Identity crisis in mascara and blush: The Look, streaming from Northern Light Theatre

Linda Grass in The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’m going to let you in on a secret, girls. Eyelashes are back,” advises Marilyn Miles, the original face of Estelle Cosmetics, in The Look.

Lashes may be back. Live in-person theatre (formerly known as ‘Tteatre’), alas, is not.  Which is why the solo play, a beauty culture satire by the Australian playwright/ screenwriter Alexa Wyatt, opens Friday in a debut digital streaming venture from Northern Light Theatre.

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“Stressful!” declares director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, NLT’s artistic director cheerfully of NLT’s “straight to video” move online for this second production of its 45th anniversary season, a quartet of shows devoted to showcasing the work of actresses of a certain age. “Twice as much work, to be honest…. A lot of things are out of my control and that’s challenging — at a time period when we’re all feeling that things are out of our control.”

If there ever was a play, though, that lends itself to being “reconceptualized” (as Schmidt puts it) for film, it might be The Look. “It’s a kind of TED Talk, a training video lecture for the young women who’ll be working the Estelle make-up counter,” says the director of the prophetic 1992 play, updated in details by the playwright for this North American premiere.

Linda Grass in The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The glamorous Marilyn (played by Linda Grass), the first “Estelle girl” who’s lived inside an identity forged in beauty and youth, “has aged out of being the Estelle super-model now.” Her career on the wane, she’s been relegated to training the new generation of Estelle beauties. Says Schmidt, “and as the play goes on, she digresses from the speech she’s prepared, to reminisce about her famous fantasy looks from the past. She shows us all the people she has been, she’s been created to be, in ad campaigns.…”

“We see them on the the giant screen behind her. And we see where she’s at now, emotionally, in the present. A bit unmoored…. She lets her guard down.”

In the course of her training talk, Marilyn is liberally applying layers of make-up, and we’re in the presence of an expert. As Grass puts it, “the more she puts on, the more she reveals” — of her real self and her identity crisis.

In the beauty industry, time is not on anyone’s side. Marilyn “has lost her sense of personal identity,” says Schmidt. And there are wider applications. “It happens to many women for various reasons at points in their lives.” He points to empty nest syndrome (“who am I if I’m not a mother?”) and relationship break-ups (“who am I if I’m not a girlfriend?”). For the protagonist of The Look, the question is “who am I when I’m no long seen as an object of beauty? What is my value? How do I fit into the world? Where do I get my validation now?”

“Her career has fizzled out,” says Grass, a favourite Schmidt leading lady. “And if your identity is all about your work, how easy is it to reinvent yourself when that happens? Her personality is tied up in her looks…. She tells the girls that wearing make-up lies at the very heart of her perception of herself. She knows who she is because she’s seen.”   

Almost from the time she relocated to Edmonton in the mid-‘90s from her home town of Regina, Grass,  amusing and genial in conversation, has starred in many Schmidt productions. Her fearlessness and affinity with the offbeat darkly comic muse of The Unconscious Collective, an indie-co-op of the time where many of Schmidt’s early pieces, like the monologue quartet Tales From The Hospital, premiered, made them ideal collaborators from the start, he says.

And Grass has the the resumé to prove it. It includes such off-centre comedies as Too Bad She’s A Big Ol’ Slut and Kiss My Asp!. In the wacky musical Congo Song, a cross-gender, cross-species comedy, she played the snake. At NLT, among other productions she starred in the The Beard (as Jean Harlow, in a cage made of swimsuit elastic in Schmidt’s theatre-in-the-round production), and as the teacher in Miss Margarida’s Way, a dark Brazilian satire about the limitless expansiveness of power.

Schmidt is fulsome. “I love working with her! Great sense of humour! No ego!”

Linda Grass in The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

For theatre artists the pandemical era is a test of flexibility (and survivability, that’s a word). We Had A Girl Before You, originally planned for the Studio Theatre in the TransAlta Arts Barns, had to be re-thought and re-designed (“on the same budget!” says Schmidt) when it was bumped to the much larger Westbury in November. Like Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, The Look was originally planned in a live cabaret format, with make-up mirrors and palettes at every table. When that proved impossible, NLT spent December considering options. “All of them, except film, included ‘cancel’. And we didn’t want to do that,” says Schmidt.

Ergo, the transmutation of a theatre into a film company. Filming The Look, says Schmidt, was “a whole new level of planning things out . two cameras, long shots, medium shots.…” The company received an AHS exemption to gather, with a minimal crew, in the Studio Theatre, masked and distanced, to shoot, during limited hours in the building.

The Look is not a movie, Schmidt emphasizes. “We don’t have the money for that; to try to deny the theatre roots of something is to fall short…. We are filming a play.” In April Something Unspoken, the third of NLT’s 2020-2021 shows, will be filmed for digital streaming too. “I’m still struggling to wrap my head around how we’ll do it.” Plans for the fourth anniversary production, The Ugly Duchess in the Westbury Theatre in May, depend on the state of the world by then.

Meanwhile, the timeliness of the play, after nearly three decades, hasn’t faded, says Schmidt. “It doesn’t say anything new…. It talks about the pressures on women in the beauty industry, and in a patriarchal society where women’s currency, sexual viability, is based on looks…. So, nothing new. But it’s interesting that we still need to (explore) it.”

In a way, he thinks, “COVID has done a good thing. A lot of people went gray, stopped colouring their hair…. We’ve become obsessed with youth, what’s new and emerging blah blah blah. We don’t have to be constantly chasing youth.”

PREVIEW

The Look

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Alexa Wyatt

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Linda Grass

Where: streamed from northernlighttheatre.com

Running: Jan. 22 to 24 and Jan. 28 to 31

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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Looking forward to 2021 in Edmonton theatre

Laura Raboud, Rochelle Laplante, Vincent Forcier in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

I know what you’re thinking.… The world has been so chaotic and unpredictable this past year that you’d have to be crazy to ink in a calendar of upcoming theatre events.     

But one thing that the shitstorm of 2020 has taught us is that theatre artists will find a way. In a performing arts industry devastated by the pandemic they’ve cancelled, postponed, planned, unplanned, re-planned, experimented; they’ve gone to extraordinary lengths. So we are, to put it mildly, looking forward to 2021. And why shouldn’t we? It’s bound to be a better year: hold that thought.

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To whet your appetite, here’s a selection of upcoming theatrical engagements that will happen, one way or another, or in ways yet unforeseen. Pencil them in; question marks hover over the dates.

And this, I need hardly add, is just a sampling, and a start: there will doubtless be more, created within ever-mutating parameters, as live theatre gradually returns to live-ness. Because unlike the government hypocrites that proclaim them whilst weasling out of them, theatre works creatively within the social contract.

Linda Grass, The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

•Northern Light Theatre’s season, which began in stellar fashion with a live November production (for a tiny, distanced, masked audience in the big Westbury theatre) of We Had A Girl Before You, continues January 22 to 31, this time online, with another solo show. The Look, a black comedy by the Australian playwright and screenwriter Alexa Wyatt, is about an aging woman, the former face of Estelle Cosmetics, charged with training her replacement. Linda Grass stars in the Trevor Schmidt production. The $30 streaming tickets are available at northernlighttheatre.com.

•The theme of the 9th annual SkirtsAfire Festival (March 4 to 14) might be a mantra for the times: The Distance Between Us. The mainstage production, Makings of a Voice by and starring singer-songwriter folk artist/musicologist Dana Wylie, is billed as a “theatrical song cycle,” spun from the creator’s unusual personal story. The production, directed by Vanessa Sabourin, marks the welcome return to theatre of Wylie, a charismatic presence onstage (I still remember her in a Tim Ryan production of the Jeanine Tesori musical Violet lo these many years) who left the world of theatre to be a folk/roots artist.

