The mysterious twin bonds of life and art: meet playwright Meg Braem

Playwright Meg Braem

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You try to make sense of things,” says Meg Braem, whose chosen line of work is the transmutation of real life — in all its perplexing, maddening, intriguing potential — into art. “You’re always searching….” 

Braem is a playwright, an award-winning creator of theatre (and the University of Alberta’s Lee playwright-in-residence). And the Braem play that opens Thursday under the branches of the adventurous indie company The Maggie Tree is a prime example of the way her work springs off real life, her own, to explore. 

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 Blood: A Scientific Romance is Edmonton’s onstage introduction to the Braem vision after productions in Calgary and Saskatoon. But she’s worked on plays as a resident playwright at Workshop West (about grave-robbing for anatomical research in 1860s Canada) and at the Citadel’s erstwhile Playwrights Forum (about the circuses that travelled Depression era Alberta.

In Blood: A Scientific Romance we meet twin sisters orphaned by a prairie highway car accident in which they sustain life-threatening injures. The twins survive; indeed their recovery is nothing short of remarkable. And that seems inextricably linked to their mysterious relationship, beyond biology and beyond environment. With a certain sinister Mengelesque resonance, a scientist takes them home for further investigation.

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

On the phone from her Calgary home where she’s on maternity leave (the sound track from her baby daughter is in the background) Braem, who’s originally from Victoria, traces the idea of Blood: A Scientific Romance back. Back to her own life experience with a twin, her sister Jen. “When we were young people were always asking us ‘can you read either other’s minds?’”

It’s not an outlandish notion. Though they didn’t come from an artsy family, there was a moment when the Braem twins together took a turn into left field, so to speak, and ended up in theatre. “We were theatre kids in high school; it was hard for Dad to accept what my sister and I chose.” Mr. Braem senior might have preferred a dentist, or a lawyer, “but all it took was one great drama teacher.”

Jen Braem was a professional stage manager for a long time before she got an MBA and became a chartered accountant (she’s the chief financial officer for Rugby Canada). Meg got a degree in acting at U Vic, before being onstage ceded to writing plays (“you get to talk about what you want to talk about”). When Braem moved to Calgary to get a master’s degree in playwriting — “it was a hub of new play production” —  and left her sister behind, the separation was traumatic. “I was SO homesick,” she recalls. “It was brutal.”

When the Braem sisters get together these days, “we close off everything else,” Braem laughs. “We send our husbands away. And we don’t really DO much; we just sit in each other’s houses and talk….”

In Victoria, Braem’s first pro gig as an actor had been in a troupe that created theatre with the inmates of William Head Penitentiary. Braem’s Potentilla came out of that experience, not least because “we had a cousin who was murdered…. I wasn’t there for the purposes of social justice. But ultimately it was a very positive experience, spending that time. The circumstances were so much more interesting than the plays we did.”  

Flight Risk, “about a 99-year-old war vet in an old folks home” according to its author, was inspired by the experience of “sitting with my dad, a vet on his death bed. He was never weak. And now he was…. I thought about how our culture doesn’t deal with old age.” Besides, she says, “the stories were amazing.”

In Braem’s The Josephine Knot, a grandmother dies, and a family who’s assembled to clean out her house begins to unravel secrets. “Very based on real life and my family!” says Braem cheerfully. “Before the (concept) hoarder was a thing, my grandmother was one …. She never even put food away. She was a canner, and the house was full of pickled cantelope, pickled eggs, all over the place.” Her later years were a declension into chaos, as Braem describes. “She had an affair with a married man and (eventually) showed up in Vancouver, eating peppermints for dinner….”

“My dad came to a reading of the play. And he was so embarrassed he never came to a play of mine ever again.”

Bream, whose gig as U of A work as playwright-in-residence includes mentoring young writers, muses on the attraction of theatre to her younger self. “High school is so brutal anyhow. And it was partly I liked being treated with so much respect,” she says. “The being held accountable for consequences. The collaboration.”

Not every kid drawn to theatre makes it a career, of course. “But I never think it’s a waste; it’s such a training in empathy, in listening….”

Come January, Braem will be back in Edmonton for the university term. And she’ll be working with the drama department’s student actors — eight women four men — on the new play commissioned especially for them as part of her writer-in-residence tenure (to be produced in the 2019-2020 season). “I’m looking at Greek tragedy, the Oresteia as a jumping-off point. “Family, betrayal…. Especially now, it’s a climate where Greek tragedy really works.”   

PREVIEW

Blood: A Scientific Romance

Theatre: The Maggie Tree, in Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Program

Written by: Meg Braem

Starring: Jayce Mckenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby

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

Running: Thursday through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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A great leap forward, by excavating the past: Origin of the Species opens the NLT season. A review.

Holly Turner, Kristin Johston in Origin of Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Archaeology, says an elderly member of that profession in Origin of the Species, is “simply knowing where to look.”

It would seem to have that at least in common with theatre, judging by the mysterious discoveries of Northern Light Theatre and an artistic director who unearths the highly unusual season after season.

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NLT launches the current season with Trevor Schmidt’s  Canadian premiere of this quirky early two-hander by the Brit playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen, The Believers) — an odd and oddly touching little fable about time, evolution, inheritance, the myth of progress, and extinction. Origin of the Species has a sitcom skeleton and a feminist heart (not to mention a wry vision of science). 

