Tag Archives: theatre

Hilda’s Yard in Rosthern, Saskatchewan

I’m aiming to be caught up on reviews or at least quick mentions by the start of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (August 14-24, 2014), because that’s the start of my personal theatregoing year, and the anniversary of my move to Edmonton.  This year at the Fringe, besides volunteering at the beer tent, volunteering front of house for a Rapid Fire production or two, and seeing as many shows as I can fit into my schedule, I’m also going to be producing a new work.  Sonder, created and performed by The ? Collective under the direction of Jake Tkaczyk (a U of A BFA Acting student), will be playing at the King Edward Elementary School.

The most recent play I’ve attended was Norm Foster’s charming slice of 1950s family life, Hilda’s Yard, as directed by Stephen Heatley (formerly of Edmonton and now faculty at UBC) at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, Saskatchewan.  As a professional production by a summer company, it reminded me of the plays I used to go to at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque when I lived in Kingston.   I hear that doing the dinner/show package at the Tea Room in the arts centre is an even better experience, but by the time I decided to attend the dinner was sold out.  So I had a tasty club sandwich at a local restaurant called Chewie’s (after the Star Wars character I think), and then enjoyed strolling through the art gallery before the show started.

Hilda’s Yard opens with the title character (Cheryl Jack) hanging laundry in her backyard, while talking to a neighbour we can’t see.  We learn that she’s relieved that her two grown children have recently moved out, and that she’s a little apprehensive about her husband planning to buy their first television set.   I thought Hilda’s character was the most interesting part of the play.  Cheryl Jack portrayed her as confident, competent, wistful, and mostly in control, and her portrayal was enhanced by some very amusing gestures and hip wiggles.  I was pleased to see that she and her husband Sam (Bruce McKay) were both looking forward to the increased opportunities for intimacy afforded by having an empty nest, rather than playing that situation for the cheap laughs of imbalance.   The complication, of course, is that both adult children soon return home, for the same kinds of reasons that are common in 21st-century boomerang kids.  Gary (Jaron Francis) has lost his pizza-delivery job in the city and is on the run from a bookie he owes money to.  Sam’s prolonged pauses as he tries to figure out what to say to his son are priceless.  Daughter Janey (Angela Kemp) shows up back home due to marital troubles.  I’d seen both Jaron Francis and Bruce McKay in last season’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan productions of Macbeth and Comedy of Errors.

When I read the show notes ahead of time, I assumed that the plot would focus on Gary and Janey now insisting on staying with their parents in order to watch the television.  But Norm Foster’s stories are not quite that predictable.  Although the (off-stage) television figures in the plot, it doesn’t quite work out like that.  Additional characters who show up and get invited for supper include Gary’s new girlfriend Bobbi, a jazz trombonist (Shannon Harasen) and Gary’s bookie Beverly (Matt Josdal).  Bobbi’s idiolect is noticeably different from the language used by the rest of the characters, with jazz lingo like “cat” but also in careful details like her pronunciation of “Mom” contrasting with Janey’s old-Ontario pronunciation of “Mum”. Present-day audiences are amused by any mention of the 1956 prices and wages, but also by Gary’s unrealistic schemes to make money with such unlikely products as a “baby-on-board” sign or a hula hoop.  I appreciated the light touch by director and actors throughout the play, because the story is funny enough without hitting the audience over the head.

The set (design by David Granger) portrayed a backyard like the ones of my childhood with simple clean lines – an artificial-turf lawn, a wooden-siding wall, a white picket fence with bits of weed growing between the pickets, a perfectly-recreated pulley clothesline and a wicker laundry basket, vintage lawn chairs and a credibly-dented metal garbage can.

Hilda’s Yard continues until July 27th, and is definitely worth the short drive from Saskatoon.

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.

Raisin in the Sun

I wanted to see this play on Broadway for two reasons.  One was that I’d seen the movie earlier this year along with watching the Citadel Theatre performance of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, an intersecting story set in the same world.  The other was that Denzel Washington is in this production, in the role of Walter Lee Younger, the man of the family, the role played by a young Sidney Poitier in the movie.

