“Drink harder, dance longer,” fall in love: the hot-blooded rock musical Onegin, a 12thnight review

Josh Epstein, centre, in Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the opening number of Onegin, a spirited ensemble assembles onstage and offers up the quintessential theatre invocation. “Our dear father up in heaven,” they sing, vodka in hand and eyes cast towards a theatrical firmament of chandeliers and hanging bulbs. “Send us a good time!”

I’m here to report that their prayers, and ours, have been answered, and then some! In the form of a hip, theatrically savvy, engaged and engaging original Canadian indie-rock musical.

The much-awarded Onegin is here at the invitation of Catalyst Theatre, to launch their Catalyst Presents initiative. It’s the work of an inventive and evidently fun-loving Vancouver team, Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille (of Craigslist Cantata fame). And it attaches their ironic and playful modern sensibility to a couple of 19th century stars:  “Russia’s greatest writer” (Alexander Pushkin, author of the 1839 narrative poem Eugene Onegin) and Russia’s biggest big-shot composer (Tchaikovsky, creator of the 1879 opera).

The results are exhilarating. And they’re also accessible, and fun, a party in two centuries. You can’t possibly be so jaded, Canadian winter notwithstanding, that you won’t be clamouring for a ticket. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Onegin, it’s this: avoid regret, embrace love now. Just sayin’. And in this I’m echoing the opening night audience who leapt to their feet in a spontaneous ovation.

At the outset, in Gladstone’s lively production, the ensemble infiltrates the audience, mingling, chatting, dispersing vodka, instigating a drinking game, teaching us the Russian word for love (lyubov! which seems to come with its own exclamation mark). And they introduce the characters they’ll inhabit, as well as the superb three-piece onstage band (The Ungrateful Dead, supplemented from time to time by the versatile cast). 

The agent provocateur, who sneaks in a bit of narration, is Josh Epstein, and his amusingly histrionic rock-star incarnation as the passionate poet (“and romantic!”) Lensky. As the strong-voiced Epstein demonstrates, for comic effect, he can hold those show-stopping high notes impressively. 

Hold that thought; the poet’s natural gravitation to the high note will be realized in melodramatic terms later in the show: a duel in the snow, at 20 paces. That liaison between unconventional music — sometimes lustrous and tuneful, sometimes dissonant and jagged — and drama is one of the considerable achievements of Onegin

Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The engine of the story is an act of friendship. Lensky’s pal Onegin, a bored, self-infatuated rake from St. Petersburg whose mantra is “I don’t care” — played to the eye-rolling hilt by Alessandro Juliani — has inherited a country estate. Lensky, an enthusiast on the subject of love, takes him to visit the neighbours, the family of his animated fiancée Olga (Lauren Jackson). Olga’s older sister Tatyana (Meg Roe), a quiet bookworm who reads romance novels, is instantly smitten with the newcomer: “I understand those feelings from my book…. He has pierced me with a single look.”

Roe conveys, in a wonderfully nuanced way, that awakening into passion in her captivating performance. But she rises to the occasion of love, with all its risks, by strapping on an electric guitar to deliver the show’s most memorable song Let Me Die. It will be reprised by Onegin himself, when he and Tatyana meet under very different circumstances years later. 

The rebuff is cruelly dismissive. And Onegin amuses himself by flirting with Olga, in a dance that crosses the line into out-and-out seduction. Tracey Power’s sexy, flavourful choreography, a reinvention of the tango in Russian terms, is outstanding throughout.

Drew Facey’s set is dominated by a gorgeously draped red velvet curtain, on a stage with a perimeter of strewn books. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are fun to look at, a witty blend of modern hipster and Russian allusions (with great boots). John Webber’s dramatic lighting changes the seasons, turns rich smoky interiors into pewter-hued wintry landscapes, early mornings into twilights into candlelit evenings, and includes a striking assortment of light sources.

Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The cast led by Juliani and Roe is excellent. The sweet-voiced Jackson delivers a performance of real charm as Olga, with Caitriona Murphy as the mother, and Andrew Wheeler as Prince Gremin. The most overtly comical character is a French entertainer who specializes in “name day” musical numbers. Nadeem Phillip is a hoot. It will be a long time, I predict, before you see another example of knee choreography atop a grand piano. 

I know, I mentioned a duel: it’s staged, as is the whole evening, with theatrical pizzaz and compression by Gladstone. The fun of Onegin, in both its performances and its stagecraft, is the way it gives full weight to operatic extravagance of feeling, without foregoing an irreverent light touch. Blending passionate and cheeky — the double-optic of involvement and distance — takes smarts.  

And as for the boredom, a lethal motivator in the story and a subject for discussion in the songs, it doesn’t stand a chance from the audience perspective. Onegin will lift your spirits and touch your heart.

REVIEW

Onegin

Catalyst Presents

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club

Created by: Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille

Directed by: Amiel Gladstone

Starring: Alessandro Juliani, Meg Roe, Josh Epstein, Lauren Jackson, Caitrionia Murphy, Andrew Wheeler, Nadeem Phillip

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Across the universe: salvaging the sounds of the past in The Listening Room

The Listening Room, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box;

they tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

– The Beatles

It’s the turn of the next century. And in the post-apocalyptic desert of the world, a small brigade of teen dissidents are holed up in a room filled with junked radio telescopes and sound equipment. They’re listening to the fragments of a past that has ceased to exist, and is gradually disappearing from memory.

The Listening Room premieres Friday in a production by the well-named Cardiac Theatre, an indie collective that thrives on tough-minded challenging fare. And a particular challenge is what brought the new play into being, explains its creator, Calgary-based playwright Michaela Jefferey, an up-and-comer whose work is attracting notice across the country. 

At the National Theatre School, where Jefferey repaired after University of Calgary theatre school, this was the bait: “to take on a genre I would never otherwise think of digging into.” Her choice? “Sci-fi and apocalyptic fiction.” 

“I became fascinated with everything we humans have sent out into space,” Jeffery says on the phone from her day job at the Arts Common, the downtown Calgary complex where Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, and One Yellow Rabbit have their headquarters. “Not with space (per se), but with time capsules and the way they distribute information about human life, and who curates and compresses that information.”

Jefferey launches a train of thought from the Beatles’ Across the Universe. “What interested me was the human impulse to communicate, whether entire diagrams of DNA or images of human hands … or an archive of sounds. The ‘I Was Here’ impulse’,” as she puts it. 

Playwright Michaela Jeffery. Photo supplied.

“There’s something lovely about it, this desire to live beyond our lives,” says Jefferey. It was this thought that led to Jefferey’s presiding concept for The Listening Room: The Earie is a future society, and embedded in it is a splinter group of renegade teens, combing through apocalyptic detritus for clues about and a sense of connection with, the past.

The Listeners scavenge for fragmentary signals, and record them for interpretation by the Council, the authority with whom the Listeners have “a complicated relationship,” as Jefferey summarizes. 