Molly the archaeologist (Holly Turner) has a New Year’s Eve story to tell us about going on a dig to the Olduvai Gorge in Africa in search of a perfect man. In an act of cradle-robbing from the very cradle of civilization as she says, Molly smuggles back the remains of a woman instead, “a crime of passion.” The four-million-year-old (Kristin Johnston) comes to life with a kiss in fairy-tale fashion, and Molly names her Victoria in honour of her grandma.

Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner in Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

So Origin of the Species is a mismatched roommate comedy of sorts, a reinvention of the human-out-of-time premise that peppers the comedy repertoire (I’m thinking, for no good reason, of Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man).

Molly, a delightfully eccentric and conversationally shrewd character as created by Turner, has to “fill in a four million-year time gap.” In a motherly turn (“good girl!”) she teaches her wary young-old charge how to put on a cardigan, how to use language, and hold a pencil — and in an escalation of sophistication how to think and how to imagine. The increments are negotiated with finesse by Johnston, an alert, impressively kinetic performer with real stage presence

A sweet and amusing relationship develops, as charted in Schmidt’s production. And it turns out that Victoria has things to teach Molly too. In four million years, the He/Him/ His-centric view of human history has made false claims stick. Man didn’t invent fire, for example; it was Woman, taking a cue from volcanoes. Contrary to popular wisdom Man doesn’t have exclusive proprietorship over the invention (and lethal use) of weaponry. And as for thinking….

Molly’s home turf, as designed by director Schmidt with gorgeous (and dramatically purposeful) lighting by Elise Jason, is the beautiful clutter of a civilized mind that collects — artifacts, books, diverse memorabilia, knowledge. Ah yes, and an assortment of every kind of clock, ticking and chiming and reduced at times to a sort of human pulse (sound design by Kiidra Duhault).

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

Clocks and time figure prominently, though the play reintroduces the idea of extinction (the “vanishing clock”) in an awkwardly compressed and to me unsatisfying way in the last quarter of the play — after an opening that is, thanks to Turner’s appealingly chipper, confidential tone, genial and leisurely. Origin of the Species seems to be a play looking for more length. 

But maybe it’s all a New Year’s Eve dream of fulfilment and continuity, and a way forward from a scientist with imagination, who has found her fellow scientists wanting in that capacity. The ending, after all, is a rebirth of a species whose potential hasn’t been explored — not even close. And the womanly future awaits.  

REVIEW

Origin of the Species

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Bryony Lavery

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Holly Turner, Kristin Johnston

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

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

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And in other theatre news: Tonight! Teatro’s season-end grand finale bash and Collin Doyle’s new play at Script Salon

Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This is how the Teatro La Quindicina mind ticks: the last production of their 2018 season, Skirts On Fire, has just closed, ergo it’s the moment for a grand finale … of grand finales. 

Bring Down The Curtain: An Evening Of Grand Finales, tonight only at the Varscona, is a song-and-dance extravaganza that gathers musical numbers, scenes, and speeches that bring down the curtain at the intermission or the show’s end.   

Some are imprinted forever on your memory: Climb Every Mountain, the Act I close of The Sound of Music and Everything’s Coming Up Roses, which occupies the same thrilling position in Gypsy. Or Tom’s “I never went to the moon” speech at the end of The Glass MenagerieHere’s a spot quiz: “I’m determined to do it — and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof — is there? Is there, baby?”

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Jenny McKillop claims Maybe from Annie; Jason Hardwick straps on his tap shoes for  Anything Goes from that effervescent musical. Rachel Bowron does a a mash-up of “parade” songs: Don’t Rain On My Parade and Before The Parade Passes By. Kendra Connor sings Dear Friend from She Loves Me.

You can expect to hear the grand finale speeches from the Teatro shows this past season, as well as finales from some of Stewart Lemoine’s earlier work, like What Gives? from the pocket musical of that name, and the lovely concluding speech from The Margin of the Sky. “The sun sinks down to the margin and it exits the sky. In time, it approaches the other margin and it gets back in. I want to do that too….”

Yes, there will be Sondheim.

The evening at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) is hosted by Teatro artistic director Jeff Haslam. Cathy Derkach and Steven Greenfield are at the piano. And the cast includes the company of Skirts on Fire, with an array of Teatro stars including Andrea House and Sheri Somerville. Tickets: teatroq.com.

playwright Collin Doyle

•A new play by Collin Doyle! Tonight’s Script Salon is your first glimpse at The Takeoff, by the award-winning author of The Mighty Carlins, Let The Light Of Day Through, and Terry and the Dog. The Takeoff follows three generations of one family  — “the couplings and un-couplins of new love, old love, and broken love.”

Tonight’s staged reading — 7:30 p.m.) in the Upper Arts Space at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 10037 84 Ave. — features an all-star cast: Patricia Darbasie, Glenn Nelson, Michelle Todd, Ian Leung, Jeff Halaby, Ellie Heath, Maralyn Ryan, Jim DeFelice, Robert Benz, and Damon Pitcher. The dramaturg is Mieko Ouchi.

And there’s more: Tuesday night at the Almanac (7 p.m., 10351 Whyte Ave.) the playwright celebrates the launch of his volume of plays. The Mighty Carlins And Other Plays includes that title work, a raucous black comedy of family dysfunction and chronic underachievement. It’s a reunion between a father and his two grown-up sons on the anniversary of their mother’s death.

