Mamma Mia, here we go again! Meet director Ashlie Corcoran

Tess Benger and Patricia Zentilli in Mamma Mia!, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life…

It is no surprise to find that the director of a certain big full-bodied jukebox musical — you may have heard of it — opening Thursday on the Citadel’s Maclab stage, loves the score.

After all, Mamma Mia! didn’t get to be a global phenom — a contagion in the world’s bloodstream that has never gone into remission — with songs that are in any way humanly resistible. The 1999 musical, which has grossed billions worldwide in a staggering array of currencies, gathered 22 ABBA hits and brought them to the stage. And it’s watched people dance in the aisles on six continents ever since.

There are those who consider ABBA a kind of airy pop confection. Not Ashlie Corcoran, the exuberant new artistic director of Vancouver’s multi-stage Arts Club Theatre. “The music is so powerful! And it’s not trivial music! ABBA’s music is actually quite complicated,” she exclaims. One of the country’s brightest new directing stars in both theatre  and opera, on stages of every size, Corcoran talks at a rate that suggests a secret hunch that the world will be ending soon. She made time in a crazily hectic bi- and tri-city schedule last week to (a) eat and (b) explain her enthusiasm for Mamma Mia!.

As Corcoran points out, “having a cast of 20, 20 voices!, means that the layering of harmonies is really sophisticated…. When people come to the show, they’ll realize there’s so much more singing than what’s happening onstage. As soon as they go offstage, everyone in the ensemble, principals too, finds a monitor and sings tracks.”

But Mamma Mia! isn’t just a concert, though it ends with one. As you might know by now, there’s a narrative to which the songs are attached, the inspiration of English playwright Catherine Johnson. Single mom Donna, who used to sing in a girl group, Donna and the Dynamos, now runs a taverna on a Greek island, a location which makes lighting designers world-wide very happy. Her daughter Sophie is getting married and, unbeknownst to her mother, invites three men who might be her father to the festivities.

Mamma Mia!, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Meryl Smith Lawton/ Epic Photography.

“Dramaturgically, it’s so well structured,” argues Corcoran. There are sets of three characters (three dads, the three Dynamos, Sophie and friends, her fiancé and friends); the relationships between the sets are quite Shakespearean. And the Aristotelian unities are observed: it “all happens in 24 hours, in one place. There’s really one plot, not a whole bunch of subplots. Everything drives towards Sophia finding her dad.”

“In addition to the music, which everyone knows, it’s a story about being a child. Or being a parent. And that’s a very accessible entry point: the complications of wanting freedom and also wanting to hold on to something, wanting to hold on to your child, and also knowing they need to go off into the big world….”

“A really strong narrative, and characters to root for. And then at the end, a concert. You get the best of everything…..”

Director Ashlie Corcoran. Photo supplied

All this and nostalgia for your youth, too, a repeatable indulgence by definition. Corcoran’s Citadel production of Mamma Mia!, is the fifth to arrive onstage here since 2005 to remind Edmontonians who they were (and were with) when they first danced to Super Trouper or heard that fateful slide in Dancing Queen.

And you could even argue for a certain inevitability: In Stockholm’s ABBA Museum, which opened in 2013, Edmonton figures prominently. There’a mock-up of the change rooms at the Edmonton (then) Coliseum where ABBA launched their final world tour. As Benny and Björn, those Swedish philosophers, have said, “And here we go again, we know the start, we know the end.”

Corcoran, originally a West Coast-er from White Rock, arrives back in B.C. at the mighty Arts Club — Vancouver’s largest theatre company with a $13 to $14 million budget (a little bigger than the Citadel’s $11 to 12 million)— from five seasons as artistic director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario. The regimen there of back-to-back productions April to October gave Corcoran, as she says, “the opportunity for breadth of programming.”

From Corcoran you won’t be hearing lamentations, endemic to regional theatre artistic directors, about the oppression of serving up something for everyone. You’ll hear broad-spectrum enthusiasm. “I love all kinds of theatre. I’m so thrilled to be directing Mamma Mia! right now! One of the projects I directed this year was about the Syrian conflict, and I loved that too. I love directing opera, one-person shows, classics, new work. And as an audience member I love going to all these kinds of shows too.”

Corcoran’s choices in Gananoque reflect that perspective. Ron Pederson directed Stewart Lemoine’s farce A Grand Time In The Rapids there in 2016. Two seasons ago, a lineup that had begun with A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, ended with a contemporary  German play, The Thing (Das Ding). “They couldn’t have been further away from each other!” says Corcoran happily.

Which brings us to Corcoran’s other company, Theatre Smash (“my baby theatre), which she started in order to “do contemporary plays from around the world that haven’t happened in Canada before.” Like Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran, a close friend from college days, Corcoran is drawn to make international connections.

Das Ding, for example, which introduced Toronto audiences to the work of innovative young German playwright Phillipp Löhle, was the show Theatre Smash brought to its two-year residency at Canadian Stage.

Mamma Mia! is her fourth production since Corcoran left Gananaque in October: The Canadian Opera Company’s family friendly The Magic Victrola, The Electric Messiah (“Handel’s Messiah but in a bar”) at the Drake in Toronto, a Tarragon remount of Mustard by Kat Sandler, the playwright also favoured by Cloran, who will premiere not one but two new Sandlers next season.

Last Monday, the traditional day-off in theatre world, was the first since Mamma Mia! rehearsals started that Corcoran hasn’t flown back to Vancouver for the day to make plans at the Arts Club. Instead she went to the wave pool at WEM to re-read Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.

It’s one of three shows the indefatigable Corcoran will direct in her first season at the head of the Arts Club. She’s programmed 18 productions for that 12-month-a-year operation, divided amongst three resident stages and a tour (this year, Onegin), and starting with her own production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

And it includes a striking number of co-ventures with the Citadel, including Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and Matilda the musical, as well as Hardline Theatre’s Redpatch. In fact, Hardline will be the resident company at the Arts Club for the season — a way, says Corcoran, of paying forward Theatre Smash residencies with larger companies.

