The Cardiac Shadow, a multi-disciplinary exploration of human resilience at Northern Light

Kate Shashko in The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“We were the thermometers of these men. The mercury was in our veins, rising and falling with every heartbeat. Our bodies measured the temperature of death.”

The Cardiac Shadow, Clay McLeod Chapman

In the play the opens Friday in the Northern Light Theatre season, you’ll meet four women selected for a extreme-temperature science experiment in calibrating the fine line between life and death.

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The women, prisoners of Ravensbruck concentration camp, are made to lie, naked, with Jewish male prisoners who’d been immersed to the point of death in tanks of ice water. Can they be resurrected by the pulse of human contact? Can the life force be passed on?

It’s not just a terrifying hypothesis. Chillingly, The Cardiac Shadow, by the American writer Clay McLeod Chapman, is based on a true story; the so-called “Cold Conference” is a historical footnote, a short paragraph in the long horrific archive of Holocaust atrocities. “It gives voice to the voiceless, the women,” says director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, who’s fashioned a multi-disciplinary production — in partnership with The Good Women Dance Collective — from the four inner monologues, prologue, and epilogue of the piece.

Schmidt discovered the script — which has had only one public reading ever — a decade ago online. By one of those coincidences that seem to fuel theatre, he met up with the playwright — who’s since left theatre to write youth novels and Spiderman comics for Marvel — in Edmonton. In 2008 and 2009 McLeod Chapman brought The Pumpkin Pie Show, a selection of his monologues, to the Fringe.

In typical Northern Light fashion, Schmidt has taken a script of some dozen pages, which doesn’t specifically call for dance, and extrapolated creatively with his collaborators.

“The first part of the show is a 12-minute film (created by Katrina Beatty of Loud Whisper Production), with the doctor (SS Second Lieutenant Dr. Sigmund Rascher) as a recorded voice-over (Vance Avery).”  The women’s monologues are delivered in voice-over by a quartet of actors: Nadine Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart. And the stage belongs exclusively to dancers, a quartet from Good Women Dance. They’ve created movement, and dance to the voice-overs and the Dave Clarke score.

“Dave’s way into the show was that it was a musical piece,” says Schmidt. “Each woman is attached to a particular instrument, cello, violin, drums, piano, as leitmotif.” And the music, largely from the ‘20s and ‘30s, “has informed what we’re doing with set design.”

The Cardiac Show, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Schmidt, potentially a career dancer himself till a serious injury at 22 (“my body gave me the hint”), was attracted to dancers as the live performers for his production. It is, after all, as Good Women’s Kate Stashko says, “about the body, and its reactions. Can it be done, passing on the life force? And who gives it back to you? How do you keep a little for yourself?”

“You could have actors just stand and deliver, of course,” Schmidt says of the production possibilities he considered. “But I didn’t want the man onstage; it’s not about him…. I think the women have to be bodies. I wanted to see them as real women (not film images). And I wanted to see them move….” He’s dressed his live cast in flesh-coloured costumes: “it’s the idea of columns of flesh; they all appear to just be skin.”

Stashko plays Anna (to Anna’s voice-over, actor Rachel Bowron) who escapes the extreme duress of imprisonment to her thought haven, memories of music. The play, Stashko thinks, is not about the graphic detail of torture, and “more about resilience…. How do you get through it? how do you muster that? what do you cling to at your lowest moments?”

Dancers are used to creating from set pieces of music; it’s what they do. But in creating a movement-scape for Anna, Stashko has found herself thinking about what it means to be a dancer in a theatre production where the characters are also voice-overs. The separation of voice and body is tricky. “You have to think how much is needed, so you’re not over-riding the text. How to support and give some visual information, without so much that people don’t hear the voice…. If there’s too much, visually, the lines don’t land.” The dancer is devising how to move, and also “when to be still, to let a line arrive, ” she thinks. “It’s all about the phrasing.”

Putting dance and theatre together in a multi-disciplinary enterprise, says Stashko, is about “the abstract vs. the literal. The aesthetics (of the two) are different. And it’s a challenge to communicate. Your languages are different, and so are your audiences — the amount of information they want, and need….”

Stashko, who recently returned from dance workshops in Israel, was surprised a bit  at her “strong emotional attachment” to The Cardiac Shadow, beyond the more universal revulsion at the Holocaust. True, her grandfather was Jewish, but there wasn’t much in her upbringing to reinforce a Jewish heritage. The Cardiac Shadow and her reaction, she says, “reminded me that people store things in their bodies.”

For his part Schmidt was struck by the collaborative way the Good Women work — and their capacity for mutual positive criticism. It’s not like theatre, he says. Stashko smiles at this. For one thing, “dancers are good at taking criticism,” she says. “Not necessarily a good thing but that’s the way it is in the dance world.” And, second, “we’re a collective. We build everything together. So we’re obligated to take information (from each other) and make everything better. That’s what we do.”

“Your strength and technique and stamina are incredible, all of you,” Schmidt says to Stashko. “You’re athletes as well are artists….”

Working with these women has been amazing for me,” says Schmidt, a little wonderstruck by the lack of ego in their way of creating. “It’s so different than in theatre…. Kate says she needs to generate movement for her part. So they all listen to two minutes of music, and everyone goes off to a different part of the studio and creates dance. Then they all come back, and Kate says ‘show me what you’ve got’.”

“I think this play is going to be really rich…. It’s multi-disciplinary in a way we don’t see very often.”

PREVIEW

The Cardiac Shadow

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Clay McLeod Chapman

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: The Good Women Dance Collective (Alida Kendell, Alison Kause, Kate Stashko, Ainsley Hillyard, and (voice-overs) Nadine Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart, Vance Avery

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

Running: Friday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

     

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The collapse of the blue-collar dream: Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, comes to the Citadel

Marci T. House, Ashley Wright, Nicole St. Martin in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“They don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything. They squeeze us like a sponge, drain every last drop of blood out and then throw us away.”

— Stan the bartender in Sweat, Lynn Nottage

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 play that opens Thursday at the Citadel, you’ll see friendships disintegrate along with the long-held belief in the social contract that says, without spelling it out, that we’re all in this together. In a time of economic stagnation, viable blue-collar jobs and a righteous sense of identity are vanishing into the ruthless no-man’s-land of corporate profit margins. And rage and disappointment — the kind that helped propel Trump to the White House —  are on the rise.

Sweat, by the star American playwright Lynn Nottage, is inspired by her two and a half years interviewing residents of the dying rust-belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, which went from thriving to one of the nation’s poorest when its steel factory closed. A dwindling industry, a loss of work, economic tension…. It has a familiar ring in the here and now.

Amongst the regulars at a steelworkers bar, who gather after their shifts to chill, to bitch, to console each other and themselves, stress fractures are appearing. The easy solidarity of the place is shattered when one of their number, Cynthia, an African-American, is promoted from the shop floor to supervisor, over the head of her best and oldest friend Tracey, who is white.

Marci T. House and Nicole St. Martin, who are Cynthia and Tracey in the Vancouver Arts Club/ Citadel co-production directed by Valerie Planche, met up this week for lunch to chat about their roles in a play that seems more topical every day. Since Sweat rehearsed and ran in Vancouver before Christmas, the pair have lived with their characters long enough they refer to them in the first-person.   

“The tension is really amped up by that promotion,” says the Vancouver-based House, originally from Chicago, who plays Cynthia. “There we are, living our lives, crushed by the same forces … and then one of us is promoted and the balance changes, and friends wonder where loyalty lies.”

Cynthia applies for the supervisor job because “I want to be a ‘white hat’; I’ve always wanted that job. And I argue that ‘it’ll be good for all of us’ if I get it.” Of Tracey, St. Martin says “I just wants to put in my years, as in prison, then retire at 55….”

For Tracey “it’s a betrayal” when her friend applies for the promotion, and she burns with a sense of injustice when Cynthia gets it. Inevitably, the race card, with its affirmative action fine print, gets played. House says “The ‘Haves’ continue to have as long as the ‘Have-Not’s are at each other’s throats.”

Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Like their friends, Cynthia and Tracey have devoted the better part of their adult lives to the plant, which is now in danger, according to management, of moving to Mexico. Or closing. Or is that a management strategy to squeeze out salary and working hour concessions?

Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Nottage called it the De-Industrialization Revolution. It “changed the American narrative,” she said of the dream where working hard pays off, and reaps loyalty.

