“The hour’s now come”: deaf and hearing actors together in The Tempest at the Citadel

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Tempest, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” as Miranda, the daughter of a deposed ruler in exile, says in wonder towards the end of one of Shakespeare’s most mysterious and haunting plays.

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In the version of The Tempest opening Thursday at the Citadel, Miranda herself plays a part in defining that brave new world of inclusivity. And so does her father.

For more than four centuries The Tempest’s open-ended magic and mysteries, its strange mélange of dramatic moments and presentational pageantry, have invited every kind of interpretation and director’s concept. In a first for Canadian mainstage theatre, the 15-member acting ensemble of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s innovative bilingual production, an offshoot of the Citadel/Banff Professional Program, is almost equally divided amongst deaf and hearing artists. They perform in American Sign Language and spoken English — in addition to “the language of the body.”

Prospero, a rightful duke exiled to an island by the evil machinations of an usurper brother, is played by the award-winning Canadian Indigenous artist Lorne Cardinal, best known to smiling television audiences in this country as Sgt. Davis Quinton on the comedy series Corner Gas. Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who discovers love in the course of The Tempest, is played by the young deaf Tamil-Canadian theatre artist Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Toronto-based and making her professional theatre debut across the country from home. The experience, say both of them, has been a life- and career-changer.

“Hi Dad!” says the sociable, puckish 25-year-old Kanagasekarampillai (through an interpreter), over dinner last week, as we’re joined by Cardinal. He’s been touring his dog Jake, a patient attender of rehearsals, through the downtown Edmonton streets.

Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Braydon Downler-Coltman in The Tempest. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Cardinal and Kanagasekarampillai have a jocular, easy offstage rapport, communication assisted materially by the latter’s mobile facial expressiveness and galactic smile. Did “Dad” arrive in Banff — from his West Coast home in Squamish two weeks into the four-week training intensive — knowing any sign language? She laughs. “Zero…. He was ‘OK, what am I gonna do?’ It was all over his face. And we were, like ‘it’s OK; it’s gonna be OK!’”

“All of us, hearing and non-hearing actors together, had to tell a fairy tale — without using sign or spoken language,” says Cardinal of the new versions of The Ugly Duckling; it was fun. I was thrown into what they were doing. And I become the lead swan!”

“And you were fabulous!” Kanagasekarampillai teases. “I felt the stress disappear right away; (the deaf actors) were so supportive, so helpful to the hearing actors,” says Cardinal, whom Edmonton audiences know in person from Theatre Network productions of Thunderstick and Where The Blood Mixes. Kanagasekarampillai reports a similar experience. “Our first language is ASL, and English is challenging for us,” she says. “But we’ve had so much support from our fellow actors. We draw so much from their understanding.”  

“It’s very physical; our storytelling based in that, so everything is smooth and flowing, with bigger gestures.”” says Cardinal of the production conceived by Bushell-Mingo, the former artistic director of Tyst Teater, Sweden’s National Deaf Theatre. This suits him fine. “Before I even went to the U of A (Cardinal was the first-ever aboriginal Fine Arts acting grad in 1993) I was in physical comedy, mask, clown. That’s how I got inspired….”

Kanagasekarampillai, who graduated from George Brown College in 2016 with a degree in Acting For Media, concurs. “Your body can say so much without words; you don’t even know how much….”

The fascinating and sometimes fraught father-daughter relationship in The Tempest becomes even more complex, of course, when one hears and the other doesn’t. “I think I draw from my real experience,” says Toronto-born Kanagasekarampillai, whose parents emigrated from Sri Lanka. “My father does not know ASL. But I love him dearly. We have a physical connection; we can communicate. It’s a quiet language between the two of us: eye gazes, body movement … it’s challenging because I want to talk to my dad, and know who he is, and know his family history…. I think I bring that to the (theatrical) experience.”

“I think my character is still learning as we go, trying to figure it out, to find other ways of communication. And (she smiles) that’s the story behind Miranda and Prospero: we still don’t communicate 100 per cent.”

As a deaf artist Kanagasekarampillai is, of course, very tuned to matters of communication, in  theatre and in life. There are four sisters in the family. She and her immediately older sister are deaf, bookended by the oldest and the youngest who aren’t, and are therefore are enlisted for the interpreting. “They sign and they’re fluent, but they’re not interpreters. So there’s always been that communication gap.”

The high-altitude attractions of Banff aren’t inconsiderable: “the mountains! nature! I’m fascinated by nature, why wouldn’t I want to travel there?” But the real draw of the Citadel/Banff program and the Citadel Tempest for Kanagasekarampillai is the fact that deaf actresses, much less deaf actresses of colour, are so rarely seen on the country’s stages and screens. “So this is my shot at making that change,” she smiles. “And when I got to Banff and met the ensemble, it’s been so worth it, 100 per cent-plus, the training, the program, the breadth and depth of it all!”

Lorne Cardinal (top) and Nadien Chu in The Tempest. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“Prospero is not going to be the traditional old guy with the stick,” says Cardinal of off-the-rack interpretations that have presented the magician in autumnal retirement mode (often linked to Shakespeare’s own career) as he abjures his “rough magic” in favour of forgiveness. The active, compelling need for vengeance is central to Prospero in the production we’ll see, he says. “Bad vengeance really poisons his mind, and poisons his connection with his daughter as well. He’s taken his magic into places he maybe shouldn’t…. So it’s an interesting telling….” 

Cardinal, who was assistant-director (and in the cast) of Peter Hinton’s 2012 all-aboriginal King Lear at the National Arts Centre, feels a kinship with the struggles of his deaf cast-mates. “Every one one of them as been told throughout their lives they can’t do this, be actors. And I’ve faced the same thing as an Indigenous person. We’re told we can’t do Shakespeare because we have lazy tongues. Or we don’t have the emotional depth. Because we’re shy and protective, people mistake that for being not intelligent, not aware…. “

“I’m hoping this doesn’t become a one-off, that it opens up opportunities,” says Cardinal of his first experience in a mixed hearing/deaf cast. “We should be doing a documentary of this production, the way we worked, and rehearsed, together…. ASL actors are fearless and talented, brilliant. And hard-working. Hearing people don’t understand how hard deaf people work, just to survive in this society. It’s inspiring for me to work with them onstage because they give so much. They work so hard; they’re so focused.”

