Tag Archives: theatre network

Deaths and lives, a hundred years ago.

On the Remembrance Day weekend, I saw Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver’s First World War play Redpatch at the Citadel.  And tonight I saw Hannah Moskovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know at Theatre Network.  Both of them showed me the human consequences of historical facts that I’d already known in a more abstract sense, and I left wondering more about the unspoken hardships in my own grandparents’ lives.

Redpatch is the story of a young First Nations man (Calvert) from the west coast who enlists and is sent to fight in France.  The rest of the ensemble (Jennifer Daigle, Taran Kootenhayoo, Joel D Montgrand, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya) play his fellow soldiers, but also his grandmother, childhood best friend, a Raven, a killer whale, etc, as the story of their war is interrupted by the older story of two boys sneaking out of school to take a canoe out on the ocean.   One of my favourite bits is where the two boys talk while drifting in a canoe, swaying gently so that I almost felt like the canoe was actually on the water.  The violence of war is presented in a stylized way, with quarterstaves used as Ross rifles and bayonets, very little actual contact, and no blood, but lighting (Brad Trenaman) and sound (James Coomber) to convey the nightmare horror of trench warfare and No-Mans-Land night raids without being so overwhelming that the text was lost.  I found this very effective.

What a Young Wife Ought To Know, directed by Marianne Copithorne, previewed tonight at the Roxy on Gateway, and plays until December 2nd.  It is set in the 1920s, among working-class Irish immigrants of the Ottawa area.  I found it heartbreaking and sweet, embarrassing and upsetting and sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, by turns.  Merran Carr-Wiggin plays the young wife of the title, starting from a teenager with no understanding of sex getting some reluctant explanations from her bolder older sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard).  We see her awkward romance with hotel stablehand Jonny (Cole Humeny), their love and pride as new parents, and then their gradual realization that expressing their love for each other physically can’t be separated from risking her life and health in childbirth, and needing to raise more children in an already-impoverished situation.  There are no easy answers – Carr-Wiggin’s Sophie tells the audience about some of the unsatisfactory options and staged scenes show us some of the others.  The direction and performances felt very compassionate to me.  The young husband weeps with frustration, not just wanting to share intimacy with his wife but wishing for more children to love, not quite grasping how awful more pregnancies would be from her perspective.   I appreciated that the plot was more nuanced than a typical mid-century narrative showing unmarried women suffering deadly consequences for their own desire or being victimized by men – one can see some similar narrative in Alma’s arc, but Sophie’s and Jonny’s story is a more complicated one that I had not really thought about much before.   I was reminded a bit of Moskovitch’s The Kaufman Kabaret, part of the U of A Studio Theatre season in 2016, but this is a much smaller-scale examination of similar issues, and I preferred it.

The set and costume design, by Tessa Stamp, conveyed the modest circumstances of the characters.  The two-story backdrop might have represented both the hotel and the tenement apartment, and a sliding door hinted at stables behind.   I will be thinking about it for a while.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

I’ve heard good things about Old Trout Puppet Workshop of Calgary for a while.  I’ve seen them mentioned in the credits for other people’s shows – for the rabbit puppets in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit for sure.  So I was excited to see one of their shows listed in the 2014-2015 Theatre Network season.

Theatre Network’s home, the Roxy Theatre on 124 Street, burned down just over three weeks ago.  The show in production there at the time, Human Loser Theatre’s Cheerleader, was able to have a staged reading in another venue almost immediately, and other shows and events are being relocated to take place on the original schedules.  This one is in an auditorium at Eastglen High School called Majestic Theatre, an attractive functional space with rounded wooden seats on a slightly raked floor.  The high school is near Rexall Place and the Highlands neighbourhood.  It is easy to get to by car and easy to park (except for the opening-night snowstorm).  When I arrived at the property of the large brick school building, trying to figure out how to get to the theatre from where I’d parked, it reminded me of my first trips to see Fringe shows at Strathcona Composite School, only with snow.  (The theatre is right by the front door of the school which faces 68 Street.)

Bradley Moss, Artistic Director of Theatre Network, spoke briefly before the performance about the support that Theatre Network has been receiving from the public, arts and government groups, and other theatres.  Everything seems to be coming into place for the short term (the rest of the season will be in the new Backstage Theatre at the Arts Barns, with the Varscona team delaying their own renovations to allow for this), and they hope to rebuild at their 124 Street location.   Online donations through Canada Helps are convenient.

Anyway, the show.  When my companion asked me afterwards what I thought of it, I said that they were skillful, funny, and warped.   Lots of deaths, of various manner and means.  An encyclopedic collection of kinds of puppets and puppetry, at various scales.  Separate short vignettes with a couple of reappearing characters.  I laughed, winced, felt pity, and often got caught up in the realities of the puppets.  I did not get to see the puppets up close because we sat farther back, but they seemed like beautiful detailed evocative artifacts.   (I suggest sitting closer if possible.)  Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs about an hour and a half without intermission.  It is playing until February 22nd as originally scheduled, and you can get tickets through Tix on the Square.

