Raising a little hell: Canada 151 at the Mayfield. A review.

 

Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You know you’re in Canada when the Beachcombers theme is in the air pre-show. And the band arrives onstage in lumberjack shirts. And your heart melts just a little when everyone in the opening production number is decked out in parkas, toques, and snow boots.

The amusingly non-assertive title of the latest from the Mayfield is a wry salute to Canada’s signature contribution to international discourse, the apology. Canada 151 turns out to be a hugely entertaining, celebratory, and spirited revue of this country’s music and musicians, and also its defining cultural motifs, riffs, personality quirks. 

Canada 151, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The subject in Canada 151 is Canadian-ness, a quality that some days seems to have spread its tiny wings and flown away. And the musical range is, to say the least, wide — Don Messer to Leonard Cohen, Our Pet Juliette to Morissette, Stan Rogers to Céline, Bieber to Burton  to Buffy, Great Big Sea to shining sea. As wide as the country splayed out imaginatively as a giant translucent backdrop map (with the TransCanada Highway in big dots) on which the projections of video designer T. Erin Gruber play — Canadian landscapes, people, concerts, northern lights, trips down historical main streets.

The country’s song-scape — a veritable tower of song — is delivered by a startlingly versatile and accomplished nine(!)-member cast of singer/dancers and a crack five-piece band led by musical director/arranger Van Wilmott. It is just not reasonable to expect such deluxe application. And yet, as usual in the Mayfield’s musical extravaganzas, there is nothing skimpy about Canada 151, in either conception or delivery.

Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

As written and compiled by Will Marks and Gerrad Everard (the former a mystery man, the latter a performer in the cast) and directed by Kate Ryan, Canada 151 wraps its theatrical wits around “Canada” and gives it an affectionate squeeze.

It starts with, and regularly returns to, hockey, not so much a sport as a mythology, or maybe a genetic code. This is a country where a hockey announcer — or some big-mouth lunatic in a loud sports jacket who talks about hockey a kilometre a minute — can be a national star. Hockey Night In Canada, Coaches’ Corner, spontaneous eruptions of pick-up hockey in the street (players yell “Car!” and move the net when one comes by, then berate the driver for not picking another road).

The show touches down on all of the above and more. Nice, polite, apologetic, and goofy aren’t in themselves qualities to conjure with, in showbiz. Canada 151 approaches smartly: fast and funny are crucial in collages. And here, it’s mixed with touching. 

Hinterland Who’s Who is an amusing gallery of Canadian species including the Canadian Cougar, a hockey mom with a ferocious appetite for Timmy Ho coffee, and blood. “Do not confront or make eye contact.” Did you know that Christopher Robin’s friend Winnie The Pooh has Canadian affiliations? I did not. Someone with free time can explain to me Pooh’s thing with the moose.

Bob and Doug McKenzie, the SCTV hosers, have long ago ceased to raise a laugh even in memory. They’re actually funny as conjured by Keiran Martin Murphy and Kevin Dabbs to pick the top 10 Canadians of all time. Anyone remember Body Break? Anyone wonder why curling is considered a viable spectator experience? 

Kevin Dabbs, Kieran Martin Murphy iin Canada 151, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The songs, which keep coming for more than two and a half hours, are introduced in unexpected ways from their Canuck point of origin on the map. The Trailer Park Boys, for example, do the honours for Barrett’s Privateers by Stan Rogers. The introduction to the Guess Who’s American Woman is cut short when the introducers just blow away at the corner of Portage and Main in the ‘Peg.

To return to the music, the raison d’être of the show, there is an crazy profusion of it. And while they’re not about impersonation per se, the performers and the band are remarkably dexterous at capturing the recognizable essence of a huge variety of styles and sounds. In this they are materially assisted by Christine Bandelow’s choreography and the hundreds of costumes designed by Leona Brausen — both liberally laced with signature motifs and amusing references.

Brad Wiebe, Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

O what a feeling … gonna fill your head with music and satisfy your soul. Well, there’s something pretty mesmerizing about having Canadian music collected on one stage for one evening’s entertainment. Only because Canada 151 is so fulsome do the absences of Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and a big Drake splash even cross your mind. The Rankins, k.d. lang, Gord Downie, Corey Hart, Shania and Sarah, Avril Lavigne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, a funny Bieber scene, a Nickelback stage gag, Rush, a visual deconstruction of the CBC logo …. The list is vast.  

We Canadians may not have been born to be wild. But the urge to raise a little hell knows no age or climatic impediments. Time to get out that gift certificate, and your Christmas shopping list. This is a good one.

REVIEW

Canada 151

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written and complied by: Will Marks and Gerrad Everard

Directed by: Van Wilmott

Staged by: Kate Ryan

Choreographed by: Christine Bandelow

Starring: Tyler Check, Kevin Dabbs, Gerrad Everard, Pamela Gordon, Kieran Martin Murphy, Laura Mae Nason, Larissa Pohoreski, Devra Straker, Brad Wiebe

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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How to meet people you never meet: thoughts on Viscosity

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Life is full of surprises. Last night I found myself sitting at a bar stool next to a woman I’d just never run into in my usual life of 7:30 curtain times.

She’s a heavy-equipment operator in the Oil Patch. Feisty, cheerful, evidently not the kind to sidle up to bullshit obliquely, she looked me right in the eye, brewski in hand. And she shrugged as she told her story of working in a man’s world, a world of harsh sexist confrontations and the need to choose between submissiveness and defiance. She told of changing her demeanour and even her body shape (with steroids and visits to 24-hour gyms) in order to show she could do the work of any man, survive, prevail.

