“What lies ahead?” asking the oracle in ’20s New York: a review of The Salon of the Talking Turk

Louise Lambert, Mark Meer, Braydon Downler-Coltman in The Salon of the Talking Turk, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Will I be ever again be as happy as I was on the happiest day of my life so far?

It’s a question that haunts all of us, on tiptoes at the hidden intersection between what’s gone on and what might be. And it haunts the odd and delightful 2005 comedy that Teatro La Quindicina has revived to open their 35th anniversary season.    

Odd? The star attraction of Stewart Lemoine’s The Salon of the Talking Turk, is a marvellous mechanical: a clockwork Turk from centuries past with cogs and levers, buttons (for beginners) and hidden switches (for the cognoscenti).

The marvellous Mark Meer returns with uncanny physical/verbal precision and magnetism to the role of the exotic, mysteriously insightful life-sized robot. He is heir to the magical mechanicals who were the rage in 18th century European salons and populate the dark fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman in the 19th.    

It came back to me, Thursday night, how intricate and strange this comedy really is. Like its mechanical centrepiece, it works in whirring cogs and gears: a thought, a spin back to the moment when the thought originated, a spin forward from there to another moment in time, then back.

Its unhinged whirrr-bang pinball logic is unhinged from the usual narrative connectives. Which leaves its  characters in 20s New York springing buoyantly from thought to thought: “O! Say!” And leaves Lemoine’s script flinging off breezy witticisms at a hilarious rate.

“I have a letter here, and apparently I’m your brother,” says Wally (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) to Long Island socialite Cornelia (Louise Lambert). He’s just arrived from an orphanage. And since “an obscure childhood gives you a leg up,” as he notes cheerily,  he will graduate soon thereafter from both Yale and Harvard, simultaneously.

His new-found sister is only momentarily startled. “Well look at you. Tall. That’s a new development.”

One day Cornelia, who’s been married to “a renowned steeplechase champion,” suddenly realizes, “O! say! I’m over my divorce!” Equally suddenly, her best friend Dominica (Shannon Blanchet), a Manhattan flapper of riotously narcissistic impulses, takes it into her head to become a bargain hunter, and impulsively buys an automaton, in pieces in a crate, at an antique fair out of town.

As soon as the Talking Turk is assembled and up and running, there’s the question of what questions to ask him. He seems to understand and empathize, and even be amused. “Do you do that? Enjoy things?” wonders Cornelia. “I can’t really, but I’m told it’s not readily apparent” She nods. “Perfect. That’s all I’d expect of any guest.”

The characters are blithe and giddy sophisticates; I was going to call them ‘innocent sophisticates’ but I have a feeling that might be an oxymoron. Anyhow, Lemoine’s actors are unerring at flinging off cleverness lightly, even in extended deliveries, as if it’s just occurred to them. It’s the secret of their charm. “Faith: that’s for busy people,” Dominica notes with a shrug, in passing. “Terrible writers have much to tell us,” declares Wally casually, addressing himself to literary thoughts before moving on to other matters. 

As the cordial, slightly addled divorcée, Lambert turns in a bright, beaming performance. She’s an amusing contrast to the tart and worldly grimace of her friend Dominica, the “serial fiancée” whose brand of jadedness gives her predations a larky air. Blanchet is a riot.

The bouncy collegiate precocity that Teatro newcomer Dowler-Coltman brings to Wally is tempered with earnest good humour. Wally isn’t exactly breezy; instead there droll skepticism in a comic performance full of tiny double-takes: Wally can never quite believe he’s just heard what he’s just heard. 

Well, really, how often does Charles X of the Bourbons come up in conversation?

Chantel Fortin’s set, with its art deco touches (and a vintage booth the Turk calls home), captures the artifice of the surroundings, along with Matt Currie’s lighting. This production is, I think, the first time I’ve ever found the arrival of cushions onstage amusing: the Ottoman Craze one prop at a time.

The unknown of the future — its baggage of memory, its scary randomness, its sense of possibility — is something the fortune-telling machine seems to have thoughts about (ah, depending on how you word your question, of course). In one way or another, all the characters come up against it. And the whimsy of the play’s light textures and extravagantly literate verbal flourishes makes those moments all the more shivery and striking.

Spoilers are involved, so I can’t tell you exactly what happens. But the mysteries of the heart are where both the happy and the sad are to be discovered. 

This curious comedy, from a company that has always set about expanding comic boundaries, gets there in the most unexpected way. “O, you can laugh,” says Wally when he discovers new skills in the Talking Turk. “Yes, yes, in spite of everything…” says the witty automaton. He’s joking but he’s not kidding.

REVIEW

The Salon of the Talking Turk

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Mark Meer, Louise Lambert, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Shannon Blanchet

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through June 10

Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com

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You’ll be binging at A MIdsummer Night’s Fringe

A Midsummer Night’s Fringe runs Aug. 17 to 27.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

‘Tis very midsummer madness!” Oops, wrong Shakespeare play. Right spirit.

