Tag Archives: u of a drama

@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.

The other mysterious island

The Island was the main setting of the 2000s-decade JJ Adams tv show LOST.  It didn’t have a name.  Groups of attractive castaways found themselves on its shores, explored, encountered mysterious others, and were threatened and assisted by unexplained supernatural phenomena.  And the 5-season series had an epilogue or attempt at explanation that I never did understand.

And so, Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Un-named island.  Old castaways, new castaways split up in the crash, magic and supernatural elements, backstory and old enmities, and a quick wrapup that I wasn’t quite sure about.

Until this weekend, I don’t think I’d actually seen a full production of The Tempest anywhere.  I’d known something about it because of references in other stories, notably the children’s book Roller Skates (Ruth Sawyer’s 1937 Newbery Medal winner) and the Robertson Davies classic Tempest-Tost and more recently John Lazarus’s play Rough Magic.  I’ve read the play, I’ve seen part of the movie version with Helen Mirren as Prospera (it’s on Netflix), and I’m familiar enough with it to recognize the same plot used in Forbidden Planet (the 1956 science fiction film mentioned in the Rocky Horror Picture Show theme song).

The production I saw this weekend was at the University of Alberta, directed by Ian Leung and featuring the actors of the penultimate year of the BFA Acting program.  (It’s got performances today, Sunday at 2pm and 7:30 pm, if I get this posted in time.)  Jaimi Reese plays Prosperine, usurped Duke of Milan, magic-user, and mother to Miranda.  Miranda is double-cast. I watched both Emma Houghton’s and Sarah Culkin’s interpretations of the isolated teenager, Culkin’s more dreamy and Houghton’s more sulky, and enjoyed seeing two versions of the girl’s first glimpses of the eligible young prince Ferdinand (Marc Ludwig).  The king’s (Jacob Holloway’s) wise old counselor Gonzales (Chayla Day) and the king’s sibling Bastiana (Emily Howard) were both switched from male characters of the traditional script, Gonzalo and Sebastian.   Having Bastiana be female added a convincing nuance of attraction to the snickering and scheming with Antonio (Jordan Buhat), Prosperine’s usurper brother.  The sequence where the two of them slouch on the auditorium stairs, muttering cynically about everything Gonzales says, was particularly good.

Prosperine has used her magic to compel two slaves, Ariel (Sarah Ormandy) and Caliban (Jake Tkaczyk), until her epilogue speech sets both of them free.   Tkaczyk’s Caliban was hunched over, growling and cowering and resentful like a larger version of Gollum.  I pitied Caliban and I was afraid of him and was amused by him.  In his version of the story, Prosperine and her daughter had nurtured him and taught him and then later began to exploit him harshly as a slave.  In Prosperine’s version, Caliban had been a trusted member of the household until he attempted sexual assault on young Miranda, and his bad treatment since then was a consequence of that.   I was reminded of the colonialist/xenophobic trope of needing to protect white daughters from the uncontrolled urges of savage others.  But Caliban’s salacious gesture and leer made me shudder and look away, convinced of his evil intent and unrepentance.

But the one who caught me by surprise was Ariel.  Somehow, the representations I’d encountered in the past led me to picture Ariel as sort of ethereal, a graceful gowned being singing gently, the young Griselda Webster in Tempest-Tost.  But this Ariel was a different sort 0f non-human.  Ormandy’s portrayal never let me forget for a minute that the spirit was powerful beyond her master Prosperine, gentle only by choice, and beyond human sentiment.  Her awkward postures, standing on one leg, never pointing her toes, and her blue morphsuit costume and face paint helped to place her more in the tradition of Puck than of Tinkerbell.  And her singing was strikingly powerful.

Stephano and Trincula (Philip Geller and Alex Dawkins), part of the king’s retinue who get separated from the rest of the ship’s company in the cast and spend most of the play sharing a butt of sack with Caliban, are the Shakespearean version of comic relief. Their first entrances, where Trincula discovers Caliban hiding from the storm under a tarp and decides that he must be a fish because of his smell, and then when Stephano sees both Trincula and Caliban with their feet sticking out from the tarp and concludes that they’re a four-footed monster, are particularly well done.  It is easy to see that students in the U of A BFA Acting program get a good grounding in the skills of clowning and physical theatre.