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Played by Melissa Thingelstad with fierce good humour, she was one of the series of close encounters with real-life stories that make up Viscosity. I met a guy in overalls (Murray Farnell) working on (and under) his pick-up truck, telling his own story of being a regular guy with regular dreams working in the Patch — and his own first-hand realization that not every oil guy was a young dope who makes a shitload of money and blows it all on partying and Ford 150s.

I sat outside a trailer strung with fairy lights as a woman (Sandy Paddick) with a much different Oil Patch story revealed her lonely life far from her daughter: seven years of 10 12-hour days on, four off, in an environment where 80 per cent of the guys are fine and the other 20 per cent, well, aren’t.

Heather Inglis’s Theatre Yes initiative, which has gathered and edited verbatim interviews into monologues, is a drop-in affair that transforms the Backstage Theatre into a bunch of venues — and gives your easy assumptions about big oil a jostle with personal perspectives from people who actually work in that world. 

That’s how I ended up at a coffee shop table with an electrician (Chris Bullough) who talked about the dangers of working in oil (the safety standards book was, he said, “written in blood”), and about transitioning the skills of oil workers to alternative energy industries.

If you assume that oil workers aren’t conflicted about environmental science, or they’re just venal and/or blithely ignorant, you’d be off the mark, judging by Viscosity. I got into a car with an actor (Byron Martin) who didn’t make enough money to start a family, buy groceries, pay rent, until he landed an Oil Patch job. He thinks he “won the lottery.” But he points out that it’s not as if we aren’t all complicit in destroying the environment. You drive a car? You fly anywhere? You wear shoes?

I met a Philippine foreign worker (Jimmy Buena) with a sad story to tell about being cheated, both on his home turf and here. I met an Argentine immigrant (Leo Campos Aldunez), who left violence and oppression in his home country for the relative safety here. 

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

The actors, who occupy a series of evocative “locations” in Brian Bast’s evocative design, are so forcefully engaging that it’s a kind of invitation: you feel the urge to respond directly, even though Viscosity is not that kind of show. Inglis calls it a “performance installation,” and as I did you can arrive when you like, come and go, “activate” a monologue by standing or sitting on an X, and … listen.

It’s meaningful that the stories, with their homely, telling details, are from real life and feel like it. What did I take away? The proposition that the great debate of our time probably shouldn’t be a debate anyhow. How are humans to live in the world without destroying it? If the word “conversation” hadn’t been abused into fraudulence by the corporate and political realms, that would be a place to start.

Check out my interview with Theatre Yes artistic director Heather Inglis here.

Viscosity, directed by Heather Inglis of Theatre Yes, runs at the Backstage Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.) through Nov. 17. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or at the door.

      

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One fine night (or the case of the reluctant star): Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. A review

Sarah Bockel, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the history of the Great White Way, there’s no shortage of musicals, jukebox and otherwise, that are defined by the showbiz gene: the drive for stardom, the magnetic pull of performance, the compelling need to leap out of the crowd of hopefuls and into the limelight whatever the cost.

The 2014 jukebox musical biography that’s arrived at the Jube in a fine Broadway Across Canada touring production, is in the oddball position of having a star who resists stardom at every turn. Until she doesn’t, of course. Or can’t.

In the climactic finale scene of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, the heroine, played winningly by Sarah Bockel, is entering the stage at Carnegie Hall for the legendary Tapestry concert. And she hesitates for a second, as if she’s missed a cue, or it’s the wrong one and it’s too soon. She peeks out at the audience as if to say we must be as surprised as she is to find herself there.

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Bockel embraces this tentative quality in an engagingly self-deprecating, warm, convincing performance as the un-flashy and vulnerable woman whose career is as startling as her life challenges are, well, old-fashioned normal — career vs. home life, crumbling marriage to an unstable philanderer, kids…. “I’m just a normal person,” says King resisting an invitation to join the band onstage at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village at a crucial Act II moment.  “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?”

Sarah Bockel in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

The answer, very evidently, is ‘lots of people’ since Beautiful has played on Broadway, in the West End, internationally and on tour for millions since 2015. There was an unmistakeable eau de nostalgie floating through the crowd on opening night at the Jube.

In the story of the early life and career of the iconic American singer-songwriter chronicled by Beautiful, King’s is a rare case of having stardom thrust upon her, instead of vice versa. And we’re in a position to savour the binary arc of Beautiful all the more in Douglas McGrath’s libretto since the King archive is an astonishingly ample catalogue of chart-toppers: songs you know, songs you  might not even realize she wrote.

At first they were written in tandem with her husband Gerry Goffin for such artists as the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers, the Monkees, Little Eva (their babysitter, really). The show includes Chains, which the Beatles covered on an early album. And then, in an act of female empowerment that was a groundbreaker in the new age of singer-songwriter reclamation, King took to the stage herself to perform and record her own hits — witness the stunning and durable success of her 1971 album Tapestry

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Beautiful follows a perky but determined 16-year-old Brooklyn kid, King née Klein, into the rock and-roll hit-making factory near Times Square — theatrically conjured in Marc Bruni’s production as a perpetual motion hive of musical activity, framed by a light-up proscenium (designer: Derek McLane with lighting by Peter Kaczorowski). 