Mamma Mia!, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Meryl Smith Lawton/ Epic Photography.

Meanwhile Corcoran is in Edmonton, where the only production of hers to play before now has been The Gay Heritage Project, at the Citadel Club in 2016. The last time she directed a big musical was at the Shaw Festival in 2017: the 30s charmer Me And My Girl. And she wrapped her considerable wits around The Lambeth Walk, the jaunty Act I closer number that started a multi-continent dance craze in 1937. In that contagious dance-y-ness at least, it has a link across the decades to Mamma Mia!.

“The Maclab is a big theatre but feels so intimate,” says Corcoran. “You can feel the heat off the actors and see them breathing. No chance to stop and re-set, so there’s a virtuosity about it.”

“With Mamma Mia! people are coming to see a show they know and love. But we want to surprise them, too.… I’m having so much fun that I’m using my air miles to fly my parents up (from Arizona) for opening night!”

Corcoran’s favourite ABBA song? “In the evening I’ll put on some ABBA Gold, and I like some of our fuller arrangements better! I really love our version of Name of the Game. Under Attack was my least favourite when we started. Now it’s definitely one of my favourites….”

PREVIEW

Mamma Mia!

Theatre: Citadel

Directed by: Ashlie Corcoran

Starring: Patricia Zentilli, Tess Benger, Christy Adamson,  Michael Cox, Ashley Wright, Tara Jackson, John Ullyatt, Jenni Burke, Leon Willey, Robbie Towns

Running: through March 18

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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A coming-of-age play called Métis Mutt comes of age: a review

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s always started with jokes. A lot of jokes. “What do you call an Indian on a bike?”

And since the man onstage is remembering his time as a teenage stand-up comic, empowered by audience laughter, the old advice ‘write what you know’ takes on a queasier, more accusatory hue: ‘write what everybody knows’. After all, that’s what stereotypes are, the Coles Notes of cultural perception.

Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, which started small in 2001 as a theatre school experiment, has always put the punch back in punch line. In every incarnation since, on stages small and large, here and abroad, jokes and laugh tracks and their harsh implications for him, and for us his audience, have framed a harrowing true story of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying, racism. 

Like its formidably talented Indigenous creator and star, Métis Mutt has a history. It’s travelled far and long and wide in the last 17 years, playing along the complex fault lines of comedy and tragedy, the personal and the social, the past and the present. And now, in this stunning new production directed by Ron Jenkins, even the punch lines have punch lines.

What was an artful one-man show with a startling — no, horrifying — story to tell, in a furious weave of song and memory and dramatic scene, has become a high-impact coming-of-age play that’s really come of age.

How many anecdotes does it take to make a play? Hard to tell when they become a multi-layered story. What you’ll see onstage at Theatre Network, one of the first homes of Métis Mutt from the start, is a bona fide play, a fully realized theatrical world full of vivid characters — aunties and uncles, step-dads and cousins, schoolyard bullies, a dad who’s a terrifying drunk on a short fuse, a much-abused mom who steps bravely up to a realization. And a little Métis kid named Sheldon who thinks he’s failed, slides into booze and drugs, and becomes, in a variety of incarnations, the artist who’s populating the Roxy stage — with his story, and with himself at seven or 14 or 20. Or 39.

Métis Mutt has always been a love story — last-minute rescues from near-disasters by loving mentors, theatre, powerful Native spirituality,  and a wife named Kristi (the theatre world knows her as actor/ Azimuth and Maggie Tree co-artistic director Kristi Hansen). And, in its variously fragmented way, it’s always been a show about perception, its ripple effects, the ways it can change. The laugh track has always been its chief satirical weapon. There’s a new punch line now. What do you call an Indian on a bike? A cyclist. But it’s not just that.

In sight and sound Jenkins’ production conjures a world that is both infinite and  claustrophobic: northern Alberta with its small town pool halls, its living rooms, its wilderness, its back yards through which a grizzly might wander.

Ahah! And its theatre school, where 19-year-old Elter is more of an anomaly than the bear in his uncle’s yard.  There are hilarious moments where Elter, in reality a dexterous physical performer, attempts the moves in a Grant MacEwan dance class. And there’s a charming little moment when the theatre school grad sings a bit from Sondheim’s Marry Me A Little in reference to Kristi. “I was starting to like this shit,” he grins, amused at the thought of his reinvented self as a theatre guy. And that, after all, is why we’re experiencing this story on this stage in this season. 

Tessa Stamp’s design is beautiful, dominated by a sort of stretched skin semi-circular screen (with inverted teepee buttresses) that lights like a window into a life. And it feels alive, as animated by the virtuoso projections of T. Erin Gruber. Aaron Macri’s soundscape, with its Indigenous rhythms, is a dramatic participant, too.     

Elter is a charismatic performer onstage, with a smile like a lighthouse beacon. The multiple characters he conjures for us, in judiciously edited voice and gesture, are filtered and propelled, in a more clearly narrative way, through the memory of the grown-up artist before us.

What feels different now is the way comedy and tragedy live together in Métis Mutt, less confrontationally perhaps but more fruitfully. There’s a universal human reverb to its sense of self-reinvention, day by day. And we get to discover it along with the artist onstage. It’s a smart, brave, and beautiful piece of work. You shouldn’t miss the chance to see it.

REVIEW

Métis Mutt

Theatre: One Little Indian, at Theatre Network

Created and starring: Sheldon Elter

Directed by: Ron Jenkins

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

Running: through March 4

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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The Plain Janes get dizzy in Madrid: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. A review

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Welcome to the edge, the verge, the ledge….” sing five agitated women who find themselves thrown together, teetering crazily, in the Act I finale of the riotous musical screwball that the Plain Janes have brought to the Varscona. 