Before the play started, the poem excerpt including the phrase “raisin in the sun” and the musings about dreams deferred was projected on a scrim.  And a radio interview was playing on a loop – I figured out quickly that the woman being interviewed was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and then I learned from the Playbill that the interviewer was Studs Terkel.

The curtain rises on the main room of a small apartment in Chicago.  Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo) is up and in the kitchen before the alarm goes off, and then she begins the tasks of helping her family get ready for the day.  Her small son (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) wakes groggy on the living room couch, and she hustles him into the shared bathroom across the hallway.  The set design was clever, showing the tiled hallway and bathroom door outside the door of the main set, lit in such a way that I wasn’t aware of it being part of the set until Travis scurries across the hall with his towel.  You could see the practised routine of a family in the way Ruth starts waking up her husband as soon as her son’s in the bathroom, rushing him into the bath ahead of the man down the hall, as she makes breakfasts, wraps sandwiches in waxed paper, and reminds her young sister-in-law, college-student Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), to tidy away Travis’s bedding.   Coming from a later generation, it took me some time to figure out that Ruth actually had a job herself, because in the first scene she was all about taking care of her family.  But in fact, both Ruth and her mother-in-law Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) worked as domestic help.  As we got to know the family and the routines of their lives, we also learned that Lena’s husband Walter had recently died and that they were all anticipating how the life insurance money might change their lives.

Each of them had some dreams and wishes for better life – Lena wants a garden and sunlight, Ruth wants comfort and space for her growing family, Travis wants his own bedroom, and Beneatha wants to be a doctor after embracing college student life, exploring African roots, and trying various creative pursuits like guitar lessons and horseback riding.  But Walter Lee seems to be the most unhappy with his current life, working as a chauffeur and depending on his mother’s and wife’s earnings to help pay the bills.  He yearns to be his own boss, to take care of his family and be in charge.  So of course they don’t all agree about what to do with the money.

I thought Latanya Richardson Jackson was especially strong, but the whole cast was good and balanced.  I felt like I was watching an important story and I was lucky to be seeing it with such good actors.    Many of my seat neighbours in the mezzanine were very well dressed and had bouquets to deliver at the stage door, adding to my impression that I was seeing something important.

Raisin in the Sun intersects with Clybourne Park in the part of the story where a representative of the currently all-white neighbourhood tries to dissuade the family from moving to the house Lena buys, but that is not the main focus of either play.   It was also useful to think about the second act of Clybourne Park which is set in contemporary times, showing that although people nowadays have different customs of how to talk about race, the misunderstandings and misconceptions still continue.

Avenue Q off Broadway

The musical-with-puppets Avenue Q is going to be part of next year’s Citadel Theatre season. Having just seen it off-Broadway, I’m looking forward to it even more than I had been.

It reminded me of Rent ( in being about a small community of struggling young people in New York City, but not sad), of “St. Elmo’s Fire” (being about the anomie of post-graduation), and of, well, “Sesame Street” for grownups.  This was a more effective mix than you might expect if you haven’t heard of the show.  Three of the seven performers play humans, Brian a wannabe comedian (Nick Kohn), Christmas Eve a wannabe social worker (Sala Iwamatsu), and Gary Coleman yes that Gary Coleman (Danielle K. Thomas).  The other four performers operate various Muppet-like characters, while on stage in full view mimicking their alter egos’ gestures.  Darren Bluestone plays Princeton the lead, as well as Rod who bears a distinct resemblance to Bert-from-Sesame-Street.  Veronica Kuehn plays Kate Monster the other lead.  The other two puppeteers are Maggie Lakis and Jason Jacoby.

It’s a fun show, the songs are catchy, the humour is topical and sometimes pointed (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), and the characters’ problems are very easy to identify with.

As someone who grew up with Bert and Ernie, and then who enjoyed speculating on their slashy subtext, I particularly enjoyed the subplot of Rod and his roommate Nicky, and how the writers managed to find both a happy same-sex romantic ending and a respect for non-sexual friendship.  I couldn’t think how that story would work out, and it did.

There was one bit of audience interaction that made me wish for once that I was sitting on the aisle – especially when their pass-the-hat came up with a Metrocard.

Avenue Q is playing at New World Stages, a new-looking complex of five underground performance spaces just north of Times Square on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City.  There are often discount tickets at TKTS.  And it will be playing at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton next winter.  I’ll be there for sure!