“You can have what’s true. Or you can have what’s safe. Big themes emerge — about stories and who controls them; who has the right to tell which stories.”

As the script developed, time and place (Montreal, the National Theatre School) had their effect on the script, says Jefferey. She met a coterie of radicals whose “revolutionary” zeal didn’t extend beyond protesting. “I found it absurd. And angering,” she says. “I met young Quebec guys off to a protest. ‘What are you protesting?’ I asked. ‘Dunno, we’l find out when we get there’…. The idea is that protesting is a muscle. Use it or it will atrophy.” Jefferey pauses to readjust her thoughts. “The power of blinkered certainty,” she says, “doesn’t make me less sympathetic to the drive for change….”

The adolescents of The Listening Room are “right in the middle of the grinding gears of a disintegrating worlds,” says Jefferey. “That’s the way young people experience things … so raw and exposed, vulnerable and intense. The image I have is exposed wires,” Jefferey says. “But how do you reclaim your advocacy? How do you figures out how to go forward?” Radical differences in how to be radical explode in the course of the play.  

“And in a small room, when all of the people are super-weirdos on the fringe of the fringe of society, how do you navigate the relationships? ?” 

The Listening Room, which Jefferey considers “a radical departure from anything I’ve done,” is about all of this. “Despite all the trappings, and the sci-fi universe, it’s a real-time (75-minute) drama about five young people trying to figure out their place in the world,” says Jefferey. “About what kind of power they have, and what kind of power they want … in a world barrelling in a direction they don’t agree with.” 

“It’s easy to feel angry and betrayed. It’s a lot harder to figure out what needs to be done. I guess that’s what it means to grow up….”

The Listening Room, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

The Listening Room is a rare example of an indie production ambitious enough to reach across the  Albertan universe, between its urban axes. The Cardiac production directed by Harley Morison launches the new The Alberta Emerging Company Showcase, a joint bi-city initiative by Edmonton’s Azimuth and Calgary’s Downstage Theatres. The playwright is from Calgary, the director from Edmonton, the cast and production team from both cities. After the premiere run here, The Listening Room moves to Calgary. 

Last word to Jefferey. “Interacting with Cardiac, I’ve felt such a refreshing energy! It’s exciting to be in a room so professional and focussed and positive…. This is the way I want to ride.”

PREVIEW

The Listening Room

Theatre: Cardiac, presented in the Alberta Emerging Company Showcase by Azimuth and Downstage Theatres

Written by: Michaela Jefferey

Directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Colin Dingwall, Philip Geller, Ashleigh Hicks, Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Jay Northcott

Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Out of the footnotes and onto the stage: the wild women of the Wild West get revealed in Send In The Girls’ new burlesque

Delia Barnett and Ellen Chorley in Soiled Doves, the latest from Send In The Girls Burlesque. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Wild West. Where men were men. And women were…. well, who were they anyhow, besides wearers of gingham or garters? 

That’s what Send In The Girls is for. They don’t just roll up their sleeves when it comes to the mysteries of woman power; they take ‘em off.

Cover-ups are anathema to the enterprising troupe that has set about marrying burlesque to theatre, in revues that unbutton  nostalgia and find innovative theatricality underneath. In the past they’ve exercised their historical bent and sassy sense of humour on such improbable and diverse subjects as the wives of Henry VIII (Tudor Queens), the Victorian literati (A Bronte Burlesque), Shakespeare’s heroines (Shakespeare’s Sirens). Most recently, they paid tribute to the unsung women of Canadian history (With Glowing Hearts, a revue hosted by Nellie McClung). 

“Burlesque,” declares Send In The Girls’ dauntless resident playwright Ellen Chorley, “is all about shedding. Shedding gender roles and ideas of what women could do.”

And so it is with Soiled Doves: A Burlesque With Boots On, premiering Thursday at the Backstage Theatre. It’s a dust-up with stereotypes: it takes us into a world that has always exuded machismo, and finds “the rough, tough women” (as Chorley puts it) we didn’t know about because the fine print of history is too damn small.

On an arctic day last week, when the idea of taking off your coat much less any of your four sweaters was unthinkable, Chorley and her cast-mate Morgan Yamada talked over lunch about the startling gallery of real-life unknowns that the former’s research has uncovered.

Rancher Josie Bassett, for example, has always been an add-on to the story of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch; she seems to have been a magnet for outlaws. Chorley herself, Send In The Girls’ co-artistic director (with Delia Barnett), plays Josie. 

Yamada, an up-and-comer whose career includes fight choreography and clowning in addition to acting, plays Kitty LeRoy, who worked her way up from dance hall girl to card dealer to casino owner (The Mint, in Deadwood). As Yamada describes her, Kitty, a sharp-shooter of repute, wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. “She liked Bowie knives; she like guns.” And she evidently liked men. “She went through five husbands,” grins Yamada, who’s fascinated by the woman who “had a kid at 17, and decided ‘I don’t want to be a housewife’.”

Husband #2 was ill-advised enough to get on the wrong side of Kitty in an argument. She put on men’s clothes and shot him in a duel, then married him while he was dying. By 27 Kitty was dead, shot by husband #5. 

“She fizzled out young, but she got a lot done,” says Yamada, whose next gig is in Kamloops playing a hockey goalie in the Western Canada Theatre production of Tracey Power’s Glory.

Yamada alludes to the way women exist only in historical footnotes. The assumption that the women of the Old West were merely support players, behind the scenes bandaging wounds, digging bullets out of heroes, having babies, is “a misconception,” she says. “Women owned saloons, brothels…. They made money; they were the ones who built schools and hospitals.”

People were moving into a new world, and there was a freedom in that,” says Chorley, who’s also the director of Nextfest and artistic director of Promise Productions. “People were (forging) their own paths.”

Curiously, as Yamada points out, three of the four characters in Soiled Doves, on either side of the law, went to finishing school. Belle Starr, Barnett’s assignment in Soiled Doves, was a “super-well educated Southerner,” as Chorley describes her. “She knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew; she always had a book in her hand.” She was also a career horse thief, a bandit queen who ran a sort of hostel for the similarly inclined. 

Canadian-born Pearl Hart, played by Sydney Parcey, has the distinction of being one off the most infamous stagecoach robbers in the American West. Not only did she go to boarding school, she even starred in a dime store novel, albeit lie-filled, Chorley discovered. Hart is a repository of contradictory influences: at one point she went to Chicago and saw star activist Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and suffragette best known for writing Battle Hymn of the Republic

What has struck Yamada is that “even in a world where all the clichés are macho, if you have drive to succeed you can do it wherever you are…. It’s always been a struggle. And women have always pushed back.”

“When we tell a story through burlesque,” says Chorley, “we’re using it as a way to break barriers, to uncover. It’s all about satire; it’s done with a wink. We use burlesque to subvert the clichés…” And in burlesque, the fourth wall never exists. “We never pretend the audience isn’t there.” And as for the audience, they don’t have to be docile and pretend they’re not there either, as Send In The Girls’ rambunctious sold-out houses testify. 

