Abandon your grinch, all ye who enter here: holiday shows on E-town stages this week

Paul Morgan Donald and Leona Brausen in It’s A Wonderful Life, Grindstone Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Give yourself a holiday treat this week. This week on E-town stages, you can feel the holiday spirit in a live radio play (It’s A Wonderful Life), a Christmas panto (Little Red Riding Hood), or a play (Oh! Christmas Tree, A Christmas Carol, The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever!). (Note to self: This is not the moment to be jaded about the holiday season, aural battering by Mariah Carey at the mall notwithstanding. And I have put my morbid interpretation of Frosty The Snowman on hold till January.) 

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THE LIVE RADIO PLAY: At the Grindstone Theatre in Strathcona, where cozy is a given, the Whyte Avenue Players return us to a bona fide Christmas classic — a seasonal counterpart to the Victorian skinflint and his ghostly late-night tutors.

A Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, the decent small-town Little Guy snatched from despair in the nick of time on Christmas Eve by a guided tour through his own past.

“You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you,” says Clarence Oddbody ASC (angel second class) in the Philip Van Doren Stern story. George can’t seem to catch a break with his life, his hopes, his dreams. He’s been cornered by a non-stop barrage of petty cruelties, commitments, and compromises. Which is why he finds himself on a bridge ready to jump until Clarence, a wingless guardian angel, takes on his case.

The most famous incarnation of It’s A Wonderful Life is the 1946 Frank Capra film, which started slow (with middling reviews) en route to hit status. In the live radio stage version (adapted by Tony Palermo), you get to see the music and the sound effects being created live, by characters in full costume. In the production co-directed by Davina Stewart and the Grindstone’s Byron Trevor Martin, Tom Edwards and Andrea House are in the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed roles as George and Mary Bailey, with Paul Morgan Donald as Clarence. The cast also includes Colin Matty, Leona Brausen and Lee Boyes as the Bedford Falls townsfolks, with Daniel Belland at the keyboard.

It’s A Wonderful Life runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Grindstone (10019 81 Ave.). Tickets: grindstonetheatre.ca or at the door.

THE CHRISTMAS PANTO: Fort Edmonton’s vintage Capitol Theatre returns us for the fifth straight season to another sort of holiday classic, the panto. That eccentric English invention is a riotous  family entertainment which plunders a fairy tale shamelessly, laces it liberally with dumb jokes, songs, local references — and invites the audience to cheer the goodies and boo the baddies.

This year’s edition is Little Red Riding Hood, adapted and directed by Dana Andersen. The production stars Madelaine Knight as Little Red, an aspirational singer-songwriter (she wants to be a house concert star), and and Davina Stewart as the Wolf.

Andersen’s cast includes Melissa MacPherson and Geoff Halaby (as Mom and Grandma, the pizza guy, a story clerk, and a beach boy at Accidental Beach). You’ll hear allusions to Mill Woods and the river valley float by. The original music is by Aaron Macri.

Stewart reports that the kids in the audience have been particularly outraged by Little Red’s wayward behaviour on her journey to Grandma’s house. “What are you doing!?” screamed one little girl. “If you’d have listened to me, you wouldn’t be in this mess!” 

Little Red Riding Hood runs through Dec. 31 at the Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park. Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca.

THE PLAY(S):

Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

•At the Roxy on Gateway, Oh! Christmas Tree is a new Conni Massing romantic comedy in which a marriage-bound relationship comes smack up against a classic obstacle to happiness: she really really gets into Christmas in all of its decorative family traditions; he really really doesn’t. Ergo, the tree is highly contentious. Designer Marissa Kochanski serves up a hilarious design, full of sight gags. Brian Deedrick’s production, which runs through Sunday, stars real-life couple Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle. Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca or TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). 12thnight.ca talked to the playwright (read it here), and to the actors (read it here). And there’s a 12thnight.ca guest REVIEW by Todd Babiak, too, here.

•At the Citadel, the time is drawing nigh for the 19th (and final) return of Tom Wood’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. A wonderful production originally directed by Bob Baker, and directed for the past several years by Wayne Paquette, it stars Julien Arnold (a former Bob Cratchit) as the frozen-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge, with Jeremy Baumung as Jacob Marley, and Mat Busby as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. It runs through Sunday. Next year, a new adaptation. 12thnight.ca looked back on 19 seasons of the show (have a peek here). And read the REVIEW here

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

•At the Backstage Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns), The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever chronicles the fortunes of the annual small-town pageant when auditions are invaded by the dread Herdmans, “the worst kids in school.” Whizgiggling’s production runs through Sunday. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca or at the door).    

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Hanging our obsessions on the tannenbaum: Oh! Christmas Tree. A guest review by Todd Babiak

Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Todd Babiak

Those who love Christmas tend to have trouble empathizing with those who — for no solid religious or cultural reasons — don’t feel it. From Charlie Brown and The Grinch to Ebenezer Scrooge and the incontinent drunk of Bad Santa, encouraging them to get with the yuletide program is a deep mine for entertainers.

In Oh! Christmas Tree playwright Conni Massing gives us Algar, played by Collin Doyle, a decent and loving man committed to hating Christmas. When he moves in with his girlfriend Lucy, played by his real-life partner Lora Brovold, and she breaks out the Christmas sweaters on the first of November, they both realize something: maybe, just maybe, there’s a problem.

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Director Brian Deedrick keeps a lovely balance between light and dark, the twinkling tinsel and the shadowy hatchet. The core of the play is what we keep below the surface so we can enjoy that evening glass of wine together, and what we’re forced to confront. In this case: when are we getting a Christmas tree?

Massing makes a symbol and a cipher of the tree. It’s where we hang our obsessions, our nostalgia, even our quiet pain. Lucy needs her tree to get through an otherwise stressful season as an event planner, to feel that special feeling. Algar would prefer to either run away from it or, if possible, spend the holidays in his underwear with some video games.