Our upcoming 36th annual Edmonton Fringe Festival, the oldest on the continent and still the biggest, has its signature theme.

As announced Thursday, come August 17 to 27 at our gigantic alternative theatre bash, you’ll be binging on live theatre till the wee hours at A Midsummer Night’s Fringe.

Yes, after decades of handles pried loose from B-movies, horror and teen flicks, sitcoms, James Bond — and one unspell-able song title (that’s a spot quiz, ladies and gentlemen) — it’s a classical christening. And it was chosen from amongst 800 nicknames, of every shade of kookiness, lyricism, and pun wrangling, submitted by Fringe-goers. Yes, the people love the Fringe!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has magic potions, mistaken identity, romantic couplings and uncouplings, fairy interventions — all of them within the compass of Edmonton’s glorious summer theatre extravaganza. And here’s the comedy showstopper: a play-within-a-play that remains one of the funniest scenes in English theatre after four centuries.

Pyramus and Thisby is put on by a bunch of stagestruck artisans with stars in their eyes. And they’re led by Bottom the Weaver, the endearing upstager who galvanizes his forces with the immortal exhortation: “the short and the long is, our play is preferred!”

It’s every Fringee’s dream!

This year’s schedule is available Aug. 1. Tickets to the 1,600-plus performances in more than 40 venues go on sale Aug. 9. Further details are at fringetheatre.ca. 

 

 

 

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Consulting the fortune teller at Teatro: let’s ask Mark Meer

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Mark Meer in The Salon of the Talking Turk, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It was a pungent, not to say eye-watering, debut.

Fifteen years ago, an actor/improviser of expandable comic talents got enlisted by Teatro La Quindicina for a new screwball comedy.

The play? Vidalia, named for the sweet, high-end Georgia onion worshipped by foodies. In a role custom-made for him by Stewart Lemoine — the playwright’s usual practice — Mark Meer played an innocent suit salesman drawn against his will into a corporate espionage intrigue of escalating complications.

“As the lights went down on the play,” recalls Meer, “Briana Buckmaster and I, smiles on our faces, had to take a big bite out of an onion. Vidalias were not in season alas. So we had to bite into cooking onions….There was a spit bucket.”

Since Teatro has always prided itself on having real food — goulash, pastries, bacon-wrapped oysters — not plastic facsimiles, onstage, this teary debut outing with the company seems particularly unfair.

Back at Teatro for the first of two productions this summer, Meer is amused — even though, starting Thursday in Teatro’s season-launching revival of The Salon of the Talking Turk, he won’t be sampling any gourmet snacks.

In the title role of the 2005 Lemoine comedy to which Meer returns, he is once again in a box. Which is to say a sort of antiqued booth which he occupies as the life-sized automaton purchased by a ‘20s socialite at an auction in upstate New York.

Mark Meer and Louise Lambert in The Salon of the Talking Turk, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

“I’m sure it’ll be a home away from home by the time we open,” says Meer genially. After all, confinement can have no terrors: he has, in his time, spent 36 straight hours in a Lava Monster mask in a Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon of yore.

Meer, who has played A.I.’s and robots in a number of video games, and the odd stage show, doesn’t consider The Salon of the Talking Turk an anomaly in the Lemoine canon. “There’s a whole subset of Stewart’s plays the dwell in the world of the fantastic,” he says, “The Noon Witch springs to mind of course, the Queen of the Willis and the Erl King (in Fever-Land). Would you call it magical realism, the plays where Stewart’s urbane socialite characters bump up against the supernatural?”

A dozen years ago when Meer originated the Talking Turk — and cut his signature shoulder-blade long black hair for the occasion — the improv star had arrived in this scripted play from innumerable unscripted productions on the Varscona stage.

His sultry Euro alter-ego Susanna Patchouli was hosting monthly live variety chat shows there. Weekly in Die-Nasty Meer was playing an amusingly literate assortment of nerds, geeks, freaks — doddering old quacks, éminences grises, mean little kids, generals, scheming bastard sons, assorted psychopaths. For Die-Nasty’s summer Fringe edition, he was making repeat appearances, by popular demand, as Dancing Man, a glum avant-garde jester.

He’d even gotten married on the Varscona stage, in full un-dead regalia, to fellow actor/improviser (and playwright) Belinda Cornish. 

Meer was already improv royalty in this town when he originated the Talking Turk. The intervening dozen years have enhanced this comedy star status in improv and sketch, on TV, radio, and video game screen.

Tiny Plastic Men, the quirky TV series for which Meer has written episodes (and in which he appears) has gained a following. After a five-year hiatus the APTN sketch comedy series Caution: May Contain Nuts re-assembled its cast to shoot a fourth season (to be aired in the fall). “And hopes are very high for a fifth season,” says Meer, a writing consultant on the show who was particularly pleased by having scenes with special guest Colin Mochrie.