In Let The Light of Day Through, which premiered at Theatre Network in 2013, a couple in their thirties, in order to survive a great tragedy, have invented a comedy for themselves to be in, and characters to play.  The hero of Routes, originally commissioned by Concrete Theatre, is a 15-year-old kid who escapes the violence of his home life by riding the bus nightly through a dark and dangerous Edmonton suburb. All three reveal Doyle’s uncanny way with dialogue, and his expertise in marrying dark comedy and tragedy.

Edmonton actors, including John Wright, James Hamilton, Jeff Page, Jesse Gervais, Beth Graham and Doyle himself (most recently seen in a Fringe production of The Zoo Story) , will do readings from the plays. And you can pick up a copy.

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A mission to defeat time: Jezebel, At The Still Point. A review

Jezebel and Ainsley Hillyard in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It beings with an explosion somewhere in the galaxy, a crash landing, smoke, red emergency lights, a siren. 

Matt Schuurman’s video design, spread across jagged meteor fragments amid showers of light (by Elise Jason) is, quite precisely, awesome. The music is in the grand cinematic adventure tradition. What planet is this?

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In the two-hander love story currently running at Theatre Network, half the double-act moves through space in asymmetrical arcs, one-footed cartwheels, angled flips in defiance of gravity. And keeps up a grave running assessment of the damages (be very apprehensive when your flush capacitors get blown out; I get that). The other half looks around impassively and leaves the stage.

As a career theatre-goer, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like Jezebel, At The Still Point, created by and starring Ainsley Hillyard and her dog Jezebel (and thereby introducing a new two-member theatre collective, Bumble Bear Productions). The former is an actor/dancer/choreographer/playwright; the latter is a French bulldog. And the show is built on an extravagant imbalance in stage labour — which turns out to be both comical and then touching.

Hillyard and Jezebel, both wearing space suits, are the pilot and co-pilot of a spaceship that’s crash-landed on an alien planet. They are on a time-travel mission to subvert, or perhaps reverse, the course of earthly chronology, for reasons that the pilot will reveal in the course of the show. The pilot does all the talking and most of the moving, issues the instructions, outlines the goals, encourages initiative, offers positive reinforcement at every turn. The co-pilot, mostly silent, is a minimalist actor, to say the least. Without noticeable change of expression Jezebel takes a sip of water from a bowl, lies down, delivers an occasional sneeze or snort, and occasionally walks off stage. 

It’s the quintessential unfairness of showbiz that Jezebel gets instant and sustained attention — and all the laughs — from the “non-corporeal life forms” in the house seats. And she does it without apparent effort. Or even changing expression.

Jezebel is a natural (as opposed to a calculating) upstager. She has no apparent interest — much less insatiable appetite — for being onstage. Every once in a while she looks out at us with a kind of appraising but non-judgmental look, a ‘whatever’ look as if to say it’s OK that we’re here and it would be equally OK if we weren’t. Or maybe I’m reading something into the gaze; is this, perhaps, a demo of the secret power of the mask? In any case, you’ll get no hammy over-acting from Jezebel. The mystery of the craft is safe with her. 

What happens in a love story when the two parties are in very different time dimensions? Dog years and human years have dramatically different durations, at least on earth. And there’s cruelty and grief in that, of course. Which is why living in the immediate Now is an urgent imperative for Hilyard and Jezebel. And why time travel is (if I get the gist of relativity) a possible solution; as Hillyard points out, if you travel fast enough, faster than the speed of light maybe, you can get somewhere before you left.

“This expedition is all about time,” says the pilot, who explains that she and her co-pilot are searching for “a temporal anomaly.” And the downside of time is mortality. In short, if quantum physics finally gets useful instead of being something you’re doomed to not quite grasp, Jezebel might never have to die.

The still point of the title (possibly Jezebel herself, having a snooze) is the axis of the past and the future where the present lives, either fleetingly or forever. And Hillyard’s text, and her graceful lexicon of sign language, together wax poetic and at length on that subject.

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

The bond between human and animal, which stands well outside the pet-owner relationship, is the driving pulse of Jezebel, At The Still Point. Unlike Jezebel Hillyard wears her heart on her (space suit) sleeve. She steps up fearlessly to sentiment as she reviews the history of Soviet dogs who got sent into space, or remembers the story of doomed dog from Pompeii, or dances to The Way We Were.

And gradually, in Beth Dart’s production, a show that is not without its own puckish sense of humour (witness a fashion show of space suits) cedes to a different tone; the theatrical premise gets tossed, and yields to direct address to the audience. Jezebel has changed her life, Hillyard tells us, in an impassioned ode to love between the species. “She has taught me to slow down and see the beauty in things…. She has taught me to be a better person.”

Quantum physics aside, you can’t help thinking that however heartbreakingly brief a dog’s tenure may be, Jezebel has been awfully lucky, to have such love and creative energy lavished upon her. To be the object of such devotion is a rare thing.

Jezebel remains calm and cool, and not slavishly grateful for the tribute. If Jezebel were an actor on Tony Awards night, she would not be bursting into tears while thanking her agent and her mother. You wonder if she’s wondering. But it’s hard to tell.

REVIEW

Jezebel, At The Still Point

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Bumble Bear Productions

Created by and starring: Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel

Directed by: Beth Dart

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Oct. 21

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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No one’s staying home this weekend: why would you? A wealth of choices on E-town stages

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca 

At the U of A’s Studio Theatre, it’s back in the USSR with Lenin’s Embalmers, Vern Thiessen’s black and absurdist 2008 tragicomedy (imagined from a true story) about two competing Jewish biochemists landing the unenviable joint task of preserving for all time the corpse of Lenin. Hey, no pressure, Boris and Vlad: it’s only Stalin giving the order. Talk about redefining gallows humour.   