The two grin conspiratorially and hint mysteriously about “the cool theatricality” of the show. “We’ve learned some Wild West tricks,” says Yamada. “You’ll see….”

PREVIEW

Soiled Doves: A Burlesque With Boots On

Theatre: Send In The Girls

Written by: Ellen Chorley

Directed by: Lana Michelle Hughes

Starring: Delia Barnett, Ellen Chorley, Sydney Parcey, Morgan Yamada

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca or the door

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Onegin: the country’s hottest new rock musical arrives at Catalyst. Meet the team who created it

Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

An original Canadian indie rock musical arrives on Catalyst’s home stage Thursday. And it trails the kind of buzz and rapturous reviews to fight duels for — not mention a big, juicy, romantic Russian story.

Onegin, the much-awarded creation of Vancouver-based artists Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, is an irreverent re-imagining of the Tchaikovsky opera and the 1833 Alexander Pushkin narrative poem that inspired it.

Fuelled by non-meagre lashings of passion, intrigue, vodka, dance, and rockin’ music, Onegin is all about love. And we all know the crazy careening secondary routes that can take. “Characters fall in love, sometimes with the wrong person; characters turn away from love and sometimes it’s irrevocable and they’re filled with regret….,” says the extremely genial and puckish Gladstone, the playwright/director who directs the Vancouver Arts Club commission that premiered in 2016. “The story is so big, but so simple.”

Gladstone says he and Hille were story-starved after Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, their quirky hit travelling musical (a collaboration with wry CBC veteran Bill Richardson) culled in a composite way from real-life entries on that sellers’ site. Citadel audiences saw it in the Club in 2014. “It had no narrative,” says Gladstone. “Not only were its characters disconnected, it was about disconnection.”

Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, creators of Onegin. Photo by David Cooper.

So this time “we wanted full (narrative) consummation, ongoing romance!” Gladstone laughs. And in casting about for a story, they carried with them the thought that “most big musicals are adaptations.”

“We wanted something more linear and romantic,” says Hille, an indie composer/ musician/ writer whose musical credits extend to a startling range of Vancouver bands, styles, and theatrical initiatives. “We looked to the Russians,” for their storytelling verve and for what Hille calls “the contemporary nature of their 200-year-old stories.”

Her first choice, and favourite book? Anna Karenina. She was deterred by the Tom Stoppard movie version, just out. For his part, Gladstone, a prolific playwright and busy director with credits in productions of every size and shape — he’s the founder of Victoria’s Theatre Skam — laughs. “I didn’t really want to think about that ending and how to stage it.”

He proposed Eugene Onegin. Apart from the odd ballet, and of course the celebrated 1879 Tchaikovsky opera (which Gladstone had assistant directed in Vancouver), it was a Russian classic that hadn’t been adapted to death. “The characters are so much how we live today,” Gladstone thinks.

The title character is a rich, bored urban rake from St. Petersburg who inherits a country estate. Onegin’s poet neighbour Lensky introduces him to his fiancée’s family, and her quiet, bookish sister Tatyana falls instantly and hard for him. She writes a beautiful, open-hearted letter to him that he doesn’t answer. Later, he rejects her initiatives in an imperious, wounding way that will have repercussions. He amuses himself instead himself by dallying with Olga, thereby inciting a duel.

And that’s only Act I! Complications ensue, to understate the case.

Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

Never underestimate the power of boredom, Gladstone says cheerfully. “Looking for meaning in his own life, Onegin starts messing with other people’s lives.” Gladstone was fascinated by observations from a psychology at a talkback after a performance at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. “He talked about ennui and boredom and how destructive a force in your life this could be…. Actually, you can literally die of boredom!” 

What the collaborators were after was “the essence of the Pushkin,” says Gladstone of the verse novel, published serially and famously written in an innovative, dauntingly intricate rhyme scheme. The intrepid Hille was all for writing lyrics using it. It was  an idea “very quickly abandoned” — on the grounds that “there’d be no payoff,” laughs Gladstone. “I challenge anyone to notice,” he says of the one song with so-called “Onegin rhyme.”

Hille, an intriguingly versatile talent, trained in art and music en route to the indie art rock scene where she’s a star in Vancouver. And she moved into theatre, with such outside Vancouver companies as Theatre Replacement, via gigs as a dance accompanist. She’d written an opera for kids, Jack Pine, which Vancouver Opera took to schools; Gladstone directed. But it wasn’t till after Craigslist Cantata that the musical-writing team really took off. 

For years I’d wanted to write a rock opera,” says Hille, whose albums tend to be “long-form song cycles” rather than collections of separate songs. “But I didn’t have the skills. I didn’t know the rules. But Ami really does.…”

On paper you might assume that Gladstone wrote words while Hille wrote music. But their partnership doesn’t work like that. Besides, it “evolved as we went along,” says Gladstone, who plays violin and has, according to Hille, “a music brain.” Both wrote the book, lyrics, and music: “We’re not entirely sure now who wrote what,” says Gladstone.

Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The music of Onegin is played by an onstage three-piece band (keyboards, percussion, cello) that’s often included Hille herself ( though not for the Edmonton run ). Both Hille and Gladstone hesitate a little over the identification “rock.”  Or at least “not heavy rock, since there’s very little electric guitar,” as Gladstone qualifies. “Personally, we’d always love to have it louder. One day….” (sigh, laughter).

The score, downloadable from Hille’s own website (vedahille.com) has allusions to Russian folk music, she says. There are Tchaikovsky quotes, hints of Tom Jones, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar….” Gladstone says that some of it might remind you of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera that played the Citadel this past fall.

And it’s sung through (without spoken dialogue). “So I learned how to write recitative,” says Hille, for whom challenges seem to be meat and drink. Her music for Jillian Keilley’s 2017 Stratford production of The Bakkhai was widely acclaimed (she didn’t get a chance to see the show). There’s nothing tentative about King Arthur’s Night, an epic Neworld Theatre production with a 20-piece choir, live band, and racially inclusive case; it premieres at Vancouver’s PuSh Festival next month. Then there’s the artist residency in Scotland….

Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

Meanwhile, after a hot-ticket run at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, Hille’s musical-writing partner is in Edmonton with the most of the original seven-member cast of Onegin — including star couple Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe. The run here launches Catalyst Presents,  the company’s initiative to bring the most exciting and innovative work to audiences here, alternating with Catalyst’s own original work.

Gladstone, who’s walking toward the Citadel from his hotel as he talks, is relieved, he laughs, that “the set has survived a Canadian winter!” A small miracle in itself.

“Whether we’re in a big space like the National Arts Centre, Theatre Calgary, or the Maclab, or smaller ones, it feels like we’re hosting a great party for everyone every night! We’re trying to connect with as many people as we can.”