The Irrelevant Show, for which Meer writes and performs, “is one of CBC Radio’s top comedies,” he reports. The stage version is just back from sold-out stops on the West Coast.

Meer’s “video game work,” as he modestly puts it, has acquired  cult status, in the figure of Commander Shepard from Bioware’s Mass Effect series. That line of work continues with The Long Dark, “a very Canadian video game,” as Mark grins.

The Hinterland Studios production “sets out to make a very realistic post-apocalyptic survival game — no zombies!— in the Canadian North, after a geo-magnetic event knocks out all power.” Meer’s character is a bush pilot who crashes.

In a nutshell, the goal of the game is “surviving as long as you can in the Canadian North. It’s been described as Player vs. Canada in some of the reviews.” Meer laughs. “Margaret Atwood tweeted about it a couple of months ago…. You don’t get much more Canadian than that.”

The long-form Dungeons & Dragons improv over which he presides as Dungeon Master, has been running at Rapid Fire Theatre every Saturday night in May. It’s a concept he took to Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, fertile ground since that’s where DragonCom happens. Meer says approvingly, “it’s a strong local nerd community.”

He’s improvised at a Berlin festival this winter; he was at the 50-hour Improvathan in London. “It was a Game of Thrones theme this year so I had to be there!”

In Die-Nasty’s current Renaissance season, which ends with Monday night’s episode, the improv virtuoso has been playing the villainous Douche of Venice, whose avowed goal is to make Venice great again. “He’s very much a Donald Trump stand-in, but is in no way an impression… I play him with a posh English accent.” Meer laughs. “I don’t know exactly what that says: I have nothing against the English; I’m married to English lady.”

The Douche’s agenda includes building a giant wall around the city “and finding scapegoats.” Last week, he fired the captain of the guard, “out of the catapult.” Meer permits himself a sigh; Trump’s gifts to comedy are, after all, doubled-edged. “I’m swamped for material…There seems to be a segment of the Venetian population that supports him no matter what he does.”

There’s more improv and sketch comedy to come in the Meer summer schedule. For its Fringe run at the Garneau Theatre, Harold of Galactus, the two-hander improv he shares with Chris Craddock, will make use of the Garneau Theatre screen to create “a multi-media experience.” Fellow improviser Jacob Banigan will do “live animation at the side of the stage, projected onto the screen behind.” Gordon’s Big Bald Head, which offers to improvise any show listed in the Fringe program, returns to its original home, the Varscona.

Meanwhile, there are scripted Teatro comedies on that stage. After Meer reprises his role as an automaton, he’ll be in Jana O’Connor’s new screwball comedy Going Going Gone, opening at Teatro June 22. “I’m playing Other Men,” he says happily. “Six or eight other men, actually. I’ll be wearing many hats and wigs.”

PREVIEW

The Salon of the Talking Turk

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Mark Meer, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Shannon Blanchet, Louise Lambert

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through June 10

Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com

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Teatro turns 35 with a new season of comedies, variously hued

The Teatro class of 2017: the season ensemble at Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Oh, it’s beyond fun….” 

— Dominica, in The Talking Turk

Now, there’s a mantra for a Teatro season.

In The Salon of the Talking Turk, the vintage Stewart Lemoine comedy that launches Teatro La Quindicina’s  2017 season this week, a Long Island socialite of the ‘20s acquires an exotic, life-sized automaton.

The mechanical fortune teller, dressed “Turk-ishly,” is an instant sensation. People seek him out, ask questions, interpret his pronouncements as wisdom, and make changes and discoveries—small and large — in their lives.

The notion of change, inherently dramatic, is built into the history of a company born at the very first Fringe (a catalyst for civic transformation in itself, to be sure). And on the eve of Teatro’s 35th anniversary summer, their second season at the restored Varsona, it was on the minds of resident playwright Lemoine and artistic director Jeff Haslam last week.

The Salon of the Talking Turk was inspired by Lemoine’s deep-seated attachment to the Offenbach opera The Tales of Hoffman (“a masterpiece! a Shakespeare among operas!”). Its three tales by 19th century fantasist E.T.A. Hoffman, of Nutcracker fame, include the wind-up doll Olympia and a talking Turk. Lemoine, who has decisive views on the opera’s restored and rightful ending, considers his affection for that particular opera a life-changer; as he’s said, it was his first full-bodied, sit-down opera experience as a kid.

When The Salon of the Talking Turk, Lemoine’s first new comedy in three years, premiered in 2005, Teatro was in the midst of discoveries of every size and shape. For one thing, as Haslam recalls, “we were taking Pith! (a signature Teatro hit) back to New York (after a Fringe run there) for a three-week Off-Broadway run.” For another The Exquisite Hour, Lemoine’s poignant turning-point study of the small but momentous changes in an uneventful life — the company’s graceful (temporary) farewell to the Fringe when it premiered in 2002 — was getting productions elsewhere, too.

Both plays, which expand conventional notions of comedy in different ways, have found their way into the five-show 2017 lineup.

