Sending in the clowns (online): Play The Fool Fest is back

Kiana Woo in Inga and the Date, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Clowns: it takes all kinds. And we have the festival to prove it.

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At Play the Fool, returning Thursday (online again) for a sixth annual edition, you’ll meet “the world’s first German Nihilist life coach,” for example, with tips on making life more bearable in these traumatizing times.  And you’ll run into Jesus, too, star of page, stage and screen, having a go at teaching Grade 2 Sunday School.

There’s a mime of affirmative stripe who advises hope in the face of frustration and discouragement. There’s a grouchy guy who offers to be your guide to the wrong side of the bed.

Jake Tkaczyk, Bedeutung Krankenwagen, Play The Fool Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

That’s the thing about Play The Fool, the country’s only clown and physical comedy festival (for adult audiences): you never know whether you’ll meet a snarly Euro bouffon who doesn’t give two hoots whether you like him or a wide-eyed red-nosed charmer eager to be loved.    

And who knows?, you may even unleash your own inner clown, the one who’s been waiting for the right moment to come out and play. Play The Fool features an “interactive clown class” on Zoom (two actually, with a 12-participant maximum) led by the galvanizing Shannan Calcutt, a longtime star of the Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas cabaret Zumanity. Edmonton Fringe audiences know her as Izzy, the delightful clown who tips her secret agenda on a blind date by showing up in a wedding dress.

Shannan Calcutt. Photo supplied.Seding

Play the Fool “pivoted” in order to send in the clowns digitally for last year’s edition. And, as festival director Christine Lesiak, a clown of note herself (For Science! Ask Aggie, Fools For Love), explains “it’s the right call” for this mid-pandemic year too. “Artists need to plan….”

“I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t rather be packing the Backstage Theatre,” Lesiak says. After all, clowns naturally, inherently, gravitate to in-person, playful, interactive encounters with real people. “We’re ultimately a live festival. That’s what we are; that’s what we want to be…. But there there are beautiful advantages to a (digital) edition.”

Looking on the bright side, there’s the big wide global audience out there, needing clowns (and Edmonton clowns!) in their lives. Last year’s edition attracted audiences across North American and the U.K. And Lesiak is keen to retain that expansiveness — “depending on the budget” — even when Play The Fool regains its natural live existence next year.

And as for the inspiration of the Play The Fool Two-Minute Film Competition, which drew artists from everywhere, it quickly morphed into a two-minute film festival, a model of compression that returns this year (on April 1, natch). “A nice little niche and untapped delivery medium,” as Lesiak puts it, “and a delight to do again.” This time, thanks to support from FAVA and Studio Post, Play The Fool commissioned six Edmonton filmmakers to create originals, to play alongside submissions from elsewhere. Details on the line-up await; stay tuned.

This year’s edition of Play The Fool is a hybrid of live-online and pre-recorded performances by local artists, all perforce solo, and all new. All but one are produced by the festival and edited by techno-whiz Ian Walker on the indispensable Fringe TV platform. The exception, brought to the festival fully formed, is Barry Bilinsky’s 12-minute film He’s My Brother, a clown tragedy in which Neech must somehow cope with the unexpected death of his prize hydrangea.

Since the clown gaze is fixed on “our current experience,” says Lesiak of “a mirror in a fun house,” most of the pieces in the lineup drift toward themes of “isolation, longing, distance, coping with being cut off from the thing they love doing.” They don’t reference COVID directly (thankfully); the angle is oblique, metaphorical. “They’re not on the nose,” says Lesiak, whose lexicon contains a striking number of nasal references (it comes with her line of work, no doubt).

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches us Things, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied

There’s a startling variety of approaches in the six new solo pieces. Rebecca Merkley, whose fearlessly kooky Merk du Soleil series (the latest instalment Merk du Solapocalypse was at the Fringe), are gems of clowning, goes solo for the first time — as Jesus. Says Lesiak, “Jesus Teaches us Things has a loving gentle blasphemy about it. And (Merkley) is such a delightful, compelling presence onstage.” In his foray into Sunday School teaching, as Lesiak describes, laughing, Jesus “has some impulse-control issues, about what content is appropriate for Grade 2’s.”

“It comes from an interesting place: love, yet awareness of the flaws in the (religious system). There are poignant moments in it.”

Since solo is de rigueur times being what they are, a date night as revealed in Kianna Woo’s “red nose romance Inga and the Date, is a tricky proposition. “There’s an ingenious reveal I’m not going to tell you,” laughs Lesiak. “She’s taken the very classic clown blind date concept and she turns it on the nose. And she’s very funny and charming.”

Adam Keefe has done solo work before, says Lesiak, who has performed with him in Small Matters Theatre’s Fools for Love and other shows. Good Morning Darkness shows his high-level skills, “physically, vocally, and with characters,” she says, in a piece that sheds an indirect light on our current COVIDian freefall.

Hope For Life reintroduces Zillur Rahman John, an Edmonton-based Bangladeshi-Canadian mime artist, to audiences here. He hasn’t been onstage here, says Lesiak, since his appearance as the title character in the Edmonton Symphony’s 2015 performance of Bartók’s pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.

In Jake Tkaczyk’s Zoomed “live bouffon seminar” Bedeutung Krankenwagen, we meet Herr Frölich, a German Nihilist-turned-life coach. “Clowns and bouffons are on a spectrum, says Lesiak. “For me, the difference is the the clown is very impulsive, and wants to be loved. Bouffons don’t care about that. They want to manipulate the audience.…” At the extreme is a performer like Sacha Baron Cohen, “very provocative, not for the faint of heart” as his Borat films vividly demonstrate. There’s a bit more clown in Herr Frölich’s place on the spectrum, she thinks.

Bouffons are the star of this year’s Play The Fool panel discussion (live via Zoom), Pretty Ugly: Bouffon in Pedagogy and Practice. International participants, all with clown cred in the dark bouffon world, include Deanna Fleysher (of Butt Kapinski fame), Ken Hall, Nathaniel Justiniano and Janice Jo Lee.

The festival, which opens Thursday with a welcome poem by the Brit star Rob Gee, “Play The Fool Who’s Playing You,” is made possible by partnerships with the Street Performers Fest, Toy Guns Dance Theatre, Theatre Alberta and EPCOR’s invaluable Heart + Soul Fund.

PREVIEW

Play The Fool Festival 2021

Running: Sept. 23 to 26 (on-demand and films are available Sept. 24 through Sept. 30).

Tickets, full lineup, and schedule: playthefool.ca

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Jenny McKillop: meet the star of Teatro’s live in-person season finale Fever Land

Jenny McKillop in Fever Land, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the live in-person grand finale to Teatro La Quindicina’s highly compressed summer season of filmed productions, we meet a shy, unassuming junior high Home Ec teacher who sings in a choir. In Winnipeg.