PREVIEW

Onegin

Catalyst Presents

Created by: Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille

Directed by: Amiel Gladstone

Starring: Alessandro Juliani, Meg Roe

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: Thursday through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

Posted in Features, Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Kill Your Television returns with Shakespeare’s R&J

Luc Tellier and Oscar Derkx (front); Corben Kushneryk and Braydon Dowler-Coltman (back), Kill Your Television Theatre. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Meet Daphne.”

A quartet of Edmonton’s hottest young actors, all in their early 20s, did the introductions last week at the end of a rehearsal day at the Roxy. Their director was amused. 

In the course of the tumultuous play-within-a-play that opens Thursday under the Kill Your Television banner, Daphne plays a part in violent brawls and erotically charged love scenes, moments of of self-discovery, of tragic revelation, of danger,  emotional conflagration….   

Daphne is a bolt of red cloth. And this star prop knows how to make an entrance on a bare stage: wrapped around a famous, forbidden text. 

In Shakespeare’s R&J, by the New York actor/playwright/screenwriter Joe Calarco (American Horror Story), four boys at an ultra-strict Catholic boys’ prep school meet after hours to do something verboten: they read Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s great early tragedy of young love thwarted and triumphant. And what starts as an act of rebellion becomes an act of brave commitment as they gradually, tentatively, get swept into re-enacting it, across gender lines. 

With the Kill Your Television production that features four rising stars of Edmonton theatre — Oscar Derkx, Luc Tellier, Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Corben Kushneryk — on one stage, the award-winning indie company, director Kevin Sutley, and producer Nathan Cuckow return to a play they did 16 years ago. Shakespeare’s R&J had started life in a tiny Lower East Side storefront in New York in 1997, then moved to a larger Off-Broadway theatre  — and stayed for more than a year.

(From top) Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk, Luc Teller, Oscar Derkx. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

“It was only the second show we ever did,” says Sutley of the (Sterling Award-winning) production that followed KYT’s gritty debut, Eric Bogosian’s explosive examination of aimless youth, SubUrbia. “It was a great project for us! And we loved it….”

Perspectives on gender equality and sexuality haven’t remained static since 2002, of course. But repression and punitively enforced notions of gender and sexuality haven’t exactly vanished from the world, no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you … Edmonton’s Catholic School Board, and its resistance to gay-straight alliances. 

Does Shakespeare’s R&J still have high stakes? Does it still feel topical and dangerous in 2018? Along with Sutley, the actors, three of whom are also up-and-coming directors, pause after rehearsal to consider those questions, and the whole notion of progress.

“I’m only 24 and I lived it,” shrugs Luc Tellier, who plays Student 2 who plays Juliet, as well as Romeo’s pal Benvolio. “I went to a Catholic high school; I came out while I was there.” A terrible experience? “Yeah. And I had allies and support, mostly through theatre. So I was in the privileged category. But others don’t have those resources.”

“People look at Romeo and Juliet. And they ask ‘who does that?’ Fall in love, and commit suicide?” Tellier, an artistic associate with Blarney Productions (he directed last summer’s production of Legoland), sighs. “Yeah, well, actually they do.”

Derkx, who plays the student who plays Romeo, points out, smiling, that he grew up in “one of the most progressive parts of the world, the little hippie haven of Nelson, B.C.,” And his family is about as liberal and leftie as they come. “I’ve always felt free to love who I wanted to love…. But I still felt the confines of masculinity, I’d say…. And it would have been a scarier, much more difficult path if I’d been attracted to men. I know that.”

“The character I play, who plays Romeo, is the rebel of the group, the one most at odds with the system the students find themselves in,” says Derkx. “He feels he’s missing out on the world. And on himself.”

Luc Tellier and Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Kill Your Television Theatre. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

“Like Oscar I grew up in an environment that wasn’t polarizing or confining,” says Dowler-Coltman, who plays the student who plays the fiery Mercutio as well as Lady Capulet and Friar Laurence. He comes from a blue-blood Edmonton theatre family (his parents and siblings work in theatre and film).

“It wasn’t prescriptive about how to think and feel. But from the outside I did see a lot of people struggling and hurting. … For me, this play is such a powerful acknowledgement of the realization that love is love; you love who you love,” says Dowler-Coltman who created and directed the experimental dance/theatre piece To Be Moved for last summer’s Fringe as well as appearing in Blarney’s A Quiet Place with Tellier. Edmonton audiences saw him most recently in Edmonton Actors Theatre’s Burning Bluebeard. 

“I’ve always joked about playing the Nurse,” grins Corben Kushneryk, whose burgeoning director’s career with the indie theatre Impossible Mongoose has led to such award-winning productions as The Fall of the House of Atreus and Prophecy (both by Jessy Ardern). Now he is. And along with the Nurse he plays as Student 4, he’s also playing Tybalt, the brash, aggressively macho member of the Capulet clan whose death lethally escalates the fatal feud with the Montagues. “The student I play is forced to dig in, and think about a woman’s experience, to unpack that,” says Kushneryk.

When you grow up “as a closeted football captain,” Kushneryk grins, opportunities to talk about love, much less express it, gay or straight, aren’t exactly thick upon the ground.

Interestingly, the students in the play are drawn to a 400-year-old classic love story set in a culture of hostilities — and not the sex and violence of a contemporary piece. “I feel like characters in contemporary writing hold back; there’s more subtext, more secrets,” Derkx muses. “In Shakespeare they’re fully open, fully honest. They’re talking how they’re feeling….”

Kushneryk says, with a smile, “Somehow, mysteriously, I got through high school and five years of conservatory acting training. And I’ve never studied this play! I thought I knew it. But it’s so much richer than I thought….”

The students’ attraction to Romeo and Juliet starts as a game: “there’s so much bawdy innuendo,” says Sutley, “so much testosterone….” And gradually, they’re drawn into the vortex where other discoveries get made. 

“I firmly believe,” says Tellier, “that the entry point is so accessible, so safe, that the lessons about love, the turmoil, sneak up on them and wrap all around them — without giving them time to think about it!” And hey, Daphne is there to support that notion in every way.  

Play-acting turns into something else more compelling. “I don’t feel I’m playing a woman. I feel I’m playing a lover,” Tellier says. “In its bones, this is a story about love, not gender. So much fun. And so satisfying!”

PREVIEW

Shakespeare’s R&J

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Kill Your Television

Directed by: Kevin Sutley

Starring: Oscar Derkx, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk, Luc Tellier

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Did you hear the one about the two salesmen? Collin Doyle’s Slumberland Motel premieres, at Shadow

Julien Arnold, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I always seem to write old guys,” laughs playwright Collin Doyle. Now just into his 40s, Doyle wonders if he’s getting to be one. 

Doyle, whose keynote in conversation is a self-deprecating  blend of wry and rueful, is conjuring his younger self at a turning point  — the moment 11 years ago when, after four years, he’d finished writing Slumberland Motel, the award-winning Doyle comedy that finally gets its premiere Thursday, thanks to Shadow Theatre. 

