Mrs. Shakespeare gets her voice back, in a graveyard: Shakespeare’s Will with Thou Art Here!

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“A woman dancing on a grave.”

That’s the image that inspired the roving outdoor production of Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will opening Thursday in a cemetery near you, says director Andrew Ritchie.

So decisively did that image haunt him that Ritchie, co-artistic director (with Neil Kuefler) of the “site-sympathetic Shakespeare company” Thou Art Here!, went on a tour of every graveyard in town — in the middle of winter, to boot — before he settled on the 1886 Edmonton Cemetery on 107th Ave. The old trees, and the sense of age, clinched the deal. 

The woman is a mysterious (stay-at-home) wife with a mysterious (absent) husband. He’s an artsy type with an earring who, in a rather sensational example of upstaging, turned out to be the greatest playwright of all time. And the grave is his.

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Shakespeare’s Will, which was commissioned by the Free Will Players and premiered at the Citadel in 2005, aims to give Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, a play of her own. History hasn’t been generous with Mrs. Shakespeare, in truth. And neither, it seems, was her hubby. Shakespeare’s will, dated March 25, 1616,  infamously left her his “second-best bed with the furniture.” 

Not that our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life — apart from bills of sale and other legal accounting details — is exactly fulsome (it’s alluringly elusive for a famous man). But our knowledge of Anne is even scantier, to say the least. At 26, the farmer’s daughter from outside Stratford was six years older that her teenage husband, and pregnant, when they got married in 1582. We know about the birth of Susanna in 1583 and the twins Hamlet and Judith two years later. We know that by the late 1580s Shakespeare was living the celeb theatre life in London, his career rocketing, while his wife stayed in Stratford with the kids. And that’s about it. 

The rest is up for grabs by theatre artists — like the playwright (Thiessen is the artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre). “This is not us trying to tell an historically accurate tale,” says actor/ choreographer Gianna Vacirca of Thiessen’s speculative play. “This is about a wife trying to find herself, to find the definition of herself outside a man…. Shakespeare couldn’t have lived the life he lived without her; she gave him a normal life so he could go off and have romance, success, art, elaborate relationships with patrons….” 

Anne is interested in the husband, not what the husband writes for a living. “She doesn’t know the plays, and doesn’t care to know them. In fact no Shakespeare play is mentioned” in Shakespeare’s Will, says Ritchie. The only writing that’s included, as he points  out, is Sonnet 145, that includes wordplay on Anne’s maiden name.  Says Ritchie, “Anne actively, independently chooses to be with him. And she still ends up being screwed over by the whole thing….” Shakespeare’s Will, he thinks, “talks about the role of women in society; with every choice and freedom, a woman still gets fucked over.”

As the play opens Anne is returning from the great man’s funeral, clutching the unopened will. She remembers everything in flashbacks; “she’s constantly re-living the past as a loop, images and words that constantly return her to the will,” as Ritchie puts it. 

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

Thou Art Here! aims for close-up encounters between audiences and Shakespeare. Ritchie and Kuefler have taken productions to such unexpected locations as the late lamented ARTery bar club; we bellied up to the bar next to Falstaff himself in The Falstaff Project, a Thou Art Here! version of Henry IV Part One. They’ve taken Shakespeare drinking scenes to tables in Whyte Avenue bars. At historic Rutherford House the characters of Much Ado About Nothing had the run of the place, balconies included, and we trailed along. And now a cemetery: for Shakespeare’s Will, the graveyard site itself conjures memory, says Ritchie. It’s “a reverent place” where the irreverence of the play — “with its talk of sex, lovers, infidelity, secrets,” as Vacirca puts it — can shine.

The premiere production, directed by Geoffrey Brumlik, starred Jan Alexandra Smith alone onstage. In Ritchie’s revival, five actors play Anne — and all the people we meet through Anne’s eyes, including Shakespeare, his sister Joan (Anne can’t stand her), her disapproving father, her daughters and son….

“She’s an ideal partner for an artist,” grins Vacirca. “Every artist would want an Anne! They can go out, do their art, come back, feel special, not feel threatened…. She’s not resentful he’s an artist; Anne just wants him to be more present in her life.”

Vacirca, an actor/dancer who made her Thou Art Here! debut as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, has collaborated with Ritchie in choreographing a production full of physical movement. Erik Mortimer has created music (Dave Clarke’s original score was destroyed in a fire).

The idea of having multiple actors play Anne and share the storytelling isn’t new, explain Ritchie and Vacirca. There have been productions of Thiessen’s widely travelled play with four actors. Five, though, is a Thou Art Here! innovation. “Since it’s a play about giving voice to a woman, I think we can give more universality and more colour to that voice if there are more people playing her,” says Ritchie. “More people can see more people in her…. And more more opportunity for women in our community.”

Ritchie was attracted to the “imbalance and “asymmetry” of five instead of four performers. And he had an abundance of talent to choose from, he says of auditions “All the actors could dance, all could act, all could sing!” 

