Oil money, glamour, seduction, betrayal … the new season of Die-Nasty starts Monday

Davina Stewart, Vincent Forcier, Stephanie Wolfe in Die-Nasty, the live improvised soap opera, season 27. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s 1983. And world-class cities don’t come any world-classier than the one down the road.

Yes, it’s in the gleaming cloud-capp’d towers of Calgary, that fabled Shangri-La of wealth and power and world classiness, oiled by, er, oil, that Die-Nasty finds the setting for its 27th annual season of weekly improvised soap opera.

Die-Nasty meets Dynasty,” as billed, in this homage by  Edmonton’s Canadian Comedy Award-winning improv company to the steamy suds of prime-time TV soaps. As you read this, a new re-boot of Dynasty, the iconic ‘80s series set amongst the oil aristocracy of Denver, has started to air. And the ensemble of deluxe improvisers has taken note, says Die-Nasty’s Jeff Haslam, who directs Monday’s season launch at the Varscona.

Which brings us to the pneumatic attractions of ‘80s Calgary (say it breathless and awestruck, CALgary!, the way Haslam does). With its delusions of grandeur — ladies and gentlemen, I give you such Calgary ‘hoods as The East Village and Tuscany — it’s prime for “funny acting,” laughs Calgary-born Haslam, who remembers taking the bus downtown as a kid just so he could ride the skyscraper elevators up and down. 

“What struck me was that in a lot of TV series, the average length of a scene is three minutes; with Die-Nasty, Falconcrest,The Colbys, Dallas, Knot’s Landing and the rest, the average length is six minutes! And that’s a lot more dialogue! A lot more slow burns, close-ups, smouldering glances, threatening looks, fights….”

Die-Nasty has parodied TV soap opera before now, but of the daytime variety. The stakes are bigger at night, Haslam points out. And their casts are peppered with already movie stars just a bit past their best-before date, like John Forsythe, Jane Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck. “And they bring a sort of grandeur to the acting that\e made their shows hits….”

After all, “big ‘40s-style movie acting on a small screen looks even bigger,” he says happily of a style as large as the shoulder pads. “We all remember the women more than the men…. There’s a certain pluminess of the vowels. It’s just not naturalistic acting by any stretch…. These are people who have been in Wuthering Heights. Now they bring the same kind of intensity to ‘meet me for a glass of white wine, in (breathless pause) Kensington, across the bridge (breathless pause) from Memorial Drive’.

For their epic struggles of bedroom and boardroom, there’s a wealth of ‘80s reference points at the disposal of the Die-Nasty crew: “‘clubs with names like Scandals, the Husky Tower, the awarding of the Winter Olympics to Calgary, the Saddledome….” In fact, as of last Monday’s brainstorming meeting, Matt Alden has thoughts of playing an architect, the one who designed that iconic Calgary hockey palace.  

The basic infrastructure on which the company will hang Monday night episodes through May 28 is two families in lethal competition, in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the glorious oil-rich city. Meet Calgary’s richest family the Rocheforts, with their fortune in oil by productions, and their deadly rival clan the Camemberts, money and influence grubbers scrambling for a foot up.

Plans so far include Tom Edwards as Rochefort grand fromage Chaz, who has certain unmistakeable John Forsythe vibe, with Stephanie Wolfe as his former secretary (and new wife) Jewel, and Belinda Cornish as his new secretary Amber Stilton. Let images of Linda Evans waft over your memory. Davina Stewart is thinking of playing Chaz’s ex-wife Alexis Rochefort-Velveeta, à la Joan Collins. 

One Rochefort son, Dax (Jesse Gervais) runs the entire Rochefort operation, and also owns the Calgary Flames — with personal assistant Clay Manchego (Jason Hardwick). The other son, estranged from his dad, is Dr Rex Rochefort (Mark Meer), who runs a charity offering plastic surgery to the homeless.

Everything could change in the playing, of course. But the Camemberts include Sheri Somerville and Peter Brown.  Wayne Jones plays twins, chauffeurs to both families.  

Nobody knows how the cheese will melt. It’s all improvised, after all. It’s all improvised. But as the series suds up, expect to see ruthless treachery, intrigue, mullets, wheeling and dealing, seductions, betrayals, viral greed. All good unwholesome fun!


Die-Nasty, the live improvised soap opera

Director: Jeff Haslam and members of the company

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Monday Oct. 23 through May 28, except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1

Tickets: at the door


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Scare yourself, run away to the circus: Dead Centre of Town X, a review

Adam Keefe and William Mitchell in Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Even before the fog rolls in at Fort Edmonton Park , an abandoned midway on an autumn night is an eerie sight. An empty skeleton of a ferris wheel, rides without seats, boardwalks across empty fields, a merry-go-round in a glass house with ghostly wooden horses frozen mid-prance.

And more unnerving still: a population of the undead, who won’t stay buried. Thanks to Catch The Keys Productions, theatrical exhumers extraordinaire, they’ve re-emerged from the grave, and the tumultuous decade between 1918 and 1928, with grievances to air and strange stories to re-live. And they sense we’re tainted too; the gruesome chalk-faced ringmaster (Colin Matty), who seems to be waiting for us at every turn, taunts us with the knowledge of our own lust for the unsavoury. You’ve come to “find your weird,” he leers at us. And I guess he’s right.

