‘Music without ego’: background music vs silence, a fierce battle in Listen Listen, a new Teatro comedy. A review

©Eric Kozakiewicz / Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There is a quixotic premise that underscores Listen Listen, the new Elyne Quan comedy premiering in the Teatro Live season in a Belinda Cornish production. And it will make you smile.

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In a mall in 1986, in a chain bookstore with 43 other outlets elsewhere, one clerk is trying to make a difference. Montague Gray (Farren Timoteo) curates background mix-tapes for the store from “my own extensive personal collection” as a backdrop mood-enhancer to the retail experience. Yes, Montague’s passion is Muzak.

That “easy listening” is the battleground of the new Teatro comedy is in itself cheeky in the company’s “reinvention” as billed. The Teatro canon is dotted liberally with Stewart Lemoine comedies where music , mostly from the orchestral and operatic repertoires (with occasional excursions into jazz), and specified in detail in the stage directions, is a life-changer — Schubert in Shocker’s Delight and Fever Land, Verdi in Pith!, Schoenberg in The Margin of the Sky … the list goes on.   

Farren Timoteo in Listen Listen, Teatro Live. Phoro by Eric Kozakiewicz

The hero of Listen Listen listens to music that is expressly designed to not listen to. He notices music to not notice. His music is memorably unmemorable and remarkably unremarkable. A man who is neither modest nor unassuming, he is fierce in defence of it.

He’s devoted to the bland with a researcher’s intensity and conviction. “‘Elevator music’ is derogatory,” sniffs Montague, bridling at the term. And he is of course right.

Montague’s obsession is vividly set forth in a bristling, physically acrobatic performance by Timoteo, an expert comic actor. He’s very funny as a character with his dander up, both fastidious and hyper-active. He bustles and dances through his world dusting books, picking up cues from the soundtrack he’s selected specially to be conducive to browsing. Montague’s fellow clerk Chuck (amusingly played byAlexander Ariate), a poli-sci grad student who calls himself an “anarchist realist,” indulges him, because (shrug) why not?.

Montague’s (not very deeply buried) inner warrior is unleashed when Jean (Nadien Chu, in zestful high-dudgeon comic form), a university English prof, goes book shopping. She demands briskly that the music be turned off; “I don’t want my mood improved by music!” Is Jean of the view that Muzak is the graveyard where the lame over-exposed parts of the pop repertoire go to die? Well, yes (and shopping in a mall if your jam is Jane Austen has ironies of its own). Does she consider Muzak, however assiduously curated, an assault on public spaces? “Torture” is the word she uses.

Montague’s obsession has come smack up against the brick wall of what turns out to be an obsession as adamantine as his own …an obsession with silence. And Montague and Jean have matching capacities for outrage.

The premise is droll, and promising. But Listen Listen loses steam in a confrontation that can only escalate, not develop, once the characters have revealed the dimensions of their respective obsessions. Both proselytize for opposing points of view that are nothing if not forcefully established. Both start mad, and get madder … about the music that’s designed to be soothing. And the actors, excellent and inventive as they are, can only repeat, more loudly (with actorly embellishments), the opposing positions of the characters, who arrive in the play fully formed. A two-hour play starts to feel a bit long.

I must add that there are funny scenes with the supporting characters. Chuck, without an obsession to call his own, is ineffectually attracted to, and continually confounded by, Tiffany, a frozen yogurt clerk (comically perky in Nikki Hulowski’s performance) who’s a jigsaw puzzle virtuoso. There’s a rom-com subplot there waiting for the development of the characters. Chuck’s efforts to assist Montague in making a decision about acting on his rage involve choosing between two stacks of books, one from the mystery section, one from the self-help table. Chuck the vague anarchist is intriguing, but a bit too sketchy to be really funny.

Both Ariate and Hulowski, be-wigged by costume designer Leona Brausen, have the fun of playing all the other characters. The former is, for one, the callow new bookshop manager whose main concern is covering his butt. Hulowski plays all the obstructionist receptionists (sorry, “executive assistants”) in Montague’s disastrous venture into the labyrinthine corporate headquarters to meet the big boss. The apocalyptic on Timoteo’s face as the ‘elevator’ version of Girl From Ipanema goes on the fritz is a keeper.

Chantel Fortin’s stylized design has an insight into the disorienting everywhere-nowhere world of malls, where the characters are always forgetting which way to exit, and the clock suspended in the air is stopped. It’s lighted with lurid ice-cream-coloured enthusiasm by Narda McCarroll.

Verbal wit isn’t really the thing for the characters of Listen Listen; the fun is in the conviction of the performances. But the play is dotted here and there with comically non-prophetic asides about the future, from the standpoint of 1986. The boss’s complacent line about publishing and books being “an incredible stable market” got a round of audience laughter.

He rolls his eyes: how are people going to acquire books if not in bookstores? “The mail?” he jokes. The joke’s on us.


Listen, Listen

Theatre: Teatro Live

Written by: Elyne Quan

Directed by: Belinda Cornish

Starring: Farren Timoteo, Nadien Chu, Alex Ariate, Nikki Hulowski

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Jun 11

Tickets: teatroq.com

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The Answer Is Fringe: the upcoming 42nd edition of our summer theatre bash, and a curated season of shows, too

The Answer Is Fringe. Design by Pete Nguyen.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We’ve long suspected it. And now it’s official. “The answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is … the Fringe. 

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The Answer is Fringe, the upcoming 42nd annual edition of Edmonton’s summer theatre extravaganza, is named in honour of Douglas Adams’ droll and trippy sci-fi adventure The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. As toasted at the first Fringe Revue of the year Thursday night in the Westbury Theatre (with music by Lindsey Walker), the oldest and biggest Fringe of its kind on the continent is counting down to take-off. It’s preparing to take fringees on galactic journeys to the far corners of the theatre universe — which is to say destinations unknown — Aug. 17 to 27 in Old Strathcona and environs.