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Alexander Donovan, an MFA candidate, directs. His cast is led by Doug Mertz, a highly accomplished actor/ director/ voice coach, as Stalin. And the award-winning playwright himself, Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen, puts in a rare stage appearance as Lenin. It opened Thursday and runs at the Timm’s Centre (112th St. and 87 Ave.) through Oct. 20. Tickets: ualberta.ca/artshows.

L’UniThéâtre, E-town’s professional francophone theatre, opens a new season (their 26th) tonight with Fabien Cloutier’s Billy (Les jours de hurlement, in English “days of howling”) in their galleried theatre at La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.). Nancy McAlear directs Carline Lemire, Vincent Forcier and Giselle Lemire. And 12thnight.ca talked to the company’s new artistic director Jöelle Préfontaine about her season, and the show, which runs through Oct. 20. Read about it here. Tickets: lunitheatre.ca.

Tonight, Northern Light Theatre launches the new season with Origin of the Species, a unique two-hand comedy (with trimmings) by the English playwright Bryony Lavery that pairs an archaeologist (Holly Turner) with a four million-year-old woman come to life in the contemporary world (Kristin Johnston). It runs through Oct. 27 at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. 12thnightca talked to NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt about his upcoming season, and the implications of this off-centre season-opener; read it here. And stay tuned for my 12thnight.ca review. Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com. 

At Theatre Network, another unusual pair takes the stage, to launch the Roxy Performance Series. Jezebel, At The Still Point stars the French bulldog of the title and her human companion (actor/playwright/dancer/choreographer Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance Collective) in an exploration of time travel and mortality (especially the canine kind). 12thnight met up with the cast last week; read about it here. The show opened Thursday and runs through Oct 21. Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca. My 12thnight review is coming up.       

At Walterdale, a community theatre that knows no fear of challenge, Barbara Mah directs a cast of 20 in The Triangle Factory Fire Project. The American writer Christopher Piehler revisits, dramatically, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy that cost 146 young immigrant women their lives in Manhattan in 1911. A tale of corporate greed and the kind of inhumane treatment of workers that hasn’t exactly vanished from modern practice. It opened Wednesday and runs at Walterdale’s vintage Strathcona ex-firehall playhouse through Oct. 20. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).

PLUS….

It’s your last chance to catch Once, an oddball charmer of a musical about the life-changing potential of making music. It’s at the Citadel through Sunday. You can meet the director Ann Hodges at 12thnight ca, and read my review here. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com. 

You have till Saturday night to be delighted by the madcap escalations of an original screwball comedy. Teatro La Quindicina’s production of Stewart Lemoine’s Skirts On Fire is cavorting pellmell across and behind the Varscona stage (10329 83 Ave.). Read here about what makes screwballs screwy, courtesy of the playwright and Teatro leading man Andrew MacDonald-Smith. And take a peek at my review here. Tickets: teatroq.com

    

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A new artistic director and a new season at L’UniThéâtre

Billy (Les jours de hurlement), L’UniThéâtre. Photo by Dave DeGagné, db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the play that launches L’UniThéâtre’s 26th season tonight in a Nancy McAlear production, we meet a trio of characters who just can’t seem to help being pissed off — at daycare workers, at other people’s parenting techniques, at bureaucratic delays…. 

What attracted Jöelle Préfontaine, the company’s new artistic director, to Billy (Les jours de hurlement, in English “days of howling”), by the award-winning Quebec City playwright Fabien Cloutier, is the crafty complexity with which “three individual characters weave together…. Little bits of information, lots of tension!” 

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 “They’re so ridiculous! Surely they should get over themselves and just live their lives!” exclaims Préfontaine, who took over the artistic reins of Edmonton’s venerable, multi-limbed francophone company this season after the departure of Brian Dooley. “They love gossip. They love conflict. Little things become do-or-die. Why can’t they be happy minding their own business and being the best human beings they can?”

The structure of the dialogue is a challenge for the English surtitles that are a long-time L’UniThéâtre inclusivity initiative launched under the pre-Dooley artistic director Daniel Cournoyer. They’re so cunningly intricate and cross-cut that for the first time, they’re colour-coordinated to the characters.

“Every time I watch a rehearsal I bust a gut laughing,” says Préfontaine of a play with a (very) dark sense of humour and considerable heft. “And then you get the big gut-punch.” 

The perfectly bilingual, multi-talented actor/ singer/ dancer/ director/ playwright, who arrived here from the nearby francophone town of Légal to go to theatre school at the U of A, is in a position to appreciate complexity. For one thing, the U of A acting grad with a master’s degree in theatre practice and a specialty in “pluri-lingual theatre for young audiences,” is a playwright. She went back to her roots for her debut play Récolte, set in a small Légal-esque prairie town, where a brother and sister struggle with the residue of family tragedy.

As a francophone who had to re-learn her first language (through theatre) after a decade of disuse, Préfontaine appreciates the nuances of cultural diversity in an ever-expanding francophone community that includes Franco-Albertains like her, other francophones outside Quebec, as well as European and African arrivals. And she appreciates, too, the importance of anchoring shows, especially those for young audiences, in “physical language.”