It’s the early ‘60s, and the teen songwriter sells a song to eagle-eared finger-on-the-pulse record exec Don Kirshner (James Clow), and meets the alluring young lyricist Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach). They team up, in work and life. And shortly thereafter, they have a No. 1 hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, recorded by the Shirelles — and a baby.

Sarah Bockel and Dylan S. Wallach in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied

The fun of Act I is that the  dazzling string of hits — by King and Goffin and their best friend/rivals Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) and Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst), also hit-makers par excellence — spring to life onstage in smartly choreographed (by Josh Prince) numbers by actors playing the artists who recorded them. The high-speed costume changes, the staccato pace … all very entertaining and playful. Heimer and Whitehurst have an amusing showbiz sass about them, and the interplay between the two couples is the infrastructure of the show.

Act II is the female empowerment act. As King’s personal life falls apart and Goffin’s behaviour becomes increasingly impossible, she struggles to find her own two feet onstage singing her own songs. The long-suffering King ditches him, finally (an applause-inviting moment), and goes solo. The songs have a kind of yearning simplicity (simple is hard, as someone says in this very musical) to them. And Bockel, whose voice, though not an imitation per se, has an array of interesting husky edges and King-esque angles to it, delivers them beautifully. Natural Woman is a knock-out.

McGrath’s script, though, thuds from time to time — the usual jukebox challenge of how to make an excuse for a song not look quite so much like … an excuse for a song. In Beautiful, it’s pretty obvious that narrative convenience wins over writerly elegance, for example, when on the cusp of her move to L.A.,  King tells her friends Barry and Cynthia she’s not going to say goodbye but instead she’s going to sit down at the piano and sing You’ve Got A Friend. There are other examples too; they jar because they’re only occasional.

The music, accompanied by forces that include a contingent of top local musicians, doesn’t have that problem. It’s a lavish evening of timeless songs. The sound, though, especially in Act I, errs on the side of a forward sheen that sometimes obscures the lyrics.

There’s a lovely performance at the centre of it all. Bockel finds the quiet drama in a  woman who gradually discovers her own considerable strength and makes you glad to cheer her on. It’s without thunder — and that’s how the earth really moves under your feet.    

REVIEW

Beautiful – the Carole King Musical

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Douglas McGrath

Directed by: Marc Bruni

Starring: Sarah Bockel, Dylan S. Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca, Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-5000).

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Viscosity: Theatre Yes challenges preconceptions about big oil and the people who work it

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s not exactly a play, although there are actors. It’s not exactly journalism, although the monologues are transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews with real-life people. And you might resist calling it an exhibit, although you can come and go as you like, stay as long as you like, see any segment partially or in full, in any order.

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Heather Inglis calls Viscosity — the latest from Theatre Yes, opening Thursday at the Backstage Theatre — a “performance installation.” The production, from a theatre company of the experimental stripe (Anxiety, The Elevator Project), it an opportunity to challenge what we think we know on the hottest subject there is in these parts: big oil and the people who are its front-line workers. 

“Big rhetorical questions” are in the air, as Inglis says of the quintessential Alberta debate topic. “We talk about saving jobs for Alberta families, for example. Who are they? What’s happening with them?”

They’re people we might not otherwise meet, as Inglis points out. “It was an enlightening process, and I felt strangely connected to the people I had conversations with, recording the day-to-day mundanities of their lives. For me, it’s been a whole journey….”

That investigative journey to the territory beyond our clichéd preconceptions about oil workers — “22-year-old guys buying expensive trucks” — involved considerable “friend of a friend” networking, “happenstance,” and “a lot of coffee” this past summer, Inglis reports.

She met people of all ages, genders, sexualities, cultures. She had conversations with immigrants, foreign workers, career workers in every kind of oil industry job; she consulted Ian Wilson from Iron and Earth (an organization devoted to transitioning workers for the 21st century energy economy). Some had little or no real interest in talking for a theatre project. One fellow finally agreed because “he said his ex-girlfriend’s friend was bugging him.” Two wanted to be anonymous; “they were afraid of having the label ‘anti-oil’…. And I’m certainly not trying to catch them or expose them.” 

“The other thing is that these people are very busy,” says Inglis. Typical oil work schedules include “24 on, four off, of 12- to 14-hour days.” 

“I feel like I’ve got a reasonable breadth of experience and a variety of points of view,” says Inglis. But Viscosity is, in the end, “an art piece not journalism. It’s oral history about people’s perspectives, first-person stories placed uniquely in Alberta, with material that was drawn from something ‘real’.” And the interviews will be gathered for the Alberta Labour History Institute.

“Our dialogues around oil are (full of) repeating talking points, without real analysis. And as we go into the election there will more of that, a lot more. In many ways we’re just hitting each other over the head.”

The situation calls for more intimate encounters. And that’s what you’ll have with the seven diverse performers Inglis has assembled for Viscosity. It’s not interactive; it’s “a close-up storytelling venture” as she describes it.

Was she surprised by what she heard? “I think we have a range of ideas. Lots of things surprised me, and surprisingly they weren’t the things I thought would surprise me.”

PREVIEW

Viscosity

Theatre: Theatre Yes

Created: from real-life interviews by Heather Inglis

Starring: Jimmy Buena, Chris Bullough, Leo Campos Aldunez, Murray Farnell, Byron Martin, Sandy Paddick, Melissa Thingelstad

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

Running: Thursday through Nov. 17

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

  

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Some kind of wonderful: Beautiful: the Carole King Musical comes to the Jube. Meet the star Sarah Bockel

Sarah Bockel stars in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“She’s … normal,” says Sarah Bockel, musing on the woman she plays in the jukebox musical that arrives on the Jube stage Tuesday under the Broadway Across Canada touring banner. “She’s grounded. Pretty self-effacing. And also insecure! Something I can identify with….”