The story meanders a bit, and some of the scenes hit the same bell. Once we understand we’re waiting for the couple’s inevitable confrontation we find ourselves mentally fast-forwarding to it. But Deedrick keeps Oh! Christmas Tree moving quickly, and Brovold and Doyle have a lot of fun veering from kind understanding to roaring misery and back again.

Lucy has a large, Christmas-blissed Scandinavian family and a nosy spiritual leader in Pastor Larson, whose on-stage representation harkens back to the parents in a Peanuts holiday special: honking. Some of the funniest moments in the play come from the essential humour in the sound of a Northern European language; we feel a bit guilty laughing at the expense of a piqued Swede, simply expressing herself. Doyle has fun as a crusading, anti-materialist teacher. If he can’t be emotionally honest with Lucy, at least he can persuade his students to burn their presents.

Every Christmas story is some version of a conversion miracle. Everything must change for Lucy and Algar, and it does. Massing avoids all of the easy routes available to the holiday playwright and rings our bells more subtly.

Oh! Christmas Tree

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Brian Deedrick

Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

 

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Merry Merry quite contrary: the Christmas spirit up against resistance, 4 festive shows on E-town stages this week

The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever! Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Merry Merry quite contrary. Some are born with the festive spirit; some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon ’em. And sometimes, as you know, seasonal high spirits have to be released (or wrestled down) against resistance.  Friction is theatrical Red Bull. Here are four possibilities for your holiday entertainment on E-town stages this week. 

Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Dana Rayment.

Oh! Christmas Tree, a new Conni Massing comedy opening tonight at the Roxy on Gateway, a relationship is under extreme pressure. Lucy and Algar find themselves on the opposite sides of a yawning gulf: one is Christmas-crazy, one is not, very not. What are their marital prospects? 12thnight.ca had the fun of talking to the playwright (read that here), and to the real-life couple, Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, who star (read it here).  Brian Deedrick’s production runs in the Roxy Performance Series through Dec. 23. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-425-1820, tixonthesquare.ca)

•You want drama? The holiday season would not feel in any way complete without a foray into the fraught world of the amateur theatrical. It reaches peak stress levels with the small-town Christmas pageant.

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 That’s the setting for The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant…Ever!. Whizgiggling Productions (the Edmonton indie theatre irresistibly named for the Newfoundland term for “acting silly and foolish”) takes us once more backstage on the Rock, Canada’s eastern-most and arguably most flavour-ful province. It’s the ninth annual incarnation of this riotous show, culled from a much-loved Barbara Robinson novel.

When the usual director of the Christmas pageant is out of commission, due to an unfortunate run-in with a moose, poor Mrs. O’Brien has taken the reins. The annual auditions have been overrun by “the worst kids in school,” the Herdmans, attracted by rumours of snacks. Not only are they utterly stumped by the pageant plot — “Mary ties him and shoves him in a feedbox?! Where was Child Welfare?” — these born-again thesps are after all the best parts.

What will happen to the Christmas spirit under the circumstances?

The production, which has found a new home this year at the Backstage Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns), stars Kayla Gorman, Natalie Czar Gummer, Cheryl Jameson, Eric Smith, Lindsey Walker and Michael Vetsch. It runs tonight and Friday, plus Dec. 18 to 23. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca), or at the door.

A Hudson’s Bay Story, a seasonal Stewart Lemoine playlet, returns to the stage Friday and Saturday as Teatro La Quindicina’s part in BE Merry, a two-night Ballet Edmonton holiday entertainment at the Varscona. In A Hudson’s Bay Story, a disgruntled Bay menswear sales associate enters into fractious serial email exchanges to register his complaint with a woman in Toronto head office. His grievance? the inclusion of a certain carol in the store’s pre-opening music for the holiday season early shifts. Victor Morrison has his reasons, I assure you. I leave you to discuss amongst yourselves, and lay wagers, which carol it is. Jeff Haslam reprises the role. 

BE Merry embeds the Lemoine playlet in an evening of festive music and dance. The latter is seven short pieces set to holiday music and choreographed by company dancers. Ballet Edmonton’s executive director Sheri Somerville hosts. And as a Christmas bonus, she’ll be singing, along with fellow Teatro stars Jocelyn Ahlf and Andrea House.

BE Merry runs at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) Friday and Saturday. Tickets: tickets.balletedmonton.ca or at the door.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

•If you haven’t seen the repertoire’s most famous skinflint reclaimed for the world of human connections yet this year, there’s still time. A Christmas Carol, the Citadel’s deluxe 19-season-old Tom Wood adaptation, runs till Dec. 23. It’s your last chance: next year, the theatre plans to mount a new version of the perennial Dickens tale of last-minute redemption. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com. 

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The double-optic on Christmas: meet the real-life couple starring in Oh! Christmas Tree

Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, the real-life couple who star in Oh! Christmas Tree, have a special rapport with the characters in Conni Massing’s new comedy (opening Thursday at Theatre Network), it’s not surprising. They’ve been together for 18 years. They’ve had three Christmases together.

The pair are amply qualified, therefore, to empathize with Lucy and Algar, whose relationship, marriage-bound, has foundered on an obstacle: Christmas, the celebration and family traditions thereof, and the symbolic centre of it all: the tree. 

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The playwright and the director (Brian Deedrick) are immoderately amused and delighted by their casting coup. “In real life, they have something of the dynamic” of Lucy and Algar, says Massing of the couple, who made their way to a Strathcona coffee emporium to chat last weekend. 

Moreover, for the theatre veterans to find themselves together onstage, for an entire play, and a Christmas play at that, defies history and probability in a striking way. They haven’t been onstage together for, well, years — 14, at least — since the premiere of Doyle and James Hamilton’s Nighthawk Rules at the Fringe of 2004, and, in a couple of fleeting scenes in Bedlam Theatre’s 25 Plays About Love a couple of years later.  “We value theatre,” says Brovold cheerfully. “But we value our relationship more.”