I loved the first scene, the choreography of the sailors and passengers aboard the ship.  I have been on sailboats in rough weather (and on a tall ship in calm weather) and I found it a convincing portrayal of struggling to work and hang on as the decks lurched and the sails flapped.  The simple staging customary for Corner Stage shows was sufficient to support good performances.  A few well-chosen design details stood out memorably (especially Prosperine’s ornate and heavy magical cloak) as I still remember the chilling shadow of the cross on the stage floor two years ago in Merchant of Venice when Shylock is forced by the court to give up his religion and abandon his Torah.  Like Merchant of Venice, some aspects of the story are uncomfortable for me as a 21st-century feminist trying to be conscious of colonialism and patriarchy (a parent’s investment in a daughter’s virginity is super-creepy, for example) but the language and imagery and character studies make it worth being uncomfortable.

Sunday April 10th, Corner Stage (second floor) in the Fine Arts Building at U of Alberta, 2 pm and 7:30 pm, admission by donation.

 

 

Six new works

New Works Festival is a yearly event at the University of Alberta Department of Drama, a showcase of new plays written by students in the department.  Directors, cast, and crew for each play are also students and recent students.   Each bill of three plays had four performances, and I managed to see both programs yesterday at on their closing day.  I’m sure I saw complete credits for the festival on line somewhere, but I can’t find them now.  Here is a webpage with some of the information about each play.

Among the six offerings were a fairytale (Princess and the Sandman, by Maggie Paul), a science-fiction tale (Silence and the Machine, by Liam Salmon), a loose dramatization of the Dixie Chicks song Goodbye Earl (Killing Earl, by Josh Languedoc), and three more realistic stories (Gianmarco Visconti’s Grey Matters, Jordan Sabo’s An Inside Sick, and Julian Stamer’s F***, Marry, Kill).

Silence and the Machine was a fascinating exploration of some implications of artificial intelligence.  It reminded me of Bladerunner, which is one of my favourite movies ever, in the concepts of how to test the indistinguishable-from-human and in the starkly-lit simple setting of such a test.  It alluded explicitly to Alan Turing’s imitation-game test and to the test-for-humanity in Shylock’s monologue “Do we not bleed?”, and used the classic riddle of the twins at the crossroads and the uncanny valley hypothesis as well as a Rubik’s cube as evaluations of reasoning.  The script also said some important things about personal autonomy and ownership of one’s body, including when “carrying someone or something worth more”.  Creepy and satisfying.

My favourite comic performances were by Bob Gaudet, the misanthropic bartender in F***, Marry, Kill, and by the pair of friends Lisa Dawn Daniels and Brianna Kolybaba in Killing Earl.   The Princess and the Sandman had a framing technique which incorporated the audience as plot device and allowed some jokes about falling asleep while attending Hamlet.  If I was giving prizes, there would also be some comedy honourable mention for the stage hands of Killing Earl (Kiana Woo and Chris Pereira).

in Grey Matters, Jarrett Hennig gave a credible and moving portrayal of an awkward teenager struggling with grief and lack of ambition, frustrated with being asked how he is but also resenting when other people avoid talking about his sister’s death.  “It’s different with your grandparents,” his friend Lina (Maggie Salopek) offers, struggling to relate.  A silent character witnesses every scene from the periphery (Ashleigh Hicks as Nada, who seems to be the spirit of the dead sister), but then slips away as Adam (Hennig) begins to find a new intimacy with his old friend Farren (Bill Wong).  In An Inside Sick, Franco Correa is a younger teenager seeing a therapist (Afton Rentz) to deal with anger and family problems in a fairly straightforward narrative showing his interactions with equally frustrated and angry parents (Lauren Derman and Gabe Richardson).  One scene stood out for me in that play, the one in which Correa’s character, about six years old, encounters his father contemplating a noose and a bottle of pills.  The audience gasps and stills, and the child character asks innocent questions.  “It’s for adults.”  “Is it for exercising your neck?”  “Yes, that’s it.” “Can I try it?”  “No!”

 

Threepenny Opera

Until this week, I don’t think I’d seen a musical as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series.  (I’ve seen a musical on that stage, Strike!, but it was produced by a different company.)   Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, playing this week and next, was directed by Brian Deedrick the opera conductor.