The 10th anniversary edition of Dead Centre of Town doesn’t so much occupy the 1920 Johnny J. Jones Midway at Fort Edmonton Park, as it haunts the place and creeps it out. To flickering lighting by bonfire and hand-held lantern, and unnerving eruptions of glows in the dark, we trail from ride to ride, freak side show to aerial act, dancing girl to hawker, illusionist to fortune teller.

Vincent Fortier in Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

The bizarre horror stories that playwright Megan Dart has unearthed, still mouldy from the grave, and paired to circus acts, are from this place. Which is a big part of the shivery atmosphere that hangs over Dead Centre of Town X. Our Town, the Dart re-write. Violent death, serial murder, suicide, gore, freakish accidents, animal acts gone very wrong, horrifying exits (of a startling variety) from this mortal coil …  our graveyard of history contains a veritable variety show of the creepy, the distinctively odd, the downright bizarre. Elephants are involved. Who knew?

The way recognizable names float by — Strathcona, the High Level Bridge, apartment 14 at the Arlington … — puts a distinct chill down the back of your neck. And the characters, released from the bonds of obscurity (i.e. our civic ignorance), seem to enjoy the recoil. They mingle, they tap you on the shoulder, they smile their black smiles. 

Beth Dart directs a cast of 15, gamely risking hypothermia in lacy period showbiz gear to do the dance macabre of E-town history. Costumes, make-up, special effects and set are by John Evan and Kat Evans.

I don’t want to spill the beans about the stories; you wouldn’t thank me if I did. But then again maybe I dreamed it all, even the terrifying little boy (shhhh, not in front of the children). I woke up this morning in a city with an innocuous surface, copious concrete, a plethora of bureaucrats and lots of potholes. My friends, I have the prickly sensation that there’s more to this town than that. 

Give yourself a thrill! Get yourself to Fort Edmonton (and wear layers).


Dead Centre of Town X

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions

Written by: Megan Dart

Directed by: Beth Dart

Starring: Colin Matty, Morgan Smith, Christine Lesiak, Adam Keefe, Mat Simpson, Vincent Forcier, Samantha Jeffery, Joshua Lee Coss, Bobbi Goddard, Jake Tkaczyk, Marina Mair Sanchez, William Mitchell, Perry Gratton, Franco Correa, Elisa Benzer

Where: Johnny J. Jones Midway, Fort Edmonton Park

Running: through Halloween

Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca

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See “something Edmonton never gets to see” this week: Bibish de Kinshasa at L’UniThéâtre

Marie-Louise Bibish Mumbu in Bibish de Kinshasa. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Well, Edmonton, your theatre week is full of intriguing shows that “Edmonton never gets to see,” as L’UniThéâtre’s Brian Dooley puts it. 

*Starting Wednesday, L’UniThéâtre, our hospitable francophone theatre, is hosting a cabaret/play like no other. Dooley calls Bibish de Kinshasa “an event” or “an experience” for want of a better term. Where else in town will a for-real taste of another culture be part of your evening at the theatre? Just asking.

The work of Montreal’s Productions Hôtel-Motel, Bibish de Kinshasa,is a multi-dimensional multi-sensory theatrical adaptation of a 2008 novel (Samantha à Kinshasa) by Congolese journalist Marie-Louise Bibish Mumbu, who reworked it a couple of a couple of years ago when she left her African home and found a new one in Quebec.

Gisele Kayembo in Bibish de Kinshasa. Photo supplied.

“The director (and adapter) Philippe Ducros is actually part of the show,” says Dooley. “There’s a documentary meta- aspect to it; he’s onstage interviewing the author,” as the infrastructure of a sort of memoir. The main character (Gisele Kayembo) guides us through the streets of Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. Another of the four performers is the bartender, who’s actually serving drinks.

The idea is to create an embracing context, as Dooley describes the show, which runs in French (with English surtitles, except for Thursday’s performance). There’s music, there’s insight into exile and the immigrant experience, there’s geopolitical discussion, there’s reflection on the endless war that’s built into the reality of the Congo.

Bibish de Kinshasa. Photo supplied.

Since there’s drink and Congolese food, arrive 30 minutes before show time for the full experience. Bibish de Kinshasa runs Wednesday through Saturday at L’UniThéâtre, La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.).

Andile Nebulane in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project.

•At the Citadel, a strikingly vivid, physicalized kind of storytelling comes our way via a collaboration between South African and Canadian actors directed by Daryl Cloran. Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project, is in motion on the Maclab stage only till Sunday. And needless to say, there’s nothing quite like it in the season. Check out the 12thnight.ca review. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

•There is no precedent for the site-specific/ horror/ history/ urban lore extravaganzas set in the Edmonton of the past — except of course the nine previous annual editions of Dead Centre of Town. Catch The Keys Productions’ 10th annual incarnation of their original productions, which dig in the graveyard of E-town history, is running at the Johnny J. Jones Midway in Fort Edmonton Park through Oct. 31. Be very afraid. Tickets at Fort Edmonton Park. Have a look at the 12thnight.ca preview of Dead Centre of Town

Michael Vetsch, Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

•There is nothing in contemporary theatre quite like the hyper-realism of Annie Baker, which shimmers with the cumulation closely detailed observations till your mind buzzes and meaning emerges in long silences. In The Aliens, currently getting an attentive and hypnotic What It Is production at Theatre Network, in the Roxy Performance Series, you’ll meet creative, smart young characters in a kind of suspended animation. Consult the 12thnight.ca review of The Aliens. 

