Tag Archives: workshop west

Busy stages at the end of November

What a busy couple of weeks it is for Edmonton stages!  If your weekend isn’t already full, there’s lots of theatre to watch, with these four shows all closing this weekend.

Fen, by Caryl Churchill, is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday.  Amy De Felice’s Trunk Theatre production is fascinatingly atmospheric.  The trapped and oppressed lives of farm-workers in the cold drizzly fen country of England were portrayed with compelling credibility.  I looked at the women picking potatoes in ill-fitting gloves, on their knees on a cold day, and I remembered what it was like to be tying grapes in March, saying to myself that the money would get me out of here, the money would take me to university, I would never need to do this again.   Most of the people in the play don’t have any realistic hopes for escaping their lives, and their unrealistic hopes are heartbreaking.  Even the children in the story are joyless, trapped and powerless and sometimes abused (I found those scenes the most upsetting of the whole play, but not by a lot).  It is unusual to see a farm story about women’s lives not be a story of land-owning families.  But in this story, most of the women (Ellen Chorley, Monica Maddaford, Miranda Allen, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer) are employed as day labourers or crew foremen, and the men (all played by Cody Porter) include a labourer and a landowner who sells his land to a corporation and becomes a tenant.    The story reminded me a lot of the subgenre of Canadian literature about homestead isolation and despair.

Another hard important story to watch is on stage at the Backstage theatre behind the Arts Barns.  Guys in Disguise / Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre is premiering a rewrite of Darrin Hagen’s Witchhunt at the Strand.  Set in Edmonton in 1942 or so, the story is based on primary source material about criminal trials for homosexual behaviour.  Jesse Gervais, Mat Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart each play lawyers and police officers as well as the men caught up in the witchhunt and their friends and partners.  The scene where one of Hulshof’s young characters is on the stand being questioned in horribly intrusive detail about a sexual encounter was one of the most uncomfortable things I have witnessed in ages.  The main characters in the story were all involved in the Edmonton theatre scene, including Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, in whose honour the Sterling Awards are named.  Mrs Haynes is shown as what would nowadays be called an ally to the LGBT community.  I cannot imagine how the 1940s attitudes of privacy and discretion would have discouraged her choice to be a character witness for her theatrical colleague in a morals case, and I found the character as written very sympathetic.

Witchhunt at the Strand made me very grateful that I grew up mostly after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” and decriminalized same-sex sexual behaviours.  It also made me think about how I had been influenced as a child by the grownups around me who remembered the era of the play, not all of whom were straight.  And it made me cry.

Anxiety is a Theatre Yes co-production with several small theatre companies, brand new and unexpected and … and they asked the viewers not to post about it.  If that intrigues you, check whether they have any tickets left this weekend.

Twelfth Night is much funnier and easier to watch.  It’s playing until Saturday night at the Timms Centre.  Ashley Wright, an MFA directing candidate, directs a version with simple staging and a framework of watching a company of travelling players arrive at the theatre, warm up in their underthings, and get into costume.  Julien Arnold, Dave Clarke, Jaimi Reese, and Jake Tkaczyk play the broad-comedy roles of the script, with Reese as Olivia’s mischief-making gentlewoman companion, Arnold and Tkaczyk as the partying uncle Sir Toby Belch and his awkward trying-too-hard sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Clarke in a variety of clownish roles.  Clarke also created and performed interesting songs and underscoring for the production.  Contrast with the fun-loving quartet comes from Malvolio (Alex Dawkins), Olivia’s dour steward, whose pride makes him vulnerable to one of the most memorable practical jokes in the history of the stage.  Did he get what he deserved?  Or was it unfair that he was bullied and apparently driven mad, with the pranksters getting away with it?  I can’t decide.  Watching Malvolio try to smile and gesture as he expects his mistress wants is kind of painful, but it’s also very very funny.