Getting hired was Kanagasekarampillai’s first surprise, she says cheerfully of the process of sending video auditions. “Completely unexpected!” she says. “Finally, there were no barriers for me to cross. And there are more opportunities moving forward. Like Lorne says, there are negative reactions and the expectation we can’t do things. We’re proving that wrong….

As Prospero says at the outset, at the tempest he’s created, “the hour’s now come….”


The Tempest

Theatre: Citadel

Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Starring: Lorne Cardinal, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Nadien Chu, Jarret Cody, Derek Kwan, Ray Strachan, Troy O’Donnell, Elizabeth Morris, Barbara Poggemiller, Denise Read, Hodan Youssouf, Hayley Hudson, Sage Lovell, Suchiththa Wickremeso

Running: Thursday through May 12

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The House Series: comedy, cabaret, and music at the Citadel next season

Caley Suliak, Ellie Heath, Alyson Dicey, Girl Brain. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Girl Brain, the sketch comedy troupe that zigzags through the lively minds of three smart and funny women, is being lured downtown for a weekend next season at the Citadel.

Alyson Dicey, Caley Suliak and Ellie Heath, who perform their sketch comedy regularly at the tiny Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro in Strathcona, will join the Citadel’s new House Series November 8 and 9. New sketch comedy like Girl Brain, new cabarets from favourites like John Ullyatt, Patricia Zentilli, Kate Ryan, Steven Greenfield, music from such burgeoning musical talents as Audrey Ochoa, are part of this debut six-show Citadel series next season — along with the big-draw L.A. a cappella pop group The Filharmonic

Formerly known as Beyond The Stage, the House Series happens with one exception in the Citadel’s smallest, most intimate theatre space, the Rice, formerly known as the Club (formerly known as the Rice). Its entertainment sibling series in the Citadel 2019-2020 lineup (already announced) is Highwire, a new three-production alternative theatre series that also takes place mostly in the Rice.

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The idea, says Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran, is to present plays from the challenging, immersive, innovative end of theatrical spectrum under the Highwire banner, and to cluster experiments in comedy, cabaret and music in The House Series.

“I grew up with Much Music’s live shows, where you’d go in person and find yourself sitting on the bass player’s amp,” says Cloran.“It’s that kind of intimate, casual feel….” The House Series, he says, “is a chance to connect our audiences with that kind of experience, and to highlight the work and amplify the reach, and national profile, of local talent….”

Patricia Zentilli, John Ullyatt in What The World Needs Now, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied

John Ullyatt and Patricia Zentilli, favourites with Citadel audiences have devised a new cabaret to celebrate the evergreen music of hit-spinning composer Burt Bacharach. What The World Needs Now (Oct. 17 through 19) assembles such iconic songs as Always Something There To Remind Me, Walk On By, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head…. The list is long and memorable. Ullyatt and Zentilli are joined by a jazz quartet led by Jason Kodie. We’ll see Ullyatt in the Highwire series, too: he stars in the solo play Every Brilliant Thing (Feb. 1 to 23) directed by Dave Horak.

Kate Ryan, artistic director of The Plain Jane Theatre Company, whose production of Fun Home has just closed, joins forces with the multi-talented actor/ singer/musical director Steven Greenfield, a fellow musical theatre obsessive, to create a new cabaret spun from stories of travel and adventure. Café Wanderlust runs in the Rice Jan. 10 and 11.

The run of Broadway-bound Hadestown at the Citadel in the fall of 2017 brought to the attention of theatre audiences the startling talent of rising Canadian jazz star Audrey Ochoa. The trombonist wrapped her supple stylistic wits around the jazzy/folky Anaïs Mitchell score in a notable way. The composer/performer, who’s about to release a third album, is onstage in the House Series March 20 and 21 in Audrey Ochoa and Friends.

The series opens Sept. 27 and 28 with Diyet and The Love Soldiers, an alternative folk-roots-rock-country band with traditional Indigenous credentials. “Their star is taking off,” says Cloran of the wife/husband duo from the Yukon.

The grand finale, which takes the series to the 700-seat Maclab May 8 and 9. is The Filharmonic , a five-member Filipino -American a cappella group with “a huge international following” for their blend of hip hop, pop, and ‘90s nostalgia. They’ve been in movies (Pitch Perfect 2); they’ve been on The Late Late Show.

Cloran says he got the idea from the Citadel executive director Chantal Ghosh, who connected with The Filharmonic in her previous job with Spirit Airlines in the U.S..

The Citadel, says Cloran, has commissioned a new musical-in-progress, Prison Dancer, with Filipino characters, planned for a premiere a couple of years hence. “And this is a way to start the conversation with Edmonton’s Filipino community. 

House Series subscriptions are available at 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

Posted in News/Views, Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

“Congratulations, Your Majesty!” The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network. A review

Darrin Hagen and Joey Lespérance in The Empress and the Prime Minister, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a week when inclusivity, tolerance, equality took a major body blow in the Alberta election, it was particularly moving — almost uncanny, really — to see The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network.

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The latest from playwright/ actor Darrin Hagen, premiering in a Bradley Moss production, is an homage to real-life (and little-known) activist drag queen ted northe who threw off the cloak of invisibility in a brave and strikingly regal showbiz way.

It’s his story, and it’s the story of an unexpected collaboration between activism, drag, and politics on the long, stony, agonizingly incremental (as we’ve just been reminded), march of progress. And it involves the stepping up of a charismatic young justice minister whose sense of justice and “a just society” was offended by the systemic persecution of homosexuality: one Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Our first sight of the Empress of Canada (Hagen), in full queenly regalia, is in a witty drag number set, amusingly, to an iconic Canuck anthem. “Spread your tiny wings and fly away,” sings ted northe, flinging stuffed birds our way in a cannonade of feathers. Our first sight of Trudeau (Joey Lespérance) is a shrewd shrug of a man, intrigued by the source of a letter-writing campaign that has deluged his desk.