“You’ve lost your voice, you’ve lost your will, you lose your mind. And yet it’s kind of thrilling when you step up to the line….”

Men — the pursuit of, the treachery of, the disconnect with, the abandonment by — may be the undertow of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, the David Yazbek/ Jeffrey Lane musical inspired by Pedro Almodóvar’s indelible 1988 film comedy. But women — and their improbable resilience, kooky emotional energy, and powers of survival — are the heart of it.

And that heart is what holds Kate Ryan’s production to the ground and keeps it from levitating altogether into the ether where farces get adrenalized. The characters are big. The performances are big. The crazy plot — which sends everyone and everything careening and colliding madly through post-Franco 80s Madrid, on foot, on motorcycle, by taxi — is big. The accents are big. The colours, heck, they’re big too, in Matt Alan Currie’s hot colour-drenched cityscape backdrop and Leona Brausen’s fab ‘80s costumes.

There’s nothing pastel going on here. Desperation isn’t quiet and introverted; it spikes the gazpacho with Valium, drives like a bat out of hell, and carries a gun.

At the centre is a performance that has something focussed and intense about it, a performance that, despite the precarious footing, plants its (red) high heels on an irreducible sense of absurdity and self. 

Jocelyn Ahlf is Pepa, an actress who’s just been dumped by her lover — by voicemail. Spinning her wheels, she sets about finding the vanished Ivan to make him explain. Ahlf, lustrous-voiced in a wider variety of styles than any performer in town, memorably creates a a character who might be losing her equilibrium and possibly her mind but never her wry and rueful intelligence.

Characters accumulate. Lucia, played by Andrea House, another first-rate singer, is Ivan’s abandoned, nutso ex-wife, just out of the asylum where she’s spent the last 20 years and hot for vengeance — and for attention. Her knock-out song Invisible starts as a description of Ivan’s vanishing act and ends up a description of what happens to middle-aged women.

The other show-stopper of the evening, Model Behaviour (delivered entirely on the phone), belongs to Michelle Diaz, who delivers a hilarious comic performance as a jittery fashion model with a specialty in panic, a short attention span, and a lover who has turned out to be a terrorist. “The minute I saw the grenade belt I knew something was wrong.”

An over-produced bust on Broadway in 2010, the musical was revived in London, in a form less oppressed by big-budget set and technology. And now the Plain Janes have at it, with staging that relies on ingenuity and atmosphere: people not stuff. 

Andrea House, Madelaine Knight, Michelle Diaz, Jocelyn Ahlf, Gianna Read-Skelton in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Every woman in Women On The Verge has, as people say of more earnest shows, a problematic relationship with men. The exasperated Marissa  (Madelaine Knight) is finding her wedding plans continually dampened by her fiancé, Ivan’s feckless son Carlos (newcomer Gabriel Gagnon). Paulina (Gianna Read-Skelton) is a feisty lawyer whose feminist manifesto principles disintegrate completely when it comes to her lover.

As the elusive serial womanizer Ivan, who seduces with his velvet voice, Vance Avery is a hoot. Ivan and son have a terrific Act II duet, The Microphone, in which the one teaches the other to make love to that indispensable objet. 

It all works like a farce, but feels like a screwball. And its particular kind of disorder just feels very different from the escalating complications of, say, an English-style farce which are all about getting found out, not finding. And there’s music: Yazbek’s sharp-eared score, from an expertly stylish onstage band led by Erik Mortimer and including a trio of seasoned Mayfield pros (Van Wilmott, Steve Hoy, Paul Lamoureux). Cindy Kerr’s choreography picks up the mambo vibe that’s in the air.

The Taxi Driver (Jason Hardwick), the show’s most consistent appreciator of chaos, sings that “it’s like living in a dream.” A dream where everything is speeded up and everything that could go haywire pretty much does. “What else could go wrong?” wonders Pepa who’s having the mother of all bad days. Except for … and then that goes wrong too.

It’s giddy, it’s fun. And it strikes a chord.

REVIEW

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Plain Jane

Created by: David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Andrea House, Jason Hardwick, Michelle Diaz, Vance Avery, Madelaine Knight, Gabriel Gagnon, Gianna Read-Skelton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 24

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com/ensemble/

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The thorny issue of Consent: Concrete Theatre steps up

Consent by Mieko Ouchi, Concrete Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Was there consent?

It’s the timeliest of questions — confusing, contentious, discussable. It’s the stuff of headlines. And it’s the raison d’être of Mieko Ouchi’s Consent, the play that Concrete Theatre has bravely been touring to teenagers this season. And the company brings it to the stage tonight and Saturday, at La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.).

Concrete Theatre has stepped up to the thorniest questions of the day before now, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, and racism among them. This one, starring a young couple after a sexual encounter, is designed to help students 13 and up learn about their rights and responsibilities, about gender equality and respect.

Its companion piece, for younger kids (five and up), is a revival of Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull’s award-winning 2013 charmer Paper Song, which uses origami and shadow puppetry in an elegant way to combine a Japanese folktale about a crane with the story of a mouse and her grandfather struggling in an oppressive regime.

The two productions share a director (Ouchi) and a cast: Carmela Sison, Bobbi Goddard, and Richard Lee Hsi. Consent runs tonight at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m; Paper Song Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m. Tickets: at the door. 

  

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Taking a taxi through ’80s Madrid: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, the musical

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the first song of the musical comedy cum romantic screwball that ricochets across the Varscona stage Thursday, a Madrid taxi driver apostrophizes his beloved home town in the ‘80s.  “Give me directions straight into the hurricane.…”

Tip the driver. As Kate Ryan says, that’s exactly the careening route of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, the 2010 David Yazbek/ Jeffrey Lane musical with the blue-chip pedigree. It’s based on the celebrated 1988 film by the Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar, who based it on the 1928 play La Voix Humane (The Human Voice) by Jean Cocteau. And it took The Plain Janes, the theatre company Ryan leads, a couple of seasons, against the wind, to get it to Thursday’s opening night.