There’s some kind of wonderful in all that normalcy, of course, since the woman in question is one of contemporary music’s legendary talents, Carole King. The soundtrack of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a stellar array of songs that you know all the words to — chart-toppers that will connect you instantly with your previous selves … Up On the Roof, One Fine Day, I Feel The Earth Move among them.

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And the list is stunningly long, since King’s career trajectory began in the ‘60s, as a teenage writer and seller of songs for other artists to make into hits. In this the Brooklyn kid from James Madison High partnered with her unstable and dysfunctional first husband Gerry Goffin; together they penned dozens of indelible chart entries, like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, The Loco-Motion, Take Good Care Of My Baby, Go Away Little Girl…. Bockel imagines the scene in the storied Brill Building, 1650 Broadway: “teenagers wandering around smoking cigarettes, writing the kind of songs that teenagers listen to.”

Sarah Bockel and Dylan S. Wallach in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied

But, as the 2014 Broadway show celebrates, King’s ascent to stardom wasn’t marked by a voracious appetite for centre stage herself. Solo performing came later, inspired by the vicissitudes of life, marriage, the sexism of the music industry. And the approach to the stage was tentative, full of doubts. That resonates strongly with Bockel, a friendly and self-deprecating voice on the phone from Minneapolis, where the Beautiful tour opened a couple a weeks ago.

For one thing she’s from Chicago, where self-deprecation vis-à-vis New York is congenital. And her roots, as she says, are in “the storefront scene” there — dozens of tiny indie companies doing innovative, off-centre work in unexpected spaces. “I started seeing storefront shows in high school,” she says of her young “theatre junkie” incarnation. Think of the high school in (the Greta Gerwig movie) Lady Bird, Bockel laughs. 

After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan in musical theatre (she’d originally intended to be a Spanish teacher) and moving back into Chicago eight years ago, she joined in. “There was so much work to be had, dream roles! So exciting. Everyone making no money, working three different day jobs to pay the rent.” It makes her interested in the indie scene in Edmonton.  “I miss that so much!” she says of that collaborative DIY spirit. 

“Everybody in Chicago knows about Jessie Mueller, hometown pride!” Bockel says of the Chicago actor who was the original Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway. “When she won the Tony, we all cheered…. I knew I wanted to be like Jessie; I wanted to be her.”

It was in “a weird production of (Sondheim’s) Into The Woods” by an indie Chicago company — she played Cinderella/Rapunzel —  that Bockel had her big-M Moment of “discovery” by a prospective agent. “I made a tape and flew to New York, and three more times after that.”

In the end, she understudied Abby Mueller, Jessie’s sister, “a friend now,” who’d taken over the role for the national tour that left New York in 2015. “That was best,  really,”  Bockel says cheerfully. “I was very starstruck.” But the role would have been “just too much pressure. I wasn’t even Equity at the time.”

There’s an echo of King’s famous shyness and holding back in her story, as Bockel concedes. “I felt like it’s not a stretch for me to play the role. It’s a good fit…. She can laugh at herself, which I love. She’s very funny.” Bockel had a chance to discover that firsthand. “I met Carole for 15 minutes in Orange County after she saw the show. “She made jokes, she laughed, she was so friendly….”

Of the show’s songbook, Bockel does enjoy singing the earlier stuff by King and Goffin and their hit-making friend/competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Walking In The Rain) “who are still married and still friends with Carole.” And in the show the relationship between the two couples figures prominently, as “a kind of comedic relief,” says Bockel. But her own favourites are from “the Tapestry era,” as she says of “woman’s perspective” built into the 1971 King album that sold 25 million copies world-wide, remained on the charts for six years, and for two decades held the record for consecutive weeks on the top of the Billboard 200 by a female soloist.

It’s Too Late, one of the hit singles from the album, gets a context in the show, as Bockel explains. Gradually King’s marriage disintegrates, Goffin’s mental issues exacerbated by drugs and electro-shock therapy. “The pressure to be the next Bob Dylan, the trying to keep up with each other after such early success….” Bockel considers. “But he was such a brilliant lyricist.”

It’s Too Late comes in the last half-hour of the show. “The bass line plays, and everyone sits up in their seats; you can feel it,” says Bockel. “It’s everybody’s break-up song. It’s mine too….”

When Bockel first saw Beautiful and heard You’ve Got a Friend, she “just wept. Such a sweet anthem ….” The show, she says, is “a memory bank…. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard that song. Or who they used to sing it with.”   

PREVIEW

Beautiful: the Carole King Musical

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Douglas McGrath

Directed by: Marc Bruni

Starring: Sarah Bockel

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca, Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-5000).

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The quest to be a warrior: an Indigenous story gets a powerful telling in Redpatch. A review.

Raes Calvert in Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the striking opening moments of Redpatch a masked prophet in a pyramid of light asks “what is life?” and then vanishes into mist.

It’s a question with legs (and vast reservoirs of imaginative and aerobic drive) in the production by Vancouver’s Hardline theatre that’s arrived on the Citadel’s Maclab stage to tell a Canadian story that Canadians don’t know. Suddenly the stage is infiltrated by strange nightmare creatures in perpetual motion. They’re wearing gas masks. And you realize that the thudding drum score is the doom-laden sound of cannon and artillery fire, woven with barely audible human cries.

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If Redpatch, created by Hardline’s Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver, were simply an anti-war play — and really, how could any play about the First World War not be? — it would join a considerable repertoire of horror stories and poetic elegies. But Redpatch sets itself apart, with a particular story to tell. It’s a story drawn from history, in a country where history is hardly a matter of public currency.

More than 4,000 Indigenous Canadians signed up to fight in “the world to end all wars,”  for a country that in word and deed didn’t value them very much. And the artful production directed by Oliver sets about shedding light, both the narrative and theatrical kind, on the mystery of this sacrificial contribution. In the end, Redpatch’s theatrical storytelling, richly imagined in light, sound, explosively choreographed physicality, seems more successful than its storytelling in narrative text. But that’s not to devalue the significance and impact of addressing a little-known story in the live theatre.

Raes Calvert in Redpatch. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At the centre is Half-Blood (Calvert), a young mixed blood First Nations soldier of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, who leaves his home on the shores of one ocean to cross another. It’s an aspirational kind of identity crisis that propels him into the bloody, trench-scarred battlefields of western Europe, torn between native tradition and a sense that “the world is changing.”

Like his boyhood friend Jonathon (Joel D. Montgrand), a pal from residential school (a salient fact, fleetingly referenced), he dreams of being a warrior. And on location in the  Half-Blood proves himself formidable in war like his Indigenous compatriots: his wilderness survival skills make him a star in scouting, sniping, trench-raiding, German-killing. As he says, when the going gets tough it’s ‘hey fellas, let’s throw in the Indian first’.” 

As Half-Blood’s soul-destroying tally of kills mounts, his visions of home, infiltrated by thoughts of natural beauty, are ever-more powerful and troubling. In Oliver’s production and the performance from Calvert, a charismatic, physically eloquent actor, the past and the present cohabit in ways that are always inventive, visceral, emotionally accessible. Half-Blood is a haunted man. And the Raven (the protean Odessa Shuquaya in one of her three roles), a link from home like his grandmother’s medicine bag, signals as much. 

Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The cast of six accomplished Indigenous actors populate the stage, and the story.  Fellow Canuck recruit Dickie (Chelsea Rose) is a raucous prairie dim-bulb with an ugly racist streak. Bam-Bam (Jennifer Daigle) is a Quebecer who is subject to some taunting, too, because of his other-ness in the Canadian group portrait. Medical student Howard (Taran Kootenhayoo) is a civilizing and conciliatory influence. And the Scottish sergeant (Shuquaya), who barks orders like sergeants do world-wide, “doesn’t like Indians, Frenchies, smart people, and pebbly-faced boys from Saskatchewan” about equally.

The fractiousness of real-time encounters, designed to reveal something about the Canadian mosaic (and they do), seem rather over-extended and repetitive in comparison to the theatrical landscape in which the play flourishes otherwise. The story soars when it’s stylized and imagistic — or unfolds in memorable, economical, wispy memory scenes like the two boys on the lam from school, paddling their canoe out into the ocean to hunt a killer whale. It’s more earthbound in its scenes where the plot unfolds in dialogue. 

James Coomber’s rumbling sound design evokes a landscape of dread, ready at every moment to explode into cosmic chaos. And Brad Trenaman’s extraordinary lighting, in dramatic shafts and pools and exploding shimmers, makes it possible to take six actors to Vimy Ridge on a bare stage.

Is war a dream quest where a man discovers himself? Half-Blood’s grandmother She Rides Between (Shuquaya) doesn’t think so. “War drowns men,” she says as he leaves  to “prove himself.” Redpatch unfolds itself in the tension between Jonathon’s “hold my hand and don’t let go” and Grandmother’s “let go of the rope.”

It turns out that the one thing you can’t let go is home. 

REVIEW

Redpatch

Theatre: Hardline Productions presented by the Citadel and Vancouver Arts Club Theatre

Created by: Raes Calvert, Sean Harris Oliver

Directed by: Sean Harris Oliver

Starring: Raes Calvert, Joel D. Montgrand, Taran Kootenhayoo, Jennifer Daigle, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: through Nov. 11

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com  

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Song-and-dance con men, two World War I plays, and more… a theatre weekend in E-town

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A con game (with song and dance) is one of your options for a night out at live theatre this weekend. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a larky musical by the team of David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit, The Full Monty) and Jeffrey Lane, opens Foote in the Door Productions’ fifth season Friday as a purveyor full-bodied Broadway musicals.

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Spun from the 1988 Michael Caine/ Steve Martin movie, it stars a competing pair of scam artists on the Riviera (always a propitious setting for lighting) who have their beady eyes on an American soap heiress. Lawrence is palming himself off as a cash-strapped aristocrat-in-exile. Freddy is a small-time swindler, whose technique, pathos-based, involves soliciting funds to buy his ailing grandmother a leg.

Long-time performer Caroline Waye is back directing, after a 10-year hiatus. Her cast, 16 strong, is led by Foote in the Door co-founders Russ Farmer and Ruth Wong-Miller, and Trevor J. Worden. It’s the latter, as Freddy, who gets to sing Great Big Stuff, an ode to crass materialism and upward mobility — the pioneer spirit of conning.

Says Wong-Miller, “I love a show where it seems like men will outsmart women.” Emphasis on seems.

