw on stage because I think it might be true and I don’t want it to be, and I loved how they showed it. The premise of the story started by imagining that the federal election of 2011 had generated a much larger majority for the Conservatives, if they had won seats all over Quebec by very slim margins over the NDP.  (That this is completely feasible to imagine is thoroughly depressing in itself.  See Fair Vote Canada for more.)   As the Prime Minister says addressing his newly expanded caucus, “We have broad but thin support.  If this was ice, I couldn’t recommend we play shinny on it.”   There’s a funny early scene where the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff are examining a large seating chart of the House of Commons trying to plan who should sit where.  All one side and about half the other side are coded Conservative-blue.  There are 28 orange cards and 25 red ones, and I couldn’t be sure but I think then 4 BQ baby-blue and one green one.  That wasn’t even the point of the scene, just a fun detail I got distracted by.  The point of it was more to show the Prime Minister being petty and demanding about not wanting certain caucus members to be in his line of sight because he held grudges, and his Chief of Staff trying to find solutions that would keep his boss happy and not make any other problems.

Dave Horak was a perfect Chief of Staff, down to the low voice and the way he expected to fall on his metaphorical sword.  Brian Dooley was disturbingly good as a non-ideological Prime Minister who doesn’t make eye contact.  And Melissa Thingelstad was — I think this is my favourite role that I have seen her in so far.  She played a rookie MP from Quebec, a single mother who had been managing a St-Hubert Barbecue (cultural note: that’s a Quebec chain much like Swiss Chalet only with tarte au sucre.)   Her character had a wonderful mix of ferociousness and naiveté, sexuality and practicality and honesty and pragmatic ambition in which the Prime Minister seemed to have met his match.  “Why do you insist on mis-underestimating me?” she asked at one point.   When her character first appeared, I worried that she was going to be used as a sort of sexist shortcut and comic foil, making fun of young women in general and of the 2011-era rookie NDP MPs from Quebec like Ruth-Ellen Brossard.  But she got more interesting.

Richard Lee Hsi (formerly billed as Richard Lee, last seen in the Toy Guns Dance Theatre shows at the Fringe and in the feature film Rock Paper Dice Enter) had a small role as a character from the future being interviewed about the events of the play and about his own political aspirations.   His interview/monologue alluded to some very discouraging outcomes that would follow easily from the present-day of the play, which is not so different from our own, (a powerless consolidated Left and the Conservatives with a longest-serving Prime Minister very similar to Harper), but also gave the audiences some hopeful prospect in the way he spoke about his own ideals and ambitions.

On my way home from work, before I went to the performance, I heard a CBC Radio interview with David Moscrop, a doctoral candidate in political science at UBC.  His research focuses on the way people choose how to vote with their emotions rather than their reasoning.  This was echoed in the play, in which the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff explain to the new MP that they address people’s feelings rather than their beliefs.

Ian Leung’s Director’s Note in the program says “save all that heavy stuff for after.  Tonight, it’s a comedy.  Enjoy!”

I did enjoy it.  I’m not sure it’s a comedy though.  I didn’t think the British TV series “House of Cards” was a comedy either.  (I haven’t seen the Netflix one with Kevin Spacey.)   I guffawed several times, and I also squirmed in my seat and winced quite a bit.  I wished it wasn’t quite so credible, but at the same time I was enthralled by the ways it was.

Proud is playing at L’Unithéâtre, La Cité Francophone, until October 19th.  Tickets are at, of course, Tix on the Square.

Fringe day 8: puppetry, drama, comedy

On the second Thursday, after my volunteer shift I saw three plays.  Around then I stopped being able to keep up with my goal of posting notes every morning about what I’d seen the night before, so I’m trying to catch up now.  Thursday’s three were all good and very different.

Who Killed Gertrude Crump is a murder-mystery, an Agatha Christie pastiche set in a country house isolated by a storm around the turn of the previous century.  Ryan Gladstone wrote and directed it.  The Fringe program lists the cast as “Tara Travis and puppets”.  Tara Travis introduces the story, as Agatha Christie, and narrates everything besides the dialogue.  She moves props, dresses the set, and operates about ten puppet characters, talking directly to the audience when the puppets aren’t talking.  Her style reminded me a bit of what Ronnie Burkett does in his shows, operating marionettes while being visible and delivering witty asides to the audience as himself, and a bit of the object theatre / found object puppetry that I saw in Sapientia at Canoe Festival.