Hagen’s play unfolds — and that, for once, is the right word —  in northe’s biographical flashbacks “told” to Trudeau and, as he steps back into and out of his past, populated by  the dexterous Lespérance in a gallery of characters. The making of a drag queen and resistance fighter from a questing young gay Canadian nurse and part-time Arthur Murray dance instructor in the ‘50s is fascinating. And it’s chilling in its ruthlessness and cruelty. In a year when it would take a lot to surprise anyone about the corruption in the Catholic clergy, the opera-loving opium-smoking Monsignor in L.A. who tries in the end to run over his rebellious, too-young Canadian lover with his car might still make you blink.

Darrin Hagen and Joey Lespérance, The Empress and the Prime Minister. Photo by Ian Jackson

The emotional fabric of The Empress and the Prime Minister is the interplay between a passionate, outraged torch-bearer on the one hand, and a wry, understated assessor of the status quo on the other. One talks — and occasionally speechifies in a way that even a magnetic performer like Hagen can’t quite make sound like someone in conversation. The other listens, and throws in the odd question or prompt or practical aside: “politics is about timing” or “churches have influence” or “why do you dress like a woman?”  northe’s answer to the latter is barbed: “ I dress like a women; I don’t need to be a woman: I already know what it’s like to be a second-class citizen….”

“Your passion makes you care. But your reason is what will make you effective,” says Trudeau to northe. “See the change happening. And then figure out how to exploit it.” The combination is instructive, though perhaps this week in Alberta isn’t the most encouraging test case for effecting change. 

northe’s discovery of flamboyance and pride after growing up in an identity shrouded in shame and secrecy is chronicled, as you might expect, with authentic commitment in Hagen’s performance. Who better to deliver “the revolution is finally here…. I need to find something to wear.”? The actor/playwright/activist grew up in small-town Alberta and as a teenager moved to the big city, and the drag queen life. 

In performance, Hagen’s towering size actually gives him a certain poignance as he re-creates northe’s wide-eyed boyhood self, the gay kid who discovers something exciting and something scary about the big wide world in the time he spends south of the border (he studied nursing in the U.S. because in Canada at the time you couldn’t be a boy and a nurse).

Joey Lespérance, The Empress and the Prime Minister. Photo by Ian Jackson

Last seen here in such L’UniThéatre productions as Fort Mac, Lespérance is a master of the gallic Trudeau shrug. His lean features conjure that stylish intelligence without crude impersonation. And he bites zestfully into a selection of characters, including northes’s arch, sassy drag mentors Mama José and Auntie Mame who (to be vague and not spoil your fun) enter with pizzaz. In this they are assisted by sparkly glam (and copious fake hair) from designer Tessa Stamp. The bi-level design, by Stamp and lighting whiz Scott Peters, works well for the double-optic of showbiz and Canadian politics.

Lespérance populates the Leader’s debate and the Bill C150 arguments in the House (conjuring Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Robert Stanfield, Réal Caouette) simultaneously) in scenes amusingly staged by director Moss.

This being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, we know from the outset, on the political side, how things will turn out in 1969. And The Empress and the Prime Minister is at pains to explain what this historic moment does not mean for the lives of the LGBTQ community. The story of pioneer activist ted northe, though, is something remarkable — and new for many of us I venture to say, speaking for myself.

The play is unafraid of explaining its own importance — and there are occasional moments when it seems a bit over-written. On the other hand, it’s woven with cheeky asides and humorous annotations. “Heavy lies the wig that wears the crown,” northe tells us in a theatrical enterprise that sets about shedding light on the activist heart of drag.

“I’ve always been proud of my country… always loved it,” northe tells Trudeau near the end, “But I still need to learn to trust it.” I guess we understand more fully than ever just what that means.

12thnight.ca talked to playwright Darrin Hagen and his co-star Joey Lespérance HERE.


The Empress & the Prime Minister

Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Written by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Darrin Hagen, Joey Lespérance

Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through May 5

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Sanctifunkadelic: Sister Act at the Mayfield. A review


Katrina Reynolds in Sister Act, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Raise the stakes! Raise the game! Raise your voice,” sing the nuns of Sister Act, newly kitted out as a showbiz soul ensemble by the latest recruit to the Sisterhood.

“Feel the flow, dig the scene. Shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene.”

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What they and their disapproving Mother Superior discover in the course of the high-spirited Broadway musical currently raising rafters at the Mayfield is that making a joyful noise gets better pay-off if there’s (a) a common key and (b) an audience in the pews.

What the creators of this 2011 musical (music by the go-to Disney composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater) spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit movie, have nailed is the reliable comic attraction of nuns in full black-and-white regalia getting down and being fabulous. Sisters and sequins and the advice to “boogie till you feel your spirit move”: a no-fail spring tonic (kickier than communion wine) judging by the production directed by Jim Guedo.

Sister Act, as you’ll know from the movie, is set in motion when an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia, Deloris Van Cartier by name (Katrina Reynolds), has the bad timing to witness her mobster boyfriend (Michael-Lamont Lytle) murdering someone. Which is how the exuberant Deloris finds herself hiding out under a wimple in a convent. “Is there a smoking section?”

Katrina Reynolds in Sister Act, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The showbiz gene being contagious, Deloris can’t help herself  transforming a lack-lustre if dutiful choir with an infusion of Philly soul, R&B and disco, and some flashy moves (choreographer Christine Bandelow). And Reynolds, who has a charismatic energy about her, turns in a flamboyant performance as a star-in-progress who learns something about ensemble work back from the nuns, too. 