I didn’t know much about it beforehand, and on the preview night there were no programs so I didn’t get the advantage of Director’s Notes and other context explanations.  I also didn’t think to find out how long it would be and whether there would be an intermission.  (It is long.  There is an intermission.  Counting the intermission it runs close to 3 hours.)  And with the house filling up, I didn’t take time to read the bios posted outside the auditorium.  At the intermission I fumbled to look up who was who, and I discovered that the 2015 BFA class had been reinforced with Mark Vetsch (Grindstone Theatre, last seen at the Studio Theatre in Love’s Labours Lost), Lily Climenhaga (whose name I saw in the credits for the script of Orestes 2.0), and Neil Kuefler (BFA 2014).

There were two songs in this show that were familiar to me, the “Pirate Jenny” one (sung by Nikki Hulowski) and “Mack the Knife”.  The jazz standard “Mack the Knife” was written by Kurt Weill for the original 1928 production, although I have to admit that I learned it first through the McDonald’s Mac Tonight commercials in the late 1980s.  And there were a lot of familiar tropes.  When I left the theatre, I was thinking I could describe it as Cabaret crossed with, hmm, some kind of comic gangster king story, like the one in Anything Goes maybe.   But that’s not quite right, because the sense of impending danger from an imminent corrupt regime was not quite the same as in Cabaret, it was more like a critique of the capitalist kyriarchy or something.   The sense of familiarity in much of the story is illustrated in the very long list of recognizable character/plot elements on the TVTropes page for Threepenny Opera.

The main character or anti-hero or whatever, Macheath (Hunter Cardinal) doesn’t appear early in the show.  The buildup adds to the sense of danger and mistrust around the man, who could so easily have become more simply ridiculous in yellow kid gloves and spats.   If I remember correctly, the show opens with the police commissioner Brown (Max Lebeuf) singing a song in German, then a couple of street singers (Natalie Davidson and Zvonimir Rac) talking and singing to the audience about the premise of the show as an opera for beggars and put on by beggars, and about the characters of Macheath the womanizing boss of the underworld, and Peachum (Joe Perry) who runs a business managing (franchising, almost) troupes of beggars.

We then meet Peachum, his drunken wife (Bobbi Goddard), and his daughter Polly (Kabriel Lilly), and observe the extremely cynical hiring and instruction of a new beggar (Dylan Parsons).  Plot conflicts begin to arise as Polly elopes to marry Macheath.  I generally don’t like the gangster’s-girlfriend stereotype with the high-nasal Brooklyn-baby-girl voice and curled blonde hair (like Lesley Ann Warren’s character in Victor Victoria), but Lilly’s version of Polly moves past the stereotype.   Peachum directs the police commissioner to arrest Macheath, but as they are old friends he wants Macheath to escape.  And Macheath misses chances to escape because he keeps stopping to visit his other romantic attachments, including his previous girlfriend Jenny (Hulowski), the commissioner’s daughter Lucy (Morgan Yamada), and a houseful of prostitutes (I don’t know whether the prostitutes were all female but a couple of them were cross-cast, or whether one or two of the prostitutes he’s visiting were male.)

The whole thing takes place around the time of a coronation (I think probably Queen Victoria), and in the end Mack is rescued from the gallows by a deus ex machina in the person of an imperial messenger descending from the sky (Dylan Parsons).

The beggars’-opera premise is reinforced by the costuming, in which each character seems to be wearing a few symbolic costume elements thrown over some approximately-period undergarments and shoes.  This led to some odd gender-presentation combinations.  The beggars’ rags given to Parsons’ character Filch are a beautifully layered concoction of ragged strips of weighted cloth.  Many of the male characters wear jackets without shirts, sometimes with collar and tie.  Cardinal’s Macheath has a disturbingly villanous mustache.   Lighting was generally harsh and cold – maybe that’s part of what reminded me of Cabaret.  Characters not in the scene were often seated on the various platform levels around the edge of the stage, and backlit motionless.

Music for the performance is provided by a small excellent jazz orchestra under the direction of Peter Dala.  Apart from the songs I mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed a solo by Morgan Yamada as Lucy, one of Macheath’s later songs that had a Les Mis-reminiscent anguish and resonance to it, and a few group dance numbers.

Threepenny Opera continues until February 14th, with tickets at Tix on the Square.