“It’s ‘80s splatter art!” grins Ryan, reflecting on the colourized look and feel of her eight-actor (five actress!) production. “Women breaking out, breaking down, breaking up — all at the same time … In colour!”

At the centre of this high-speed turmoil through ‘80s Madrid is Pepa (Jocelyn Ahlf), a TV actor who wakes up to the news, via phone message, that her lover has dumped her and vanished. A pursuit follows, in which women with connections to the missing Ivan guy accumulate farcically around Pepa: his deranged ex-wife, a woman who’s discovered that her lover is a terrorist, Ivan’s son’s frustrated fiancée — plus  assorted cops and the philosophical taxi driver. 

As you’ll know from their history — Drat! The Cat!, Little Fish, Ankles Aweigh, It’s A Bird It’s A Plane It’s Superman — the Janes shine their light on the kind of off-centre, quirky, obscure, or neglected musicals tucked into the corners of the repertoire. As Ryan explains, Women on the Verge comes from the archive of bright musicals that got over-inflated on  Broadway, and flopped — this despite the starry New York talent it attracted, including director Bartlett Sher, Patti LuPone, Sheri Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, Salma Hayek.

“It was overdone,” thinks Ryan, who’s studied arrival footage from that Broadway premiere. “So many bells and whistles: the world was too big….” The London production of 2015 was much more successful, a smarter, scaled-down version that “focussed more on the people, less on the world.” Director Sher famously joked that the Broadway production was the most expensive out-of-town tryout in history.

Yazbek and Lane are the team behind such stellar movies-turned-musicals as The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the lovely current New York hit The Band’s Visit. And Women On the Verge reveals something of that expertise with particular styles, thinks Ryan. “Yazbek’s music really invests in the style of the movie … rock, tango, bossa nova…. And with Lane’s verbal art, the combo so captures the Spanish spirit…. So smart, so naughty.” And this time, the Janes have sprung for a live band, with Erik Mortimer, Van Wilmott, Paul Lamoureux, and Steve Hoy.  

Almodóvar, says Ryan, “is not afraid of the beauty, the joy, and the ugliness….” And Yazbek/Lane are exactly the team to capture that human quality, she thinks. After all, it’s “a romance where no one falls in love. You turn a corner and you don’t know what’s coming.”

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

The filmmaker’s career took off in the late ‘70s, in the cultural/ sexual renaissance of post-Franco Spain. It was a veritable revolution. Says Ryan, “Almodóvar is in love with women, every single colour a woman has: rage, jealousy, the joy, the passion…. These women are fighters! They have resilience!” They scream, they cry, they hit walls, they spike the gazpacho (really, the only scene in a modern musical with blender accompaniment). 

Ah, and they sing. It’s a musical, thinks Ryan, that “doesn’t have to justify what happens. People appear. Anything is possible…. The world from the beginning is in a state of madness. And that suits theatre musicals quite well. A song is the perfect place for that kind of heightened emotion.”

PREVIEW

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Written by: David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, based on the Pedro Almodóvar movie

Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Vance Avery, Michelle Diaz, Andrea House, Gabriel Gagnon, Jason Hardwick, Madelaine Knight, Gianna Read-Skelton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 24

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com

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Métis Mutt: Sheldon Elter’s journey beyond the punch lines

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Hello. My name is Sheldon Elter. And I’ll be your Native comedian for this evening.”

Sheldon Elter, the startlingly multi-talented Métis actor/ playwright/ screenwriter/ musician/ director, shudders when he thinks of the jokes he told as a teenage stand-up comic. There’s a blistering barrage of them, escalating in awfulness, volleyed humourlessly from the stage in Métis Mutt.

The younger self he conjures is, he tells us from the comedian’s mike, half Indian half white. “Half of me wants to assimilate you into my culture. And the other half is just too lazy to do it.” It gets worse. And worse. 

After 15 years, the solo show Elter built from the raw material of own tumultuous life, is back at Theatre Network, one of its original homes. And it’s newly rethought and rewritten for this One Little Indian production directed by Ron Jenkins — and for the thoughtful and accomplished 39-year-old that Elter is now. 

It’s a story of horrifying domestic violence, turmoil and guilt, racism, constant relocations, booze and drugs and craziness and showbiz in all their bizarre reaches. And it’s told in songs, fragments of comedy routines, a succession of younger Elters in dramatic scenes.

They immerse us in the life of the boyhood Sheldon, his mom, and his little brother constantly on the lam from a dad with a predilection for violent abuse. And its story gathers looped memories and for this new version refracts them, says Elter, he says, for the vision of the “the man I am today…. I’m just not the same person.”

“I’m a better artist this time around,” Elter muses over lunch last week, “more familiar with the techniques of theatre….” The queasy stereotype jokes, eliciting nervous laughter as an indictment of systemic racism, “feel less like audience entrapment and more like a clear device. It’s showing you that Sheldon the actor doesn’t find those jokes funny any more. Now in the play you get to find out why I was telling those jokes. What I was doing wasn’t quite right, and I was worried about it.…”

Edmonton audiences know something of the startling breadth of the creative talent that was hatched up north in a string of communities (and women’s shelters) starting in Peace River. We’ve seen him in Shakespeare: as the star-cross’d Romeo and the racial outsider Othello (with an eagle and medicine wheel tatted to his chest). His musical theatre chops are expandable — from classic Broadway, like Crazy For You at the Citadel, to the daffier repertoire  favoured by The Plain Janes (It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s Superman! (he was a funny, earnest Superman) to innovative musical experiments like Catalyst’s Nevermore.