The archive of the Foote in the Door performance collective goes back to a 2013 launch by performers who’d met as students at the Citadel’s Foote School, and a debut production of She Loves Me. This fifth season includes a spring production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

The show runs at La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St. through Nov. 10. Tickets: Tix on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) and eventbrite.ca.      

•Onstage in Edmonton this weekend are two productions timed to commemorate the impending 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on Nov. 11.

Steven Greenfield, Sheldon Elter, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

At the Varscona, it’s Shadow Theatre’s premiere of a new play by Neil Grahn. The Comedy Company, inspired by the real-life First World War story of members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Division ordered by their commander to create original musical comedies to boost troop morale. A cast of top Edmonton actors runs with it through Nov. 11. 12thnight.ca got the chance to talk to the playwright; meet him here. And here’s the 12thnight.ca REVIEW. Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org.

At the Citadel, opening this very night, is Redpatch, the work of Hardline Productions, their first professional foray outside their Vancouver home town. Co-created by Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver, it’s inspired by the little-known history of the 4,000 plus Indigenous Canadians who signed up to fight in the First World War. It follows the fortunes of a young mixed blood First Nations man (Calvert) who leaves his West Coast home to be a Canadian soldier in that terrible conflict. Meet Hardline’s Calvert and Oliver, a most engaging pair of young theatre artists here. The production runs through Nov. 11. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

•And, this being E-Town, there’s improv galore: at Rapid Fire Theatre and Grindstone Theatre & Bistro.

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I sing of Pretenderos, land of plot complications. The return of Die-Nasty to a lawless land

Photo by Mark Meer

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Trolls? You want trolls? How about a dragon? “I’ll make it happen,” says a portentous rumbling voice from the dark. “This is a world with No Rules.” Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. 

Welcome to the kingdom of valiant deeds and vengeful vows, lustful double-takes, eye-watering gazes into the mid-distance, murderous looks, slow-motion action sequences, and intense people who say “and yet…”

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I stand before you (well, OK, sit…) to ponder episode #2 of the new season of Edmonton’s weekly improvised soap opera Die-Nasty, set in the land of Pretenderos. I caught Lord of Thrones on Monday night, to discover that The House of Calgaria has fallen in a great battle. “I fear the Calgarians have gone down in Flames,” says David Calgarian (Matt Alden) of that ancient line.

Old Strathconia, the king of the victorious side, is dead. Murdered! And the new king (Jeff Haslam) is quite sulky about this additional stress, since ruling is bound to interfere with his normal pursuits, “whoring and drinking.” So he’s looking for allies, like Sherwood Park (Tom Edwards, in a particularly fetching wig), to do all the work. Ominously, Lord Strathconia’s fiancée Margot (Kristi Hansen) is nowhere to be found; does that signal guilt? 

It’s a dangerous world, my friends. Someone has a ring, THE ring, and she’s a Calgarian (Stephanie Wolfe). Someone else has a dragon’s egg. And hey, there is a dragon, the last one (fun fact: you have to know how to bond with a dragon or you’re really screwed).

The dragon, incidentally, re-purposes the trench that dominates the set of Shadow Theatre’s The Comedy Company, currently evoking the First World War in a run that ends Nov. 11. 

And there’s this: the remaining Calgarians are on the move, heading north. One of them is the fierce (but lovestruck) warrior Airdrie Calgarian (played by Die-Nasty newcomer Tyra Banda in a helmet and highly amusing winter coat with buttons down the front). She has lethal expertise with the mallet. Currently, no one to my knowledge is working on a PhD thesis about the uses of the wooden mallet in medieval warfare, but someone really should be. Wooden mallets cut to the chase in a way that makes swordplay look merely decorative.

There are hostages: the king’s sister Lady Patricia (Sheri Somerville) has one of her very own that she acquired while falling off a mountain. Everyone is ambitious and pretty thoroughly untrustworthy: Monday’s episode had a big musical number “Who Do I Believe?”, a Sondheim-esque homage that acknowledged the proliferating treachery of the world. In Lord of Thrones, a cross-hatching of two of the most intricate plots in human history, no complication is out of the question. Being dead, for example, promises not to be a setback. Just a glitch. 

Anyhow, the cast and the complications are exponentially amplified for next Monday’s episode with the return of Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish, and Jesse Gervais to the series. Will Margot reappear? Lord of Thrones gets made up on the spot every Monday night at the Varscona. It can be your guilty pleasure.   

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From Nootka Sound to Vimy Ridge: Redpatch, an Indigenous soldier’s tale comes to the Citadel

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You could do a lot of exhuming in the archives, in novels, diaries, war poetry, and never discover this striking and mysterious fact: more than four thousand Indigenous Canadians signed up to fight in the First World War.

Who knew? Not most Canadians, that’s for sure. 

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In the ill-lit reservoirs of Canadian history, unknown to most of the country’s citizenry, a pair of engaging and versatile young theatre artists who’d founded a Vancouver theatre company, would find the engine of the story they’d turn into Redpatch.

The Hardline production opening Thursday at the Citadel (co-presented by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre) tells the story of Half-Blood (Raes Calvert), a young mixed blood First Nations soldier who leaves his home on Vancouver Island to be part of one of the bloodiest frays in human history.

It had all started with Calvert’s late grandfather, “an Indigenous man who fought in World War II.” Calvert, a Métis actor and theatre creator whose family on the Indigenous side comes originally from Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound, was fascinated. Then he saw his friend and Hardline co-founder Sean Harris Oliver (they met in theatre school, Vancouver’s Studio 58) in a production of Vimy, the Vern Thiessen play about that nation-defining First World War battle, in which one of the principal characters is a First Nations soldier. 

Calvert and Oliver had found the narrative drive for their 15th Hardline play. Four years of research began for the Hardline partners, currently the theatre company in residence at the Arts Club. Judging by the material they found, you’d have thought that the Canadian contribution to the war effort was restricted to Euro-Canadians. “There was just nothing about the Indigenous presence in the books,” says Calvert. “We had to really dig. And in 2012 when we started it was difficult to find anything,” says Oliver, who grew up in Kelowna and has a science degree from Queen’s in his pre-theatre days. “We were amazed at the numbers.”

“It was the Why? that required more analysis,” says Oliver, who directs Redpatch. Why on earth would Indigenous people fight for a country in which they were routinely marginalized? “To understand, it was very apparent we’d have to go to Nootka Island, the original home of my great-great-grandfather, to learn more about the history of my family,” says Calvert. He and Oliver met the chief and last two elders living there. “And we got permission to use words in the Nuu-chah-nulth language in the show.”

What would have motivated the young men of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation to leave the beauties of the West Coast to go to war half a world away? For one thing, “their world was changing, big time, receding….” says Oliver. Their options were narrowing. “You could either work at the lumber yard or the cannery. And that was it! OR go on an adventure, fight in a war, see the world.… It was the wanting to do something, to prove themselves, to be part of something.”

Raes Calvert in Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Phoro by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Photography

“Historically, they’d been warriors and hunters,” says Calvert. “And that was taken away.” The residential school agenda played its part too: “Forced assimilation, a program to wipe out an entire culture, every dance and song, to disenfranchise a people.” And the Great War was an opportunity “to be part of something big in a big new world happening out there….”

They had to relinquish their status to do it. “They weren’t allowed to enlist unless they did,” says Calvert. “And when they came back, it was to discover they’d been cheated: no land, no money, nothing. “They didn’t get what they were supposed to get, as veterans,” says Oliver. “It’s not part of our story, but there’s a story there, for sure. And someone will do it!” 

Raes Calvert in Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Photography

It turned out that the wilderness skills of Indigenous soldiers in  hunting and tracking were premium talents in World War I. They excelled at “getting up and out of trenches at night, sneaking through No Man’s Land, getting into trenches, and bludgeoning the enemy,” says Oliver. “They were fast; they were fantastic snipers (the most acclaimed sniper of World War I was Indigenous). They were great scouts, great trench raiders.” In fact, “the Canadians got so good at trench raids that No Man’s Land became known as The Dominion of Canada,” Calvert discovered. 

They found the story that would propel Half-Blood to France. What then? The next question, as Calvert and Oliver developed Redpatch, had psychological traction: What would that constant killing do to a person? “What does this person want? More than anything? To get home!” says Oliver. 

Which is why Redpatch travels freely through time and space, as Oliver explains. “We’re always going back to Half-Blood’s island,” says Calvert.  “We weave time; it’s definitely not linear.… It’s one of my favourite things about the show, the transitions. It’s 1907, then the trenches in 1915, then we go back to times in between….”

The history of Hardline, now eight years old and professional, is a classic indie company narrative —“a lot of energy drinks,” money from hourly jobs to support their theatre habit, putting on events to pay the rent…. As student actors at Studio 58, Calvert and Oliver had bonded, first, because they both had to repeat a term (Calvert laughs) and then because of sports. “My high school (in Richmond) was a bit rough around the edges, always in the bottom 10 per cent of the province. I might have been a dancer but I guess I thought I’d be a target and get picked on.”

Oliver had been on his way to a career in medicine when theatre beckoned. His father, a surgeon who volunteered in Afghanistan, came around to the altered plan when his son wrote a play inspired by that stint. “Now Sean’s parents are our biggest fans!” says Calvert, whom Edmonton audiences saw last season at the Citadel as an aspirational swaggerer who lives “white” in Corey Payette’s Children of God. 

Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Photography.

“We both loved physical storytelling!” Calvert says of his Hardline co-creator. And Redpath, which started out as one-person show, then two, then as many as eight before settling on six actors (all Indigenous), reflects that. “It’s the most physically demanding show I’ve ever been in,” says Calvert happily. The actors, who play people and animals, are in perpetual motion. The cast starts every rehearsal and performance day with an hour work-out.

In casting “we were looking for the best movers, who could act.” They all happened to be Indigenous. Although there’s only one female character (Half-Blood’s grandmother), half the cast are women.

There’s dance, there are masks, there are magical transformations, there are soldiers, a Whale, a Raven who’s our guide through scenes. And, as Calvert points out, it happens on a minimal set with minimal props. Each actor has a ‘movement stick’: sometimes it’s a rifle, a trench shovel, a harpoon, a paddle.… “One stick, no shoes,” laughs Oliver, who, like Calvert and all their Hardline cohorts, sometimes directs, sometimes acts, sometimes stage manages, “sometimes sells the beer.” 

“Movement is always part of our work,” says Calvert of Hardline’s signature physical style. “You can see the audience figuring out that they need to track the movement to follow the story!” says Oliver. “We treat the audience with a lot of respect; we don’t pander….

Calvert grins. “At the very least, they will leave saying ‘I haven’t seen something like this before!”