A Bright Room Called Day, U of A Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

 •Onstage at the U of A’s Studio Theatre, the season opener is A Bright Room Called Day, an early work by Tony Kushner, who would later make his name as playwright and public intellectual with the monumental Angels in America. This 1991 piece, which investigates the way history loops, originally crosscut the rise of the Third Reich and  Reaganite America. It’s been updated periodically since. And now, in the production adapted and directed by Brenley Charkow, it parallels 1930s Germany and the current Trump landscape. 

The production runs through Saturday at the Timms Centre for the Arts. Tickets: Studio Theatre or 780-492-2495.


There’s more. Who, for example, would be gutsy enough to even consider doing an Aretha Franklin/ Tina Turner concert/revue type show? Soul Sistas is an evening at the Mayfield to knock your socks off, starring Tara Jackson and Tiffany Deriveau, with great back-up from an ace band. Check out the 12thnight.ca review of Soul Sistas.

For that matter, what community theatre would step up to the time-honoured and weighty challenges of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House? There. It’s running at Walterdale (through Saturday), and I’ve answered my own question. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

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It’s the small stuff that counts: The Aliens, a review

Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall, Michael Vetsch in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

When stubbing out a cigarette or trying to bring on a sneeze count  as flurries of activity, you’re in the brave theatrical world of Annie Baker. Kicking over a plastic chair? Downright revolutionary.

The fallback term ‘slacker’ barely skims the meticulously detailed surfaces of the characters we meet in Baker’s The Aliens, hanging out behind a small-town Vermont coffee shop. Taylor Chadwick’s What It Is production — a theatre company name that seems particularly à propos in the case of Baker’s uniquely subtle theatricality — opens Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series.

It’s Edmonton’s first chance to see this mesmerizing 2010 play by the young American Pulitzer Prize winner (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness, John). And see it you really should, since you’ll be seeing three thoughtful, observantly unforced performances by a trio of fine young Edmonton actors. And you’ll be seeing them in a production that lets the meaning and feel of the piece sneak up on you.

This kind of dot by dot naturalism isn’t as easy as it sounds — not in an art form like theatre that relies heavily on stylization, the big strokes. Baker’s art is in the small strokes, and this production knows it.   

Jasper (Evan Hall) and KJ (Chris W. Cook) hang out on a more or less permanent basis, smoking, drinking magic mushroom tea and ruminating at the picnic table out back of a small-town Vermont cafe, next to the garbage and recycle (realized in impeccable detail by designer Liza Xenzova).

There is zero exposition and neither guy is exactly a windbag; au contraire, the dialogue is, mainly, unspoken (if that isn’t an oxymoron), a matter of a few sparse words and pauses that seem to go on forever. But we do learn that at age 30, they’re drop-outs, underachievers in the scholastic department with better things to do. Things of a creative nature. Like song writing and being in a band, if only they could settle on a name (there’s a long and amusing list of rejected possibilities, among them Hieronymus Blast, The New Humans, and The Aliens, named for a Charles Bukowski poem). They actually perform oddball songs by a trio of writers

Or, in the case of Jasper, writing a novel (also named for a Bukowski poem), trying to use seething resentment about a recent breakup to turn loss into something intense on the page. 

They’re not without talent; they’re … well, what? Stalled, I guess. Short on translating talent into something with forward momentum. In short, they’re aliens, outsiders looking in. And they’ve found models, like Bukowski, Kerouac, Millier, who validate the kind of creative alienation they’re into.

In other hands than Baker’s, they’d have satirical targets on their backs; her weird and distinctive kind of comedy treats them with considerable affection. And Cook and Hall are on the money, both individually and in the friend chemistry that makes them alert to microscopic changes in the vibe between them.

They seem to be zoned out, suspended in an ether of non-activity that makes standing up seem like the charge of the light brigade. But Hall as Jasper, the broodier of the two, retreats into silences with a kind of angry pulse to them. His pal KJ, the shroom tea-drinker who lives with his new-age-y mom and has a history of “breakdown,” has a kind of aimless stoner smile to his inward gaze. But when it comes to appreciating his friend’s creative output, he’s there; he listens to Jasper reading his latest chapter with unexpected focus. 

Michael Vetsch, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

The arrival on the scene of a young cafe employee clutching a garbage gives them an audience beyond themselves. Evan, the nervous loner high school kid sent to remind them that it’s an “employees only” space and they have to leave, is played with surpassing awkwardness by the terrific newcomer Michael Vetsch, who has the general demeanour of an anxious beagle and holds in trust until further notice he furrowed-brow record for the season.

Michael Vetsch, Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

KJ and Jasper move on to offer their fellow misfit and acolyte a cig, and include him in their non-activity. I’m still smiling, in a wincing sort of way, at the memory of their July 4 “celebration.” Evan’s life is changed. 

Things take a surprising turn in Act II. Will this subtly drawn world of tiny details and inconsequential throwaway exchanges be elastic enough for an uncontainably large, tragic event? Chadwick’s compelling production makes bold choices; you can imagine others, but his do work. You’ll see; I mustn’t say more.