I was a little restless at the beginning.  It was a little hard for me to see the puppets well enough to learn to distinguish them, sitting at the side in the Suzanne Thibaudeau Auditorium, and several of the characters had similar enough names that I had trouble remembering who was who.  The setup seemed predictable and not very compelling.  Then it occurred to me that I had all the same complaints about a lot of Christie’s work, and that this was actually a clever tribute. The plot then thickened, and I got to feel smart for remembering some clues and I got to enjoy missing others and getting surprised.  After it was over, the performer swore the audience members to secrecy about the plot outcome.

After supper at Cafe Bicyclette, the little bilingual-service cafe in La Cite Francophone, I went to 3…2…1, by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, starring Jamie Cavanagh and Chris W. Cook.   I loved it.  It was the most emotionally intense drama I saw at this year’s Fringe, building gradually from a scene of two young men in a garage hangout determined to get drunk and high, to the awful context and significant outcomes of their bender.  At first their excesses and rowdiness were just funny, familiar like Bob and Doug, Wayne and Garth, or Dante and Randal, with a leader (Jamie Cavanagh as Clinton) and a follower (Chris Cook as Kyle).  Their reminiscences and stories of their past youth include a third character, their friend Danny who has died, and in the flashback scenes each actor takes a turn as Danny, sometimes in quick succession, using blocking cues to show us who is speaking as Danny in a three-person conversation.  Each character has different redeeming qualities and vulnerabilities, so that we see them as more than loser-caricatures.  Clinton has some loosely-Christian spiritual convictions.  Kyle is proud of how his work at Subway involves supporting people who are trying to eat more healthily or lose weight.  Both of them come from imperfect families and are somewhat trapped in their lives.   The story gets more painful, and I was crying before the end.  Chris Cook is a great tagalong sidekick, and Jamie Cavanagh was perfectly cast in the role of Clinton, as a foulmouthed drunken jerk who turns out to be a complicated tormented tragic character at the same time.

Then I wiped my eyes, got in the car, and went to change my mood at Real Time, the comedy written by Matt Alden of Rapid Fire and directed by Alden and Katie Fournell.  Thanks to the kindness of a stranger in the refreshment tent, I was able to take a friend with me even though the show had been sold out.  Jessie McPhee and Joleen Ballandine, regular Rapid Fire improvisers and two thirds of the cast of last year’s Fringe hit Excuse me … this is the truth!,  play two mismatched young people (Jessie is Billy and Joleen is Jessica) who meet playing an online game, spend time together in person, and explore the possibilities of romance.  The actors also play other parts as needed (Billy’s British mother, Jessica’s marijuana-smoking grandfather, Jessica’s ex-boyfriend, etc, all of them funny and original).  The whole thing was just charming and funny and familiar, including the customs of on-line life of ten years ago.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

One of the hot tickets that I paid full price for on my Broadway excursion this spring was the new production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig and Lena Hall as Hedwig’s second husband Yitzhak.  Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) had played the role in a West End London production a few years ago, but never on Broadway.  (You might know NPH as the actor who played the title role in Doogie Howser MD, who played himself in the Harold and Kumar movies, and who was in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or the host of last year’s Tony Awards.)  I’m probably the only one who also had him confused with the guy who plays the FBI agent on White Collar, but that’s actually Tim De Kay, who looks kind of similar and is about 10 years older.   Lena Hall also has a long Broadway resume,

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also a movie, but having seen both I think it works better as a stage musical – and it’s definitely more fun in person.  The Belasco Theatre is an intimate setting and some of the audience members sitting near me had seen the production before.  It’s a fairly short show (95 minutes or so?) without an intermission, and the character Hedwig talks or sings for almost the whole time.  The musicians performing as the Angry Inch were Justin Craig (Skszp), Matt Duncan (Jacek), Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff), and Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko).  Hedwig has several dramatic costume changes and manages to climb over a car gracefully wearing platform boots.

The show uses the device of Hedwig and her band talking to the audience as they do a “one night only!” musical performance, and narrate Hedwig’s history.  They keep mentioning their more successful associate Tommy Gnosis who is supposedly performing across town in a bigger venue.  And at one point Hedwig makes an aside about having been kicked out of a dive like The Jane Hotel, which is funny because the original off-Broadway run of Hedwig was in a room at that inexpensive inn, but it was even funnier to me because that is where I was staying.

I enjoyed it and I’m glad I went to see it, but it hasn’t really stuck with me very hard.  I’m not sure why not.