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In the course of Fever Land, opening on the Varscona stage Friday, Betsy will find herself enmeshed in an illicit affair. And in Stewart Lemoine’s unclassifiably strange 1999 comedy, the routines of Betsy’s hitherto non-tumultuous life will attract the intervention of a couple of exotic other-worldly characters. The Erlking arrives from the Goethe poem that was set to music by Schubert; Myrtha Queen of the Willis from Act II of the ballet Giselle. It’s an unusual combination: 1966 Winnipeggers “and people who wear crowns and appear out of the mist,” as Lemoine puts it.

“I think of Betsy as an Alice in Wonderland,” says Jenny McKillop, the star of Teatro’s revival (the first since 2004), “getting to go on a wild ride….”

“She’s not very worldly, not malicious; she just doesn’t really understand the implications (of the affair).” In her first romantic entanglement since teacher’s college (and she’s in her mid-‘30s), “she’s just a gal trying to figure things out.”

McKillop’s Teatro debut was in Lemoine’s 2010 The Ambassador’s Wives, a murder mystery caper set in Monte Carlo, as a Canadian adventuress who’s inherited piles of money. And, as a member of the Teatro younger generation that includes Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron among others. she’s been in many Teatro comedies since.

Teatro practice as an ensemble includes the passing down of plays generation to generation. As she did in Teatro’s signature comedy Pith! (in a sidekick role originated by Leona Brausen), McKillop inherits a Fever Land character played originally by Barbara Gates Wilson in 1999 and 2004. “It’s a little intimidating when you admire the actor so much,” she says. “I’m honoured; I’m excited. Big shoes to fill….” McKillop’s real-life husband Garett Ross has the role of the the choir director originally played by Jeff Haslam.

Betsy, thinks McKillop, joins a long series of Lemoine characters who “maintain a gentle energy while ready for a new experience.… I think it’s fun to think of someone who’s presented with something strange, and just deals with it.”

Those someones are the kind of characters that McKillop, who exudes a buoyant, appealing kind of sunny good cheer in person, often gets called upon to play. In Marvellous Pilgrims, for example, a Lemoine comedy of 2013, she was Honor, half of a pair of ‘30s adventurers who arrive at a remote mountaintop tea house to discover a piano and a tenor ready to sing. Honor is pleased, but not overcome by surprise at this development.

Lemoine says that his reason for wanting to revive Fever Land was that McKillop is a perfect Betsy. “The lead character is a pretty delightful character,” he says. “The audience immediately wants her for their friend.” And no matter what she drifts into doing, and with whom, supernatural or not, the audience is on her side. “Jenny,” he says, “is so instantly likeable….”

Fever Land wasn’t the first Lemoine play to invoke the name of his birthplace city. In The Glittering Heart (1990), Winnipeg was a place to leave. Which is exactly what Adele, a Winnipeg housewife did. Right after she served the classic roast ham with pineapple rings to her husband Harold, she announced she was leaving for Venice to become a famous courtesan.

Fever Land was the second. Winnipeg is where the play actually happens, in 1966. The signatures cream cheese actually gets mentioned. And it’s where the Erlking and the Queen of the Willis tour signature locations, like Rae and Jerry’s Steak House and the Eaton’s cafeteria.

The comedy revels in the particularities of Winnipeg that Lemoine discovered as a kid: the zoo in Assiniboia Park, say, or the Charterhouse, a motor inn where Lemoine’s Aunt Denise worked at the desk…. “We lived half a block from Portage Ave., and within walking distance of the Polo Park Shopping Centre.” The juxtaposition of real-life ‘60s Winnipeg and “people who wear crowns and appear out of the mist” as he puts it, gives Fever Land its distinctive tone.

Lemoine remembers the origins of Fever Land two decades ago. Once he’d decided that the romantic fortunes of a pleasant chorister would include interventions by the Erlking and Myrtha Queen of the Willis, both trailing the major musical cred that’s often a game-changer in his comedies, “the fantastical story kind of told itself,” he says. “O no, that sounded pretentious.. It was more ‘this is outrageous: I’ll do it!’”

In Schubert’s setting of Erlkönig, the singer takes on all the parts, including the narrator. Lemoine notes that if you’re having a Schubertiad at your house (no, really, it’s a thing), and doing a participation Erlkönig sing-out, four singers take the separate parts of a story about a father and son, and the Erlking “who presents them with an enticing alternate reality.… ‘Come, come with me’.” As for the Queen of the Willis, she’s the star of the Act II graveyard scenes in Giselle, “usually played by an older dancer who strides around, authoritatively.” In this revival, in the role originated by Leona Brausen, she’s played by Cathy Derkach

The other inspiration to which Lemoine points is the choir, in the play the weekly rehearsals of the Red River Chorale (in Winnipeg nomenclature, “everything is either Red River or Pembina”). In Edmonton “My mom sang in Richard Eaton Singers for years and years,” he says. And then when it eventually came time to re-audition, alas, “it went really badly. And that was that.” Mrs. Lemoine, incidentally immediately joined the Concordia Choir.

The choir is an intersection, possibly battleground, for tensions, frictions, and relationships of various kinds,” says Lemoine. “What kind of earrings should be allowed, choosing a design for the new robes, how many rehearsals you can miss before you get kicked out….” In short, it’s a rich sort of theatrical possibilities.

And speaking of rehearsals, Belinda Cornish’s production has been doing that live (with masks and COVID testing every three days). And since Betsy is in every scene in the play McKillop says she’s tired by the end of the day, yes. but “exhilarated too,” not least by being back in the theatre (“I’m a serial optimist!”). And being in a play with one’s husband has practical advantages, she finds. “Garett and I can run lines together!”

PREVIEW

Fever Land

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written by: Stewart Lemoine

Directed by: Belinda Cornish

Starring: Jenny McKillop, April Banigan, Cathy Derkach, Garett Ross, Andrew MacDonald-Smith

Running: Thursday (in preview) through Oct. 10

Tickets: teatroq.com

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Conjuring Patsy in concert, live at the Mayfield: A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline. A review.

Sara-Jeanne Hosie in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline. Poster image supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Come on in and sit right down and make yourself at home.” The singing invitation comes from Miss Virginia Patterson Hensley of Winchester, Virginia, whose early-career name change is part of the show to follow.

She strides briskly onto the stage at the start of the musical entertainment that marks the Mayfield Dinner Theatre’s return to live action (with vaccine proof of vaccine requirement) after 18 months of stops, starts, plans and re-plans.

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(Music! Live! It’s a treat. There’s no excuse for the Kenney government’s cruel and lunatic delay in implementing a vaccine passport. But I digress).

In the course of A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, a hit 1991 bio-revue by the Canadian actor/director Dean Regan, you’ll hear a generous selection of some two dozen entries, hits, non-hits and cover tunes from the Patsy Cline songbook.  And you’ll hear them delivered by a terrific performer with charisma, a big lustrous voice and uncanny skill in using it: Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who’s been here as Patsy three time before now.

Hosie has the benefit of a great five-piece band (director: Van Wilmott) and really excellent sound. What she does not have, by way of theatrical benefits, is a script that gives Patsy a chance to speak for herself. This is ironic since the disjointed bits of real-life narrative provided by the DJ and all-purpose colourful character Little Big Man (Sheldon Bergstrom) seem to suggest Patsy wasn’t shy about doing just that in life, age 14 onward.

