Tag Archives: walterdale theatre

The Realistic Joneses: absurdity with kindness

Christoff Lundgren, Colleen Allen, Zack Siezmagraff, and Brooke Hodgson in The Realistic Joneses. Photo by Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

Good storytelling often starts in the middle, and doesn’t explain everything right away.

The Realistic Joneses, a play by Will Eno currently on stage at Walterdale Theatre, does this brilliantly. A married couple sits in their backyard, having a frustrating conversation. Jennifer (Colleen Allen) tries to find more verbal connection with her spouse Bob (Zack Siezmagraff), and he bats away all the metaphorical volleys. “Why don’t we ever talk?” “We talked last week. About Belgium.”

A crash of garbage cans offstage turns out not to be raccoons but in fact the lively new neighbours John and Pony (Christoff Lundgren and Brooke Hodgson), bearing wine. This interrupts the previous non-conversation and introduces new levels of awkwardness. All of this is very funny and strangely familiar. Each character has practised routines of social behaviour, from John’s joking gestures and one-liners and Pony’s sidekick perkiness to Jennifer’s urge to fill silences with chatter.

In this script, there is a lot of playing with words, fumbling for words, and using words to distract and deflect. Some characters were keeping secrets, secrets that mattered. Some characters hinted at hardships, past and present. But these characters are not people who would explain things to each other, and not explaining to the audience is part of what makes this play so intriguing. There is some opening-up, some revealing and regretting, and a moving and hopeful ending.

The actors and director (John Anderson) convinced me early on that each character had some urgent needs driving him or her forward, strong motivations that were conveyed indirectly but compellingly. They almost never asked each other directly for anything, but each character had consistent intention and every scene was necessary towards each character’s goals. I was so involved with figuring out the characters that it was only afterwards I was able to think about the actors and their preparation, realizing that these portrayals happened because the actors understood the characters’ intentions and knew how to express them.

I was particularly taken with Zack Siezmagraff’s portrayal of a character who starts off cranky-awkward and becomes somewhat more transparent, never unlikeable but often frustrating. I could hear other members of the audience also being so engaged with whether Bob was saying the wrong thing that there were a lot of gasps and sighs and head-shaking around me.

As you might already know if you’ve listened to me talk about plays or tv shows I’ve seen, I love stories where the people are in difficult or sad situations but the characters are so consistently themselves that the dialogue is very funny. So The Realistic Joneses just hits the spot for me.

I also appreciated the mountain skyline in the set design (Joan Hawkins), the overall subtle sound design (Shawn Pallier), and one particular lighting effect which I won’t give away (Richard Hatfield).

The Realistic Joneses is running at Walterdale Theatre until Saturday July 16th, 2022. Tonight is 2-for-1 night, and next Wednesday (July 13) is Pay-What-You-Can night. Advance tickets are available through Walterdale’s website (no extra service charges), and walk-up tickets will be available at the door.

The 39 Steps at Walterdale

Bradley Bishop, Lauren Tamke, Lucas Anders, and Samantha Beck in The 39 Steps. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

During the last two seasons of theatre performance in pandemic times, I’ve seen a lot of small-cast productions – which makes sense, fewer people in the rehearsal hall means less potential exposure and easier distancing – and a lot of serious themes. Which also makes sense, as our society’s had time to think about some difficult issues over the last couple of years. I even got to direct a show fitting those descriptions.

When I watched Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel last month, I realized that I’d been missing the experience of watching a large cast do ridiculous and unexpected things on stage, along with my more thought-provoking theatre-going.

With Walterdale Theatre’s current production of The 39 Steps, directed by Kristen Finlay, I got that experience. There are only six actors (Lucas Anders, Lauren Tamke, and an ensemble of four: Samantha Beck, Bradley Bishop, Liam McKinnon, Rico Pisco), but I think there are more than a hundred characters. Some of them in disguise. All of them in different costumes (Nicole English) and many of them with different accents,

As for “ridiculous and unexpected”, I kept giggling with delight at what was happening in front of me. I’d read this script before, but there was so much happening on stage besides the dialogue. Even the movement of set pieces was fun and silly. And since the action took the protagonist Richard Hannay (Lucas Anders) from his new flat in 1930s London to a West End show, taking a train to Scotland, leaping from a moving train over the Forth Rail Bridge, to a Highland croft, a misty moor, and a few other atmospheric locations, what I thought were simple set pieces (set and prop design Taylor Howell) turned out to transform into convincing backgrounds for many locations. A complex atmospheric sound design (Anne Marie Szucs) helped to set the scenes clearly and added to the humour and the suspense.