Dana Wylie in Makings of a Voice, SkirtsAfire Festival.

DRAFT #1,000: At Edmonton’s largest playhouse, the Citadel, resourceful artistic director Daryl Cloran has spent the last 10 months hoping, and then creatively reshuffling and re-scheduling his 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons, over and over (not to mention making a film version of the Citadel’s $1 million production of A Christmas Carol).

Will this be the year we finally get to see The Garneau Block, Belinda Cornish’s adaptation of the hit Todd Babiak novel, cancelled last March 13 after the last dress rehearsal? The answer is written (in pencil) in the stars. The set is currently gathering dust on the Maclab stage waiting for the doors to re-open.

The most current iteration of the plan is that it would be part of a “spring (2021) mini-series” of full-bodied productions originally programmed for the 2019-2020 season, along with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears (a collaboration between Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Arts,) and Erin Shields’ adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Helen Belay in Heaven, Citadel Theatre.

Meanwhile, the Citadel’s Horizon Series LIVE, a trio of small-cast shows which began with the heartwarming A Brimful of Asha (available for streaming through Jan. 10), is now an online venture. Mary’s Wedding, a Métis version of Stephen Massicotte’s Canadian classic by Tai Amy Grauman, is up for streaming till the end of January (see the 12thnight review HERE). Upcoming is Heaven, a new solo play by Calgary playwright Cheryl Foggo (John Ware Reimagined), set in Alberta’s Amber Valley, settled by  black pioneers from the southern U.S. in the early 20th century. Patricia Darbasie’s production stars the multi-talented Helen Belay.

ONLINE ADVENTURES AT Theatre Network: (a) Read and discuss: Theatre Network launches a new book club this month. When you sign up, you get a (free) copy of a Canadian play in the mail, thanks to Talon Books. Then you get to discuss it on Zoom with a star Edmonton playwright. First up is Darrin Hagen, leading a discussion of Michel Tremblay’s seminal Hosanna (Hagen starred in a 2015 Theatre Network production). Details await on February’s meet-up; it’s led by the sibling team of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal, who brought us Lake of the Strangers in 2019. Registration is free; donations are encouraged.

playwright Colleen Murphy

(b) Sneak previews: a quartet of new plays commissioned by Theatre Network, and destined for premieres at the new Roxy Theatre in 2022, get introduced to audiences first, in a monthly online Sunday afternoon series. Tune in to excerpts, playwright interviews, illustrations, music, design ideas perhaps — all depending on the play and what stage of development it’s at. Calgary-based Eugene Stickland’s new play, about the reclusive Saskatchewan-born abstract painter Agnes Martin, is first up. The series includes Joan Upside Down by Colleen Murphy (The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Armstrong’s War, Pig Girl), a new play by Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal, and Darrin Hagen’s much-awaited play about Edmonton’s infamous bath house raids.

GETTING ALL SHOOK UP: The Mayfield Dinner Theatre re-opens April 13 (through June 13) with Matt Cage’s One Night With The King (not a show about Henry VIII). Edmonton audiences will remember Cage, an award-winning Elvis tribute artist, from his Presley-ian contributions to the Mayfield’s excellent 2019 Million Dollar Quartet. A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline follows at the Mayfield in the summer.

Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s, 2009. Photo supplied.

•The Teatro La Quindicina summer season of Stewart Lemoine plays, originally planned for 2020, got punted by a full year to land on similar dates in 2021. It opens May 27 (through June 12) with a revival of Stewart Lemoine’s black comedy/ Hitchcock-ian thriller Evelyn Strange, surely the only offering of the season containing a scene set in a box at the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried. The season includes a homegrown musical about this place, Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s (July 8 to 24)); a new Lemoine comedy for Fringe time (Aug. 12 to 28); and a revival of Lemoine’s Fever-Land (Sept. 23 to Oct. 9). All but one of the four productions are directed by women: Shannon Blanchet, Kate Ryan, and Belinda Cornish.

•FESTIVALS! (“dost thou think because thou are virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”)

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Christina Nguyen in Much Ado About Nothing, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival, which cancelled its entire 32nd annual edition of alternating Shakespeares last summer, is back in Hawrelak Park June 15 to July 11, with those very plays: Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Garett Ross and Nadien Chu star in Macbeth, directed by Nancy McAlear. The company’s new artistic director Dave Horak directs Much Ado, with Bobbi Goddard and Mathew Hulshof as Beatrice and Benedick, and Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Christina Nguyen as Claudio and Hero.  Tickets are already on sale. The Heritage Amphitheatre, incidentally, is a 1,000-seat house: lots of room for distancing.

Nextfest, the influential multi-disciplinary showcase of emerging artists that figured out, on short notice, how to shift its massively complex self online in 2020, will happen, one way or another, June 3 to 13.  (They started inviting mainstage proposals in December.)

•Workshop West Playwrights Theatre has announced a spring premiere (date to be determined) for a new piece from the startlingly versatile actor/ playwright/ composer/ Guys in Disguise artistic director Darrin Hagen. It’s a story of falling in love with music.

•Punctuate! Theatre’s new Playwrights’ Unit brings together 15 theatre artists, of every ethnic background and experience, from across the country to create new plays while the world is imprisoned by COVID. Expect public readings from this diversity of talent in May.

•INTRIGUING NEW PARTNERSHIPS

The Shoe Project brings together the SkirtsAfire Festival and Workshop West Playwrights Theatre in the Edmonton chapter of a national project launched in 2011 to giving voices, through theatre, to immigrant and refugee women. Veteran Canadian playwright Conni Massing mentors women from around the globe; their storytelling prompt is a pair of shoes they have worn on journeys, often arduous, to new lives in this country. Public performances happen March 12 and 13, at (or possibly from) the Westbury Theatre.

The Shoe Project, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre and SkirtsAfire Festival

The SkirtsAfire festivities, designed to showcase the work of female artists, includes a collaboration with Edmonton Ballet. Body of Words is a multi-disciplinary work that includes Edmonton’s poet laureate Nisha Patel and spoken word artist Medicine Mathurin. It runs March 7, 8, and 14.

The new Roxy Theatre, in progress on 124th St.

A NEW THEATRE FOR A THEATRE TOWN: And as a grand finale, the new $12 million Roxy will open, late in 2021 — now, there’s a New Year’s Eve bash to anticipate! — on the footprint of Theatre Network’s 124th St. ex-cinema home, which burned to the ground in 2015. Not one but two theatre spaces, a 200-seat mainstage house and a 100-seat rehearsal hall/ studio theatre. Theatre Network will start equipping it this summer.

 

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Mary’s Wedding: inside Mary’s dream in a new Métis version of the classic, streaming from the Citadel. A review

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It is no surprise that the land acknowledgment at the outset of Mary’s Wedding, delivered by one of its characters, has a particular resonance in the Citadel production that opened its digital streaming run Dec. 22 (with the idea of running it live sometime “early in 2021”).

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The land, the sense of place and displacement, the need to belong, and the pull of home have extra weight and meaning in the Métis version of Stephen Massicotte’s much-travelled World War I romance. It’s been adapted from Massicotte’s war-time love story by Métis/ Cree/ Hausenosaunee playwright Tai Amy Grauman, who co-stars in Jenna Rodgers’ Citadel production opposite Cree actor/playwright Todd Houseman.