The Answer to the Great Question of dimensions is that the festival galaxy hasn’t expanded dramatically in size since last year’s Destination Fringe. But it has grown. Fringe director Murray Utas and Fringe Theatre executive director Megan Dart announced an international lineup of 180-plus shows (up from 160 in 2022) in 34-plus venues, eight of them programmed by lottery and 26 BYOVs acquired and outfitted by artists themselves. And the tally of artists from here, across the country, and eight countries around the world currently stands at 1,400.

KidsFringe, a free destination for little kids with their grownups is back, directed by Alyson Dicey of Girl Brain. So is the Fringe’s Youth Empowerment Program, which gives five young people the rare chance to be mentored as they explore theatre from every angle on and off the stage.

The imagery of this summer’s fringing is by designer Pete Nguyen, the CCO of Sea Change Brewing Co. This is also the Answer to your Great (Followup) Question about the official Fringe beer.

At Thursday’s launch, Dart and Utas, both in their hitchhikers’ jammies, also announced the lineup for Fringe Theatre’s 2023-2024 season. It starts with the holdovers from The Answer Is Fringe Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. The Fringe Revue of Dec. 8, an “original holiday special,” as Utas says, will be devised by four writers with an ensemble cast.

Small Matters Productions, specialists in expanding the clown repertoire into theatre, bring their production of The Spinsters, a dark comedy of grotesques devised and performed by Tara Travis and Christine Lesiak, Jan. 19 to 27. And Botticelli in the Fire, a  provocative and epic conflagration of love, sex, art, and violent populism by the star Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, runs April 19 to 27, in a seven-actor production directed by Sarah Emslie. Tickets and subscriptions: fringetheatre.ca.

Meanwhile,, though, your summer hitchhiker explorations await. Tickets and passes for The Answer Is Fringe go on sale Aug. 9 at noon, at Fringe headquarter box office in the ATB Financial Arts Barn and online at fringetheatre.ca. And the fringehikers guide to the galaxy, i.e. the program, is on sale July 31. Stay tuned for further information: fringetheatre.ca.

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Fame and fortune in the digital world: Liam Salmon’s Subscribe or Like taps into millennial ambition

Gabby Bernard and Geoffrey Siimon Brown in Subscribe or Like, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Subscribe or Like, Workshop West. Poster image by DB Photographics

You’ve got to figure it’s no accident Liam Salmon wants to meet for coffee the old-fashioned way, in person, to talk about their new play Subscribe or Like, premiering live and in person Friday at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. And, hey, unlike everyone else in the packed Whyte Avenue joint, they don’t even bring their cellphone.

Maybe they’re escaping, it crosses your mind. As a theatre artist they gravitate to characters grappling for a foothold in a world where the frontier between on- and offline has been fudged forever. They’re drawn to the “paranormal”; they think about the vanishing of the fourth wall in theatre. Their new job is at the Fringe, in charge of enhancing the presence of the festival and its live artists on digital platforms.

“A weird force we barely understand,” says Salmon, cheerfully, of the internet and its ubiquitous penetration into what we used to confidently call ‘the real world’. “Social media as an extension of humanity,” a sort of theatre of self-produced avatars, alter-egos, caricatures.

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“It interacts and affects relationships in so many different circumstances. It magnifies everything….” And it’s double-sided: “on the one hand, it could be the place where a trans person finds their community. At the same time, people with violent viewpoints find each other….””

playwright Liam Salmon

The millennial characters of Subscribe or Like live at the intersection where the hard-scrabble 3-D reality of one-bedroom basement apartments and global 2-D dreams of fame and fortune meet and greet. Rachel (Gabby Bernard) and Miles (Geoffrey Simon Brown) are wannabe YouTube stars. University grads whose lives are on hold on the long hours/low pay treadmill, they launch their own channel.

Gabby Bernard and Geoffrey Simon Brown in Subscribe or Like, Workshop West. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Phorography

“Young people trying to navigate the world, ‘hey, notice me!’, and make money,” says the playwright of the ambitions of the couple in Subscribe or Like. “You can make a ton of money doing things on the internet. And it mirrors the fame narrative” that’s always worked its way into plays about theatre people. “It feels like another evolution of that, and how that can pervert or distort a relationship,” muses Salmon, who’s smart and thoughtful (and given to musing). “Social media is a fantastic motor, I think.”

How far will it take Rachel and Miles? Salmon feels connected to the characters. “In my situation as an emerging artist, I’ve felt it, that you almost have to destroy yourself for anyone to notice, anyone to care.”

“It’s a thriller,” they say of Subscribe or Like. “And it’s a memory play; Rachel is trying to make sense of something that’s happened (from video footage)…. Like most of my work, it’s funny. And funny gets to a point where you’re like ‘o my god!’”

“I’m just warning you,” grins Salmon, a graduate of the National Theatre School playwriting program. “There’s a scene that’s … visceral. It’s ‘o god, how far is this going to go? O god, it’s getting worse. And we go all the way!”

Coming from Salmon, this counts. After all, “I listen to murder podcasts to fall asleep — I find them comforting. Is that weird?.” They’ve always been drawn to sci-fi and horror. they say. “I really think of them as sleeper feminist genres … women as ferocious, as fighters, as capable. Ridley Scott in Alien is the perfect example. Those are the women I’ve related to in my real life too.”

Uncertainty — what’s real, what’s supernatural, what’s imagined — is prime horror fuel. It’s an un-erasable part of contemporary life now, lived as it is both live and online. From the start, Salmon has mined “the limbo space” between in their plays. In Arkangel, for example, which premiered at Nextfest’s digital 2021 edition, people are talking about strange things happening in a creepy small town, as the “real” interviews dissolve into mysterious static.