As Ritchie and Vacirca mused over drinks last week, in an era of small casts there are hints of change, not least because theatre artists are getting more ingenious about production design — and in the case of Thou Art Here!, venue. “More bodies onstage! The way to have magic is through people!” says Vacirca. 

“It’s insane!” says Ritchie happily of the five-actor production. “We have NO money. And this is the smallest-cast show we’ve ever done….”

PREVIEW

Shakespeare’s Will

Theatre: Thou Art Here!

Written by: Vern Thiessen

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie, with choreography by Gianna Vacirca and music by Erik Mortimer

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Ainsley Hillyard, Maddie Knight, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Edmonton Cemetery 11820 107 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Sept. 30

Tickets: yeglive.ca or at the Cemetery on the night of performance. Booking advisable (audience max, 40).

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And so it begins, the new theatre season. Edmonton has play dates, and here’s a teaser!

Matilda, Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out … sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty….” Matilda.

In Matilda, the joyously subversive musical spun from Roald Dahl’s novel, our activist eight-year-old heroine wonders (in song) why Jack and Jill and that other doomed pair Romeo and Juliet didn’t grab hold of their own story, and change it.

She favours resistance and revolution over taking it on the chin, in the award-studded musical that spreads mischief on the Citadel mainstage in a three-way co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (directed by Daryl Cloran, Feb. 16 to March 17). That spirit seems to filter provocatively through the season about to happen on Edmonton stages.

Theatre artists and companies of every scale, esthetic, proclivity, and personality (not to mention budget) are returning to action after another record-breaking Fringe. And with them — the beauty of live theatre! — come in-person encounters with questions of change, perspective, surprising mind bends that alter the optic and give you double-vision.

Hold that thought, and have a peek, highly selective, at possibilities for your nights out in the upcoming season.

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

SEE A STORY THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS

(a) The Comedy Company, by playwright/ sketch comedy star Neil Grahn — premiering at Shadow Theatre Oct. 24 to Nov. 11 — is a comedy that tests the limits of comedy: laughter in the face of death.

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Based on a true and remarkable Canadian story (and timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I), it tells of the members of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Division asked by their commander to devise musical comedy revues to entertain the troops and boost morale amidst the terrible destruction. Against the odds  they’re wildly popular. John Hudson directs a starry seven-actor cast — Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Julien Arnold, Sheldon Elter, Nathan Cuckow, Steven Greenfield, Jesse Gervais, Nick Samoil.

(b) In Redpatch, the creation of Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver of Vancouver’s Hardline Theatre (who also direct), it’s World War I through the eyes of a young Métis recruit. The production, six Indigenous actors strong, arrives at the Citadel Nov. 1 to 11.

The Empress and the Prime Minister, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

(c) Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & The Prime Minister (premiering at Theatre Network April 16 to May 5), revisits the time, half a century ago, when a drag queen activist and a young federal minister of justice, ted northe and Pierre Trudeau respectively, together changed the course of Canadian history. By decriminalizing homosexuality.

THEATRICAL REINVENTION

(a) The six troubled, questing characters of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, getting its Canadian premiere from Wild Side Productions (Roxy Performance Series, March 12 to 24) are seeking human connection — without words. They are not mimes (you may be relieved to know); they’re participants in a silence retreat.

(b) Origin of  the Species: There are more than a few time-displacement premises in the world-wide comedy archive — you know the kind,  demure Victorian finds herself at a rave, Sleeping Beauty wakes up in a Motel 6, that sort of thing. But the Northern Light Theatre season-opener (Oct. 12 to 27) takes it to a playful extreme. This early play by Bryony Lavery (Frozen, The Believers), is an encounter between a four million-old woman and the archaeologist who digs her up. Have women’s lives progressed? Maybe not. Up for grabs. Holly Hunter and Kristin Johnston star in Trevor Schmidt’s production.

(c) A Man Draws A Bird, premiering in the Fringe Spotlight Series, is the work of Booming Tree, the first recipient of the Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award. Gregory Shimizu and Twilla MacLeod make theatrical use of Taiko drumming in telling a post-catastrophe hero’s journey story. It premieres in the Fringe Spotlight Series April 30 to May 12.

SO WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE ANYHOW? 

Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

(a) Not Americans. Come From Away is a rare and stellar example of a Canadian musical that garnered rapturous reviews as it hit the big time on Broadway (where it continues to play to sold-out houses). In the week following 9-11, plane-loads bound for America were diverted, and got a spirited, distinctively warm embrace (with Screech) from the tiny Nfld. community of Gander. Broadway Across Canada brings it our way March 12 to 17 (at the Jube). 

(b) Ins Choi is the charismatic second-generation Korean-Canadian playwright who provided Canadian theatre with one of its biggest hits (Kim’s Convenience). He’s re-working, and amplifying his remarkable solo show Subway Stations of the Cross —  which channels mind of a gifted homeless man, a free-wheeling free-associating slam-poet prophet — for a new cabaret show, Ins Choi: Songs, Stories and Spoken Words, premiering at the Chinook Festival in January, under the Fringe Theatre Adventures flag.

Deep Fried Curried Perogies. Photo supplied.