 

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.

Little One at Theatre Network. Wow.

The last time I saw Jesse Gervais on stage with Theatre Network he and Lora Brovold were making me cry in Let the Light of Day Through, as directed by Bradley Moss.  This week I saw him and Amber Borotsik in the Theatre Network production of Hannah Moskovitch’s Little One, also directed by Bradley Moss.  And I did tear up a bit again, but mostly I just found it so gripping that I kind of forgot to breathe and completely lost awareness of the passage of time.  One of my theatregoing companions said that his foot fell asleep and he didn’t want to move.

The character telling the story, Aaron (Gervais), is a doctor, a surgical resident about 30 years old.  He spends most of the play talking to the audience or maybe his off-stage colleagues about his memories of life with his troubled younger sister.  His narrative is interspersed with scenes where he and his sister Claire (Borotsik) are children and young teenagers. With subtle shifts in body and voice and credible dialogue, Gervais made a convincing child of eight to fourteen years old, the older brother who is trying to be the good kid, who cares about his sister but is frustrated and sometimes angry or frightened or resentful at her behaviour and her effect on the family.  It was very clear that Borotsik was portraying a child a couple of years younger than Aaron in each scene, but also that something was a little off about her affect.

The other people recurring in the stories, Mum and Dad and the neighbours Kim-Lee and Roger, are not represented directly, and the story feels sufficient with just the two characters, through the past and in the present.  In the present, the siblings are not interacting face-to-face.  It seems that they have been out of touch for some time, but Aaron receives a cassette tape letter in the mail from his sister and plays it, as we see Claire telling the story on the tape.   Basically everything on stage is storytelling, either acting out in flashback, Aaron’s direct narrative, or Claire’s story on tape – but the performance is still very intense.  The audience was very quiet on the preview night, chuckling nervously at a few appropriate places but otherwise I think other people were as gripped by the story as I was.

And what was the story?  Part of why it was so effective for me was that I didn’t know much about it ahead of time, so I think I won’t recount the narrative here.  It’s got some elements of awfulness, but every time I thought, I see where this is going, I know what all these stories mean, I was not quite right.  My companions agreed with me that the writing was very clever, with some plot elements being surprising when they happened and then making such complete sense afterwards that we felt as if we should have guessed but didn’t.

One of the most effective things in the way this story was told was Aaron’s way of hinting at things he couldn’t bear to say.  He’d use circumlocutions “that day” “the … incident …” but he’d also start lots of sentences that he couldn’t finish, sometimes trying two or three times before finding a way in to a painful story.  Gervais as the adult Aaron seemed to have a very tense jawline, as he struggled to tell things that the character said he didn’t often talk about.  And you could see that the careful, self-controlled surgical resident was who the younger Aaron had turned into, the little boy who lost two families and the teenager whose parents needed him to be an adult too young.

I’m writing a lot more about Gervais’s character than about Borotsik’s, because part of her effective portrayal was showing that Claire did not have normal attachment to her family or others, and she basically didn’t seem to make eye contact with the audience either.  She was heartbreaking and frightening and occasionally funny.

I don’t actually remember if there were any stage-manager warnings about content posted at the box office.  There isn’t an intermission, which is how I prefer it for an emotionally intense show.  There is some swearing.  And there are some disturbing concepts.

Can I say I liked it?  It’s not that simple.  I’m very glad I went, I’d go again if I had time, and I bet it will be nominated for more than one Sterling Award category.  You should see it too, if you can tolerate some painful subject matter in a good story well done.  Tickets are here. 

Punctuate! Theatre’s Dirt

When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher Mr. Hillen handed out six or seven books at the start of the year.  (Merchant of Venice, an Agatha Christie mystery, Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, anthologies of short stories, poetry, and plays, and maybe something else I can’t remember. )  Being introduced to Shakespeare made a difference to my life in the long run, but the immediate change came from the implied permission to start reading my parents’ collection of murder mysteries.  Mr. Hillen told us the order that we’d encounter the works on the curriculum, and said we could feel free to read ahead in any of them, except that we should not read the last play in the anthology because he wanted us to encounter it fresh in class.  That of course was an irresistible briar patch to an enthusiastic reader, even one who already loved the English teacher, so over the year I would sneak glances at different bits of that last play, and I never did encounter it fresh and all of a piece.  As it turned out, we didn’t get around to reading it in class anyway, so I never got to discuss it, but Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery stuck in my head as a very strange dangerous world, that sounded normal until it suddenly didn’t.