“Maybe I was reflecting on being 29 and turning 30,” he muses. Doyle had already written The Mighty Carlins, a roistering black comedy of family dysfunction with a profane and vicious old patriarch at the centre. He’d shopped the script around to theatres here and elsewhere, and had the rejection letters to prove it.

They were nervous, he reports, that “the language was too harsh,” too peppered with F-bombs. Years would pass before the play premiered, in a 2008 Workshop West production in which John Wright memorably played the old guy. It was Doyle’s first professional production.

But even before that, he’d collaborated with friend and fellow actor James Hamilton on a play in which aging and the fear thereof thread through the fabric, like a radioactive dye through a vein. In Nighthawk Rules a couple of pals teetering on the brink of 30 are faced with the terrible prospect of growing up, getting dad jobs, and giving up all-night drinking contests and all-day football-watching marathons.

Meanwhile, “I wanted to write a comedy with no swear words,” as an experiment Doyle says simply, and sighs. Slumberland Motel was that playI thought I might as well submit it to the Alberta Playwriting Competition,” he says, with a shrug that’s almost audible. It won (just as The Mighty Carlins had two years before, in 2004). Everyone you talked to really liked it. No theatre stepped up. 

You can’t be a playwright in Alberta without resilience, patience and a well-developed sense of absurdity. And Doyle, “an actor who wanted to write” as he describes himself modestly, has all three. Did you hear the one about the playwright who waited 11 years for a theatre to produce his award-winning play?

“I put it away and went to NAIT,” to study TV and film. “I was interested in editing stories and video at the time,” he says. “I didn’t know I’d end up in production.”

For the last seven years when Doyle, a National Theatre School grad, isn’t in theatres, as an actor or a playwright, you could find him at Global Television, working his way up from prompter operator to production assistant; now he’s the control room director in the Global news department, workings shifts on the 6, 10 p.m. or late news broadcasts — a gig he compares to being a theatre stage manager.

Disappointment, says Doyle genially, is at the heart of Slumberland Motel, the first of two Doyle premieres in this half of the season. It’s the “friendly comedy” to the “much darker” Too Late To Stop Now, cheerfully described by the playwright as “a black comedy about alcoholism” that debuts in May in a Dave Horak production at Edmonton Actors Theatre.

The old guys” of Slumberland Motel (Reed McColm and Julien Arnold) are two itinerant vacuum cleaner salesmen, Ed and Edward, who get stuck in a snowstorm and find themselves sharing a shabby motel room on Christmas Eve. It’s 1972, and they are “no longer relevant,” as Doyle puts it.

“Vacuum cleaners used to be an easy sell. Now, not so much,” as Doyle says. “There must have been a time when they were special. Now everyone has one. A common household tool not a dream item any more. Not special.”

IPods, washing machines, dishwaters have all joined the ranks of the “not special,” the “not something you dream about having.” Selling them is a sort of cultural redundancy. They are a given. Poor Ed and Edward.

They’re a contrasting pair, as Doyle describes them. A sense of failure permeates Ed (McColm); Edward (Arnold), says his creator, is different. He “decides on reality and shapes his reality around him…. Which lets the play go in strange places, on positive flights of fancy.”

“The play’s a lot about failure.” Doyle laughs his rueful laugh. “There’s lots of physical comedy in it. There’s a kind of vaudeville about it.”

Julien Arnold, Aimée Beaudoin, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

And, ah, there’s a connecting door to the next room. Arnold’s character Edward “is obsessed with it and what’s on the other side.” What, and as it turns out, who. The mysterious woman in the next room is crucial to the way the play unfolds in Act II.

I can’t tell you more, except to say that doors are big with Doyle. They might be locked, but they open. And change is possible. 

PREVIEW

Slumberland Motel 

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Collin Doyle

Starring: Julien Arnold, Reed McColm, Aimée Beaudoin

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 4

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org 

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In an uncertain world, The Humans takes us home for Thanksgiving dinner: a review of the Citadel/ Canadian Stage production

Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb in The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I wish you had more of a view,” says a mother to her irritated younger daughter in The Humans, surveying the alley from the sole window of a run-down duplex in lower Manhattan.

Later in Stephen Karam’s bleakly funny, heartbreakingly melancholy family drama — the 2016 Tony Award-winner getting its Canadian premiere in a tense, well-cast Citadel/Canadian Stage co-production directed by Jackie Maxwell — a father will reveal the recurring nightmare of his own darkening tunnel view.    

As the Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in the Chinatown digs of Brigid and her boyfriend Richard, every character (except the latter) will reveal a view of dwindling prospects. The last vestiges of the American Dream — the now-legendary one where hard work leads to happiness, progress, solvency — have soured a while ago. In its place? In a word, dread.

In its sneaky, slow-burn, cumulative way Karam’s play paints a group portrait of the stress-filled landscape of fear, anxiety, and disappointment where humans live now, in the post-911 world.

Deirdre (Laurie Paton) and Erik (Ric Reid), a working-class couple increasingly unable to make ends meet in their ‘60s, have driven into NYC for the holiday from Pennsylvania. With them is Eric’s mother Momo (Maralyn Ryan), high-maintenance now that she’s lost in the mapless world of dementia with its irrational outbursts and repetitions.

Richard Lee and Laurie Paton in The Humans, Richard Lee, Laurie Paton in The Humans, Citadel/Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

Brigid (Sara Farb) is a budding composer, flailing in the slough of student loans, bartending under the table, unable to find a job in her field. But, hey, she has a new apartment and a great boyfriend (the cook for the occasion), and is up for celebrating both with her family.

Brigid’s older sister (Alana Hawley Purvis), a lawyer, has arrived from Philly and a year that has battered her with losses — her job, her true love, her health.

I wondered a bit about Judith Bowden’s design for this two-storey down-market Chinatown duplex, constantly referred to as dark. It seems almost suburban in its bright, clean, unclaustrophobic whiteness. Michael Walton’s lighting (and chilling lacks thereof) fully enters the narrative, though. And so does Matthew Skopyk’s unnerving sound design.

The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography

Where is security — physical and psychological —  to be found in a chilly world of aging, where dreams turn into nightmares and jobs, relationships, professional prospects, inheritances disappear into uncertainty? The Humans is about that. And it’s pretty scary, full of flickering lights, ominous sounds, and false assurances.   

What makes Karam’s play remarkable is the way something recognizable gives way to something more disturbingly mysterious. As the production directed by Maxwell sets forth in its 95-minute real-time span and believably prickly characters, a family dinner reunion drama with its texture of interruptions and overlapping fragments gives way at the seams to an unsettling sense of encroachment.

It’s a tricky shape, highly detailed, and it happens right before our eyes, in a space where everyone is visible simultaneously. And while I imagine that this production will gain ease in its rhythm of sudden family flare-ups and rapprochements — the overlaps occasionally seem laboured and planned — Maxwell’s well-chosen cast deliver characters who do feel related.

