Tag Archives: varscona theatre

Sequence – convoluted and thinky

Shadow Theatre’s current production Sequence is their last in the Varscona Theatre before it closes for major renovations.  Calgary playwright Arun Lakra entwines two stories to explore the topics of luck, probability, providence, genetics, free will, religion, dramatic coincidence, Fibonacci series, and disability.    John Hudson was director.

In one story, Coralie Cairns plays a cranky tenacious genetics professor and researcher who is going blind, and Chris W. Cook plays an unusual student.  In the other story, Frank Zotter plays a  very lucky man, on a book tour to promote his book about luck, and Caley Suliak plays an audience member who wants to benefit from or to disprove his streak of luck.  The action switches from one side of the stage to the other, at first with no apparent connections between the themes or narratives but various similarities gradually arising.  The show program includes two pages of glossary for the scientific terms and science-fiction-culture terms used by Cairns’ character.  I’d like to say that I didn’t need any of it, but reading them ahead of time did add to my understanding.  The cleverly-plotted piece seems to follow the Chekov’s gun rule strictly, but near the end I was not completely sure that I knew what the playwright had intended the connections and resolutions to be.

The set (designed by Lisa Hancharek) was also filled with fascinating details such as wall shelves reminiscent of representations of DNA spirals.

Sequence continues at the Varscona until this Sunday afternoon, November 16th, with advance tickets at Tix on the Square and cash tickets at the door.

Queen Lear – a play about a play

Part of the handful of theatre ticket vouchers that I acquired in the Rapid Fire Theatre Date Night auction in January was a pair of tickets to see Eugene Strickland’s Queen Lear, a Shadow Theatre production at the Varscona Theatre.  John Hudson directed, and the cast included Alison Wells as Jane, Ellie Heath as Heather, and Diana Nuttall as The Cellist.  The Cellist did not have a speaking role, but she was an active contributor to the story, as the music seemed to represent Jane’s inner thoughts and emotions.  Jane could hear the music, and sometimes it was loud enough to distract her or irritate her, even to the point of yelling “shut up!”  The Cellist also had an expressive face, showing what she was thinking about the various conversations and actions on stage.  I really enjoyed what the music and the musician added to the performance.

Jane is an actor in her 70s, who has been cast as Lear in an all-female production and who is anxious about being able to memorize her lines.  Heather is a 15yo family friend whom Jane has hired to run lines with her.  The show in which I’d seen Ellie Heath most recently, KIA Productions’ Closer,  also takes advantage of the actor’s skill at using unguarded facial expressions and casual postures to emphasize her character being younger than the others. As Heather, she’s a likeable young person with good manners but she is blunt, impatient, and uninterested in the problems of her elders.  In each scene, Jane and Heather work through a bit of the script in order, and they gradually get to knowing and trusting each other.  Heather lives with her widowed father.  Jane lives alone and is lonely and sometimes worried about being able to perform adequately in the play.

Costumes and stage dressing make a beautiful warm autumn-colours palette.  In the final scene, we see a small excerpt from the performance of Lear, with Jane in a rich gown too heavy for her and with Heather playing Cordelia, and it is so effective that it made me and my playgoing companion wish to see a whole production of King Lear with the title role being a woman.   Parts of the performance made me think about the third season of Slings and Arrows, and how easy it is to entwine the story of an aging performer with the struggles of playing King Lear.  Having it be a woman made me get it more, I think, too.

The run continues at the Varscona Theatre until March 30th.  More details are here along with a link to Tix on the Square.  It’s worth seeing, and generates lots to talk about.

Pageant, down home style, second try.

Last year I didn’t manage to see Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever at the Varscona, because I left the ticket-buying too late and the only performance I could get to was sold out and I didn’t make it up to the top of the waitlist.

This year I got closer.  I actually saw the first half of the show before looking at the clock at intermission and realizing I’d mis-calculated the time of my later-evening commitment, so I wouldn’t be able to stay til the end.  So I’ve seen half of this show, and next year it is definitely going on my booking list earlier.