“Conni persuaded me to persuade Collin,” grins Brovold. “And I was successful!” She remains somewhat amazed by this recruitment. For one thing, she forgot to tell him about it. “When I get busy I think I’ve said things, but only in my head.” For another, Doyle, an award-winning playwright (The Mighty Carlins, Terry and the Dog), works full-time as a TV technician at Global, on the 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift.

“I had conditions,” he says. “I have to start at this time and finish at that time. I can only do five hours rehearsal, and I can’t start till 2 in the afternoon…. Just so you know when we start this I don’t have a life. Working, rehearsing, sleeping, that’s it.” He grins ruefully. “I didn’t factor in time for learning lines.” Brovold laughs. “No, it’s not a movement piece!”

Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

So here they are, against the odds, in the same city at Christmas, in the same Christmas play. And for once, Brovold, originally from Toronto, won’t be going back to her home town for Christmas as usual. She’s already feeling guilty. “My family have this incredible, unquestioned, expectation that I’ll always be home for Christmas,” she says. When I moved away to go to university (the U of A theatre school), I’d always go back, and they built this rhythm into their lives.… It’s become a ritual for them.” To make matters worse, her brother, an RCMP officer, will be in Nunavut.

Last time Brovold wasn’t home for Christmas, her mom phoned “every two hours on Christmas Day.” Doyle could hear the ruckus. “My mom was crying, my dad was yelling, my brother left the house…. Collin says it’s because I wasn’t there to do peace-keeping.”

“Lora’s family is great,” says Doyle. “Until you get them together in the same room. They feel they should be together at Christmas, but no one gets along.”

In the fraught realm of Christmas traditions, Brovold’s are exhausting. Her usual practice is “to spend Christmas Eve with Collin, then fly home at some crazy hour and get there Christmas morning, and then be back here for New Year’s Eve.” 

Doyle stays here. For one thing, there are nieces and nephews, his brother’s kids. For another,work. “When I was a waiter or someone part-time, a week off was me not making any money, and we had none! Now it’s not wanting to take a week of my vacation….” Brovold teases. “I thought you said you don’t feel like spending Christmas Day hanging out with my dad in his underwear….There’s no cable, only three channels of fuzzy movies. They like to talk and snack. And Collin likes to read books.”

“There’s nowhere to escape to,” sighs Doyle. The Doyle Christmases have a pattern, too, but “it’s pretty laid back in comparison.” On Christmas Day, he has breakfast with his parents and his sister, then on to his brother’s place to open presents with the kids, then supper. “It’s watching TV, drinking, eating.”

It is perhaps revealing that the first Brovold/Doyle Christmas together, in 2013, before they got married that summer, was, to cut to the chase, a bust. Brovold, in her element, got “a beautiful ham, with a recipe off the internet that was actually good.” Doyle was deathly ill, with pneumonia. At the fateful dinner hour, he staggered out of bed, and half a tin of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup later, returned to it.

“Why did I get such a big ham? What was I thinking?” says Brovold. “Christmas dinner is a meal on steroids….”

When you’re in a theatrical production sharing the stage with nine trees, it’s possible that the tannenbaum novelty might wear off by the 25th of December. Last weekend Brovold and Doyle didn’t have their tree up yet, but they will.

Brovold is adamant. “my first year of living in Edmonton, when I knew I’d really moved here, I bought a tree on Boxing Day…. I needed to know that I can have a tree during during December.” Her cats were small enough to sit on the branches. That tree is 15 years old now, “and no longer an environmental faux pas.”

“We do the traditional taking-down of the tree — in April,” says Doyle rolling his eyes. Says Brovold, “I aim for Valentine’s Day. But if I get busy, it might be Easter and time for the Resurrection.”

Thinking there was a shortage of photos of them together, one year Brovold took a photo of Doyle in the Citadel production of Wit and stuck it in a Christmas ornament on the tree, with a photo of her in another. His reaction? “What the hell is that? Get rid of it!” And his family reacted in similar fashion: “why are you on the tree?” Brovold laughs. “My family would be ‘awww, that’s so sweet, you guys on the tree together!’”

Yes, the Doyles do not seem to be a family awash in sentimentality. “If we’ve learned anything from The Mighty Carlins (Doyle’s very black comedy about a dysfunctional family reunion), it’s that,” says Brovold wryly. “Their sharing circle went so well!”

Brovold “loves shopping for people, giving little gifts, wrapping presents  so they’re a feast for the eyes.” The “sumptuous” is something that’s missing in our lives most of the time. Doyle is amused. “I have to appreciate the wrapping first….”

She does concede that festive rituals are largely self-generated, and pressurizing. “Even if we’re just hanging out, eating chopped vegetable and sour cream dip, and a cheese ball, it’s THE Christmas cheeseball…. What was happenstance at the time becomes a tradition. Because we did it once, suddenly it’s a thing.”

I didn’t dare ask whether Oh! Christmas Tree might be year #1 of a tradition.

Conni Massing talks to 12thnight.ca about the real-life inspiration for Oh! Christmas Tree. Read it here.

PREVIEW

Oh! Christmas Tree

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Brian Deedrick

Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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To tree or not to tree, that is the question: Conni Massing’s new comedy Oh! Christmas Tree at the Roxy

Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Dana Rayment.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Oh! Christmas Tree, the new Conni Massing romantic comedy that opens Thursday at Theatre Network, a relationship is under extreme pressure. Is it money? Snoring? Musical tastes? Lunatic relativies? Whether to acquire a shitsu?

No, my friends, this is serious. I return you to the the title of this, the second of two back-to-back Massing premieres this season (Workshop West’s Matara just closed) — and the festive tannenbaum. The play, part of the Roxy Performance Series, has to do with Christmas and the seasonal shrubbery, an evergreen situation so to speak — and a couple who’ve just moved in together, with impending marriage plans.  Lucy, the youngest of five sisters and a party-planner by trade, is from a close-knit Scandinavian family with elaborately energetic holiday traditions. Algar, a high school social studies teacher, is none of the above. His family lives across the country, and he likes it that way.