Anchoring this genuinely nerve-wracking experience — and upping the ante of course, as parents do — are Reid and Paton. The former, a wonderful actor as Citadel audiences have reason to know, is arrestingly fine as the Erik, increasingly frayed at the edges by his efforts to contain a dark secret and stave off fear (or is it despair?). He is a raw, nervous kinetic figure, in perpetual motion. As the play’s funniest character Deirdre, maddening and lovable, stumping for the idea of faith in a faithless world, Paton is terrific too.

The actors have to be, and are, a convincing ensemble. Under Maxwell’s direction they’re attentive to the intricate but natural surface of interruptions, a cross-hatched shorthand of hostility and warmth, aggravating repetitions, overheard bits and piece from which The Humans is built. Family life is all about recycling — grievances, riffs, obsessions, innuendoes, affectionate teases, mantras. When you’re with your relatives, the walls have ears, and it’s entirely possible that no one ever completes a sentence for the duration. 

Alana Hawley Purvis, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb in The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

As the two sisters, who live very different lives, Farb is the energetic, brittle one, struggling to land in her chosen field of musical composition, wounded by a grudging letter of reference, Hawley Purvis is the lawyer, teetering but still resourceful; she has a memorable telephone scene that will tear at your heart a little. 

As Richard, Richard Lee isn’t the older, more experienced boyfriend of the New York productions. Here, the character is boyish but game, a young man cushioned somewhat by a well-to-do family and aiming for the conciliatory note when caught between resentful Blake factions. He would seem to be no match for any of them, but rises to the occasion when cornered.

And as the incoherent prophet in this tumultuous world, Ryan is utterly compelling. “You can never go home!” she mumbles. And how right she is.

In the fearful world of diverse uncertainties, is family a comfort? Yes and no, says this disconcerting play, which contains both a kitchen sink and a very non-kitchen sink sense of dark, uncontrollable forces out there. “That’s a terrible key for me,” says Brigid, as the Blakes decide to sing their traditional family song for Thanksgiving and every festive occasion. It may be a terrible key but the singing counts for something.

REVIEW

The Humans

Theatre: Citadel/ Canadian Stage

Written by: Stephen Karam

Directed by: Jackie Maxwell

Starring: Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb, Alana Hawley Purvis, Richard Lee, Maralyn Ryan

Running: through January 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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At the Citadel, a new focus for developing new plays

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Playwright Belinda Cornish is part of the inaugural edition of The Lab. Photo supplied

The fun of a block party is the unpredictable  mix of people who live in proximity, get included, and show up to play.

Block Party is the nickname, and “community” the theme of the inaugural edition of The Lab, the 2017-2018 incarnation of the newly reworked new-play development program at Edmonton’s largest playhouse. In this Citadel Theatre initiative, four Edmonton playwrights, of widely diverse backgrounds and esthetic and formal persuasions, get seed money to create something new: Marty Chan, Belinda Cornish, Minister Faust, and Kenneth T. Williams.

“The idea,” says Rachel Peake, the Citadel’s new associate artistic director who’s in charge of the Lab, “is to foster the development of pieces specially designed for Citadel stages.” She explains that this focus represents a shift in vision from the Playwrights Forum of the last seven seasons led by Brian Dooley and Colleen Murphy.

“Their focus was on playwright development,” she says. And while many of the 19 new plays that hatched at the Forum went on to premieres elsewhere, few arrived on Citadel stages — largely because they were written “with smaller stages in mind,” as Peake puts it.

The Lab and its Accelerator program is a chance for playwrights “to imagine shows for larger stages. To dream bigger!” It’s the country’s smaller stages, after all, where most new Canadian plays premiere, with casts rarely numbering more than three or four. The Lab aims to change that. “We want to  make sure we see new Canadian plays on Canada’s big stages!”

Peake, who’s newly returned to her home town after 15 years in Vancouver, is renewing her acquaintance with Chan (Mom, Dad, I’m Living With A White Girl, The Forbidden Phoenix), who has written in a variety of forms for page, stage, screen and radio (and every age group). He plans to explore our burgeoning relationship with artificial intelligence.

Playwright (not to mention actor/ improviser, Bright Young Things artistic director) Cornish will apply her deft comic touch — evident in such tonally varied plays as Little Elephants and Category E — to adapting for the stage The Garneau Block by the notable Edmonton novelist Todd Babiak (Come Barbarians, Son of France, Choke Hold, Toby: A Man).

The multi-talented Minister Faust (Coyote Kings, The Alchemist of Kush) has proposed spinning “an immersive, augmented reality drama” from the narrative branches of the Leo Desroches murder mysteries by Edmonton writer Wayne Arthurson.

The award-winning Cree playwright Williams (Café Daughter, Thunderstick) will explore the growth and rejuvenation of language post colonization, in a family-friendly adventure story that uses clown and fantasy.

“We’re interested in, curious about, multi-disciplinary work, digital storytelling. And we’re encouraging our playwrights to tease out the possibilities,” says Peake of the mix of the traditional and the experimental. But we’re very flexible about it….” The Lab will operate under the mantra established by the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran: “innovation, inclusive, international.”

“It’ll lead to a week-long exploration at the end of the season,” Peake says of an event that is purposely non-rigid and undefined. “No pressure to have a draft ready…. Call it a show and tell.”

“Our dream is to take (new play development) in a slightly new direction…. We’ll build on what we learn this year!”

 

 

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The terrors of family life: Jackie Maxwell directs The Humans at the Citadel

Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb in The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I thought I’d be settled by my age, but, man, it never ends…. Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?”

Now there’s an open-ended question for the angsty existentialists among you. It’s put to a younger man by a 60-something father in the funny, heart-breaking, unnerving Tony Award-winner that opens Thursday on the Citadel mainstage. In The Humans, you’ll meet three generations-worth of disappointed people beset by every kind of pressure and secret — financial, marital, medical, romantic, professional. You guessed! They are a family.

And, in Stephen Karam’s acclaimed 2015 play, they are a family gathered (under one dubious roof) at one of the most stressful moments in the yearly calendar: Thanksgiving dinner. Those of you who have just pulled through another Christmas or Hanukkah dinner drama with your relatives, clutching the shredded remains of your secrets, will wince sympathetically at the struggles of the Blakes.

An America which promised much by way of  “getting ahead” has somehow become a darkening world where Erik and Deirdre, working-class and in their sixties, are losing ground. One daughter, the artist of the family, can’t make headway against her student loans; the other, lawyer, has a lost a partner, a job, and her health. Erik’s mother has slid into dementia and her own language. 

Director Jackie Maxwell. Photo supplied.

“A lot of anxiety!” says Jackie Maxwell, the distinguished director in charge of this Canadian premiere, a co-production with Toronto’s Canadian Stage that, amazingly, is the first time the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival has ever worked at the Citadel. “I take supernatural elements as a manifestation of anxiety….”  The “notion of family tradition” is, as Maxwell puts it, “part of the reason we do it; we need a kind of solace. The catch is that it’s with the very people who put you out of your mind.”