Elise centre l’extinction totale, L’UniThéâtre’s production for the young crowd, slated for a tri-province tour this season, is like that. Prefontaine herself directs the new play by Paula Humby, best known to anglophone audiences as an actor (she’s in the cast of Teatro La Quindicina’s current production of Skirts On Fire). It touches on themes of friendship and environmental conservation. 

Préfontaine’s debut season includes Ma Irma (My Irma), a production from Saskatoon’s La Troupe du Jour of a quirky black comedy by Haley McGee (Nov. 21 to 24). It’s  translated by, and stars, Marie-Claire Marcotte as a strangely awkward young woman whose misadventures begin with a mission to unravel the mystery of her mother’s murder.

La Fille du Facteur by and starring the multi-disciplinary theatre artist Josée Thibeault (March 20 to 23 and 27 to 30), taps theatre, dance, slam poetry in its account of the storyteller’s art. “She paints beautiful images in words,” says Préfontaine, who will direct this solo show with “a big sense of Edmonton” to it. “It (conjures) so many things about being an artist in Edmonton.”

Billy (Les jours de hurlement), directed by Nancy McAlear and starring Carline Lemire, Giselle Lemire, and Vincent Forcier, runs at L’UniThéâtre (8627 91 St.) tonight and Saturday, and Oct. 17 to 20. Tickets: lunitheatre.ca.

    

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The dystopian vision of Trevor Schmidt: a new season at Northern Light Theatre

Holly Turner and Kristin Johnston in Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Frankly, I’ve always been more interested in women’s stories than men’s,” says Trevor Schmidt, his dander up on a break last week from rehearsals for Origin of the Species.

The highly unusual feminist two-hander comedy by the English playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen), gets its Canadian premiere Friday in the Schmidt production that launches Northern Light Theatre’s 43rd season.

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“It’s been my mandate since the ‘90s,” declares Schmidt, a 16-season veteran of the NLT artistic director job, of his record of bringing predominantly women’s stories to the stage.“I find and write the plays that speak to me…. I’m not a typical man, I guess. I wasn’t raised that way; I’m an outsider…. I think I have an affinity to stories that tell that kind of narrative. My sympathies are there. Toxic masculinity frightens me….”

What gets him really riled is the misperception that the striking proliferation of female characters and stories in his own plays and the ones he chooses for Northern Light constitutes

some sort of accommodation to hashtag trend.“No, it’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years! And it wasn’t to appease an agenda that’s forced on us by funders or social media!”

The actor/ playwright/ director/ designer/ producer is remembering The Unconscious Collective, the puckishly named indie co-op he launched here in the 90s at the behest of four actresses who weren’t getting any work. They brought Schmidt, a Calgary transplant, a play to direct. “I thought I could write a better play for them. And I did….” What followed was a series of bizarre black comedies (The Calf Killers, Four-Lane Highway, Precious Goods) and moving portraits of women in plays built from interlocking monologues (The Watermelon Girls, Tales From The Hospital). 

Kristin Johnston with director Trevor Schmidt, getting a trim on the set of Origin of the Species. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Every performer you’ll see onstage in the upcoming three-production NLT lineup is a woman. And that’s not the first time in Schmidt’s tenure that’s happened. In Origin of the Species an archaeologist (Holly Turner) on a dig discovers the skeleton of a four million year-old woman (Kristin Johnston), and since no one wants it — “she was just an old woman and so was I” — takes it home. A kiss, and the prehistoric woman comes to life. Then the archaeologist must teach her new room-mate how to live, to think, to imagine, in the supposed enlightenment of the 20th century world. 

What Schmidt finds irresistible is the play’s union of “the very touching mother/daughter relationship and a lot of slapstick and physical comedy.… It’s this wonderful early feminist play about the empowerment of women, women from different time periods.” 

“I love plays that start out as comedy and become something else. Like my Fringe shows with Darrin (Darrin Hagen, of Guys in Disguise), comedies that have what we call the sucker punch.”

Northern Light seasons are peppered with plays authored by writers whose names don’t ring a bell with audiences here. The Cardiac Shadow by the American Clay McLeod Chapman (he’s the head writer for Spider Man, Typhoid Mary and other Marvel creations) counts as another unlikely discovery by Schmidt, who seems to have an instinct for finding promising scripts in obscure corners. The Canadian premiere production at Northern Light Jan. 1i to Feb. 2 is “a really interesting hybrid of film, dance, theatre that we haven’t seen in Edmonton for quite a while,” says Schmidt.  

The story, chillingly, is borrowed from real-life history: Nazi experiments in extreme temperatures conducted on young women prisoners of Ravensbrück concentration camp. “The first half is a film, with a voice-over of the Nazi doctor,” devised by filmmaker Katrina Beatty of Loud Whisper Productions. The second half, directed by Schmidt, features four dancers from the Good Women Dance Collective, Northern Light’s co-producer, performing to voice-overs.

19 Weeks, a co-production with Azimuth Theatre starring that company’s co-artistic director Vanessa Sabourin (March 29 to April 13), is a true story about the playwright. Emily Steel, a Welsh writer living in Australia, made an agonizing, and controversial, choice to have an abortion when she learned that her baby had Down Syndrome. “The script is so harrowing and difficult. So truthful,” says Schmidt. “And also a story we don’t hear.” It will prove, Schmidt predicts, “extremely emotionally provocative to people…. I’m really looking forward to our “salon” talk-backs. 