The Salon of the Talking Turk cast: Braydon Dowler- Coltman, Louise Lambert, Mark Meer, Shannon Blanchet. Photo by Ryan Parker

After a dozen years, Mark Meer, who first donned the ceremonial fez to originate the role, is back for the revival of The Salon of the Talking Turk. In this advice-dispensing enterprise, he’s joined by Teatro regulars Louise Lambert and Shannon Blanchet and newcomer Braydon Dowler-Coltman (in roles originally written for Teatro stars Leona Brausen, Davina Stewart, and then-newcomer Andrew MacDonald-Smith). It opens Thursday and runs through June 10. 

The Exquisite Hour, Teatro’s Fringe production this summer (Aug. 18 to Sept. 2), remains one of the company’s most popular shows. For the upcoming revival of Lemoine’s first-ever two-hander, Haslam returns to the role, specially written for him, of a mild-mannered department store “supervisor of merchandise receiving.” Zachary Teale finds his regular, predictable existence changed forever on the summer evening in 1965 when a stranger arrives in his backyard with a simple, polite question: “are you satisfied with what you know?” Belinda Cornish, who’s been in several revivals of The Exquisite Hour with Haslam, returns to the questioner’s role originated by Kate Ryan.

Teatro, the city’s leading purveyor of new Canadian comedies, programs a mix of premieres and revivals. And the company makes a point of recruiting newcomers for its ensemble every season to play alongside veterans. Dowler-Coltman, for example, who plays the sassy millionaire orphan kid brother Wally in The Salon of the Talking Turk, caught their eye in Dave Horak’s production of Burning Bluebeard. And his funny, sharp-edged performance in Catalyst’s Fortune Falls cinched the deal for his cast-mate Blanchet. 

There are two premieres in the season. One is a new ‘30s-style screwball comedy by actor/playwright Jana O’Connor, who wrote Going Going Gone on spec and offered it first to “my family,” as she refers to Teatro. Talk about coming to the right place with an idea. “There’s a great company tradition of screwball comedy,” as Haslam notes. “There’s an element of adventure to a screwball,” says Lemoine happily “Jana’s has people going all over the place on the eastern seaboard. Lies are exposed!.”

MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron, fresh from the Calgary run of Crazy For You, star, along with Davina Stewart, Mark Meer, and Celina Dean. MacDonald-Smith plays “a gentleman with more fiancées than is perhaps ideal,” as Lemoine puts it drily in his website notes. Things devolve from there into near-misses with chaos. Dave Horak, of Edmonton Actors Theatre, directs the production that runs June 22 to Canada Day. 

The season’s other premiere (July 13 to 29), is a new six-actor Lemoine murder mystery I Heard About Your Murder. It’s a form that intrigues Lemoine — for its structural rigour (what information to reveal and when, what to withhold) and for the pleasure it gives audiences. “They’re very satisfying when they’re done well. And such fun to work on since the audience is so attentive!”

Lemoine has written murder mysteries before, The Ambassador’s Wives and Evelyn Strange among them. Haslam reports that when Lemoine was writing the latter, the playwright said, memorably that “I thought so hard I felt my brain move.” His cast of six includes two Teatro newcomers, Patricia Cerra and Garett Ross. 

The season finale is a revival of Lemoine’s ’90s comedy Shocker’s Delight (Sept. 28 to Oct. 14), directed by Teatro fave Ron Pederson, who was in a 2004 revival. It’s a funny and moving story of friendship and loyalty amongst three ‘50s college kids (originally written for Julien Arnold, Davina Stewart, and Haslam).

Pederson, a tireless promoter of Lemoine comedies in his adoptive Toronto — he directed a production of The Exquisite Hour there — has long called Shocker’s Delight “my favourite play.” His cast includes Ben Stevens, with Teatro newcomers Richard Lee Hsi and Melanie Piatocha.. 

Tickets: teatroq.com.

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As the crow flies: Nicole Moeller’s new play gets under your skin at Azimuth

Steve Pirot in The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, Azimuth Theatre, Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the first moments of The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, a man bursts headlong into a tower room above a street. He triple-locks the door behind him.

Jasper is a man under siege. But is he the prisoner or the jailer? Nicole Moeller’s disturbing new solo play imagines a man who is both. And, in Murray Utas’s Azimuth Theatre premiere, Steve Pirot’s scarily intense and kinetic performance imagines the phrase “pursued by demons” made flesh.

Moeller has written about imprisonment before; in her 2011 play An Almost Perfect Thing, a little girl is kidnapped, and grows up a captive in a makeshift dungeon, until she emerges a bona fide media star. That was eerie. This is downright horrifying — not least because you can’t help but be drawn to Jasper’s valiance in struggling against his own predatory, repelling, obsessive devil.

The former street preacher needs to save the princess from this ever-hovering crow, who doesn’t even say “Nevermore” like his famous literary predecessor. And here’s the thing: What do you do if it’s a dangerous world because you exist? Jasper longs for freedom but craves imprisonment, on behalf of society.