Like the Christmas Carol, I got the impression that many of the patrons at this show had seen the production in previous years and were anticipating the jokes, whereas my only familiarity was with the source material.  And I suddenly realised partway through the show that the fussy little girl Alice (Lindsey Walker), the one who gets ousted from her perennial pageant role as Mary by Imogene Herdman’s (Cheryl Jameson) and her brothers’ (Graham Mothersill, Corbin Kushneryk) threats, was missing the point complaining constantly about the way their story wasn’t sticking to the traditional telling of the Nativity, so I had better throw out the little list in my head of all the ways in which this adaptation deviated from the original Barbara Robinson novel since I was missing the point in the exact same way.

Fortunately, I had this realization, or generally got caught up in the show, early enough to be enjoying it.  There was a cast of only seven, including a piano player (Jeff Black), and a little bit of amusing double-casting.  That meant that not all the canonical Herdmans were on stage, just Ralf (“with an F”), Leroy, and Imogene. But it worked out fine.

In written fiction, I am always a little slow to recognize unreliable narrators or other quirks of a first-person point-of-view character.  In the stage version, then, I was surprised to find the narrator character Beth (Kayla Gorman) a bit of a caricature, with distinctive child-like can’t-stand-still and seeming to side with Alice’s disapproval of the Herdmans.  It wasn’t at all inconsistent with the source material; I was just caught by surprise.

Compared to the novel, then, Beth’s mother the pageant director has a bigger role.  Mrs. O’Brien is played with appealing earnestness, bewildered but coping, by Natalie Czar-Gummer.  She incorporates the audience in the story as kids showing up for auditions, and then has each section sing one of the carols as shepherds, wise men, or angels.

The adaptation was originally done by  a company in Newfoundland, with a few changes to the original story like the usual director having collided with a moose, and the church being Catholic.  The performers’ accents are credible and not overdone.  It felt like an affectionate tribute to a culture where lots of Edmonton residents have roots.

Note to self:  if this plays next Christmas, buy a ticket early and block off the whole evening.

The Three Sisters, a play about lacking agency

It can’t count as a spoiler if it’s something that everybody knows, something that’s entered the cultural lexicon.  Godot never comes.  Rosebud is his sled.  And the three sisters don’t get to Moscow.

That’s actually all I knew about Anton Chekov’s famous play The Three Sisters, before attending the Broken Toys Theatre production last night.  They don’t get to Moscow.  Oh, and one of them would be called Masha.

The Broken Toys production was directed by Clinton Carew, and he also did a new translation of the play from the Russian.  Before the show started, Carew came to the front of the stage and told the audience that he would be filling in for an ill cast member until further notice, and he alluded to the broadsheet he was carrying, with Russian headlines, which he would be referring to throughout the show.  (Maybe it had lines or cues on it, but he didn’t actually spell that out.)  I eventually figured out that the ill cast member must be Ken Brown, cast as Chebutykin the old military doctor and friend/tenant of the family.  I also spent the whole evening trying to figure out whether I’d seen Clinton Carew on stage before or whether his voice and movement just reminded me of someone, and this morning a theatre friend has pointed out to me that Carew had played in the Catalyst Theatre production The Soul Collector.

There were many more familiar faces and names on the Varscona stage as well – almost as many as in the cast list for The Christmas Carol (no overlap of course).

Lora Brovold (A Few Good Men, Let the Light of Day Through) was the oldest sister, competent comforting Olga the unmarried teacher.  The middle sister Masha, the discontented married one, was Melissa Thingelstad (An Accident, Kill Me Now).   The bitter sarcastic edge that her paralyzed character showed in An Accident and the impatient strides of the caregiver aunt in Kill Me Now were perfect in Masha, and the scenes in which she is parted from her lover and welcomed back by the husband she doesn’t love are heartbreaking.  The youngest sister Irina, with her enthusiasm for family, her naive ideas about working for a living that are gradually disillusioned as she tries working as a telegraph operator and a township council clerk and then gets a teaching qualification,  and her longing for the Moscow of her childhood, was played by Elena Porter.  I don’t think I’d seen her on stage before but I will definitely watch her again.