Susan Gilmour in Sister Act. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The purse-lipped Mother Superior (Susan Gilmour) is appalled by the disruption: “My life’s like the Stations of the Cross. But without the laughs.” But when the pews, long empty, begin to fill (along with the church restoration fund), the Monsignor (Garett Ross) is overjoyed.“Give yourselves a big round of applause,” he says to the assembled, digging the producer groove. “Let’s hear it for the balcony!”

What the Monsignor has discovered, bless his soul, is something the Mayfield knows all about: musical theatre is a big draw — mass appeal, as you might say. “The reviews are in! ’If you see only one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!’” Ross is highly amusing in negotiating this transformation.

Guedo’s production is fuelled by the fun of a gallery of individualized sisters. Pamela Gordon is very funny as the acerbic, whisky-voiced Sister Mary Lazarus, along with Michelle Diaz as the buoyant nun fangirl Sister Mary Patrick. The vocal and comic lustre is enhanced by such top-flight actors as Cathy Derkach and Andrea House, among others. And Jill Agopsowica is delightful as the convent postulant who really lands her wistful, then fiery, solo number The Life I Never Led. Gilmour applies herself to Mother Superior deadpan (top-notes of exasperation) with notable God-give-me-patience results, even in comic lines that aren’t Sister Act’s best feature by a long shot. It’s a kick-ass — or should I say “sanctifunkadelic”? — ensemble.

One of the funniest numbers of the evening belongs to guys, though. In The Lady in the Long Black Dress, the mobster’s hapless trio of hitmen — Brad Wiebe, Jahlen Barnes and Nelson Bettencourt — show off the smooth ‘70s moves that no mere nun will be able to resist. Lytle and Aaidin Church as the mob boss and the underachiever cop are excellent. 

The band, as you have come to expect at the Mayfield, is just first-rate — in ‘70s pastiche numbers, in comic patter songs, in Broadway-type ballads, in every style the musical throws at them. And since the music in Sister Act is sharper than the book, this is crucial. And speaking of transformation, kudos to set and video designer T. Erin Gruber who, assisted by lighting designer Kevin Humphrey, creates the worlds within and outside the convent walls — the pious and the Philly cheesesteak tacky — by playing ingeniously with glass bricks and scaffolding.

The “Sunday morning hustle,” in all its infectious glory, is available nightly. Spread the love. 


Sister Act

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.

Created by: Alan Menken (music), Glenn Slater (lyrics), Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner (book) with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Katrina Reynolds, Susan Gilmour, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Garett Ross

Running: through June 9

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , ,

An anniversary, and a new Darrin Hagen play: we talk to the playwright and his co-star in The Empress & The Prime Minister

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s been half a century, amazingly, since a spontaneous, and violent, demonstration in a dive bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that would prove to be a galvanizing event in the history of the American gay rights movement.

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Just before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, though, something significant happened across the border in America’s less flashy, apparently more passive neighbour to the north. A young and charismatic federal justice minister, with a gift for the epigrammatic, was arguing “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Against fierce resistance, Pierre Elliot Trudeau championed a bill that decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. Royal assent for that bill pre-dated Stonewall by one day.

The 50th anniversary of that pivotal moment in our history has inspired the play that gets its world premiere Thursday on the Theatre Network stage. Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & the Prime Minister tells a story, that despite the fame of one of the title players, is little known. It’s about the life and career of the drag queen/gay activist whose unstoppable letter-writing campaign caught the eye of the young federal justice minister who’d become the prime minister.

That drag queen/activist is the late ted northe, aka the “Empress of Canada.” Last week in the Theatre Network green room, another drag queen/activist — “The Edmonton Queen” as his memoir moniker has it —  was groaning loudly as he squeezed a foot into a size 16 T-strap pump. With a matronly moderate high heel. There was a time, as playwright/actor Hagen sighs (comically), when his heel choice was the stiletto. His co-star Vancouver-based Joey Lespérance, a perfectly bilingual francophone actor with a certain unmistakeable resemblance to Trudeau, looks on, amused, and rolls his eyes.

If ted northe isn’t a name in your radar, you’re not alone (as I can testify). Lespérance, who arrives in Edmonton from a production of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna (directed by a former Theatre Network artistic director, Stephen Heatley), lives in Vancouver’s West End — right around the corner from ted northe Lane. “And I had no idea who he was!”

It started, says Hagen of his new play, “as one of those drag footnotes in history; you know how I love them, they’re the centre of every story I write.”

northe, who’d invented the elaborate “court system” attached to the drag queen aristocracy, had come to Edmonton once, to the “international court conference” and ball, held here in 1988. “I remember the dress,” says Hagen. “I remember what he sang, kind of a weird choice but it worked: Queen of the Silver Dollar by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.. And then I forgot about it.” He laughs. “You know, queens, full of ourselves, the world ends at the edge of our makeup mirrors….” 

In 2013, their paths crossed again when Hagen was being inducted into the Q Hall of Fame. Northe’s keynote address was a barn-burner. “It was so moving,” says Hagen “He talked about being an activist in the 1950s: can you imagine, in that decade?. He talked about standing in front of the Vancouver courthouse in 1958 in full drag, and getting arrested, and how that was the beginning of his career as an activist. How he started a grassroots letter-writing campaign.” And he talked about how his connection with Pierre Trudeau began, and continued.

“It was a really emotional speech. And I knew I had to do it as a play,”

Hagen set about arranging an interview with the Empress of Canada. northe died before that could happen. Instead, Hagen acquired three or four hours of videotaped interviews from one of the activist’s close friends. “A lot of the monologues in the play are ted’s own words.”

The Empress & the Prime Minister was “a very different” play when Hagen began, he says. “My original plan was to have Pierre and ted on opposite sides of the stage, each telling their own version of the story.…  I started to gather Pierre Trudeau quotes, and then I realized how much had been written about the great man — and that what I had to bring to this story was this little piece of him that no one knew about.”

“I started to write scenes for them, dialogue. And that’s when I really started to have fun…. I knew they had many in-person meetings. And I imagined what they would have said to each other.”