The Aliens does something radical; it replaces “larger-than-life” with “as small as life.” But as this strange but strangely familiar play captures, life keeps it comin’, in waves, and thoughts, trailing inconsequential fragments of dialogue. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but it’s the small stuff that counts.


The Aliens

Theatre: What It Is Productions, in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Annie Baker

Directed by: Taylor Chadwick

Starring: Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall, Michael Vetch

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

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Igniting connections: a review of Ubuntu at the Citadel

Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A son dreams nightly of his father. That’s how it starts.

But what sets Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project on its zigzag course through two time periods 30 years apart is an inspired perpetual motion scene, high-speed and word-free. It flings Jabba (Andile Nebulane), the young man, through the whizzing madhouse Cape Town restaurant where he works and out across the world — through airports, trains, buses, and passport control and pat-downs — to Canada in search of the elusive mystery man Philani (Mbulelo Grootboom) who haunts him.   

This knock-out kinetic scene is staged by director Daryl Cloran in a dazzling criss-cross of diagonals on the Citadel’s Maclab stage, against a cunning wall (designer: Lorenzo Savoini) constructed entirely of suitcases with secret revolving doors, niches, closets.

It’s a signal of what can happen when two theatrical traditions meet. And that is actually the provenance of this fascinating 2009 Theatrefront show, created collectively by Cloran and a cast of South African and Canadian actors in Toronto and at the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town.

With its clash of generations and cultures, past and present, what Ubuntu conjures is a mystery of identity only resolvable by embracing the idea that we’re all interconnected, through time and space. We don’t start fresh and autonomously; we cannot escape either our ancestors or the ripple effects we set in motion. And as the play’s university genetics professor character Michael (David Jansen) tells his students, we have roots in common anyhow since our origins are African.

The title, “ubuntu,” is a South African word that means roughly “I am because you are.” And the plot is a series of accumulating coincidences, small and large improbabilities that turn out to prove the point. Which means, I guess, they aren’t coincidences at all.

Anyhow, in the present, the rocketing arrival in Canada of Jabba, clutching a suitcase and a single Polaroid photo as a clue, is stopped cold — as cold as the weather — by his frosty reception. The professor who appears in the photo with his dad denies and stonewalls. The professor’s daughter Libby (Erin McGrath) who works in the library where Jabba tries to search the archives, is hostile. 

Andile Nebulane, Erin McGrath in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

 Counterpoint the past: Philani had arrived in Toronto 30 years ago to study microbiology. He gets a part-time job in the library, thanks to the professor, and sends money back every month to his little son in South Africa. It’s in the library the student from far away meets an anxious, sweetly nerdy grad student, Sarah (Tracey Power), who’s into the migratory patterns of birds, with a specialty in mating calls. And they fall in love.

As son and father the two South African actors, both magnetic, have an intensity and physical explosiveness about them that ignites the stage. And it happens in both the movement/dance outbursts, inspired by South African practice, and the more verbal scenes (mostly in English, sometimes in Xhosi) that are more traditional in Canadian theatre. Director Cloran marries them theatrically in a way that makes the former natural, inevitable eruptions of the latter. In this he is materially assisted by Gerald King’s lighting and Christian Barry’s sound design. 

Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

 The charged chemistry of Grootboom and Power as Philani and Sarah makes for two scenes that are among the most memorable and moving of the production. In the first, their attraction becomes dance. Later, as Philani retreats into a dark depression, the tension between them erupts into a wrenching physical struggle for a chair. Power’s beautiful performance charts Sarah’s gradual emergence from the carapace of the tentative and fearful into moments of rapture — and beyond.

Nebulane turns frustration and rage into a kind of physical electricity. And McGrath, assigned a character less realized by the play, is nonetheless always convincing as Libby.

Michael’s obstructionism and truculence is crucial to the plot; everything relies on it. But I have to admit I never did really understand why a genetics professor who speaks to the unified origins of mankind in Africa, is so dead set against revealing his own personal connection to that thought. I guess that’s the good ol’ Canadian theatre embedded in Ubuntu: there has to be a family secret and it has to be pried out of characters gradually, over time, kicking and screaming. Having said that, I must add that Jansen commits himself gamely.

In any case, Michael gets to say something to another character that resonates powerfully. It’s something you take out of the theatre and keep in your pocket for later: “You belong to a lot of people. Don’t make that a bad thing….”

Belonging to a common humanity is what Ubuntu, both in the making and performing, is all about. In that, it’s vivid, it’s startling, and it’s eloquent. 


Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project

Theatre: Citadel/ Prairie Theatre Exchange

Created by: D. Cloran, M. Grootboom, D. Hay, D. Jansen, H. Lewis, M. Monteith, A. Nebulane

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Mbulelo Grootboom, Andile Nebulane, Tracey Power, David Jansen, Erin McGrath

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Catalyst Presents: Onegin, the Vancouver hit rock musical coming our way!

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A unusual love story, in which one of our most inventive theatre companies falls, hard, for an inventive show — and makes advances:    

Catalyst Theatre has fallen in love with Onegin, a much-awarded  original Canadian indie rock musical fashioned from the Tchaikovsky opera and the Pushkin poem. Not only that, Catalyst is bringing it to audiences here Jan. 17 to 28 on their home stage, the Maclab Theatre at the Citadel — for a radically accessible/ you-snooze-you-lose introductory price of 17 bucks.