Look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Chayla Day and Jordan Buhat.  Day’s physicality readily conveys a woman who is inexperienced at passing as a man.  Marc Ludwig is lovesick Orsino, courting Olivia (Emily Howard) who wants nothing to do with him, using her dead father and brother as an excuse until she is captivated by Orsino’s new pageboy Cesario (actually Viola).  Olivia’s reactions to Cesario are delightful, and her discovery that her crush is actually a woman is particularly so.

Two tales around times of disaster

It was going to be three.  I was planning to get to One Flea Spare this afternoon, the Trunk Theatre production about people quarantined during a bubonic plague, but that didn’t end up happening.  Colin MacLean’s review of that show is here. 

So the two shows I saw this weekend were Bears and The Laws of Thermodynamics.   Both of them were set around some kind of environmental disaster which wasn’t quite explained.  In Bears, it was a current or very-near-future setting, not too far from here, with oil spills and watershed damage and other familiar real or realistic problems.  In Laws of Thermodynamics, it was … pretty much the opposite of all that.  Can you say “magical realism” in an end-of-the-world story?  Nothing is explained about why the world seems to be ending, or why it is ending the way it is, and some of the things that happen really don’t fit current models of physics.  Oh, but while I’m thinking of it, there’s some magical-realism to the story of Bears too, it’s just not about the setting.

Bears is a new show written by Matthew Mackenzie, who wrote Sia.  Its short run at the PCL theatre had several sold-out houses.  It was produced by Pyretic Productions, with Patrick Lundeen credited as “Consulting Director”.  Sheldon Elter narrates the story, in the odd format of a third person narrative about Floyd while he seems to be portraying Floyd himself.  It is as if he is standing outside the person to whom the events happened, leaving it unclear whether he is actually still that person.  And that is probably not an accident.   As the story starts, Floyd is an oilpatch worker who is fleeing arrest for some kind of sabotage, heading west to the mountains and recounting memories of growing up with his Kokum (Cree for Grandma) picking berries, dancing at pow-wows, and watching the stars.  On his journey, he slips gradually from the man-made world of highways and diners to the natural world of the foothills and mountains, but continues to encounter evidence of human destruction such as dead animals, clearcutting, and avalanche.  He also experiences many delightful natural phenomena –  butterflies, chickadees, salmon, berries, and alpine-meadow flowers.

While Elter narrates the story actively as Floyd, stomping about the stage in high-visibility coveralls and work boots, he is backed up by a chorus of dance/movement artists (Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posyniak, Kate Stashko, Anastasia Maywood, Aimee Rushton)  They added visual interest and emotional intensity, with movements that were sometimes representational (I loved the churning salmon and the irritatingly-flittering butterflies), sometimes more loosely interpretive, and occasionally a more traditional unison choreography.  Bryce Kulak played and sang several clever original songs, in character and costume as the ghost of an old-time Mountie.  Lianna Makuch and Ainsley Hillyard had cameo appearances.  The simple set was made up of some jagged mountain set pieces with echoing outlines on the floor, with video projections and lighting changing with the story.   And the magical realism that I alluded to earlier – I’m not sure whether Floyd’s transformation during the voyage was real, metaphorical, or something in between, but I didn’t need to know that to appreciate the story and the message.

I was uncomfortable with the specific naming of a pipeline project and a pipeline company, but I’m okay with being uncomfortable.  Art with the power to make people squirm and think and examine cognitive dissonance and argue is a good thing.

The Laws of Thermodynamics, a new play by Cat Walsh directed by Heather Inglis, was playing in the Westbury Theatre, configured with a few rows of seats on risers close to the stage area.   I went to see it partly because Workshop West always has interesting productions and partly because Melissa Thingelstad was in it, and her characters fascinate me.  It also had James Hamilton and Julien Arnold in it, both with appearance and posture so unlike anything I’d seen them in before that I was looking through my program to see whether there was a bigger cast than I’d expected.  But no, there were just five, with Cody Porter having a large role and Paula Humby a small unspeaking one.  Theatre YES was credited alongside Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.

