Tag Archives: varscona

The Eleven O’Clock Number

Grindstone Theatre started doing a musical improv show at the Varscona sometime last winter, at first every couple of weeks, and now every Friday night.  But I didn’t get around to going to see one of their shows until last week, on a painfully-cold Friday night.  And I had to look it up more than once to be sure, but yes, The Eleven O’Clock Number does start at 11 pm.   Apparently, “eleven o’clock number” is also an expression in musical theatre for a big memorable song in the second act.  So it’s a good title for a late-night musical improv show.

In the performance I saw, Katie Hudson was the on-stage host/narrator, Erik Mortimer provided musical inspiration and accompaniment on keyboards, and the improvisers were David Johnston, Jessica Watson, Mark Vetsch, Nathania Bernabe, and, I think, Brianne Jang.  After singing a theme song together, they started by collecting some audience suggestions, and generating a title for their production of “Never Cold”.  They then immediately launched into a catchy classical-show-tune finale scene, then jumped back in time to create the plot leading to that scene.   Mostly the narrator would call for breaks and mention the setting or maybe characters for the next scene, but did not give hints as to what would happen the way the Die-Nasty narrator/director does.

The performers built an interesting set of characters, created some plot problems that started with David Johnston’s character being infertile and his wife (Brianne Jang) having a creepy boss (Mark Vetsch) while being newcomers to the cold snowy climate from Baja California (or possibly the state of California, it wasn’t clear).  They then sang and acted their way through a not-too-convoluted story to a resolution, introducing a few more characters along the way.  Jessica Watson’s small child character was probably my favourite, with age-appropriate reasoning, self-focus, and way of speaking.  Nathania Bernabe played the small child’s mother and also had an amusing cameo as Brianne Jang’s character’s mother with an accent that I couldn’t quite place, possibly the Californian version of Brooklyn/Jewish.

The Eleven O’Clock Number plays every Friday at the Varscona Theatre, at, yes, 11 pm.  It’s a good addition to the strong improv-theatre scene in Edmonton. There’s an intermission and you’re allowed to bring drinks in to the theatre (if you buy them there, of course).  I think the show I saw finished a bit before 1 am.    You can get tickets ahead of time at Tix on the Square until sometime early on the Friday, and then you can buy them at the door.  I was also going to tell you that they’d been chosen in the Fringe venue lottery for next summer, but when I went to confirm the Fringe webpage wasn’t working.  So I’ll fix this note if I’m wrong.

When That I Was

The Shadow Theatre production of When That I Was played earlier this month at the Varscona Theatre.    I hadn’t been paying much attention to the various temptations of local theatre websites lately, so the first I heard of this one was on a LivingSocial discount ad.  But it sounded interesting, so I bought a ticket with the LivingSocial voucher.

Like The Kite Runner, the program for When That I Was had lots to read ahead of time, with a page-long glossary of terms and definitions and a couple of pages of historical timeline.  If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you might have recognised the title more readily than I did – it’s the first line from the song in Twelfth Night, “When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain”.

When That I Was was is a one man show (Christopher Hunt) about a character who has spent his life as an actor in Shakespeare’s company.  It was written by John Mortimer and Edward Atienza, around 1981.  It’s the same John Mortimer who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey. The show is mostly the character telling stories about Shakespeare, and acting bits of them out.  He’s speaking from a perspective of being old and impoverished, hiding from the Puritans who had closed all the theatres, but when he’s telling a story from his youth his whole bearing and voice change so you can see him as a small boy, an ambitious young actor playing women’s roles, or an older man recounting events later in his life and in Shakespeare’s life.

As far as I know, the stories in the play are consistent with known canon.   So the part about Hamnet was sad but not a surprise.  I thought the treatment of Shakespeare’s relationship with  Henry, the Earl of Southampton, was particularly deft, with the narrator explaining that he didn’t know for sure whether or not their love had been expressed physically but that he thought so himself.   That left it open for the audience members to accept the possibility they preferred, and not to feel distracted by a story that didn’t fit the canon or their own previous ideas.

The narrator’s costume comprised various layers of ragged beige and brown garments, as well as hose which were in noticeably better shape.  A more realistic creation might have included holes in the heels that were big enough to be visible above his slippers.  He also must have had really impressive poacher’s pockets, since he kept pulling things out of a flimsy-looking worn jacket without ever losing anything or clinking anything.  At one point I decided that the whole set was like a sort of Chekov’s mantelpiece, since it appeared to just be a mood-creating frame of dusty grey and beige abandoned space with the occasional red cloth, but I think that the character picked up and used almost every property during the play, mostly things that I hadn’t even noticed before he touched them.

The run of When That I Was is now over.  The next Shadow Theatre production at the Varscona is Flight of the Viscount, a David Belke comedy which starts May 1st.