(c) Michelle Todd takes us on a personal one-woman tour of the Canadian cultural mosaic in her genial and touching comic memoir Deep Fried Curried Perogies. Todd’s father is Jamaican, her mother is Filipino, and she has a baby with her white boyfriend whose folks are Ukrainian-Brits. It’s the mainstage presentation at the 2019 SkirtsAfire Festival in March (final dates await).

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

Arise now, and get your butt out of that seat … 

and into a graveyard. Thou Art Here, who have a “site-sympathetic” rapport with the Bard, take us to the 1886 Edmonton cemetery (11820 107 Ave.) with a roving production of Vern Thiessen’s 2005 Shakespeare’s Will. And in this multi-disciplinary revival, five actors play Anne Hathaway, the wife of the great man, who suffered the ignominy of getting bequeathed his “second best bed” in his will.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes at the Citadel. Photo supplied.

and into the most obscure nooks and crannies of a big theatre. Slight of Mind, an original promenade production by Theatre Yes (The Elevator Project, Anxiety) propels us everywhere in the Citadel that isn’t actually a theatre— for a series of encounters with performers that, as fashioned by playwright Beth Graham, allow us to discover a story. “A theatrical event,” as Theatre Yes’s Heather Inglis puts it. “A starting place for the work has been the myth of Icarus with themes of escape, flying and falling.”

and into a bar, The Almanac on Whyte. Cardiac Theatre — the enterprising indie co. that brought us the challengingly off-centre Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, The Listening Room, Pompeii L.A. — wants you to have a drink in hand to experience Harley Morison’s KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama for A Midwinter’s Night.  Separated by mountains Kaldr and Saga meet once a year in their favourite pub to tell tales inspired by “Norse mythology and queer storytelling,” a natural fit with beer. Nasra Adem and Mathew Hulshof star.

REINVENTING THE MUSICAL

That’s what the Plain Janes are all about. This season, in a coup, it’s Fun Home, a musical like no other. In the beautiful and adventurous 2013 Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesoro musical based on a graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a girl discovers her own sexuality, and the mysteries of her dad’s life. Dave Horak’s cast includes Jeff Haslam as dad and the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan as mom; three actors play Alison at different ages. It’s in the Varscona Theatre Ensemble lineup, slated for April.

SEE WHAT’S NEW

(a) Two new Conni Massing plays premiere this season:  Massing #1: What if the elephant in the room … is an elephant? In Matara, premiering in the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season (Nov. 28 to Dec. 9), we’re at a zoo in crisis. Ring a bell? A tragedy has happened, and we’re at an inquiry, where an elephant keeper, a security guard, and a marketing consultant have to justify their actions. Tracy Carroll directs.

Oh Christmas Tree!, Blunt Productions, Roxy Performance Series. Photo supplied.

Massing #2: What if a man takes a stand, against enforced seasonal jollity and sentiment? Oh Christmas Tree! (Roxy Performance Series, Dec. 11 to 23) takes us into the heart of the ever-fraught fa-la-la-la-la season — and the stress fractures in a couple with radically opposed views. Brian Deedrick returns from opera to theatre to direct. A casting coup: Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, real-life husband and wife, star.

(b) In an apotheosis of madcap logistics, two new comedies by Kat Sandler premiere at the Citadel simultaneously — on two stages with the same cast dashing back and forth between them (March 30 to April 21). In the Maclab, The Candidate is a scramble for damage control by a candidate with prospects; in the Club at The Party, we’re actually at the political fundraising party nine months before, where the seeds for scandal are planted.

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

Blood: A Scientific Romance, a Maggie Tree production (Fringe Spotlight series, Oct. 16 to 27), is Edmonton’s introduction to the work of Meg Braem, currently the U of A playwright-in-residence. A scientist investigates the mysterious bond of biology and shared tragedy between orphaned twin sisters. Jayce MacKenzie and Gianna Vacirca star in Brenley Charkow’s production, along with Liana Shannon and Jenna Dykes-Busby.

Lake of the Strangers, inspired by Nehiyaw mythology, is a tale of two brothers on a summer adventure, premiering in the Fringe Spotlight Series Jan. 22 to Feb. 2. It’s by Hunter Cardinal, an exciting young Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s summer season in the park.  

SEE WHAT WE’VE BEEN MISSING (catch up with hot plays by starry playwrights)

Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner by American star Lynn Nottage, is set in a working-class bar in a dying Rust Belt factory town. And it speaks to the contemporary landscape where job erosion is beginning to reveal ugly social and racial fractures. Valerie Planche directs the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production Jan. 12 to Feb. 3.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2012 Tony Award winner by the American farceur Christopher Durang, makes this possible: the words “Chekhovian” and “zany” will finally appear together in one descriptive. The ennui of three middle-aged siblings, named for self-deluding Chekhov characters from an assortment of his plays, is interrupted by the arrival of Masha’s young and studly lover. John Hudson’s Shadow Theatre production runs May 1 to 19 at the Varscona.