The usual religious and social mantras have failed him: faith, hope, humility, perseverance, as he lists. “Why is the man not saved?” he wonders, in the frantic, murky third-person stream of consciousness that’s Moeller’s poetry of damnation.  “Having no soul means the man is neither living nor dead.”   

With Moeller’s plays, empathy isn’t something soft, it’s something hard — and hard-won. Watching Pirot’s Jasper attempt self-exorcism is like watching a man take out his own liver. Without anesthetic. Gruesome and riveting.

Steve Pirot in The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Utas’s production transforms the Backstage Theatre into something voyeuristic. The theatre opens into the lobby; 45 of us sit at a 45-degree angle to Jasper’s rooming house room, a bleak and blasted urban cell strewn with old paper coffee cups, tattered maps of the big wide world, a bucket of water, and the ugliest couch in the western world. The design is by Tessa Stamp, who locates Jasper’s tiny smeared windows so high up he has to climb a step-stool to see out and down, ready to fly or to jump.

Aaron Macri’s powerful multi-layered soundscape is a sort of sound poem in itself. There’s a kind of ominous hum and thud (a cosmic heartbeat perhaps?) under the muffled sounds of city traffic and sirens. There’s the soundtrack of an evangelical preacher coming from a TV that Jasper seems to be able to turn on and off and with his mind. And from time to time, there’s the frightening sounds of beating wings, claws, beaks; Jasper is a man under avian surveillance. It’s exactly synched with Rae Dunn’s lurid lighting, scabrous and harsh, with flickering evocations of an outside world and sinister shadows of a giant hovering bird.

Occasionally the poetic script, with its tricky internal rhymes (“doctors and healers, witches and dealers…”) turns into analysis rather than spontaneous expression. And the play lurches from its sense of spontaneity at those moments. Mostly, though, it’s for you to follow Jasper’s train (wreck) of thought, as he zigzags through his fatal choices en route to damnation. Pirot, always a dangerous actor, is in perpetual motion throughout, in a tense performance that physicalizes temptation and terror, and feels like thinking aloud.

“Resist the devil and he will flee from you,” he repeats, in period bursts of wishful thinking that are sometimes accompanied by bizarre self-baptisms in water from the bucket. But his “recipes for resistance” won’t stick. And neither will yours. 

“There is no skin left; there is only bone.” And discomforting questions about the people we cast out are under our skin, too.   

REVIEW

The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow

Theatre: Azimuth, with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Nicole Moeller

Directed by: Murray Utas

Starring: Steve Pirot

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

Running: through May 27

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Exit, pursued by a crow: Nicole Moeller’s new play asks tough questions

Steve Pirot in The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Jasper has to save the princess.”

When Nicole Moeller follows the thread of her new play back back back to its birthplace, that’s the line she heard in her head.

Intriguing, yes, and not just because you need to know  from whom? from what?. The line gives off a fairy tale pheromone that’s highly unusual even by the standards of a Moeller archive of plays that step up to difficult stories from oblique angles. It comes with question marks, and nary a happily ever after in sight, in The Preacher, The Princess, and a Crow. It premieres Thursday in an Azimuth Theatre production directed by Fringe boss Murray Utas, and starring Steve Pirot.

And there’s this departure from Moeller practice: it’s written in rhyme, laced with alliteration.

“Bizarre! It’s not how I write!” Moeller laughs, glancing at Utas with a question mark of her own last week over a pre-rehearsal sip. “Intriguing, poetic and weird!” declares Utas approvingly, nodding with his usual exuberance. “And some more weird got at it last night at rehearsal!”

Moeller’s new solo play follows a dark and dangerous tangle of motives back to an urban rooming house where a former street preacher has exiled himself, for reasons you’ll discover. “I’m really interested in compulsions, addictions, guilt, shame, the things that haunt us,” says Moeller. “And Jasper is haunted by the devil; his task is to save the princess from the devil, the crow.” And the crow isn’t easy to shake: As Jasper says in the play, “that crow has been following me my whole life….”

Moeller explains that The Preacher… was a response, in a way, to her 2011 play An Almost Perfect Thing. That disconcerting drama was inspired by a horrific 2006 news story about an Austrian girl, kidnapped at 10, who finally fled her captor eight years later. In the ensuing media frenzy, the newly minted celeb controlled her messages, her story, her accessibility. And what was a lurid crime victim story turned, at Moeller’s unexpected angle of insight, into an exploration of the media/ celebrity symbiosis, and the ownership of stories.

“I never really solved the character of the kidnapper,” muses Moeller, typically a relentless critic of her own work. “He always felt inauthentic, not humanized. I didn’t feel connected to him.” That’s why the preacher character in her new play “spoke to me so strongly,” she thinks. “More, I think, than any character I’ve written…. There’s always a crow for all of us. We all hold onto our own traumas, our compulsions.”