Another family at a cusp, in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble

Beth Graham’s play The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, directed by Bradley Moss at Theatre Network, explores a familiar family crisis time with some refreshing new thoughts.  In my adult acting classes, we’ve studied scenes from Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge and from The Attic, The Pearls, and Three Fine Girls by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, both of which are stories about adult children who return to the family home when a parent is dying.  I’ve been through similar experiences, twice, so I can understand why such crisis times work well for a playwright, with all the characters having old baggage and resentments with each other, all stuck in a current high-stakes situation.  And because I remember what it was like sharing our childhood home with my siblings while we spent our days at the hospital and our evenings scanning through Mum’s television channels and filling up her fridge with fast-food leftovers while the neighbours’ casseroles went uneaten, stories of interesting characters going through similar struggles resonate and appeal to me.

The first exciting difference about Bernice Trimble was that the widowed mother, Bernice (Susan Gilmour, recently seen in Drowsy Chaperone and in Spamalot), was a character on stage, rather than an invalid in an offstage bedroom.  She turns out to be a fascinating character too, honest and determined and accepting of each of her children’s differences.   Having the mother on stage interacting with her children made this a rich fascinating story of earlier stages of illness and aging than the stories I alluded to in the first paragraph.  It also helped to illustrate the title.  “Gravitational pull” is the playwright’s expression for how, for better or for worse, an extended family is often drawn together by one specific person (maybe a parent or grandparent).  Astronomical metaphors were used throughout the narrative but not in a contrived way.

The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Iris, the middle child (Clarice Eckford) on whom Bernice depends for the most difficult requests.  The narrative jumps back and forth between one later important day and a series of scenes of family members interacting over several months.  Iris frequently addresses the audience, narrating what happens between the scenes from her point of view.  The set represents both Iris’s kitchen and their mother’s.  It is generally clear which location is being presented, even without narrator Iris’s clue of setting out salt and pepper shakers every time the set is her mother’s house.   Many family traditions and customs are referred to and repeated, from Bernice’s habits of embracing her children and her endearments for them, to the rituals of family meeting and  making a classic 1960s-style casserole.  As Iris tells the story, she often uses the expression “That was that … only it wasn’t” as a transition.

The other two siblings, older sister Sarah (Patricia Zentilli) and younger brother Peter (Jason Chinn), respond to the mother’s announcement that she has Alzheimer’s disease in their own fashions, Sarah with denial and plans for second opinions and treatments, and Peter with awkward taciturn acceptance.  Sarah and Iris are also caught up by disputing who is “last to know” important family business, another familiar touch.  I thought that Peter’s small role was presented effectively and with sympathy by the playwright and the actor, because his quiet avoidance and flashes of kindness could so easily have been overplayed into humour, and they were not.

The audience gets only a single disturbing glimpse of the progression of Bernice’s illness before she enlist’s Iris’s commitment to be accessory to her suicide.  And Iris, the one who might appear least successful or least mature by some of her family ‘s measures (chatty and scattered, still single, no children, working as a temp) is the one who accepts and supports her mother’s right to make that choice, despite the pain it causes her.

I found it emotionally evocative and not manipulative, a believable portrait of a family and an illness.  The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble continues at Theatre Network until November 23rd, with tickets available here.

Mump and Smoot in “Anything”

Since I started paying attention to the breadth of live theatre available in Edmonton, I’ve gradually discovered that Edmonton has an unusually strong tradition of clown and physical theatre, in part due to the teaching and mentoring of master clowns like Jan Henderson and Michael Kennard, at University of Alberta and elsewhere.  I’ve seen many of their students and former students perform, but never had the chance to see either of them on stage.

Mump and Smoot are the creations of Michael Kennard and John Turner.  According to the program for Mump and Smoot in Anything, the artists met at Second City in Toronto, both studied with Richard Pochinko who basically started the Canadian style of clowning, and have been performing Mump and Smoot for twenty-six years.   For those who hadn’t heard of the duo before or who hadn’t noticed that the title on the program cover seemed to be written in dripping blood, the program also helpfully mentioned that they are referred to as “clowns of horror”.   This and their general reputation cued me to expect something a little more gory and gross than a typical clown show – and the hints were welcome.

Like many clowns from the Pochinko tradition, Mump and Smoot vocalize but not always in comprehensible vernacular.  (A show I saw last winter from Calgary’s PIE Factory Collective had the interesting variation of using a gibberish that contained bits of French and bits of English.)  Their unique language, “Ummonian”, contains enough English words and near-English along with gestures and unmistakable facial expressions that after the first framing sequence it was fairly easy to follow the narrative of the three following vignettes and final sequence.  Mump (Michael Kennard) was the taller one, a higher-status older-brother type of role.  Smoot (John Turner) was the one who connected with the audience and drew the audience’s sympathies.  Prop changes and scene introductions were managed by a silent white-faced woman in straggly white draperies with a very Catalyst-Theatre aesthetic, Candace Berlinguette as Knooma.   The three scenes were titled “The Escape”, “The Romp”, and “The Remedy”.  They fit together somewhat but were mostly separate stories.  They were funny and poignant and occasionally really gross and creepy, but in ways that the audience seemed to enjoy sharing.  There was a little bit of audience participation, generally consensual and not too embarrassing.