Schmidt finds “terribly disheartening” the idea that artists must confine themselves to telling stories exclusively about their own lives (or gender or sexuality or ethnic background). “Can we not look to the universal? I want to see the bigger story…. You have to see yourself somewhere in every story.… You’re not always the protagonist; sometimes you’re the antagonist, and that’s not always a comfortable place to be….”

“For me, a play where everyone behaves the way we wish people behaved isn’t inherently theatrical,” he argues. “We need to show the world as it is, not just as we want it to be. How else can we change what needs to be changed? That means someone in your play may be racist, someone may be homophobic. But it doesn’t make your play racist or sexist.

“Every single theatre piece that I want to do is about your responsibility to yourself versus your responsibility to others…. You’re faced with a moral dilemma whether to do the noble and right thing that will make you a good person or take the cowardly choice, to serve yourself first. That’s the tug of war that makes plays interesting. 

“I tend to program shows where people fail, and things end unhappily. In my experience in life that’s pretty true,” says Schmidt, who self-identifies as a contrarian (“I was that defiant red-head child with an extremely heightened sense of justice”). “They’re confused, the people in my plays; they’re struggling to find their point of view. They don’t always have one yet.”

Tickets for Origin of the Species, and Northern Light Theatre subscriptions: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com.

 

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Gertrude and Alice go sitcom, at the Grindstone

Gertrude Stein, Basket, and Alice B. Toklas. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Leona Brausen as Gertrude Stein, Gertrude And Alice. Photo supplied.

Gertrude and Alice: They’re the famously eccentric American couple who held court as paid-up members of the glittering Parisian avant-garde of the ‘20s.

And now, once a month, you’ll find Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, large as life, on the tiny stage at the Grindstone Comedy Club & Bistro, in an improvised sitcom starring Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart. Sunday night the pair are back for a Thanksgiving edition of Gertrude and Alice (at their new time, 7 p.m.) that includes their kooky upstairs neighbour L’il Dickie, played by Trevor Schmidt.

Brausen explains that she and Stewart originated the characters in Die-Nasty’s 25th anniversary season in 2015. “Ridiculous stuff!” she declares of an improvised soap narrative that blithely bounced off history into wild left turns of impromptu comedy. “At one point Salvador Dali (Mark Meer) made a statue of Gertrude,” Brausen recalls. “And she came to life and started murdering people, like The Penguin from Batman…. Basically, we’d just hold salons and have guests and parties!”

Davina Stewart as Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude And Alice. Photo supplied.

For every edition, they borrow a quote from the enigmatic Stein (of “there is no there there” fame) to establish the theme. In honour of Thanksgiving: “silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.”

Brausen, the Teatro La Quindicina star and costume designer who played Lady Bracknell in the hit summer production of The Importance of Being Earnest, says she’s tried to read Stein novels. “I just couldn’t make it through…. Random weirdness, and not as fast-paced as we might like these days,” she says tactfully, approving of the former, not so much of the latter.

“We are happy weirdoes,” she says of the characters you’ll meet “an hour of totally made-up stuff … with a little Jackie Gleason thrown in.” Gertrude is very apt to arrive onstage, put down her lunchbox, and holler “where’s my dinner, Alice?”

Brausen and Stewart first brought the characters to  the Grindstone last spring, “as a total experiment.” And they quickly realized “we need direction; otherwise, we’re just yapping!” as Brausen puts it.

That’s where the audience comes in: they’re the surrogate director. Brausen and Stewart get the audience to write answers to the questions of the night in the lobby before the show starts. “We put all the little pieces of paper in a bucket onstage, and every time we walk by we pick one out.” They’ve tried “what’s your worst date ever?”; everyone has one of those. Sunday night it’s “what are you thankful for?.”

Davina Stewart (top), Leona Brausen, Trevor Schmidt in Gertrude and Alice. Photo supplied.

The size of the Grindstone stage does make hosting salons a challenge. There are other ways, though, to get guests into the act. Now that the “sitcom upstairs neighbours” L’il Dickie and Fat Frank (Darrin Hagen) have broken up, it’s entirely possible that the former will starting dating. “I tried to write him a Grindr profile,” laughs Brausen. She predicts that L’il Dickie will start bringing guys over to Gertrude and Alice’s place.

Brausen’s witty touch with costumes is currently on display in Teatro’s season finale Skirts on Fire, a screwball comedy set in 1950s Manhattan. She’s having fun with Gertrude and Alice, and the 20s boho look. “I’m the uni-brow; Davina’s the moustache,” laughs Brausen. “ I wear a long women’s jacket, dark socks, shirt and tie, wingtip shoes.  And I’ve cut the worst gray wig in the worst way! Davina as Alice has a dress with a kimono over it….”

“It’s quickly morphing into something unique and fun!” says Brausen. Next month’s edition of Gertrude and Alice, Nov. 4, is a Northern Light Theatre fund-raiser, Frank ’N’ Stein: hot dogs, beer, and a chance to hang out with 20th century celebs.

PREVIEW

Gertrude and Alice

Starring: Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart

Where: Grindstone Comedy Club & Bistro, 10019 81 Ave.

Running: Sunday 7 p.m. and monthly (next month, Nov. 4, 7 p.m. as a Northern Light Theatre fund-raiser Frank ‘N’ Stein).

Tickets: grindstonetheatre.ca or at the door. (Tickets for NLT’s Frank ‘N’ Stein, 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com).