Anyhow, the point of A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline isn’t a closer walk with Patsy Cline. It’s a full-on Patsy Cline concert with trimmings. And given the musical values on display, that’s more than enough for your enjoyment over a Blue Moon of Kentucky featured cocktail.

In music and body language — and a succession of outfits that invariably include boots, designed by Pat Burden — Hosie, a musical theatre triple-threat with cred across the country, fashions a portrait of an iconic country singer whose star rose in the ‘50s and has never faded. Even as a teenager (“a feisty little lady” as Little Big Man says) she trots briskly onstage in her boots and prim ‘do, plants herself confidently in front of a mic, and just sends out her powerhouse voice.

In the contemporary world of glamorized ultra-choreographed pop-star country music, would Patsy have made it? “The big black hands on the clock/ Tell me it’s time to rock,” sings the old-young Patsy Cline, adding a few crisp knee-raises and hand gestures for good measure.

Patsy Cline hits like Walkin’ After Midnight, Sweet Dreams, Crazy show off the edges and angles of Hosie’s voice. She captures all the signature catches and slides, the way that “Always” and “good-byeeee” have at least three syllables. The familiar songs sound fulsome, musically and emotionally. And she’s backed up with expertly stylish contributions from the band.

Bergstrom, who’s an engaging performer, has his work cut out for him as the radio station DJ who, in classic revue fashion, provides the framework for the songs. It’s unreasonable to expect a musical revue to be a full biography or full-fledged jukebox musical, to be sure. But even by those standards, A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline seems a bit skimpy. Bergstrom has to work awfully hard with fragments about Patsy’s “big heart.”

The 22-year-old Patsy apparently turned down a gig once when a show producer “wanted Patsy but not her band.” She once went to Kansas City to do a benefit for someone named Cactus Jack she didn’t even know, because he was sick. Her first husband was “an oil and water marriage. “In 1957 she got a hit and lost a husband.”

Little Big Man supplements this random assortment with amusing period colour, including (over-extended) cornpone humour from a Grand Ole Opry comic and jingles for Ajax, the foaming cleanser, or Winstons that “taste good like a cigarette should.”

I know now that Mickey Mantle was the first professional baseball player to acquire a $100,000 contract. I found out that Vegas meant four shows a night seven nights a week for singers in the ’50s, and that Patsy Cline played Carnegie Hall, unprecedented for a female in her particular field of music. But I didn’t learn much about a country singer with the unusually mature-sounding pipes, who apparently didn’t even like the song Walkin’ After Midnight. I’m no expert on the life and works of Patsy Cline. But if the aim is “a closer walk,” it just doesn’t seem enough. “Sit right down” and think of this as a concert, and you’ll have a fine time.

The script includes one early foreshadowing of the 1963 plane crash that claimed the life of Patsy Cline at 31. The history of country music has ample warnings against flying in small aircraft in the hinterland during bad weather. Next up at the Mayfield (Nov. 9 to Jan. 23) is Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

REVIEW

A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Dean Regan

Directed by: Van Wilmott

Starring: Sara-Jeanne Hosie (Oct. 12 to 31 with Devra Straker), Sheldon Bergstom

Running: through Oct. 31

Tickets, schedule and mask/proof of vaccination requirements: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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Why Edmonton? Why Garneau? What’s in a ‘hood? We ask novelist Todd Babiak about The Garneau Block

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel, Citadel Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“LET’S FIX IT.” A rallying cry? A call to action? A cosmic signal? It sounds like a communal mantra for our fraught and broken time.

That mysterious three-word sign, duct-taped to trees in a signature Edmonton neighbourhood, is at the very heart of the new play that finally — after many starts and COVID-ian postponements — arrives onstage at the Citadel in front of a real live audience, starting Saturday.

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The Garneau Block could hardly be more of this place. It’s by an Edmonton playwright, Belinda Cornish. It’s adapted from a much-loved 2006 Giller longlisted novel, satirical and humorously affectionate, by an Edmonton writer, Todd Babiak. It’s about idiosyncratic people who come together in a ‘hood we know, in the city we’re living in. And this love letter to Edmonton premieres on the mainstage of this burg’s biggest playhouse.

“If you want to write a novel with a strong sense of place, it had better be a place you have a warm, complicated long-term relationship with. And for me, it’s definitely Edmonton,” says Babiak, a great friend of mine, from the time we worked together in the Edmonton Journal entertainment department. He’s on the phone from a world away. Though he’s mid-adventure in Hobart, Tasmania as CEO of a crown corporation (Brand Tasmania) that’s all about enhancing the identity and fortunes of that small under-rated Australian state, his head and heart are full of Edmonton.

So much so that Babiak’s latest novel, The Spirits Up (to be published by Penguin Random House Oct. 26), a mystery that takes its mysteriously haunted characters, an inventor’s family, from Halloween night to Christmas time, is set in Edmonton, too. And Edmonton doesn’t just happen to be the setting; as in The Garneau Block, it’s a character, too. “I feel more of a sense of confidence that you can make what some might say is an obscure middle city into a character, and if you make it special, or compelling or interesting, people will see themselves in it. We all live somewhere….”

The Garneau Block began life as a serial novel that appeared in daily instalments for three months in the fall of 2005 in the Edmonton Journal where Babiak was a columnist at the time. From the editors he heard “Hey, I read this thing by Alexander McCall Smith in The Scotsman. Hey, we happen to have a novelist on staff. Hey, you could do that. Hey, want to give it a shot?”

Babiak laughs. “In half an hour I went from ‘no, I have other plans’ to ‘I have readers here, 50,000 on a day. What, am I crazy?’” He says, “I so enjoyed writing it…. It was my favourite time at the newspaper, the least traditional thing I ever did there. And I’m really so thankful for brave bosses that let me do it, a very strange thing for them to let me do, because we were already entering the end of the newspaper era.” He calls it “the era of possibility.”

The Garneau Block wasn’t built in the episodic open-ended way that, say, McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street unspooled in The Scotsman or Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in The San Francisco Chronicle. “I wanted it to have a beginning, middle, and end.… There had to be an ending.” That made it trickier, says Babiak. Each chapter had “to move the plot along in little ways, but also be able to work as a thing in itself…. The Journal gave me three months to write it first, an average of a thousand words a day.”

It started with the idea of autumn (and that’s when it started in the newspaper): “seasons changing, the beginning of the school year, that feeling of deflation you get at the end of the Fringe (one of Babiak’s favourite times of the year)…. And a sadly violent thing happens. After that I had no idea what would happen.”

Novelist Todd Babiak on location in Hobart, Tasmania.