Loveplay, a speedy trip through a history of sex

Moira Buffini’s Loveplay opened last Thursday as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series, directed by faculty member Jan Selman.  I saw it the night before opening along with a very responsive preview crowd, full of sighs and squeals of delight and “Awww”s and “you owned him girl!“s, and I thought it was a lot of fun.

The play showcases ten vignettes of some kind of sexual or romantic interaction, taking place at the same location at different times in history, from Roman Britain to the present.  Each scene starts with some kind of title card introducing the era, in some format consistent with the design (the Roman Britain one looked like chiseled stone).  The six performers in the show (Nikki Hulowski, Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf, Kabriel Lilly, Dylan Parsons, Zvonimir Rac, and Morgan Yamada) each played multiple roles, as well as assisting the running crew with transitions.

I appreciated the playwright’s choice to include a glimpse of sexual assault but not to make it either the first or the last story.  In a particularly disturbing Dark Ages scene, three men (Lebeuf, Parsons, and Rac) discuss the woman they are consecutively assaulting (Lilly) in chillingly dehumanized terms, and after they leave her for dead she howls in solitary anguish, conveying the impression of hopelessness with no expectation of revenge or justice.  The performers in this scene balance the horrific situation with the ordinary dialogue sensitively.

The most light-hearted scenes in the narrative are those of the Renaissance (1584) and the Age of Innocence (1969), both of which include Hulowski and Rac playing a couple of long duration.  The Renaissance scene opens with Lebeuf and Hulowski declaiming heightened dialogue about their true love, which turns out to be rehearsal of a playwright (Rac)’s autobiographical work-in-progress.  This offers lots of amusing opportunity for humour about the creative process, about 16th century theatre, and about the trajectory of a romantic relationship between a young woman and her tutor.  The Age of Innocence scene is about a young couple attempting to host some kind of free-love drop-in encounter for the first time and getting cold feet, while their guests (Parsons and Lilly) seek relief from their relationship ennui.

Various other scenes explore power imbalances in sexual relationships (Yamada as governess in Lebeuf’s 1823 household, Parsons as an artisan hired by Enlightenment-era scientist Lilly to satisfy her curiosity about the male form) and prostitution (Yamada’s two prostitute characters both seem to be independent businesswomen taking charge in their relationships with their clients).

More hopeful resolutions are seen in The Age of Empire (1898) and The Age of Excess (contemporary).  In The Age of Empire, two men who had been friends as boys find new connection and “the birth of love” despite one being an artist and the other a married vicar.  The Age of Excess is set in the office of a matchmaker (Lilly) who is preparing to introduce some clients despite her own romantic difficulties – her girlfriend/assistant (Hulowski) is angry with her for being unwilling to commit, and flirting with the clients in response.  One of the clients (Parsons) embodies all the worst characteristics of entitlement and pickupartistry, from putting down the woman he’s meeting to whining “It’s not fair, why wasn’t she like that with me?”  Yet the two clients who hit it off immediately and leave together (Yamada and Lebeuf) do so having each disclosed some aspects of their difficult history (she’s a divorcée and single parent; he’s a recovering alcoholic), so as an audience member I was left with the message that learning from mistakes and being open can lead to mutual happy relationships.

Throughout the journey through history, we encounter many observations on sexual politics and relationships that have relevance to current life.  A character in the Renaissance comments on the perceived difference between a lover’s kiss and that of a wife, as “what you bestow and what I own.”  A cloistered nun in the New Millennium (1099) scene wonders “why would a man choose such a life?”  A later character mentions that there is no insult like “man-whore”, that what is an insult for a woman translates to “lover” for a man.

The simple set focuses on a sharply raked square platform, representing the square of land through the ages.  Some of the set elements (walls, platforms) appeared for only one scene; others were seen later as ruins.  Characters in the various eras made reference to previous uses or buildings, sometimes with dramatic irony (the Roman soldier is building a latrine, which the Dark Ages characters then assume must have been some type of temple).

Loveplay is light-hearted but not lightweight.  Considering it along with the playwright’s Gabriel, I am looking forward to seeing her Blavatsky’s Tower cast with the other performers in the graduating BFA class at the end of this month.  Loveplay continues until this Saturday, with tickets available at the door and at Tix on the Square.