Middletown, by the enigmatic, oddly nuanced American playwright Will Eno (The Realistic Joneses, Tragedy: A Tragedy), takes us to an ordinary small town where the unexceptional, set forth in minute detail, is underlaid by weird glints of existential anxiety and despair. Sandra Nicholls directs the Studio Theatre production at the Timms Centre March 28 to April 6.

POLITICAL EDGE and the rise of fake news

It Began With Watching, Melanie Kloetzl and Co. Photo supplied.

Democracy as “alternative facts,” surveillance by shadowy puppet-meisters … It Began With Watching by Calgary-based choreographer/creator Melanie Kloetzel has an ominously sinister resonance. In Prairie Dance Circuit (launching Brian Webb Dance Company’s 40th anniversary season Sept. 21 and 22 at the Timm’s Centre), it’s paired with Gerry Morita’s Second Hand Dances For The Crude, Crude City (inspired by her collaboration with Chi Pig of the punk band SNFU). What does it mean to be alternative in the contemporary world? 

GO RISKY OR GO HOME (redefining the old “every performance is different” theatre adage). Part 1, spontaneity

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel at the Still Point, Bumble Bear Productions.

The unpredictability factor, ramped up to a terrifying degree, is built into Jezebel, At The Still Point. Created by Ainsley Hillyard, consistently one of our most adventurous dance/ theatre artists,  it’s a movement/text exploration of time travelling in which she co-stars with her  (untrained) French bulldog Jezebel. In performances in Winnipeg, Jezebel, who has a mind of her own, occasionally wandered off the stage, and mingled with the audience. There’s just no telling. It’s in the Roxy Performance Series Oct 9 to 21.

Nassim. Photo supplied.

In Nassim, by the audacious Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour of White Rabbit Red Rabbit fame, the playwright shares the Citadel Club stage (April 30 to May 5) every night with an actor who has never before seen the script. A vivid, and much-travelled, experiment in exploring the elusiveness of language and meaning.

GO RISKY OR GO HOME. Part 2, embracing controversy

To be discussed: 19 Weeks, a Canadian premiere collaboration between Azimuth and Northern Light theatres, originally performed in and beside a Melbourne hotel swimming pool. In 2016 Australian playwright Emily Steel had an abortion after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Azimuth co-director Vanessa Sabourin stars (March 28 to April 13, Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns). 

THE RADICAL SIDE OF COMEDY, object laughter

Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

The grand finale of the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season is an original screwball (where else in the country do you find them?) Stewart Lemoine’s 2003 Skirts On Fire (Sept. 27 to Oct. 13 at the Varscona), is an effervescent tale of a literary hoax in ‘50s Manhattan.  

DEFYING EXPECTATIONS

One of the great modern farces comes to the  Mayfield Dinner Theatre stage Feb. 5 to March 31. Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor is a crazily teetering architecture of mounting complications in a ‘30s opera company, on the opening night of Verdi’s Otello. Dave Horak directs.

WHAT’S IS NEWLY CONTROVERSIAL AGAIN (or is the world spinning backwards?)

What A Young Wife Ought To Know, by the star Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, finds its drama, and its tragedy, in the early 20th century history of women’s reproductive rights. Who thought birth control would get contentious again in these “enlightened” times? At Theatre Network Marianne Copithorne directs  Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard and Cole Humeny.

SHACKLES

(a) Ron Pearson’s Minerva: Queen of the Handcuffs (Roxy Performance Series, Jan. 15 to 27) captures the true story of a famous female escape artist, regarded by Houdini as an upstart rival. Miranda Allen whose skill set, actor/escape artist makes her uniquely qualified for the role, stars.

(b) Everything about their lives, from daycare to their fellow workies, enrages the three connected characters of Billy (Les Jours de hurlement)  — in English Days of Howling — by Quebec City playwright Fabien Cloutier. It opens the L’UniThéâtre season, the first under new artistic director Joëlle Préfontaine Oct. 10 to 13, 17 to 20.

FOLLOW THE ARTIST

Beth Graham and Chris Bullough in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Jon Lachlan Stewart, who brought the Fringe a sexy, violent, and wordless!, version of Macbeth (Macbeth Muet), is back in his home town to direct Lungs, by the Brit playwright Duncan MacMillan (Shadow Theatre, March 13 to 31). His cast? A pair of premier playwrights Chris Bullough and Beth Graham.

MYSTERIES YET TO BE DISCOVERED: Edmonton Actors Theatre’s Dave Horak is working on a “devised piece blending new technology and puppets” to be unveiled in May at the Fringe’s Studio Theatre at the Arts Barns. Impossible Mongoose (The Fall of the House of Atreus, The Alien Baby, Prophecy) is hatching “a new play with music about a media sensation from the 1930s inspired by the haunting of Cashen’s Gap. Working title: Gef,” says Corben Kushneryk. We’ll catch a workshop in the spring.

Just a sample of what’s to come. There’s more. Much more. I haven’t even mentioned the Bright Young Things’ production of Noel Coward’s delicious Fallen Angels, directed by Marianne Copithorne. Or Doug Curtis’s Mesa at Atlas Theatre. Or the Play The Fool Festival…. Or a Citadel/Banff production of The Tempest with a cast that includes deaf actors….