He’s at home in comedy (Teatro La Quindicina’s Marvellous Pilgrims), in farce (One Man Two Guvnors), in avant-gardiste dance/theatre (Hroses: An Affront To Reason) or Canadian grit (Kill Your Television’s The Crackwalker). He plays in the ukelele cover band The Be Arthurs

Now, fresh from a starring role in Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears that played to packed houses in Toronto and last week here, Elter is revisiting the traumatic, and traumatizing, events of his own life, in rehearsal for Métis Mutt.

Elter says, “I’m just not the same person” who created a seven-minute comedy sketch in 2001 or the Nextfest play or the Theatre Network revival of 2003 — much less the teen stand-up who “might have been perpetuating negative stereotypes and not understanding why I was saying those things. And who was rewarded with laughter, which was a bit confusing….”

As Elter describes, that teenage Elter of yore was at Grand Prairie College, with a goal: “teaching Grade 1.” And when the teacher’s friend who ran a bar/pool hall called Breakers needed a host, Elter found himself onstage, “an amateur hosting an amateur night,” he rolls his eyes. “It usually ended up with one of my friends winning, which was a bar tab.” An actual weekend job at an actual Grand Prairie comedy club, Dave’s Comedy Saloon, ensued. A stand-up was born, one who knew the world of hard-ass venues and unforgiving crowds who’d rather be watching football on TV.

By the time Elter got disenchanted with teaching (student teaching can do that to a person), theatre was invading his dreams. In the summer of 1998, Elter was down in Edmonton, doing a Fringe show with Aaron Talbot. Elter remembers it as “a Romeo and Juliet-type story about an anglophone and a francophone, and then Quebec separates…. A terrible tragedy. And the reviews (it was awarded a “bomb scare”) were fairly tragic, too.“I worked all summer and got $34.67.”  He smiles genially. 

It was Talbot who gave him the idea of Grant MacEwan College’s musical theatre program as a good fit. Elter sighs. “I was such a lazy young man. I did no research whatsoever….” And post-audition, he and his pals had “a debauched drug-filled experience at Woodstock ’99…. On our way back, across the States in a van, we had to get rid of the drugs we had before the border. It was, I think, North Dakota. We took them all….”

He toured with hypnotist Marc Savard, who recruited him after seeing a stand-up set at the WEM Yuk Yuks. It was on the day off after a New Year’s Eve gig in Manning, Alberta, that Elter expected a visit from his unpredictable father, a member of the Michel First Nation. “We’d tracked him down and I was going to introduce him to this girl I was thinking of marrying. And he didn’t show. I was furious!”

When they arrived at his girfriend’s parents’ house, the news came: Elter’s dad had died in a car accident. “I had cursed him and his name, and I didn’t comprehend the guilt I was feeling. A week later I was back on the road….” 

When Elter arrived at Grant MacEwan for what he now calls his “first first year,” it was a foreign world, full of kids who knew all the lyrics to Sweeney Todd since infancy. And he was falling apart.“I didn’t even know what I was going to till I got there. What? Am I on the set of Fame or something? I didn’t know what I thought musical theatre was…. ” He’s said wryly that he was the only one in his class who knew more about Chet Atkins and Hank Williams than either Rodgers or Hammerstein.”

“In the first four months I dropped 50 pounds. My teachers and fellow students were concerned: ‘do you have food?’ ‘Yeah, I do; I just don’t have an appetite’…. To save face, because I was probably going to fail and get kicked out, I asked (program head) Tim Ryan if I could leave, get myself together, and come back….” Ryan agreed.

It was a rough time, Elter says. He took “crazy amounts” of ecstacy, “seven times a night, three or four time a week, and get depressed from it… I thought about suicide, “and made an attempt.” He was rescued from this race with destruction by by Savard. “All he said was ‘go get something to eat, drink water…. I’m not saying don’t kill yourself, I’m just asking this: I’m coming into town in three days. Can you wait till I get there?’”

Savard’s simple wisdom proved profound for Elter. “See, all you have have to do is make a choice. And you’ll be doing that every day for the rest of your life.” And this, from Savard’s hypnotism technique: “What’s expected tends to be realized.” Says Elter, “that statement changed me.” 

Savard took Elter out on tour, with the proviso that “I had to quit everything clean: no coffee, no cigarettes, no anti-depressants….” It saved his life.

“I was such a wreck. Trying to figure out who I was, spiritually. I didn’t know. And I was scared to say I didn’t know,” says Elter. “I knew I had to change up my material…. I think I knew darn well that what I was doing wasn’t quite right, a lot of it felt inappropriate and racist. But I was too young and cocky to admit it.”

And suddenly he knew he had to go back to theatre school “and finish what I’d started.” That was when he found himself, at 20, in Kenneth Brown’s vocal masque class, scrambling to come up with “some kind of theme that defines us as a person, broad strokes…. I’d procrastinated and I had nothing. So when it came to my turn I blurted the first thing that came into my head, which was Métis Mutt. Everyone laughed.”

“Then I had to figure out what the heck that meant. So I figured maybe I’d just start with the some of the jokes I used to do stand-up. That’s how it all started….”

It was Brown who offered to help him turn that sketch into a one-man play. “Largely the actor I am today is because of Ken Brown,” Elter declares.

Sheldon Elter in Métis Mutt, Nextfest 2002. Photo supplied.

As a full-fledged solo show, Métis Mutt and its creator/star  startled audiences at Nextfest in 2002, and then in a remount at Theatre Network the following year. The history of the show is a veritable microcosm for the way theatre happens in this theatre town, with its make-your-own spirit and  artists. 

Since then Elter has found himself doing Métis Mutt in community halls on reserves (“like a motivational speaker,” he grins), hip urban studio theatres, mainstages, major national festivals like Magnetic North. He remembers playing one Alberta reserve, and hearing that “the entire community is going to come! Great! But the only problem is that there’s no babysitters. So there’ll be a lot of little kids.”

Elter remembers tentatively objecting that the content was awfully, er, adult, for that kind of mixed crowd, and hearing “we think our kids can handle it! There’ll be an activity for the little kids, and the bigger kids can sit and watch.”

“We get to the hall, and the lights are pot lamps on faders, a lot of them burned out. So, OK. And I brought my own sound gear. So, OK. And there’s gonna be a big fest after, and would you and your stage manager like to stay? Sure!”

In the event, “they cooked the meal at the back of the hall the entire time, banging pots and pans, with the smell of deer stew and fry bread. And the activity for the little kids at the back of the gym? Floor hockey. And in the in the middle of show, the kids in the front row, Grade 6 or so, get up, very politely, sorry sorry, and leave holding cigarettes, opening the door so more light is pouring in. And then they come back, very polite again, and the same thing happens….”

“A cellphone? A crinkly candy wrapper? NOTHING!” grins Elter, nothing if not a seasoned trooper. “It reminded me, if I just stuck to the story, just told it, did my job, they were with me!”

Last year Ryan Cunningham (a co-founder of Alberta Aboriginal Arts) called Elter with a proposal to do Métis Mutt in Toronto for the first time, at Native Earth Theatre. “If I’m going to do it, it has to change,” Elter thought. “I wanted it to be a more theatrical piece. I want to embrace design, lights….” And he wanted it to be more of a story and less a kind of life collage. 

“I have to be careful that I’m not re-traumatizing myself,” Elter says. “It’s hard. I spend a lot of the day on the edge of tears, or actually crying…. My team is very good at recognizing that and telling me to take a break.”

“Sheldon the man has to work through, in order to tell the story properly. When they come away, people will understand that through my own unique Indigenous experience, despite all the things in my life, the history and oppression, the family violence, at some point I have to take responsibility for myself…. I’m going to have to dig deep. And do it myself. Hopefully, by doing that I can create positive change for myself, one day at a time.”

And he’s “constantly reminded,” he says, that “though the story is mainly about my relationship with my father, without my mother I wouldn’t be the man I am today…. When I feel the pressure of trying to inspire my Indigenous community — look at you, breaking a cycle of family violence! — it wasn’t me it was her! So brave!”

In the joke department it’d take a lot to surprise Elter. “Even as a young man I knew when I got up onstage, people felt like they had permission to tell me racist jokes, all of them terrible…. I coulda written a book. I’ve heard them ALL. ‘Hey, maybe you could use this in your act….’”

Elter sighs. “In what other jobs does this happen? Can you imagine going up to a doctor and saying I gave my sister a cup of soup and it worked. So maybe you could use this in your practice.”

“I’m proud of where I’ve come to,” says Elter of a career that’s included award-winning writing for the TV series Caution: May Contain Nuts. “I have to remind myself that in 1998 I walked out onstage with a lopsided braided wig, playing a garbage pail.” He winces at the memory. 

“People would ask me questions and expect that I’d be speaking for all Indigenous people. As a young man, I’d take on that stress and let it overwhelm me…. I thought I had to have all the answers.” Now he has questions. And a show.

PREVIEW

Métis Mutt

Theatre: One Little Indian, at Theatre Network

Written by and starring: Sheldon Elter

Running: Feb. 15 to March 4

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

 

   

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The Unrepentant Necrophile: the punk rock musical that’s a test case for female empowerment

Katie Hartman in The Unrepentant Necrophile, The Coldharts. Photo by Dan Norman.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Brooklyn duo the Coldharts are undeniably into dark and shivery. Take their unnerving Fringe hit Edgar Allan, in which the terrifying young Poe is haunted by a doppelgänger he can’t shake. Or The Legend of White Woman Creek, an eerie one-woman musical performed by a ghost.

If for their third horror musical, the Coldharts were (as Nick Ryan says cheerfully) “looking for subject matter that deeply disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable,” they hit the jackpot the day they “stumbled on” the story of Karen Greenlee.

The Unrepentant Necrophile is (to my, admittedly circumscribed, knowledge) the sole punk rock musical to unspool from this weird source.

Greenlee is the apprentice embalmer in Sacramento, California who turned out to take a love of job in queasy directions, as a career necrophile. In 1978, en route to the Memorial Lawn Mortuary with a corpse in the back of the hearse she was driving, she went AWOL for a few days, to have some quality alone time with the dead body of a 33-year-old man.

In the end, according to California law of the day, she was charged only with stealing a hearse and interfering with a funeral. The bizarre case inspired much research, not least because of male dominance in the necrophilia field.

The Unrepentant Necrophile premiered two years ago at the Twin Cities Horror Festival in Minneapolis. As part of its ##RosesAreDeadLipsAreBlue tour, the show makes its Canadian debut this week — on Valentine’s Day! — thanks to Fringe Theatre Adventures, at the Chinook Series. 

Male necrophilia has been widely documented — albeit not a whole lot in the American musical theatre. And the Coldhart duo did their research. “The details are so provocative and visceral; it shook us at our core.” But, as Hartmen concedes, the idea of male attack on female corpses is “left me feeling so violated that we kept looking….” A notoriously unapologetic interview given by Greenlee at the time caught their eye. 

“There are so many contradictions,” as Hartman points out. “Is it a feminist piece? I don’t think so…. For one thing, it’s set in 1978 when men and women aren’t equal by any means.” As Ryan says, it’s disturbing to “find female empowerment in that world.”

In 2018 The Unrepentant Necrophile is a highly unusual response to a moment in history when consent and sexuality are inflammatory issues in new ways, as he notes. Even in the two years since its creation, the cultural dynamic has changed.

“Horror is usually a reflection of societal anxiety,” says Hartman.  “And the conversation has changed….” As one example, two years ago, “lines that got nervous laughter” when the Coldharts were trying out The Reluctant Necrophile, “were not laughed at last night,” she says of their opening night last week in Minneapolis. “I was curious.”