Hagen, who grew up in Rocky Mountain House “listening to my mom and dad, well, everyone really, bitching about ‘That Trudeau!’,” knew he’d need a francophone actor. “I wanted Trudeau to be onstage in two languages. Because that’s how I grew up with him, in a bilingual country: I’m hearing him talk in English, and when he moves into French, there’s a woman translating…. There’s always another voice. That’s the Trudeau in my head.”

Director Bradley Moss suggested Lespérance, who’d shared the stage with him 30 years ago in the latter’s first professional gig. Hagen had met Lespérance too, during a run of  Cowboy Poetry at L’UniThéâtre when Hagen arrived as an interviewer, for Access TV’s  Culture Quest. 

Lespérance plays multiple characters, including a Catholic Monsignor and (a first for him) a couple of drag roles. Originally from Montreal, he points to the resistance from Quebec when Trudeau began to push for legalizing homosexuality. “He was a bachelor, he dressed well, he pushed for gay rights, (ergo) he must be gay….”

And of course, the legislation of 1969 didn’t magically transform the attitudes engrained in the culture, as Lespérance points out. It didn’t eradicate “the attitude that homosexuality was wrong; it just made it more complicated to pursue. All it did was make gay sex at home with your partner legal…. Harassing the queer community continued.”

“So it wasn’t the whole package deal from day 1. But it was the beginning of something! Something really important for the liberation of queer, when a major political figure started speaking for it.”

What the bill did change was the definition of gross indecency, Hagen says. His 2016 play The Witch Hunt at the Strand, which premiered at Workshop West, details a shameful chapter in Edmonton history in which the charge of gross indecency had proven useful to city police and the RCMP in their sting operation against closeted gay men.

“I finally realized ted northe’s impact on my life, this man I had met once, who was putting everything on the line in the ‘50s,” says Hagen.  “As a queer man,” says his stage cohort, “it touches me directly, to be able to use my skills for something that’s touched me all my life.”

Another election, another source of anxiety. The world seems to be spinning backwards, as Hagen and Lespérance reflect. “When I got off the stage in The Witch Hunt At The Strand in 2016, Trump was president,” says Hagen. “When I get off the stage in this play….” 

“The work is not done,” says Lespérance. “As artists we have a platform….”


The Empress & the Prime Minister

Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Written by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Darrin Hagen, Joey Lespérance

Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through May 5

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , ,

A grown-up homecoming in a moving musical: Fun Home, a review

Jocelyn Ahlf in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We are all haunted, every one of us. By the great mysteries of our past: our families. By the questions we live with that never got answered. By the tiny moments that slipped by at the time unrecognized, but in retrospect are vivid, maybe seminal. By the parents we didn’t quite realize were actual people till later, when we were all grown-up and looking back.

That’s the emotional landscape of the remarkably complex and textured, moving, funny and sad musical Fun Home that the Plain Janes have brought to the Varscona in a deeply affecting production directed by Dave Horak. It will get you, right in the heart. And here’s the contradiction that should send you forth to see it: It’s shattering, but somehow it’s not bleak; it’s enlivening. 

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

Based on a best-selling graphic novel memoir by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the 2015 Tony Award winner is a genuine original. So much of the musical theatre is about the embodying the vivacity, the eternal animation, of youth. Subtitled “A Family Tragicomic, Fun Home is a grown-up musical that steps outside nearly every musical theatre convention. It puts onstage Alison the graphic artist at 43 (Jocelyn Ahlf), sketch pad in hand to try and reassess, in comic panels and test captions, her young selves, little-girl Alison (Jillian Aisenstat) and college-girl Alison  (Bella King). It’s the latter who tentatively then decisively comes to realize she’s gay at about the same time she realizes her father is gay, too. All three actors are eye-wateringly good. 

The elusive figure who haunts all the Alisons at every age is her father Bruce, a high school English teacher who also restores old houses, and runs a funeral home (the title “fun home”). He’s a mercurial character, to say the least, a mass of contradictions as Jeff Haslam’s multi-faceted portrait conveys with such fierce attention to detail. He’s harsh and imperious, easily exasperated, always on edge, sometimes oddly soulful. He’s a question mark of a guy: an intellectual, a perfectionist, a stickler for rules and image in art and in life, the spit-and-polish facade of the ideal family. He also picks up young boys.

It’s this double life, in the closet and in lovingly refinished vintage houses, that brings Alison to the remembering and reassessing that is the raison d’être of Fun Home. Who is the man who played airplane with his little daughter, who sent her James Joyce and Colette novels at college, who cruised high school boys? Who is the man who fatally stands in front of a moving truck just weeks after Alison comes out? “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” she sings at the outset. “It all comes back….”

Horak sets his production in motion on a square that’s a sketch pad, open-ended with empty window frames on one side. And Ahlf’s Alison, watchful and often wincing, is onstage drawing the panels from her past, imagined and lived, and experimenting with the right caption. It’s a wonderful performance — alert and engaged, wry, rueful, self-mocking, and appalled — by an actor whose dramatic and musical range seems unlimited. The final father-daughter scene she shares with Haslam’s Bruce, at the point of connection or disintegration, is devastating.

Fun Home’s originality extends to the way the music  — by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by the librettist Lisa Kron — melts into the drama so skilfully you can scarcely separate them. Ah, but there are exceptions to this, too. The scene in which the Bechtel kids, upbraided by dad (“I told you ‘do not play in the caskets!'”), create a home-made ad for the family business is a riot (choreographed by Jason Hardwick). So is the Partridge Family-esque number, Everything’s All Right, a spirited ode to the lie of happy families ‘70s style (costumes by Maralyn Ryan). 

Karina Cox and Bella King, Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

Middle Alice, who realizes at college something about herself she’s always known when she meets Joan (Karina Cox), comes out in a song. King captures the rush and the musing wonder of discovery in the buoyant Changing My Major (“I’m changing my major to Joan”). Aisenstat, who has an amusing kind of sturdy briskness to her that echoes her dad’s decisiveness, is in charge of one of Fun Home’s most elusive, deceptively simple song, Ring of Keys, in which the little girl reveals her secret attraction to a butch woman. Aisenstat knows exactly how to deliver it, without over-inflecting or interpreting. She and King are finds for Edmonton theatre.