Even the relationship in Salmon’s 2022 Fringe hit Fags in Space, a queer rom-com that evolved from their time at the NTS, evolves in both obstacles and resolution from a random chance encounter in the gay digital galaxy.

The woman in Salmon’s latest, What Made You Think Of The Grass (slated for a reading at Lunchbox Theatre’s Stage One Festival in Calgary) lives in a luxury bunker with her A.I. toaster for company. “She doesn’t know if the ‘outside world’ even exists,” as the playwright describes. “But she can’t continue forever in this bunker. At some point you have to open the door and see what’s happening.”

The engine of the play is “the idea of safety,” the certainties of a halcyon age gone by. Salmon detects a pattern: “Every generation is marked by a global trauma in their lives, 9-11, financial crisis, COVID … and the wanting to return to a time when they were safe.” Fat chance.

Gabby Bernard in Subscribe or Like, Workshop West. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“How do we intelligently acknowledge the world we’re in now and move forward instead of returning to ‘safety’?” And how do you measure the dimensions of the “real world” when it includes the unmapped horizons of the digital world that’s now pretty much inseparable. Salmon thinks about things like that, in their plays and in coffee shops.

At 32, they didn’t entirely grow up online (so to speak), “the technology that has literally changed our brains. How we interact with the world and how we see the world on that structural level is completely different.” But Salmon’s kind of theatre takes that into account.  Subscribe or Like, set in 2018, includes “real live people doing something onstage with us there in the audience,” and projections that aren’t just there to be pretty.

So the technology of the production directed by Kate Ryan of Plain Jane Theatre is complicated; video imagery and memory are part of the present of the play. “It’s a dream team,” says Salmon of a set design by Stephanie Bahniuk, musical score by Darrin Hagen, video productions by Ian Jackson, lighting by Roy Jackson.

“Each scene has to feel fast and furious like a YouTube video, both a form and a style choice.” And because video is “a real thing that’s happened, time is all over the place.” But never fear, we won’t be lost in time. Subscribe or Like is the only play of the season with “a handy subscriber counter” onstage, from a handful to 10s of thousands, to remind us where we are in the story.


Subscribe or Like

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Liam Salmon

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Gabby Bernard, Geoffrey Simon Brown

Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd

Running: through June 11

Tickets: workshopwest.org

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Listen, Listen: a new Teatro Live ‘Muzak-al comedy’ by Elyne Quan. Meet the playwright in this preview

Farren Timoteo in Listen, Listen. Teatro Live. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For five years or so, a character has taken up residence in a back corner in Elyne Quan’s writer brain. He’s an ideal renter. He lives quietly; he doesn’t play his music loud.

Montague Gray, who has a name as grand as he isn’t, is modest and unobtrusive. But he has a passion, “a much-maligned interest,” as Quan puts it. “He’s a Muzak enthusiast.”

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” laughs the Edmonton-born playwright (cum television/ film/ digital media writer) on the blower from her Toronto home base. And now, thanks to a Teatro Live commission, Montague has a Quan comedy to star in. In Listen, Listen, premiering at Teatro Live Friday on the Varscona stage, Montague is faced with a crisis, and a call to action. Muzak, the music he loves, as mild-mannered as he, is under threat in the world. In a mall in 1986, heroism is called for: Montague must take a stand.

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“I’d been thinking of the odd things people become obsessed with,” says Quan. And obsession is a great comedy driver, as the Teatro archive of Stewart Lemoine plays demonstrates. Think, for example, of Lemoine’s 2015 comedy Hey Countess!, in which an ordinary guy, irritated beyond measure by the atrocious dubbing in an art house Italian film, impulsively undertakes a quest.

The Teatro commission, which came during the pandemic, was delightful, and unexpected, says Quan cheerfully. As Teatro co-artistic director Belinda Cornish explained, the company founded by playwright Lemoine, “was re-structuring and re-branding, ushering in a new era by wanting to include some new voices.” Witty and droll as Quan is in conversation, comedy, the Teatro specialty, counts as a departure for her. “I was so flattered. But I don’t really write comedies,” she says, of a playwriting resumé dotted with award-winners from her time here at Concrete Theatre and Workshop West and in New York, where she graduated from NYU with an MFA in dramatic writing in 2005.

playwright Elyne Quan. Photo supplied.

“Besides my kids’ stuff (including the hit two-hander Lig & Bittle, with Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull), most of my plays are dark and very firmly drama.” Amused, she remembers talking about one of her plays with the drama department chair at the U of A (where she graduated with an honours B.A. in drama). “He said ‘So Elyne, how bad do you want to make your audiences feel?’ (Laughter). I want them to feel something: that was my answer at the time.”

The proposition from Teatro wasn’t prescriptive, she says. And after all, the Teatro “comedy-forward” thrust has been to expand the usual boundaries attached to comedy. Quan didn’t have a story in her pocket, but she did have the Muzak-obsessed Montague, “the kind of character who’s so concerned about not being fussy that he’s fussy.”

“Coming out of the pandemic there was a shift in the kind of TV I wanted to watch,” Quan muses. The urge “to see stuff that’s lighter, that’s not so emotionally draining” had started earlier, during a couple of years of illness. And the pandemic changed the tonal palette for everyone, she thinks.

Her entry point into theatre was acting, back to the era of the Citadel’s Teen Fest, and roles in Brad Fraser’s Blood Buddies and Conni Massing’s Terminus. Edmonton audiences saw her in Marty Chan’s Forbidden Phoenix. “If I was still in Edmonton, I’d still be acting, probably,” says Quan who moved to Toronto in 2007 — post-New York and post-teaching at the U of A — feeling the need to be in a bigger city.