Sold-Out Newfoundland Pageant – the show I didn’t get to see

I took long enough to plan my weekend’s entertainment schedule that by the time I tried to buy a ticket to the last performance of Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever at the Varscona Theatre, Tix on the Square wasn’t selling the tickets any more.  So I figured I’d get one at the door.  But when I got there, the person in the box office just offered to put me on the waitlist, where I was seventeenth. I stocked up on red Twizzlers, and socialised in the lobby with other people on the waitlist, enjoying the background music of lively jigs and talking about whether having connections to Newfoundland or being able to step dance or play the spoons should bump us up the list.  The theatre staff seemed to have a bit of confusion about just exactly how many seats were in the theatre, and one of them was seen carrying chairs into the auditorium, but eventually they closed the doors and wished us Merry Christmas and encouraged us to come back next year.

Here is Liz Nicholls’ review from the Journal.

Here are Meaghan Baxter’s notes from VUE

I love Barbara Robinson’s original story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, have never seen the television version, but saw a Domino Theatre (Kingston, Ontario) performance of Best Christmas Pageant Ever several years ago, with several out-of-town family members as my guests.  My notes at the time said I had been a little apprehensive about whether the younger boys (ages 10 and 7, without any more than the default of cultural Christianity) would appreciate it, but they all said they enjoyed it and repeated the funny and rude lines. The showing was sold out, and the set was very simple, and I thought it was probably making money for the theatre. But there were nineteen actors under fifteen. Some of them didn’t enunciate perfectly, but my mother and I knew the story well, so we didn’t mind.

The lesson of this blog entry is to book ahead.  I wish the rest of the year was like the Fringe, where I could buy tickets on line a few hours before a show, but since it isn’t, I need to plan better or I will miss good shows.  For your benefit and mine then, here are some useful box-office links:

Nutcracker – unplugged, unleashed, unhinged.

I kept blanking on the title of Teatro La Quincidina’s current Christmas show at the Varscona Theatre.  I called it “Nutcracker Unplugged” when a friend asked about my plans for last evening.  I had “Nutcracker Unleashed” written in my calendar.  But now that I’ve seen the show, I’ll remember that the actual title is “The Nutcracker Unhinged”, because that fits in a clever playful way typical of the show.

I was about to write that some other short entertainments preceded the Nutcracker story on the program, but that reminded me that there did not seem to be any printed programs.  I might have been the only one bothered by this, in an audience who all seemed to recognize all the performers immediately and like them already, especially Jeff Haslam, Leona Brausen, and Kendra Connor.  I got the impression that many of the audience members were subscribers or longtime supporters who immediately recognized every allusion to an old production.  Since I’m relatively new in Edmonton and much newer as a follower of live theatre here, much of that was not only lost on me but a bit discouraging.  Anyway, a little application to the internet this morning has sorted out one of my sources of confusion, which was that I had Stewart Lemoine mixed up with David Belke, so that whether I had enjoyed David Belke’s work The Minor Keys at the Fringe wouldn’t have anything to do with whether I was going to enjoy Stewart Lemoine’s works last night.  (Well, except that both of the performances featured Kendra Connor, who I liked in both.)

Before intermission, there was a reading of A Visit from Saint Nicholas, some amusing reminiscences of toy commercials of my childhood, some singing, and a short play by Lemoine called Christmas in Patagonia.

At the intermission, some of my concerns about being an outsider in a group of friends were alleviated when the theatre provided tasty seasonal beverages in the lobby, and I found myself in conversations with some interesting people I hadn’t known before, talking about why young people do and don’t go to live performances and whether it’s a problem.

The second half of the evening was the new work “Nutcracker Unhinged”.  It was full of shared-culture jokes but you only needed to know a bit of the Nutcracker ballet story and a few things about Old Strathcona to be guessing and giggling about where the story was going – Block 1912 café, Bulk Barn, K and K Foodliner, and the Justik Clinic (now called Strathcona Health Centre) were all involved in the plot.

A reference to the very sad building fire in a pet store about ten years ago, which I had heard about at the time despite not living in Edmonton yet, seems to have been long enough ago and tastefully enough done to be a suitable tribute.  All over the theatre you could hear people sighing as they worked out that allusion and then murmuring as they explained to their neighbours or discussed what they remembered.  It was the setup for a portrayal of the ghost of a snake, which was a marvel of costuming and body language with the woman’s arms being neither obviously bound-up nor visibly separate from her body, drapey mottled clothing and sinuous movement that totally avoided the predatory sexuality usually inherent in anthropormorphic serpents.  If I knew the names of the performer and the costume designer I would tell you, because it was possibly the best thing about the show.

On the whole, the play was silly and fun.  The evening ended with the performers all singing “White Christmas” and the audience joining in, evoking memories of singing in community in Advent seasons all my life, when people set aside their to-do lists for long enough to relax together before heading back out into a cold night.

Last performances this afternoon and tonight at the Varscona Theatre, tickets available at the door.