In a way, Alison’s mother Helen is the least-explored character, living within the cruel and secret confines established by a closeted gay husband. The song in which she emerges from the shadows to explain to her daughter how she’s kept the facade going, Days and Days, has huge impact in Kate Ryan’s performance. She doesn’t cry; you will.

The veteran musical director Janice Flower does a terrific job with the huge variety of music, from the fragmented and dissonant to the tuneful and jaunty. She and her musical forces give Horak’s production a momentum that never feels hard-driven. It’s not that kind of musical, even though the stakes are life and death, survival and happiness. 

Life is funny; our motives are tangled, and look different from every angle. Fun Home is for funerals, but it’s also a house of mirrors. Seek it out, and see yourself.


Fun Home

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: The Plain Jane Theatre Company

Written by: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jeff Haslam, Bella King, Jillian Aisenstat, Kate Ryan, Karina Cox, Gabriel Gagnon, Carter Woodley, Connor Woodley

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through April 20

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com 


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Nun but the brave: for your theatre habit, a grand assortment on E-town stages this weekes this week

Rachel Bowron and Luc Tellier, The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography


By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What is it with all the nuns on Edmonton stages this week? It’s a bumper crop, second to nun.

Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photograph

In The Candidate at the Citadel, you will see two different heavenly examples, (in a sense three) of nun drag. To anticipate your inevitable question, there is a pregnant nun, and a lot of nun puns. (There’s also a drag queen nun, and a desperate political intern-in-nun costume nun; forget I told you that, it’s part of the plot.)  May I just say that the Catholic Church lost a considerable amount of traction in musical comedy and farce when nuns stopped wearing that long black regalia, so convenient for disguises?

Anyhow, the very funny seven-door farce that is The Candidate is one of two Kat Sandler political comedies running simultaneously in two different theatres with the same cast (just thinking about the second-to-nun logistics makes your brain hurt and your Fitwatch explode). The other is The Party — which is one! —  in the Rice. Are there nuns there, too? Nun of your beeswax.

Check out my 12thnight.ca REVIEW of The Candidate and The Party here:

Count Ory, Edmonton Opera.

You just can’t expect to go the opera and see nun drag; you just have to savour it when it happens. In Rossini’s Count Ory — which you also can’t just expect to go to the opera and see any old time — you are treated to the mesmerizing sight of 14 chevaliers dressed up as nuns drinking wine they’ve stolen from their host who’s off fighting in the Crusades  (oops sorry, that would be part of the plot).

This highly unusual experience comes courtesy of Edmonton Opera, and Brian Deedrick’s wildly colour-drenched production (lit in dazzling fashion by Narda McCarroll). Believe me, the nun frocks are the only black-and-white feature of the evening. The nun millinery designed by Deanna Finnman is riotous; the nun ensemble looks like a giant meringue about to levitate.

Count Ory, apparently, hasn’t been staged in Canada for, oh, a couple of centuries. So don’t blow your chance, last performance Friday. Tickets: 780-429-1000 or edmontonopera.com.

At the Mayfield (opening Friday), it’s Sister Act. In the rockin’ 2011 Broadway musical spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, an aspiring disco diva in ’70s Philly takes refuge in a convent when she has the bad luck to witness her mobster boyfriend offing someone. This improvised protective custody will have a ripple effect within the Sisterhood, and they’ll learn to raise the rafters. “Jump in … that’s what your spirit is for.” Sister Act runs at the Mayfield through June 9. Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca.

In other theatre news:

Super$tition, Firefly Theatre and Circus. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Speaking of levitation, Firefly Theatre & Circus returns to the stage, and above it, with Super$tition, their new gravity-defying circus and magic cabaret that explores prophecy, fortune, luck. The workshop production runs Thursday to Sunday and April 18 to 21 at La Cité francophone.  Tickets: fireflytheatre.com.


Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

The Plain Janes, purveyors of the off-centre and original in musical theatre, are bringing us Fun Home this week. In the moving, innovative 2015 Tony Award winner, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s  best-selling graphic novel memoir, Alison is trying to piece together the mysteries of her past, the secrets of her family, her father’s life and death, and the discovery of her own sexuality. The Plain Janes production directed by Dave Horak, part of the Varscona Theatre Ensemble, opens on the Varscona stage Friday and runs through April 20. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com.

12thnight.ca talks to the three actors who play Alison at three different ages, here:

Through Saturday, there’s action above the Westbury Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barn). 13 Encounters at the Bottom of the Sea, is the latest from the innovative writer/theatre artist Nicole Schafenacker. It’s interdisciplinary performance that explores love and heartbreak using “aerial circus, rich poetry, sound, and physical theatre.” Elizabeth Hobbs directs the Fringe Theatre production. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

You can fly an airline where the platinum passengers don’t get to board first and put their bums in the best seats and all that. There’s no class system at Icarus Air. Slight of Mind, the latest from Theatre Yes, takes you on a flight pattern into the unknown, the nooks and crannies of the Citadel’s non-theatre spaces in three-intertwined stories. Ingenious. And moving. See 12thnight.ca’s REVIEW here.

On Sunday Script Salon celebrates their fifth anniversary of launching new scripts into the big wide world of theatre with monthly staged readings. The special epic edition features Gerald Osborn’s Hearth and Homer, “the untold story of the troubled teen years of Homer, poet of antiquity.” No nuns are involved, to my knowledge. But there is a Greek chorus, which always clutters a teenager’s living space.

Since it is a festive occasion, Osborn provides a bonus curtain-raiser, Bonobo Bacchanale, billed as a “hard-hitting documentary about the sex lives of bonobo apes.”

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. in the Upper Arts Space at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (10037 84 Ave.). But if you get there early, there’s live music and cake. Admission is free, but donations are accepted with loud hallelujahs.