Anthony Santiago, Marc T. House in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At audience post-show talkbacks during the Vancouver run of Sweat,  St. Martin was asked “how do you get that rage every night?” House laughs at this. “You turn on the television…. It’s not hard; are you not paying attention to what’s happening in the world?”

House, who deems Nottage her “favourite playwright,” has a bond with her work.  She’s been in Canadian productions of Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (a story of a black seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York) and Ruined (about Congolese women during a civil war). Sweat, which House saw in its 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiere, is her third Nottage play. “I championed it to the Arts Club…. I saw how important it is to the current political dialogue!”

“I think I have a visceral connection to everything (Nottage) writes,” says House, both “as an artist of colour and as a playwright on the international stage…. I understand her stories — small stories particular to the African-American experience all the way to Africa, like her latest play Mlima’s Tale (about the illegal smuggling of ivory).”

In Sweat, NAFTA is a barbed term for workers under the threat of factory closure or re-location. For House it has a particular resonance. “I’m a product of NAFTA,” she says. She arrived in Canada 13 years ago, from a stint in L.A., on a NAFTA work visa. House is a rare example of an architect/actor: “I call myself an architress,” she smiles.  As a kid in Chicago, House acted, in regional and community theatre; she designed her first house at nine, and her dad actually built it.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, “I got to see the reality of what happens when an industry fails,” she says of watching her uncles struggle in that culture. “GM, Ford, Western Electric … I saw entire communities decimated when the plants went down. I saw the devastation of schools closing down, homes getting foreclosed.” At 21 and without a college education, her youngest uncle, now in his mid-60s, was working at a factory, making $60,000 a year. Serious money.” As she points out, these jobs are blue-collar in terms of education, but middle-class in terms of income.

For her part, Montreal-born St. Martin, who arrived in Edmonton from Toronto four years ago with her director husband (Michael Bradley) and young son, “lived through my dad, at 62, losing his job in the recession here…. It was devastating to my family.”

In one Arts Club talkback, St. Martin was asked “is education key?” She says “I had to say No…. My dad was highly educated, multiple degrees and certifications. At age 62 what do you do? Nobody wants you because you’re worth too much…. Experience is expensive.”

In the process of packing up a storage unit of stuff to move here from Ontario (Bradley got a master’s degree in directing at the U of A), St. Martin discovered an old cheque book. It revealed that as a teenager at the time, she’d given her parents money. The sense of that humiliation for her dad, “to have his teenage daughter forking out,” has never left her.

When she read Sweat and “was blown away,” St. Martin, who considers Nottage “a genius playwright,” was struck, she says, by the way “people tie their identity to what they do, the company they work for….” That bond is not reciprocal. “I have no loyalty to the company,” she says in Tracey mode. “Our value (to it) is the money we make for them….”

It takes place in a real American city, Reading, Penn. But in the end how exclusively American is Sweat? Both actors consider the question, and dismiss it. House, who weaves TV and film gigs into her theatre life in Vancouver (“there’s more sense of community in theatre, more opportunity to shape a career”) points out “it’s only set in the U.S.”; it speaks to the Canadian experience too, witness the closure of GM’s Oshawa plant. Ah, and Alberta…. 

“The more specific it is, the more universal,” says St. Martin, who’s happily ensconced in the Edmonton theatre community, as audiences here have reason to know (Anxiety, Do This In Memory Of Me, an upcoming indie production of Richard III with Le Fixe). House concurs. If it’s particular, “people will see themselves in that.” 

PREVIEW

Sweat

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club and Citadel

Written by: Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Valerie Planche

Starring: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez

Running: Thursday through Feb. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Hell tour via the circus: Firefly Theatre’s Inferno

Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Go to hell.

That’s what Jocelyn Ahlf and Belinda Cornish have been wanting to do for years. And now they have.

Firefly Theatre’s 14-performer workshop production of Inferno, that takes to the stage, and also the air, starting Thursday, is their theatre/circus re-telling of the first (and liveliest) part of Dante’s epic 14th century poem The Divine Comedy.

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Hell has always tickled their creative fancy, as the pair explain mid-rehearsal last week at the Westbury. “Fifteen years ago we were thinking about … hell,” says Ahlf. “We thought  sketch comedy first,” laughs Cornish turning to her creative partner. “And then we thought we might as well go to the source, the classical version of hell,” says Ahlf.

“That’s the way our brains work, not very earnestly,” says Cornish. Ahlf concurs. “If we’re going to find darkness we do it through levity.”

Exactly. I’m thinking about Hump, Ahlf’s very funny chronicle of a community theatre preparing to do Richard III (it starred Cornish as the winter-of-our-discontent mass murderer). Cornish is thinking about “the closing night of Paradice City,” her repurposing of the hard-driving Guns N Roses repertoire as chipper musical theatre. “We sat around a fire with the RibbitRepublic boys (a male collective) reading Dante’s Inferno,” she says, as if this were a traditional campfire activity of an Alberta summer night.

Annie Dugan (rear), Belinda Cornish and Jocelyn Ahlf, Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Time has passed. Ahlf and Cornish, actor/playwrights both, are no longer in their mid twenties. “Now I know what real hell is,” grins Ahlf, who’s juggling full-time university, with theatre, with kids, with the voice-over studio she runs with her husband. “I didn’t understand then what real suffering is….”

“When you’ve lived…” says Cornish, the artistic director of Bright Young Things (and star of that collective’s recent Fallen Angels), trailing off. “There’s no way we could write then what we’ve written now!” declares Ahlf decisively.

In formal terms, The Inferno as sketch comedy isn’t a completely outlandish notion: Dante’s nine circles of hell “as set pieces in a kind of vaudeville,” as Cornish puts it. But what then of the narrative, Dante’s quest, his journey led by Virgil (of The Aeneid fame) through hell and beyond to find his lost true love Beatrice?”

Finding a contemporary context for a complicated medieval, and very Catholic, cosmology full of pop-cultural references of 1300, wasn’t easy. “At 25,” says Ahlf ruefully, “we would have said ‘wouldn’t it be funny if it was an office and some bureaucrat had to fill out forms for all eternity?’”

“We were looking for a modern context that would make sense,” says Cornish. “And it makes no sense to keep references to people who were semi-famous at the time….” Spot quiz: how many of you smart-pants remember Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, who get big placement in the icy ninth circle of hell? Punishments were tricky, too. Damning imprecations against heresy, or  suicide, don’t have the same traction these days, to say the least.

In their adaptation, heretics are human plinths, with heads on top, “like Beckett’s Play,” says Cornish. “They’ve spoken against truth. Out of malice, to promote their own ends. Fake news.” Says Ahlf, “we’ve sucked the Catholicism out of The Inferno,” says Ahlf. “We tried to find a way to address suicide without passing judgment…” says Cornish. 

Another inspiration for the pair was The Gates of Hell, a group sculpture by the French artist Rodin depicting Dante’s Inferno. “We used that a lot,” says Ahlf.

“We’re amazing,” laughs Ahlf, “but we have only the skills we have.” And Inferno “needs to be more, more theatrical, than people standing talking,” says Cornish. Setting Dante in motion cried out for a context, like circus, where “gravity doesn’t operate,” says Cornish, who’s stepped in to play one of the airborne Furies, who swoop down to snatch the damned and carry them off to hell.

Jonathan Hawley Purvis and Mat Busby in Inferno. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Hell is other people, argued Sartre in No Exit (produced, incidentally, by Bright Young Things at the 2017 Fringe). Wrong wrong wrong Jean-Paul. He was definitely not talking about theatrical adaptations of Dante, where a pooling of other people’s talent is what it takes to make the Fire Demons fly or the Furies swoop or The Wrathful contort.

“This is totally different, so awesome,” Ahlf smiles. “We are very aware that our contributions are a small part of telling the narrative…. We’ve said ‘this is the story’ and handed it over to Annie (Annie Dugan, artistic director of Firefly) and Christine (choreographer Christine Bandelow). And the talking and the aerial (stuff) happen at the same time.”

Jonathan Hawley Purvis and Mat Busby in Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

Hell is complicated, theatrically speaking. There’s original music, underscoring and three songs, by Paul Morgan Donald. The collaborators got to the eighth circle, and discovered that there are 10 categories of the fraudulent, with specific punishments for each in 10 ditches. “So near the end! What to do!” they cried. So Morgan Donald wrote a patter song “about these hideous, terrible people, very Mel Brooks” to encompass the lot. “We tried to balance the serious and the comic,” says Cornish.

Dugan’s cast for the journey through hell includes actors who keep their feet on terra firm, actor/aerialists like Cornish who don’t, very game thesps (like Mat Busby, who as Virgil leaves the ground clutching an umbrella, like a medieval Mary Poppins) venturing into circus for the first time. There are aerialists, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, a small cute dog….

And yes, you will see actors throwing caution to the wind and walking on rolling balls. Cornish and Ahlf feel that they’re doing the same. “It’s not small-scale; that’s the luxury,” says Cornish. “We wrote it for a cast of 400 and budget of $40 million. So this requires ingenuity…. What will people think? I haven’t ANY idea! Really!”

“I think people will be delighted! It’s weird!” says Ahlf. “Weird and scary and gross and thoughtful….It’s going to be entertaining.” Cornish nods. “If you’re going to do hell, it had better be fun. We’re living the life of anticipation….” Words to live by.

The production that runs through Jan. 26 is a Firefly workshop. Look for the full production two years hence.

PREVIEW

Inferno (a workshop production)

Theatre: Firefly

Adapted by: Jocelyn Ahlf and Belinda Cornish

Directed by: Annie Dugan

Starring: Jonathan Hawley Purvis, Mat Busby, Tara Bergen

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

Running: Thursday through Jan. 26

Tickets: at the door.

       

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KaldrSaga: the secret lives of gods and heroes in Cardiac’s genial storytelling pub show. A review

Jake Tkaczyk and Nasra Adem in KaldrSaga, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Laroche-Humby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Tell me a story” (preferably “funny but dark”). And make it snappy.

Hey, what are friends for? In KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night, Harley Morison’s free-wheeling new pub show for Cardiac Theatre, two old pals of the Norse persuasion meet up once a year in the same bar, in the dead of winter, to catch up and re-bond. This they do in the time-honoured way — by hoisting beer and sharing stories of their trials, their tribulations, their setbacks and their fancies. “Our friendship is like one of those old familiar tales,” says one.

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Kaldr (Jake Tkaczyk) and Saga (Nasra Adem), who are well-connected in Norse god, hero and giant circles, are propelled through life with a classic and crucial question: “does everyone feel love differently?” In Morison’s playfully subversive, loose-limbed and limber concoction of queer origin stories, spun from an all-star list of Norse characters, love is love.       

The production, which ricochets through the back room of The Almanac like a fizzy cocktail special, feels appealingly impromptu thanks to amusing performances from Tkaczyk and Adem. The former is lanky, with a kind of wide-eyed earnest deadpan; the latter is small and wry, with a modern eye-rolling sort of skepticism. And Morison’s script, which nods to archaic cadences, is peppered with anachronisms both sly and sassy. 

Mosey, son of the macho god of thunder Thor (the guy with the big hammer), breaks the news to dad that he isn’t going to take Competitive Wrestling. Instead, he’s going into the arts. Yes, he’s signing up for Musical Theatre Study: Gershwin to Guettel, and hoping to be in Light In The Piazza. Thor is not amused. “What will people think?” Tkaczyk gets a funny drag number out of it (My Man from Funny Girl). 

Saga doesn’t get much encouragement either from her single mom, who’s perpetually expiring (with a New York accent) and trying to fix up her daughter with a marriageable guy. Like that’s gonna happen. Adem is a bustling and charismatic stage presence. 

Their coming-of-age adventures en route to what purse-lipped sociologists of another age will call self-actualization are a violent swirl of squirrels (really) and bugs, giants and villainous innkeepers, master craftsmen, ill-fated bets and doomed marriage contracts. And Kaldr and Saga helpfully step in to play the character parts in each other’s tales (with a song at the end, A Better Burden by Rebecca Merkley). It turns out that the tapestry of Norse mythology, which doesn’t exactly position gods on pedestals, has all kinds  of queer threads and obstacles to true love. And KaldrSaga has a sporting time following a selection of them, leaving a trail of contemporary breadcrumbs.

“An artist’s work is never done,” sighs an artisan who carves a perfect chess queen, in return for room and board at a hostelry. She gets cheated in the deal. ’Tis the way of the world; you’ve got to be smart and step lively to survive. And this genial, messy, good-humoured show knows it.

REVIEW

KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night

Theatre: Cardiac

Written and directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: The Almanac on Whyte

Running: through Jan. 26

Tickets: cardiactheatre.ca

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Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs: a woman trapped in a man’s world

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Photo: Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“In life you feel you’re trapped in a situation and there’s no out, no gap, no light. Everyone can relate to that feeling of being stuck, in some way…. There’s a real-ness to that.” 

— Miranda Allen, actor and escape artist 

Finding a way to get out of an impossible life impasse, puzzling out that “some crevice, some crack” in the trap … that’s the thrill (and “the theatrical metaphor”) of the fine art of escape, says the star of Ron Pearson’s Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, premiering in the Roxy Performance Series Thursday.

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Miranda Allen plays the turn-of-the-20th century escape artist whose fame in a man’s world in the early days of vaudeville catapulted her into rivalry with Harry Houdini. I feel confident declaring, now and in advance, that the Ghostwriter Theatre production is a shoo-in for hard-to-cast show of the season. Where on earth do you find a star who can escape from a straitjacket, handcuffs, shackles in a water barrel — and act?

Edmonton, as it happens. That’s where the adventurous, exotically multi-talented Allen is based, with her partner and Minerva co-star actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi. There is, I need hardly add, no understudy, no plan B for casting the play, by magician/ street performer/ illusionist/ playwright/ “magic history buff” Pearson, Ghostwriter’s artistic director and muse. 

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

Minerva, whose signature was the water barrel escape, jumped off bridges in police handcuffs or a straitjacket. She escaped from jails. She could unchain herself from just about anything — except the struggle that women had in a tough, competitive male-dominated world, says Pearson, who came across Minerva and her rivalry with Harry Houdini in his research into one of her five, possibly six, husbands. “Not a lot has changed” in that status quo, Pearson thinks, whose Ghostwriter Theatre is devoted to restoring sideshow and carnival attractions.

Says Allen, an engaging and thoughtful sort, “for me the most exciting part of escapology is how it reflects life, us as people…. Through Minerva’s journeys and escapes, we get a view of where we are and where we were, in the entertainment industry, women’s rights, women in the work force. … Ron has written a play that speaks so strongly to my experience as a female entertainer.”

For the Revelstoke, B.C. native, who grew up with dance and martial arts (and of course skiing), that entertainer experience started with acting — a degree from the University of Windsor and an obligatory period in Toronto theatre. “My first gig was with a giant puppetry company; they taught me to stilt-walk. And that became my day job….”

Nominated for a 2018 Sterling Award for her performance in Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, Allen originally came to Edmonton to audition for a Theatre Prospero Shakespeare tour. “I just really liked the people and the theatre community…. Eventually a friend cleared out my storage locker in Toronto, and I haven’t been back.”

Allen and Pearson aren’t entirely sure where they met. Was it perhaps one of Pearson’s signature series of sideshow illusions? “I was the head on the table,” says Allen. “My favourite!” Or was it the Edmonton Street Fest “the year I was stilting?” Pearson thinks “Grande Prairie! I was working on my silent show and Miranda painted me a Show Time sign.” Allen laughs. “We met in true vaudeville fashion. We can’t exactly pinpoint it.”

It was in London en route Down Under, that Allen made her street debut. “The concept was that people like Canadians,” she smiles. “So I did a lumberjack show — with zero actual lumberjack skills! It lasted all of two weeks.”

In Australia — “one of the toughest places in the world to perform on the street,” says Pearson — Allen learned the art of escaping. By night she was onstage in The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear for a Sydney rep company. By day, she performed on the street, “and learned my first straitjacket escape” from a fellow performer, in the time-honoured mentoring way.“I looked at street performers and thought, man, they have so much autonomy.”

Street performing is a showbiz education, Pearson says. “If you can work in that situation you can work anywhere! You’re creating a theatre out nothing! No middleman! And when it works, it’s exhilarating!”

It’s also daunting, gathering an audience that might leave at any moment and not lay down a dime. Lee Hsi tried it only once, as a dance busker when Allen was performing in Bath, England. “And I haven’t since,” he says decisively. “I was freaked out…. Performing is a whole different proposition when you’re out there, no company backing you, making it all by yourself. Intimidating. Really intimidating. It really hit home.”

The straitjacket is one of the escapes Allen will do live in Minerva, with the audience doing the tying and binding to ensure there’s no trickery. And there are always risks to ventures across the relative safety of the fourth wall, as Pearson points out. “Things can happen; if Miranda can’t get out the show could become very long…. We want to give the audience the experience of watching Minerva perform live in 1905.…”

When a trick goes wrong in a magic show, you can bail out the situation. In a play that’s actually about an escape artist, the stakes are much higher. “You have to make choices” that involve the storytelling. “People want to see what happens. They’re excited to see how we deal with it,” says Allen.

Risk. Unpredictability. Pearson knows something about that. Conjure the moment: it’s  Saskatoon and Pearson has come to the grand finale of the magic show he’s toured to Britain. He gets audience members to tie him up in 75 feet of rope. Two ranchers oblige. “And I literally could not move. I couldn’t budge.” At the outset he’d assured the audience that “if I don’t escape in three minutes I will not pass my hat.” He didn’t, and he didn’t. It took a sweaty half an hour to escape. Interestingly, “I made the same money as I would have if I’d succeeded.”

Allen loves that story. “OK, there are escapes I do where not getting out would horrify me,” she shrugs cheerfully. “You need a lot more assurances you’re going to survive when you add fire or water or falling.”

Miranda Allen and Samantha Jeffery in Whiskey Barrel, Found Festival 2018. Photo supplied.

Last year, at the annual Found Festival, Allen premiered Whiskey Business at the Strathcona Spirits distillery, a live under-water escape from a locked whiskey barrel, an homage to Minerva’s signature escape. “One hundred per cent, the barrel thing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Allen says. The second-hardest? “Building the barrel, learning to do the stunt, writing the show, producing the show — in six weeks!”

Underwater escapes (which Minerva doesn’t include, since the logistics of draining 50 gallons are a small-theatre nightmare) require “a whole risk assessment,” with actual calculations and safety measures, and training regimens. That kind of thinking isn’t foreign: “I was raised by an architect and an avalanche technician,” says Allen. “How do we mitigate the risks in a way we can tell an entertaining story? It’s like stage-fighting but with a higher thrill.…” The lack of certainty “is a reality of life you don’t often get to see reflected on the stage.”  

Allen, who spent a week in the summer training with the Vancouver artist who does all the underwater stunts for film and TV there, started with holding her breath for 35 seconds. And she worked up to four minutes. “You have to be in a super-relaxed state; your muscle and brain are consuming as little oxygen as possible. It’s a mind game.”

You can do this at home — if you’re really single-minded. In their small apartment Allen and Lee Hsi kept a barrel in the middle of their kitchen. “I came to really enjoy it,” Allen laughs. “After a hard day I’d come home and sit in it, empty, in the dark.” As for the rain barrel on their balcony, says Lee Hsi, “in the middle of the day Miranda would get into her bathing suit and climb in.” He’d sit beside it, manning the stopwatch. Allen would emerge in chains and gasping for air, much to the astonishment of neighbours on adjacent balconies.  

With Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs Pearson takes small liberties with chronology, and hypothesizes from historical records. Did Houdini actually come backstage at a Minerva show? Maybe. Houdini, né Erik Weisz, is usually cast as a hero,” with an appealing immigrant story the world knows from Ragtime, as Pearson points out. In Minerva, he’s “very controlling, very territorial,” says Lee Hsi, who plays Houdini, plus all the other men — husbands, managers, a judge — in Minerva’s story. Seventeen quick-changes mean that Minerva is “a magic show backstage,” he laughs. 

“There are very dark aspects to these men,” says Lee Hsi, who teaches movement to actors at MacEwan University (and can hold his breath for two minutes 15 seconds “if I’m lying on the living room floor and not in cold water”). The possible exception is husband #1, Willie, “a lovable scruff and a dreamer.” 

“It’s an exciting time to take this retrospective view,” says Allen of the new play. It has a personal resonance for her. “It’s been a struggle for women in magic, in street performing, in escapology. And women are still less than 10 per cent of the industry.”

“But it’s been gaining momentum! The show is perfectly timed!”

PREVIEW

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Written by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

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Hoist a pint, tell a tale: Cardiac Theatre’s KaldrSaga at The Almanac

Jake Tkaczyk, Nasra Adem in KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Winter’s Night. Photo by Kelsi Kalmer.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the dead of winter in dark northern cities, humans put on their boots and gravitate to pubs. There they congregate, hoist beer, and tell tales. 

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That time-honoured oral tradition is honoured in the play/ storytelling cabaret premiering Friday at the cozy Whyte Ave. bistro The Almanac. In KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night, two old friends, Kaldr and Saga, come together once a year in their favourite pub to catch up on the 364 days they’ve been apart, and to share stories — of gods, giants, heroes, creation myths.

In the unusual two-hander by (and directed by) Cardiac Theatre co-founder Harley Morison, queer origin stories are “inspired by and riff on” Norse mythology — the heavy-hitters like Thor and Odin, the more obscure figures (can you name Thor’s kids?), and “the one-off mentions.”

Since its own origin story began, some three years ago with Ella Hickson’s Hot Mess, the enterprising indie Cardiac has consistently brought Edmonton audiences “things we’ve never had before,” as playwright/director Morison puts it.  Challenging things like Pacamambo by the Canadian star Wajdi Mouawad,  Pompeii L.A. by Australia’s Declan Greene, Edmonton’s first first-hand exposure to the work of Canadian wunderkind playwright Jordan Tannahill in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

And now, something new. In Norse mythology, Morison found inspiration for “characters who are probably queer.” And pre-rehearsal this week, he cheerfully tossed out some examples. Did you know, for example, that the hyper-masculine Thor, he of the famous hammer that comes down like thunder on his enemies, once went to a wedding dressed as a woman? The name of one of his kids, Mosey, means brave, says Morison. “What if the kid wanted to take up musical theatre?”

Morison has found a “goddess of forbidden love” character in the Norse annals, “a sort of marriage commissioner.” The shape-shifter Loki “once transformed himself into a horse and gave birth to a foal.” The enigmatic war god Odin “is associated with the female practice of witchcraft.” The list goes on: “four different main stories, woven together by Kaldr and Saga catching up….” Morison says.

Between them Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk conjure 23 characters, some famous, some mentioned briefly, some altogether invented.  “How to distinguish them is our big challenge,” laughs Morison. “It happens so fast.” There’s original music: playwright/musician Rebecca Merkley was written a song, with Morison providing the lyrics. There’s choreography, by Man Up!’s C.J. Rowein.

With KaldrSaga, Cardiac is moving to incorporate new work into the mix of its repertoire. They’ve put out a call for submissions to the Alberta Queer Calendar Project, a go-big-or-go-home partnership with What It Is Productions, to be rolled out in 2020. Their aim? To workshop, record, and present as podcasts, new plays by queer Alberta writers: “one new play for every month of the year.”

PREVIEW

KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night

Theatre: Cardiac

Written and directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: The Almanac on Whyte

Running: Friday through Jan. 26

Tickets: cardiactheatre.ca

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The Malachite Macbeth haunts a church: a review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In this the mournful post-festive season, there is something more than a little unnerving about entering a vaulted dimly lit chamber, to the wail of a single violin.

The shadows of a pale, spectral giant tree flicker against the walls like human limbs (set and lighting designer: Sarah Karpyshin). When the fog rolls in, and a murky gaggle stomps towards us along a gangway through time and possibly straight from hell, you’ll swear you’re hearing Gaelic curses and disembodied screams float through the air. For hauntings, you can’t beat a church. 

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And a vintage wood-lined church is where you’ll meet a man of action, not apparently given to introspection, who discovers in himself “dark and deep desires” — and the capacity for betrayal and murder.

Benjamin Blyth’s Malachite Theatre’s production of Macbeth, set in medieval Scotland, occupies Holy Trinity Anglican in Strathcona like a noir-ish nightmare.

In accounts of Shakespeare’s dark, hurtling tragedy, there are Macbeths that chronicle the spectacular plummet of a larger-than-life hero into the moral abyss, head first. There are Macbeths that set about locating the lethal seed of “vaulting ambition” and watching its metastasizing growth, as watered by suggestion, then panic: was it planted? was it there all along? There are Macbeths that lean heavily towards the political cycles whereby rebellion inevitably becomes tyranny through the grinding gears of human corruptibility. There are Celtic gore-fests.

This production, which occupies every part of the church sanctuary, is none of the above. In Byron Martin’s performance, the question of whether Macbeth has been singled out by the fates, or whether he’s inherently corruptible, gives way to the sense that hell, on a personal and public level, is created incrementally, choice by choice. The Witches’ prophecy is an entry-level drug for the decent man who will find his own imagination toxic, his BFF his mortal enemy, and the world chaotic. “Present fears are less than horrible imaginings” and “function is smother’d in surmise,” as he says after his first encounter with the Wyrd Sisters, alongside his pal Banquo (Colin Matty).

Byron Martin in Macbeth, Malachite Theatre. Photo by BB Collective.

Martin’s Macbeth seems to be a man not given to imaginings or surmising on a good day. He’s more into male solidarity and bonding in battle, witness his easy rapport with Matty’s excellent Banquo. And the Wyrd Sisters, who plant spindles topped by skulls and pull strings around them, are at first a conversational discussion point between him and his friend.

Duncan, the rightful King (Bob Greenwood), is, unusually, a pleasant ditherer who can’t quite focus and whose declarations, fuelled by whimsy, tend to wander vaguely off course. Greenwood’s Porter, with his delivery of Shakespeare’s only knock-knock joke, is a low-life version of the King. The Witches — Monica Maddaford, Jaimi Reese, Kaleigh Richards, who sing, and play other parts — are of the generic shrieking, cackling school of witch-don, who chant when the going gets rough. The question of whether they’re weaving threads into a fabric, or unravelling it, is up for grabs.

Danielle LaRose in Macbeth, Malachite Theatre. Photo by BB Collective.

In another age (and directorial concept) Danielle LaRose’s well-spoken Lady Macbeth, who has an impressively steely resolve dressed in cordial charm, would be the motivational guidance counsellor who advises a client to set a goal and then helps him achieve it. Macbeth’s ambition is grist for her pep talks when his resolve falters. The disintegration of her self-possession, in the sleepwalking scene, is a cage-rattling experience.    

So how does “valour’s minion” end up so swiftly a “hell-hound,” and before intermission? Banquo, who has a playful fatherly relationship with his son Fleance (Anna MacAuley), wonders about that in Matty’s excellent performance. And Martin’s well-spoken, always intelligible Macbeth, who’s not one of the world’s natural conniving plotters, gets more and more exasperated with the way things keep getting worse and worse.

There’s a kind of panicky wonder in his report of the voice that has cried “Macbeth doth murder sleep!” It’s a striking moment: he breaks into a kind of jarring laughter at the incoherence of a world where he has to improvise at every moment. “I begin to be a’weary of the sun” has the ring of an insomniac wondering aloud what else can possibly go wrong. 

Among intriguing directorial choices is the scene where Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth at a banquet bash at his place, a Last Supper tableau with the phantom in full view.

But the national, political repercussion of Macbeth’s declension into barbarism are a little less than resonant here. Partly it’s because the vocal heft of the cast is variable; they’re sometimes inaudible as they chatter though speeches involving the “news” of battles and and the movement of forces. 

Stand-outs are Sam Jeffery as Macduff, Maddaford as a plucky Lady Macduff, and Owen Bishop as Malcolm. But the “discussion” scenes about the horrifying state of Scotland feel a bit long, meandering, and long on exits rather than urgent. You find yourself missing Macbeth and his short fuse.

The fighting, though, is anything but meandering. As choreographed by Janine Waddell, it’s visceral and wild — no Queensbury rules for medieval Scotland. LaRose’s sound score has a kind of scary weirdness about it. And the atmospheric dimness, which has the effect of seeing characters move in and out of gloom and disappear behind the church altar, casts a chill that settles into your bones. On a wooden pew, you feel your bones.

REVIEW

Macbeth

Theatre: Malachite

Directed by: Benjamin Blyth

Starring: Byron Martin, Danielle LaRose, Colin Matty, Samantha Jeffery

Where: Holy Trinity Anglican Church

Running: through January 19

Tickets: eventbrite.ca or at the door

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They rise again: The Malachites are back with Macbeth

Byron Martin in Macbeth, Malachite Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” chant the Witches in the opening moment of Shakespeare’s fleet, dark, violent Macbeth

Or in snow?

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Yes, Malachite Theatre, a London/Canada collective whose mission is trans-Atlantic collaboration, is back in town for the third straight January. Their Edmonton debut in 2017, a co-production with our Grindstone Theatre, was a Shakespeare history play, Henry V, rippling with ambiguities about patriotism and war. Last New Year, it was a comedy, a contradictory, multi-hued one all about turning melancholy into joy: Twelfth Night. And now, after a strange and terrible year for the great wide world — a hurly burly year, as you might say — the Malachites are taking a tragedy, “new hatch’ed to the woeful time,” into the church sanctuary they’ve occupied for their last two productions here: Strathcona’s arts-embracing Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

Macbeth, likely first performed in 1606 at the Globe, falls a bit outside Malachites’ usual territory in both time and space,. They specialize in Shakespeare’s early theatre career in Shoreditch before he and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, moved south of the Thames to Bankside, and into the Globe, in 1599.

The Malachites gravitate to unconventional venues for their work, witness their upcoming summer tour of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that will play medieval banqueting halls in Europe. Casting in both Canada and the U.K. is slated for February. Meanwhile, a play with a murderous usurper hero and a wife to match — not to mention a legendary curse that rains diverse disasters on  performers and audiences alike if they say the name aloud in a theatre — is a rather startling choice for a church. Even by Malachite standards. But, as Malachite director Benjamin Blyth points out, with a smile, it was Holy Trinity’s theatre-loving Father Chris Pappas (who, incidentally, appeared as a priest in Twelfth Night) who suggested the Scottish play.

Blyth, who aims to launch a more formalized trans-Atlantic training program for actors, has set his Malachite Macbeth in medieval Scotland: “Macbeth will not be texting his thoughts to the Witches or some such!” And the church has an otherworldly  resonance that’s an asset under the circumstances, he thinks. “A supernatural performance space lends itself to the sense of interacting with heaven, or hell….” And as the Witches testify  with their predictions, “there’s an ethereal presence  through the piece that constantly reminds us that our actions may not be our own.”

In productions of the Scottish play, the Witches have brought many a directorial concept to its knees, whether they’re cast as cackling crones, seductive sirens, or wispy modern dancers. In the Macbeth we’ll see starting Friday, they’re Norns, the spinners of fates in Norse mythology. And while they’re “present in the space” (much of the production’s music is their department), they “can’t be seen by the characters (Lady Macbeth hears them only as echoes)” Says Blyth, “they reflect the interiority of their minds.” 

“Their prophecy sits in Macbeth’s head and comes back at inappropriate moments to tell him things.” The motif of weaving, spinning a life from a series of choices, is central to the storytelling of the Malachite production, says Blyth, who teaches Shakespeare at the University of Calgary when he isn’t in England.

The origins of Malachite’s bi-continental initiatives can be traced to the connection between the stars, Byron Martin and Blyth’s Canadian wife Danielle LaRose (as the murderous Macbeths). The pair met in the Grant MacEwan musical theatre program, and trained in Glasgow together after that. For the amazingly versatile (and busy) Martin, Grindstone’s founder and artistic director, and an improviser of note, there’s no creeping in of this petty pace from day to day. This past year he launched the Grindstone Comedy Club & Bistro in Strathcona — on time, on budget. It caught on immediately; there are shows there six nights a week.

LaRose “has been wanting to do this play for years!” Blyth confirms.  “Danielle and Byron work so well together; they’re known each other so long.…Such a joy. And (he pauses, and laughs) terrifying! I believe they could kill an old man. I think I’ve seen my own death!”

Danielle LaRose in Macbeth, Malachite Theatre. Photo supplied.

The cast includes a cluster of Edmonton actors (Martin, LaRose, Colin Matty and Samantha Jeffery among them) who have appeared with Malachite before. As with Blyth’s previous Malachite productions here — including the country’s first female Henry V and a female Malvolio in Twelfth Night — gender lines are boldly crossed in Macbeth. Jeffery plays the warrior Macduff. “The point,” says Blyth, is that it’s traditionally a hyper-masculine role, and I’m trying to get at the roots of the story.”

Macbeth isn’t some military superhero, Blyth argues. He and his best friend Banquo “are on a level playing field, of equal standing at the start. Then chance is kind to one, and not to the other… What does it mean when your best friend get promoted? Is it at your expense?”

Macbeth, says Blyth, is “one of those plays that suffers a little from cliché performances. I’ve been trying to think of ways of humanize the characters and re-claim the political intrigue, while still in the medieval context…. We’re not dealing with fairy tale characters. Macbeth could be anyone. So what does that mean for us to be on that journey with him?”

As in Shakespeare’s own theatre, lighting and sound technology is sparse at the church. Which explains why the Malachites lean into live music as much as possible. Now he’s investigating smell. Last year’s Twelfth Night filled the church with the scent of evergreen . “For Macbeth, maybe heather?” 

PREVIEW

Macbeth

Theatre: Malachite

Directed by: Benjamin Blyth

Starring: Byron Martin, Danielle LaRose, Colin Matty, Samantha Jeffery

Where: Holy Trinity Anglican Church

Running: Friday through January 19

Tickets: eventbrite.ca or at the door

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It’s back! The 12thnight holiday theatre quiz

Vanessa Sabourin and Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

On the brink of a new year, hoist a glass to our unstoppable theatre artists, check out our 12thnight review of 2018 theatre highlights, and take our annual holiday theatre quiz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

  1. Which of the following productions seen in Edmonton this year was based on a verse novel, written in a dauntingly intricate rhyme scheme?

(a) Soiled Doves

(b) Onegin

(c) Children of God

(d) Skirts On Fire

2. The title of Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog, which premiered in an Edmonton Actors Theatre production in 2018, is an allusion to a play by…

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(a) Arthur Miller

(b) Martin McDonagh

(c) John Patrick Shanley

(d) Edward Albee

(e) Tennessee Williams

3. In which production of 2018 did Hudson’s Bay blankets and plaid scarves (and bathrobes) figure prominently in the design?

(a) Oh! Christmas Tree

(b) Twelfth Night

(c) Pretty Goblins

(d) A Christmas Carol

(e) Slumberland Motel

4. In which production of 2018 did clocks of every size and shape figure prominently in the design? 

(a) Origin of the Species

(b) What A Young Wife Ought To Know

(c) Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley

(d) Infinity

5. In what play of 2018 did a celebrated literary recluse, à la J.D. Salinger, figure prominently?

(a) The Finest of Strangers

(b) Going to St. Ives

(c) The Listening Room

(d) Skirts on Fire

(e) Old Stock

6. Which of the following playwrights had (at least) two productions on Edmonton stages in 2018?

(a) Collin Doyle

(b) Elena Belyea

(c) Hannah Moscovitch

(d) Stewart Lemoine

(e) Conni Massing

7. In which production of 2018 did a saint show off his own decapitated head?

(a) Matara

(b) The Importance of Being Earnest

(c) Children of God

(d) All Shook Up

(e) Do This In Memory Of Me

8. Which of the following characters did Julien Arnold not play in 2018?

(a) a priest

(b) a songwriter with writer’s block

(c) a miser

(d) an aspirational cross-dresser

(e) a First World War major

9. Which of the following is NOT the name of an Edmonton indie theatre…?

(a) Dammitammy Productions

(b) Theatre of the New Heart

(c) Heartstopper Theatre

(d) Cardiac Theatre

(e) Bumble Bear Productions

10. Which of the following was the mascot of the 2018 Edmonton Fringe?

(a) a dinosaur

(b) a B-movie monster

(c) a harlequin

(d) a dancing bear

(e) a demented acrobat

11. Which of the following theatre companies produced shows this year with “Blood” in the title?

(a) The Maggie Tree

(b) Mayfield Dinner Theatre

(c) Wild Side Productions

(d) Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

(e) Pyretic Productions

12. This year’s SkirtsAfire feature production, The Romeo Initiative, was set in what city?

(a) London

(b) Verona

(c) Vienna

(d) Bonn

(e) Toronto

13. In which production, seen on an E-town stage in 2018, did the following lines occur: 

(a) “ignorance is a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”

(b) “we’ve done it all before, now we’re back to get some more….”

(c) “what do you call an Indian on a bike?”

(d) “the minute I saw the grenade belt I knew something was wrong”

(e) “turn left, genuflect, put the bells down quietly.”

(f) “we’re ordered to enjoy the show whether we like it or not.” 

(g) “this morning I was working in a diner. Now I’m serving champagne to high society.”

(h) “There has to be more to life than reading and sewing….”

(i) “time is a fake.”

(j) “is it presumptuous of me to expect a third resurrection?”

(k) “we shall go down like ninepins.” 

(l) “Who knows what I mean when I say the word ‘gunman’?”

(m) “If God had intended man to fly, he wouldn’t have made him so squishy.”

14. In Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, which returned to Theatre Network this year in a new production, the protagonist sings a number from what musical?

(a) My Fair Lady

(b) Marry Me A Little

(c) Company

(d) She Loves Me

(e) Oklahoma

15. Name the playwright:

(a) Pretty Goblins

(b) Blood of Our Soil

(c) Betroffenheit

(d) Poison

(e) The Humans

(f) Do This In Memory Of Me

(g) The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood

16. Which production this year was set in an air hangar?

(a) The Comedy of Errors

(b) The Comedy Company

(c) The Humans

(d) The Silver Arrow

(e) Dead Centre of Town XI

17.. What is the Randomizer?

(a) an Orc-like figure in Die-Nasty’s Lord of Thrones

(b) the lottery in Fly Me To The Moon

(c) Rapid Fire Theatre’s method of picking Theatresports teams 

(d) a method of choosing Fringe shows

(e) an audience interaction technique often used in cabaret performances

18. In Broken Tailbone, the Carmen Aguirre creation seen at the 2018 Canoe Festival, the audience learned to …

(a) dance 

(b) pronounce and use the Cree word for “love”

(c) sing a traditional Canadian ballad

(d) pray for peace

(e) use headphones 

19. Which of the following festivals are NOT part of the annual Chinook Series in February?

(a) Sound Off

(b) Deep Freeze

(c) Canoe

(d) Fringe

(e) Expanse

20. The family dinner is a classic site of tension and conflict in theatre, especially when there’s an outsider in the mix. Which of the following productions of 2018 prominently featured a dinner scene?

(a) Cleave

(b) The Finest of Strangers

(c) Hamlet

(d) Once

(e) The Humans

21. Match the designer and the show

Designers: Cory Sincennes, Jim Guedo, Daniel Van Heyst, Drew Facey, Ian Jackson, Megan Koshka, Trevor Schmidt, Chantel Fortin, T. Erin Gruber

Shows: The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, Infinity, Slut, Mamma Mia!, Outside Mullingar, Pretty Goblins, Matara, The Finest of Strangers, Poison

22. In Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, which returned to Edmonton in 2018 in a new production, the protagonist is chased by…

(a) Mafioso “grizzlies”

(b) creditors

(c) an infuriated zookeeper

(d) environmentalists

(e) oil company reps

23. In which production did the following props appear, and figure prominently…?

(a) Japanese bladed fans

(b) a jukebox

(c) a light-up sign

(d) cucumber sandwiches

(e) a six-pack of Pilsner

(f) beaver sock puppets

24. Match the director and the production:

Directors: Harley Morison, Amiel Gladstone, Jackie Maxwell, Dave Horak, Marianne Copithorne, Daryl Cloran, Sean Harris Oliver, Ashlie Corcoran

Productions: Hamlet, The Humans, Redpatch, The Listening Room, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, Mamma Mia!, Onegin, Terry and the Dog

25. Name the production of 2018 that featured the following principal characters:

(a) an eye surgeon

(b) the editor of a ladies’ magazine

(c) an accountant

(d) a detective

(e) a Canadian investigative TV reporter

(f) The Wanderer

(g) an Irish street musician

(h) a French bulldog 

26. Which of the following productions did not involve siblings as a major plot component? 

(a) Pretty Goblins

(b) Undercover

(c) Blood: A Scientific Experiment

(d) Fallen Angels

(e) The Comedy of Errors

27. The characters in Shakespeare’s R&J are…

(a) drag queens

(b) seniors in a retirement home

(c) classically trained dancers

(d) Catholic school boys

(e) disaffected technicians at Stratford

It’s the second anniversary of 12thnight.ca! Happy new year, and here’s to grand theatrical adventures in 2019.

The answers: No peeking first.

1 (b); 2 (d); 3 (b); 4 (a); 5 (d); 6 (a,b,c,d,e); 7 (e); 8 (d); 9 (c); 10 (a); 11 (a, e); 12 (d); 13 (a) The Importance Of Being Earnest; (b) Mamma Mia!; (c) Métis Mutt; (d) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; (e) Do This In Memory Of Me; (f) The Comedy Company; (g) Skirts On Fire; (h) The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood; (i) Infinity; (j) Terry and the Dog; (k) Fallen Angels; (l) Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable; (m) Dead Centre Of Town XI. 14 (b); 15 (a) Beth Graham; (b) Lianna Makuch; (c) Jonathon Young; (d) Lot Vekemans; (e) Stephen Karam; (f) Cat Walsh; (g) Mieko Ouchi. 16 (e); 17 (d); 18 (a); 19 (b); 20 (a, d, e); 21 Corey Sincennes and Mamma Mia!, Jim Guedo and Poison, Daniel Van Heyst and Outside Mullingar, Drew Facey and The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, Ian Jackson and Infinity, Megan Koshka and Pretty Goblins, Trevor Schmidt and Slut, Chantel Fortin and The Finest of Strangers, T. Erin Gruber and Matara. 22 (e); 23 (a) The Silver Arrow, (b) All Shook Up, (c) Slut, (d) The Importance of Being Earnest, (e) Terry and the Dog, (f) Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. 24 Harley Morison and The Listening Room, Amiel Gladstone and Onegin, Jackie Maxwell and The Humans, Dave Horak and Terry and the Dog, Marianne Copithorne and Hamlet, Daryl Cloran and The Silver Arrow, Sean Harris Oliver and Redpatch, Ashlie Corcoran and Mamma Mia!. 25 (a) Going To St. Ives, (b) Skirts on Fire, (c) Slut, (d) Undercover, (e) The Finest of Strangers, (f) Old Stock, (g) Once, (h) Jezebel, At The Still Point. 26. (b, d); 27 (d).

23 or more right? Bravo! Standing O! You love your entertainment live. Less than 6? You need to get out more; you are missing out on Edmonton’s greatest creative industry and asset.

 

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The year in Edmonton theatre: looking back on 2018

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, an infantry division of First World War fighting men, amidst the nightmare of unremitting horrors,  are ordered to create light-hearted musical comedy They are a hit; they tour the Western Front.   

The vivid new play, spun from a true Canadian story, is an homage to the power of comedy — a graphic manifesto of the link between comedy and tragedy. And some of its funniest scenes involved recruitment, auditions, brainstorming. “You have that showbiz je ne said quoi,” teases the casting director (Andrew MacDonald-Smith).

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It’s been a desperately hard and crazy year, in a world of global warming and political chilling. And yet there’s something about the human connectedness of live theatre — in both the creation and the experiencing of it — that gives us a sense of renewable possibility. In A Lesson In Brio, Teatro La Quindicina, a company devoted to comedy, defined it as a contagious animation that attracts people, and thereby changes your life.

“You’re going to get out alive,” says the eerily amplified inner voice of a man who’s teetering on the threshold between a terrible past and a mysteriously unsquelchable sense of a future, in Betroffenheit, one of 2018’s most remarkable productions. And there’s wonder in that.

“You gotta live in the world to get to the truth,” as one of the stellar songs in 2b theatre’s Old Stock has it. Hold that thought as we look back on the year on E-town stages, where the supple creativity and ingenuity of our theatre artists, veterans and newcomers alike, continue to challenge and prevail. 

MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OF 2018 (in no particular order)

Cole Humeny and Merran Carr-Wiggin in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

What A Young Wife Ought To Know: Marianne Copithorne’s impeccably acted Theatre Network production (starring Merran Carr-Wiggin, Cole Humeny and Bobbi Goddard) made of this Hannah Moscovitch play — one of three by the playwright we saw this year — a funny, horrifying, and heart-wrenching love and coming-of-age story, and a cautionary tale from the feminist palette. What we have gained can be lost.

Terry and the Dog:  This quietly powerful and mysterious new play by Collin Doyle — a playwright with a particular gift for marrying black comedy and tragedy — is a chronicle of a recovering alcoholic haunted by his sins. In a fascinating way, as Dave Horak’s subtle Edmonton Actors Theatre production revealed, it goes far beyond the cruder notion of flashbacks to suggest that reality is permeable, that the past is superimposed on the present, and ghosts live.

Miranda Allen and Nadien Chu in Pretty Goblins. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Pretty Goblins: Strikingly, two of the year’s best new plays concern themselves with the heartbreaking price tag on addiction. Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, inspired by the wild Christina Rossetti poem Goblin Market, explores that mysterious and tragic seduction — beyond heredity, environment and chemistry and tumbling into the eerier nightmare of destiny — in twin sisters. Brian Dooley’s Workshop West production, starring Miranda Allen and Nadine Chu, was an unnerving horror story of the lure of the monster world. 

Betroffenheit: See above. A stunningly original dance/theatre probe into the very marrow of limitless grief and the bewilderment and paralysis that follow great trauma. Crystal Pite’s production, a collaboration between Vancouver’s Electric Company and her own Kidd Pivot that came to us a joint Brian Webb Dance Company/Citadel venture, was theatrically ingenious in every way. Utterly memorable.   

Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

Onegin: A playful, theatrically exhilarating, and hugely entertaining original rock musical fashioned by Vancouver’s Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hill from the Russian story of a bored aristocrat messing with people’s lives. The Arts Club production, starring the magnetic Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe, arrived here under the Catalyst Theatre flag. Operatic in its extravaganza of feeling, accessible, and a whole lot of fun in the multiple ways it engaged the audience and knew about itself.    

The Comedy Company: This first full-length play by comedy veteran Neil Grahn found a fascinating story from the archive where Canadians rarely venture: Canadian history. It ventured boldly into the no-man’s-land between comedy and tragedy to reveal a special, even redemptive, relationship between the two (and it only faltered when it annotated). John Hudson’s Shadow Theatre premiere production starred a quintet of top Edmonton actors, and their chemistry in an improbable venture — front-line World War I soldiers creating light musical comedy for the troops — irresistible.   

The cast of The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

The Finest of Strangers: In Stewart Lemoine’s enigmatic new Teatro La Quindicina play, a coming-of-age story in reverse, is a comedy with a musing bent. A man (Jeff Haslam) finds himself unexpectedly exploring the mysteries, long buried, of his own past, and rediscovering the people who lived in it. When he revisits his boyhood house, he finds himself unable to leave it; we share his astonishment with him at every turn.

Sheldon Elter in Métis Mutt, at Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Métis Mutt: Sheldon Elter’s astonishing solo show was returned to us, rethought and rewritten, in a new Ron Jenkins production at Theatre Network. A horrifying story of domestic violence, turmoil, booze and drugs, racism, trauma, constant relocations — the raw materials of his own life — told in songs, comedy routines, dramatic scenes — told by a series of Sheldon Elters at different ages. The performer is charismatic, and his coming-of-age story of reinvention through theatre came of age in Jenkins’ stunning production.

Bears: Matthew MacKenzie’s spirited, bold, and ingenious dark comedy about pipelines — which already puts it in a category all its own before you even consider its self-deprecating sense of humour — couldn’t be more NOW, of course. It returned to Edmonton briefly this year in a touring production (newly choreographed, in witty fashion, by Monica Dotter) that chronicles a wild chase across the mountains to the sea. Sheldon Elter again starred as a Métis oil worker on the lam who finds himself being assimilated into the bounty and beauty of nature.     

Michelle Diaz and Jocelyn Ahlf in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: In a #MeToo year, Kate Ryan’s dizzying low-budget Plain Jane production — saturated in colour, energy, temper, crazy accents, mad plot collisions — of the kooky David Yazbek/Jeffrey Lane musical screwball (inspired by the Almodóvar movie), hit a resonant note. If women are going to have relationships with men, they’d better not lose their senses of either absurdity or self.

Hamlet: At the centre of the fresh, vigorous Freewill Shakespeare Company production directed by Marianne Copthorne was a stunning performance by Hunter Cardinal, a young actor of exciting skill, intelligibility, and smarts (see below). .

MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR, a small selection of the riches

Ric Reid — In The Humans, Jackie Maxwell’s Citadel/Canadian Stage co-production of a contemporary family drama of real menace, Reid captured the escalating tension of a patriarch tattered by his efforts to suppress a dark secret and keep fear at bay. A superb performance matched by Laurie Paton as his prickly and maddening wife.