It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on.  Which was okay, I think it was supposed to.  A traveller in hazardous times (Cody Porter) has a truck breakdown,  wanders into a small town looking for help, and meets weird people who maybe aren’t what they seem.   Thingelstad is Della, a diner waitress who seems to be in charge, with a huge ring of keys.  She and Jerry (Hamilton) each confides secrets in the traveller Daniel, with instructions not to tell the other.  Arnold’s place in the remnant society is clearly on the bottom of the heap, but it takes a while to find out why.  One of the ways that the eerie approaching doom was indicated on stage was the buzzing and swaying of the big electrical-transmission poles arranged in a false-perspective series extending backwards.  I don’t know why I liked that so much, but I did.  I liked the companionate relationship between Daniel and Della that formed as the end became closer, sharing a hoarded Twinkie under useless umbrellas.

The Laws of Thermodynamics was one of those shows that would have benefited from a second viewing, I think.  It was both darker and more elliptical than Bears, and in some ways less entertaining.  But I was not disappointed in seeing Melissa Thingelstad play another strange character, and there were some funny parts in the character interactions too.

I think the next play on my schedule will be Pink Unicorn.  And maybe by then I’ll be caught up posting about shows that I saw earlier.

The Invention of Romance

Workshop West’s spring production is Conni Massing’s The Invention of Romance, a three-handed story inspired by the playwright’s mother’s late-in-life romance with someone she’d acted in a play with in their youth.

Lora Brovold plays Kathleen (Kate), a jittery anxious museum curator in her “mid 30s”, who starts the story having boyfriend trouble and being fussed about a museum exhibit that she is curating, an exhibit about romance framed around an historical manuscript.  Valerie Ann Pearson plays her mother Louisa, over 70 and I think widowed (or did I just assume that?) with contrasting stillness.  Even when her world gets turned upside down with the possibility of new romance, she isn’t as rattled as her daughter is on a daily basis.

Kate occasionally addresses the audience, or sets up a podium and microphone to speak at a professional meeting.  We see more of her interior life and her professional life than we do of Louisa’s, but the playwright, director (Tracy Carroll), and actors have done a great job of showing that there is more to Louisa’s side of the story that we’re not seeing because Kate isn’t seeing it.  One of my favourite bits was when Louisa was working around to telling her daughter that things have escalated with Cliff, by mentioning the toaster he’d bought her at a auction sale so that she could make two pieces of toast at once, in case she has a guest at breakfast.  Kate of course takes far too long to catch on to what Louisa’s really saying, but the audience completely gets it, especially after Pearson starts rolling her eyes, having lost her initial awkwardness in the conversation in favour of irritation with her self-centred daughter.

The third actor in the play is Mat Busby, credited as Man.  I kept trying to figure out what I’d seen him in before, since he obviously has so many local acting credits that he can’t include all of them in his program bio.  Maybe he was in Die-Nasty last year?  His main role was as James, an awkward cardigan-wearing work collaborator of Kate, but he also played Louisa’s acting colleague in flashback, as well as the various men Kate encounters in her experiments with on-line dating.  We don’t really get to see Cliff, Louisa’s present-day suitor, although we do get a little bit of the humour of an awkward conversation between Kate and her mother’s date in a “talking to invisible man” vignette.

The play evoked thought as well as emotion.  As someone older than Kate and not as old as Louisa, I liked the idea of not being thought past it.  And I liked seeing how Louisa’s anxieties and uncertainties were easier to deal with than Kate’s.  Both of them were appealing characters, but the disagreements and misunderstandings between them were both universally familiar and specific to the characters.  I enjoyed the multiple references to Louisa having consulted with Kate’s older brothers before telling Kate something, and Kate the youngest getting annoyed about that.   I also enjoyed Kate’s line “Is it possible I’m not nearly as mysterious as I thought?” when her mother sees through her.