And there’s the Bonfire Festival at Rapid Fire Theatre — an extravaganza of original new ideas in long-form improv thought up by the quick-witted risk-takers who don’t have to have a script to make a play. It runs through Saturday at Rapid Fire headquarters, Zeidler Hall at the Citadel.






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Alison at three ages, and the actors who play her in groundbreaking Fun Home

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Everything about the clever, heart-wrenching musical that opens Friday at the Varscona stands off the beaten track in the musical theatre-land. And it’s produced by a little company that specializes in off the beaten track musicals, Plain Jane Theatre.  

For one thing, Fun Home — which scooped up five Tonys (including best musical) in 2015 — is adapted from a best-selling graphic novel memoir, by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. And in it she’s trying to unravel the mysteries of her past, growing up and coming out in a family full of secrecy and facades, discovering she’s gay at the same time she realizes that her father was gay, too.

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Alison Bechdel, that haunted cartoonist, is a character in Fun Home. Cartoonist’s pen in hand, she’s onstage drawing her younger selves, her siblings, her mother, the configuration of her parents’ strained marriage, in the quest to make sense of them, and the tragedy of her closeted father.

In this highly original musical — music by Jeanine Tesoro, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron — there are three Alison’s onstage. And 12thnight.ca had the chance to talk to the three actors who play them in the production directed by award-winning Dave Horak.

“I feel a bit honoured,” says Jocelyn Ahlf, who plays grown-up Alison at 43, looking back. “It’s an important story. And I’m playing a real person…. It’s someone’s actual personal family.”  Jillian Aisenstat, who plays Small Alison, age 11, echoes that thought. “It’s a real story!” says the 15-year-old actor in something like awe. “Not just sort of a fairy tale like many musicals. It’s by a real person.” 

Actor/playwright Ahlf, a Teatro La Quindicina and Plain Janes star whose startling musical range even extends to opera, is thinking about the father-daughter relationship at the heart of Fun Home. “In a way it’s just as much about Bruce (Jeff Haslam), the tragedy of Alison’s dad,” who was fatally hit by a truck, a possible suicide, shortly after Bechdel came out, 20 years before. “Is she like her dad?”

Jocelyn Ahlf in Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

“In a way she always knew…. And 20 years is a lot of baggage,” says Ahlf of “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t be himself. He’s an English teacher who snuck around with underage boys … and he’s not a lovable dad.”

Ahlf pauses. “ Well, it’s complicated. Alison needs her dad; she really needs to have the conversation where they can say ‘we are both gay’. And it never happens.” There’s a particularly touching moment when father and daughter, a college student by then and newly out, are in the car together, and that conversation could have happened. It’s poised to happen. Alison desperately wants to happen. And it doesn’t.

Bella King, the recent MacEwan theatre grad who plays Middle Alice, is struck by the scene, too, and the delayed letter Middle Alice finally gets back from her parents when she comes out. “Her father’s response isn’t what she wanted to hear…. The anger, the pain. I can’t imagine what that would be like, to hear that from a parent.”

The heart of the story, she says, is Alison and her father “and how their lives affected each other.” King loves the mother character (played by the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan), too, the keeper of family secrets who knows, and doesn’t know, about her husband.   

There are touchy, difficult issues at play in the musical (sex with a minor, suicide among them). But Fun Home, deemed the first in the Broadway musical repertoire with a lesbian protagonist, steps bravely up to them in “a really human way,” thinks Ahlf.

The star of the Plain Janes’ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (“bonkers! I’m comfortable in bonkers!”) last season, Ahlf loves the Fun Home score. Her favourite song? Changing My Major To Joan, in which Middle Alison, a college student, sings about the exhilaration of first love. “It’s so romantic, so excited and active; (in that) it reminds me of She Loves Me!” says Ahlf, whose own play A Momentary Lapse, co-written with Stewart Lemoine, is part of the upcoming Teatro season. . “And it also has to be about sex. That’s the point.”

But, curiously, the song that’s lodged in Ahlf’s head? Everything’s All Right, a jaunty ‘70s Partridge Family song that’s the Bechdel family mantra.

Karina Cox and Bella King, Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

Bella King, who grew up in Winnipeg saturated in musicals (like most of the Plain Jane people), she saw her first, Annie, age four — charts the musical theatre arc that led her to Fun Home: “I loved Annie, then as I got older I was listening to Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Only when I went to MacEwan was it Sondheim and (the classics) Rodgers and Hammerstein….” Fun Home, which started Off-Broadway and got its Broadway premiere in a beautiful production at Circle in the Square, wasn’t a show in her radar. But once introduced to it, King was irresistibly attracted to “the music and the story, both so beautiful….” Ah, and “to the theme of memory and where it can take you.”

Aisenstat, who appears “mostly at the beginning and the end,” has been intrigued by the striking theatricality of three Alison’s: “and we’re all playing the same person!” Director Horak, she reports, has been tuning up “the small physical and emotional gestures” that remain constant in Alison at every age.

Aisenstat, a Grade 10 student at Paul Kane High, is the possessor of a startlingly long resumé that includes TV (Caution: May Contain Nuts, Tiny Plastic Men), stage work (16 St. Albert Children’s Theatre productions, most recently a starring role in Tuck Everlasting) and improv comedy (The Kidprovisers). She’s used to playing playing younger characters. Especially 10-year-old boys, as it’s happened, like Ralph in A Christmas Story and James in James and the Giant Peach.”

Small Alison, a tomboy who resists her dad’s exhortations to wear a dress, is a welcome change. Playing younger is about “subtle changes in mind,” Aisenstat says. “I tend to stay on the balls of my feet more. Kids are always ready to go. Everything’s faster; kids are so curious.. You don’t worry when you’re nine to 12. The world is yours.”

All three Alisons are finding Fun Home a special experience, well outside the realm of chin-up musical fantasies. “It’s a grown-up musical,” says Ahlf. “It’s a show that’s a heart-changer.”