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Exploring space and time, with a dog: Jezebel, At The Still Point

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

On a break from rehearsal this past week, the cast of Jezebel, At the Still Point are hanging out in the Theatre Network green room.

One of them — the one with the speaking role — is reflecting on the origins of the show, three years in the making, and the relationship that inspired it. The other, back from  casually exploring the men’s washroom and doing a friendly walkabout in the theatre office, is tucking into a small Milk Bone.

Ainsley Hillyard, the innovative dance/ theatre artist who’s the muse of Good Women Dance, and Jezebel, the French bulldog (and retired breeder) who gets the title billing in the Bumble Bear production opening in the Roxy Performance Series Thursday, met nearly five years ago.

“Getting a dog had been a dream of mine for a long time,” says Hillyard, whose bold, creative impulses as a choreographer/ movement designer/ actor/ director have consistently smudged the ancient frontiers between theatre and dance, and for that matter between the species.

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“A companion! A roommate who’s always happy to see you when you get home! Some roommates aren’t like that,” as Hillyard says. Jezebel, who has a gap-toothed smile and a gravely watchful look in repose, snorts her assent.

The theatre life, with its chilly rehearsal rooms, terrible hours, harsh lights, loud noises, epic emoting, isn’t every dog’s cup of kibble, to say the least. “I wanted one who’d be happy with my and my life — in an apartment, with other dogs, in rehearsal halls,” says Hillyard, who’d grown up with a dog, the late lamented Murphy (named after Murphy Brown). She’d spent a dog-free decade, and was having one of those “I’m an adult now, at least in theory” moments.  

It was rapport at first sight. Jezebel was one and a half. Hillyard was 30. 

“Right away” the new dog owner, a Grant MacEwan dance program grad who had returned to Edmonton five years before, after four with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, got the idea of creating a dance/theatre show for the pair to be in together (the term “two-hander” does miss the mark in this case). “But I convinced myself it was foolish….”

Not that Hillyard has ever shied away from daring experimental forays into theatricality, either as a choreographer/director or performer. For Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, she devised a movement-scape that conjured a journey through nature and incorporated an erotic pas de deux between grizzlies. For Northern Light’s Wish, she played a gorilla who learned sign language and fell in love with a man. 

As for sharing the stage with Jezebel, that inspiration found new life in a workshop led by Mi Casa Theatre (Countries Shaped Like Stars) at the Chinook Festival. “They asked all of us to list three things we’d always wanted to do onstage,” without regard to budget, logistics, practical do-ability, Hillyard recalls.“Mine were 1. to do a show with my dog, because that felt very impractical. 2. to do a show set in Outer Space, also very impractical. 3. to be genuinely vulnerable onstage; to cry and not because I was acting.”

This unusually high-risk wish list intersects in Jezebel, At The Still Point, which has had shorter-length workshop outings at the Feats festival here and UNO Fest in Victoria. The short earthly life span of dogs is a heartbreaker. Hillyard the astronaut and her co-pilot Jezebel travel through Outer Space and time in a quest to halt the passage of time and defeat mortality‚ “so that Jezebel never has to die.”  

“It opens with us crash-landing on a strange alien planet. We need to fix the ship to launch ourselves back into space…. I send Jezebel to survey and see if there’s any suitable material.”

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

“I have a general sense of what she’ll do,” says Hillyard of a cast-mate she describes as “untrained.” She amends this slightly. “Jezebel does know how to sit. And she sometimes comes to me when I call. But she only listens to me when I have a treat in hand…. All my pants and jacket pockets are full of crumbs,” Hillyard says cheerfully. Jezebel’s favourite treat, for special occasions only? “Freeze-dried beef liver” which can be broken off in chunks. It is, says Hillyard, an acquired taste.

What “untrained” means, in the course of “a theatre show with a lot of text and movement, and a dog,” is that whatever Jezebel takes it into her cute pug-nosed French bulldog head to do, Hillyard has to go with it. “She keeps me in the present, in the moment.”

Jezebel and Ainsley Hillyard in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

“Jezebel might wander off. On opening night in Winnipeg (at the Fringe in July), Jezebel left the stage, crossed over behind, and (re-) entered from the other side.” Sometimes she leaves the stage “to meet new people, in the audience.” At one performance Jezebel, tired from a long pre-show walk, “fell asleep in the middle of the stage and started snoring,” says her co-star, amused. 

The self-possessed canine star (for whom the theatre term “grounded” was invented, surely), isn’t freaked out by loud noises or flashing lights; she’s impervious to stage fright. “She’s the chillest dog I’ve ever met,” says Hillyard. She does, however, react to Hillyard’s own moods. “If I’m sad or anxious or stressed, she picks up on it, so I have to be careful about that…. She’s very emotionally intelligent.”

When W.C. Fields advised strongly against ever appearing onstage with dogs or children, he was alluding to the inevitability of getting upstaged. A cock of the head and wham!, all that Method acting agony counts for nought. Hillyard agrees. “I can practice a monologue forever; I can rehearse till I’m exhausted, and Jezebel moves an ear…. Her comic timing is amazing!” What does a human have to do to hold the crowd, under the circumstances? Jezebel has been known to fall asleep onstage while Hillyard was standing on her head. “The curve balls keep coming.”

“Beth (director Beth Dart) warned me ‘she’s going to upstage you at every turn’,”  Hillyard laughs. “It’s a very Jezebel-centred show. And I’m resigned to the fact that I’m there to support her journey.” 