Grauman’s bright idea reimagines with Métis characters this bona fide Canadian classic (which premiered in Calgary in 2002 at Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival). It’s the story of young, mismatched prairie lovers separated by time, space, a vast ocean, the dark currents of history. The Canadian cultural frictions — Mary is from the colonial aristocracy as the daughter of British immigrants, Charlie a homegrown homespun prairie farm boy — bite more sharply when the characters are both Métis.

The reinvention includes a language divide to be overcome, too. Mary (Grauman) is from a “scrip” family (a system of farm land allowances designed to assimilate Métis families into the mainstream). Cree is a foreign language to her. The unschooled Charlie (Houseman), whose native language is Michif (a French/Cree hybrid), is from “a road allowance community.” Theirs is a hard-scrabble life on the margins of the margins, excluded from both First Nations reserves and white world.

Charlie’s only ticket to respectability and inclusion is … war. “I’ll be someone; I’ll be a Canadian….” When he leaves home and crosses the sea to be a soldier, it’s under the flag of a country and for a way of life that devalues him. The stakes are upped. It’s Houseman as Charlie who delivers the land acknowledgment at the start. And in light of the play to follow there’s a particularly heartbreaking remonstration in that.

This fluid, lyrical play is a dream, and a nightmare, and a haunting. And haunting, a weave of past and present, defines first love in Mary’s Wedding. We’re inside Mary’s dream the night before her wedding in 1920. And the play works in the non-linear the way dreams do, in loops of remembered moments that defy chronology and transcend location.

The charm of the lovers’ meetings, which involve them taking shelter in a barn from booming prairie thunderstorms, is counterpointed by the roar (sound designer: Dave Clarke) of scenes from the horrific overseas war. Charlie writes to Mary laboriously from the trenches, and his letters come alive. Sometimes Mary imagines herself as Charlie’s  sergeant Gordon Flowerdew, whose advice to the young soldier is prophetic. Avoid falling in love, says the Sarge. Or “you’ll see her in everyone, and everything you do.” Love, Mary’s Wedding tells us, is a kind of imaginative co-habitation.

Todd Houseman and Tai Amy Grauman in Mary’s Wedding, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah

Like memory, Brianna Kolybaba’s design, a slatted wooden installation, sits like a kind of alighted installation free-floating in the surrounding  darkness. When Mary or Charlie step out of the light, it’s into blackness; images flash into the foreground of the remembered past, then get replaced by others. Patrick Beagan’s dramatic lighting design plays along the palette between golden and pewter: the glow of remembered encounters back home and the black-and-white flashes of the scenes of war imagined by Mary.  The original fiddle music is by Kathleen Nisbet.  

Rodgers’ production was originally destined for live performance at the end of November on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage. When, three days before opening, that proved impossible, it was captured on video. That it’s self-evidently a theatrical production, and feels like theatre and not a film, is actually an apt metaphor for a “memory play,” a play that happens on the mind’s stage.

The performances in Rodgers’ production have an unexpected dynamic. Grauman’s as Mary has a sturdy kind of matter-of-fact earthiness that’s an original choice in the role. Dreaming herself into Charlie’s wartime experience, Mary can say “I am alone on the moon,” but she doesn’t seem to be by nature a wistful moon-y romantic. When Mary says “war begins, and I cannot do anything about it,” it’s clear that she’s someone accustomed to “doing.” Regret doesn’t come easily to her, even in a dream. She is no sentimental cliché of the girl that got left behind. And in the end I found the starchy resistance in Grauman’s performance touching in itself.

Houseman captures the appealingly awkward, tentative charm of the shy farm boy who can’t help wondering, in the corner of his mind, if he’s out of his league. “I’ve never seen the ocean before. But I’ve heard good things.” The only poem Charlie knows is Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, with its ultra-romantic defence of sacrificial valour: “into the valley of death rode the 600.” The implications stop Mary in her tracks. “That’s poetry, not real life….”

It’s striking how easily, and meaningfully, Grauman’s Métis adaptation slides into the framework of the original. I’d venture to say that no one anywhere has ever made it through Mary’s Wedding without Kleenex. This Métis version earns your tears in an enhanced way.

Check out 12thnight’s interview with actor/playwright Tai Amy Grauman here.

REVIEW

Mary’s Wedding

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Stephen Massicotte

Adapted by: Tai Amy Grauman

Directed by: Jenna Rodgers

Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman

Where: online via citadeltheatre.com

Running: through Jan. 31

Streaming passes: citadeltheatre.com

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A wish for the new year from 12thnight.ca

Happy New Year, theatre friends!

It was a year (was it only a year?) unimaginable in advance. A year of devastating losses and challenges for the performing arts. A year in which Edmonton’s valiant community of theatre-creators rose to the occasion in extraordinary, and inspiring, ways.

And through it all, dear readers, you’ve stuck with me, as I tried to remind theatre-lovers that 2020 wasn’t the final curtain, only a long and arduous detour, and a test of ingenuity and creativity. Suddenly (no, finally) it’s 2021, full of hope for the future and the return, however gradual, to live-ness of the live art form we love.

It’s the fourth anniversary of 12thnight.ca. And it’s a moment to thank you for your support and encouragement in continuing to covering theatre here, Edmonton’s most exciting and influential arts industry.

There’s no charge to subscribe to 12thnight. I hope you’ve enjoyed the content which is, so far, free. And I hope, too, that at the start of this new year, you’re up for chipping in a monthly amount (you choose the amount) to my Patreon campaign to help the 12thnight theatre coverage continue. Here’s the link: www.patreon.com/12thnight. Theatre people, the do-ers and the fans, know how to project: please do join me in this venture as a patron if you can. Spread the word!

To those who have already signed on as patrons, my deep gratitude for your support. It makes 12thnight possible. My new year’s resolution is to continue to provide as much theatre coverage as I can in feature articles, news, reviews. My mission is to be your guide to what’s happening on stages in this remarkable theatre town.

Meanwhile, here’s to health and  joyful times in a new year when we’ll all be together, excited by theatre in person, again.

  

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Giving 2020 the kiss-off (and welcoming 2021): how to be festive on New Year’s Eve

Vincent Forcier, Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish, Mat Hulshof in A Louis of a Party (2017), Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s entirely possible no one will see your party shoes. But if there was ever a New Year’s Eve to hoist a glass of bubbly and cheer loudly, it’s got to be this one. And it comes not a moment too soon: goodbye and good riddance to 2020.

Here are a couple of thoughts for a festive theatre boost on The Eve, as you give 2020 the boot and toast a better year to come. 

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Live theatre is shuttered into mid-January, and we can’t wait for its return. But the spirit of revelry lives on Teatro La Quindicina, a company with a 15-year tradition of living it up from the Varscona stage (and backstage too) on New Year’s Eve.

The centrepiece of the festivities for the last decade, at the top of Act II, is always a brand new original playlet of a half-hour duration or so, by Teatro resident playwright Stewart Lemoine. The cast, of anywhere from a dozen to two, eat real food and drink colourful cocktails onstage. And (gasp!) they’re apt to sing. Lemoine calls all of the above “the very pinnacle of pre-COVIDian decadence.”

Speed is of the essence in this Teatro new-year new-play tradition. The play is always written by Lemoine on Dec. 27 and 28. Rehearsals invariably commence at 11 a.m. on the 29th and continue up till the half-hour call on the 31st.

2020 hasn’t been kind to any of the above, needless to say. Teatro cancelled its entire 2020 summer season, and re-booked everything to 2021. But in honour of a defining tradition, the theatre will be posting three favourite scripts from New Year’s Eves past to its website (teatroq.com)  Dec. 31 — along with annotations by the playwright, cast memories, photos and even some rare video footage.