The star of the show is, after all, a female character “asking for what she wants,” normally a positive development in empowerment circles. Even the most open-minded have to concede that necrophilia is pretty much an ultimate test cast for this. As Hartman says, “the show pushes everyone really far, to really extreme places.”

The world that led up to the U.S. election “has turned a corner,” says Ryan. He plays “the woman’s creepy creepy” mortician co-worker who crosses several lines with her. He used to get a lot of sympathy….” Not any more. Says Hartman, “it’s post-#MeToo now. Society has caught up, in a way.”

The third member of the cast is percussionist Nate Gebhard as the corpse; admirably, he doesn’t let being dead interfere with his drumming, which takes a certain kind of improbable physical invention. Punk rock was always the musical style of choice, loud and anarchic. “It absolutely invites punk!” declares Ryan, who plays bass.

In a conference call last week, they outlined the division of labour in creating a show they called “mixed discipline.” Ryan’s responsibility is  playwriting, Hartman’s and Gebhard’s are music and movement. “Edgar Allan had so much text. This time we challenged ourselves to create a piece where the visuals, the physical movement, and the music are (dominant) … and the dialogue is very spare and awkward.

“Not as cute as Edgar Allan,” laughs Ryan. “And substantially louder!” Think Pogues concert, he says, and adds that they provide earplugs for the delicate.

“We’re fully prepared to alienate everyone!” 

PREVIEW

The Unrepentant Necrophile

Fringe Theatre Adventures, in the Chinook Series 2018

Theatre: The Coldharts

Starring: Katie Hartman, Nick Ryan, Nate Gebhard

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

Running: Wednesday through Sunday

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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The Ladies Foursome: the short game goes long. A review

Amber Lewis, Karen Wood, Stephanie Wolfe, Belinda Cornish in The Ladies Foursome, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hitting a tiny ball with a skinny stick? A long long way into the distance into a hole you can’t even see? 

To the non-golfer especially, the whole point of that particularly maddening game — alluded to by many — is that an 18-hole excursion into nature gives you the excuse to hang out with your friends for roughly the length of an average full-length comedy by Norm Foster.

This country’s most-produced playwright by far (with regular incursions into summer theatres across the border), Foster uses golf to frame the 2014 comedy that’s currently onstage at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. And Jim Guedo’s production of The Ladies Foursome is your excuse to hang out with a quartet of accomplished comic actors. In the course of the evening you’ll see them exercise their considerable chops on Foster’s flat, well-mowed 18-hole course of subjects from the female stance. Among them are life, love, marriage, sex (satisfactions vs. dis-), kids (ideal vs. real) and child-rearing, thwarted dreams and ambitions, shared memories, belief in God (is there one?), the afterlife (is there one?), the cosmos (fate vs. randomness), getting anti-aging “work” done (pros vs. cons), regrets, friendship….

A female companion piece to Foster’s all-male Foursome, The Ladies Foursome gives us four women out on the course in honour of their fallen golf companion. Catherine, incidentally, has just died in a tragic and cautionary lightning strike at the top of a ferris wheel.

Three are old friends, who golfed with the dearly departed every week for 14 years. Oddly, they seem never to addressed any of the subjects listed above till now. The fourth is a mysterious stranger who knew Catherine, too: for two weeks a year the now-deceased visited the remote lakeside hotel that Dory (Amber Lewis) and her husband run.

They are a cross-section, by a playwright whose best work transcends the predictability of the kind of check-list construction that’s in evidence here. Connie (Stephanie Wolfe), the breeziest of the four characters and equipped with the funniest of Foster’s one-liners, is a TV news anchor who’s addicted to men, and sex of the casual persuasion. Tate (Belinda Cornish), alternately chirpy and mopey, is the apparently naive stay-at-home wife of a vascular surgeon, with teenage kids: “mine is a life misspent.” Margot (Karen Wood), who unapologetically cracks a beer despite the early hour (“time, what is time?”), owns a construction company and has a new beau. The actors are all top-notch.

The presence of an outsider gives the comedy its obvious excuse to do the introductions. Dory is a bit like the TV therapist or the TV detective Colombo who asks questions and always avoids answering them. This is the trickiest assignment; the character is most self-evidently a plot device, who plants doubts and reveals semi-secrets. Despite the obvious signs of calculation in the character as written, Lewis, a skilful actor, delivers a performance that negotiates, with some finesse, the, er, sand traps and water hazards.

Revelations ensue (“you feel inadequate, is that it?”). Secrets get aired, incrementally, and up the ante in ways that may well strike you as shameless and/or sentimental. Old jokes get an under-par afterlife. And an A-team production from an A-team director gives a four-square but distinctly B-team Foster comedy a deluxe treatment. Doug Paraschuk’s amusing design, a collection of woodsy painted cut-outs, deserves its own shout-out.

My favourite scene is the last hole, a genuinely funny piece of stagecraft from Guedo and co, with Shakespearean resonances. And that’s not just because it’s the last, in a comedy that might well have stuck to nine holes and repaired to the club house.

REVIEW

The Ladies Foursome

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Norm Foster

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Amber Lewis, Stephanie Wolfe, Karen Wood

Running: through April 1

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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A Latinx dance lesson: Broken Tailbone is moving theatre, in every sense

Carmen Aguirre in Broken Tailbone, Nightswimming Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Take off that coat! You’ll be too hot otherwise!”

There is nothing usual about Broken Tailbone, the highly original Carmen Aguirre creation that occasions her first-ever visit to Edmonton, courtesy of Workshop West’s Canoe Festival, and the Chinook Series.