PREVIEW

Jezebel, At The Still Point

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Bumble Bear Productions

Created by and starring: Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Oct. 11 to 21

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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As fizzy as champagne: Skirts On Fire at Teatro La Quindicina, a review

Andrea House, Ron Pederson, Kendra Connor, Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There is a crucial moment in screwball comedies when someone sensible, someone with a placid, routine, predictable existence, finds himself having another sort of life altogether — for no reason he can quite put a finger on.

It’s what happens to Porter Lawrence (Ron Pederson), a teacher of seventh grade English composition, early in Stewart Lemoine’s Skirts on Fire, the grand finale to Teatro La Quindicina’s 2018 season.

In this giddy tale of a literary hoax in ‘50s Manhattan, last seen by Teatro audiences in 2003, the circumspect person with the circumspect name will find himself sitting on the floor of a diner with no chairs (it’s called the Sweet ‘N’ Low). He’ll discover he’s having coffee with Hartwood Keane, the notoriously grouchy literary reclusive (à la J.D. Salinger) who wrote St. Margaret’s Lap, “the most anthologized short story in the middle third of the 20th century.”

In an apparently uncontrollable escalation of the madcap in his life, Porter Lawrence will be joined by the breezy socialite charmer Alton Doane (Andrew MacDonald-Smith). And he will be briefly appalled, shortly thereafter, to discover that he himself is in disguise, in the middle of a literary scam. 

None of ordinary rules he lives by seem to apply. “Copying and cheating are so wrong!” he declares firmly, only to be flummoxed by Alton’s blithe rejoinder. “I don’t agree! We all deserve access to the same right answers. That’s what public education should be about. There ought never to be exclusive ownership of the truth….” The same goes for the principle of authorship, which Porter has hitherto regarded as “very important.”

Clearly there are larger forces at work in the cosmos. Complications multiply; deceptions are contagious; the imminence of chaos is enlivening. And momentum doesn’t have u-turns. As Alton says brightly, “there’s no going back with fraudulence.”

There’s no going back, either, on a spirit of adventure once unlocked. A cup of coffee at the Sweet and Low Diner, wham! The ‘let’s see what happen next’ principle is unleashed in Porter Lawrence’s life, in the company of a breezy agent provocateur whose motives beyond fun are obscure even to himself. 

(clockwise) Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Paula Humby, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor in Skirts on Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby

The screwball sense that life can be more fun extends to the other characters too, who have the advantage of the playwright’s witty wisecracks and throw-aways (and a Teatro ensemble of actors who know what to do with them).

At the Feminine Home Digest, editor Mrs. Evangeline Gold (Andrea House, in hilarious New York grande dame cadence), “a widow; not the overly sad kind, though,” has sailed in to the office to assess articles for this month’s edition — among them “Cuba: Who Needs It?” and “Keeping Children Likeable” — and to meet the elusive literary giant Hartwood Keane. One thing leads — no, races — to another.

Andrea House in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

A day that started with coffee ends with champagne, at a party in the smallest hotel room in New York. And Mrs. Gold, who’s been dating Alton Doane (“it’s well within my rights to amuse myself with a good-looking younger man who’s nowhere near as smart as I am”), will be  thoroughly enjoying a different kind of spectacle.

The plucky would-be reporter Claudia Birch (Paula Humby) in hot pursuit of a scoop will have been through a number of outlandish disguises, and arrived at society hostess — even though she’s staying at the Marmosan Hotel For Working Women.

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

The sassy waitress Shirley Hoople (the delightful Louise Lambert), who knows an awful lot more about everything than anyone else, will be in a maid’s getup, passing around spicy canapés: “this morning I was working in a diner. Now I’m serving champagne to high society.”

Kendra Connor in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Thetis Kipp (Kendra Connor), Mrs. Gold’s grim and purse-lipped secretary whose fierce disapproval would freeze olive oil at 100 paces, will amaze everyone with … no, my lips are sealed; life, like screwballs, should be full of surprises.

Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

MacDonald-Smith and Pederson are a very funny pair as, respectively, the charming playboy instigator and the solid citizen transformed into manic experimenter. Both are first-rate comic actors. And the way their precise physical energies, so different at first, seem to collide and then converge is expertly negotiated in the production.

To see tall lanky MacDonald-Smith fling himself onto a cushion on the floor, or wave casually in Central Park, “oh hey, it’s “Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart, Here, Kitty! Kitty!,” in Central Park, is a lark in itself. So is watching Pederson exit, a panicky headfirst charge into the unknown from a character who will later declare “it’s time to rush into things without much thought.”

Skirts on Fire is  a dizzy enterprise that seems to invite the much-frayed term “romp” even in its high-spirited scene changes, set to the oeuvre of Louis Prima. Disguise and transformation are a crucial part of the plot: kudos to Leona Brausen’s revolving door of witty period costumes.

For this pellmell cavort through town, Chantel Fortin’s design calls for a diner, an office, or a spartan hotel room to arrive onstage as precipitously as the events of the plot. The pillars, brilliantly coloured by Matthew Alan Currie’s lighting, turn out to be trees in Central Park. Yes, it’s an urban wonderland, to be sure. And as Porter Lawrence notes, “we are not always in control of our destinies.” 

The only proper response is laughter and more bubbles. And there’s plenty of both in Skirts On Fire.

REVIEW

Skirts On Fire

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor, Andrea House, Paula Humby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Oct. 13

Tickets: teatroq.com

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