The trio of the chosen all, incidentally, have Edmonton settings. You’ll get to read The Ball of Ideas (2012) involves an impromptu wedding at a Hilton Garden Inn. An Invitation And A Map (2015) is set at a New Year’s Eve Party in Picture Butte, with an invasion by unexpected guests. A Louis of a Party (2017) is a celebratory New Year’s Eve divorce party for perfect strangers at the Chateau Louis. The scripts are available, free, through the first week in January. Donations, though, are welcomed in celebratory fashion.

Other theatrical possibilities:

Filming A Christmas Carol at the Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

The Citadel has two productions for streaming on New Year’s Eve. Dec. 31 is your last chance to catch the Citadel’s digital edition of its lavish light-filled production of A Christmas Carol, starring the great Ted Dykstra as the stone-hearted Mr. Scrooge. This year’s production — the second season of a new adaptation by David van Belle, set in the post-war world of 1949 — was filmed so Edmonton wouldn’t be Carol-less on this of all years, not after two decades. Streaming passes are at citadeltheatre.com. Check out the 12thnight review here.

And the Citadel is streaming its new Métis version of Mary’s Wedding, a prairie love story set against the backdrop of World War I. Cree/ Métis/ Haudenosaunee playwright Tai Amy Grauman, who co-stars with Todd Houseman, adapted Stephen Massicotte’s much travelled Canadian hit. The Citadel production runs through Jan. 31. Streaming passes: citadeltheatre.com. 12thnight interviewed Grauman; read it here.

Kendra Connor, producer of the Virtual Holiday Gala. Photo by Adam Kidd.

•The Varscona Theatre‘s first-ever Virtual Holiday Gala, a fun and festive affair (I know, I hoisted a glass at home, watching), continues online. You can have fun watching; I know I did. Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer host. Cocktails-for-one lesson provided. A variety of offerings from Varscona’s bright assortment of triple-threat artists. The commercials (including one for EPCOR, purveyor of the invaluable Heart + Soul Fun) are a hoot. Bonus: you get to hear Andrea House sing, outside with a remarkably attractive view of the Edmonton river valley behind her. Streaming is free (varsconatheatre.com); donations will be applauded loudly. Read about it here.

Byron Martin, artistic director of Grindstone Comedy Theatre.

•The Grindstone Comedy Theatre is holding over, for streaming, its Comedy Christmas Special till Dec. 31. Livestreamed on Christmas Day, the big-cast multi-disciplinary extravaganza (made possible by EPCOR’s Heart and Soul Fund) is hosted by comedian Kathleen McGee, with musical guests Aladean Kheroufi and the Royal Foundry. And know this. No expense has been spared: you’ll be seeing an outstanding Deena Hinshaw wig.

And this may ring your 2020 New Year’s Eve chimes: it comes with a “strong language, violence, and sexual themes” warning.

•Go shopping for a 2021 calendar, and make yourself smile and feel part of something: . YEG theatre’s “meme queens” — Sue Goberdhan and Luc Tellier — have been amusing themselves along with the rest of us, by creating personalized rhyming and punning Elf On The Shelf memes for Edmonton’s theatre people, posted on FB walls. Now there’s a compilation, in the form of a meme-crammed calendar.

Check it out here, and order one at paypal.me/memequeensyeg.

•Hip to the needs of “the new world order,” The Queen of Rationalization (Heather D. Swain aka Dr. Auntie Dote) is available for online consultation on New Year’s Eve. The Queen undertakes to rationalize all your dubious choices and bad behaviour of the year. Book a 15-minute reprieve from yourself : 780-222-2005.

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You’ve heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for … Edmonton’s Meme Queens

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You’ve heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for this….

Face it, 2020, a dumpster fire of a year, hasn’t given theatre people a lot to get happy about, creative though they are. But there’s just no telling what the kooky side effects might be when they have to stay home, up late with time on their hands (and even when they don’t), making their own fun.

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Theatre artists Luc Tellier and Sue Goberdhan know all about that. On a whim, for sheer amusement value, they’ve been custom-making punned, rhymed, personalized Elf on the Shelf memes for members of the E-town theatre community — and posting them on Facebook walls. And the theatre community is tickled.

“I was worried we were just being annoying,” laughs Goberdhan, the new co-artistic director (with Morgan Yamada) of Azimuth Theatre. Au contraire, “what we kept hearing (via a stream of texts and emails and calls) was ‘You’re saving 2020! We will get Christmas after all!’”

“We were overwhelmed by the response!” says actor/ director/ coach/ teacher Tellier, equally amazed and delighted by the escalating buzz. “People kept asking ‘where can we see all of them?” Which is why, by popular request , after 200 (and counting) of their funny, individualized memes, the pair are creating a compilation, in the form of a calendar, The Meme Queens Present: Tons of Puns for 2021. The graphic design by Goberdhan includes 130 or more of them.

And if you’re a theatre artist (or know one), or a theatre go-er or wannabe, or, hell, just an all-round playful Edmonton fan, you’re just going to have to buy one (30 bucks up front, pick-up in January).  Tellier calls it “a love letter to Edmonton theatre.”

“The stars aligned perfectly!” declares Goberdhan. So did the collective sense of humour. The original inspiration was the Instagram celeb trend spun from a 2005 Christmas kids’ book about a surveillance elf sent from North Pole to scout out the naughty or nice kids. It went viral. Movie star Reese Witherspoon, for example, posted a picture of herself with an image of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta dancing on her shoulder: “Grease on Reese.” It got a zillion hits.

Sue Goberdham, Sister Act II on a Girl Named Sue.

Goberdhan, an actor/ administrator/ activist with considerable indie theatre cred, spotted a photo of herself on Twitter, with an image of her smiling self with her all-time favourite movie Sister Act II (“the best movie ever made,” she insists) sitting on her shoulder. It takes some figuring out, but showbiz people are up for it. “Sister Act II on a girl named Sue,” of course. “It was the most joy I’ve felt the entire pandemic!” Goberdhan declares.

Some require insider knowledge of pronunciation, part of the fun. Take, for example, an image of actor/ playwright/ sketch comic Elena Belyea of Tiny Bear Jaws sitting on Tellier’s shoulder: “Belyea on a Tellier.”

And so it came to pass the Goberdhan and Tellier egged each other on. And “people loved it.” The first Elf on a Shelf Tellier posted on Facebook was “Tina on a Gina,” to wit Tina Turner on the shoulder of arts administrator/ stage manager Gina Puntil. “Alanis on a Janis”? Alanis Morisette on the NDP’s intrepid Janis Irwin. “It got thousands of Likes on Facebook,” says Tellier. One giddy thing led to another, more and more, the punnier the better, a veritable online carnival of free-associative wackiness.

Luc Tellier. Juke on a Luc.

“One of my favourite parts,” says Tellier, “is that neither of us ever made a decision to have a ‘project’….  It wasn’t till we were eyeballs deep into it, and people started reach out to us with suggestions” that the pair even realized they had one going. And it was a bona fide Edmonton theatre craze, a kind of group hug in a hug-less time.

“Suddenly I realized that with all the memes he’d made, no one had  made one of Luc,” says Goberdhan. Hence, a beaming image of him, a jukebox on his shoulder: “juke on a Luc.”

“I can’t sleep any more because I’ve got rhymes on the brain,” she laughs. “If it’s 4 a.m. and I think of something, I have to put it on my phone, or I’ll forget it.”

They’re both musical theatre triple-threats; they write and act; they’re instigators and activists. But somehow Tellier and Goberdhan didn’t meet doing a show. That story is pretty oddball, too. They were both pretending to be clients of up-and-coming lawyers.