Studying at the Canadian Film Centre was a helpful way to get started again. And gradually TV, film, assorted digital media projects, including interactive website with games, began to happen for her. “It took a long time,” she says. And the pandemic was immensely destructive. “But the reality of being in this (writer’s) career is you have to do a lot of different things,” as she says. “There a reason theatre people, playwrights, are really good at television. We’re used to wearing a whole bunch of hats all the time. We’re  able to think on our feet, do a whole bunch of jobs, be flexible….”

She noticed “a real difference between the U.S. and Canada about “who gets to be in the room.” At NYU, “the energy was that TV was always looking for the next hot young thing, willing to give young inexperienced artists an opportunity….” In Canada, “there was way less of that, a lot of resistance to it. It was ‘we’re going to give it to the seasoned TV guy, usually a guy, who’s going to run the show, who knows how to work with our budgets, who’s a known quantity’. And he’d have his own group of people to work with, young versions of him who looked liked him…. It was very very difficult.”

“Things started to shift in a big way a few years ago, before the pandemic,” she says of cultural attitudes in the wake of seismic events like the murder of George Floyd. “A lot of people were talking about visibility and diversity in rooms, demanding more, seeing the value in it.”

Quan had been exploring ethnic diversity long before that, in many of her early plays (including her contributions to Triptych and Rice: Stories With A Slant, at Concrete Theatre here). But “it all changed when I got into the Netflix-sponsored “diversity in voices” initiative at the Banff Media Centre,” she says. She brought a project to pitch, and though it wasn’t produced, “out of it came a new agent and a nice confidence boost…. The ball started rolling.”

One of her biggest supporters and mentors, in a diversified, multi-limbed career, has been playwright/ screenwriter/ story editor Mark Haroun, a friend from Edmonton theatre days whose kids play A Giraffe in Paris premiered at the Citadel. He gave Quan her “first writing room TV job” for the CBC series Heartland. “Fun, and extremely instructive,” she says of the experience. “You learn so much, so fast. That show has been around for a long time, a well-oiled machine.”

“I didn’t have an episode in that season. But that job has led to every other TV job I’ve had. And I’m busier than I’ve ever been!” says Quan gratefully.

It’s taken time, she sighs, and laughs. “That’s the difference between Edmonton and Toronto. In a bigger city where resources are really scarce, it’s ‘who are you?’. Edmonton energy is ‘we’re all here; let’s make the best of it!’”

She quotes the great American playwright Tony Kushner, who told Quan’s NYU class that he’d written American theatre’s most produced play, with multiple productions, translated, around the world. “And one night of Angels in America on HBO, more people saw it than the entire history of the play.” The moral? “You can’t afford to be just a playwright any more.”

Right before the pandemic, Quan worked on a 10-episode Snap project in which your bitmoji avatar is placed inside an animation, “a real engineering feat at the time.” The viewership of the first two-minute episode? 10 million. The economics of TV writing and the imminence of newer digital technologies and AI creation have all contributed urgency to the current WGA strike, as Quan points out. “If we don’t protect these (writer) careers now…”

Which has made the writing of Listen, Listen,  even more special, she thinks. “I did enjoy it, the chance to stretch different muscles!” says Quan of her excursion into comedy. “Forced out of his comfort zone by everyone he meets and his circumstances, Montague undertakes a journey to have his innocuous music restored in his workplace.”  For Quan it’s been a journey from dark into light.


Listen, Listen

Theatre: Teatro Live

Written by: Elyne Quan

Directed by: Belinda Cornish

Starring: Farren Timoteo, Nadien Chu, Alex Ariate, Nikki Hulowski

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through Jun 11

Tickets: teatroq.com

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The fascinating contradictions of Anahita’s Republic, a review

Roya Yazdanmehr and Yassine El Fassi El Fihri in Anahita’s Republic, AuTash Productions. Photo by Henderson Images

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Anahita’s Republic is a thriller set in a mysterious world of concealed faces and shadows, secret agents, secret police, hidden agendas. That world is contemporary Iran.

The playwriting duo of Hengameh E. Rice, one half Iranian and the other Edmontonian, have created a gripping and complicated story that takes us further and further into the subterranean cross-currents of a sophisticated society … where women have no rights. That’s the fascinating contradiction that drives the storytelling of Anahita’s Republic. It’s a rare insider view, and an opportunity not to be missed.

The hijab, a powerful symbol of compliance, is mandatory. Marriages are arranged, by men. The family is ruled, by men. Public life is orchestrated, and restricted, by men, who have a freedom only dreamed of by women.

Women are the insurrectionists against an oppressive regime, and widespread protests notwithstanding, their struggle for change is underground, conducted by networking. Smart, educated, and driven, Anahita (Roya Yazdanmehr) runs a successful import business from inside her luxurious villa prison, a tangible seminar in the working-from-within model. Since there’s no equality for her in the Republic, she’s made her own republic-within-a-republic where she roams defiantly, sans hijab and in a bathing suit.

Her agent in the world is her brother Cyrus, who’s something of a go-fer for Anahita’s business plan. “He is my chador,” as she says of her identity-concealing double life. When she says “my republic is not the kingdom of men,” she’s not taking some sort of  religious side-swipe. She’s simply describing her regime. And, interestingly, it’s a harsh one, goal-oriented, that’s just not interested in her brother’s own dreams and happiness. It is a high price tag on single-mindedness.

The red alert catalyst is the arrival of a mysterious woman (Jennie George) in a chador and expensive sunglasses at Anahita’s gate. Is she who she claims to be? Is she to be trusted? An ally? A spy? Her appearance is an event that triggers suspicion, and demands wariness, interpretation, and response from everyone in the play. And the play bravely doesn’t shy away from wondering about Anahita herself, a fierce and contradictory figure who’s both heroic and repressive.