As the engaging Maxwell well knows from 14 seasons heading the mighty Shaw, 2002 to 2016,  the multi-course family dinner drama comes with its own built-in complications onstage. Food, for example. And in this department, The Humans might take the cake, so to speak (or, more precisely, the chard).

Like Tracy Letts’ family drama August: Osage County (where the issue of green bean casserole reduces a family dinner to chaos), The Humans happens on two levels, with the characters in full sight.

“It’s beautiful, the level of detail and depth in it,” Maxwell says happily of The Humans. “And technically, it’s been fascinating…. A 90-minute real-time piece of theatre. No blackouts, no escape, no jumping (in time). A two-storey duplex (run-down and in Manhattan’s Chinatown) with four playing areas, two upstairs two down. Every character has to have an absolutely complete narrative…. If there are four people downstairs having a scene, and two people upstairs, they are written to cross-connect.”

The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography

“OK, you have to say three of your lines, then you wait while four lines get said downstairs, before you say three more. In order to make it so you’re not just saying three lines and waiting, you have to have something to do, an action or a thought to keep you going till you say your next line…. Oh my god! The actors and I have ended every day going Oooooooh” (Maxwell shorthand for ‘my brain hurts’).

Meanwhile, the boyfriend of one of the play’s two grown-up daughters is preparing an entire turkey dinner. So, more challenges figuring out the stage logistics:  “OK OK OK have you served the sweet potato yet? No. OK, why don’t you hold on the sweet potato while this is happening over here?” Just guessing here, but in a long and eminent theatre career that began in Maxwell’s native Belfast, and crossed the Atlantic in 1978 “for love!” (her ex is star Canadian actor Benedict Campbell), The Humans might be the first time Maxwell has heard an actor talk about sweet potato preparation instead of his motivation.  

“Building Ragtime was easier than this,” sighs Maxwell, who directed that epic multi-generational American musical at Shaw in 2012. “‘Bring those 15 people over here’ is easier than ‘OK, you’ve eaten the appetizers, now’….” But Karam’s script is “incredibly meticulous,” Maxwell says. “He’s really worked it out…. Part of it is like a cooking show: how much has to be done onstage and how much can be pre-done?”

Who knew that chard could be as crucial in theatre as any line reading? “Richard Lee as the boyfriend has to spend the first 15 minutes onstage prepping. So he has to know how much to chop.” Maxwell, amused, permits herself a sigh.

The Maxwell story itself would make good coming-of-age theatre: it involves a feisty, self-educating protagonist who’s a quick study, in a foreign land. The little kid who acted onstage at the Lyric in Belfast (“some terrible play about the Irish famine”) and got a degree in drama in Manchester arrived in Canada age 21 as an actor because Campbell “had just been hired by John Wood at the National Arts Centre…. I talked my way into a job as John’s assistant, as one does (laughter). And it was a fabulous education: I became the resident assistant director, to Wood, John Hirsch, Jean Gascon…. I drank it up.”

“I love actors; I have huge respect for the single-mindedness of what they do. But I didn’t really have that as an actor.” Directing, with its “big-picture focus, and then its zoning in for specificity and detail” was a better fit for the new Canadian artist.

The other “seminal feature of the NAC,” she says, was playwright Sharon Pollock. Maxwell directed the second-ever production of Pollock’s seminal Lizzie Borden play Blood Relations. “She was wonderful. And completely terrifying.” And when Pollock asked Maxwell ‘what happens to new work here at the NAC?” and was confronted by a cupboard full of unread new plays collecting dust, Pollock was an instigator for a new workshop program led by Maxwell.

“Paul Gross, Gordon Pengilly … the writers all seemed to be from the West,” says Maxwell. “I became very interested in new Canadian work.”

Then came 12 years at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, devoted to the expanding the Canadian repertoire (“I stopped because I was burnt out, and I had two little kids”).

A passion for new work and … the Shaw Festival? As Maxwell points out, Christopher Newton’s parting gift as artistic director was to “open up the mandate.” A festival repertoire exclusively devoted to Shaw and his contemporaries would now embrace  contemporary plays about the era too. 

“And that’s what interested me, putting those plays side by side with Canadian plays, current Canadian writers: what would that conversation be?”

When Maxwell directed The Coronation Voyage by the Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard at Shaw the year after she arrived, “on opening night I sat beside the first live writer ever to see their own show onstage at the Shaw Festival!” She’s proud of that.

“I believed in the company, in the intellectual rigour, the production values. But I wanted to introduce new Canadian work, work by women, more women directors: a female voice…. That first season I hired seven female directors; you’d have thought I’d unleashed a nuclear bomb.” 

She even discovered rarely produced female writers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods (Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son for one). And as for adaptations, “the more reading I did, I realized that translations go very stale before the actual play does.” Maxwell was proactive. Morwyn Brebner, for example, made the 1929 Ferenc Molnar farce The President “really hop,” she says. Susan Coyne did a new translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; Neil Munro tackled Ibsen’s fairly intractable Rosmersholm. And under her watch novels got adapted for the stage, too. “I kind of elasticized the mandate,” says Maxwell modestly.

Fourteen Shaw seasons were her exit cue, Maxwell decided. “I have a real belief that since all these jobs are huge, really you should think about how long you’re doing them…. I wanted to leave while I still felt great about it. My Irish mother said ‘always leave before they push ya out Jacqueline’.” Maxwell laughs. “The Shaw was firmly established in the 21st century…. I gave them two years notice.”

And now she’s restored to her true theatrical calling, directing. Is there anything she misses about her artistic director life in Niagara-on-the-Lake? “I miss the walks in the morning, by the Niagara River,” she says. “I miss the company, because I love so many of them. I do miss the creative building of it…. Sometimes I’m reading the New York Times and I think ‘o, that would be such an interesting play to do!’”

“But that’s really it. These jobs are SO huge now. So much fund-raising…. Sometimes you’d find yourself in a meeting about QEW or transport or passports. And you’d think ‘is this why I got into the business?’”

“One thing I do miss about Shaw is the ability to take a look at an interesting young artist and give them a chance, a boost.” We are harbouring a notable example:  the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran. In her first season at Shaw, Maxwell had the young up-and-comer direct a lunchtime production of Brian Friel’s Afterlife. “It’s wonderful to be able to take chances on people,” Maxwell says. “People took chances on me.” 

Once Maxwell had left the festival (“it’s like having an enormous computer chip taken out of your head!”), it didn’t take long for the calls to start coming. She directed Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine at the Arena in Washington D.C., a play about America’s failure to recognize fascism that was festering before World War II. “We were there in D.C. at the time of the Inauguration,” she says. “Suddenly, the play was totally topical…. I’ve never been so glad to be Canadian.”

She’ll be back at the Arena next season, and teaching at the National Theatre School in Montreal in the fall. And she’ll be back at Stratford where she directed the lurid Jacobean revenge tragedy The Changeling this past seasona “play I love, in a kind of crazy, terrifying way….” This time it’s a new piece, Erin Shields’ in-progress stage adaptation of Paradise Lost.