Onegin is the work of Ariel Gladstone and Veda Hille, the team behind the quirky travelling hit musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata (seen at the Citadel Club in 2014).

The Arts Club production of Onegin that caught the eye of Catalyst artistic director Jonathan Christenson in its premiere run in Vancouver, May 2016, has been widely praised for its irreverent, highly theatrical re-invention of classic literature in a re-imagined musical form. Which is, after all, something that Catalyst does with unusual pizzaz and  expertise too (witness Hunchback, Nevermore, Frankenstein, and others). Onegin scooped up an unprecedented 10 Jessie Awards in Vancouver, and ran in Toronto this past May. 

Christenson says he particularly remembers one of the songs Onegin sang: “’Amuse me, surprise me, shake me … try and wake me’  And at the performance I saw the entire production was doing just that for the audience!’”  You can hear the soundtrack on Veda Hille’s website: vedahille.com.

The presentation run announced Thursday, starring Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe, introduces a new initiative, Catalyst Presents, designed to bring exciting indie work to town in coming seasons. More on this later; stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, Onegin tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Soul royalty at the Mayfield: a review of Soul Sistas

Soul Sistas, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Holy smoke! Or as we say in the prairies, Holeeeee! If you haven’t seen the audacious concert show currently running — also dancing, jumping, rocking — at the Mayfield, you’re missing out (as I discovered just this week). Soul Sistas is a rare chance for Edmonton to experience bona fide soul: sexy star performances from a couple of startling talents backed up by Van Wilmott’s  crack seven-piece band and expert back-up musicians.

As you’ll learn in Soul Sistas, assembled and annotated by the mystery team of Will Marks and Kevin Michaels, what the remarkable careers of soul icons Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner have in common is a point of origin in gospel, and the African-American church. Ah, and Tennessee.

Aretha, though, grew up blue-blood in the family of a celebrity Memphis preacher who played Scrabble with Martin Luther King. Tina, the adoptive name of one Anna Mae Bullock, grew up dirt poor in Nutbush, Tenn., This backwoods town lends its singular name to Tina Turner’s Nutbush City Limits, as you’ll discover in a production number of high-octane brio and snazzy choreography (by Christine Bandelow) in the course of Act II.

Even though this is “in the spirit of…” and not some “legends”-type impersonation extravaganza, the casting challenges of Soul Sistas, as you’ll glean, are daunting. Especially in the case of soul queen Aretha , it’s the voice, a soulful coloratura of unparalleled agility. As Aretha’s admiring sister (Antonette Rudder) puts it, it’s the voice that delivers “the most intense R&B in history….” Tara Jackson, startlingly, evokes the singer’s legendary vocal gymnastics with impressive authority, in a powerhouse performance that’s all her own.

Tina Turner’s story, from a hard-scrabble childhood to a career tied to and thwarted, temporarily, by the notoriously sleazy and thuggish Ike (Matt Nethersole), seems to have distinct chapters, as signalled by hair size and colour. The soul remains; enter the rock star with the explosive non-stop physical energy onstage enters. Triple-threat Tiffany Deriveau delivers a sexy, magnetic performance, a veritable perpetual motion machine who doesn’t just occupy the stage but rampages through it dancing. And smiling: a workout of epic proportions.

The script isn’t long on biographical zeal, for which we should probably be thankful. Yay Atlantic Records, boo Columbia Records, that sort of thing. In each act, members of the ensemble — Aretha’s sister, a Tina back-up singer — steps forward to volley  some simple, sometimes goofy, narrative fragments. And there’s video footage (and a non-stop succession of wigs) to conjure and the evolution of the stars through space and time.

But mainly, the songs just keep coming. Chain of Fools, Rock Steady, Natural Woman, Rocket 88, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Simply The Best….

That river is deep and the mountain high.


Soul Sistas

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written and compiled by: Will Marks and Kevin Michaels

Staged by: Christian Goutsis

Starring: Tara Jackson, Tiffany Deriveau, Jameela McNeil, Matt Nethersole, Atonette Rudder, Malinda Carroll

Running: through Oct. 29

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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A horror show from history: Dead Centre of Town is back to haunt the Fort

Vincent Fortier in Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s the chilly season when the veil between the present and the past is at its thinnest. And this, my friends, is a haunted place.

Catch The Keys Productions is once again leading us on an expedition to exhume Edmonton’s long-buried stories on location. Dead Centre of Town, at the 1920 Johnny J. Jones Midway in Fort Edmonton Edmonton Park starting Friday (the 13th, surely no coincidence), is the 10th anniversary edition of original creations — researched and custom-made for a site  where our ghosts linger and our dark collective secrets lie composting.

A decade ago, Megan Dart and her sister Beth were living across the street from The Globe, a bar on the corner of Jasper Avenue and 109th St. “It was the site of one of the first mortuaries in Edmonton,” says Dart who discovered it was surrounded by coffin-building and embalming establishments during the First World War. In the macabre local lingo of the time, that corner was “the dead centre of town.”

“We knew the manager of the Globe,” says Dart. “She said ‘we’ll give you the bar for one night and see how it goes.”