The literary turf wasn’t, still isn’t for that matter, exactly littered by novels set in Edmonton instead of, you know, “real cities” with novelistic bona fides. “There are people who feel that novels should be based in London, Paris, or New York… Those people probably  aren’t my audience,” Babiak laughs. “I’m attracted to the under-estimated, the misunderstood…. In both The Garneau Block and now The Spirits Up, some of the characters really take that on. They see that choice to live in Edmonton as something that defines them. And they struggle with it all the time as they enter middle-age or beyond.”

Part of the charm of The Garneau Block is the way dimensional characters really inhabit places we know well. They meet at the Sugar Bowl; they hang at the Gazebo Park; they go to Die-Nasty or the Fringe. “When Garneau Block was first published in the Journal I got all these letters complaining the naming was too blatant,” Babiak remembers. “Clearly,” he thought, “the issue was they thought Edmonton wasn’t real enough to be fake; we didn’t have the confidence yet to be expressing ourselves that way….”   

“’Is this where I’ve chosen to live?’ At some point you either embrace that, ‘this is why I live in Edmonton!’, and see yourself as comfortably Edmonton, or you suffer; you’re trapped with Poor Old Edmonton. And not just Edmonton, there are a lot of places in the world that hold that tension, including where I live now…. For most of the 20th century, Tasmania was ‘why would anyone live there?’ Now it’s coming into a sense of self which I find really enchanting.”

We’ve all been battered by the mythology of Calgary, borrowed largely from south of the border. “The Globe and Mail and The National Post would treat Edmonton as a kind of suburb of Calgary; you could see that in a lazy way they weren’t really interested,” muses Babiak, who’s always been keen to capture something of the culture of this place in his work, both literary and non-. “Ten years ago people in Edmonton were feeling that we can make a workshop of this place. It needs a lot of work. But maybe that’s an opportunity for us to build it the way we’d like.”

For his story about characters in a neighbourhood, with all the attendant sparks and tensions, coming together to save it (and maybe fall in love), why Garneau? “It had a bit of everything,” says Babiak who grew up in Leduc and lived in Garneau as a student, in a terrible basement suite on 87th Ave. before he went to university in Montréal.

He remembers seeing posters, “Save Garneau”, in the High Level Diner. “Garneau has been saved many times over the years by its community,” he laughs. He came to know this even better when he moved to the ‘hood, above ground in a real house en famille, long after The Garneau Block was published. “Rich people and poor students, actors and theatre people, an ethnic mix, places you could walk to and I could set scenes in. And, yes, the university. It was almost like a stage: a little bit of everything in a small geographic location…. In real estate values, Garneau is very expensive but it’s also people crammed in, seeing each other, touching each other … among the most urban places in Edmonton: legit, so not-fake, with history to it.”

Along with Babiak’s The Book of Stanley (also serialized in the Journal, in 2008), The Garneau Block had been optioned earlier for television by the CBC in a pre-Schitt’s Creek time when serial TV, “hilariously,”  was completely against their rules at the time. The idea of The Garneau Block as a play had been put to him as a possibility in a previous Citadel regime by James MacDonald. “Daryl (Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran) wanted to talk about it as soon as he took the job!” says Babiak, delighted by the prospect he alas won’t get to see onstage due to international travel restrictions. “He said ‘this is what we do! we’re going to tell stories about this place!’”

“There’s a sad-sack quality about Edmonton that sometimes gets us all down,” Babiak agrees. “But on the same day, in the afternoon, the sun breaks through and you’re on a walk and it smells great and looks good and people are nice, and there’s a sense of possibility.”

That’s when Poor Old Edmonton (aka P.O.E.) becomes Good Old Edmonton (aka G.O.E.). “For many of the characters, The Garneau Block is really about that.”

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Together once more, on the street where you live: The Garneau Block at the Citadel. Meet playwright Belinda Cornish.

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, from the Todd Babiak novel, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Arthur Mah.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“There was something quite magical,” says Belinda Cornish, “about having us all come together, to be a community together that one night…. It felt very special. And I felt lucky to be there.”   

She’s talking about Friday the 13th, March 2020, the last dress rehearsal of Cornish’s new play The Garneau Block, a stage adaptation of Todd Babiak’s best-seller Giller-nominated satirical novel of 2006. It was the fateful night before its first preview on the Citadel’s Maclab stage.

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The curtain was about to come crashing down on live theatre, and the performing arts industry. Productions were cancelled mid-run, even mid-rehearsal, or postponed indefinitely. And the Citadel had reached out to the casts of every cancelled show and show-in-progress in this theatre town, and invited them to a one-night-only performance of a play about wildly disparate characters in an Edmonton community who come together to save something: their ‘hood. It was a gesture that might have come from The Garneau Block plot itself.

The cast of the Mayfield’s production of Noises Off came. So did the casts of Edmonton Opera’s Candide, and the Citadel’s Beatles-themed As You Like It….  “We knew we had to stop,” says the playwright. “But the one and only performance of The Garneau Block had an audience that was so supportive, so warm, so loving.”

The End that night was really the end, for a whole industry, and “the theatre community watched together.”

“We turned out the lights and locked the door, and left the theatre. For a year,” leaving the set on the stage, the costumes on the racks, the props table laid out. And there it all was, gathering dust and waiting — till now. “It brought it home,” she says of the graphic way the pandemic stopped time for an entire industry. Last one out, turn off the lights.

Eighteen months later, The Garneau Block goes into preview again this weekend. Director Rachel Peake has reassembled most of the original ensemble of nine actors, — among them Edmonton faves Julien Arnold, Rachel Bowron, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, George Szilagyi, Stephanie Wolfe — and one small dog (Koko, with his own understudy).

Playwright Belinda Cornish

“There’s something very special about coming back to theatre this way,” says Cornish of a play about us and for us, in which the idiosyncratic, ill-assorted denizens of an Edmonton neighbourhood band together to fix things, after a traumatic event. A sense of community saves the day — which, when you think about it, is the way theatre operates all the time. And it’s an apt thought in this devastating, traumatizing moment in our collective history.

“It’s about how, if we come together, are kind to each other, hear each other, are truthful with each other, pull together, we do better,” says Cornish. “I think at its heart this is what this play is about.… People who take the self-serving path, it doesn’t end up serving them.”

Cornish, the co-artistic producer of Teatro La Quindicina (along with Andrew MacDonald-Smith) is a playwright (Little Elephants, Category E, Diamond Dog). She’s also a director, actor, Die-Nasty improv star. And this summer — “a bit of a bonkers summer” she notes casually — Cornish has taken multi-tasking to an extreme. She’s directed the three film productions (Lost Lemoine Part 1, Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, and (with Lemoine) A Fit, Happy Life, now all online) that opened back to back in Teatro’s highly compressed 2021 season. Her live in-person production of Fever Land, the Teatro season finale, previews on the same night The Garneau Block officially opens (Sept. 23), and has its own opening night on the 24th.

What was it about a much-loved novel from the 2000’s, a novel of its time, that drew Cornish to adapt it for the stage? “Honestly, the characters,” she says. “The full rounded people Todd has created breathe off the page. They’re complicated, multi-layered. And the idea of putting them on the stage, giving them life and bodies to inhabit … coming up with dialogue for them, putting them together in a room and just letting them chat, was so much fun!”