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Where on earth could such a theatrical inspiration have come from? Massing, a droll and effervescent sort with a wicked sense of humour, explains: real life. “Poor Bob,” she says of her  husband. “He’s quite introverted, and I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate having any part of our lives featured in drama. But (Oh! Christmas Tree) was actually inspired by our relationship….”

playwright Connie Massing. Photo supplied.

“I’m less Christmas-mad than I used to be. But when we first got together….” Massing drifts amiably into recollection. “So we move in together, and one day I say, ‘well, maybe we can get the tree this weekend…. And Bob said, ‘uh, do we have to?’.” It stopped Massing in her tracks.

“‘Well, yeah. We have to have a Christmas tree’. He was actually really hoping we wouldn’t have to go there…. I know eh?” Massing is still awestruck by this unexpected development. “OK, not life and death. But it felt pretty big, in the context of our lives together. Was this going to be A Thing?”

“For me,” she says feelingly, “the tree is the epicentre of Christmas…. I care more about the tree than the gifts under it, really.”

In the end, Massing prevailed and they got a tree. “I’m the baby of the family and used to getting my own way; Bob is a long-suffering oldest child. But I’m more grown-up than you might imagine,” Massing laughs. For the sake of the relationship she compromised on an artificial tree, though “it sort of pains me.” She heats pine oil in an incense burner to compensate.

Naturally, Lucy and Algar aren’t exact replicas of their real-life inspirations. “There’s probably more of me in Lucy than Bob in Algar,” says Massing. She’s “so tickled!” (“it’s always been my dream with this show”) that a real-life married couple stars in the production directed by Brian Deedrick, on loan from the opera world  for the occasion. You’ll meet Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in the 12thnight.ca companion piece to this article (read it here). 

“It’s one of my little theories about relationships,” says Massing, “that the thing that really draws you in a romance often has a flip side that you might not really care for when you get deeper into the exploration. The thought works its way into Oh! Christmas Tree, which began life as a 53-minute commission from Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre in 2012.

“The cheerful extroverted (aspect) of Lucy’s nature that Algar really fell in love with has a dark side, it turns out. And in the opposite direction, she loves his sardonic sense of humour. But there’s a flip side to that,” too. And it surfaces during the fa-la-la season when domestic friction really comes into its own.

Not least, Massing agrees, because there’s a kind of obligation to be happy, the unspoken cultural thought that “you’re kind of a fuck-up if you can’t get it up for Christmas.”

Agar is up against it in other ways, too. For one thing, as a teacher, he’s convinced that during the Yuletide season, “a slippery slope from Halloween,” the kids are “completely out of their minds.” Lucy’s line of work means that Christmas is her silly season.  “There she is, making hats for the Mr. Lube Christmas staff party, things like that. And she’s agreed to take on a Christmas Eve wedding.”

“She has a huge kooky close-knit family,” with inviolable Yuletide traditions, of an indeterminately Scandinavian nature. In this regard, Massing, who has four siblings, extrapolates a little from her own family life, adrenalized into overdrive at Christmas. “On top of everything else, by Nov. 30 we each had to buy 24 little presents, for each day of Advent, and write a little poem to accompany each present.” 

“I regress to my worst five-year-old self,” says Massing cheerfully of her personal Christmas avatar. “If I got more sleep and ate less shortbread…. Eating too much sugar is bad for people’s marriages.”

PREVIEW

Oh! Christmas Tree

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Brian Deedrick

Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Keeping Christmas in our hearts: A Christmas Carol to lift your spirits at the Citadel. A review

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge,Jeremy Baumung as Marley, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

For 19 years, Edmonton theatre audiences have had their own special answer, hand-delivered from the stage live and in person. It’s come to us in the Citadel’s theatrically lavish, emotionally rich production of A Christmas Carol.

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At its final opening night Thursday (the Citadel has announced its replacement next season by a new Christmas Carol), the sense of wonder that’s everywhere in the production conceived by playwright Tom Wood and director Bob Baker seized the audience and brought us collectively to our feet. It’s been a great run, a civic tradition that lives up to its name — a Christmas present that, unlike a pair of socks, actually lifts your spirits. You have till Dec. 23 to catch it.

Since I first saw the show in 2000, the world, arguably, has grown less hospitable, less charitable. And the journey of a frozen soul back from exile to the hearth of human connectedness, as set forth in Dickens’ iconic 1843 tale of redemption on Christmas Eve, is more heart-filling than ever.

What gives this production its special lustre?

To backtrack, the world repertoire is crammed with stage incarnations  — comedies, satires, melodramas — of Christmas Carol’s familiar seasonal story of salvaging a die-hard misanthrope. The gist of many is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an old curmudgeon in a really bad mood until, whee!, he’s in a really good mood.

I’ve sat through storybook theatre versions and/or actors divvying up the costumes they’ve just discovered in a trunk, and then doing the narrative bits chorally. Narrators in top-hats (and ersatz English accents) introducing the scenes: “I take you now to the humble home of Bob Cratchit….” Musicals with pop songs, or dance breaks, or audience participation carolling (sometimes with song sheets) to show we’re all in this together.

I remember writing after one particularly egregious example that you couldn’t help but feel a flicker of sympathy for the growly guy who eats low-cal by himself on Christmas Eve, and flatly refuses to go to his nephew’s place the next day for dinner and party games. That may well have been the same season I had one of my worst ideas ever, a “Bah! Humbug!” contest for the public. God help us, every one.

But I digress. I’ve had 19 opening nights now, to ponder this deluxe production. It’s inspiring to see the full resources of a major theatre and artists at the top of their game devote themselves to a story that, in other versions, is often reduced to a schematic seasonal entertainment. The ingenious theatricality of the production is in the unusual synchronicity of design (by Leslie Frankish, with Robert Thomson’s lighting and Michael Becker’s sound) and stagecraft.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Things aren’t just recounted; they happen onstage. Scrooge’s angry journey though the bustle of Dickensian London and his night of terrors, propelled by phantoms back and then forward in time, are set in motion by the cast themselves. They reconfigure lamp posts and staircases, in a design that opens, layer after layer, like a magic box.