One of my favourite little details was the way I could see quickly that the curved row of rehearsal boxes was a moving train, because of the way everyone’s movements illustrated the carriage’s bumpy movement. I also loved Margaret, Tamke’s understated portrayal of a young Scottish farm wife yearning for travel and cities and the for exotic visitor Hannay, and Mister Memory (Liam McKinnon), the quirky music-hall performer answering trivia questions from his audience (ensemble members who must have slipped in to the Walterdale audience). Lucas Anders plays only one character, the protagonist Richard Hannay, but maintains the high pace (often running across the stage) and clear motivation that drives the somewhat-farfetched plot to its not-quite-predictable happy conclusion.

Liam McKinnon and Rico Pisco hunting fugitives by air, in The 39 Steps. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

This story originated as a 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan, British writer and parliamentarian who later became Governor-General of Canada. My father was fascinated by Buchan, and shared his musty hardcover copies of The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, and Prester John with me. I also remember Dad showing me the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation, and delighting in the detail of Hannay being Canadian in the movie. This stage version was written by Patrick Barlow in 2005, and it pulls from both the book and the movie as well as from many tropes and expectations of film-noir, slapstick, and early-20th-century spy thrillers to create a great parody which is very funny whether or not you already know the source material.

The 39 Steps is playing at Walterdale Theatre until Saturday May 21st. You can get advance tickets at Tix on the Square. If a performance is not sold out you can also get them at the door an hour before showtime. Masks are required, house capacity remains limited, and auditorium ventilation has HEPA filters.

Watching Copenhagen in 2022

image: Bob Klakowich as Niels Bohr, photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images

In about 2004 I saw a production of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen performed in the round and directed by Caroline Baillie of Critical Stage Theatre, in the atrium of a Queen’s University building dedicated to creative ways of doing engineering education. My memory of that production is overwhelmingly of circling and cycling, re-examining a memory from various directions with the characters orbiting each other like atomic particles.

Copenhagen is now on stage at Walterdale Theatre, in a production directed by Martin Stout on a set designed by Leland Stelck. With its gently-thrust stage floor and intimate audience seating the Walterdale space provides the opportunity for a more personal encounter with the characters and their questions and uncertainties, despite the Covid precautions of the 2-meter moat and the dispersed audience.

It’s mostly a recollective piece, with re-creations and re-tellings of meetings in the early 1920s, in 1941, and in 1947. The characters say directly early on that they are now all “dead and gone”, and they also help to anchor the individual scenes/memories in time by frequently mentioning the year. The characters are Niels and Margrethe Bohr, the Danish physicist and his wife/collaborator (Bob Klakowich and Donna Call), and Werner Heisenberg, the younger German physicist (Kendrick Sims). Most of the memories are set in the Bohrs’ home in Copenhagen or on the walking paths nearby, a city that in 1941 was occupied by Germany and under constant surveillance.

Donna Call as Margrethe Bohr side-eying her husband. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud periodically through this performance. Klakowich and Call’s dry delivery of ironic and witty lines, Sims’ expressive eye-rolling, and particularly Call’s full-body indignation when her contributions are ignored make the most of the precise and articulate script. The opening-night audience was full of sympathy for the Bohrs’ bitterness and rage at their occupiers in general, and at Heisenberg’s clumsy attempts to re-create their earlier social connections without acknowledging the current abyss between them. “Should I have Margrethe sew a yellow star on my ski jacket?” Bohr spits out in response to his colleague’s suggestion of an excursion to Norway. Later in the play, I came to identify with Heisenberg as well, trying to do the work he cared about under a hostile and then horrific regime, trying to minimize the long-term damage to humanity and hopefully looking forward to the prospect of a future not only after the war but after the Nazi regime.

Kendrick Sims as Werner Heisenberg in one of his meetings with colleague Niels Bohr. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.

Stelck’s set, and the props (Debbie Tyson), costumes (Megan Reti), and multimedia design (Darrell Portz) provide effective support for the action reminiscent of 1941 but not clearly rooted in time or space, while lighting (Adam Luijks) and sound (Dylan Mackay) contribute to the shifts in mood, with one particularly chilling air-raid siren.

I kept thinking of present-day Київ (Kyiv), but I also kept thinking of conflict scenarios closer to home. And the characters of Copenhagen reminded me of resilience, of scientists and engineers asking questions about the ethics of their work, and of hope. All of which I appreciated.

Copenhagen is playing through Saturday March 19th at Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton. Mask and vaccine requirements are still in place to protect performers, audience members, and other volunteers. Tickets are available at Tix on the Square, and at the door half an hour before show time.