What if, as Utas points out, “your compulsion is way past acceptable, where is the empathy for that? There is none.”

“It’s a tough play, very tough,” says Moeller, who collected  degrees in both journalism and musical theatre en route to her playwright’s career. “That’s why I took on the structure of the hero’s journey…. and added a (softening) element of fantasy, fairy tale….”

Director Murray Utas

Provocative questions aren’t exactly a departure for either Moeller or Utas. In Moeller’s The Mothers, which premiered at Skirts AFire in 2015, we meet the mother of a teenage son who’s taken a gun to school, and used it. At Azimuth, Utas, a career advocate for new work, has been part of such radically original Azimuth pieces as Pirot’s Freeman On The Land; Su-Kat, a kind of 3-D comic strip dreamscape; Apocalypse Prairie, an unclassifiable theatre/sound collage designed as a group portrait of Us Albertans.

Theatre is fond (well, over-fond really) of the journey motif. But, with The Preacher… a whole eventful chapter of Edmonton theatre history has intervened since the moment, five years ago, when the Azimuth team, artistic producer Utas and artistic director Pirot, asked Moeller to write a two-hander for them to be in together. “Sure! That’d be wild!” she smiles at the memory. “Little did I know….”

Since that time, a two-hander has become a solo play. Pirot announced he was leaving Azimuth; he’s now the director of iHuman Youth Society. “The Fringe came knocking,” as Utas puts it; he’s now the director of that mighty festival. At one point, the premiere was scheduled for The ARTery, and that venue shut down mere months before opening night.

And Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, Azimuth’s new joint artistic directors, wanted it for the capper of their debut season.

As for the play itself, which had a “test drive” (as Utas puts it) at the 2016 Expanse Movement Arts Festival, everything about it has been reworked — except the character and the final image. Which is fine with Moeller, who’s never seen a lead time she didn’t want to lengthen and rewrites she didn’t want a chance to try. “I have a really hard time when I can’t change things any more.”

“I have never experienced anything quite like this collaboration with a playwright,” says Utas happily. “Not just re-writes, sometimes whole new drafts, sometimes whole new plays, would show up along the way…. But the essence of Jasper was always there.” He pauses. “I really respected Nicole taking the time she  needed to get the play she wanted done.”

The production was a moveable proposition, too, Utas reports. “At one point we were going to put everybody in the dark…. At one point it was going to be site-specific and immersive: we thought we’d be moving it into someone’s apartment.” 

In the end, not only did Pirot agree to do the play — a huge relief to Moeller and Utas since Pirot’s kind of bravery is by no means universal — but Jasper’s isolation chamber is now to be found at the Fringe’s Backstage Theatre. Utas has reconfigured it for a sense of claustrophobia, at 50 seats. Which dovetails nicely with his  Fringe plans to occupy more fully, and produce in, the spaces of the ATB Financial Arts Barns.

“An art house having something to say!” declares Utas, whose is his goodbye to Azimuth, where his consultant role  ended April 30 (and left him for the first time in years, with only one job). “To have the courage to tell this story: We’re coming back to that again — at the Fringe! What a wonderful way to say goodbye to that, and hello to this!”

As Utas points out, a controversial play sends the right Fringe signals. “The Fringe was born on the edge. The word itself defines the edge! The Backstage is subversive in nature. You enter from the alley.”

It’s like a speakeasy that way. Tell them Utas sent you.

PREVIEW

The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow

Theatre: Azimuth at Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Nicole Moeller

Directed by: Murray Utas

Starring: Steve Pirot

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

Running: through May 27

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Concrete plans for a big upcoming season

Zak Tardif, Onika Henry in Concrete Theatre’s Bello, which plays Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre next season. Photo by Kim Clegg

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s no coincidence that the most influential and travelled show in Concrete Theatre history has a title with a question mark: Are We There Yet?.

For the 28-year-old Edmonton theatre, devoted to exploring the thorniest social and cultural issues of the day with and for kids, the question is revealing. And, in the spirit of questers, the answer has always been No.

Still, a certain festive air prevails these days at the Playhouse, the Strathcona headquarters Concrete shares with Alberta Opera. As announced this past week, Concrete will return next season to the delicate and difficult subject of teen sexuality addressed by the now-retired Are We There Yet? with a new play. Consent, by Concrete artistic director Mieko Ouchi, challenges its junior and senior high school audiences with questions about sexual encounters, gender equality, individual rights and respect.

Ouchi explains that the production, which takes Consent to 65 Alberta schools and some 22,750 kids next winter and spring, has attracted community partners. The Sexual Assault Centre and Compass Sexual Wellness have offered informational packages and add-on workshops. Financial support comes from the Edmonton Community Foundation and Toronto-based Wuchien Michael Than Foundation supports Ouchi’s playwright commission.

And Alberta’s new Status of Women department will contribute $80,000 to enable Concrete to offer the show to schools for $240, a fraction of the usual $850 fee for Edmonton schools and up to $1480 for out-of-town expeditions.