The simple set was fascinating to look at.  It appeared to be made up completely of IKEA EXPEDIT storage shelves and Staples-brand storage boxes.  The actors would pull props out of boxes or make them into furniture as needed.  And the set made me think about order and tidiness in life and the complications unseen.

The Invention of Romance continues at L’UniThéâtre until Sunday afternoon April 13th (next weekend).  It’s worth seeing.  On-line tickets are here.

Testament

Friday night I described the two Canoe Festival performances that evening to a friend as “six naked people, and then Mary the mother of Jesus”.  My friend laughed.

But of course that superficial description didn’t do either of the plays justice.  Body 13 had interesting things to say about sexuality, ethnicity, assumptions, and failed connections.  And Testament was a powerful one-woman show about a determined woman preserving her self and her sanity while surrounded by tragedy, personal danger, and wishful thinking and revisionism.

The story is based on Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary, which I have not read yet but now I want to.  (I also left the theatre thinking “I want to read the book!” but I didn’t say that to anyone because I thought they might misunderstand.  I have actually read the, um, more primary source materials, just in English but in more than one translation.)   It was adapted for the stage by Guido Tondino, and this Théâtre Archéologique production is the world premiere.

The actor, Isabelle Rousseau, has a compelling controlled stillness and deliberation to her movements.  Whether she was narrating the story while sitting in a chair, or moving about the set of her house arrest / protection lighting candles while the story continued with her recorded voice playing, I focused mostly on the spoken words.  Interestingly, I found it more difficult to dismiss her or assume she was equivalent to the iconic Mary because the actor did not have long hair.  Her short haircut with bangs was one of the first reminders to hear the story fresh.

The viewpoint ascribed to her by the author and dramaturge is compelling and moving, completely consistent with the sparse written versions provided by the original unreliable narrators.   Referring to the disciples, Mary talks about “the enormity of their actions and the innocence of their belief”.  She also used a concise expression that I didn’t write down for their urge to shrink the story to a more consistent narrative of symbols – and I could see how her version wouldn’t fit with the conventional one.  For example, she tells the audience that she was not present for her son’s death and burial, because she had fled the hill fearing for her safety, and by the time that the play is set (maybe a few months later? years?) the accepted version is that she had been there for all of it.

In the play she alludes to the story of her pregnancy and the one of misplacing her son as a child, but mostly sticks to a few important scenes – the raising of Lazarus, the wedding at Cana, the arrest, the crucifixion, a vision afterwards.  Her stage business with the hammer while narrating the crucifixion was a powerful and disturbing underlining of the horror of the scene she is describing, although I may have been missing some explanation for the details of the symbolism as I was expecting her to do something more obvious (form a cross-shape, lie in the canonical posture herself, etc).

Testament has two more performances in the Canoe Festival, 9 pm on Saturday (today) and 7 pm on Sunday at C103.  Tickets are available from Workshop West or at the door.

Body 13 – “One moment you’re waiting, the next you’re 89”

Body 13 is the Canoe Festival offering from the company MT Space (Multicultural Theatre Space), of Kitchener, Ontario.   It was created by the ensemble and director Majdi Bou-Matar, and they started working on it about four years ago.

It’s an intriguing piece that kept shaking up my expectations, about what kind of story it was going to be, how the story was going to be told, and who the characters were.   The seven characters all spend time on a Canadian beach over the course of a cool-weather day, arriving as strangers but gradually interacting and making various connections.  The impression of shared public space is created early on, first in one vignette where all the performers are representing funeral attendees and then in a set of glimpses where the beach seems crowded with different odd solitary people each doing his or her own thing.  Later, the narrative focuses more on one or two people at a time, while one or two others might be still on another part of the stage.  And “doing her own thing” reminds me that one of my favourite characters in the story was Iman, played by Nada Humsi, a middle-aged woman refugee claimant from Syria.  Those phrases might evoke a picture for you, as they did for me, but I was delighted to have my assumptions shattered, as this character took off not only her headscarf (a kerchief like my mother used to wear on windy days) but her red lace brassiere, told funny stories, made fun of Canadian custom (“So we’ll talk of nothing.  Like Canadians”), and was outspoken and determined.  I was delighted by Humsi’s way of acting out her cat.