Brian Dooley’s production for the indie company AuTash (Farsi for “fire”) is noir-ish and atmospheric. His cast commits to a sense of high-alert urgency throughout. Whittyn Jason’s design picks up on that, the idea of layering in a dangerous world. It’s a succession into depth of panels, turned by human agency, that glow like stained glass, through which we discern shadowy movements.

In the end, the admirable ambitions of the storytelling to reveal a whole culture do overtake the plot, I think. The complications accumulate, and spread thinner and thinner, scattering impact in scenes that are harder to sustain. Anahita’s Republic sets about shedding light on every corner of private and public life in a mysterious country, including higher education, the family embedded in the state, foreign relations, ethnic prejudices in the big wide world. “I can swim here. I know the water. Everywhere else I’d drown,” says Anahita, who’s nothing if not decisive about life choices for other people.

Anahita’s Republic is a story you won’t know in advance, about people who are up against it, trying to make decisions in a never-ending state of emergency. A worthwhile theatrical expedition.

Brian Dooley’s production stars Roya Yazdanmehr, Jennie George, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Michael Peng. Running: at the Backstage Theatre through June 4. Tickets: fringetheatre.ca.




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The improbable magic of live: Flop! the improvised musical, a little review

Ron Pederson and Ashley Botting in Flop! The Improvised Musical. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Calling an improvised musical Flop! is like calling a plastic surgery practice Oops! or an aerial circus Thud!. It’s irresistible; you can’t not look.

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But then, it’s clearly impossible: making up an entire musical, with an opening number, romantic ballads, cute patter songs, songs of self-discovery, song-and-dance, an 11 o’clock number, a finale. AND, since there are only two of them onstage, the duo of Ron Pederson and Ashley Botting, along with pianist Erik Mortimer, improvise the story and play all the characters, too — the leads, the sidekicks, the cameos, the comic distractions — at every performance of Flop!

There’s a kind of magic to the live-ness of it all, the risk. And we’re involved. Pederson and Botting create Flop! from the chaos of audience cues, with side commentary, self-appraisal, and adjustments. It’s kind of like virtuoso trapeze artists already in the air commenting that the ropes in the rigging look a bit frayed.

Ron Pederson and Ashley Botting in Flop! The Improvised Musical. Photo by Dahlia Katz

At Saturday’s show, Flop! was a romantic comedy all about a wedding, a mismatched couple, best friends…. Scenes happened in a deli, a laundromat, an arcade, none of them cues I’d have called promising. Like make-overs, improv is all about working with what you’ve got. There was a scene where movement turned into tap dancing. Elton John was there. There were songs in German. And French. Really.

And it was a riot to see disaster and the laws of gravity averted so dexterously. Pederson, whom Edmonton audiences know from the deluxe improv trio Gordon’s Big Bald Head, and Botting, a Second City veteran, are agile and funny. And they have an instinct for musical theatre form, when the songs should happen, when it’s amusing to have them happen when they shouldn’t. When things went askew, they acknowledged it. One of them would step out and say “what do we need here?” or “what if the best friend had a song?”

And with Mortimer, Pederson and Botting have the matching expertise of a terrific musical improviser who can anticipate the narrative needs of the moment, and play in any style.

As I say, it’s all impossible. And watching the impossible actually be entertained, and executed, before your very eyes makes you shake your head (and laugh out loud).

Flop!, as Pederson explains at the end, is a workshop, a work-in-progress en route to Off-Broadway in the fall. The try-out is at Rapid Fire Theatre’s new Exchange Theatre in Strathcona. It’s a welcoming, cleverly designed space for improv, mere steps away from the showbiz bistro bar The Next Act and a dozen other Strathcona eateries. These are cues; improvise yourself a fun outing.

Check out 12thnight’s preview interview with Pederson, Botting, and producer Alan Kliffer hereFlop! runs through May 28. Tickets: rapidfiretheatre.com. 

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The dark pathways to coming-of-age: Boy Trouble at Fringe Theatre, a review

Maxwell Hanic and Romar Dungo in Boy Trouble, Amoris Projects. Photo by Mat Simpson

Boy Trouble, Amoris Project. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The theatre is dim, lit with a barrage of come-hither text messages: “send a vid”, “wyd”, “join me and a couple buds”, “your cute”, “no pic no chat” “my truck?”.

When the lights come up, you can make out a playground: a sort of treehouse, stylized trees, a bench (set and lighting, both eloquent, by Even Gilchrist). 

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The queer teenage characters of Mac Brock’s explosively performed Boy Trouble ricochet through the liminal space between these axes — the portal between childhood friendship and a shadowy “adult” world of mysterious connections. Both are underscored, in different ways, by secrecy.

Brock’s new play, premiering in Fringe Theatre’s Spotlight Series in a production directed by the playwright, explores the intricacies and ambiguities of coming-of-age. Save the word “bittersweet,” oft slathered on such stories, for some other play. Here it’s a veritable minefield for characters discovering their sexual identity in a world that’s both small and hostile (like school and family), and big and available (like Grindr and the internet).

It’s 2015. And at 16 boyhood friends Kay (Maxwell Hanic) and Anthony (Romar Dungo) are gay, but at different angles. The former, who has white affluence and a mother with a girlfriend on his side, hasn’t fully opened the closet door, just in case. The latter, who has found himself gay friends his own age, is from a struggling immigrant Filipino family with conservative Catholic expectations.       

Keepers of each other’s secrets, allies against bullying, the friends have fallen out. And in the course of the six-year span of Boy Trouble, a completely rewritten version of Brock’s 2019 play, we find out why.

In Brock’s production, two compelling, physically dexterous actors don’t just occupy the stage. They clamour over it at top speed, swing through it, tumble off and under it. They’re in perpetual motion, physically restless even when they (barely) stop to text, upside down right side up  — a test of sturdiness for Gilchrist’s evidently hurricane-proof playground design. They lob cellphones as they go in a way that will make you queasy. The video design by Tori Morrison and Judah Truong is a simultaneous participant.

Romar Dungo and Maxwell Hanic in Boy Trouble, Amoris Projects. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective.

As kids, the performances reveal, Kay and Anthony’s friendship is a perpetual motion game of tag, a choreography of jostling playful movement that will leave you just a bit breathless. And as teenagers this hyperactivity translates, in narrative terms, into a questing for the equilibrium and footing that are heartbreakingly elusive. Moving targets are harder to impale, after all. Rare moments of stillness are genuinely disturbing  in Brock’s production.

The friends have been bonded by secrecy. In the play’s present, secrecy and the threat of exposure, with the attendant shame, have driven a wedge between former allies. What was playful and teasing has an edge, sometimes almost violent sometimes almost sexual. The fight and intimacy direction, a continuity in this play, are by Sam Jeffery.

Coming-of-age has made Kay furtive and cautious, as Hanna’s wonderfully nervy performance charts. Dungo, a discovery for Edmonton theatre, brings a certain sweet boyish earnestness to Anthony that’s turned to unease at the edges. You believe both characters: Kay who’d been a dispenser of advice, and Anthony, who’s taken on that self-assignment. And you really want these queer kids to find some sort of happiness and repose to go with their smiles.

Brock is a sharp-eared writer of staccato dialogue that shoots out in overlapping fragments and shards. In the hands of the actors the text feels convincingly alive — tentative, quickly withdrawn, amended, re-introduced. And the situation feels fraught, twitchy, momentous (which as the news reminds us is by no means an over-reaction). Boy Trouble plants a flag on the tough terrain where the going should be easier than it is, and the path of self-discovery is rockier than ever.


Boy Trouble

Theatre: Amoris Projects

Written and directed by: Mac Brock

Starring: Maxwell Hanic and Romar Dungo

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

Running: through May 27

Tickets: fringetheatre.ca

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Spinning an urban story on wheels: Thou Art Here opens its season with Cycle

Andrew Ritchie, Cycle, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Andrew Ritchie has spent the last year spinning his wheels.

He’s been up on his bike writing the solo play that shares a lane with an audience this weekend for the first time. Cycle, which launches the 2023 Thou Art Here season, is up on its wheels, literally, for a two-night workshop production in Studio B at Fringe headquarters. And Ritchie will be on his bicycle for the duration.

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He’s playing “versions of myself and other characters,” he says. And he’s been experimenting: “spin classes for the first time, intense! Trying a fat tire bike, interviews with people around Edmonton about their bike experiences, a lot of reading about bike history, studying urban design….”

Thou Art Here’s co-founder (with Neil Kuefler) and artistic director, Ritchie has a history with urban bicycling that weaves through his high school years, university, after university. It was his mode of transportation in Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto where he got a master’s degree in directing and theatre creation at York University. His experiences as a bicycle food courier in Toronto were, he says, one of the vivid inspirations for Cycle. “As someone who couldn’t afford a car for a long time, I saw pretty quickly how we prioritize (that) one way to move around a city, how we design our roads, our neighbourhoods….”

Cycle explores the links between bicycling and some of the hot urban issues of our time. “There’s been a shift in thinking in North American cities, due to increasing population, inflation, the climate crisis catastrophe,” says Ritchie. “It’s about how do we design our cities to be more people-focused and less car-focused.”

“There’s a reason Whyte Avenue is the way it is, the density of businesses and activities. And there’s a reason there isn’t a Whyte Avenue in Windermere right now.”

If you’ve casually dropped “bike lanes” into dinner conversation lately, you know what it’s like to create a provocation. Ritchie, who does have a car (and drives in the city and loves road trips), points out that there’s frustration about traffic, too. “People say bike lanes take over their parking or driving lanes. But for every person walking or biking, there’s one less car on the street. And it’s a huge difference…. There are more people biking in Edmonton since bike lanes were introduced. Way more.”

Let’s face it, you had to be a risk-taker extraordinaire to be a cyclist in the Edmonton traffic of yore. “As we take on the infrastructure to make it safer, it’s more likely that families, the elderly, e-bikes for people with different mobility levels, are going to be out and about.”

And Ritchie doesn’t buy the winter argument that Edmonton weather should negate civic spending on bike lanes. “There are tons of things we use for different seasons — ice rinks, outdoor swimming pools that are well loved and open for a couple of months in the two months in the summer…. We’re a winter city. I think the possibilities exist if you open your mind to it.”

Cycle is the start of a new identity and mission for Thou Art Here, a 12-year-old theatre collective that took Shakespeare to the people wherever they were … rarely in conventional theatre spaces. The season is comprised of all new Canadian work, in-progress for full productions to follow.

Performed atop a bicycle along with some members of the audience also on bikes, Cycle does reference the old Thou Art Here, though, since it is, in its own way, site-specific. Ritchie, along with director Kristi Hansen and choreographer Ainsley Hillyard, “have been exploring all the kinds of movement I can do on a bicycle.”

Besides, you can’t help thinking that if there had been bike lanes between Verona and Mantua, that whole misunderstanding in the Capulets’ tomb could have been averted. And Romeo and Juliet would be alive today.