And it’s not like they aren’t busy. Tellier is doing queer dramaturgy for MacEwan University’s upcoming (online) production of the big Sondheim musical your, now in rehearsal. He’s an arts educator at Jube School. Goberdhan is planning out her new Azimuth directorship. “I had COVID at one point,” she says. “And I still have residual effects, like brain fog…. Reading grant applications has been hard. But I can do this,” she says of theatre memes. It’s visual!”

“At the beginning it was really easy. Gecko on a Mieko,” says Tellier of their Mieko Ouchi meme. Another early fave is “Maquette on a Paquette,” with its set mock-up on the shoulder of director/stage manager Wayne Paquette, of Blarney Productions. And who will not smile to see “Clooney on a Mooney,” a meme shoulder tribute to Edmonton theatre legend Margaret Mooney?

Now the guessing game is getting trickier, sometimes more abstract, sometimes more specific. If you’re a Facebook friend of hers, check out actor/director Emma Houghton, with a tiny bear on her shoulder saying ‘I don’t know’.” It’s “Doubtin’ on a Houghton.” Sometimes the guesses are better than the original, says Goberdhan, of  “Dilemma on an Emma.” I’ll leave you to think about “Carousin’ on a Brausen.” (There’s a yours truly  meme too, and it’s a hoot).

“We’re approaching brain saturation,” Tellier laughs. “If this is what we can come up with by accident, imagine what we could do…” he trails off.  “We’ve stumbled on something that brings us together.”

And a time that’s been cruelly isolating for the Edmonton theatre community and artists who are, by profession and temperament, collaborators, has gotten warmer. “I miss everyone so much right now,” says Goberdhan.

Calendar orders: paypal.me/memequeensyeg.

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2020: the strange year in Edmonton theatre (what just happened here? part 2)

Robert Benz in The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2020 was the year that a beaming singer arrived on the Varscona stage, draped herself in a chair centrestage to deliver a torchy number. And the host (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) calmly strode over and threw a sheet over her head.

In Teatro La Quindicina’s live Welcome Home cabaret in November, Chariz Faulmino, one of the year’s brightest new musical theatre talents, just kept right on singing  — Come Rain Or Come Shine, which  might, incidentally, be a musical mantra of sorts for the plucky Edmonton theatre community this season.  Who knew that singing onstage would turn out to be red-alert dangerous, or that theatre would see the rise of the mask joke?

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But then, who knew a lot of things?

Here, then, is an assortment in no particular order of high- medium- and lowlights from a pandemical year in theatre.

Paradox of the year in theatre: “distanced intimacy.” The time-honoured theatrical notion of creating “an intimate experience” live has a lot to do with generating a crowd for a shared experience up close. This idea had to do a punishing back flip (with small theatre having the advantage over the larger houses). The Found Festival was the first here to try a drive-in “private viewing experience” like Chamber Obscura. Each outdoor scene in Workshop West’s Here There Be Night had one actor performing to an audience of one or two

The Free Willies, Billy Brown, Chariz Faulmino, Jameela McNeill. Photo supplied.

“Distanced intimacy” is closely related to “reverse marketing.” The Citadel, for example, had to figure out how not to sell 681 seats (only 100) to A Brimful of Ashes in the Shoctor Theatre. Free Willies, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s new chamber trio of touring players, didn’t promote their  guerrilla appearances, in case too many people actually showed up.

The rise of the monologue. Solo shows, long a Fringe specialty, entered the mainstream, even in online creations, in a new way in these isolating times. In Here There Be Night, Workshop West took monologues outdoors, a series of eight originals, in an adventure tour of Old Strathcona. Northern Light Theatre gave us Edmonton theatre’s most deluxe example of a monologue with We Had A Girl Before You, a complete, elaborately plotted, suspenseful homage to the Gothic romance — for a single actor (Kristin Johnston).

Gordie Lucius in Fringe Revue. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

The shocking moment we knew without a shadow of a doubt … that the pandemic had settled in for the long haul and changed everything: the cancellation in April of the Fringe, Edmonton’s great invention, a life-sustaining and truly international festival that for audiences defines the summer season and for theatre artists a focal point for their dreams, aspirations, and income.

Romeo and Juliet, The Shakespeare Company, Hit + Myth, Theatre Calgary. Screen shot.

On the plus side, in a year with a LOT of negatives: Connectivity and access. In  exile on digital platforms Edmonton theatre got wired, to the country and the big wide world.  Inter-city casting? No problem. I saw an inventive Calgary production of Romeo and Juliet (from Downstage and Theatre Calgary), with a cast divided among Edmonton and Calgary actors, and the characters communicating by text.  Inspired by isolation, The Izmores, a very funny web series about a marriage from hell, was created by Belinda Cornish in Edmonton and Ron Pederson in Toronto.

Ron Pederson and Belinda Cornish as The Izmores. Photo supplied.

If there had been no pandemical challenge to space and time, would I have gotten to watch Deer Woman, a barn-burner about justice from Calgary-based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan, this year’s Siminovitch Prize winner? Or a beautiful production by Toronto’s Crow Theatre of the Dave Malloy song cycle/ musical Ghost Quartet? Or Natasha Mumba’s remarkable performance in Acts of Faith at Toronto’s Factory Theatre? Or Elena Eli Belyea’s internet comedy The Jubilant, in its premiere at the University of Windsor? Or a hit Fringe festival circuit show, The Unrepentent Necrophile by the Brooklyn troupe The Coldharts?

Hailey Gillis (lighting by Patrick Lavender) in Ghost Quartet: In Concert. Photo: Crows Theatre.

The morphing of the Fringe: Fringe TV (previously a paradox in itself) was born. Chase Padgett’s bright idea of sustaining the life of hit Fringe shows became a web series, Digital Fringe, and you could buy a ticket. Jon Paterson’s Fringe LiveStream brought shows from everywhere directly to you, streamed live. It’s not the same, of course, since the Fringe by  very definition all about live jostle, not to mention the unmistakeable smell of green onion cakes and those heart-clogging mini-donuts. But it kept our imagination, and hopes, alive.

Graduate studies for video majors in the college of pandemical life: Yes, theatre on video did get better, thank god. Way better than the kind of deadening archival video footage that always makes live theatre look so bleak. Video was better edited, too. And multi-screen Zoom application actually got witty and playful (the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol has an amusing example, of carollers getting the boot from Mr. Scrooge). Actors tossed props from screen to screen, or “exited” one screen and “entered” another, which gave  staged readings — Steppenwolf Theatre’s Zoom version of Chekhov’s The Seagull for example — momentum and animation.

EPCOR’s initiative

Sponsorship initiative of the year: Kudos to EPCOR’s invaluable $1.25 million Heart + Soul, big in both. The fund was designed to support Edmonton’s hard-hit arts sector in adapting to video platforms with equipment or reconfiguring the theatre, or covering ruinous expenses, or creating something ingenious and new. We have all been beneficiaries of this enlightened venture.

Distancing as metaphor: In some ways the most successful pandemic productions on the online platform found resonances with themes like alienation, loneliness, isolation, maginalization, family dysfunction. Mac Brock’s Tracks (from the indie Amoris Projects) was one: nine personal stories about the essential loneliness of creating art, for an audience that can’t be seen, starring nine artists tracked to their home habitats where they performed, solo.

Chrysothemis by Meg Braem, at the U of A’s Studio Theatre.

Meg Braem’s Chrysothemis (which premiered at the U of A’s Studio Theatre online), was another. The family that’s spread out so strikingly at the dinner table is the spectacularly dysfunctional House of Atreus (no wonder no one’s passing the gravy).