Jessalyn Broadfoot was Rae, Iman’s immigration officer, caught between her affection for Iman and her professional duty not to get involved.  Her expressions and body language showed a careful self-contained woman uncomfortable with personal disruptions on the quiet day off she’d been anticipating, and the occasional awkward moments of of a self-conscious white person dealing with neighbours of different cultures were endearing, such as her clumsy Namaste gesture at the Gujarati funeral.

While the narrative pacing of the play was fairly linear, it was often interrupted by movement and music.  Rae did a wonderful dance of helpless rage, accompanied by the composers and musicians (Nick Storring, Colin Fisher, Germaine Liu) as she thrashed her blue beach throw in defiance.  Tristan, a young man from Newfoundland, (Trevor Copp) confided that he had been subject to anxiety attacks since he was a boy at hockey camp, and this launched the two most powerful movement portions of the performance, the first an expression of Tristan’s response to a homophobic epithet on the beach, turning into his sense that he is surrounded by people picking at him, prodding him, and pointing at him while he cowers trying to get the lid off his medication.  Lighting changes and music add to the tension and anguish, and on my second viewing I found myself wincing in anticipation.  In a later part of the performance, Tristan’s anxious response first manifests in all the performers playing hockey, and a gradual shift into a set of physically intimate and blatantly-sexual encounters between and among various characters.

Assaf from Lebanon (Badih Abou Chakra), Rita from India (Pam Patel), Thomas a white Canadian (John Havens),  and Ato from Ghana (Tawiah Ben M’Carthy) turn out to be similarly intriguing characters, and not everyone turns out to be likeable.  Quirks of movement and expression – Assaf’s laugh and his wiping-a-tear gesture, Thomas’s slicking his hair back, Rita’s bearing of the chest containing her father’s ashes, Ato’s stylised jogging – helped to distinguish the individuals quickly.  The one who came to annoy me through the course of the story ended up alone, while the rest of them all found some resolution, as predicted by Ato’s early comment to Thomas trying to find a cufflink on the beach “You will find something, but you will not find what you look for.”  And then the rest of them all shed their clothes, ran behind a screen, and were seen and heard giggling and shrieking the way you do when you’re wading into cold water in the dark with your friends.

The musicians played a variety of instruments, also behind the screen, and I could not identify all of them.  Some of the lighting revealed that all the costuming was in hues of solid clear colours, each distinct.  Also, as an easily-distracted mechanical engineer, I was fascinated to observe the pattern formed when the chest of ashes (visually fine sand) was poured slowly onto a smooth surface.  In water that pattern is called “hydraulic jump“, and you can recreate it easily in a flat-bottomed sink like a stainless steel kitchen sink.  I don’t think the sand formation has the same explanation, but I don’t yet know what the explanation is.

Joel Crichton tweeted a challenge to count biblical references in the performance, and I actually didn’t notice any.  So I guess I lose the challenge, but as the character predicted, I found other things in the performance which I didn’t expect and which pleased me a lot.

Body 13 has one more performance at Canoe Festival, 1:30 Sunday at C103.  Tickets are available through Workshop West and at the door.

Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, at Workshop West

KILL ME NOW is the kind of play that wins awards.  The kind of play that deserves to win awards.  I’ve seen it twice so far, because after the first time I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It’s written and directed by Brad Fraser (5@50, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love / Love and Human Remains, some episodes of Queer as Folk/North America, etc).  If you’ve ever seen or read anything of his, you know to expect blunt, funny, tough, affectionate portrayals of people dealing with hard issues, and possibly naked men.