A fateful offer: an Edmonton theatre tradition was born that Halloween night. Dead Centre of Town started, modestly, with two technicians, a $500 budget, and a cast of five, a couple of whom (Adam Keefe for one) are still with the annual ventures into Edmonton’s surprisingly strange and lurid past. “150 people showed up, so it was technically sold out!” says Dart.

“I look back it now, at how quickly we put it together, honestly just a couple of weeks. And I go back to the script and see something I wouldn’t share with anybody!” Dart laughs. “Site-specific, yes,” she laughs, “though we didn’t have the word for it. We just knew we didn’t have the money to rent a theatre!”

She remembers that as soon as that experimental first show ended at the Globe, “people were out on the dance floor, in their Halloween costumes, drinking Jaeger shots.”

Since that darkly festive debut Catch The Keys has specialized in immersive, site-specific theatre that, as Dart puts it, “offers something immediate to put the audience inside the experience.” Dead Centre of Town has sent shivers up the collective spine with horror stories — true ones and urban lore —  in such ghostly locations as abandoned trainstations, nightclubs that were once vaudeville houses, tinsmith shops-turned-theatres, the long derelict upper floors above the Whyte Avenue cafe Block 1912. And for the last three years, Dead Centre has unleashed its dark vision at Fort Edmonton, “Edmonton’s only living museum,”  on the banks of the river.

One year we followed characters along 1885 Street, in and out of the schoolhouse, the saloon, and other buildings. “We ran three km. of cable that year,” Dart recalls of the extreme technical challenges for scary lighting and sound off the grid.

One year we found ourselves in the Selkirk Hotel. One year we went into the fort itself and, to an eerie soundtrack of coyotes, met such horrifying characters as the first man hanged in Edmonton who had cannibalized his wife and seven others while under thrall to a demonic spirit.

Adam Keefe and William Mitchell in Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

This year, prepare to be unnerved, and possibly out-and-out terrified, 40 at a time, in the skeletal circus midway at Fort Edmonton Park. Beth Dart directs a cast of 15 in “a series of vignettes and short scenes inspired by true history,” as playwright Megan puts it. “We’ve been dreaming of that midway ever since we started coming down to the park.”

“Amazing how many characters met their end in untimely and unsavoury ways,” Dart says cheerfully. “Edmonton was a bustling city between 1918 and 1926,” and rich in horror story potential, she’s found. Ten years of research into a civic history few of us know have unearthed a startling vein of the weird, the violent, the morbidly fascinating, as she says. “Edmonton was a rebellious young frontier town. So much happened here, a rich Indigenous history, the fur trade, the railroad….”

Inspired by this year’s midway setting, “we’ve married each story to a circus act,” Dart says of the 2017 edition. “You’ll see an aerialist, a snake charmer, an escape artist….”

We’ll meet Filumena Lossandro, the only woman ever hanged in Alberta (heroine of John Estacio’s opera of that name). We’ll be on hand for the strange disappearance of teacher Felicia Graham. One of Dart’s own favourite stories, a real winner, is the 1926 arrival in town of the Sells Floto Circus. “As they set up, 14 elephants got loose and stampeded down Jasper Avenue,” Dart explains, with delight. “Eight of the 14 were captured immediately; the rest kept going, led by the smallest elephant Mad Mary…. They rampaged through town till she ran out of steam.”

“Our acting company doesn’t shy away from a challenge,” laughs Dart. “We’ve thrown some wild ones at them this year! And the run is  34 shows, two a night (7 and 9 p.m.), outside in the elements and within the grasp of the audience…. We’re the Iron Man of theatre!”


Dead Centre of Town X

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions

Written by: Megan Dart

Directed by: Beth Dart

Where: Fort Edmonton Park, Johnny J. Jones Midway

Running: Friday through Oct. 31 except Mondays, 7 and 9 p.m.

Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca


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Embracing the other: Ubuntu’s cross-cultural journey at the Citadel

Andile Nebulane in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The play that opens on the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday wasn’t born, like other plays, in a story, a character, an image.

Ubuntu would end up with all of the above, unspooling in dance, movement, music, and dialogue in both English and Xhosa. But  “we started with nothing. Nothing but a desire for connection,” says Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran of the origins of the play he co-created with Canadian and South African actors. Ubuntu borrows its name from a South African word that’s a veritable ode to human interconnectedness. Rough translation: “I am because you are.”

Like its creators, its characters, and its cast, Ubuntu has a pedigree that spans continents. And a history that goes back a decade and a half, to the moment Cloran went to Cape Town to bring the Baxter Theatre Centre there, in person, a cross-cultural proposition.

Who was the Daryl Cloran of 2004? He and a bunch of his Queen’s University theatre school pals, as the man says with a smile, “had moved to Toronto to make it big and start a company…. At first you do plays with your friends. But as it evolved we wanted Theatrefront to be a company that didn’t have a building but (instead) worked internationally. So we started to build partnerships.”

One was a collaboration with Bosnian artists that became Return: The Sarajevo Project, which garnered a name in innovation (and a cluster of Dora Award nominations) in its Toronto premiere a few years later.

Meanwhile, Cloran had contacted Mannie Manim at the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town, a notably tri-cultural city with large black African, Afrikaans and Muslim populations. “He’d been the artistic director at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the first theatre there to have black and white actors onstage together,” says Cloran. “We reached out to companies that had an interesting performance style, theatre that was a voice for social change, theatre that was more than just entertainment….”