Maxwell’s is a life on the road at the moment — “two suitcases and everything else in storage” — that will eventually turn into life in a Toronto apartment “when I have the time to be there.” Meanwhile, Maxwell finds herself, for the first time, working in Edmonton, immersed in a play about the darkening fearful landscape of contemporary America. “The week we started was the week the tax bill got passed in the U.S. What is it like to be lower or middle-class in America?”

“This is a play that really does get how families talk. … The level of familiarity is such that you can say things that sound very hurtful but are part of a (family) conversation that’s been going on for years. It’s fascinating to me. I can understand why it connects to people.”

The Humans

Theatre: Citadel/ Canadian Stage

Written by: Stephen Karam

Directed by: Jackie Maxwell

Starring: Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb, Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Richard Lee

Running: Thursday through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

  

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12thnight goes to Twelfth Night: a review

Twelfth Night, Malachite Theatre. Photo by bb collective photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Wonder and confusion, sadness and joy, thread their way through a comedy that’s always catching you a little off-guard, like the post-Christmas (hangover) season of the year itself. So in a way, the built-in contradictions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night feel right at home in … a church.

And that’s where you’ll find Benjamin Blyth’s highly enjoyable Malachite Theatre production. It savours the contradictions: stained glass, walls lined with candles and wine bottles, Christmas trees everywhere and in every state of un-decoration including zero, at the altar and in the aisles. You can never quite figure out whether you’re outside or in-, in this version of a Shakespearean comedy that is perhaps the richest in household details of any in the canon. There are a lot of plaid bathrobes in the Twelfth Night conceived by the English company for a 12-member cast of Edmonton and Calgary actors — and they co-exist with toques, gloves, and Hudson’s Bay scarves and blankets 

The production is full of music, of both the festive and mournful persuasion, Old English and Canadian (assembled and arranged by Danielle LaRose). And as the Fool Feste, the excellent Colin Matty is amused, but a little pained, by the folly he sees around him. He rouses himself to anarchic energy, but it subsides then returns — just like the play. 

In a play with a fake priest, played by the Feste as the capper to the household’s revenge on its puritanical purse-lipped steward Malvolio (Brann Munro), there’s a real priest too. He’s played by Holy Trinity Anglican’s genial and hospitable Father Chris Pappas, who shows up with a wink and a wine bottle to do the honours when the Countess Olivia (Danielle LaRose) is getting hitched to the male half of a pair of twins (Andrew Cormier). And he charges down the aisle with full comic swagger after the happy couple. Talk about site-specific theatre! 

Twelfth Night’s cross-currents of mistaken identity, romantic obsession and sexual confusion are set in motion by a shipwreck — and a choice: a young woman’s decision to disguise herself as a boy on the mysterious foreign shore where she lands. Viola (Merran Carr-Wiggin), half a pair of twins, becomes Cesario. And she lands a job as a love broker for a man she falls in love with, and inadvertently succeeds in attracting the romantic passion of the woman she’s courting by proxy.

Twelfth Night pushes the frontier of wonder, folly and comic confusion to the point that a woman reveals her heart to the man she loves, who’s really another woman in disguise, who is herself in love with a man who’s convinced he’s head over heels with the first woman. A web of comic complications ensues, as you will glean if you staggered through that previous sentence.

Carr-Wiggin as the resilient Viola/Cesario, finds her way through this maze with charm, innocent excitement, and a certain air of startled dread that is very funny, a kind of internalized double-take. The moment when she realizes the full measure of romantic chaos she’s unleashed is a little comic gem. “O time! thou must untangle this, not I; it is too hard a knot for me to untie!”

In LaRose’s appealing performance as Olivia, the carapace of grief and aristocratic hauteur is thin already and ready for the melting,  It doesn’t take much: one look at Cesario, and it vanishes entirely, uncovering a heart ready for love and lightness of being. As Orsino, Grindstone Theatre’s Byron Martin delivers an amusing portrait of an unravelling aristocrat wallowing in unrequited love; he never quite gets fully dressed, and flings himself into an armchair (with his Bay blankie) to revel in his tragical state.

Byron Martin as Orsino in Twelfth Night, Malachite Theatre. Photo by bb collective photography

Speaking as we are of revelling, the nocturnal party-hearty members of Olivia’s household — bar one — are all for extending the Christmas festivities indefinitely. “Let us therefore eat and drink!” As the booze-soaked sponge Sir Toby Belch, busy conning a rich ninny into spending his money, William Mitchell is unusually sweet-natured. I really enjoyed Perry Gratton as the dimbulb Sir Andrew Aguecheek, perpetually a beat behind in his comprehension of proceedings. And the “duel” trumped up between Cesario and the equally terrified Sir Andrew, played with hockey sticks in honour of the Canuck connection, is a hoot.

Monica Maddaford and William Mitchell in Twelfth Night, Malachite Theatre. Photo by bb collective photography.

The chief instigator, and arguably the smartest character in the play, is Olivia’s maid/companion Maria. Monica Maddaford plays her with contagious zest, an appetite for amusement, and a lighthouse beacon smile.

Olivia’s stern, self-important retainer Malvolio, the butt of the household plotting, is here played by a female as a female. Munro’s Malvolio is a tiny buzzsaw with a slightly Teutonic accent. The gender switch works fine, though it’s not terribly clear in the production that this particular Malvolio is an authority figure who shuts down revelry, abuses power, and therefore deserves a come-uppance.  So the plot by which Malvolio is brought low seems reduced. 

The scene in which Malvolio discovers a forged letter, and deduces that her employer fancies her is funny, though — not least because the plotters are hiding behind the Holy Trinity pulpit and the church plaque on which the hymn numbers are listed. 

The capper to the complications is the arrival in Illyria of Viola’s twin Sebastian, played with a delightful sense of pinch-me-am-I-dreaming? wonder by Cormier.

In the end the outsiders in Twelfth Night can’t be contained by a mysterious comedy that’s simultaneously hopeful and nostalgic. Malvolio exits, swearing revenge on everyone. And Antonio (Evan Hall, in a lovely performance), the sea captain who’s felt cruelly betrayed by one twin he mistakes for the other, is in handcuffs, forgotten by everyone in the joyful reconciliation.

This Malachite production isn’t particularly attentive to either of these exclusions. It ends instead with a rollicking connection to the audience. It’s like Alberta that way, where “midsummer madness” as Olivia puts it, is a long winter’s dream.

REVIEW

Twelfth Night

Theatre: Malachite Theatre

Directed by: Benjamin Blyth

Starring: Byron Martin, Merran Carr-Wiggin, Andrew Cormier, Evan Hall, Danielle LaRose, Monica Maddaford, William Mitchell, Samantha Jeffery, Perry Gratton, Brann Munro, Colin Matty, Phillip Hackborn, Father Chris Pappas

Where: Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 10037 84 Ave.

Running: through Jan. 20

Tickets: eventbrite.ca or at the door

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