I did not quite recognise Jesse Gervais (Let the Light of Day Through) in the bearded off-topic character of Ferapont.  Ryan Parker of the Be-Arthurs was the brother Andrei, the petted only son who fails to live up to his sisters’ ambition for him and their hope to follow him to Moscow, finding himself stuck in marriage to banal social-climber Natasha (Laura Metcalfe), in a job with local government, and in debt due to a gambling problem.  And Michael Peng (The Kite Runner, An Accident) was very strong as Vershinin, the military commander with unhappy homelife, tendency to make philosophical speeches, and passion for Masha.

During the play, various characters sing or hum bits of song, unaccompanied and with about the same attention to rhythm and tune as ordinary people in real life.  This struck me as unusual for the stage, where people don’t usually sing without singing well.   Between acts, the cast members set up new furniture as needed for a bedroom and then the grounds of the house.  Instead of removing the furniture used for previous sets, they piled it all up at the back of the stage, building the impression of the family being less and less settled in the military town and in the family home that Natasha is gradually taking over.  I also really liked the modern language in Carew’s translation, “Weird!” “Well, that happened.” “She has … people skills.” and very occasional profanity.  I thought the play was a lot funnier than Chekov’s Cherry Orchard, which I remember studying in Grade 13, but I can’t tell how much of that was due to the strengths of this production, and how much was just that it went over my head in the  English classroom.

Playing til December 7th, tickets ahead of time at Tix on the Square, same-day tickets at the door.  I really wish that Tix on the Square and their partner companies could do same-day on-line sales the way the Fringe box office and Eventbrite can do.

Saturday excursions

Last Saturday, the bookends of my day were two more Edmonton entertainment traditions, thanks to invitations from improv-class friends.

In the morning I went to Saturday Morning Cartoons at the Garneau/Metro Theatre.  For $12 (cheaper for kids, seniors, and students) you get to sit in the semi-dark theatre all morning and watch an odd assortment of cartoons and vintage Saturday-morning TV ads, while replenishing your bowl from the lobby buffet of cereal and milk.  Many of the patrons were in pajamas or reasonable comfortable facsimile.  The entertainment seemed to mostly be from the 1970s, and the familiar-seeming bits were as odd as the parts I’d never seen before.  An ITV ad showing the attractions of modern Edmonton, on a backdrop of brand-new concrete and artificially-green grass.  Scooby-Doo.  A classic McDonaldland ad.  American public service announcements reminding people not to litter, smoke cigarettes, or light forest fires.  Kid Power, which was probably considered (by white people) to be a charmingly progressive treatment of post-racial society in 1972, but which kept us muttering to each other, did they really say that??  There were lots of choices of cereal and milk options.  The lights in the theatre were dim but not extinguished, so that it wasn’t difficult to come and go during the screening.  I would definitely go again.

I’d also definitely go again to Oh! Susanna, a late night variety show at the Varscona Theatre hosted by the character Susanna Patchouli, who bears surprisingly little resemblance to Mark Meer, and her assistant the Duchess of Capilano, who sounds a little like Belinda Cornish.  The friend who was with me goes to the show regularly.  He was unsurprised that part of the show involved a bartender concocting a tasty mixed drink for the hosts and giving the recipe, and then handing out tastes of it to the whole audience, and that then something similar happened with grilled sandwich bites.  There were several other guests discussing other shows and entertainment options coming up soon in Edmonton, with the most memorable being James McClennan, a tenor who will be performing in the Edmonton Opera’s Eugene Onegin, and Lisa Norton, who will be playing Odysseus in the Citadel’s Penelopiad.  Both of them were interesting to listen to and seemed to be having fun with both the conversation about the arts and the more bizarre aspects of the Game they competed in.