Time to dim the lights, and play.

 

 

 

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Sudsing up for an improv marathon: a family reunion at Die-Nasty’s 26th annual Soap-A-Thon

26th annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Festive, but ominous. That’s the buzz today: You, my friends, are going to a family reunion this weekend.   

Starting tonight at 7 p.m. the far-flung members of the Bun-Bun family, owners and operators of a successful dinosaur theme park, are gathering there for a big bash in honour of an auspicious birthday. Great Grandma Cookie Bun-Bun is turning 117. Which makes her officially the world’s oldest living person. 

It’s the 26th annual edition of a venerable Edmonton improv comedy institution, Die-Nasty’s marathon 50-hour Soap-A-Thon fund-raiser. Lured by the magnetic force field of Edmonton improv, performers of every stripe from across the wide world — Adam Meggido from London, Patti Stiles from Australia among others — join the award-winning Die-Nasty ensemble for this journey into the not-yet-known and made-up-on-the-spot.

As Soap-A-Thon history confirms, the suds potential of families is virtually unlimited: joy, angst, tension, dark secrets, boozy recriminations and recollections, warped desires, libidinous frissons, sibling rivalries, acrimonious in-laws, freaky cousins twice-removed, inter-generational feuds, a lot of ex’s.… Who knows what might happen in this tangle of relationships? Absolutely no one.

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And that’s before you add in the dinosaur factor. In fact, one of the “special shifts,” Sunday 3 to 5 a.m., is the Gratuitous Rampaging Dinosaur Hour.

As Die-Nasty star Stephanie Wolfe says, “families are a great hook. People can choose where to hook their hat on the family tree…. With families the stakes are immediately high; there’s a past, a history. The tiniest detail can be momentous; love, hate, everything is magnified.”

We’ve met the Bun-Buns before, in their less exalted nouveau-riche days when the family name didn’t have a hyphen. In 2002, the Bun-Buns converged at the Fairmont Ritz-Capitano for a reunion at the 10th anniversary Soap-A-Thon. And four years later, they gathered again, for a family wedding; the nuptials joined “the London Grimbushes and the Mill Woods Bun-Buns.”

Wolfe remembers she played “Old Lady Bun-Bun, a generic grandma.” On that fractious occasion, Belinda Cornish was Skippy Bun-Bun, goth poet extraordinaire. Mark Meer was Sedgwick Bun-Bun, owner of the fateful hotel where the festivities took place, and doubled as the Lava Monster living in the wine cellar, .

No one knows exactly who’s who at the dinosaur theme park until curtain time tonight. But Wolfe is thinking of playing “Dr. Bun-Bun, the cousin of one of grandma’s daughters, once removed from the family. On call a lot,” and ready to minister to spontaneous maladies. “I’m bringing a bag of wigs…. I used to bring many garment bags of costumes, just in case. I’ve weeded it down to scarves, and hats.”

Characters are often born “by sheer need” backstage, Wolfe laughs. “We need a policeman! Onstage! Now!”

This year’s edition is the first time a life-size puppet has taken on a leading role. Birthday girl Great Grandma Cookie Bun-Bun, at 117, is the creation of company members Jesse Gervais and Mat Hulshof. The voice-over possibilities are legion, as Wolfe points out. Soliloquies? “I’m counting on it.” 

Company members like Mark Meer invariably go the full 50-hour distance. “He has special blood,” says Wolfe. “Thirty hours is enough for me.” Plans for leaving get constantly altered, though. “Just one more shift! I’ve got to find out what happens to me next!”

Wolfe loves the way novices and veterans mingle onstage at the Soap-A-Thon. Her advice to new soap-sters? “Bring lots of water and make sure you have breath mints.”

PREVIEW

26th Annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon

Theatre: Die-Nasty

Directed by: various company members

Starring: Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Jesse Gervais, Matt Alden, Jason Hardwick, Vincent Forcier, Delia Barnett, Kristi Hansen, Paul Morgan Donald. With special guests Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Mat Busby, John Ullyatt, Adam Meggido, Patti Stiles, and others

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: tonight 7 p.m. through Sunday 9 p.m.

Tickets: weekend passes varsconatheatre.com/dienasty; daily tickets at the door all weekend

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Oh, what a knight: Two Good Knights at the Mayfield. A review

Kieran Martiin Murphy in Two Good Knights, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You know the songs. Heck, you can’t NOT know the songs.

By now they’re in the collective DNA, and that much-abused term iconic doesn’t go amiss. Which is both a magnetic draw and a challenge for creators of revues and jukebox extravaganzas.   

The hit catalogues of pop superstars Tom Jones and Elton John are the soundtrack for Two Good Knights, the season-opener at the Mayfield, purveyors of deluxe musical entertainments. Will Marks, the company’s mysterious resident musical hunter/gatherer, has fashioned an annotated two-act celebration of the  the oeuvre of the two legendary Brits.

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And in the production staged by Dave Horak and directed musically by Van Wilmott, two excellent performers, backed by a top-notch seven-piece band (and back-up singer/dancers), invoke their spirit and personality, sound and signature stage styles. And they do it without resorting to the dread impersonation mode. 