So it came to pass that Canadian and South African actors found themselves together, scriptless but game, in a rehearsal room in Toronto.  For Mbulelo Grootboom, a South African actor/co-creator who’s been in every incarnation, workshop, and touring production of Ubuntu, the attraction was “different cultures; how we’re similar, how we’re different: the interconnections.”

Andile Nebulane and Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

His cast-mate and fellow creator Andile Nebulane, another original member of the Ubuntu creative team, echoes the thought. “It’s the excitement of waiting to see what’s going to come out when we co-operate and collectively create, starting with a blank page. You don’t know what to prep; you just get there first day, you have this bunch of creatives in a room, and the aim is to end up with a play!”

What happened, grins director Cloran, was a study in cultural  contrasts. Canadians hauled out pen and paper, and prepared to take notes. “These guys start dancing, moving,” he says affectionately of the South Africans. “They get up!” 

Grootboom and Nebulane laugh. “Africans are, naturally, physically expressive people,” says the former. “Canadians come from the head first, then the body will follow.”

“For me personally,” says Nebulane (whose English, incidentally, is excellent, with a poetic flair), “it’s rooted in a language barrier. You’re in a room, and you have to make sense in English, which is my third language. I know exactly what I want to express, but I cannot explain in words. So, let’s do it!”

“Our characters came from that, from improv,” he says. And so did the story. The narrative, Cloran explains, happens in two time periods, 30 years apart. “A young South African’s father left him when he was a year old. Now that he’s 30 the son comes to Canada to find his father. And when he gets here, the mystery surrounding his father’s departure starts to unravel.”

“It becomes very much about identity and belonging and family, our connections to each other across the globe, the idea of ubuntu that a person is a person through other persons, how much people are entwined in each other’s lives….”

Andile Nebulane and Eric Goulem in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

Grootboom, who plays the father Philani, says the character “came from the body first,” and from “personal experience” of a fractured family that is the dramatic engine of Ubuntu. “You don’t have a script so you have to tap on yourself…. And it’s a universal thing: we all have dysfunctional families. We all have our baggage, our skeletons….”

“At one point we had seven hours of material,” says Nebulane, who plays the son Jabba, whose quest for a long-lost father takes him across the world. “You have to be truthful, and not precious, about your creativity. A lot was stripped away. So you can’t be saying ‘Oh no! It took me 20 minutes to create this monologue and now it’s gone!’”

Time has passed since Ubuntu premiered at Tarragon in 2009. Cloran has a tangible reminder of that: “Our now nine-year-old son was six months old when we did it; we have a picture of him sitting on one of the suitcases of the set….”

In 2012, while Cloran was artistic director of Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre, Ubuntu toured the West. Except for Grootboom and Nebulane, other members of the original collective, including Cloran’s actor wife Holly Lewis, have come, left for other projects, returned, left again. One of the originals, David Jansen, is back for the Edmonton production. 

Tracey Power and Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

“Partly because of the strength of the African performers, this is a very physical show. For the first 20 minutes, there’s almost no dialogue. There’s a lot of movement and the scenes that do have dialogue are entirely in Xhosa. So it (invites) very physical storytelling…. Watching it now in rehearsal, I’m struck by how layered it’s become over the years, how many great ideas we discovered as we began to know each other, each other’s beliefs and ways of telling a story.”

For Nebulane, the cross-cultural collaboration that created Ubuntu is inseparable from its point. “The process of making the play actually IS the play. How it was created is exactly what the play is talking about.”

And it’s not as if its insights into the immigrant experience have been dulled by time. Au contraire. “What’s happening in the world is so painful,” sighs M. “The fear of the other, the unknown: the play explores that…. Because America is the most powerful system in the world, whatever happens there trickles down through the world….” 

“I don’t see Ubuntu aging,” says Nebulane. “This is a play of a lifetime. Any time, anywhere, anyone can relate.. It’s about breaking walls and the bubbles that people are living in. Sometimes I’m backstage, listening for my cue. And I think ‘Wow! How did we come up with THAT?’”


Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project

Theatre: Citadel/ Prairie Theatre Exchange

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Mbulelo Grootboom, Andile Nebulane, Erin McMcGrath, Tracey Power, David Jansen

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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The sounds of silence: What It Is brings The Aliens to the Roxy

Chris W. Cook, Michael Vetsch, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Sunday crack of noon on a harsh fall day. Four guys, slightly bleary and hoping coffee will change that, are sitting around talking in a chilly theatre.   

The director and cast of The Aliens, verbal high-achievers all, are getting themselves ready for a day rehearsing a piece where, as the playwright’s stage directions indicate up front, “at least a third — if not half — is silence.”

The play is Annie Baker’s The Aliens. And the three characters in this funny, minutely observant 2010 breakthrough play by the much-awarded young American playwright — a couple of 30-ish guys and later a 17-year-old high school kid hanging out behind a small-town coffee shop — probably don’t speak a single complete sentence before trailing off into pauses that, as prescribed, “should be at least three full seconds long.” With “silences that should last from five to 10 seconds” with further extensions as needed.

This has taken some getting used to, say the three actors in Taylor Chadwick’s What It Is production opening in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series Thursday.