Northern Light unleashed We Had A Girl Before you in a big dark theatre (the 300-seat Westbury) for an audience of less than 20. We sat alone, far apart, in the eerie black with only a bank of candles to light the stage — just like the solitary heroine up against it. The storied Old Vic in London ran a series of solo and small-cast plays live to an audience of zero; I saw Three Kings, a stunning Stephen Beresford solo play about a father-son estrangement, starring Andrew Scott onstage in the completely dark theatre.

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix) at home. Photo supplied.

Most improbable online success: magic. In An Exceptional Night In with Lucy Darling, this glamorous personnage makes magic happen, convincingly across the screen. And in her very sophisticated use of of the Zoom gallery (with its “virtual front row” volunteers) you actually feel you’re part of an audience. Now, that’s magic.

Theatre sound of the year:  as a (poor) replacement for applause or laughter, the ping ping of the chat box for audience responses. At least there’s no coughing.

Pamela Gordon in Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Commercial product of the year in theatre (besides hand sanitizer): Plexiglass. Moved by the proscriptions against singing onstage, musical theatre got ingenious with it. In the Mayfield’s revue Keep Calm and Rock On, a veritable Plexi wonderland, the band was ensconced in a Plexi cube, the characters entered Plexi booths akin to record studio isolation chambers whenever they sang, the tiers of audience tables were separated by tall Plexi panels.

Backstage theatre prop of the year: the tape measure (for stage managers and directors on distancing patrol).

Trigger warning of the year: The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, a gore-splattering production that included beheading, dismemberment, cannibalism, infanticide, and a few other misdemeanours, cautioned that that the production “might include interpretive dance.”

Go short or go home: the rise of the Tik Tok musical (of which Gender? I Hardly Know Them are expert practitioners) is a tip-off. Our attention span for online theatre (possibly online anything) is limited, and shrinking by the minute. Damn, spilled my coffee. Just a sec, I have to deal with a text, where the hell are my reading glasses?….

Two adjectives you will never see in theatre reviews for the foreseeable future: “infectious” and “contagious” (as in laughter, high spirits, vivacity). On caution: “unprecedented” (through sheer relentless overuse).

Slur turned to plaudit: what theatre a year ago would have wanted to be called “safe”?

Did you read 2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)? It’s here.

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2020: a year like no other in Edmonton theatre (part 1)

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2020: the year the laws of probability bent so far out of shape they snapped. Along with satire, futurist dystopian fantasies ceded pride of place to … reality. Every definition of live theatre was up against it, from every angle.

For live theatre 2020 could hardly have been more devastating. A whole industry was abruptly shut down, here and everywhere, on the weekend of March 13, some shows in mid-run, some in mid-rehearsal. Productions (at least 14 of them at the time) then whole seasons got flung into the outer space of an indeterminate future. Theatre artists lost their jobs, their livelihoods. An art form whose origin story and First Cause and very being are rooted in proximity, the kinetic engagement of real live people sharing a space, took a shattering blow to the solar plexus of its identity. And the phrase “going out to the theatre,” with its anticipatory thrill, was suddenly one of those retro exit lines like “flying to the moon”  (or “exeunt pursued by a bear”).

And yet …

In all the carnage the year has seen, 2020 in theatre has seen a kind of creative validation of the performing arts. It’s made us realize, in a visceral way that’s a bit like homesickness, what we’re missing of course. But there’s something downright awe-inspiring about the ingenious, creative ways theatre artists, in exile from their usual habitat, immediately starting adapting, by experimenting with new forms of storytelling and audience engagement, learning on the fly how to create on unfamiliar platforms, on screens of every configuration. Suddenly theatre was into digital ventures, video streaming, digital-live hybrids, unexpected live locales, theatrical “home deliveries” (and invasions), radio plays, aural channels….

Whole festivals — Nextfest, the Found Festival, and even in a seminal blow the mighty Fringe — went online. Improv, even magic (the magical Lucy Darling), went digital. And they all sucked it up, in different ways, to face head-on what’s maybe the greatest challenge of theatre in exile on screen: how to engage (and be engaged by) the audience. How to make the screen a window, or a door, and not a (fifth) wall. Is it possible? Even harder, how to create a space where the audience interacts with each other. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most, the laughing and gasping together, shoulder to shoulder, the sense of togetherness.

All this learning. All in order to do, under the most daunting circumstances, what theatre artists do: tell stories, challenge sensibilities, capture imaginations. And the experiments got more adventurous, and more dexterous in being expressive on a small scale. Plays were adapted for live performances with actors far apart from each other onstage or tiny audiences scattered here and there (A Brimful of Asha at the Citadel among others) or sitting in their own back yards. Lodestar Theatre offered a menu of on-location options for home delivery (like a five-actor A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw in the director’s front yard in the summer). The Freewill Shakespeare Festival launched a travelling group of musical players, the Free Willies. New pieces created for the new world actually made the medium the metaphor, or the setting, witness comedy sketches from Girl Brain and Gender? I Hardly Know Them (httpeepee).

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

And in this interminable intermission, theatre has had time in 2020 to reflect on its own power structures. To wonder how to make theatre more accessible to racialized and marginalized talent, and therefore more reflective of (and meaningful to) the world we live in. At Azimuth, which led the way, co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin, stepped aside last summer “to make room” as they said for new, young, BIPOC talent (Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada). The Citadel enlisted a trio of BIPOC associate artists to choose, cast, and direct cast shows, including A Brimful of Asha and the upcoming Métis version of the Canadian classic Mary’s Wedding (online Tuesday).

In surveying the year in theatre, I’m struck by the way that everything I saw in 2020 in the all-too-brief Before Time, seems in retrospect to take on new colours, and a kind of ominous prescience.

The compelling thought in Catalyst’s stunning new musical play The Invisible – the art of ungentlemanly warfare, that history can be changed by passionate teamwork, seems now to have directly anticipated our moment. The question in Titus Bouffonius (Theatre Network), Colleen Murphy’s bouffon version of Shakespeare’s goriest play, of how death and brutality should be avenged, has turned out to be our question, too.

Even in the ultra-door-slammer farce-within-a-farce Noises Off, at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre mid-Feb, the reduction of a production to rubble looks now like a portent of things to come, when not just noises are off, everything is off. And Waving Through A Window, the show-stopper song of Dear Evan Hansen (the 2015 hit which arrived here in February in an excellent Broadway Across Canada touring production) in which the hero sings of feeling outside the world, and his own life, looking in, seems now to have been written directly for all of us, in advance.

Heisenberg, one of the last two productions I saw in a theatre (at Shadow Theatre March 12) before the shutdown lo these many months, takes its prevailing metaphor from the famous Uncertainty Principle. Speaks for itself.

So, a selection of theatre highlights of a year like no other, when even venturing into a theatre felt like an adventure. Some were “plays.” Some were “cabarets.” More were “theatre experiences.”