The past, the present, and the future seem to cohabit one mind. In Wood’s adaptation, the word “change” permeates the air, from the obsequies of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley to Scrooge’s encounter with the chilling Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come and beyond, to the rebirth of a man on Christmas morning.

Since the initial run of Wood himself as Scrooge for the first 11 seasons of the production — an acidic humorist and connoisseur of human absurdity who’s rotted from within — every Scrooge has been individual and distinctive in personality and tone. Richard McMillan, James MacDonald, Glenn Nelson, John Wright, and now Julien Arnold (alternating with Nelson) have made the role their own.

Some performances (McMillan and MacDonald spring to mind) are chiselled from perma-frost. Arnold, who amazingly became Scrooge last season from being Bob Cratchit,  isn’t of the icy and withdrawn school of Scrooge-ism. The performance has a kind of furious exuberance about it; there’s something energetic, actively outgoing about the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” in this Scrooge. And the transmutation of that forcefulness into joy on Christmas morning is something to cherish. He’s irresistible.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The cast rises to the occasion. I’m singling out Sheldon Elter as the good-hearted Bob, Beth Graham as fierce and plucky Mrs. Cratchit, Mat Busby as Scrooge’s ever-cordial ever-hopeful nephew Fred, Oscar Derkx as the younger and gradually hardening Scrooge, Patricia Darbasie as Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber, Jeremy Baumung as the tortured ghost of Jacob Marley, Ashley Wright as the inherently celebratory Mr. Fezziwig. But the whole all-Edmonton ensemble, including Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim, is excellent.  Under Wayne Paquette’s direction, parallel scenes chez Cratchit and Fred, designed to reveal a similar festive spirit, inhabit the stage zestfully. The busy-ness of the stage never seems forced.

I wrote earlier this week about A Christmas Carol as a seminal event in Edmonton theatre, a labour of love where whole theatre careers have been forged (read it here). Thursday night, it was the shared experience of being in the audience, unlocking something precious, a sense of wonder. 

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

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Keeping Christmas in our hearts: A Christmas Carol to lift our spirits at the Citadel. A review.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge,Jeremy Baumung as Marley, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

For 19 years, Edmonton theatre audiences have had their own special answer, hand-delivered from the stage live and in person. It’s come to us in the Citadel’s theatrically lavish, emotionally rich production of A Christmas Carol.

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At its final opening night Thursday (the Citadel has announced its replacement next season by a new Christmas Carol), the sense of wonder that’s everywhere in the production conceived by playwright Tom Wood and director Bob Baker seized the audience and brought us collectively to our feet. It’s been a great run, a civic tradition that lives up to its name — a Christmas present that, unlike a pair of socks, actually lifts your spirits. You have till Dec. 23 to catch it.

Since I first saw the show in 2000, the world, arguably, has grown less hospitable, less charitable. And the journey of a frozen soul back from exile to the hearth of human connectedness, as set forth in Dickens’ iconic 1843 tale of redemption on Christmas Eve, is more heart-filling than ever.

What gives this production its special lustre?

To backtrack, the world repertoire is crammed with stage incarnations  — comedies, satires, melodramas — of Christmas Carol’s familiar seasonal story of salvaging a die-hard misanthrope. The gist of many is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an old curmudgeon in a really bad mood until, whee!, he’s in a really good mood.

I’ve sat through storybook theatre versions and/or actors divvying up the costumes they’ve just discovered in a trunk, and then doing the narrative bits chorally. Narrators in top-hats (and ersatz English accents) introducing the scenes: “I take you now to the humble home of Bob Cratchit….” Musicals with pop songs, or dance breaks, or audience participation carolling (sometimes with song sheets) to show we’re all in this together.

I remember writing after one particularly egregious example that you couldn’t help but feel a flicker of sympathy for the growly guy who eats low-cal by himself on Christmas Eve, and flatly refuses to go to his nephew’s place the next day for dinner and party games. That may well have been the same season I had one of my worst ideas ever, a “Bah! Humbug!” contest for the public. God help us, every one.

But I digress. I’ve had 19 opening nights now, to ponder this deluxe production. It’s inspiring to see the full resources of a major theatre and artists at the top of their game devote themselves to a story that, in other versions, is often reduced to a schematic seasonal entertainment. The ingenious theatricality of the production is in the unusual synchronicity of design (by Leslie Frankish, with Robert Thomson’s lighting and Michael Becker’s sound) and stagecraft.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Things aren’t just recounted; they happen onstage. Scrooge’s angry journey though the bustle of Dickensian London and his night of terrors, propelled by phantoms back and then forward in time, are set in motion by the cast themselves. They reconfigure lamp posts and staircases, in a design that opens, layer after layer, like a magic box.

The past, the present, and the future seem to cohabit one mind. In Wood’s adaptation, the word “change” permeates the air, from the obsequies of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley to Scrooge’s encounter with the chilling Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come and beyond, to the rebirth of a man on Christmas morning.

Since the initial run of Wood himself as Scrooge for the first 11 seasons of the production — an acidic humorist and connoisseur of human absurdity who’s rotted from within — every Scrooge has been individual and distinctive in personality and tone. Richard McMillan, James MacDonald, Glenn Nelson, John Wright, and now Julien Arnold (alternating with Nelson) have made the role their own.