There’s mystery attached to the people of The Garneau Block. Take the apparently mismatched couple David and Abby. He’s so conservative that he’s the president of the Strathcona Progressive Conservative Riding Association. She’s a leftie of the “armchair liberal” stripe, as Cornish puts it. “In the novel she’s a bit more gentle; I’ve wound her a bit tighter…. There’s an Abby in every neighbourhood, the person who believes they’re incredibly enlightened and woke, but doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by progressiveness. She won’t go into Starbucks but makes her husband get her caramel macchiatos. She was very fun to write!”

How is a couple like David and Abby together? Cornish laughs. She points to the election campaign in her Queen Alexandra ‘hood, and “Re-elect Heather McPherson” and “Vote Mike Nickel” signs co-habiting the same front lawn. “What is happening in that house? Fascinating. Two very distinct voices existing there. They probably have separate bathrooms by now….”

“In character development and themes, I’ve remained true to the book pretty much,” Cornish says. “Some aspects of the plot will be different. I’ve focussed more on their interpersonal relationships than the external forces pushing the community together to solve the crisis.”

In the novel, a tragic event that has happened in one now-deserted house on the block  catalyzes the plot, including the university’s drive to buy up all the properties at a reduced price. In the play we’ll see,  as Cornish describes, “the symbolic decaying house in which a terrible event has occurred, is looming over them…. But it’s the characters’ own foibles and mistakes, the mysteries and secrets they have from each other, that are actually creating the crisis. It’s more active between them.”

When she was first working on the play, Cornish remembers that Babiak had said “you solve the house, you solve the play.”

Adapting The Garneau Block wasn’t without its challenges. “The novel is very beloved, for a reason. I wanted to honour that,” says Cornish of the balance between “the changes that needed to be made, the changes I wanted to make, and how to remain true to it.”

“It’s not pure invention. Working with somebody else’s work, being inspired by someone’s else’s work … I don’t have to make these people up; I get to expand on what Todd has already done, which is joyous, and figure out how to take that arc and those themes and build them into a play.”

Cornish, who came to Canada in 2000 from London — a love story directly involving her actor/improviser husband Mark Meer — brings an outsider’s eye to the portrait of Edmonton that gathers momentum in The Garneau Block. But the powerful notion of what it means to live in a neighbourhood, to be home there, is part of Cornish’s own thinking, too. She grew up in Willesden, in the northwest of London, a ‘hood with its own particular accent (“read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; she encapsulates it perfectly”).

“Very much a neighbourhood. On a street. Five or six families, having barbecues together in summer, taking care of each other’s kids, popping over to each other’s house, the sense that the tiniest little infraction between two people that already have friction can blow up into something much larger than it needs to be, absurd from the outside….”

In a flurry of bravado in seasonal timing, Cornish arrived on Jan. 3, 2000. “When I emailed Mark I was coming he wrote ‘Oh dear. I’m so embarrassed for my country’…. He knew it would be horrifying,” she laughs. “I didn’t have proper gloves, or the right anything. The cold used to make me nauseous. Weird physical response, I know.” Some “desolate moments” did ensue, she admits.

It was a test case, but Edmonton passed with flying colours. “A strong pride in your home city and a great love for it, and also a great sense of humility, it’s very Edmonton,” she thinks. “I think Edmonton really sees itself. It’s one of the things I loved about the city, and made me want to stay!”

“I guess I’m making my own politics explicit here, but we’re a brave little goldfish in the big blue sea. It’s a feeling of being a cultural island in a way … progressive, hopeful.”

PREVIEW

The Garneau Block

Theatre: Citadel Theatre

Written by: Belinda Cornish, adapted from the Todd Babiak novel

Directed by: Rachel Peake

Starring: Shelly Antony, Julien Arnold, Rachel Bowron, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Alana Hawley Purvis, Andrew Kushnir, George Szilagyi, Stephanie Wolfe, Koko

Running: Saturday (in preview) through Oct. 10

Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: citadeltheatre.com 

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A good night’s sleep and A Fit, Happy Life, Teatro’s third filmed production. A review.

Mathew Hulshof and Kristen Padayas in A Fit, Happy Life, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s what I do! It’s what I love!” declares a man in earnest defence of the job that is his chosen career and his avocation.

Mike Brack (Mathew Hulshof) is an expert in the field of mattresses. He is a bed salesman in a department store, the old-school kind with sales persons, and “attention, shoppers!” announcements.

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In Stewart Lemoine’s A Fit, Happy Life, the third of the three filmed productions in Teatro La Quindicina’s 2021 summer season — all three are now available online — Mike shares his specialized knowledge with an impromptu series of challenging customers (all played by Kristen Padayas), in an effort to fulfil their individual mattress requirements.   

As Mike notes to a variety of shoppers, there are “485 individually pocketed coils” in the extra-firm deluxe queen-size mattress made especially for Abernathy’s by Royal Serenity, and designed by a team of orthopaedic doctors for “a good night’s rest and a fit, happy life.”

In the world of department store sales, you do feel that it’s one thing to be selling air fryers in the small appliance department or ear muffs in accessories. Alighting (so to speak) on the right mattress for a particular customer, however, involves an unusual degree of personal connection, empathy with the individual priorities and relationships of strangers. Although a domestic staple, the bed is also a universal symbol, and a veritable double-entendre on coils. Can any non-stick omelette pan claim so much?

Mike’s professional reserve and affability, confidence, and on-the-job equilibrium are challenged at every turn by the particular demands and revelations he confronts. And the performance by Hulshof, such a smart, alert actor, captures that sense of a man adapting on his feet. A bed salesman cannot seem to be taken aback; he certainly must not be shockable. Mike is the man who learns too much about every stranger he meets, as one does when one is selling a stranger a mattress.

How this builds to a heartfelt ode to retail is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. The soundtrack of Mike’s professional life even includes a chorus: “Attention shoppers! Your clock specials have expired.”   

Co-directed by the playwright and Belinda Cornish, A Fit, Happy Life, is based on a 1985 Lemoine (Women In Bed) that ran for three performance, late night at the old Phoenix Downtown. In the original, the customers were played by a succession of actors. Taking advantage of the filmed medium, Padayas turns in a zestful comic performance playing all of them. They’re a wild all-age assortment of aggrieved wives, nouveau-riche brides, mysterious sirens who say things like “my curiosity waxes and wanes,” and others.…

Padayas is resourceful and very funny, entering Abernathy’s bed department (designed by Cornish) as a succession of completely different women. Ah, the magic of film. I can’t say more; surprise is of the essence. But I can tell you the costumes, wigs, and make-up by Rachel Bowron are a riot.

Amusingly, Erik Mortimer’s apt original music combines that perky retail soundtrack quality with quirkier top-notes. And the selection of eyeball-to-eyeball close-ups and longer shots (filmmaker Adam Kidd) captures the oddball quality of this serial comedy.