It is the only piece of theatre you’re likely ever to see that’s also a Latinx dance lesson. And as this happens, with you up on your feet, moving, it’s interwoven with stories, funny and startling, from Aguirre’s uniquely rich and tumultuous personal history. “It’s also a history of Latin American dance, Latinx dance halls,  geo-political history.…”

Even on the phone, there is something entirely irresistible about the prolific writer/ playwright/ actor who arrived in Vancouver in 1974, age eight, with her parents, as political refugees from the Pinochet coup in Chile. She went back as a teenager with her mother and sister to join the underground resistance opposing the dictator. “Being a political refugee is a huge part of my identity,” says Aguirre, whose two spirited memoirs — Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter and Mexican Hooker #1 And My Other Roles Since The Revolution — are harrowing and tense. 

Her parents opened Canada’s first Latinx (the gender-neutral alternative to Latino/Latina) dance hall in Vancouver in 1974, with monthly dance fund-raisers for political prisoners. “Aguirre grew up dancing the cumbia (from Colombia) or the merengue… “ she says. “Salsa is an umbrella term; people assume wrong about that!”

Aguirre’s play Blue Box, like Broken Tailbone a production from Toronto’s Nightswimming Theatre, had her “literally standing there, talking to the audience,” as she says. Broken Tailbone is a “thrilling and exhilarating” departure: “why don’t we get the audience up and dancing?” 

“I worked on the content for a couple of years,” Vancouver-based Aguirre says of the song list she shares with DJ Pedro Chamale, who interacts with her, and with the audience, in the course of Broken Tailbone. “I curated the song list, from hundreds (of possibilities)…. Each song has a story attached to it.”

Broken Tailbone has played — maybe happened is the better term — at “a couple of Toronto festivals, and most recently, a three-week run in Los Angeles at the L.A. Theatre Centre. As Aguirre points out, “it’s very hard to workshop without an actual audience.”

L.A., where Broken Tailbone was bilingual, was “an experience!” she says of a majority Latinx audience. “So I’m not telling them anything they don’t know….” So the dynamic from the start was strikingly different than Aguirre’s Canadian audiences. And this: “I’m unabashedly left-wing and Cuban-Americans for the most part are not left-wing. There were hecklers, people walking out….”

Aguirre, who’s fierce and funny onstage, isn’t fazed by this, apparently; she’s interested. “The other thing is that in the current climate, it’s refreshing, I think, to see a woman of a certain age talking about her sexuality. Really owning it, and not casting herself as a victim.”

“I don’t identify as a survivor,” she declares, of a personal history that includes a horrifying attack, at 13, by Vancouver’s Paperbag Rapist. “I find that a precious term…. Holocaust survivors, that’s one thing, And I think that’s where the term should stop. And genocides like the Indigenous one. And slavery.”

“Otherwise words become devalued.” Needless to say, in the current sexually polarized environment, Aguirre’s are views that can raise hackles.”I don’t mind!” she says energetically. “I know who my friends are!”

Broken Tailbone runs tonight at 7 and 10:45 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Check out chinookseries.ca for tickets and a full schedule. 

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The sense of connection: Paradise at the Chinook Series

Paradise, Gwaandak Theatre and MT Space. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In 1992, Patti Flather’s father, a family doctor, was murdered outside his North Vancouver home — shot by a former patient with an undiagnosed mental illness.

Reflections on that traumatizing event eventually found their way into Paradise, the 2015 Flather play that opened Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival — and the third annual incarnation of the Chinook Series — Thursday and resumes tonight. “I stopped and started,” says the playwright of this painfully jagged personal channel from life to art. “Writing’s how I deal with things…. I was trying to transcend the personal, expand the scope, tell a wider story that connects with people.” 

Flather is  the artistic director of Whitehorse’s Gwaandak Theatre — the Yukon’s only “Indigenous-centred theatre company,” named for the Gwich’in language word for “storyteller.” And her play explores “human rights, mental illness, addiction, and our own complicity in those issues that surround us daily,” as she says. Originally a journalist before her playwriting career took off, Flather was interested, too, in “Canada’s role in enabling torture overseas, (the question of) who we see as a threat….”

A family doctor and his daughter, a patient who’s an unemployed logger on workers compensation, and a young man under suspicion of terrorism: they intersect in a play that loops together multiple storylines. Says Flather, “In every era, in every size of community, in every system, we need connections; we need our sense of humanity.”

The co-production that arrives at Chinook is a cross-country artistic collaboration in every way. As Flather explains, it was while Gwaandak was touring Cafe Daughter (by the award-winning Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams) across the country, that the relationship with MT Space began. Based in the Waterloo region of southern Ontario, Majdi Bou-Matar’s multi-cultural company specializes in physical theatre, as Edmonton audiences know from such productions as The Last 15 Seconds and Body 13. 

So the two companies had a kind of complementary contrast. Says Flather, “it was a leap on both our parts, this marriage of text and imagery with the distinct physicality of MT Space.” It’s a co-production that lends itself particularly well to the physical eloquence of ASL interpretation for the deaf. Flather is excited by the prospect.

“The four actors have very different backgrounds,” says Flather of the Paradise cast assembled from across the country. Pam Patel and Nicholas Cumming work often with MT Space; so did Michael Peng, before he moved to Edmonton. Aldrin Bundoc is Toronto-based. Set designer David Skelton is from Whitehorse. Stage manage; technical director Julie Ferguson is technical director.

“It might take a few minutes to figure out what’s happening,” says Flather cheerfully of a play not weighted down by exposition. “But hang in there! It’s a really exciting and intense show to watch.”

In addition to tonight’s performance of Paradise (8:45 p.m. in the Westbury Theatre), Flather reads excerpts from Paradise, as well as her previous plays: West Edmonton Mall (surely a natural for an Edmonton production), Where The River Meets The Sea, and Sixty Below. The reading happens today at noon in the ATB Financial Arts Barns lobby.

The Chinook Series continues through Feb. 18, with many shows, salons, workshops at the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Consult chinookseries.ca for a full schedule.

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