Lawrence Libor — a newcomer to the Edmonton scene, he shone in the Citadel production of the musical fairy tale Once as a moody Irish street musician spinning songs from disappointment and regret, until he nearly succumbs.

Ryan Parker in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Ryan Parker — In Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity at Theatre Network, a play that attempted to domesticate the idea of time, he negotiated the difficult task of conveying intellectual foment and excitement onstage, as a theoretical physicist, torn between his study of time and his lack of it in his own domestic life. A moving leading performance from an actor we’re more accustomed to seeing in character roles.

Jocelyn Ahlf —  As the rueful, wounded, then exasperated Pepa in the Plain Janes’ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the musical. She hit all the right notes as an actress who’s just been dumped by her lover, by voicemail. And speaking of right notes, there’s evidently nothing that Ahlf can’t sing. 

Robert Benz in Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Robert Benz — In Terry and the Dog the actor delivered a wonderfully restrained performance as a man haunted by the effects of his behaviour as an alcoholic, doomed to live and re-live the past. .

Sheldon Elter – in two performances this year, in his own Métis Mutt and as Floyd, turning imperceptibly into a grizzly in Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, he confirmed, vividly, that not only is he a magnetic presence onstage, but he’s an actor of real force and physical eloquence.

Umed Amin, Mikaela Davies, Emma Houghton in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Mikaela Davies — as the neglected middle sister in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, she conjured, with exquisite comic timing, a bookish misfit who comes defiantly into her own in the course of this romantic comedy sequel to Pride and Prejudice. 

Patricia Zentilli — her riotous comic performance as a “corporate narrative consultant” and “fund-raising facilitator” in Conni Massing’s Matara, which premiered at Workshop West, wickedly tapped into the intonation and cadence of spin doctors everywhere. Arts companies know that sound.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman — a witty, furiously ironic Mercutio, who could flay you with a phrase, in the Romeo and Juliet undertaken by the actors doing an illicit staged reading in Shakespeare’s R&J, remounted (and still powerful) in 2018 by Kill Your Television.

Alessandro Juliani — as the bored, louche, self-infatuated  title aristocrat of Onegin, matched by Meg Roe as the quiet bookworm who discovers passion only to be cruelly rebuffed by him.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance, The Maggie Tree. Photo by BB Collective.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie — as the twins whose unnerving bond goes beyond biology into thought, breath, and body rhythm in Blood: A Scientific Experiment.

Kristi Hansen and Belinda Cornish — as the pair of twin masters, the Antipholi, in Dave Horak’s neon Freewill Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, set during a vintage B-Hollywood shoot.They unleash exponential new dimensions of mystification in every encounter and transaction when they end up in the same town.

Merran Carr-Wiggin — a sense of dawning realization was the slow burn of the title character in What A Young Wife Ought To Know,  a girl who comes of age as a woman, a wife, and a mother, and discovers the heartbreaking price tag on passion. It gave Marianne Copthorne’s production a terrible urgency.  

Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photograph

Holly Turner  — as the eccentric, shrewd but genial archaeologist in Origin of the Species at Northern Light Theatre. She brings the four-million-year-old woman she’s excavated back home, and starts lessons in contemporary life.

Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Hunter Cardinal — took on the most celebrated role in the English theatre and created his own kind of Hamlet — an impulsive, passionate, funny young man, tuned to every frequency of hyporisy, grief-stricken, and battered by betrayals and losses.

Amber Borotsik — in Poison, this remarkable actor created an indelible portrait of a woman frozen on the spot by life-filling grief and loss, unable to move forward and knowing it.

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson — as Jack and Algernon in Teatro La Quindicina’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, they calibrated between them a sense, subtly differentiated, of the absurdity of English manners, the one hitting more notes of suave, the other breezier, daffier. Highly amusing.

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

AND IN OTHER HIGHLIGHTS…

Prop of the year: the red banner, used in a startling number of ways in Kevin Sutley’s production of Shakespeare’s R&J.

Improv concept of the year: Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart play Gertrude Lawrence and Alice B. Toklas in a sitcom setting with Jackie Gleason overtones. “Hey Alice, what’s for dinner?” is a line you might well hear in Gertie and Alice. It happens monthly at the Grindstone Comedy Theatre. 

Retirement of the year: After 19 seasons, Tom Wood’s superlative adaptation of A Christmas Carol will give way in 2019 to a new adaptation of the Dickens’ classic at the Citadel. 

Jérémie Francoeur in Macbeth Muet, Surreal SoReal Theatre. Photo supplied.

The 2018 award for theatrical compression: In Macbeth Muet, which came to the Fringe from Montreal’s Fille du Laitier, two actors created the characters and the brutal action of the story from an assortment of household objects. And it dispensed with Shakespeare’s words altogether. Violent, sexy, playful, and high-impact. 

The stage movement award for 2018: the sheer dramatic and theatrical force of Crystal Pite’s choreography for Betroffenheit made it inseparable from the story of a man imprisoned by trauma, struggling to break free. The dancers from her Kidd Pivot company can do anything; they collapse, they re-form, and in the person of Tiffany Tregarthan, they propel themselves across the stage in ways the rest of the species hasn’t discovered.  

Audience participation redefined: In Stewart Lemoine’s A Lesson in Brio, an actor (Patricia Cerra) plays an enthusiastic audience volunteer, thus proving (if we needed proof) that actors “do” real life better than anyone else. 

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

The 2018 award for urgent topicality in theatre: a tie between Theatre Yes’s Viscosity, and the Punctuate!/ Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts production of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears. The former fashioned fascinating one-on-on encounters (based on real-life interviews) with people working in the oil industry. The latter: I give you one word, PIPELINES. Runner-up: Unexpectedly, Hannah Moscovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know had the unnerving effect of reminding us in the new world of conservative backslide that while the world has evolved in its attitudes towards female sexuality, the gains are always precarious. 

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezel in Jezebel, At The Still Point, Bumble Bear Productions. Photo supplied.

Casting innovation of the year: In Jezebel, At The Still Point, a production which made the theatre term “two-hander” impossible to use, Ainsley Hillyard co-starred with her French bulldog in an exploration of time.

Production number of the year: Nadeem Phillip as a French entertainer in Onegin, who provided the Edmonton theatre season with its only example of knee choreography atop a grand piano. Tied with the movement score by which six actors, armed with expert lighting on a mostly bare stage, created the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Hardline Productions’ Redpatch.

Children of God, by Corey Payette, Urban Ink Productions at the Citadel. Photo by David Cooper

Experiment of the year: In Children of God, which came to the Citadel, the brilliant Corey Payette domesticated a story about the lingering trauma of residential schools by marrying it to a musical theatre-type score, with pop power ballads and the rest. Did it work? Not quite. But it bravely brought a terrible long-hidden Canadian story the kind of unavoidable accessibility that it needs.

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

Ensemble chemistry of the year: A tie between The Comedy Company company, an ensemble of Edmonton’s top actors and Andrew Ritchie’s Thou Art Here production of Shakespeare’s Will, with a quintet of actors playing Anne Hathaway.

Bright idea of 2018: There were many. The award goes to the Emerging Company Showcase devised jointly by Edmonton’s Azimuth and Calgary’s Downstage Theatre, which dismisses the long-held but arbitrary boundary between the two cities like so much lint. Their production: Cardiac Theatre’s production of Michaela Jefferey’s The Listening Room, a sharp-eared dystopian exploration of youthful anger and disillusionment about the fate of revolutions. 

Louise Lambert in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

The big-impact-in-small-role department: (a)Louise Lambert in the scene-stealing role of the diner waitress in Stewart Lemoine’s screwball Skirts On Fire, revived in 2018 at Teatro La Quindicina, and as the Greek temptress (who can’t stop looking at her cellphone) in the otherwise undistinguished “relationship comedy” Sirens, which played the Fringe in an Atlas Theatre production. (b) Jesse Gervais was out-and-out hilarious as the furiously unsmiling and unamused career soldier who is enlisted — in a quintessential theatre joke — as the director of light musical comedy for the troops in The Comedy Company

Dubious idea of 2018: At the exciting moment in theatre history when barriers — in gender, ethnic identity, age, discipline — are being shaken down by theatre artists, Edmonton’s Sterling Awards have opted to separate comedy and drama in award categories. I predict this will be problematic. Since, as The Comedy Company set about proving and most of Shakespeare’s “comedies” testify so eloquently, the distinction is a way of marginalizing comedy. And much of the most important stage work is about crossing boundaries.   

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