I laughed a lot and I found the stories satisfying.  Part of why I don’t enjoy clowns from the American circus traditions or a lot of mimes is that I don’t enjoy perpetual-victim stories like RoadRunner and Coyote.  But these two characters Mump and Smoot, for all their weird troubles and disagreements, didn’t seem to be trying to beat each other or trick each other.  They liked each other.  As with the Rocket and SheShells duo (Adam Keefe and Christine Lesiak, seen in Fools for Love and in Sofa So Good) or the Nona and Squee partnership of Life After Breath (Amy Chow and Neelam Chattoo), they argued in ways that were familiar enough to be funny, and came to fair resolutions.   I can see that both performers were very good at what they did, at communicating just enough of their emotions and intentions to captivate the audience and developing a story with just enough unpredictability to delight.  I don’t know how they did it.  I would definitely watch them again.  In anything.  Or, well, in Anything, if my schedule permitted.

Mump and Smoot in Anything is playing at the Roxy Theatre on 124 Street until April 27th.  Tickets are available through Theatre Network.

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. 

Blown away by Let the Light of Day Through

Last night I saw Collin Doyle’s play Let the Light of Day Through.

I have a huge backlog of performances I haven’t written about yet, but I couldn’t go to sleep last night until I wrote about this play, and none of my usual correspondents were on line or answering their text messages.

Let the Light of Day Through is a Theatre Network production, starring Lora Brovold and Jesse Gervais, and directed by Bradley Moss.  I didn’t read much about it ahead of time – just took a tip from a reliable friend – so I just had a vague idea that it was about a couple dealing with something sad or unmentionable in their past.

That wasn’t wrong.  And if you’d rather not know any more than the fact that I cried all the way home and am now telling you to go see it, stop here and go to the theatrenetwork website to buy tickets (it’s only playing until Sunday afternoon).

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But if you don’t mind spoilers, or if you have already seen it or you aren’t going to be able to anyway, I can go into more detail.  The show posters show a door opening from a dark hallway into a room flooded with eerie light.  The set visible before the show had a brick wall, a wooden door, and a purplish light escaping from behind it.

I was expecting to meet a couple who were angry with each other, distanced, or with some obvious psychiatric troubles.  Those are the obvious tropes for survivors of family traumas of the kind that is gradually revealed here.  I’ve been fortunate not to have relevant personal experience, but that’s how it usually is in books, movies, or theatre (Next to Normal, for example).  But the characters Rob and Chris in this play still like each other, still find joy in life and hope for their future, and are still very funny people who enjoy each other’s compatible playfulness with the shorthand of people who have known each other a long time.   These two people who have endured an awful senseless loss are the most in-tune with each other, the most respectful of any male-female couple I’ve seen in fiction in ages.  Their tolerance and mild irritation with each other’s quirks are so affectionate at base compared to many fictional couples who are supposed to be happy together but display an ongoing tension that makes me wince.  Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Mad About You on Netflix.

The common fictional trope is that a person or family who experiences unbearable trauma will somehow almost forget the whole thing or make it completely unmentionable.  But it becomes clear that Rob and Chris have done something different in order to get on with their lives.  They’ve made an agreement to pretend, and in fact when they discover that they’ve both forgotten a milestone date, they are at first horrified by the idea that they might ever forget.  This consensual pretending then turns out to be a big part of how they work through their traumatic past and how the audience gets to learn the story as they come to terms with it.  Rather than asking the audience to accept the usual convention of narrative flashback, in which the actors are suddenly playing different characters or playing the usual characters at a younger age, in this play the playwright uses the playful storytelling and reminiscing of the characters as they remain their contemporary selves but re-tell the story to each other.  “Remember that time?  Okay, I’ll be your mother in this one…”  This technique made me more fond of the characters, and it also made the story flow very easy to follow.  In a couple of places where it might have been ambiguous, the characters themselves made the clarification “Wait, is this now, or are we being seventeen?”

The funniest parts of the play were two sex scenes. One is in the contemporary story where they’re obviously both interested in each other and making fun of fantasy conventions but have slightly different expectations for how the scene will play out.  The other is a hilarious acting-out of an awkwardly acrobatic teenage encounter.

The play runs about two hours with no intermission.  This was a good choice because the trajectory of the story didn’t have a good breakpoint.  The set seemed simple but was important, and the lighting made the plain wall and door fit many different settings.   The actors were both very good, playing different people who were both likeable and sympathetic.  And Collin Doyle’s treatment of how these people cope with the events of their lives is just different enough, both in plot and in the way the story is told, that I was completely drawn in.  It didn’t feel melodramatic or emotionally manipulative at all.  Near the end of the play, the only sound I could hear from around me was an awful lot of sniffling. I definitely wasn’t the only one weeping.

One of the best performances I’ve seen since starting this blog.  Seriously.