Keith Retson-Spalding in Two Good Knights, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

True, Sir Thomas John Woodward (Kieran Martin Murphy), pride of Pontypridd, and Sir Elton Hercules John (Keith Retson-Spalding), late of Yorkshire, are very different artists. Well, OK, they have the Queen in common (hold that thought). They both changed their names; they both made a lot of money. And both their impressively-long careers have had dips and re-births.

But Two Good Knights doesn’t concern itself unduly with these biographical matters. They’re flimsy framing material for Will Marks. Mainly, they’re fodder for the sprite-ly comic ministrations of Chris Bullough. He puckishly leaps in and out of guises, accents, and costumes as the awestruck (occasionally rueful) narrator/chronicler, a stream of managers and agents, members of defunct bands, the odd relative, diverse musicians like Neil Diamond, who appears and vanishes long before the ice in your Tiny Dancer cocktail can melt. Ah yes, and Queenie herself in full regalia, a party girl manquée, who thanks the newly appointed Sir Elton for his stellar contributions to British culture, “especially the retail sector.”    

What saves the narration from the portentous biographical intervention style that’s more usual in revues is its (a) scarcity and (b) its wry tone. Bullough gives all his moments in this incarnation a certain satirical edge, established in the opening moments of Two Good Knights. We find Tim Jones in full Murphy throttle delivering Oh, What A Night and discover, thanks to our narrator, that it’s the ‘80s and he’s in in mid-career slump, reduced to performing ladies’ night in small-town Massachusetts. 

The star, who’s played with charm and a kind of appealing self-awareness by the lustrous-voiced Murphy, is somewhat aggrieved by the narrator’s dramatic scenario: “an agonizing 15-year drought with no hits” and the “sheer determination to climb out of this horrendous hole.”

That’s how the “story” is introduced: a sexy Welsh guy with great pipes and a history of working in a leather glove-making factory and selling Electro-Luxes door-to-door until … the classic moment of discovery. And the tone, endemic to Horak’s production, gives such standard revue segues as “everything he touched turned to gold” a tweak.

Murphy, captures the signature extravagant physicality of the Welsh star in his magnetic performance (choreography by Christine Bandelow, who’s also a back-up singer and dancer, along with Jennifer McMillan).

In Act II, very different in theatrical style, the narrator cedes his role to Elton John’s early music-writing partner Bernie Taupin. And Retson-Spalding, new to the Mayfield stage, takes over at the grand piano as the energetically flamboyant pop star with the neo-Liberace taste in evening wear. He evokes the mannerisms, and the vocal/keyboard pizzaz of Elton John with gusto and humour.

As always at the Mayfield under Van Wilmott the musical values are startlingly high, the local performers are substantial talents, and the song list is nothing if not generous. What gives the show its theatrical bounce is a terrific videoscope by the endlessly inventive designer Matt Schuurman. Two Good Knights is unexpectedly fun to watch, as well as to listen to.

His projections, which play on a variety of screens and even the piano, are clever and witty, an unhinged free-association of images that release the show from the bonds of song catalogue.

I leave you to discover what Schuurman does with Rocket Man, The Lion King, Crocodile Rock , and Benny and the Jets. It reimagines the musical revue format.

REVIEW

Two Good Knights

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Directed by: Dave Horak, Van Wilmott

Starring: Kieran Martin Murphy, Keith Retson-Spalding, Chris Bullough, Christine Bandelow, Jennifer McMillan

Running: through Oct. 28

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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Rex has done it! A record-busting Fringe came to an end Sunday night

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Fringe‘O’Saurus Rex hasn’t exactly tiptoed through town. Larger-than-life Rex has trampled the records. By Sunday evening’s finale, the 37th annual edition of Edmonton’s giant summer theatre bash crashed through last year’s record-breaker by selling 134,276 tickets to its 227 shows, up from 2017’s tally of 129,800. Box office revenue was up 10 per cent, to $1.46 million. And 419 performances had sold out. 

It’s not like the weather, veering wildly between hot and smoky and hypothermic plummets into single-digit temperatures, did the Fringe any fat favours, to say the least. But the carnival crowds were up again, 817,000 from last year’s 810,000 at this, the first and largest Fringe on the continent. 

Sunday afternoon Fringe director Murray Utas was praising “the fortitude” of Fringe audiences. “Smoke, Armageddon, winter… and they came anyway!”   

As the Greek temptress says, clutching her smartphone in the rom-com Sirens (held over at the Varscona this week), “my stats are very high.”

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The“Randomizer,” a bright idea from last year, came into its own this year. It’s the online button on the Fringe website that chooses a show for you if you’re overwhelmed by “the sheer size of what we have going on here” in the multi-show universe. Usage spiralled way up. And Utas reads that as a sign that audiences “are increasingly willing to take a chance,” he says.

I live my life on the fringe,” grins Utas, a Fringe artist himself. “It’s where I spend my days, and it’s who I am at the core….” He argues that “word-of-mouth is still the most crucial element” in finding an audience at the Fringe for the new, the off-centre, the risky. “Against all the noise of people just off hot tours, or (safer, more predictable) stuff, word-of-mouth is the great leveller….”