Here There Be Night: in October, as temperatures dropped,  Workshop West, under new artistic producer Heather Inglis, took us out in the world on a night-time outdoor adventure in unexpected locations in Old Strathcona, an arts district we thought we knew well. Led by a narrative voice on a cellphone app, we had eight one-on-one encounters with actors in original five-minute solo plays (by Edmonton writers) that spoke in very different ways to the weirdness and isolating anxiety of COVID-ian times.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

Melissa MacPherson in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Catalyst Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

The Invisible – agents of ungentlemanly warfare: The stunning new musical play from the Catalyst team of Jonathan Christenson, Bretta Gerecke, Laura Krewski, happens in the secret, encoded, subversive world of World War II espionage. Its all-female team of action heroes of the “here today, gone tonight” persuasion led by the mysterious Romanian-born spymaster (Melissa MacPherson), is borrowed from real-life history. Christenson’s richest score yet, with strikingly lit film noir/ graphic novel imagery by Catalyst designer Gerecke. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

Scenes From The Sidewalk: an inside out cabaret: In September, the doors of the Varscona opened for the first time since March. We sat, 20 at a time, in the lobby, looking out through the windows at the performers singing and dancing out on the street, looking in at their audience. The Plain Jane Theatre venture, which made real-live Edmonton (including the tent city for the homeless across the street in Gazebo Park) its set was both an ingenious work-around to the restrictions of the moment — singing indoors was verboten — and a witty metaphor for perpetual questions about art and the real world. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Curio Shoppe: With their spooky latest, Catch The Keys Productions, an inventive indie company specializing in immersive and site-specific performance, took their annual all-hallows excursions in the lurid reaches of Edmonton history, home. Our homes, actually. With the lights out. The online story unfolds according to your choices. And then your cellphone rings, and the dead consult you directly. Read about it HERE.

The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius:  In Colleen Murphy’s riotously black comedy, at Theatre Network, a gaggle of eager misfits, tackle Shakespeare’s grisly early revenge tragedy (mainly because it has the most murders of any play in the canon). In retrospect Bradley Moss’s exuberant production in Feb. was everything a COVID era show shouldn’t be — i.e. surrounded by a laughing audience, with the front rows draped in plastic due to the splattering gore. With gusto. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

until the next breath: Catalyst’s dreamy, grand-scale outdoor performance for a distanced audience of 100 in Victoria Park in October was part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre: live, outdoors, one-off “events” commissioned from 11 of the country’s most innovative indie companies to “mark the moment.” In an encampment of giant coloured balloons that “breathed” with gust of wind, a cast of 50 actors, dancers, and musicians played with the metaphor of breath — and a sense of a world holding its breath until the moment of exhale. Read about it HERE.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We Had A Girl Before You: Northern Light Theatre opened its season live (for an audience of 20 in the vast dark space of the Westbury Theatre) with Trevor Schmidt’s witty and atmospheric homage to the Gothic romance, in all its spooky convolutions. And here’s the capper: it’s a solo show for many characters, multiple settings, bizarre encounters. And Kristin Johnston, the star of Schmidt’s clever production, carried off all the complications with dazzling skill and ease. Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luc in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Chamber Obscura: At the Found Festival in July, an extravaganza of experimental zest devoted to unexpected encounters between artists and audiences, the most memorable experience was live, ingeniously so. We “found” ourselves in a Depression era gothic folk tale (with music) — by driving down an alley in Strathcona into a tent, watching a theatre family (Michael Bradley, Nicole St. Martin and their son Luc) through the windshield, and hearing them through the car radio. Read about it HERE.

A Christmas Carol: In an homage to a bona fide Yuletide tradition, the Citadel turned film company to re-fashion, under COVID-ian proscriptions, its new $1 million production of A Christmas Carol that premiered in 2019 and moved the celebrated Dickensian ghost story ahead a century to the post-war world. The results (available online through Dec. 31) have a compelling momentum about them that re-creates theatrical magic for a different medium. And you appreciate in a different up-close way the economy and force of the performances (led by Ted Dykstra as the man of the hour). Read the 12thnight review HERE.

Reneltta Arluk, Jenna Rodgers, Lebogang Disele, Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grauman, All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo supplied.

All That Binds Us: This Azimuth production (live and live streamed), by a five BIPOC creators for a cast of six BIPOC performers, and directed by Reneltta Arluk, takes apart the multi-cultural multi-ethnic mosaic of Canada into individual personal stories. The characters are a gallery of the marginalized — Indigenous, refugee, queer, black, immigrant, Asian-Canadian — and the accommodations they make for a so-called Canadian identity. And it wonders whether in the end all that binds us isn’t just white supremacy. All that binds the play, theatrically speaking, judging by this premiere outing, could use a re-knotting. But the provocation packs a real punch.  Read the 12thnight review HERE

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‘Light during the longest nights’: the Citadel’s film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. A review.

Filming A Christmas Carol, digital version of the Citadel Theatre production. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Light!” declares the twinkly old man at a piano on the stage of a big dark empty theatre. “Light during the longest nights.” It’s what every ghost wants, he says. And he’s got the ghost story to prove it.

It gets told — or rather revealed magically in bursts of light — in the Citadel’s 90-minute film version of David van Belle’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol that premiered onstage in 2019. And it’s a beautiful, light-filled homage to a venerable Edmonton tradition. In this town, snow schmo. It never begins to look a lot like Christmas until we unwrap the Citadel Christmas Carol. And we’ll be doing that, for the first time and of necessity, from the vantage point of our own couches.

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By any reckoning 2020 has arrived at a strange dark isolating season. Cheerful musical declarations like It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year come with major qualifiers — and wistful ones like I’ll Be Home For Christmas have a kind of melancholy reductive truth to them that hits your heart. Along with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and its timely hope that some day soon we all will be together, they’re stellar entries in the secular post-war songbook that weaves through van Belle’s adaptations of A Christmas Carol for stage and now for screen.

They re-locate in time and space Charles Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of a solitary frozen soul thawed into human connection on Christmas Eve, from the Victorian period in England to 1949 across the pond, and a world of desperate hustle and the ghostly cohabitation of past present, and future. No wonder the centrepiece of director Daryl Cloran’s stage production and his film is a revolving door.

A post-war North American department store, Marley’s, is where we find Mr. Scrooge (Ted Dykstra, reprising his terrific stage performance for the film) in the lucrative Yuletide retail season, stomping through the place, flinging the non-festive lingo of the bottom line at cowed employees, including his in-store Santa. Dec. 25 isn’t an employee holiday at Marley’s. The boss deliberately consigns his personnel manager, sweet Mrs. Cratchit (Alison MacDonald) who’s lost her husband Bob in the war, to a work day under the battle cry “Inventory!”

Ted Dykstra as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2019). Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In short, humanity, which is to say “foolish people at a foolish time of year,” rubs Mr. Scrooge the wrong way. He exists in a state of perpetual exasperation; he briskly boots carollers clean out of their multi-screen Zoom Christmas chorale. His Bah Humbugs! are propelled on a stream of acid irony. The Scroogian response to Merry Christmas? “Scram!”

The 90-minute film version, which can be yours for 48 hours of family viewing with a single $40 streaming ticket, isn’t some abbreviated best-of version of last year’s two-hour stage production. It’s been thoughtfully, smartly reimagined and rewritten for film by playwright van Belle and director Cloran.

Patricia Cerra, in rehearsal for the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

Shot in the Rice Theatre instead of the Maclab mainstage, it retains the look of the show, with Cory Sincennes’ costumes spanning the story’s present and its flashbacks to Scrooge’s blighted past. And the lighting (for the stage by Leigh Ann Vardy), is not only strikingly conceived for a ghost tale, but a palpable dramatic participant in the telling of a story that takes Scrooge on a journey into past and future, getting a salutary dose of his own mantra of “consequences.”

New for the film is the framing by a Narrator (Glen Nelson, a former Scrooge himself, smiling at the piano). It’s a device that is tricky (and often unrewarding) to pull off onstage. It works here, though occasionally the Narrator’s annotations in the course of the show seem unnecessary because the images that displace the narrative in time and locale are so vivid and well-chosen. Characters whirl through the revolving door to arrive in a scene. And the interventions of the three ghosts are, whoosh!, magical, for film in a way that’s reinvented from the theatrical magic of Cloran’s original stagecraft.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

This digital version returns the cast of last year to us, led by Dykstra’s memorable Scrooge, speaking the language of another century and another continent. And although, in 90 minutes the story doesn’t linger much on Scrooge’s earlier selves, performances from Braydon Dowler-Coltman as the ever-frostier younger Scrooge and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks as his sparky fiancée Belle are powerfully focussed. Scenes with Priya Narine as Scrooge’s sister Fanny, and Ben Stevens as his heroically cheerful nephew Fred, recipient of a lifetime of Bah Humbugs, have impact too.