Gabriel: first glimpse of Moira Buffini

I was looking forward to learning about contemporary English playwright through two of her works which will be produced as part of the U of A Studio Theatre season, but last week I had the chance to expand my knowledge of her work through seeing a production of her 1997 play Gabriel in the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre on campus (the former Media Room), directed by Amanda Bergen, MFA Directing candidate.

Gabriel is set in a gloomy farmhouse in occupied Guernsey during World War II.  The family occupying the house comprises Jeanne (Kristi Hansen), her daughter-in-law Lily (Zoe Glassman), her young daughter Estelle (Sadie Bowling, last seen in last year’s Christmas Carol), and their housekeeper Lake (Monica Maddaford).  Dave Clarke is Von Pfunz, an officer of the occupying army, and Graham Mothersill appears as an unidentified man discovered unconscious on the beach, to whom they refer as Gabriel.  One of the patterns in this tense situation is women confiding in men whom they believe won’t be able to understand them, Jeanne to the German-speaking officer and Lily to the unconscious man.  This is a convenient script device allowing the audience to learn more about the women’s points of view, but also a way of illustrating how each of them is private and alone in the crowded little house.   Estelle, who is aged about ten or eleven, resents the German occupiers and takes a variety of rebellious actions, from esoteric (chalking a ‘square of power’) to more practical (trying to make the soldiers think the house they’re staying in is haunted, vandalizing the commander’s boots).  Sadie Bowling captures her earnest stubbornness without being cute.  Jeanne’s quite different survival tactics are portrayed sympathetically by Kristi Hansen, whose set jaw and careful poise work well in the period piece.

Gabriel awakens and recovers his health but not his memory.  Lily dresses him in some of her late husband’s clothes which had not already been repurposed, giving him the odd appearance of being dressed for a cricket or tennis match surrounded by people in old dark-coloured garments as would seem more appropriate for rural people in wartime.  He appears to speak both English and German fluently, so while the family is determined to protect him from the occupying force, they are more interested in finding a safe background story than a true one.   Stakes are raised when we learn that Lily’s background is Jewish, that her documentation has been falsified, and that the German commander knows.

Personally, I’m usually suspicious about fictional characters named Gabriel because of how often they turn out to be either dead or angelic.  And enough ambiguity was left in the outcome of Gabriel that my theory still holds.

Frenetic Dreamtime, an evening of clown play

The University of Alberta’s BFA Acting class of 2015 will be on the Studio Theatre stage starting with Moira Buffini’s Loveplay at the end of October.  But you can see them tonight (Saturday) in an evening of original clown turns called Frenetic Dreamtime.

I went to the preview Thursday night at the Timms Centre’s Second Playing Space.  Each of the ten class members had a character who did a turn, mostly solos but sometimes helping each other out.  The show was hosted by a character played by Maxwell Lebeuf.  As the audience enters, this character is seated at a dressing table facing away from the audience, doing makeup and getting in to nose and costume.   It was a bit unsettling to find it hard to distinguish the pre-show time where it was appropriate for us to chat with each other, send text messages, and knit (okay, I was probably the only one who wanted to knit) and the time when the show had started so respect would require us to observe silently.

Max’s character introduced each act by title and character name.  The custom of short clown turns each having a title, often involving wordplay, suddenly reminded me of classic animated cartoon style.   Because I don’t know all the members of the Class of 2015 by sight and because their CVs aren’t on the Drama department website yet, I can’t be certain which performers did what.  If you are reading this and you want to let me know, please feel free to email or post a comment on the entry.  But I think my favourites were the nesting hen laying eggs, the apprehensive mountain climber (Dylan Parsons), and the would-be bride of “White Wedding”.  All of these stories had an entertaining mix of some familiar emotions and some inventive physical expression of the narrative.  The ensemble worked together smoothly to set up quickly for each act, and I was particularly impressed by this because a few of the acts involved making a mess on the floor.

The show ended with Maxwell Lebeuf’s character singing a cabaret-style version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, and the nine other clowns doing a choreographed dance as backup.  That was a lot of fun too.

Frenetic Dreamtime has one more show tonight at 7:30 pm at the Timms Centre Second Playing Space.  Seating is limited (although they might bring out more chairs if there’s a bigger crowd).  Admission is free, and there’s an opportunity to donate to either or both of the Drama Department bursary fund and the class of 2015 audition tour.