That was a very long time ago, and it hasn’t been a foundation of my literary framework in the meantime either.  But partway through watching the opening-night performance of Punctuate! Theatre’s production of Ron Chambers’ Dirt, I thought, Ooh, this scapegoating is working like The Lottery.  Whether that shows the benefit of English class or the more devious benefit of telling kids not to read something, I’ll leave for the, ahem, reader.

Anyway.  Dirt is directed by Liz Hobbs, and performed by Elliott James, Cliff Kelly, Andréa Jorawsky, Jeff Page, and Rebecca Starr.  It starts out with a familiar-seeming setting and characters – police investigating a murder, a suspect living on the margins of society.  But it gets odd, a little bit at a time.   The pair of investigating officers were immediately identifiable as the conscientious anxious young one (Cliff Kelly), and the confident preeningly-masculine and politically-right-wing more experienced officer (Elliott James).   When the performance started, the two officers were standing in front of a rough burlap-bag curtain, which they then opened to reveal the home of their chief suspect, where the rest of the story was set.  Murphy (Jeff Page) was under suspicion because he was the boyfriend of the murdered woman, and because he was a foulmouthed dirty loner on welfare.

The senior officer Falkin bullies Murphy and threatens him with the death penalty.  When Murphy protests that we don’t have the death penalty any more, Falkin goes off on a rant about how it might be reinstated and would be cheaper than keeping people in prison.  He then says that as a cheaper alternative to keeping him in custody while the case is investigated, he is leaving Murphy under house arrest with an armed guard, Greta (Andréa Jaworsky).   The fifth character in the story, a local woman making deliveries of homemade food to Murphy, is played by Rebecca Starr. She was playing a very familiar kind of character that I recognized from life and she was doing it in a very funny way.  I really enjoyed her.

The story progresses with Murphy and Greta clashing in predictable ways and starting to get to know each other.  He doesn’t like having a fussy outsider in his house, and complains about the police sealing up the window in his unventilated bathroom.  She thinks his house is dirty and doesn’t want him to keep his “long gonch” (long underwear, for those not familiar with the regionalism) on the kitchen table.  But gradually he begins telling her some of his hard-luck stories, and she gets won over along with the audience (or at least me!).  I could see why his projects never worked out, but at the same time I liked him for trying and felt sorry for him for not being able to think them through.

Yet every time Falkin burst back in to the house, he seemed more offensive.  It took me a long time to decide that he was objectively out-of-line, because he was a classic example of that trope of bigoted bullying cop.   By the end of it, I was completely on the side of Murphy and/or of Greta.  And around about then, I started thinking in a horrified way about planned scapegoating.

Dirt was an interesting, thought-provoking contribution to the Punctuate! Theatre season.  Upcoming they have a dance show and then Hannah Moskovitch’s East of Berlin.

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.

Escher-esque set for Three Musketeers

All for one and one for all, with Red Deer College Three Musketeers

The Red Deer College theatre program’s current production is The Three Musketeers, the 2006 Ken Ludwig adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel, first published as a newspaper serial in 1844.

I did not attempt to read the original, as I could not get through Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo after I saw a Stratford (Ontario) Festival production about ten years ago.  So my pre-show preparation was limited to reading Wikipedia, looking at the Red Deer College Performing Arts website, and looking at a video clip from this production posted in a newspaper preview.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the adaptation, and this production directed by Thomas Usher, managed to create for modern audiences a fast-paced, episodic, wish-fulfilling adventure which was probably true to the impression left on contemporary readers of the serial.   D’Artagnan, the young man from the country who travels to Paris with the goal of becoming a Musketeer like his father before him, was played with well-meaning earnestness by Tyler Johnson, like most of the cast a graduating student in Theatre Performance and Creation.   My favourite character in the story was an addition for the modern adaptation, D’Artagnan’s younger sister Sabine (Brittany Martyshuk).   D’Artagnan’s parents ask him to take his sister to Paris and enroll her in a convent school, but it turns out that she actually wants to seek her fortune as a swordfighter and maybe fall in love with a Musketeer.   I found her character both charming and credible.