Ouchi reports that in announcing the grant, minister Stephanie McLean remembered taking Drama 149 from Concrete’s artistic associate Caroline Howarth at Concordia University. And, in a coincidence that’s far from rare given its 16-year touring history, McLean saw Are We There Yet? in Grade 9. “We taught her sex ed!” laughs Ouchi. “And the minister said she was happy to be able to provide a grant in return for others to see a (Concrete) show on the subject.”

In a particular challenge for its three-actor cast, Consent will tour in tandem with a revival, for younger kids, of Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull’s 2013 Paper Song, nominated for both Sterling and Dora Awards in its travels across the country. The play uses origami and shadow puppetry to tell a Japanese folk tale about two enterprising mice up against an oppressive overlord.

The season begins with a fall revival of Ouchi’s The Bully Project, which has been touring to elementary and junior high kids, in two different versions, for three years. It’s an example of Concrete’s “participatory theatre,” a three-actor production that’s “half scripted half improvised, and invites interaction with the audience,” explains Ouchi. “After each scene, the kids check in  with the characters, who analyze their actions and choices with questions. ‘What did you make of that? What else could I have done?.”

In all Concrete surveys to teachers about crucial issues the theatre might usefully address, “bullying was mentioned 100 per cent of the time,” says Ouchi.

Next fall, the Concrete/L’UniThéâtre co-production of Vern Thiessen’s Bello, which premiered this past season, has been picked up by Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre for a two-week mainstage run, with both English and French performances. 

The finale of the 2017-2018 season is a summer arts festival for Syrian refugee kids ages six to 12. Laeib! Play! happens in July 2018 at the Playhouse, under Amena Shehab and Lora Brovold. 

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Dungeons and Dragons, and other theatrical matters

Mark Meer, Rapid Fire Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Nerd Alert: Saturday is Dungeons & Dragons night at Rapid Fire Theatre. Actually, every Saturday in May is Dungeons & Dragons night at Rapid Fire Theatre. Mark Meer, a veritable scholar of nerd-ly arcana, game theory and practice, action hero lore  (and a great improviser) is the dungeon master of Rapid Fire’s come-to-life improv edition, happening at 7:30 p.m. at RFT’s Zeidler Hall headquarters at the Citadel. Puzzles will be solved; realms will be explored; monsters will be defeated. With real people. Tickets: eventbrite.ca

The Hey Ladies! ladies, who have opinions on all manner of subjects, products, people, hair, harvesting of pulses, modern dance, types of cocktails, etc. take over the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd.( Friday  (8 p.m.) for their Mother’s Day edition. Cathleen Rootsaert, Davina Stewart, and Leona Brausen all have one. Mother that is. So does their male colleague Noel Taylor.

Anyhow, in addition to celebrating mothers, the last Hey Ladies! of the season will have its usual assortment of comedy, prizes, games, chats, musical interventions, etc. It is, after all, a live infotainment variety show that resists more precise categories. Musician/actor Eva Foote is a special guest, along with fermentation specialist Erin Smandych of Culinary Nutrition.  Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca.

News to intrigue: Actor/ street and circus artist Miranda Allen brings her new “trophy wife character escape act” — Whoa, admit it, you’re already visualizing — to the Dirt Buffet Cabaret Thursday at Mile Zero’s Spazio Performativo venue in Little Italy (9 p.m., 10816 95 St.). Each edition of the cabaret curated by Ben Gorodetsky embraces six or eight wildly diverse and experimental 10-minute acts (an entertainment category for which Allen’s act would seem to amply qualify). Tickets are 10 bucks “or best offer.”

Walterdale Theatre, Edmonton’s venerable community troupe doesn’t shy away from grand-scale or classic, to be sure. And, hey, their upcoming summer musical in July is Sondheim’s Follies, for heaven’s sake. But they’ve always been hospitable to new plays by local writers (as playwright Brad Fraser, a beneficiary of this spirit in his youth, has pointed out).

From Cradle to Stage is Walterdale’s annual new play showcase. This year’s edition, next week, features new work by Tessa Simpson and John Richardson.

Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner and Richardson’s Guenevere, directed by Laura Ly and Eric Smith (respectively) play nightly Monday May 15 through Saturday May 20, 8 p.m.  Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).

The 2017-2018 season at Walterdale locates women — and their struggles to find a satisfying, equitable place in the world — dead centre. 

The community theatre, where the door is always open, launches with a door slam — the one that reverberated through the 19th century. It comes at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, when its heroine does something entirely radical when she leaves her husband and children in search of her own happiness. Alex Hawkins directs the production that runs Oct 11 to 21.

The prospects of the women in Shatter, by Canadian playwright (and former Edmontonian) Trina Davies, in love and life are up against a tragedy, the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Josh Languedoc directs (Dec. 6 to 16).

The Women, Claire Booth Luce’s razor-sharp 1936 comedy, casts its beady eye on Manhattan socialites and the gossip that fuels and poisons their lives. Men are talked about, and never seen. Catherine Wenschlag directs the Walterdale production that runs Feb. 7 to 17, 2018.