“You say something, you wait for 30 seconds, you say something again,” grins Chris W. Cook. He plays KJ, who seems to have been hanging out behind the coffee shop with his friend Jasper ever since they didn’t graduate from college. “It doesn’t seem like it should work. But it makes sense; it just takes a while to get it into your body just how much of it is communicated without speaking….”

Evan Hall, who plays Jasper, laughs in sympathy, along with Michael Vetsch, who plays the kid Evan (a double-Evan confusion that has led to Chadwick regularly mixing up acting and character names). “Living through those! Onstage 10 seconds  feels like an eternity…. so uncomfortable, so awkward until you’e done it a few times. I’d start to hold my breath….

Director Chadwick, who has a comradely rapport with his trio of rising Edmonton stars, nods vigorously. “A lot of waiting! A lot of laughter comes from that…. They’re just staring at each other. And we’re making people watch!” (laughter from all).

Chris W. Cook, Michael Vetsch, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by dbphotographics.

“In rehearsals we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s really going on. In some of the scenes, especially later on, the silences say more (than the words) about the questions being asked.”

Cook, who partners with Chadwick in the What It Is arts podcasts (and has appeared in Chadwick’s revival of the raucous black comedy Nighthawk Rules), cites the stage directions at the top of Act II which indicate that KJ “sits by himself, thinking. He sits by himself for a long time. This should be at least 20 seconds. Finally he says ‘If P then Q’.”

“Usually you take 90 per cent of the stage directions and keep 10. Just the opposite here…. When we’ve struggled, and then gone back to the stage directions, we’re, like ‘let’s try this! Why did we try anything else?’”

Chadwick, Theatre Network’s marketing director, says “Annie Baker has created such a strong map of how to get through the play — the stage directions, the punctation, the costumes, what the set looks like, all very specific!” After an early read-through he remembers telling the actors “guys, if we don’t fuck this up, it’s going to be pretty great. All the pieces are there….”

Chris W. Cook in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

Chadwick muses on his choice of this mysteriously engaging play, with its smart but inarticulate, stalled characters. “It really spoke to me: it’s a play about working through tough parts of your life. And it’s also about discovery, about characters who fail and succeed. And it doesn’t put any judgment on them…. It’s about loneliness.  It’s a snapshot of life. Characters are never talking about one thing; they’re talking about several different things….”

“When I read the play I saw opportunities for actors to work on something really rich. And I wanted to challenge myself…. I just knew I was interested in finding out what was at the core of it.” 

Says Hall, “there’s a reason people keep doing this play about three white men, in a world’s that’s trying to move away and diversify from that. There’s something universally engaging.”

Cook grew up in Camrose, a town roughly the size of Baker’s fictional Vermont town of Shirley (for which she’s created a startlingly detailed history elsewhere). And he had an instant glimmer of recognition. “So many things in common,” Cook says. “I know so many people who are just like this…. I could go back to town and it’d be ‘hey, man!’: the same people would still be hanging out in the same spot….”

Evan, the awkward coffee shop employee who stumbles on the KJ/Jasper scene as he takes the recycle out back, is “in a constant state of humiliation,” as the play memorably describes him. “There are aspects of him I can find within myself,” grins Vetsch, a 2014 MacEwan grad who caught Chadwick’s eye in Nextfest productions. I remember times when I was lonely, or I didn’t quite fit in. These guys are a new experience for him. It shifts everything….”

“My breakthrough day with Jasper,” says Hall, “was the day I realized how desperately he needs other people. These are three people who aren’t just (casual) friends or guys who hang out. They need each other; they don’t have someone else….”

Cook echoes the thought. In a play laced with original songs — KJ and Jasper have been in a band — and a chunk of Jasper’s Bukowski-esque novel, “it’s about people wanting to be heard,” he thinks. “From the outside, their lives seem to be going nowhere. But both of them are creating things they need to put out there,”  even if the audience is only each other.

Hall, who made his directing debut this past Fringe with A Quiet Place (and appeared in Gruesome Playground Injuries), had to learn the guitar, pretty much from scratch, for The Aliens. “I wouldn’t say I play the guitar,” he demurs modestly. “I play a particular song.”

The Frogmen is a strange rhyme-laden offering. “It’s catchy; the other ones aren’t and I sing them a cappella. They’re so interesting, so lyrically rich. They don’t make sense all the time but you can make sense of them. One is math equations….”

Learning fragmentary lines interlaced with lengthy silences hasn’t been as arduous as you might predict. The four agree on that, though they add that being together makes things a lot easier than solitary practice at home. “A lot of the learning has come from doing scenes over and over, just listening to each other. And it’s come really naturally,” says Chadwick.

“All the silences are so charged with the thoughts of the characters that trying to run lines without fully feeling through the moments is hard,” says Vetch. After a certain interval, at least at first, the actorly instinct is that someone’s forgotten a line. “And it’s no no no,” laughs Vetsch. “I’m supposed to wait this long!”

“The thoughts feel full,” says Hall. “It has a natural flow,” says Cook. “It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever got to work on. And it’s so simple. It’s her writing that turns it into something more.”

Chadwick smiles. “Let’s just let it breathe and come naturally.”


The Aliens

Theatre: What It Is Productions

Written by: Annie Baker

Directed by: Taylor Chadwick

Starring: Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall, Michael Vetch

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

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatre network.ca




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