Two theatre adventures in Old Strathcona

The big ticket for my week was opening night of Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, at the Walterdale Playhouse, directed by Janine Waddell Hodder.

It was going to be my first encounter with Molière, so I picked up a copy of an English translation of the text in a used book store to prepare, and I used Wikipedia to learn that Molière was a 17th century writer of comedy, so working about a century later than Shakespeare and Cervantes.  I looked at the cast of characters, started reading, and was dismayed to realise a few pages in that it was not only written in poetry lines like Shakespeare but it rhymed.  Application to internet resources confirmed that it rhymed in the original too.  I don’t know why this annoyed me, since I am fond of rhyme in a stage-musical context.  But it did.  Anyway, I read the first couple of acts before going to see the play.

This was my first time attending anything at the Walterdale other than Fringe shows.  It has comfortable seats on risers on two sides of a biggish thrust stage, and good acoustics.

I thought the play was very funny, and it probably would have been funnier for someone with a more intimate knowledge of the source text.  For one thing, the dialogue (some of it possibly a different Molière translation than I’d read, and some of it completely modern) was in the same kind of rhyme and metre used in the source text.  The actors – especially Brennan MacGregor who played Alceste – did a great job phrasing the long speeches for sense rather than emphasising the metre.  In the first scene, Alceste and his sidekick John (Zachary Parsons-Lozinski) were talking very quickly, which was part of the humour but it took a bit more effort to follow.  Some of the rhymes were gratuitous enough to be inherently funny:  boring and Andy Warhol drawing, for example, which works as a rhyme in the sort of Estuary English that character was using.  The characters had a variety of English and American accents consistent with their origins (with a little bit of French and a minor character something else – maybe Northern Irish?), and I thought the accents were well done, enhancing the story rather than detracting from it.

In the Molière story, the main character Alceste (the eponymous misanthrope) insists he prefers blunt direct speech, but he is in love with a woman named Célimène, who says cutting things to everyone but only behind their backs.  One early scene illustrating Alceste’s character has him and his sidekick Philinte listening to a bad poem someone else has written about Célimène, and then Alceste telling the writer how crap it is.

In the version I saw, Alceste is a modern-day playwright in London, and the catty woman he’s in love with is Jennifer (Afton Rentz), an American movie star.  The equivalent critique scene involves a drama critic (Bill Roberts) who begs Alceste to listen to a play he has written – well, more like a draft, a scene, notes for a scene.  It’s awful, of course.  Bill Roberts’ delivery is painfully good, and Alceste and John’s different ways of responding are very funny.  Jennifer’s naïve repetition of good lines at her friends’ expense goes bad in the way a more media-savvy person would expect, and wacky hijinks ensue.

One of the funniest things about this play was the way that every now and then there would be some allusion to Molière or the 17th century, culminating in everyone except Alceste showing up at the end in period costume for a party, while delivering the lines that worked equally well in the movie start’s hotel suite and in the French court.

It was also thought-provoking for me because I’m definitely not a person like Alceste who enjoys delivering blunt critique directly, and I don’t like receiving it either.  I’m more like John, preferring a world where people are kind to each other first. This probably makes me not a very interesting reviewer, especially since I admire people who take creative risks in public so much that I just want to be a fangirl.  Is it possible to be kind in person without being cutting in private?  Sometimes sharing the good lines is hard to resist, so does that make me like Jennifer?   Food for thought.

As you can see from my example, you don’t need to know very much about the original play to enjoy the adaptation and pick up on some of the inside jokes.  The Misanthrope is playing at the Walterdale Playhouse until December 15th, tickets at Tix on the Square.  Also, the program says it’s 3 hours long – that’s a typo; it’s about 2 hours with intermission.

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My other new theatregoing experience this week was that I went to Die-Nasty for the first time.  Die-Nasty is a very-long-form improv show at the Varscona Theatre: a season-long soap-opera with an installment every Monday night.  This year it’s a Tennessee-Williams’-flavoured story of the lives of interconnected families in the Deep South, which leads itself easily to parody.  Most of the audience seemed to be regulars, familiar with the characters and the routine of the show, and many of them had season passes with reserved seats.  There was a brief summary of story-to-date in the program, and each character got a brief monologue to introduce himself or herself before the action got going.  And there were lots of odd characters, similar to stock characters of that setting but with enough specifics to be original.  There was one line with a possible interpretation in poor enough taste to disturb me (calibration – this rarely happens for me at improv performances), but in general it was just silly.  I couldn’t work out how much of it was planned ahead of time – the narrator would introduce each scene or vignette like “meanwhile, back at the Beaumont plantation, the lawyer has some bad news”, and then the actors would do that scene.

A bonus for Edmonton theatregoers is the number of familiar faces on the stage, including Peter Brown of the CBC, Donovan Workun, Leona Brausen, Mark Meer, Matt Alden, and others.  Die-Nasty tickets are also available at Tix on the Square, with performances every Monday (except Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve).