A week of many choices on Edmonton stages of every shape and size

Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A crazy week in Edmonton theatre is underway. (So don’t go trying to land a stage from which to deliver your own innovative modern dance movement memoir; they’re all occupied.) 

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•At the Citadel, the much postponed production of The Royale finally opens Thursday. The 2013 play by the American writer Marco Ramirez, loosely based on real events, chronicles the struggles of a Black boxer in a racially segregated world in the early years of the 20th century. ln the America of 1905 can Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson realize his dream of being the heavyweight champion of the world? He’s up against it.

Stratford and Shaw Festival star André Sills directs the five-actor production led by Austin Eckert as Jay that runs through Feb. 19. Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820.

Girl Brain’s Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak in the deluxe bathroom at Theatre Network. Photo supplied.

•At Theatre Network, Another F!*#@$G Festival (soon to be renamed by… you) — adult, contemporary, and multi-disciplinary — starts tonight and runs through Feb. 12 at the Roxy. Its muse is adult, contemporary, and multi-disciplinary, and includes such artists as Rebecca Merkley, Lilith Fair, and Girl Brain. The mainstage headliner is Little Willy, in which the great marionettiste Ronnie Burkett and his naughty Daisy Theatre ensemble return to TN to have their way with Romeo and Juliet. Check out the 12thnight interview with Ronnie Burkett, and our preview survey of the F!*#@$G lineup. Tickets, the full schedule, and your chance to rename the festival: theatrenetwork.ca.

Omisimawiw by Shyanne Duquette, RISER Edmonton. Poster image supplied.

•RISER Edmonton, which launched its 2023 quartet of shows with After Faust last week (check out the 12thnight review), continues this week at the Backstage Theatre with the premiere of Omisimawiw at the Backstage Theatre. Shyanne Duquette’s new play, titled with the Cree word for elder sister, has a remarkable real-life backstory. Have a peek at my interview with the playwright before its Nextfest run last June.

Duquette talks about the uncanny experience of meeting her sister for the first time on the LRT. There was just something about the young woman she saw on the train, something familiar. So she made the overture: “Hey, is your dad my dad?” In this encounter Duquette found not only her sister but the inspiration for her first play, all about self-discovery, validating her Indigenous identity, and connecting to the Indigenous culture.

In RISER, the Edmonton branch of Why Not Theatre’s national initiative,  Omisimawiw has been boosted by the support and mentorship indie productions really need to flourish. Danielle LaRose directs the RISER production that runs Thursday through Sunday. It stars Duquette herself and Emily Berard. Tickets: commongroundarts.ca.

•In honour of the Cupid season and all its alluring complications, Opera Nuova offers us a pair of chamber-sized one-act musicals, Romance Romance at the vintage Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park. The Little Comedy, Act I of the 1988 Broadway double-act for four performers, by Keith Herrmann (music) and Barry Harman (book and lyrics), is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and based on an Arthur Schnitzler story. A couple of upmarket Viennese swells decide to play at being impoverished bohemians to see if that’ll be an aphrodisiac. Act II, Summer Share, is from a Jules Renard play, updated to the 1980s in the Hamptons, where two married couples take a vacation house. Hmm, what might occur to them? 

Brian Deedrick directs the Opera Nuova production starring Justin Kautz, Erin Vandermolen-Pater, Ben Kuchera and Eli Gusdal. It runs Saturday and Sunday, then Feb. 18 and 19. Tickets: showpass.com.  

•Edmonton’s university theatre schools are both opening shows this week. At the U of A’s Studio Theatre it’s Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (translated by Martin Crimp), an absurdist 1959 fable of wincing timeliness in which the inhabitants of a small French town are turning into rhinoceroses — all but one man. It’s an indictment of populist extremism, mob mentality, and the kind of conformism in which fascism takes roots and grows. Ring a bell?

Jake Planinc’s production runs through Feb. 18 at the Timm’s Centre for the Arts (87 Ave. and 112 St.). Tickets:  780-492-2495, showpass.com

At MacEwan University Wednesday through Sunday is London Road. Developed at the National Theatre, this highly unorthodox 2011 true crime musical uses verbatim interviews of inhabitants of an Ipswich street where six sex workers were murdered in 2006. Jim Guedo directs the MacEwan theatre department production that runs in the Tim Ryan Theatre Lab in Allard Hall (11110 104 Ave.). Tickets: MacEwan.ca/TheatreSeason.

•At Walterdale Theatre, a community company of startling ambition, The Mousetrap, the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery that ran continuously in London from 1952 to 2020. Lauren Tamke’s production runs through Feb. 18. Tickets: walterdaletheatre.square.site.

CONTINUING:
•Unsung: Tales From The Front Line,
real stories from verbatim interviews with health care workers as a “performance instalation,” continues at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre‘s new home, The Gateway, through Sunday. See the 12thnight review, and a preview interview with co-creators Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen. Tickets: workshopwest.org.

•At the Citadel through Sunday, Deafy, Chris Dodd’s captivating (and enlightening) solo show about the quest of its Deaf protagonist to negotiate a path through the Deaf and hearing worlds. See the 12thnight review here. Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820 .

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What’s on at Another F!*#@$G Festival at Theatre Network? Hey, Jesus and Shakespeare will be there

Rebecca Merkley, creator and star of Jesus Teaches Us Things, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Yes, Edmonton, Another F!*#@$G Festival is coming at you. Find the festivities — multi-disciplinary, adult, contemporary — at Theatre Network, in their beautiful new Roxy on 124th St. starting Tuesday And here’s big-shot validation: Shakespeare and Jesus will be there.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

The mainstage headliner, opening Wednesday for a four-performance run (through Saturday), is Little Willy. It marks the homecoming of a true original, the Canadian marionettiste/ actor/ playwright/ designer/ artisan Ronnie Burkett, whose history with TN goes back three decades. The Daisy Theatre, that riotous X-rated cabaret marionette ensemble, arrives with the Bard himself, to have a go at Romeo and Juliet. And all the leading ladies of the company, including burlesque star Daisy Wiggler and the aging diva Esmé Massengill, jockey for the plum ingenue role. Check out 12thnight’s interview with the ineffable Ronnie Burkett here. 

And Jesus H! Yes, the guy with the big hair and the old-school showbiz charisma is here to fill in at the Christian Bible Assembly’s Grade 2 Sunday School class. And if you thought he was kinda mopey and listless, wait till you see his rockin’ entrance in Jesus Teaches Us Things, which premiered at the Fringe last summer. It’s the inspired creation of its exuberant star Rebecca Merkley. And as I can attest, the Dammitammy Productions show, directed by the expert clown Christine Lesiak, is a riot. Check out my August review here. It runs Saturday. 

The Pansy Cabaret, starring Zachary Parsons-Lozinski and Daniel Belland. Photo supplied.

If you missed its Fringe premiere last summer, you shouldn’t miss the chance to see The Pansy Cabaret, created by the indefatigable queer history researcher Darrin Hagen (co-creator of Unsung: Tales From the Front Line, currently running at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre). It’s an extraordinary re-creation, in vintage music and the flamboyant vintage performance (by Lilith Fair, aka Zachary Parsons-Lozinski, accompanied by pianist Daniel Belland), of the period a century ago in New York City — in pansy bars, music halls and cabarets, on Broadway stages and in vaudeville — when brave queer and gender fluid performers were the hottest ticket in town. The “pansy craze” is a fascinating and little-known history (abruptly truncated by the end of Prohibition and the rise of homophobia), when playful free expression seemed possible. The Pansy Cabaret is a show that celebrates that time, a legacy that seems ever more fragile in these right-drifting times. It runs Wednesday through Friday. Have a peek at my Fringe review here.  

Girl Brain’s Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak in the deluxe bathroom at Theatre Network. Photo supplied.

Girl Brain, that quick-witted and adventurous sketch comedy trio (Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak), have devised a new show for Another F!*#@$G festival. Humans Never On Stage (Saturday) is inspired by Working, the 1974 Studs Terkel oral history volume in which he got working people talking about what they do and how they feel about it. The monologues are based on Girl Brain’s verbatim interviews, and an interview with the girls about the experience of gathering them. Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss directs. 

Marv n’ Berry, a five-member hit sketch comedy troupe — Chris Power-Borger, Quinn Contini, Nikki Hulowski, Mike Robertson, Sam Stralak — arrives onstage Thursday and Friday. 

The range of arts experience is wide. There’s a burlesque night Thursday:  Bosom Buddies by the joint forces of House of Hush Burlesque and Capital City Burlesque,. There’s a music night Sunday, with AV & The Inner City, Tzadeka, and Maria Dunn. 

The lineup includes a workshop performance Saturday of a new musical What Was Is All (formerly titled Host Town), by Jacquelin Walters and Michael Watt. Currently in development, the musical takes us to a rural commune whose inhabitants are preparing in divergent ways for the end of the world. Presented by Nextfest, the performance showcases songs and scenes from the new piece. 

And there’s visual art, too. The Human Experience features the photography of Curtis Trent (a record of the 1992 Toronto Pride parade), Larry Louie (whose photos speak to human resilience in extraordinarily harsh circumstances), and Ryan Parker (who takes us Backstage in the theatre world).  

The F!*#@$G kicks off Tuesday, with opening ceremonies that feature Mercy Funk and iHuman, among others. The full schedule and tickets for all F!*#@$G stage events are at theatrenetwork.ca.  

  

 

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A new season, a new mission, all new work: Thou Art Here in 2023

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A dozen years ago, a couple of emerging Edmonton theatre artists in love with Shakespeare started a theatre collective that, light on its feet, would take them along with their favourite playwright to the people — in assorted disguises and in unexpected locations. They’ve taken the Bard to bars and bedrooms, museums, historic homes, cinemas and subway stations, street corners, into parks, onto puppet stages, into a cemetery.

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Since then the collective started by Andrew Ritchie and Neil Kuefler has expanded, to include core artists Alyson Dicey and Mark Vetsch. It has hatched a contemporary sibling, You Are Here Theatre, premiered new Canadian plays, unleashed clowns, yanked plays from the existing repertoire out of conventional theatres where they tended to be ensconced, into other kinds of spaces. 

On Sunday night at Boxer (the Strathcona bistro and bar), Thou Art Here, the agile artist-driven collective founded by Ritchie and Kuefler in 2011, morphed again. “We needed to re-brand,” says the former, Thou Art Here’s current artistic director, “new people, new voices, new artists as producers and directors.” The 2023 Thou Art Here season announced Sunday is a radical reimagining: “a new mission, 3 new projects, and all new work.”

What hasn’t changed for Thou Art Here is the “Here” (it remains “authentically and intentionally Edmontonian”). And for that matter, neither has the “Thou,” the audience. Thou Art Here remains devoted to “breaking the expectations of audiences, and the (conventional) rules of engagement” as Ritchie puts it. “Activating audiences outside theatres.”  

“I still love Shakespeare,” says Ritchie, who has a master’s degree in directing and creation from York University. “But I feel more motivated by theatre responding to contemporary issues and situations.” 

It’s a 2023 season entirely devoted to new work, its development and its presentation in workshop form — works-in-progress that can lead to full premiere productions in 2024. Ritchie’s Cycle (May 19 and 20), as he describes, is all about urban bicycling, a passion of his and a veritable minefield of contentious hotly current issues: the politics of active transportation in Canada, urban planning and who exactly we’re designing our cities for, climate change, the gig economy, the connection between bikes and children…. 

“People get upset so quickly,” says Ritchie cheerfully. Just think about the heated discussions ignited by the two words “bike lanes.” 

“I’m pretty passionate about it,” says Ritchie of the new solo show, inspired by his personal experience as a bicycle food courier in Toronto. Even labour issues are involved. The company he worked for, he says, pulled out of Canada completely when the workers tried to unionize. 

The multi-disciplinary potential of Cycle is expansive: “spoken text, dance elements, projection design.” He tested a 10-minute excerpt as part of Good Women Dance’s “Creative Incubator” in 2021. Unusually for Thou Art Here, the workshop presentation this spring (directed by Kristi Hansen and choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard) happens in a theatre, Studio B at the ATB Financial Arts Barn. But “I’ll be on a bicycle the whole time.” And since the bicycle is the stage, the relationship with the audience, yet to be finessed, will be unusual. 

playwright Josh Languedoc

With Civil Blood: A Treaty Story, a large-scale 13-actor piece co-created by Josh Languedoc and Neil Kuefler,  Thou Art Here returns, in an oblique way, to its first love, Shakespeare. Inspired jointly by Romeo and Juliet, Treaty 6, and Languedoc’s own supply of traditional Indigenous stories — in English, French, and Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) — Civil Blood is set in 1846, at the signing of the Treaty. The star-cross’d lovers are a Cree and a French settler. 

After workshops at both Nextfest and the Found Festival, the May 28 workshop production, directed by Kuefler at Fort Edmonton, takes us into the fort itself, and divides the audience in half to move and follow different threads of the story. The relevance of the piece is immediate and urgent. “What does it mean to be a Treaty person?” It’s a prime question for our moment in history. The cast is yet to be announced. 

The third part of Thou Art Here’s season, and new identity, is the Write Here Immersive Playwrights Unit initiative, produced by Thou Art Here’s Dicey. “We want to seed new work and send it out to the community,” says Ritchie. The idea is to “support the development of three new immersive plays by Edmonton playwrights,” set in unexpected Edmonton spaces (“I don’t know, the Mindbender before it closes?” he teases). The proposals are gathered by means of a public submission call (deadline Feb. 20). Each playwright receives a $2500 honorarium, with staged readings of the first drafts Nov. 25, and Dec. 2 and 9. 

“I hope we get tons of submissions, and it’s really hard to choose!” says Ritchie. 

 

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The feel-anxious comedy of First Date, at the Mayfield. A review

Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan in First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Are you ever gonna find The One?” wonders the rousing opening number of First Date, the funny, sweetly unassuming little romantic comedy musical that opened Friday at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. A chorus tots up rather hilariously the dating fiascos built into long odds of finding a mate in the big city (or, for that matter, on Google).

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Actually, the title of this one-act 2013 Broadway musical (book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) might be considered a bit of a spoiler. When Aaron Met Casey — under a New York skyline in a bistro elegantly designed by Ivan Brozik and set in motion by Matt Schuurman’s projections — is a classic Blind Date. With all the trepidation and hope, in varying percentages, that implies. 

We’ve all undergone them (consult your memory bank of embarrassing encounters). Blind dates unfold in real time that can either fly by in a twinkling, or seem to be standing still, leaving you stranded on the shoals of eternity. They’re a test of fortitude that can leave you with a burning desire to strangle the ‘well-meaning’ person who set you up for humiliation. Or they’re a vindication of eternal celibacy. OR … they’re the moment when you can actually glimpse a horizon, the end of the lonely, romantically under-hefted urban life in solitary.

Apparent incompatibility is the well-trod turf for romantic comedy. And it’s the playground for an entirely charming, comically inventive, strong-voiced seven-actor cast in this enjoyable Kate Ryan production. They’re led by Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan, whose frictions as Aaron and Casey are set forth in bold strokes at the outset. And they arrive on blind date night surrounded by their human “baggage,” the ex’s, the relatives, the friends who constitute their inner critics, annotating in song and dance their unwelcome advice. 

Aaron (Pederson), a Mr. Nice Guy nebbish, arrives first — a nervous wreck of a guy overdressed in a suit and tie, and obviously a novice to the dating scene. “Beer? Vodka? Xanax?” asks the waiter (Jason Hardwick). Making a welcome return to Edmonton theatre, Pederson is very funny, a veritable human pretzel of anxiety. “What exactly are we dealing with here?” asks Casey (McLellan), who consults with the Waiter while doing a reconnoitre of the twitchy guy sitting by himself at a bar table. There he is, oh no, putting in eye drops, confirming her worst fears for the date to come.

She’s a boho chick, an intimidatingly artsy tough cookie in leather, sexy red satin, and boots (costumes by Brozic). “She’s kinda indie and pretty hot, and a lot like all the things I’m not,” Aaron sings in First Impressions, one of the musical’s best. For her part in that song, Casey thinks “He’s a bit annoying/ And overdressed/ He’s got the kinda vibe that says ‘Look at me I’m stressed’.” The lyrics by Zachary and Weiner are witty (in a way the music, less distinctive, isn’t).  

The cast of First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson

The date has been set up by Casey’s sister (Patricia Zentilli) who’s on hand in Casey’s mind with pep talks at every impasse. The getting-to-know-you phase is a veritable minefield into which — every time tensions seem to ease — Aaron inevitably puts his foot and trips. He’s an investment banker; she’s a photographer who works in an art gallery. To break the ice she calls him playfully a BDV, a blind date virgin. Since she admits to a history of serial blind dating, he tries to be funny and calls her a BDS, a blind date slut. And you just wince for him.  “Too soon, right?….” 

In The Awkward Pause, the chorus details dramatically all the things they’d rather be doing, including eating a plate of glass, than living through this moment. It’s the theme song for blind dating world-wide. 

Pederson and McLellan, who have captivating chemistry (and real musical theatre chops), inhabit characters who get on each other’s nerves. These are performances of real charm. Pederson has an expert  comic physicality that stands him in good stead as the wired schlemiel and a self-sabotage expert, a square in desperation mode. McLellan’s performance as the freer, sparkier, more hostile spirit with commitment issues, quick to be exasperated, is vivid and fun too.

They’re conceptual opposites. And their pasts come to life in opposing scenes. Aaron’s, triggered by the offhand revelation that Casey isn’t Jewish, takes on an amusing sort of Fiddler-esque dance number in which his late grandmother deplores his choice of girl, oy oy oy goy goy goy. Casey’s is a selection of the “bad boys” to whom she’s normally attracted, tattooed rockers and stoners. 

Meanwhile Aaron is haunted by an ex (Sarah Dowling) who dumped him at the altar, and frantic date coaching from his best friend (Michael Cox) exhorting him to be less wimpy, and never ever, on god’s green earth, to mention the ex. Casey’s phone keeps going off – recurring Bailout Song calls from her gay best friend (Robbie Towns), her personal insurance against the intolerable. She’s distracted by pep talk visitations  and reproaches by her sister (Zentilli), who’s all about identifying goals and pursuing them.

All the supporting characters are amusingly realized in specific comic performances; Ryan’s cast is excellent. As the droll and knowing server Jason Hardwick gets a highlight dance number (with tap!), that reinforces the old truism that every waiter in New York is just biding his time, waiting for the call. And there’s a galvanizing number in which, encouraged by Casey, Aaron finally exorcises the ghost of his ball-busting, manipulative ex. Casey and the audience cheered him on. 

Ryan’s production charts smartly the gradual two-steps-forward-one-back progress into honest exchanges upon which the ritual of dating is built. It’s only when First Date tries a bit too hard to land on sentiment — a number in which Aaron reveals his late mother’s regrets — that it backfires.  

You might want to call First Date is a retro comic tango of stock characters. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But the pleasure of it, in this production, is the way a first-rate cast, led by Pederson and McLellan, bursts right out of the time-honoured constraints. You want the characters to succeed and find love. You really do. 

Which is a romantic way to spend an evening in the theatre. Give yourself a chance to smile. 

REVIEW

First Date

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics)

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Julia McLellan, Ron Pederson, Michael Cox, Sarah Dowling, Jason Hardwick, Robbie Towns, Patricia Zentilli

Running: through March 26 

Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051

 

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Little Willy: the great marionettist Ronnie Burkett is back, with the raucous Daisy Theatre ensemble, and Shakespeare

Who will play Juliet? The battling divas of The Daisy Theatre, Little Willy, Dolly Wiggler and Esmé Massengill, in Little Willy. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Ronnie Burkett is back. 

Call it a reunion, or maybe a homecoming. The show that opens Wednesday at the Roxy for four performances marks the return to this theatre town, and to Theatre Network, of a Canadian artist like no other. A true original: marionettist/ playwright/ actor/ designer/ artisans aren’t exactly thick on the ground anywhere in the world.

With Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is back at the Edmonton theatre — which is to say a beautifully rebuilt version of that theatre — where six of Burkett’s multi-character plays, with their big casts of diminutive actors, have a history. And a devoted following.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

And this time, Shakespeare himself is hanging around backstage, angling for a part. In Little Willy, with its saucy Burkettian title, the Bard might be up against it. The raucous Daisy Theatre, a vaudevillian-type cabaret ensemble some 40 puppets strong, has their way with Romeo and Juliet, improvising as they go. And all the leading ladies of the company, including the aging diva Esmé Massengill, burlesque star Dolly Wiggler, and Lillian Lunkhead (half of the brother-sister duo of “Canada’s oldest and worst actors, who’ve been touring the provinces for 70 years”) are hot for the lovestruck ingenue role. 

Audience faves, like Mrs. Edna Rural, the plump matron from Turnip Corners AB, and the charming fairy child Schnitzel have supporting roles. The former plays the Nurse; she dispenses marital advice from the stronghold of her favourite armchair. Schnitzel dreams of playing either Juliet or Romeo, or both.

Why Romeo and Juliet you ask? “I wanted something most people might have some grasp on,” says Burkett,”Like A Christmas Carol, everyone thinks they know it: ‘miser, night of three ghosts, has to be redeemed, little boy with crutch, God bless us every one. End of story’.” 

“With Shakespeare I didn’t want to alienate the Saturday night date crowd, thinking they’re not smart enough…..” Thanks to high school, most of us get the gist. “Boy meets girl, opposing families, can’t be together, get together, both die. End of play’. 

Burkett laughs. “I had to know the plot points I was skipping over…. You’ve got to know the material in order to (a) ignore it or (b) fuck with it.”

The set-up, Burkett explains, is that the Daisy Theatre performers arrive at the theatre thinking they’re doing Esmé’s new musical. “But the theatre has advertised that they’re doing Shakespeare. So they’re thrown into mayhem. And the divas start fighting over who gets to play Juliet. It’s pretty loose (laughter)!” And since Shakespeare is there anyhow, he’s after the ingenue role, too, since, what the hell, the Elizabethan stage was a men-only proposition.  

“The company knows about as much about Shakespeare as the average audience member,” Burkett says. “Ah, except Esmé, who has superior knowledge. ‘I know Shakespeare! I dated him’.”   

Little Willy is not The Daisy Theatre’s first X-rated venture into the classics. Little Dickens, in which the ensemble assails A Christmas Carol — with Esmé as Scrooge, haunted by the ghost of her showbiz nemesis Rosemary Focaccia — sold out its most recent run at CanStage this past Christmas. “Are there no dinner theatres?” thunders Esmé at the two charitable people collecting on behalf of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. “Are there no touring children’s theatre productions?”

And now Shakespeare. Burkett had actually been thinking about doing “a straight-ahead Shakespeare play” until his long-time production manager Terry Gillis talked him out of it. Theatre presenters unanimously reinforced Gillis’s thought. “When things opened up and they started booking again, everybody said, ‘could we have a version of the Daisy? It’ll get bums in seats’.” 

And they were right. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve done,” says Burkett cheerfully. “And it’s been outrageously well received, an amazing reaction from theatres and audiences.… That’s the thing, first let’s get people back in the theatre having fun.”

Little Willy comes to Edmonton from a sold-out three-week world premiere run at the Cultch in Vancouver and a trio of sold-out weekend performances at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. After TN, the tour includes dates at Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre, Stanford University in California, Le Diamant in Quebec City and the Centaur in Montreal. It’s a tour Burkett didn’t see coming, given the pandemic givens. “No one was more surprised than me….”  

“Ha!, my first comeback tour!,” he says, as that unmistakeable laugh rumbles across the phone from Vancouver last week. 

Burkett spent last year building another show, “a hand puppet salon show” called The Loony Bin. “At the beginning of the pandemic I didn’t know when and how we’d go back to work…. So I figured I’d better have a small show that fits in a car, a show I can set up myself… like when I was a teenager touring in Alberta (the Medicine Hat-born puppeteer hit the road at 14).  So I built 18 hand puppet characters and a little stage that would fit in your living room. I control lights and sound.”

He has another “big scripted show” in the works, Wonderful Joe, about an old man and his dog. But the time, out of joint as it is, seemed more propitious for something lighter and giddier.  

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

In Daisy Theatre tradition, there’s lots of (masked) audience interaction. As always, Dolly Wiggler starts the show with a strip number, this one with Elizabethan top notes, cue the recorder and lute before it all goes brassy. It’s one of the the five new songs created for Little Willy by composer/ lyricist/ pianist/ musical arranger John Alcorn, Burkett’s real-life partner. And it mirrors the structure of Shakespeare’s opening prologue in the play, Burkett points out. Alcorn’s little song for Schnitzel at the end has the same structure as the final stanzas of the play, too. “Yup, Mr. ‘I know nothing about Shakespeare’ Alcorn got up to speed pretty quickly.” 

For a self-producing artist the pandemic that dragged on and on posed a couple of crucial and related questions. “(a) how do I re-boot? and (b) do I want to? A year off was nice; I’d never have taken a sabbatical otherwise. But almost three?” 

Ronnie Burkett

Burkett emerged from his Toronto studio in the most dramatically fraught way possible in COVID-ian times. He took his play Forget Me Not to Europe last May (it ran at the Fidena Festival in Bochum, Germany). It’s a show “for 100 people max” built on audience interaction: “everybody gets a hand puppet, as a sort of Greek chorus, and I’m right in the middle of them….” Disinfecting hand puppets after every use isn’t in any puppeteer manual. “So we had everyone pre-glove, a condom for the hand.” 

Right after that, he rented a car, drove to Montreal, and did The Loony Bin for a week at The MIAM, in a tiny and beautiful new international marionette centre there. “Such a nice way to meet the public again … a sort of hand-puppet Daisy Theatre in a way, totally improvised.” 

And now, as the only member of the company whose head isn’t made of wood and papier mâché, Burkett is on the road with the Daisy Theatre, named in honour of the subversive underground puppet shows in Prague during the Nazi Occupation. And come Wednesday, as the headliner at TN’s new contemporary adult ‘Another F!#@$G Festival’ (as yet to be officially named, by theatre-goers), Burkett is “really happy” to be back at a company that’s been, he says, seminal to his career, . When Awful Manors premiered at the Roxy in 1990, a gothic romance-thriller murder-mystery musical with 17 characters and 43 marionettes, Theatre Network was, as he has said, his first “legitimate” stage after the Fringe.

Tinka’s New Dress, Street of Blood, Happy, and Provenance (which premiered here in 2003) all played the Roxy — plays that changed the course of Burkett’s career, and claimed for puppets something they hadn’t had in Canada, a rightful home in the adult theatre.

Much has changed since 2003, to be sure, not least that the Roxy burned to the ground in 2015 and has risen again on that very 124th St. footprint seven years later. Burkett brings with him vivid memories of seeing long queues outside the Roxy doors, and watching people rush into the theatre and down the aisles to throw their parkas down and claim a spot. Wait till Burkett and his company see the new Roxy bathrooms. 

PREVIEW

Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Feb. 8 through 11

Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca 

 

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Collecting souls: where’s the job satisfaction? After Faust, the opening show in RISER Edmonton’s 2023 series. A review

Hodan Youssouf in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It sounds like an OK gig. And you can argue that aspirational clients, like Dr. Faustus, get what they deserve when they sign away their souls for unlimited knowledge, power, worldly pleasure, and the 24/7 services of a devil valet.  

But in the end, collecting souls is a dead-end job, with a lot of red tape and fine print on every contract. Just ask Mephistopheles (Gaitre Killings), the troubled, stressed-out, aggrieved demon of Connor Yuzwenko-Martin’s remarkably ambitious, adventurous, and off-centre new play After Faust.

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The Invisible Practice production directed by Ebony R. Gooden at the Backstage Theatre, performed in ASL with English captioning, has an historic resonance to it. The playwright, a Deaf theatre artist himself, bills his new play — the first of RISER Edmonton’s four-show 2023 series of indie productions — as “the first Deaf-written, Deaf-directed, Deaf-acted and Deaf-produced stage play in recent Alberta history.” 

It will almost certainly be the only play you’ll see this season in which Thomas Aquinas and Elon Musk share a stage — for reasons I’ve struggled to fully grasp in truth. And as for the story of Faustus, the brilliant astronomer whose vaulting ambitions for knowledge lead him to make a deal with a demon, I can’t say I’ve ever given Mephistopheles’ work situation much thought. This intriguing “sequel” to the Christopher Marlowe play, which ranges freely through time and space, is all about that. 

The stage, designed by Madeline Blondal, is dominated by a blue distressed door. But that’s not how the characters arrive in a brick-lined chamber demarcated by Christen Long’s projections. Later, in one of the memorable visual images on which After Faustus is built, the mystery door seems to give on the entire galaxy, without ever opening.  

Gaitrie Killings (centre) as Mephistopheles in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

The long first scenes of the play, in which I scrambled a bit to figure out which side-stage captions went with which character (despite their colour coding), are dominated by Mephistopheles’ anger. This glamorous personage arrives writhing, reluctantly, armed with a selection of door knobs for the fatal door. None of them fit, understandably enraging since she’s spent the last 500 years in “a perfect cage,” an endless room, trapped between then and here and there and now,” searching for Faustus. 

Gaitrie Killings as Mephistopheles with Kayla Bradford Sinasac in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

Anyhow, Mephistopheles is seriously put-out by having been summoned, and without the requisite rituals, by a man (Mustafa Alabssi as Cassio) who doesn’t even recognize her. His cherished cousin Peia (Kayla Bradford Sinasac, a vision in white) committed suicide two days before. Grief-stricken Cassio, an appealing human figure in Alabssi’s performance, professes himself baffled by his encounter with Mephistopheles, a feeling we can all share. But grief-stricken, he would give anything, he says, to be located in time even two days before her death, thus able to prevent it.  

Mustafa Alabssi, Gaitrie Killings, Jan McCarthy in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023, Photo by Brianne Jang

Suddenly, they find themselves in a monastery garden with Thomas Aquinas (Jan McCarthy). This is a play with its own quirky sense of humour: Is it an Airbnb perhaps? Cassio wonders. Aquinas is amused. He and Mephistopheles are apparently sparring partners of old: “Remember how I tried to exorcise you the first time we met?” 

Is Cassio a Faust-like figure? I take it that grief has made him vulnerable to the allure of restoring life, or undoing death. The play’s more Faustian figure, theoretically, is Elon Musk, brilliant and wayward, a swaggering monster of self-absorption who has sold his soul to a demon. “We have electrified the world,” Musk declares. “It’s now the age of mitigation.” 

Why, you will ask yourself, is Musk (played with droll cockiness by Hodan Youssouf), in a black, queer, Deaf body? Answer: “because I wanted to see what it was like.”

The play’s most striking image, realized in exceptional lighting (Rory Turner), sound (Dave Clarke), and movement (Ainsley Hillyard) has Musk leading a bicycle charge through the starry universe. True, Musk’s galactic venture has gone more a bit wrong; the moon and Mars have collided, oops, and humanity is done for, over. But, no worries, there are still fungi (Musk is known for his attachment to the idea of magic mushrooms) as a source of regeneration.

The consolingly lyrical scenes in which Cassio remembers his childhood idyll with Peia, playing, building sand castles at the beach, sharing secrets, are charmingly presented by both actors. 

I have to admit the finer points of contracting between man and demon (there is much talk of contracts), and the motivation of Mephistopheles’ intensely emotional quest to find Faustus, and ditch her job, did elude me. But the notion that grief and loss are powerful motivators did strike home. 

After Faust is the work of a highly original writer and thinker. And Gooden’s high theatrical production introduces us to the work of a whole new troupe of Deaf actors. That’s a provocative start to this year’s RISER productions. 

REVIEW

RISER Edmonton 2023

After Faust

Theatre: Invisible Practice

Written and produced by: Connor Yuzwenko-Martin 

Directed by: Ebony R. Gooden

Starring: Mustafa Alabssi, Gaitrie Killings, Jan McCarthy, Kayla Bradford Sinasac, Hodan Youssouf

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

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: commongroundarts.ca

  

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Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, living portraits of the health care people who risked everything to keep us safe. A review

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What just happened here?

That leading question is the raison d’être of the “performance installation” currently running at Workshop West. In the ongoing COVID pandemic,  frontline healthcare workers have risked everything to do their jobs keeping us safe, week after week, month after month — the soldiers of public health care, battered by their own provincial government, by ideology and political posturing, by public discord.

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Who are they? Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, a joint creation of Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen, is your chance to meet seven, to find out what they think and what motivates them, to hear their real-life stories in close encounters. They’re played by actors, delivering five-minute monologues transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews, all anonymous “living portraits.”  And if you think you know what you think, think again. 

On Sunday afternoon at the Gateway Theatre , wandering through the curtained enclosures of the hospital maze (seven inventive designs by Brian Bast, with that hospital heartbeat/machine hum soundscape by Hagen)), I met people I never get to meet. Like an ICU physician (played by Davina Stewart) who takes the long view of humanity’s place on the planet. “I don’t like our trajectory…. COVID, horrific as it is, is a distraction.” That stopped me in my tracks. 

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

In a supply closet, I met an ER physician (Melissa Thingelstad), who takes off her mask to say that she doesn’t want to be a hero because heroes become villains soon enough. And, remarkably,  thinking about COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers who regularly end up in the ER as critical care patients, hurling abuse at the health care staff, she just shrugs.

It’s her job to provide care to everyone, anyone, no matter how much they’ve created their own crisis — drunks who kill people in car accidents, smokers who get lung cancer.… Arguing is not only futile, but beside the point. “I just want to do my fucking job.” Could I have been so dispassionately professional? I think not. 

I met a hospital administrator (Patricia Darbasie), put in an impossibly stressful position by the lack of masks and protective equipment, staff shortages, the never-ebbing deluge of the sick. It left her burnt out and suicidal. And an ICU nurse (Sheldon Stockdale) shaken to see young men, strapping and healthy, who could have been his own brothers, fighting for their lives. 

The single-minded dedication to helping people is a keynote of Unsung. I met a health care aide (Jade Robinson) who watched as the profit motive trounced true public health care in the case of her elderly patients with dementia. “They deserve better,” she says over and over. She paid a price. After every shift she isolated from her own family, never eating with her daughter … until the relief of the vaccine. 

What sort of lunacy is it for a government to pick a fight with healthcare workers during a pandemic, threatening lay-offs, trying to cut wages? A “recreational assistant” (Rebecca Merkley), faced with patients under lockdown, rolls her eyes and wonders. 

Trevor Duplessis in Unsung, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

A paramedic (Trevor Duplessis) is outraged that his line of work — going into people’s homes to rescue sick people, sticking with them in “a steel box” — wasn’t deemed ‘front line’ when it came to vaccines. Getting asked in the bar whether COVID was “real” gets his dander up too, understandably.  

Their stories do intersect with the political sphere, of course, and at varying angles. How could they not? Jason Kenney’s political spin about the “best summer ever”? Frontline workers noted that, along with the sequel, “the worst fall.”

You can visit the enclosures in any order, stay or move on, as you would in a gallery. Meeting all seven people took me about an hour.  The actors, directed by Inglis, are so intensely engaging, eyeball to eyeball you’ll find yourself nodding agreement, or wanting to answer back and ask a question. “My god!” muttered the lady standing next to me at one encounter, slapping her forehead. There is a compelling authenticity about real words, as you’ll know if you visited Inglis’s Theatre Yes performance installation Viscosity, about front line oil patch workers, in 2018,    

On the way out I stopped in the lobby to look at a wall covered in hand-written stickies. What did you lose in the pandemic? That’s the question awaiting your own input. “My faith in humanity,” said one sticky note. “My sense of smell,” said another. “Respect for my fellow citizens.” “Connection with people.” 

What did you gain? “Respect for human life,” said one note. “Respect for healthcare professionals,” said another. They’ve been up against it, these workers in a war where they’ve faced death and destruction, and been undermined by their own leaders. 

You need to hear from them. 

REVIEW

Unsung: Tales From The Front Line

Theatre: Workshop West, in partnership with Theatre Yes and Ground Zero Productions

Created by: Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Melissa Thingelstad, Jade Robinson, Rebecca Merkley, Trevor Duplessis, Sheldon Stockdale

Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd

Running: through Feb. 12

Tickets: workshopwest.org 

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The Citadel announces its upcoming season of nine shows: here’s the lineup

SIX: The Musical: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert. 2019 photo by Liz Lauren.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Opportunities for people to make theatre part of their lives again!” That’s the mantra under which Citadel Theatre artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled the upcoming $13 million 2023-2024 lineup Monday night at Edmonton’s largest playhouse. 

“Our goal is to get people back into the building … back into the habit and excitement of coming to the theatre,” says Cloran.

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The demographic appeal is deliberately broad, and so is the embrace of both local and international connections. Of the nine shows Cloran announced, all on the Citadel mainstages, four are musicals, of every size and shape, including one that the Citadel’s Canadian premiere in 2019 played a part in preparing for Broadway success. One’s an old-school big-cast Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster with undimmed relevance. One’s a long-running Off-Broadway hit with cult status. And one’s an original Métis song and story cycle.  

It all starts with the summer return to Edmonton of SIX: The Musical, the sassy Edinburgh Fringe project-turnedBroadway hit, in which the six fractious wives of Henry VIII catapult out of Tudor history as girl-power pop stars: “Divorced. Beheaded. Live in Concert.” As Cloran explains, “we’re working with the producers (both U.K. and U.S.) to rehearse a new cast and launch a tour that starts here before it moves elsewhere…. It speaks to the relationships we’ve built, the commercial partnerships, and (witness Hadestown, also developed at the Citadel pre-Broadway) “our reputation as a great place to launch.” 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

“By this spring three shows that have come through the Citadel and were developed here will be on Broadway,” says Cloran: Six, Hadestown, and now Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the work of London’s Mischief Theatre. The North American premiere of the latter happened at the Citadel last season. And now it’s Broadway bound; “the set and costumes we built here have been shipped to New York.” 

SIX: The Musical runs Aug. 12 to Sept. 10, a period that overlaps with the Edmonton Fringe. And Cloran hopes to capitalize on Six’s own origins in tandem with that festival; “after all, it’s the ultimate Fringe success story…. Could the queens do a Fringe cabaret?” The idea, he says, is “ if you like theatre, Edmonton is the place to be in the summer.” 

Little Shop of Horrors, Citadel Theatre. Graphic supplied.

Small-scale and retro in its ‘60s score by Alan Menken (lyrics and book by Howard Ashman), the 1982 horror-comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors hasn’t been done at the Citadel in 20 years. We’ll see Seymour and his disturbing relationship with a certain bloodthirsty plant in a Citadel co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre (Oct. 21 to Nov. 19),  directed by the Arts Club’s artistic director Ashlie Corcoran. 

Announced by the Citadel before the pandemic, The Sound of Music, the Tony winning last collaboration in 1959 of Rodgers and Hammerstein, finally comes to pass March 2 to 31 2024 , in a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre directed by Rachel Peake (The Garneau Block, 9 to 5). The adult cast of 16 or 18 will move between Winnipeg and Edmonton, joined by local kids in both cities. 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

Rubaboo (Feb. 10 to March 3, 2024) “continues our commitment to Indigenous programming,” says Cloran of the song and story cycle created and performed by Métis singer-songwriter/actor Andrea Menard (music by Menard and Edmonton’s Robert Walsh). Borrowing its title from the Métis word for a rich stew, Rubaboo is “a beautiful evening, something really welcoming, something really uplifting,” says Cloran of a piece that’s already played the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. and the Arts Club in Vancouver. Alanis King directs.

The official subscription season of six shows opens (Sept. 23 to October 15) with English language theatre’s most perfectly formed, and funniest, comedy, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The Citadel production is directed by Jackie Maxwell (The Humans), the former director of the Shaw Festival, who’s “perfect for this, for her understanding of this kind of wit, and the period,” as Cloran puts it.

“In Jackie’s very first season at Shaw she programmed Earnest,” says Cloran, and then had former festival artistic director Christopher Newton do the directing honours. “It’s a play she’s always wanted to do, and never had the chance.” No word yet on casting for this comedy sparkler.

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

The subscription season grand finale is a stage adaptation, by the American playwright Catherine Bush, of The Three Musketeers. “Big ensemble, big costumes, big swashbuckling, big adventure, big romance…. And it’s also super funny,” says Cloran, who directs the Citadel-Arts Club co-production April 20 to May 4, 2024. “Really lively, really fun.” Casting awaits, but Jonathan Purvis has been enlisted for the swordplay.   

The lineup announced by Cloran also includes a Citadel production of The Mountaintop, a 2009 reimagining by young American playwright Katori Hall of the events in Memphis the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. The production (March 30 to April 21, 2024) returns director Patricia Darbasie to the very piece she directed a year ago at Shadow Theatre. “This is us amplifying the work of local artists,” Cloran explains. The play “has been on our list for a long time, and it gives Pat the opportunity to imagine it for a large space and share it with a large audience, with more production resources.” 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied

Along with SIX and A Christmas Carol, outside the mainstage subscription series, is the return of Farren Timoteo’s hit solo show Made In Italy (Jan. 6 to 28, 2024). Directed by Cloran, it chronicles in go-for-the-gusto fashion the Italian immigrant experience. “It’s a pure Edmonton success story,” says Cloran. “A great Edmonton artist.”

Made In Italy premiered in 2016 in Cloran’s last year as artistic director at Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre. “The day after it opened I got in the car and drove to Edmonton” for a new Citadel job.

“We started as a tiny little studio show in Kamloops. We brought it here to the (Citadel’s) Rice Theatre for a weekend, and people liked it, so we brought it back again….” Since those modest origins, Made In Italy has had an unusually lively mainstage life for a solo show  — at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, the Thousand Islands Playhouse, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and return engagements by popular demand at the Arts Club.” With more to come. “It’s running all next season,” says Cloran of its multiple engagements across the country, including the Citadel.  

If there are fewer productions at the Citadel next season, 12 down to nine, it’s because the Highwire Series — collaborations with local indie companies (this season The Wolves, Deafy and First Métis Man of Odesa) — is “on temporary pause next season,” says Cloran. “It’s partially because of our focus on the mainstage.” And it’s partly budgetary factors, and time. “Partnerships enable us to do shows we couldn’t afford by ourselves and (indie companies) couldn’t afford by themselves…. But it takes time for indie companies to get grants and do fund-raising, and no one had confirmed funding yet.”

Cloran acknowledges that after two years of cancellations and ingenious pandemical pivoting the much anticipated return of live theatre in the current season hasn’t been without its challenges — “a slower return than we’d thought.” The big regional theatres across the country, the Citadel among them, have reported a drop of 30 per cent or so in audiences in the fall. But there’s been a warming return to sold-out houses for holiday shows. “A Christmas Carol made us very hopeful,” he says of the full houses in December for David van Belle’s adaptation “back in its full glory,” with a fulsome 35-actor including a dozen kids. 

That production returns for the fifth season Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 (making a quarter-century of Christmas Carols at the Citadel), with John Ullyatt back as Scrooge. 

2023/24 season packages go on sale Jan. 30. Casual tickets for SIX: The Musical go on sale on April 6, with the rest of the season on sale by July 12.

The 2023-2024 Citadel lineup at a glance:  

Mainstage subscription series: The Importance of Being Earnest (Sept. 23 – Oct. 15, 2023; Little Shop of Horrors (Oct. 21 – Nov. 19, 2023); Rubaboo (Feb. 10 – March 2, 2024); The Sound of Music (March 2 – 31, 2024); The Mountaintop (March 30 – April 21, 2024); The Three Musketeers (April 20 – May 12, 2024)

Summer musicalSIX: The Musical (Aug. 12 – Sept. 10, 2023)

Holiday production: A Christmas Carol (Nov. 25 – Dec. 23, 2023)

Special presentation: Made in Italy (Jan. 6 – 28, 2024)

 

 

 

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Deaf, and an expert in the absurdities of the world: Chris Dodd’s Deafy at the Citadel, a review

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Deafy, currently running in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre, we meet a man with a fine-tuned sense of the absurdities of the world. In his wry way he’s an expert in negotiating obstacles both large and niggling, rolling with the punches, deflecting them, exercising his eye-rolls on them.

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He’s had lots of practice. Nathan Jesper is Deaf. And life is complicated when you’re Deaf. At the start of this hit tragi-comedy by and starring Chris Dodd (the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the influential national festival of Deaf arts), he gets flung onto the stage barefoot, by some sort of blast, forces beyond his control. Dave Clarke’s terrific sound design has a heartbeat to it, the kind of pulse you feel in your ribcage, with top notes of industrial buzz. 

“O shit, where are the interpreters?” Nathan is played by the playwright, who’s an exceptionally physical, expressive, rubber-faced actor (armed with a vivid movement score by choreographer Ainsley Hillyard). Nathan has a job to do and he’s running way late (“Listen, I’m sorry, I got bumped”). He’s picked up a gig as a Deaf public speaker and Deaf educator, who negotiates the world in three languages, spoken English, ASL, and captioning. As for the latter Nathan’s adversarial relationship with his captions (and a laugh track gone askew) is one of the comic motifs of a show that’s very funny, and also insightful and moving.  

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

Who Are You? demands the caption. Good question, and we don’t know if it’s for Nathan or for us.  

I saw Ashley Wright’s appealing production, as rhythmic as a dance, at the 2021 Fringe and loved it. And I enjoyed it again in this revival for the Citadel’s Highwire Series, the first play by a Deaf playwright ever on a Citadel stage in the company’s 58-season history.  

Chris Dodd, creator and star of Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

It struck me again that what breaks your heart about Deafy is also what gives the show its eye-watering comic edge. Nathan’s asks aren’t big. His dreams are modest: hang out with friends, go to the bar and have a few beers while the hockey game’s on TV, get his driver’s licence, take the train. What could be less demanding?  

Things have a way of going off the rails for Nathan in his tricky negotiations with the hearing world. The bartender claims he can’t turn on the TV captions for the hockey game. Nathan’s friend Len is outraged. Then the Motor Vehicles clerk says Deaf people aren’t allowed to get drivers’ licences. Wrong. Then, it transpires that no interpreters are allowed for drivers’ tests, which makes no sense at all. So Len comes up with a lunatic work-around involving a blanket and a garden gnome (my lips are sealed). This episode has the kind of cracked deadpan hilarity, in the telling, that will remind you of Bob Newhart’s celebrated driving lesson sketch. 

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

“Let me tell you about the last time I rode the train.” The episode involving Nathan and a persistent accordion player busking in a train car will make you wince-laugh, too. Dodd is an ace storyteller, a master of those wry eyebrow lifts and rueful shrugs that, along with precision comic timing, set the old-school comedians apart.

Nathan’s stories get darker, sadder, more fraught as his hard-won hegemony between the Deaf and hearing worlds begins to fall apart, and leaves him adrift, increasingly isolated from both. Who are you? asks the caption again. And there’s no answer forthcoming for the outsider perpetually looking in. A silent encounter with a homeless man in an airport — “no destination, no passport, a man without a country, a man like me who doesn’t belong” — will twist your heart. 

What is it like to be Deaf? This is a personal invitation into that experience: artfully constructed and enlightening.

See 12thnight’s PREVIEW with Chris Dodd here.

REVIEW

Deafy

Theatre: Citadel Highwire Series

Written by and starring: Chris Dodd

Directed by: Ashley Wright

Running: through Feb. 12

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820

 

 

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Enough, the aerial view of a mysterious dread, at Northern Light. A review

Kristin Johnston and Linda Grass in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I am the image of escape,” says one of the two globe-trotting flight attendant characters in Enough, getting its Canadian premiere in the Northern Light Theatre season. There they are, trim and calm and smiling, 30,000 feet above their lives on the ground. “Glamour and grace … a symbol of sex appeal and sightseeing.”

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And yet breaking the bonds of earth is exactly what Toni (Kristin Johnston) and Jane (Linda Grass) cannot do in this strangely poetic, genuinely disturbing play by the Scottish playwright Stef Smith, a prize-winner at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a captivating piece of theatre in the Trevor Schmidt production, unsettling in the way it captures, from the aerial view, the indefinable but palpable anxiety that it’s the end times … of something. 

But what? The ripple of knowledge that their lives, the ground below, perhaps the planet itself are crumbling and cracking five miles below them?  

As the playwright herself notes, being a flight attendant is is a kind of theatrical performance in itself, fake cordiality dancing brightly on the lethal knowledge that it takes exactly three minutes for an airliner to fall through the air from 30,000 feet to the ground. 

And at the outset, you’ll be amused to see Grass and Johnston, all lipsticked-up, tripping onto the stage in their high heels and  their nicely tight blue suits, pulling those perfectly neat little carry-ons. They pause to pose in silhouette to paste on a perfect smile for their public, as they carry on their own private conversation. They move and stop in sync (the witty work of choreographer Ainsley Hillyard), automatically adopting that angle thing models do with their hips. 

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

They share a recurring chorus (and endless streams of chardonnay). “When I walk into a room, in my uniform,” says one. “There’s a look that gets thrown my way,” says the other.

It’s an incantation in a world designed with elegant aptness by director Schmidt. Roy Jackson’s lighting captures the strangeness of being in a bubble, everywhere and nowhere, and the quick flips between “onstage” at work and “backstage” at home and in indistinguishable hotel rooms. And Dave Clarke’s sound design, too, conjures that world of  air travel, with its anxieties, fake good cheer, phoney consolations.

The production’s theatrical accoutrements are fun and witty, full of allusions. The play has been called a tone poem, and I get that — the rhythms of its choral repetitions, the continuity between introspection (one character ‘narrating’ the thoughts of the other) and dialogue — and the imagery of a mysterious sort of dread. This sounds elusive and hard to follow, but it’s not. Both actors slide into this poetic complexity expertly, and their chemistry underpins the evening.  

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Toni and Jane return from the sky temporarily, day after day, into the great cities of the world — which is to say its hotel rooms. Sometimes they get to go home. Ah, and what emerges, gradually, in a text that shares the narration and shifts  effortlessly between first and third person, is that their lives and their sense of home, and what it means to be there, are very different. 

Jane is married with kids, flailing herself, as we see in Grass’s performance, with the notion of perfectibility: the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect colour for the bathroom. Toni is single, and as Johnston conveys expressively (there’s stress behind that breezy demeanour), the freedom of that single life is an illusion. She’s trapped in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend she’s ashamed to reveal to her friend (“his face is gasoline and I’m the match”).  

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

What’s infiltrating their consciousness from their aerial perch, as they fill the drinks trolley and demonstrate the use of the seatbelts, is an eerie thunder below them, the frisson of fear that the centre will not hold. They feel “the low rumble of something deep and dark, something working its way to the surface.” Is the ground cracking? they wonder. “Is the world disappearing?” Have offences to the environment finally turned the earth into sand?

It’s the unexplained link — I really liked that it’s unexplained — between the planet itself and the lives of women, gazed upon and never seen, that gives Enough its mysterious resonance. That, and the potential power of female friendship to be, as the title suggests, enough. Enough to withstand the gathering tremors and turbulence in a scary uncharted universe. 

It’s a weird and cool play. And Northern Light does it proud. 

Check out the 12thnight PREVIEW, an interview with director/designer Trevor Schmidt here.

REVIEW

Enough

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Stef Smith

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Linda Grass, Kristin Johnston

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

Running: to Feb. 4

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

 

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