Some performances (McMillan and MacDonald spring to mind) are chiselled from perma-frost. Arnold, who amazingly became Scrooge last season from being Bob Cratchit,  isn’t of the icy and withdrawn school of Scrooge-ism. The performance has a kind of furious exuberance about it; there’s something energetic, actively outgoing about the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” in this Scrooge. And the transmutation of that forcefulness into joy on Christmas morning is something to cherish. He’s irresistible.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The cast rises to the occasion. I’m singling out Sheldon Elter as the good-hearted Bob, Beth Graham as fierce and plucky Mrs. Cratchit, Mat Busby as Scrooge’s ever-cordial ever-hopeful nephew Fred, Oscar Derkx as the younger and gradually hardening Scrooge, Patricia Darbasie as Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber, Jeremy Baumung as the tortured ghost of Jacob Marley, Ashley Wright as the inherently celebratory Mr. Fezziwig. But the whole all-Edmonton ensemble, including Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim, is excellent.  Under Wayne Paquette’s direction, the parallel scenes chez Cratchit and Fred, designed to reveal a similar festive spirit, inhabit the stage zestfully. The busy-ness of the stage never seems forced.

I wrote earlier this week about A Christmas Carol as a seminal event in Edmonton theatre, a labour of love where whole theatre careers have been forged (read it here). Thursday night, it was the shared experience of being in the audience, releasing something precious, a sense of wonder. 

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

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“The season when abundance rejoices”: a splendid Christmas Carol retires at the Citadel after 19 seasons

Glenn Nelson as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Christmas, sir, is a cheat!” snaps Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge with a grimace of distaste that may strike a chord in your own soul — especially if you’ve done time in a mall, barraged by retail jollity and the seasonal oeuvre of Mariah Carey. 

For 18 seasons, the Citadel’s bountiful production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by actor/playwright Tom Wood and brought to the stage by director Bob Baker, has been a glorious counter-argument to Bah! Humbug!. And Edmonton has taken it to heart. 

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Thursday night is an historic event in the civic archive. It’s the 19th, and final, opening night of a production that has become a bona fide Christmas tradition in these parts. And it’s remarkable not only for its longevity but its thrilling theatrical ingenuity, its emotional complexity, its audience bonding. Next year, the Citadel plans to unveil a new adaptation of Dickens’ celebrated 1843 ghost story novella; that Christmas Carol Yet To Come remains shrouded in mystery.

When A Christmas Carol opened in December 2000 on the Citadel’s open, no-secrets Maclab thrust stage — a single urchin in a pool of light sings God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and vanishes —  Cheryl Hoover, stage manager at the time, now the Citadel’s Director of Production, was holding her breath. She didn’t exhale till intermission.

It was, is, after all, a huge show by any measure — “one of the most complex I’ve ever worked on, and one of the best,” says Hoover. The costumed cast of 39, nearly half of them kids ages seven to 15, are in perpetual motion. So is Leslie Frankish’s design, built entirely in-house. It looks like a vintage Victorian card. And it opens up like a magic Christmas box and then a snow globe, to reveal the world, indoors and out-, of an ossified misanthrope whose soul is reconstituted on Christmas Eve in a last-ditch intervention from the spirit world.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Street lamps and staircases are reconfigured constantly by half-lit “human manpower,” as Hoover says of the “150 scenery moves” in the show. They’re executed — in a  “choreographed dance” as Hoover puts it — as Mr. Scrooge stomps furiously through London’s crowded streets, past arcades of shops, from the chilly offices of Marley & Scrooge to his own bleak vaulted chambers. The journey orchestrated by the three ghosts takes the frozen-hearted Ebenezer back into his own past and the roots of his soulless avarice, and forward through space and time, even into the grave and back, in a swirl of dramatically escalating scenes.

Julien Arnold as Bob Cratchit. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

Hoover tots up the person-power. “it took about 100 wardrobe, wig- and facial hair makers, carpenters, prop builders, painters, electricians, audio (specialists), riggers and stage craftspeople to build the show,” including its 1500 costume pieces. And it takes a crew of 20 to run every performance, with its 750 sound and 250 lighting cues.

There’s music: the late Michael Becker’s cinematic soundscape of familiar carols filtering through an unearthly musical ether. There’s magic: Scrooge’s door knocker transforms into face of his late and unlamented parter Jacob Marley; his bell lifts off the table of its own volition. The magic is low-tech but tricky on a thrust stage where there’s no proscenium to hide behind. And there are ghosts who preside over Scrooge’s Christmas Eve reclamation for humanity.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by and starring Tom Wood. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

A Christmas Carol is so intricately put together that, in its premiere year, as Hoover reports, “it took us two hours to tech from the end of the opening scene” ( in which we’re watching Marley’s funeral through the fog) to lights-up in the next, a bustling scene of shoppers, vendors and street people — less than a minute in the play. When the show went into its first preview with an audience, “it was our first full run-through.”

“That night was my Christmas miracle,” says Hoover. Michelle Chan, then the assistant stage manager and now the Citadel’s resident S.M., echoes the thought. “It’s a feeling that I will never forget, and I still have that feeling on this show every year. There’s something truly magical and transformative about this production and how the audience reacts to it.”

Pulling it off with four weeks’ rehearsal that first year was a race against time and improbability. Naturally, there have been glitches: improv time in live theatre, and a test of stage managerial nerves.

At one first-year matinee, for example, someone “absent-mindedly plugged in something in the trap room…” says Hoover, “causing a power overload. So (Scrooge’s) bed coming out of the floor came to a halt midway rising out of the floor.” Oops.

Jeremy Baumung as Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

At one Year 2 performance, the ghost of Scrooge’s late and unlamented partner Marley couldn’t connect his harness to the rig that flies him magically out the window — as per Wood’s blithe stage direction “Marley lifts into the air and floats out the window.” So the actor, the late Larry Yachimec, had to walk off instead. He cleverly “exited into the closet door,” Hoover says. “Truly magical…. Problem-solving in an instant is one of the thrills of live theatre.”

Hoover remembers the time the cemetery scene ran over its own cable (en route to the stage) and abruptly halted. In the total blackness, one crew member rushed on, and tripped and rolled over another. “Keystone Kops,” says the imperturbable Hoover, watching on her infrared monitor.