PREVIEW

Redpatch

Theatre: Hardline Productions presented by the Citadel and Vancouver Arts Club Theatre

Created by: Raes Calvert, Sean Harris Oliver

Directed by: Sean Harris Oliver

Starring: Raes Calvert, Joel D. Montgrand, Taran Kootenhayoo, Jennifer Daigle, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: Thursday through Nov. 11

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com  

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Theatre takes to the trenches: Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company. A review

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Steven Greenfield, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“And make it funny!” barks the Major at the soldier.   

And so it starts, the remarkable true Canadian story that comes to life in Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company. The new play by a writer with a blue-chip pedigree in comedy is getting a Shadow Theatre premiere directed by John Hudson and timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

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It’s a comedy about comedy, or more precisely, about the link between comedy and tragedy. In Ypres, Belgium in 1916 laughter is in tough.

Amidst a nightmare of unremitting horrors, members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were ordered by their commander Major Agar Adamson (Julien Arnold) to create a musical comedy entertainment, something “light-hearted!” to boost morale amongst the fighting men.

Steven Greenfield, Sheldon Elter, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

Some of the funniest scenes of Grahn’s episodic storytelling involve theatrical recruitment, auditions, brainstorming under these dark circumstances. Seven of Edmonton’s most watchable actors create individual characters, and cohere into a true ensemble. Jack McLaren, who has an appealing kind of wry, dry, sassy quality to him in Andrew MacDonald-Smith’s performance, has landed the task of casting. “Hey, would you guys like to be in a show?” He’s greeted by a certain skepticism-unto-incredulity by his battle-ravaged mates. “You have that showbiz je ne sais quoi,” he tells one, puckishly. He tells another “you have a certain star quality.”

Lilly, who has an amusingly guileless charm in Sheldon Elter’s performance, is susceptible to the lure of theatre. Fenwick (Steven Greenfield), on the other hand, earnestly resists, on the grounds that it would be shirking front line duty. He’s only persuaded by the thought that the better the group morale the more Germans they’ll kill.

The hardest sell of all is Cunningham (Jesse Gervais), furiously unsmiling and on a short fuse; Gervais is very funny as the soldier without a sense of humour and no sympathy whatsoever for theatrical pursuits (naturally, he’s made director, a theatre joke in itself). “ALL RIGHT,” he bellows, glaring at his cast-mates. “Who’s got a funny idea?” He’s deadpan on legs.

In a surprising story, the most surprising character of all is the Major, one Agar Adamson (Julien Arnold in full blustery bristle), who in the middle of the bloodiest, most devastating war in history takes it into his head to create a company to do original musical comedy revues. It’s an unexpected inspiration from a man who in every other way seems to be a conventional Edwardian military aristocrat who arrives in the 20th century trailing accoutrements from the 19th.

Under the rallying cry “Comedy For Killing,” collective creation and “amateur” theatre have never been more fraught. And Grahn makes full comic use of classic theatre frictions. When it comes time to assign the cross-dressing part — there has to be a leading lady — the discussion that ensues is riotous. Fractious cast discussions about who’s prettier (Greenfield’s Fenwick wins) will crack you up: Grahn has a flair for pursuing a comic idea through dialogue.

It’s a matter of gallows humour that the opening night of the new comedy company is approached by the cast with as much dread as going into battle: “Into the theatre of death rode Jack McLaren….”  A piano player (Nick Samoil) magically appears at the last possible moment.

The audience, fresh from the Battle of Mount Sorrel, is hostile and truculent, to say the least. A drill sergeant (Nathan Cuckow, in one of his many roles) takes charge of discipline: “We’re ordered to enjoy the show! Whether we like it or not!” he snaps. It’s the “girl” and the satirical barbs at their own military leadership that win over the crowd. The Princess Patricia’s have a hit . And they’re ordered to take it on the road. Touring the Western Front with a musical comedy sounds like a punch line in itself.

The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

The visuals are eloquent and have a kind of blasted beauty to them. Designer Alison Yanota’s set, beautifully lit in sepia shadows, is crossed by the brutal diagonal slice of a trench and overhung with tattered shards of gauze (bandages?) on which Matt Schuurman’s vintage projections play. Dave Clarke’s soundtrack of artillery and machine gun fire, and explosions, is a background roar and percussion track that reminds you of the strange context for comedy. And the historical narrative is peppered by last-minute cancellations when the cast gets called away to fight in some of the most gruesome forays of the war, including Vimy Ridge.

Grahn’s script takes its cue from this — it counterpoints musical and comedy numbers and the backstage brouhaha with battle scenes and moments when the characters step forward to deliver thoughts about an apocalyptic war  and their part in it. Occasionally these latter moments seem a little contrived and unnecessary given the nuances of the acting ensemble and the context served up by the battle sequences and the production design. A scene in which a commander praises the new comedy initiative for galvanizing his burnt-out men into continuing the fight, for example, seems directly lifted from research. So do the characters’ reflections on the extreme challenge of wresting comedy from tragedy. We’re actually seeing that happen before our eyes, anyhow.    

World War I ditties from the trenches (arranger Robert Walsh) like “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here….” (sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) or “hangin’ on the ol’ barbed wire” (to the tune of “someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah”) nail the sense of existential absurdity that hangs over unimaginable devastation. 

Comedy doesn’t devalue tragedy, says this vivid new Canadian play spun from our own history. It understands tragedy in a different way.

Meet the playwright: 12thnight.ca talks to Neil Grahn here.  

REVIEW

The Comedy Company

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Neil Grahn

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Julien Arnold, Nathan Cuckow, Sheldon Elter, Jesse Gervais, Steven Greenfield, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Nick Samoil,

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Nov. 11

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

   

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