Like Lost Lemoine Part 1 and Lost Lemoine 2: A Second Round of Seconds, A Fit, Happy Life is available for streaming, through Oct. 31 at teatroq.com. The fourth production of this highly compressed season, Fever-Land, happens live and in-person. It opens Sept. 24 at the Varscona Theatre.

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Capturing the Patsy Cline essence: Sara-Jeanne Hosie is back at the Mayfield

Sara-Jeanne Hosie in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline. Poster image supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Sixteen years ago, an award-winning musical theatre triple threat from the West Coast got offered an unusually specific starring role. One that would involve surprising low notes and some yodelling.

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How’d you like to be our Patsy?

Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who was working at the Chemainus Theatre Festival at the time, couldn’t have foreseen where the Mayfield Theatre’s invitation to play Patsy Cline in a five-year-old musical revue/ homage, would lead, in an already busy career.

Since 2005 Hosie has starred in musicals from Les Miz to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She’s been Mary Poppins, Sally Bowles, and Velma Kelly in Chicago; she’s been Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and the Baker’s Wife in Sondheim’s Into The Woods, to sample from a crammed resumé. But threading through all of it is this: the actor/director/choreographer has become the country’s leading Patsy Cline.

Hosie has sung Crazy and Walking After Midnight on stages everywhere (except the east coast). And starting Tuesday, Hosie will be Patsy again, for the third time at the Mayfield in Dean Regan’s hit A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.

“My debut as Patsy,” as Hosie puts it, a smile in her voice, was a chance to connect with a girlhood fave. “I was a wee thing,” she says of her 11-year-old self seeing A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline at the Charlottetown Festival. “I fell in love with her, and with that show.”

To play the country star herself involved being vetted by the Patsy Cline estate. “I had to put myself on tape, and it had to be approved…. I get it, they were trying to protect her legacy.” They must have liked what they heard.

Playing the character is not, needless to say, merely a matter of knowing the words, wearing the boots and not being blonde. Refashioning her voice to be Patsy was “a big journey,” Hosie says. “I don’t sing the way Patsy sings when I sing for myself…. It’s all about her placement: where do you place her in your voice? in your head? in your nose?” Ah, and “and the way she closes off her vowels.” And, OK, there’s also “her (signature) little yodel, that little break that switches from chest to head voice.”

Sara-Jeanne Hosie. Photo supplied.

“I’ve never wanted to be an impersonator,” says Hosie, who’s married to the actor Kevin Kruchkywich (an MP hopeful running in the Perth-Wellington riding). “I feel that’s so inauthentic if you’re just trying to sound like somebody…. I wanted to make her not cartoon-y! As an actor, I need to come from my own perspective, bring my own heart to those great songs. And trust that I’ve done enough vocally to capture the essence.”

What makes Patsy Cline so magnetic to generations of fans is that “she had real heart,” Hosie thinks. “And she had a lot of crap happen to her in her life,” a tragically short one as it happened (she died in a plane crash at age 30).

“She always sang from the heart…. Those big sad ballads sound like her heart was breaking. She had an amazing ability to communicate through music that way. And she was so honest; if she was emotional she’d stop herself,” on the edge of tears. “I’ve always loved that about her.”

That signature distinctions of The Voice are one thing, “an intricate challenge,” as Hosie agrees. But there’s the sheer size of the part, musically speaking. In a “normal” musical there might be six big songs for an actor in a lead role; in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, there are 23.

“What takes the toll and tires the voice is the broken yodelling.” In a long run, with eight shows a week, those vocal demands make for a hermetic sort of life. “I definitely rest when I can,” says Hosie cheerfully.

Embedded in a long list of musical theatre credits — classics like South Pacific, off-centre Off-Broadway fare like Falsettos, contemporary groundbreakers like Fun Home (she was the middle Alison in the Vancouver Arts Club’s Canadian premiere in 2018) — is a love of country music. She doesn’t listen to it at home: “I’m a weird unicorn. I don’t think to put on music at home; music is my work, and I love to have no music when I’m not at work.” But “I love singing country music. And I’ve thought of writing my own country album.”

She arrived here from a summer at home in Stratford where she and Kruchkywich moved in 2012. “I’ve fared all right this year,” she says. Having a “fantastic husband and a great dog” helps.

There’s something irrepressibly energetic about Hosie. Evidently she’s never seen a to-do list she didn’t want to check off. “I can’t sit on my hands; I’m a forward momentum person,” Hosie says mildly. She’s been in the last three of Ross Petty’s Christmas pantos in Toronto (the 2020 edition was filmed). She’s directed a college production in her home town of Victoria. She adds, as a casual aside, that she opened a small business in Stratford.

FAWN is all about image consulting and personal styling, and it includes a boutique of hand-picked pieces, some “pre-loved” some new. She does a “Nosie Hosie” video  interview blog (see YouTube links on her website sjhosie.com). “I wanted to be part of Stratford on a community level, and that led to becoming a small-business owner,” she says of a skill set boosted by a course at George Brown College in Toronto and a fearless willingness to ask questions. “Being part of the town has been a great adventure! I’ve been so lucky to have people pulling for me.”

“At heart I guess I’m a leader; I like gathering people.” Maybe that’s why Hosie is drawn to directing. “It uses so many parts of your brain; I like to have multiple challenges.”

“I only want to do the projects that bring me, well, joy!” she says. “The pandemic, when we had to stay home, taught me that….” And that has something material to do with her return to Patsy Cline, a role she figured she’d left forever after countless performances.

“I thought I’d put those boots away…. But having that time away was great. And now I’m really loving it. The band is the same. Sheldon Bergstrom (the production’s Little Big Man, Patsy’s DJ cohort and narrator) is the same.” On the first day of rehearsal, Hosie asked the company “does it feel like we ever left?”

“The band is always killer at the Mayfield. Van (musical director Van Wilmott, the Mayfield’s artistic director) is a real musician. The best part is that feeling of singing with a band. I know Patsy loved it too!”

What was it like to return to a role she’s played so often? “I was re-exercising my voice, trying to find Patsy’s low low notes. As soon as Derek Stremel started to play bass, those notes just came back to me. Fascinating!”

PREVIEW

A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Dean Regan

Directed by: Van Wilmott

Starring: Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Sheldon Bergstom

Running: Sept. 14 through Oct. 31

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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Towards a more inclusive theatre: Postmarginal Edmonton

Postmarginal Edmonton. Drawing by Anne-Laure Mathieu.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At a moment in history when so many of our artistic assumptions are ready for their close-up, the intertwined questions of how theatre gets made, how it’s experienced — and by whom — are up for hard scrutiny in the late-pandemic lighting.

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There’s an academic way to talk about the future of theatre practices, and creation with a wider cultural, racial, and ethnic embrace. And then there’s the live, physical way to envision it. Postmarginal Edmonton, the project happening Sunday through Tuesday on location at the Fringe’s Westbury Theatre, is the second.   