He points to two exciting originals: Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona’s hit Whiteface, with its thorny and non-consoling provocations, and to Macbeth Muet, the violent, high-speed, wordless version of the Scottish play that sold out its entire Fringe run.      

Farren Timoteo adapted and directed The Soldier’s Tale — a fascinating, multi-disciplinary World War I collaboration between Stravinsky and Ramuz that had never before been fully staged in  Alberta. It was an experiment. He wondered “would we connect with an audience?”

“I was reminded,” says Timoteo, “that pieces that may appear to have a unique identity or eccentric personality could really thrive at the fringe, where there’s something for everybody  and everybody’s a bit more open to something different. I believe our adventurous and unconventional piece of theatre found the perfect home at the festival; it’s the kind of work I especially feel encouraged to share there.”

And in the end The Soldier’s Tale — with its three actors, dancer, and seven-member ensemble conducted by the ESO’s chief conductor Alexander Prior — pretty much sold out all its performances.

At 12thnight.ca I’ve had to be selective, more selective than I’d like, in seeing Fringe shows and writing about them. I’m here to report, happily, that adventurous artists — the experienced veteran, the up-and-comer, the newcomer — still write plays and take them to meet their first audiences, at the Fringe.

There are multiple examples. Young actor/playwright Makram Ayache is a find: Harun has its flaws, but it’s a big, ambitious, theatrically exciting first play, with a huge emotional investment. It, and its creator, promise much. Actor/playwright Chris Bullough, one of our gutsiest artists, ventured feelingly into something controversial, provocative, probing, and risky in every way with Rig Pig Fantasia.

The new still comes in every shape and size at the Fringe. Teatro La Quindicina muse Stewart Lemoine has premiered not one but two new comedies at this year’s Fringe (A Lesson in Brio, running this week at the Varscona, and The Many Loves of Irene Sloane). Kenneth Brown turned his military history expertise and theatrical know-how to imagining a limbo cabaret (Roy Versus The Red Baron). From their research into the mysterious labyrinths of our own history Linda Wood Edwards and David Cheoros, Fringe veterans both, imagined a theatrical confrontation: The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921.

Rebecca Merkley, an artist of apparently limitless range who made her Fringe debut in summers past with a comedy and a musical, returned with a hard-hitting serious drama about a queasy cult, Bountiful, and a free-wheeling performance art-y spoof Merk du Soleil (Alas, I didn’t see either; guest 12thnight reviewer Alan Kellogg did). At the other end of theatrical spectrum, playwright Michele Vance Hehir, who paints with a miniaturist’s strokes, premiered the third of her small-town prairie Roseglen trilogy, One Polaroid.

Clown/physicist Christine Lesiak (For Science!, held over this week at Fringe headquarters), and Leif Ingebrigtsen, Sierra Noble and Megan Dart (a kids’ folk musical Fossegrim & Nøk), tested new limits for themselves at the Fringe. So did activist/writer Leslea Kroll (Wellspring) and journalist Liane Faulder (Walk).

The list goes on. The Fringe still inspires, and rewards, bravery and an adventurous spirit. And that’s what keeps us coming back for more.

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Rex is on a roll: Get fringing before the curtain comes down Sunday night

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you’ve squeezed your butt into the very last seat in a Fringe theatre this past week (as I have, nearly every show), you’ll have a sense that Rex is on a roll.

And your sense is on the money. The final tally awaits since the curtain doesn’t come down in the Fringe’s 39 venues till Sunday night, but hear this: Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex goes into his last weekend of rampaging through Strathcona (and beyond) with box office revenue up 14 per cent from 2017 ($1.2 million worth of tickets going directly back to the artists) and site visits, even in the smoke, up 16 per cent — so far, with more to come. Smoke Shmoke!

For your last weekend of fringe bingeing, have a look at our reviews on 12thnight.ca (all grouped under Fringe 2018) by me, Todd Babiak, and Alan Kellogg. Listen to the buzz coming off the grapevine. Or do what artists do when they put on a Fringe show: take a chance! If you’re paralyzed by the wealth of choices, in an array of 227 shows, get the Fringe’s Randomizer (fringetheatre.ca/festival/randomizer/) to choose for you. (It just picked Burlesque Dueling Divas: Wild Women for me). But whatever you do, see a show. Or two. Or more. Moderation is no virtue at Fringe time. 

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An impressive playwriting debut: Harun, a Fringe review

Harun. Graphic supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Harun (Stage 4, Academy at King Edward)

The double-optic of the immigrant kid — torn between cultures and generations, loyalty to family and the urgent momentum of a new life — is the complexity that Makram Ayache takes on in Harun.

The title character (played by the playwright himself, is gay and Arab, a university student with a Canadian name, Aaron. And he’s in crisis. He’s haunted by the voice of his mother (the riveting  Amena Shehab) telling her story in Arabic; he translates. At night he’s visited by an inscrutable Angel, his mother transformed, with the instruction to listen. One day he can’t wake up.