Theatre: Thou Art Here

Written by: Andrew Ritchie

Directed by: Kristi Hansen

Choreographed by: Ainsley Hillyard

Where: Studio B, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Friday and Saturday

Tickets: fringetheatre.ca

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Anahita’s Republic: a thriller takes us into the world of Iran and the struggle for women’s rights

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The thriller that gets its Alberta premiere Friday at the Backstage Theatre takes us to a tense world where “freedom” reverberates at a frequency very different from our own. The disparity between its application to men and to women is dramatic. And so is the separation of public and private life.

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Welcome to Iran. AuTash Productions, a new indie theatre based here and named for the Farsi word for “fire,” takes us there.

The title character of Anahita’s Republic is a wealthy and accomplished woman of business who refuses to wear the hijab. She decides to build her own republic, “where she can dress how she wants, speak how she wants, and have all the liberties she’s always dreamed of,” as playwright Hengameh E. Rice puts it.  “And she manipulates her brother to do things for her” out in the world — because as a man he can.

Hengameh E. Rice is actually a writing duo: one is Iranian-born, the other from Edmonton. And their preference, in these complicated times, is for the collective designation. “It’s female-focused,” says the Iranian partner, “to show the impact the regime has had on Iranian women…. But it’s not a political play; it’s a very human play.”

There is heightened global awareness of the fight for women’s rights in Iran — witness the protests world-wide that attended the terrible fate of 22-year-old Mahsa Amina in 2022 at the hands of the Iranian morality police for wearing her hijab improperly. But the struggle goes back generations.

“I’ve lived here most of my life,” says the Iranian half of Hengameh E. Rice, who emigrated to Edmonton with her family in 1978. Her mom got accepted to do a PhD in economics at the U of A, just before the Islamic revolution of 1979 that made the hijab mandatory. “I’ve kept my Iranian identity separate from my Edmonton/Canadian identity,” she says. It’s never been easy to explain to people “just how defiant and brave Iranian women are.”

A turning point for her was the 2009 election, 30 years after the revolution. There was widespread hope of Iranians for a moderate candidate and a new age of civil liberty, “a regime to free Iran from its isolationism, and give women more rights.”

She went back to Iran to vote, “and there was dancing in the streets…. Then all hell broke loose the next day as the results came back and it became clear the election had been rigged by ultra-conservative forces. “People demonstrated, millions protested in Azadi Square (ironically, it translates as “Freedom Square”) in Tehran. “We were at the university and we couldn’t leave.” A week later, the day she and her mother finally left, Neda Agha Soltan was killed, a 26-year-old just going to visit a friend. “Those memories haunted me for a long time.”

Anahita’s Republic was born in that haunting. “I had a story in my head.” And every visit back to Iran reinforced her commitment to telling it. “I had to wear a hijab; as a woman in that world I was constantly told that I had to be very careful how I acted…. No man gets harassed in that way.”

She wasn’t a playwright, but her Hengameh E. Rice (and real-life) partner, a veteran writer who’d worked at ACCESS TV, was. They met at Walterdale. And she “just got the theatre bug.”

The Edmonton half of the pair — the Rice half — says the play started with “a long one-person monologue, with six or more characters all played by one person…. We crunched it together.” Now the play has four characters, two men and two women, including Anahita and her brother Cyrus. “And the balance of power shifts constantly,” in ways that reflect “gender, generational, and class conflict.”   

They acquired the services of the distinguished Canadian director/dramaturge/ actor Brian Dooley, who’s headed the Citadel’s new play development program and became the artistic director of L’UniThéâtre for a time (he’s now Montreal-based). He organized the first workshop of the play, and encouraged them to continue.

“They were passionate. And dogged!” Dooley says of the play’s history that includes a workshop at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, the Stratford Festival 2022 writers’ retreat, and a Toronto production from Bustle & Beast directed by Brenley Charkow. When Hengameh E. Rice asked him to direct the production of Anahita’s Republic that Edmonton will see, his first reaction was “you do know I’m an old white guy, right?”

He’s experienced Iran in person, twice. In 2010 he was at Fajr, Iran’s venerable international theatre festival (where Nassim Soleimanpour, creator of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, was his interpreter). Later he led mask workshops for men and women, an all-ages crowd, in Iran. “Nobody was wearing hijabs,” he says. “The hijab as metaphor for the desire for freedom … that interested me about the world of the play.”

He found the the premise on which Anahita’s Republic is built, the gap between public and private lives in Iran, real and fascinating. “The secrecy, the deceit…. It’s what they have to do to survive, and get things done.” The covert smuggling operation, the family business that Anahita runs, is “absolutely real,” he says. “The interaction between female and male characters, the way they share status, and exchange it in order to move forward….”

“The big question,” says Hengameh E. Rice, “is who do you trust?” And after all, that’s a question, as Dooley adds, “that resonates beyond the world of the play, in this age of disinformation, AI, surveillance….”

The action of the play, and the explosive question of trust, is triggered when a woman wearing a chador comes to the gate of Anahita’s headquarters, bearing a dangerous secret. Dooley calls it “a suspenseful drama.” Hengameh E. Rice calls it “a very entertaining play.”

“When you say you’re going to Iran, people always say ‘isn’t that dangerous?’,” says the playwright as Dooley nods. But there’s so much more to it, as they both point out: the history, the ancient culture, “the bravery of the people, their warmth, their honesty.” Persian hospitality is storied, and in the absence of bars and the attendant aspects of Western culture, theatre has a crucial importance. “It’s such an old country, and the people are fascinating.”

“In Anahita, you see a woman fighting for change in her country,” says the playwright. “She’s not leaving her country; she’s fighting to live in her country…. And women are the engine of change,” she says, pointing to the Woman Life Freedom movement. “It’s run by the younger generation, the 20- 25- 30-year-olds. This regime is all they’ve ever known. And they’ve had had enough!”

“It’s very important to tell the story. The news will only tell you so much….”


Anahita’s Republic

Theatre: AuTash Productions

Written by: Hengameh E. Rice

Directed by: Brian Dooley

Starring: Roya Yazdanmehr, Jennie George, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Michael Peng

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

Running: Friday through June 4

Tickets: fringetheatre.ca

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A new Canadian musical tells a Filipino story: Prison Dancer premieres at the Citadel. A review

Prison Dancer The Musical, Citadel Theatre and Prison Dancer Inc. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A human sparkler stands before us, a queen with gorgeous chiffon wings, in prison orange. That’s prisoner Ruperto Poblador, aka Lola (played by the charismatic Julio Fuentes), onstage to reveal how she became an internet influencer in the pre-TikTok pre-Snapchat olden days.  

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Prison Dancer, a new Canadian pop musical premiering at the Citadel before a fall run at the National Arts Centre, has a knock-out premise. It’s inspired by an amazingly weird 2007 YouTube sensation, a video of 1,500 inmates in a maximum security Filipino prison in Cebu dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Created by the team of Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus (it’s already been a film and a web series), the musical proposes a back story of sorts to this strange dance concoction, with its highly theatrical visuals and Vincent Price-ian voice-overs.

The production itself has a back story, one that introduces Canadian theatre to an impressive (and hitherto largely untapped) talent pool. From the creative and production teams to director Nina Lee Aquino and her 12-member cast, it’s all-Filipino. And on opening night, a packed crowd with a heartwarming representation from the younger Filipino-Canadian community, cheered every song, every move, every big-M emotional moment. And that sense of community and connection feeds the story, too.   

Julio Fuentes in Prison Dancer, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

“If you have imagination you can turn this hell into heaven,” says the sinuous Lola, who doesn’t walk when she can do dance moves, in high heels. She rules the roost on the inside, under the mantra “celebrate whenever we can wherever we can.” And her fellow inmates, locked up for drug offences and running drugs from inside, indulge her, some less genially than others. They do, however, take the time to beat up newcomer Christian (Daren Dyhengco), who’s trying to get clean.

The arrival of a new Warden (Jovanni Si), a pompous disciplinarian who believes in “cracking down,” “atonement,” and “rehabilitation” through punitive physical exercise, threatens to turn this summer camp for the vaguely artistic into military-style boot camp. Needless to say he’s really not a fan of drag.

Prison Dancer, with Julio Fuentes, Josh Capulong, Daren Dyhengco, Renell Doneza, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Byron Flores, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Lola turns this group exercise regimen into dance. And the hard-ass Warden suddenly, whizz-bang without warning, turns into an enabler — a comic internet slut, with an insatiable appetite for “views” and an eye on his “legacy” as a rehabilitation expert. The Prison Dancer story is constructed at that intersection of those two developments. “Look alive, the world is watching,” as one of the musical’s livelier songs has it. And both the Warden and gradually the inmates take note.

The world of the show is Joanna Yu’s prison set, a moveable trio of revolving multi-level gridwork towers of bars, overhung with shorts and T-shirts, with dramatic lighting by Michelle Ramsay. In Prison Dancer authority, i.e. the Warden in his enforcer sunglasses, naturally gets the highest perch.

If art has a built-in tension in Prison Dancer — dance that is coerced from a captive audience can become joyful and redemptive —  so has love. Two relationships, thwarted by circumstance, get scenes and big matching ballads of lamentation. One is Lola’s relationship with Shakespeare (Dominique Brillantes), who has a wife on the outside. The other, sketched rather than fully occupied, belongs to Christian and his wife Cherish (the affecting Diana Del Rosario). She believes in the power of love to wrest happy endings from sad stories; he’s distancing himself, for her sake. Evermore is the big emotional pop ballad of the piece, reprised climactically.

The prevailing idea of the musical is the transformative power of dance, tested to the extreme in a maximum security prison. And I’m wondering, on this first viewing, why it doesn’t come more thrillingly alive and present in this premiere production. Although Julio Fuentes’ choreography is witty, and seasoned with MJ and Thriller allusions, the show’s premise promises more dancing than it actually delivers, even when the inmates get down with the new program. So far it’s a bit hard to imagine a Broadway destination for the production without some big, visceral, extended dance numbers.

The storytelling and the dialogue, by Candido and De Jesus, are laced with wit and amusing insights into individual characters like Shakespeare and the Warden. This isn’t the reclamation of hardened criminals; this is all about making life inside for the inmate collective more tenable through dance (being in maximum security need not be a barrier to artistic fulfilment, whew). The cultural references, in the Christmas Morning number for example, or the Filipino snack that Cherish brings to the prison, help give Prison Dancer its unique flavour. Bring them on!

With exceptions Candido’s score, though, has a certain sameness about it; it leans heavily into ballads with similar thoughts about “new beginnings” and “freedom.” The musical arrangements, for an able band of three, don’t do it any favours. And on opening night, the lopsided sound mix favoured the piano over audible lyrics, a correctable problem to be sure.

The idea of Prison Dancer as a speculative back story to a mysterious internet phenomenon is very appealing. It has built-in theatricality, it has a live-wire and specific cultural connection, it has a universal message about feeding the soul. And it’ll l be dancing its way into future incarnations. Further development awaits.


Prison Dancer The Musical

Theatre: Citadel and Prison Dancer Inc.

Created by: Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus

Directed by: Nina Lee Aquino

Starring: Julio Fuentes, Norm Aloncel, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Dominique Brillantes, Josh Capulong, Diana Del Rosario, Renell Doneza, Daren Dyhengco, Chariz Faulmino, Byron Flores, Jovanni Sy, Stephen Thakkar

Running: through May 28

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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