There were Postmarginals in Montreal in 2018 and Vancouver in 2019. An unusual collaboration has made possible the Edmonton edition of the event: Walterdale, our community theatre; the Citadel, our largest professional theatre; Theatre Alberta, the umbrella organization that promotes theatre development and growth here. Postmarginal Edmonton gathers 50 local theatre artists, storytellers, and cultural workers, of every stripe — for dialogues, workshops, and collaborative cross-cultural experiments about identity and the ways in which our differences can be a source of inspiration. It’s a sort of artists’ retreat, yes, but retreat is probably the wrong word. Postmarginal is tuned to advance — in diverse representation and engagement, in the rehearsal hall and onstage, .

We caught up this week with project director Peter Farbridge, the  actor/director/filmmaker  — and co-founder (with Soheil Parsa) of the Toronto company Modern Times Stage Company where the seeds of Postmarginal were planted. “There was an inter-cultural basis to the company right away,” he says from his home base in Montreal. “Soheil came as a political refugee from Iran…. We met at university, we liked each other’s work, we decided to start a company.”

It was 1989, and Toronto, the most multi-cultural city in the country these days, was experiencing an immigration boom. “But there wasn’t a lot of inclusivity in theatres at the time,” says Farbridge, who appears in many of Modern Times’ productions. “We weren’t being political … but our company stood out” with its diverse repertoire (some Iranian some Western, much new) and its roster of artists. “Soheil wanted to see the entirety of of the artists onstage — their culture, their training, their personalities.”

Postmarginal, he says, was inspired by the practices of Modern Times. “We wanted to share,” he says. “We thought maybe we could bring something to the (theatre) community that could be replicated, or inspire other kinds of inclusion,” the LGBTQ community for example, or the physical or mental disability community. “The opening of the space to voices and perspectives could be quite radically inclusive.” Postmarginal was born in that thought.

Postmarginal, which started with a 2017 Montreal conference, was never going to happen as an instruction pamphlet or a university course. “We need the engagement of the body in the space,” as Farbridge puts it. “As theatre artists we need to think corporeally as well (as intellectually)… to have the conversation in a way that’s fully engaged in the space.” And that visceral experience of “watching it happen in a space with artist practitioners” is crucial, he thinks, for listening, and for “opening up pathways towards empathy.” Hence the idea of the retreat.

Jesse Del Fierro leads the Postmarginal workshop “What are you afraid of…?”

Jesse Del Fierro (they/them/), Theatre Alberta’s outreach and partnership coordinator, was a storyteller participant in Postmarginal Vancouver in 2019. They remember being particularly struck by the conversations the event engendered. They now head the 35//50 Initiative by which professional theatres (and Theatre Alberta) have committed to achieving 35 per cent BIPOC and 50 per cent female-identifying and non-binary representation in staff and contractors by 2025. It’s more “structural” in its approach to change than Postmarginal, which asks “once everybody is in the room, how are we speaking to each other?” as Farbridge says. But the two projects are on parallel courses.

Josh Languedoc leads the Postmarginal workshop “Artistic Resilience And Sovereign Spaces.”

The “entry point” for Postmarginal is storytelling, he says. “It’s a way to gain access to different worlds….” In addition to the Postmarginal team, the roster of facilitators and workshop leaders for the Edmonton edition (a year and a half in the making) includes some of our most most distinctive and gifted storytellers (Josh Languedoc, Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki, Chris Dodd, Lady Vanessa and Todd Houseman among them). Storytelling “gives the participants the opportunity to (put) different perspectives together; what are the commonalities? what are the differences?”

The third of the three Postmarginal days leans to facilitating artistic partnerships for theatrical projects yet to come. The full impact of the pandemic, when the performing arts were abruptly put on hold, has yet to be understood. “How different can our work spaces be as theatre comes back in full force?” Farbridge is heartened, he says, by the interest in change from the big, major theatres.

As Del Fierro muses, “how that relates to the audience, we’ll have to see….” Was the pandemic merely an intermission in a long-running theatre production? Postmarginal is all about testing the proposition that diversity and inclusivity onstage attract a more diverse and inclusive audience. “It does work,” Farbridge says of the Modern Times experience. “It is possible to enter into theatre, to be seen, to be heard,” in short to break the colonial stronghold.

Eric Rice of Walterdale points out that the Postmarginal partnership has already had on impact on that community theatre; conversations around diversity-equity-inclusivity are now a regular part of season planning. Stay tuned.

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And behind the door … a stranger. A Second Round of Seconds, Lost Lemoine part 2 at Teatro. A review

Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Anyone unalterably convinced that a life of celibacy is much to be preferred to a blind date with a stranger should probably avoid Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds at all costs.

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On the other hand, awkwardness, other people’s that is, is a great source of gruesome hilarity. And A Second Round of Seconds, the second of the three Teatro La Quindicina streaming productions in their 2021 season, is dating gone hilariously wrong, fast, in an intricate structure of speedy meet-and-greets, one on one. It’s a veritable comedy mini-series in under an hour.

“At Teatro we pogo,” explained playwright Stewart Lemoine,  interviewed on the Varscona stage Friday by the company’s co-artistic producers Belinda Cornish (the director of the piece) and Andrew MacDonald-Smith at the big-screen launch of the filmed production designed for domestic consumption. This is as good a description of the structure and pace of the piece as you can get.

Originally written for Teatro’s adjunct company of “lawyers by day actors by night” (The Novus Players) in 2016, A Second Round of Seconds is “speed dating with a difference!.”

That’s what Milo (Josh Travnik), the unsquelchably perky “founder and CEO” of Sudden Sparks, tells the three women and three men who have showed up for a “superior” life-changing experience. “Predictability is a no-no!” beams this corporate existentialist, explaining the rules of “a series of brief encounters” (later “a roundelay of romance”) designed as “an extension of life itself!”

What could go wrong?

Behind the red velvet theatre curtain on the screen that’s behind the identical red velvet curtain on the Varscona stage, the line-up of three yellow doors (design: Chantel Fortin) is a tip-off. They are the world-wide theatrical signal for farce. Behind those mystery doors three women will wait, in a cafe, a salon, a bar, for a stranger to enter, for a rendezvous of unpredictable duration (and a variety of drinks) that ends with a bell, two actually, and an exit.

Ask not for whom the bells toll … I am not giving anything away to reveal that this always happens at the most awkward moment. As people at bus stops or in elevators have always known, time with strangers is invariably either way too long or way too short. You’re either stranded on the silent shoals of eternity awaiting rescue, or you’re left hanging with a pocketful of unanswered questions and unsaid zingers,

And the permutations prescribed by Sudden Sparks mean that the most awkward encounters get a round #2, which amplifies the instant incompatibilities of round one. That’s how comic mayhem grows, and in A Second Round of Seconds it’s at a farcical pace.

As Cornish’s production reveals, and delightfully, this speed-up concept is a playground for the specific choices, physical inventions, and uncanny timing of eight very skilled comic actors. Strangers when we meet them, we, along with their partners of the moment, learn things about them, fast. Or in the case of the relentlessly grim-visaged Sylvia (Jocelyn Ahlf), we don’t learn things, fast. “I’m going to level with you …” she eventually reluctantly tells her unlucky speed-date partners, who naturally wonder what on earth she’d doing at Sudden Sparks. Then, always, inevitably, before her answer … a bell.