James MacDonald as Ebenezer Scooge, A Christmas Carol. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

To say there’s a show-behind-the-show isn’t just a fanciful truism in a production as complicated as A Christmas Carol. In Year 6, a new sound operator arrived. To give the newcomer a fighting chance with the barrage of cues, Hoover remembers that Michelle Chan and head electrician Sheila Cleasby (who like Chan is a 19-year veteran of A Christmas Carol) “acted out the entire show so I could call all those sound cues for our new guy to practice.”   

Tom Wood as Scrooge. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

A long-run on the page makes a classic. A long-run on the stage — especially if it happens but once a year, with veterans, newcomers, and lots of kids (and growth spurts) — makes a classic crisis, potentially. Scrooge can get a year or two or seven older (“and not an hour richer,” as he points out acidly). But, face it, it just looks wrong if the Cratchit kids are college age. In 19 seasons of Christmas Carols, families of actors, and generations of kids, have grown up (many of them into acting careers) declaring ‘Merry Christmas!’ in November. And they’ve graduated to other roles in the show as they grew.

The Cratchits. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

Maralyn Ryan, who played Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber for 14 years, has been in A Christmas Carol with both her daughters Kate and Bridget Ryan, and her granddaughter Emma Wilmott. The Dowler-Coltmans, Jordan, Braydon and Tim, have occupied a range of Cratchit roles (this year Braydon is in the show as Joseph). The Cheladyn’s — dad Mitch and his two daughters Lea and Tatiana — were in the show together for years.

In 19 Christmas Carols, a small but distinguished coterie of actors has delivered ‘Bah, Humbug!’ from the Citadel stage. For the first 11 seasons, Wood himself was the flinty Ebenezer, “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone” and poster-boy for spiritual makeovers. It’s a big role (Scrooge is onstage for all but six minutes), and as fashioned by Wood the playwright, an unusually complex one, in an adaptation that’s all about the human capacity for change and redemption. As Hoover says, “if we are overjoyed to see that change in the ‘wake up’ scene, Scrooge has done his job. The message that it’s never too late is so important.”

Richard McMillan as Scrooge. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

The late Stratford and Tarragon star Richard McMillan took on the role in 2010 for a couple of seasons. James MacDonald, now the artistic director of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, was either Scrooge or Marley for six. John Wright has been a Citadel Scrooge. And as a startling testimonial to versatility, the production’s original Bob Cratchit, Julien Arnold, moved from that assignment as the big-hearted victim of Victorian injustice to the old skinflint himself. You’ll see him as Scrooge again this year (alternating with Glenn Nelson), with Sheldon Elter as Bob.

The Cratchit with the crutch might only be in three scenes and the finale of A Christmas Carol, but he does get the big showstopper line and the signature prop. Downside? he has to stay petit — small enough for Bob Cratchit to lift up onto his shoulder. Danielle Checknita at 11 was the first Tiny Tim, who graduated to “Numerous Boys” the next year, and “girl roles” after that. Emma Houghton, currently on the Citadel mainstage as the flighty Lydia in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, has been a Tiny Tim.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The first boy Tiny Tim was Ben Wheelwright, at 9, in 2002. He was the youngest of the Scrooges two years later, as well as Monkey Boy, assistant to the pawnbroker Old Joe, who ends up with Scrooge’s bed linen. These days Wheelwright is on Broadway, in the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and before that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

In the great arc of Citadel Christmas Carols, careers have been honed. Wayne Paquette, a 17-season veteran of the show, has been apprentice stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant director, and for the last two years, director.

For Michelle Chan, “it’s been so very important…. It was my very first show at the Citadel and I feel so proud to have been involved from the beginning. It has made me a stronger stage manager and I have developed some amazing friendships out of it…. It is always the start of my real Christmas season and it will hold a special place for me always.” As Hoover says, “how wonderful to know you are part of someone’s yearly tradition….”

“Tis the season when abundance rejoices,” says one Victorian worthy in A Christmas Carol. And abundant this production of A Christmas Carol has been. For that big, celebratory emotional experience, year after year, we’re grateful.

PREVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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It’s beginning to look a lot like …

Creatures of Impulse, Empress of Blandings Productions. Photo supplied.

Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s mistletoe, a tree, and an against-the-odds nerd romance in the delightful holiday show currently running at the Citadel.  Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, has taken the initiative on seasonal entertainments, by transplanting us in the evergreen Regency world of Jane Austen, with a modern “sequel” of sorts to Pride and Prejudice

And that is just the start. This is the week when the early signs are confirmed and unmistakeable: seasonal entertainments have arrived for your diversion (and for preventing you from decking your relatives instead of the halls).

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•Starting tonight, it’s Empress of Blandings’ version of Creatures of Impulse by W.S. Gilbert (yes, of G&S fame). It’s an 1871  farce (originally a musical) set in motion by the unwelcome tenure of a particularly problematic client at The Three Pigeons inn. She might be a bad fairy, which would certainly up the Trip Advisor ante.

A young indie collective with a bent for witty, original contemporary reinventions, Empress of Blandings returns to the scene trailing laughter, sold-out houses — and an archive of Fringe comedies including Molière’s The Flying Doctor; Onions and Garlic, an original musical fashioned from a traditional Jewish folktale; amazingly,a version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Creatures of Impulse, billed as “a Christmas romp for the whole family,” is the collective’s first foray into winter season. Celia Taylor’s production runs at Whitemud Crossing Public Library (4211 106 St.) tonight and Wednesday, 7 p.m.; Saturday (Dec. 8), 4 p.m.; Monday (Dec. 10), 7 p.m. Tickets: eventbrite.com or at the door. (Food Bank donations welcome).