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Aaron’s boyfriend is terrified. His friends, arranging a college protest against anti-immigrant white supremacist racism, are concerned he’s going mad. Is he? Aaron relives, in flashback, terrible scenes with his mother, marginalized by quieter forms of Canadian racism — “speak English!” — in her new “multi-cultural” country. He’s paralyzed by escalating guilt and self-loathing: if he hadn’t been gay, his mother wouldn’t have gone back to Lebanon…. He conjures scenes of hate and destruction there, “with everyone blaming everyone else,” a counterpoint to more passive-aggressive ethnic stereotyping here in the “enlightened” new world.

There’s a lot going on in Harun; it’s crammed to overflowing with thoughts and memories, conflicts, arguments, reflections, and the characters having them. Probably too much of everything for a one-act play. But in this impressive playwriting debut, maybe that sheer overload is part of the point. It certainly gives Mieko Ouchi’s production, acted with conviction and set forth with theatrical pizzazz, an explosive quality. 

And hey, what a rare thing it is to find, at the Fringe, a new play with the ambition and the chutzpah to be too big for itself. Harun sets conflict in motion, onstage, in scenes between people. It isn’t just reported; it happens. It’s even rounded by a hopeful vision of progress, a new version of what it means to be Canadian.   

Ayache is a talent to watch. He’s going places.

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A new company, a new play: A Town Called Umbra, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Todd Babiak

A Town Called Umbra

A Town Called Umbra (Stage 11, Studio Theatre)

In most cities, a new theatre company launches with an ambitious version of an existing play, something classic and accessible.

Most cities are not Edmonton, where a new theatre company nearly always begins with its own work — written, directed, produced, and performed by three or four friends at the Fringe.

A Town Called Umbra is the first work by Alberta Gothic, written and performed by Levi Borejko and Ari Evans, joined on stage by Philip Hackborn. It’s the story of a western town where a mystery woman, Nik, played by Borejko, has bought up all the shadows.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, Nik had paid for the shadows with a magic potion. By the time Orpheus (Evans) shows up, the town preacher (Hackborn) and everyone else in Umbra suffers from buyers’ remorse.

Orpheus descends to the underworld, to find Nik and rustle up them shadows.

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A Town Called Umbra is imaginative, fast-moving, and gentle enough to be family friendly. This version feels not quite finished, as both the script and the performances lack confidence, but there is a wonderful idea here and plenty of energy. This is a good part of what the Fringe is about — a springboard to whatever comes next.

Todd Babiak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Held Over at the Varscona: hit Fringe shows continue con brio next week!

Patricia Cerra, Jenny McKillop, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshot in A Lesson in Brio, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

The Varscona Theatre (aka Stage 12) is holding over four of its hot-ticket shows next week, Tuesday through Saturday. There’s Stewart Lemoine’s A Lesson in Brio, of course; it’s part of Teatro La Quindicina’s summer season. There’s also Gordon’s Big Bald Head: New World Hors ‘Oeuvres, Atlas Theatre’s Sirens, and Bright Young Things’ The Real Inspector Hound.  (Click on the title to read our 12thnight.ca reviews).

Here’s the schedule:

Tuesday Aug. 28: 7 p.m. A Lesson in Brio, 9 p.m. The Real Inspector Hound

Wednesday Aug. 29: 7 p.m. A Lesson in Brio, 9 p.m. Gordon’s Big Bald Head

Thursday Aug. 30: 7 p.m. A Lesson in Brio, 9 p.m. Gordon’s Big Bald Head

Friday Aug. 31: 7 p.m. A Lesson in Brio, 9 p.m. The Real Inspector Hound

Saturday, Sept. 1: 2 and 7 p.m. A Lesson in Brio, 9 p.m. Sirens.

Tickets:  A Lesson in Brio, The Real Inspector Hound and Sirens: teatroq.com. For Gordon’s Big Bald Head: coming soon.

 

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Rex will rampage next week: Fringe show holdovers at the Arts Barns

Lady Vanessa Cardona and Todd Houseman in Whiteface. Photo supplied.

Fringe’O’Saurus Rex hasn’t finished with you yet, my friends. You’ve had a reprieve on those hit shows you haven’t managed to squeeze into your Fringe menu yet. Fringe Theatre Adventures is holding over four Fringes at the Westbury (aka Fringe Stage 1) next week, Wednesday through Saturday Sept. 1: Hey Science!, Flute Loops, Balls of Yarns, and Whiteface. (Click on the titles for our 12thnight.ca reviews.

Fringe director Murray Utas points out (with his usual exuberance) that two of the four, the first two, pair music and science and take them into the theatre.

Here’s the schedule:

Aug. 29: 7 p.m. Whiteface, 9 p.m. Balls of Yarns

Aug. 30: 7 p.m. Flute Loops, 9 p.m. Whiteface

Aug. 31: 7 p.m. Balls of Yarns, 9 p.m. For Science!

Sept. 1: 7 p.m. For Science! 9 p.m. Flute Loops. 

Tickets: fringetheatre.ca, 780-409-1910

 

 

 

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