To see Andrea House’s Janice, mysteriously flirtatious in a prim, bowed, white blouse, attempt to arrange herself seductively on a couch is to see an expert at work. She puts the physical comedy back into what would online be the arid theoretical reaches of social media self-profiling. And she is very funny.

I laughed out loud to see Jesse Gervais entering the room — can you enter a room ‘heartily’? — declaring himself a banker. Ditto Mark Meer in rabbity mode, with an apologetic ponytail, being tentative about everything in his initial encounter with Leslie. As the latter, Helen Belay is the straight-person, the foil to the oddities around her, scrambling to smooth things over, find commonalities, and move them along. “My sister is a dentist,” she gamely tells a dental supplies salesman, quickly followed by a look that says she knows she’s just pushed herself into a conversational sinkhole.

Oscar Derkx is amusing too, as a pleasant guy confronted by the implacable Sylvia and hoping for a breakthrough in that human fortress. “May I join you?” he says politely, meeting wth a stony gaze. “You can try,” she says.

Cornish has devised a speed dating pace that’s both spontaneous and arranged, frantic and full of agonizing (or appalled, or panicky) silences. And it’s calibrated for the escalating modifications in Lemoinian rejoinders, witty and/or laconic, that booze, hot wings, and revelations, bring on in rounds 2 and 3.

Kudos to Gianna Vacirca, who makes the tiny role of Crystal, the smiling server of drinks and non-sequiturs, something funny too. Life is mysteriously amusing, my friends. And so is the human pageant,  especially when it’s arranged sequentially. People are all strangers — until they’re not.

Pour yourself a drink, and watch at home, through Oct. 31. Streaming passes: teatroq.com.

  

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After a year of streaming, the Métis version of Mary’s Wedding is back, and live, at 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

There are layers of wispy fiddle music like aural smoke in the air, a haze of past and present.

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“Tonight is just a dream,” advises Charlie (Cree actor/playwright Todd Houseman), the lovestruck Métis boy who leads us into a story of first love that works the way dreams do, in loops of memory that transcend time and place, sleeping and waking.

He’s pretty much nailed the occasion, too. The Citadel production of Mary’s Wedding, Tai Amy Grauman’s reimagining for Métis characters of the classic Canadian love story by Stephen Massicotte, finally arrived onstage last night live, and in front of a live (distanced, masked) audience to dream with.

There’s something of looped dream logic in the reversals of a year that’s been a lifetime. Jenna Rodgers’ Citadel production of Mary’s Wedding was mere days before its opening night last November when COVID restrictions shut that down. It opened instead onscreen, in a filmed version that began streaming just before Christmas, with thoughts of a live production in the new year. Meanwhile, designer Brianna Kolybaba’s slatted wooden installation sat gathering dust and dreaming of characters on the Shoctor stage, while the film production kept streaming (it still is, through Nov. 30).

And now, here we are, happy new year!, on a live opening night for a production that has looped back on the usual live-to-streaming chronology, as if a year had vanished into the ether. It feels like a special occasion. Time can resume now.

I saw the streamed version (my 12thnight review was posted on Jan. 4, remember January?). And I thought at the time how “theatrical” this memory play was on film, happening on a lighted set that seemed to float in darkness, “on the mind’s stage” so to speak. As you might expect, it feels different live — brighter, less faraway, more forward in shaping its characters when real live actors, Grauman herself and Houseman, are there with us.   

In the poetic dreamscape that is Mary’s Wedding, a Romeo and Juliet story of young prairie lovers up against it plays out against the nightmare landscape of World War I an ocean away. It’s the night before Mary’s wedding in 1920, and we’re inside the bride-to-be’s dream of her first love, as it slides in a non-linear way from memory to memory. In this, the production is assisted dramatically by Patrick Beagan’s evocative ocean-crossing lighting, and Dave Clarke’s sound score, which finds the continuity between prairie thunder and the boom of warfare.

In Massicotte’s original, Charlie is a shy Canuck farm boy who loves to ride horses; Mary  is an English rose, the daughter of  class-conscious Brit immigrants. Grauman, a Métis/ Cree/ Hausenosaunee artist, reimagines the colonial nuances  with Métis characters. And it’s striking how beautifully that works, not least by upping the ante on the stakes for Charlie as he leaves home to be a soldier across the sea.

Mary is from the “scrip” world (an initiative of farm land allotments designed to assimilate Métis families into the mainstream). The unschooled Charlie is from a hard-scrabble “road allowance” family, marginalized in every way by both First Nations reserves and white culture, and even by scrip mothers who dream of English suitors for their daughters. Even their language divides them: Mary’s Cree is limited to a single word; Charlie speaks Michif, a French/Cree hybrid.

Charlie’s only hope of being “somebody … a Canadian” is, he thinks, fighting for a country that has shoved him to the margins, a heartbreaking poignancy that hovers over that fateful decision to leave home. And he learns to write especially so he can send letters back to Mary.

For her part, Mary inhabits the letters. She remembers, and she imagines herself with him in the trenches, as his sergeant Gordon Flowerdew. “You’ll see her in everyone, in everything you do.” It’s the triumph and the tragedy of love — “kinda scary but good” — and it’s the same for her.

On screen, the dynamic between the actors is coloured by close-ups, and every exit from the light is a kind of vanishing. In Rodgers’ live production, the dynamic between the actors has greater physicality. The past and the present intersect by human agency. You see Charlie put on his soldier’s jacket to enter the scene, hunched in dread. You see Mary holding on to Charlie for dear life on horseback in a more visceral way. Live theatre is just more alive.

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

Grauman’s performance as Mary continues to be an original take on the dreamer. This one is no fragile romantic, no introspective Lady of Shalott; she’s quite brisk, earthy, almost matter-of-fact, who’s bemused to discover herself in love. She seems to be aware there’s an audience in the house. And Houseman’s Charlie has a tentative, awkward, aspirational sort of charm to him. Charlie in love, or at a society tea instead of on a horse, is a veritable human question mark in Houseman’s performance. “I was thinking, Mary, that maybe … I’m … not… the right sort….” I love his observation that, no, he has never seen the ocean, “but I’ve heard good things about it.”

Mary’s Wedding had its origins here, in a Workshop West Springboards reading in 2001 and a premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects’ late lamented PlayRites Festival in Calgary a year later. Productions proliferated across the country, and beyond, after that. Grauman’s Métis adaptation brings it back home — both its pair of mis-matched lovers who hide from storms in a prairie barn, and its anti-war thrust that sees through the slats of odes to bravery like Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, and finds the “valley of death” within.

The obligatory masks may muffle the Mary’s Wedding inevitable soundtrack of snuffling from the audience. But Charlie’s advice for us at the outset still stands. “There are sad parts. Don’t let that stop you from dreaming too.”

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

Running: through Sept. 12

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

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