Blue Stockings, a 2013 play by the English writer Jessica Swale, stars four women who have to overcome horrifying odds to graduate from Cambridge’s Girton College in 1896. Laura Ly directs (April 4 to 14, 2018).

The 2018 summer musical is Next To Normal, the Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt groundbreaker that explores, in explosive rock music, the ripple effects of a mother’s bipolar disorder on her family. 

The season also includes the annual From Cradle To Stage (May 14 to 19, 2018).

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The Virgin, The Whore, Something In between: Northern Light announces a new season

Northern Light Theatre 2017-2018 season

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Next season Northern Light Theatre and L’UniThéâtre will share the premiere of a new play by Edmonton’s Cat Walsh, a playwright who specializes in the dark-unto-macabre end of the comedy spectrum.

Trevor Schmidt’s production of Do This In Memory of Me/ Faites Ceci En Mémoire De Moi — which will alternate performances in English and French — continues a collaboration between the two companies that began with Jeffrey Hatcher’s Mercy of a Storm and continued last season with Gratien Gélinas’s The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux.

L’UniThéâtre artistic director Brian Dooley co-stars with Nicole St. Martin in the new Walsh (translated into French by Manon Beaudoin). In the Montreal of 1963, where every sort of liberation seems imminent, the 12-year-old heroine prays to God to change his mind about not letting girls be altar servers. Has her faith been rewarded, her prayers answered, when the star altar boy vanishes on his way home from school?

Do This In Memory Of Me is the centrepiece of the 2017-2018 trio Northern Light has puckishly dubbed its Virgin, Whore, and Something In-between season. The Virgin Mary herself gets to weigh in on the subject in the Colm Tóibín novella-turned-play that opens the season. And she can be pretty scathing.

In The Testament of Mary, we meet the mother of Jesus, post-crucifixion, with her dander up. She has questions, and doubts, about a famous tragic death in her family.

Holly Turner stars in Schmidt’s Canadian premiere production (Oct. 26 to Nov. 4).

The bookend to the season is Slut, a sharp, funny comic take on sexual identity and hypocrisy by the Canadian-born American playwright Brenda McFarlane, whose oeuvre includes such memorable titles as Shut Up, Penis Play, Good in Bed, and Suzi Got Her Lips Tattoed. The character we meet is a woman, pushing 40, who loves sex, spreads the joy around, and gets accused by her neighbours of running a brothel — till she proves she’s a slut. Michelle Todd stars in the Schmidt production that runs April 5 to 14.

Subscriptions: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

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The Shadow knows: Collin Doyle’s Slumberland Motel premieres next season

playwright Collin Doyle

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Stellar news for Edmonton theatre-goers! After 11 years of being an “exciting prospect,” Collin Doyle’s long-awaited Slumberland Motel will actually arrive on stage next season — at Shadow Theatre.

Billed as “a road-weary comedy,” the 2006 Alberta Playwriting Competition winner finds Ed and Edward, two ‘70s era vacuum cleaner salesmen, sucking up the dust of disillusion as they share a cheap roadside motel room. The unexpected arrival of a mystery woman from the next room could change all that.

Doyle is the Edmonton-based playwright whose humour has found its way into edgy and moving landscapes in the roistering black comedy The Mighty Carlins or the heartbreaking comedy Let The Light of Day Through. The  premiere of Slumberland Motel is directed by Shadow Theatre artistic director John Hudson, and stars Julien Arnold and Reed McColmn.

The Shadow season opens with another bright prospect, Constellations by the English playwright Nick Payne. Since its origins at London’s Royal Court in 2012, Constellations has traced a starry path through reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It transferred to the West End a year later, and had a Broadway production starring Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2015.

The two-hander is a sort of metaphysical romance between a physicist who specializes in quantum multiverse theory and a beekeeper. And it explores the infinite possibilities of love, and the parallel universes of choices and consequences.

Amy DeFelice, of Trunk Theatre, directs; Mat Busby and Lianna Shannon co-star.  And, speaking of multiverses, DeFelice’s Shadow production marks the return to theatre of musician/ composer/ actor/ playwright Chris Wynters of Captain Tractor, who designs the sound.

The upcoming Shadow season also includes John Patrick Shanley’s 2014 romantic comedy Outside Mullingar. It charts the fortunes of two antagonist 40-something (and single!) Irish farmers. Hudson directs a cast that includes Coralie Cairns, Glenn Nelson, Jenny McKillop, and Garett Ross.

And the season finale is Fly Me To The Moon, a riotous dark comedy by Belfast playwright Marie Jones (Stones In His Pockets). The gist is that a couple of home-care workers, strapped for cash, decide on a course of action that involves the cashing the pension cheques of their recently deceased client. Hudson directs; his cast has yet to be announced.

Shadow Theatre subscriptions: 780-434-5564, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

   

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