The three musketeers of the title, whom D’Artagnan is challenged by and then befriended by, are Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  (The “h”s are silent because they are French – I didn’t know that before.)  Athos is the more serious musketeer whose sad personal backstory comes out later, and he is portrayed by Chase Cownden, a particularly impressive stage fencer.  Porthos (Bret Jacobs) is interested in fashion, and a scene in which he is showing off a new cloak leads to a fight scene with some impressive use of a length of cloth to tangle an opponent.  Aramis (Wayne DeAtley) aspires to religious life, and is the target of Sabine’s crush.

The musketeers’ archenemy is Cardinal Richelieu (Richard Leurer), remote and devious and a little slimy.  Richelieu’s collaborators and allies include Milady (Megan Einarson) and Rochefort (Victoria Day).   Other characters include the King and Queen of France (JP Lord and Taylor Pfeiffer), and Constance the queen’s lady-in-waiting and love-interest for D’Artagnan (Constance Isaacs).  Daniel Vasquez, a recent graduate of the RDC Theatre Performance program, plays Treville the head of the musketeers, Buckingham the Queen’s lover, and a few other minor parts.  Most of the other actors are multiply-cast as well, with some quick costume changes.

The set for the show was strongly reminiscent of the Escher print Relativity, and the similarity was underlined by pieces of staircase and balcony suspended in the air at odd angles. The actual stage was full of entrances and exits, balconies and crossing staircases, and they all got used, with almost no prop movement between scenes.  This helped underline the impressions of fast-paced action with complications and conspiracies.

There was, of course, a lot of stage combat, not just swordfighting but unarmed fighting, knifework, and other tools used as weapons.  At one point, all twelve cast members are engaged in a skirmish all over the stage between musketeers and Richelieu’s guards, with so much going on that it was hard for the audience to keep track of and easy to buy into the illusion of it being a real fight.

One of the things I liked best about this production was the women’s parts and the scope for female actors.  They weren’t just cast as men for fight scenes; the script included three fighters explicitly identified as female, who seemed like distinct interesting characters – Sabine, the young girl who grew up learning fighting with her older brother, Milady, with a dagger in her boot and a secret in her past, whose manipulative sexuality was reminiscent of the courtesan Einarson played in the troupe’s production of Comedy of Errors last year, and the guard captain Rochefort, in eyepatch and scar. Milady is a character in Dumas’ original story, and so is a male version of Rochefort.  I couldn’t tell whether Rochefort had been changed from male to female by the 2006 playwright or by the director of this production, but it didn’t matter and it worked well enough for me to enjoy it.

The production even passed the “Bechdel test” – the criterion expressed by a character in an early edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that she only reads/watches fiction in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man.   I can’t remember what the conversation was about in the second convent scene, when Constance is taking sanctuary and Milady is looking for her, but the scene at the convent school where Sabine has been enrolled definitely passes.

I’m not sure that everything shown on the stage was necessary to the plot – but it was fun and the pace was good and I didn’t mind.  The tavern singing and the masked-ball dancing were fun to watch.   The random musket battle with Huguenots confused me a bit more, because I was wondering whether there was a point to it other than giving Porthos a chance to make some funny comments about religion.

The costuming used a limited but rich palette of colours, allowing the audience to distinguish between the heroes in brown, burgundy, and gold, with Porthos having more dramatic choices, the household of royalty in purple, and the enemies in black and red.  I also noticed red hues in the lighting for Milady’s and Richelieu’s scenes.  And I loved the peacock dress Sabine wore to the masked ball.  There were lots of scruffy whiskers in evidence, with Richelieu’s waxed mustache and groomed-squirrel-tail goatee in sharp contrast.

In the show I saw early in the run, there were a few situations of stilted speech, but for the most part the actors spoke clearly, convincingly, and in character, and they made me care about what happened to the characters.   And the last line made me cry.

Three Musketeers plays Wednesday through Saturday of this week at the Red Deer College mainstage.  Advance tickets are available on line and by phone from the usual outlet.