And in the whirl of close-ups, angles, and long shots, you’ll get to see the look in Scrooge’s eye as, unexpectedly stricken, he has a terrible and unwelcome vision of “consequences” chez Cratchit. Or an up-close experience of the late Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold), who emerges, singed from the fiery blast of hell to warn his former business partner of impending moral doom. And the other ghosts have an eerie proximity too, starting with Lilla Solymos who brings a haunting and haunted look and sound to the Ghost of Christmas Past and White Christmas. John Ullyatt is the riotous ’50’s hep-cat Ghost of Christmas Present, and as for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, my lips are sealed. As in the Tom Wood adaptation of A Christmas Carol that returned annually to the Citadel for 19 years, it’s a surprise with a chill.

What actually works better on film in van Belle’s adaptation of his adaptation is, I think, the music, the familiar Christmas classics of the ‘40s and ’50s. Onstage, the story sometimes lurched for the songs. The more abbreviated film narrative — after all, Scrooge’s heart-warming life-changing journey happens in the course of a single Christmas Eve — gives them more momentum, perhaps. And they just feel more organically embraced here, sometimes shortened, sometimes “performed” by the characters (Chariz Faulmino is a knock-out), sometimes hummed in snippets. Kudos to Steven Greenfield’s extra arrangements, and Mishelle Cutler’s sound design.

I can’t wait for A Christmas Carol to return live to the stage, of course, with the sense of special occasion that attends its annual reappearance. But, with a boost from sponsorships (including EPCOR’s invaluable Heart and Soul Fund), it’s a tribute to the Citadel, and the ingenuity of our theatre artists, that they translated their skills to another medium so we wouldn’t be Carol-less in a far from merry season. They’ve made beautiful work of it.

A Christmas Carol is streamed, via the Citadel website, through Dec. 31.

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Eager-beaver thespians at the manger: two Christmas shows from Dammitammy and Whizgiggling Productions

They Wanted To Do Chekhov, Dammitammy Productions. Photo by Brianne Jang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Holiday shows come in all shapes and sizes (and degrees of fa-la-la-la-la and levity), as well you know. And since this year you’ll be home decking the  halls (and not your irritating second-cousins, after 3 eggnogs), here are two shows that have fun with characters who are eager-beaver thesps, theatre-loving wannabes jockeying for the limelight in the Nativity story.

One is a new radio musical from the witty brain of Rebecca Merkley: Dammitammy Production’s They Wanted To Do Chekhov. The other is the 11th annual edition, this year online, of Whizgiggling Productions’ funny, heartwarming The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever.

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Her new radio play isn’t the first time the actor/ composer/ singer/ director/ playwright Merkley has succumbed to the theatrical lure of Christmas. Last year’s Yuletide offering from Dammitammy was Merk du Soleil, a blithely unclassifiable holiday comedy cabaret. She directed Calla Wright’s Christmas Play, which imagines the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in a Zoom call together (it’s back, online, Dec. 17 to 19).

“I did write a Christmas show three years ago,” she laughs, “the Nativity story done by monsters.” That’s on hold. But They Wanted To Do Chekhov has monsters of another kind: die-hard theatrical upstagers with an assortment of aspirations and grievances. “I love that trope,” she says. “I changed the whole scene.”

Dammitammy first made the scene at the 2016 Fringe with Merkley’s The Unsyncables, a very amusing underdog comedy about an ad hoc synchronized swim team up against a slick pro swim “club.” And they followed it up the following summer with Merkley’s delightful, very accomplished 60-minute Rivercity The Musical, which borrows the characters from the Archie comics.

With They Wanted To Do Chekhov, the enterprising Merkley has created an original 30-minute chamber radio play-within-a-radio play — with original music. As Dammitammy’s Halloween production Camp: the radio play warned listeners, “this program may contain scenes that may contain scenes…. Viewer indiscretion is advised.”

At The Northern Alberta Drama society Gary (Gabby Bernard), “the artist-in-residence who’s not getting paid (ed. note: like, when has that ever happened?), is making her directorial debut” — with her own adaptation of the Gospel of St. Luke’s (New Living Translation) Nativity Story.

Davina dela Cruz (Chariz Faulmino) is a gung-ho first-time actor. Glen Von Trappe (possibly his stage name, played by Cameron Chapman) is clearly slumming. After all he was considered for a Cappie for his deeply moving portrayal of Constantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull. “Infuriating, but sad,” says Merkley. “We all know this person!”

Merkley herself is Phyllis Saskatchewan, “amateur puppeteer and foodie,” with Kristina Hunszinger as Joan, the “aloof audio technician.” The pair also do the audio-editing.

And for celeb power, “Jesus makes an appearance as himself,” in order to dispense “words of wisdom” at crucial moments. This is something of a dispensation: “He normally only does A-house gigs, but has decided to support indie theatre because of the global pandemic.”

“We do the commercial breaks, too,” says Merkley, who composed music along with John W. Smith. Lois from Clyde AB, for example, has a compilation album to sell, so we’ll hear samples from such would-be recording artists as the Saskatchewan Family Duo. And, because as musicians Merkley and cast “just couldn’t” bring themselves to do a show without at least some good music as a contrast to the “misguided” content, there’s some legit stuff too. “To cleanse the palate,” she laughs.

With a friend’s recording studio available, all the audio was done there before the lockdown, “masked and spaced.” Says Merkley, “it was fun. Embrace the chaos! I wanted to bring people love and joy…. And the talent! There’s so much talent to work with!”

They Wanted To Do Chekhov is available starting Dec. 15. Tickets at dammitammy.com.

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

•Whizgiggling Productions, the Edmonton indie theatre named, appealingly, after the Newfoundland lingo for “acting silly or foolish,”  once more takes us behind the scenes on the Rock, the spirited and party-hearty easternmost Canadian province.

For 11 seasons now,  Whizgiggling’s version of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever, the riotous Nfld. classic (a venerable Yuletide tradition in St. John’s), has been attracting fun-loving YEG audiences, too. This year Whizgiggling has re-worked the production for online viewing (I’m picturing you in your pjs, a screech in hand). “It’s been a wild ride, but we hope to bring some joy into people’s living rooms,” says producer Cheryl Jameson.

The play, adapted from Barbara Robinson’s much-loved novel, takes us into the ever-fraught world of amateur theatricals. When the usual director of the annual Christmas pageant is out of commission (due to an ill-fated encounter with a moose), Mrs. O’Brien has to step up. What should have been a cakewalk takes an unexpected turn when the dread Herdmans, “the worst kids in school,” show up for the auditions, attracted by rumours of free snacks.

The pageant “plot” utterly perplexes them. “Mary ties him up and shoves him in a feedbox? Where’s Child Welfare?” But undeterred, they shove everyone aside to take on the starring roles. What will become of the great tradition? The citizens are, to put it mildly, concerned.

The 2019 cast return for the 2020 edition: Sheldon Elter, Kayla Gorman Natalie Czar Gummer, Cheryl Jameson, Bob Rasko, Lindsey Walker. Catch it at your place Dec. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 20th at 4:30 p.m. Tickets (starting at $15 per household) are available at fringetheatre.ca. 

 

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