Tom Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Wot!? The one that’s as big as me?! It’s the week when the Citadel’s wonderful production of A Christmas Carol returns to the Maclab stage for its 19th, and final, season.  Adapted by Tom Wood from the indelible Dickens novella of 1843, about a frozen-hearted man reclaimed for humanity by a ghostly intervention on Christmas Eve, Bob Baker’s production has been a venerable civic seasonal tradition for nearly two decades. It opens Thursday, and you have till Dec. 23 to see Julien Arnold, an erstwhile Bob Cratchit, as the flinty Ebenezer Scrooge.

Forget the hockey mantra ‘maybe next year’. The theatre company plans to retire this production, and next Yule season unveil a new Christmas Carol adaptation.

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com. Food Bank donations welcome. More from 12thnight.ca on this grand finale incarnation soon.

 

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Dreaming of home: Matara takes us to the zoo and a lone elephant, at Workshop West. A review.

Elinor Holt and Minister Faust in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This is her home. And we are her family.” 

That’s Karen the zookeeper (Elinor Holt) taking on protesters and talking about her charge, who’s big, exotic, fascinating — and languishing a world away from her ‘country of origin’. Matara is an elephant — no, the elephant — in a small, struggling zoo in a dark, wintry city with a river running through it.

And if you don’t recognize in that dramatic scenario the high-profile controversy about Lucy, the sole elephant aging into decrepitude in Edmonton’s Valley Zoo, well, you’ve been in ra-ra chamber of commerce meetings too long with the door closed.

The thorny idea of “home,” what it means, what it can legitimately claim to possess, what it plants in the heart, is everywhere in Conni Massing’s provocative, thoughtful, absorbing — and genuinely strange — new play Matara, directed by Tracy Carroll to launch Workshop West’s 40th anniversary season. Matara, the title character, is recently bereaved: her friend Cheerio, the zoo’s other elephant, has recently died. And since elephants are sociable animals who need the company — and in frozen exile, you’d think the consolation — of other elephants in order to thrive, the incipient tragedy attached to Matara’s elephantine solitude is the urgency that drives the play.

Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli in Matara, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Not that Matara’s human foster family, so to speak, in the “home” she’s had for decades, is inattentive or negligent. Au contraire. Karen is devoted, passionately, fiercely, unequivocally, to the elephant, to the exclusion of human relationships. Matara is her only friend. She converses with Matara; she advocates for Matara; she interprets Matara’s every footstep, every gesture of ear and trunk. “Are you dancing, my love? Is it a waltz?” She wonders at times if she’s “an alien.” She may have gone mad.

Holt, who stomps the stage in her rubber boots like someone testing the ground for a possible subterranean attack, is compelling in the role.

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As Karen explains at the outset, that protective empathy originated in the exposure to exotic animals that zoos deliver to kids. Karen’s defence of zoos will alter in the course of Matara, haven to prison. 

The zoo, for its part, is needy too. It needs its star attraction alive and healthy. It needs an audience, and funding, two related goals as every arts company in the country will understand. Enter Romney (Patricia Zentilli).

She’s a perky and beaming “corporative narrative consultant and fund-raising facilitator,” as she explains. Her gig is to put a positive spin on the zoo and “change public perception”  in the light of the elephant controversy and the Wild Watch protesters outside the gates.

Sending Matara to an elephant sanctuary would be a public relations, and revenue, disaster: look what happened to Ringling Brothers Circus when they got rid of the elephants, says Romney. She’s all about “good news stories” and “competing narratives” as she  launches a series of pr initiatives, like a “Perspectives on Nature” series, a solstice ball, a hilarious poetry contest. 

In Romney, Massing, who has a wickedly sharp ear for corporate-speak — “under-promise and over-deliver, that’s the rule in my business” — has created a juicy comic role. And Zentilli makes a meal of it, in a very funny performance that nails the glib cadence of spin-doctoring, and should make practitioners in every field wince a little.

Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

The third character, Marcel (Minister Faust), is the zoo night security guard, a PhD student far from home — someone completely outside Romney’s ken. As a survivor of the Rwandan genocide that claimed his family, he’s a solitary exilé, like Matara. He brings a perspective on human tragedy and displacement to a setting dominated by an animal tragedy and displacement. Struggling to adjust to his frigid new surroundings without judgment, he is, as Minister Faust’s performance captures, wary, bemused, and curious.

Romney has never seen wariness that she didn’t want to overcome and “cure,” or a reference to “instinct” she didn’t want to pursue. But it is perhaps a misstep for the play and production to take her dimness into out-and-out farcical territory in one scene with Marcel. We already know how little she understands what people, much less animals, are thinking. But the actors negotiate with aplomb.

Like Karen, Marcel has a relationship with nature. But he doesn’t talk to the elephant; he communes with the river, rising daily in the non-stop rain and sleet and snow. And his sense of an impending watery apocalypse gives Matara its strange, lyrical quality as it joins with the story of Noah and his boat-building venture in animal rescue.

As for Matara herself, the elephant is conjured in an ingeniously deconstructed low-tech creation — trunk, eyes, ears — by the combined forces of puppet designer Randall Fraser and sound designers Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil. She’s mysterious, unknowable, and moved onstage by human agency. 

In Carroll’s production, smartly, the zoo is the idea of captivity in a foreign world, imagined and not put onstage. The inhospitality of that world where wild animals have been relocated and detained is suggested by designer T. Erin Gruber’s creative collection of bars and umbrellas, across which projections play, with non-stop shafts of precipitation. Eerie pewter winter half-light, which we know so well here, is perfectly captured; you’ll want to give every living creature mitts. 

The multiple perspectives on zoos and our fascination with animals are admirably touched on in Matara. And the question is floated for our perusal: Can we legitimately ever say we “know” what’s best for an animal? Can we dream their dreams for them?

The issues are there. But there’s a strangeness, too, that gives the play its lustre. Matara is infiltrated by lyrical visions, the sense of loss, dreams, dreams-turned-nightmares. Home, in the end, is what haunts you, says Massing’s play. And at the zoo, we’re seeing strangers in a strange land.

REVIEW

Matara

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Elinor Holt, Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli

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

Running: through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-477-5955, workshopwest.org

  

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