Clybourne Park: optimal discomfort

Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, is a story – or two stories – about racial shifts in neighbourhoods in Chicago.  The concept of this play has two interesting notes.  One is that the two acts are set in the same house in 1959 and in 2009.  The other is that it’s intended to connect with the 1957 play Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry.

I haven’t watched or read the play Raisin in the Sun, but the movie of the same name, with Sidney Poitier, is conveniently available on iTunes.   That story focuses on an African American family, living together in a small apartment, who use some life-insurance money to buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood.  In one scene, a delegate of a neighbourhood association attempts to buy the house back from them, using the 1959 version of trying to justify the segregated neighbourhood while claiming that they aren’t acting out of race prejudice.  My impression from the movie was that while it was a fascinating portrayal of the lives and limitations of African American people in a northern city in that era, the conflict with the new neighbours was not the main focus of the story.

The first act of Clybourne Park is set the same day as that visit, in the house that the white family has just sold.  And similar to the source material, the fact that the buyers are non-white does not come up until late in the first act and is not even very important to the couple who are selling, Russ and Bev (Doug Mertz and Kerry Sandomirsky).   Their bigger troubles are revealed gradually, as friends and neighbours (Cole Humeny as Jim in clerical collar and hernia truss, Martin Happer and Tracey Power as Karl and Betsy) drop in and awkwardly express concern, and their household help Francine (Sereana Malani) finishes her work for the day and is collected by her husband Albert (Michael Blake) who gets roped in to carry a trunk.   Because the audience is aware that the play focuses on race issues, the details of how the white people treat Francine and Albert are immediately uncomfortable.  A poignant telling example is the way that after Bev makes a little speech about how she and Francine are such close friends, she’d be glad to have Francine and Albert and their two lovely children as neighbours – but the audience already knows that Francine has three children.

However, there are lots of other details about 1959 life and customs that were equally jarring to me.  Tracey Power’s character is Deaf, and the 21st-century audience was frequently gasping about how her friends talked about her and treated her.  And in the initial conversation between Russ and Bev, a long-married couple, there was an accepted dynamic of the husband being the expert and the wife being unaware of geography, politics, or other significant facts – and I never did make up my mind how much of that was put on, Bev kind of choosing to play that role to support her husband.

The story explains why they want to sell the house, and why they’ve been relieved to find a buyer.  We don’t actually meet the buyers, but the first act ends with us feeling glad that Russ and Bev will be able to move on.

While the curtain was down for intermission, the house was aging 50 years and the set underwent an astonishing transformation.  I loved looking at both sets – the fussy details of the well-cared for 1959 living-room covered with moving boxes, and then the graffiti and broken banisters of the living room of the abandoned house in 2009.   The situation of the second act was that a young white couple (Happer and Sandomirsky) are buying the house with plans to fix it up and expand it.  They, their real estate agent (Power), and a lawyer (Humeny) meet with delegates from the current neighbourhood association (Malani and Blake) who have some concerns about the proposed renovations.   But the conversation soon reveals the 2009 versions of condescensions and flawed assumptions, men talking over women and white people patronizing black people, and also the 2009 version of reluctance to talk directly about racial issues – which then descends painfully into some telling jokes full of horrible stereotypes, as the audience winces while anticipating punchlines and then laughs out of sheer awfulness.  Eventually we learn that the real estate agent is the daughter of Karl and Betsy from the first act, and that Malani’s character is the niece (or some kind of relative?) of the first African American woman to own the house in 1959 (she’s not in this play, but in Raisin in the Sun that would be the grandmother Lena who uses her husband’s life-insurance money).  So we see that a circle has been turned, and we also see the similarities between attitudes in the two eras despite surface differences.

There is a short coda with Evan Hall filling in a hinted-at piece of the 1959 story, and then we went home with a lot to think about.   It made me uncomfortable, but it didn’t make me too uncomfortable.  And I liked it that it wasn’t a bigger story – that a lot of it was just about people getting by, with the big family issues and the bigger social issues in the background.  I identified easily with almost everyone in the second act, but the character I liked best was Bev (Sandomirsky) in the first act.

Clybourne Park is playing at the Citadel until February 16th.