The Workshop West production of Kill Me Now is the world premiere of the play.  It’s playing until September 22nd at L’UniThéâtre in La Cité Francophone, which is becoming one of my favorite venues in town, with a large flat stage, good acoustics, and comfortable seats on risers and wrap-around balconies.

The main characters are a father and son, played by Dave Horak and Mat Hulshof.  I don’t think I’ve seen Dave Horak on stage before, but I’ve seen plays he directed, including Fatboy (the Ubu Roi-inspired farce at Fringe 2012) and Bombitty of Errors (the rap version of Comedy of Errors  at Fringe 2013).  I saw Mathew Hulshof most recently in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  Jake, the dad, seems like an ordinary likeable middle-aged guy, coping as a widowed single parent to Joey, a disabled 17 year old.   The other characters are Twyla, Jake’s younger sister (Melissa Thingelstad, who I remember from An Accident and Fatboy), Joey’s school friend Rowdy (Patrick Lundeen), and Robyn (“with a Y”) (Linda Grass) a long-time lover who meets Jake once a week but isn’t otherwise involved with his life.

At the start of the play, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand Joey’s slurred speech and I was uncomfortable looking at the actor’s portrayal of his limited mobility and awkward posture.  But I don’t know how much of this was very clever acting and directing, and how much of it was that he really wasn’t hard to understand once I got more used to him.  I wasn’t even aware of the gradual change until we saw Robyn meeting him for the first time, being embarrassed by failing to understand him.  Robyn is so obviously trying to gamely continue the conversation while hiding that she has no idea what he said, and at the same time talking to him like he’s deaf, stupid, and childish.  In both performances that I saw, the audience gasped in exasperation with her and sympathy with Joey at that point, so I guess that like me, they were all understanding him just fine and appreciating him too.

I thought that Dave Horak and Mathew Hulshof were both amazing in their roles.  Mat Hulshof readily expresses the wide range of a 17-year-old’s emotions within the limited palette of his character’s physical limitations.  Dave Horak’s character starts out settled within the fragile balance of the life he’s built for himself and Joey, but unprepared for Joey’s growing need for independence and autonomy, and then everything goes wrong and he has to change his plans and ask for more help.

The two women’s roles were more straightforward, but still not obvious.  I didn’t like Robyn at the beginning, but the way she worked to overcome her initial discomfort with Joey and the whole messy house and uncomfortable situation won me over.  And I liked Melissa Thingelstad in this play more than I liked her in An Accident, as the young aunt who has always helped out and who is frustrated with her own life and who doesn’t always agree with her brother’s decisions.

Patrick Lundeen’s Rowdy was a charmingly earnest young adult who is “mildly retarded, but I’m not stupid, it’s mostly Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, eh?”  He was a valuable comic relief, but I did not feel like his portrayal was mean-spirited or stereotypical.

Parts of the story were excruciatingly intimate.  And while they made me squirm, I did not feel like any of them were gratuitous.  They brought the audience into acknowledging that people who love each other can do awkward and hard things when they need to take care of each other, which is probably the theme of the play.

In the writer’s notes in the program, Brad Fraser explains that he has a family member who is severely disabled, and that he wanted to portray the complexities of everyday life and emotional response for a disabled person.  As far as I can tell, the actors Mathew Hulshof and Patrick Lundeen are not disabled themselves.  And I think I should leave it to people with personal experience of living with disability to comment on whether their portrayals are appropriate and respectful.

In his opening-night welcome words, Workshop West artistic director Michael Clark encouraged people to tweet about the show and tell their friends about it, but not to give away any plot points in their tweets, because the show is better when encountered without expectations.  I’m not sure that’s completely true because I still found it provocative, moving, amusing, and fascinating the second time through, but I’ve tried to respect the spirit of that request in this post anyway.  I liked it as much as I liked Let the Light of Day Through last year, and that one won the 2013 Stirling Award for Outstanding Production of a Play.  Tickets for the remainder of the run are available through Tix on the Square and at the door.  And you might see me there again.