Fun Home

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre

Created by: Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), Jeanine Tesori (music) from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jeff Haslam, Bella King, Jillian Aisenstat, Kate Ryan, Karina Cox, Gabriel Gagnon, Carter Woodley, Connor Woodley

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through April 20

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com 

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Farce within farce within farce: politics, celebrity and the media. Two new Kat Sandler comedies running simultaneously at the Citadel. A review

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Jesse Lipscombe in The Candidate, photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Talk about real-life horning in on theatre (stealing punchlines, sucking up the supply of public outrage, eating all the fake cheese out of the collective fridge). Here’s the thing: It’s an age when politics (in many locales and close to home) has actually become a farce.

An architecture of escalating lies teetering on promotional fictions and propped up by ever-more frantic spin-doctoring? Come on. You’ve watched the news; work with me here. 

And the Citadel has stepped up to this giddy state of affairs with not one but two new entwined political comedies whose behind-the scenes connections and logistics constitute a high-speed farce in themselves. The Party and The Candidate, by the hot Toronto playwright Kat Sandler, run simultaneously in two different theatres, many staircases apart, with the same 10-actor cast pelting between them, scene by scene, to play the same characters, nine months apart. So what we’re looking at, moment by moment watching either show, is the farce behind the farce behind the farce. This full-throttle theatrical experiment that taps directly into the adrenalized vein of farce is directed jointly by the playwright and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, who commissioned it.

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“Repeat after me ‘everything is perfectly fine’,” as the old-pro campaign manager Pauline Abel (Colleen Wheeler in a sensational comic performance) snaps at earnest new intern Dill Pickerel (Luc Tellier, equally funny) on his first day in politics. In farce, as in politics, this is never true. By the time of The Candidate, she’s declaring “we are killin’ it!” when she’s not saying “the shit show must go on!” Also, never true. 

At The Party — which happens first in chronological time and is a lot of fun with one very big detraction — we’re at one. A party, that is. In the intimate cabaret setting of the Rice, we’re guests at a posh birthday bash for filthy rich media mogul Butch Buchanan (Glenn Nelson). As per tradition, the occasion is also a fund-raiser for a political party, The Left, where two rival candidates for the party nomination as Chief Leader are courting Butch’s endorsement and donor cash — with nods to us, his old rich fat-cat guests. OK, we’re the only characters at the gathering having drinks in Citadel sippy-cups instead of champagne flutes or highball glasses, but it’s pretty damn incriminating. “Rich old people make me really nervous,” says Dill, who’s instantly been re-christened Virgin by Pauline.

Kevin Bundy and Martha Burns, The Party, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Heather Straughan (Martha Burns), the career politico with the Hillary pantsuit and the Hillary accessory of a persistent cheating husband scandal, sizes us up for our wallet-opening potential like a tiger surveying fresh lunch meat. Heather is a veteran of gritting her teeth and rising to any occasion; still, the unexpected presence of  the cheating husband in question, played to Clinton-esque comic perfection by Kevin Bundy, is not going to be a plus to her evening, you feel.

The other candidate for Chief Leader, Bill Biszy, (Jesse Lipscombe, in a charmingly funny performance), is a distractible dim bulb of an ex-movie star with a string of hit Sharkman action flicks to his credit and not much more in his noggin than Sharkman speeches and the habit of a fan base and being adored. 

Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison in The Party. Photo by Ryan Parker

Bill has a partner, too, a breezy drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison) with a fabulous wardrobe (designer Megan Koshka), a gift of the gab, and a talk show, What’s The Butt?. Marky is someone you’d always want at a party, and Allison lights up (in neon) any scene he’s in.

So, a veteran politician with a grasp of the issues and a platform with planks and all that, not to mention a campaign manager in perpetual overdrive (Pauline’s pulse no doubt enhanced by mad dashes from The Candidate, at the other end of the building). Versus a political ninny with a one-word platform (“Hope!” because it’s, well, hopeful), who’s “this country’s only gay, black, aquatic super-hero.”

Sandler has a way with comic lines and wise-ass throw-aways, withering putdowns (Wheeler has a feast), overlapping staccato repartee, cranked up to manic tempo, not least because everyone’s in two plays simultaneously. And the party setting, with its free-floating kookiness, its witty tangents and smart-ass small talk, its unexpected entrances and exits, suits Sandler’s kind of sassy comic writing to a T.

Glenn Nelson, Amber Lewis in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson

One of the juiciest characters, Vidashka, a glamorous and beaming siren of Soretria, an eastern European country of hilariously unremitting awfulness, is suddenly on the scene (for reasons I cannot reveal for fear of Soretrian revenge). “Vy vood you bury hatchet?. You can use for many things.”  And you just can’t get enough of her: Amber Lewis is a knock-out in a role that’s written with shameless pizzaz. 

That’s why the ending, which lets the air out of this airy but piquant concoction so alarmingly, is a huge letdown. The extended rant has none of the sparkle of the writing in the rest of the play. Alas, The Party thuds at the end in a way I never did understand (even after I saw The Candidate the next night). But the getting to this moment is highly entertaining.

The Candidate, which is on the Maclab stage thrusting into a 700-seat house, picks up nine months later on the eve of the election. It’s a full-fledged, old-school door-slammer, a seven-door farce. The opening scene, at matching podiums, is a political debate between the title character and the incumbent, Butch Buchanan’s racist, homophobic, right-wing twin brother Woodruff Buchanan, antediluvian in his views, played by Nelson in his spare time. “I never said people of colour were all lazy. They’re not. All lazy.” You will see the off-again-on-again fortunes of Nelson’s moustache in this venerable farce device.

Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson.

In the course of The Candidate, people will enter and exit in a mad rush (or, if they’re lucky like Marky, in Megan Koshka’s flamboyant costumes). Trousers will drop, doors will slam, the wrong doors will get opened at the wrong time, people will try to look like they haven’t been canoodling (there’s a word I’ve never used). They’ll heap bald-faced lies on each other; they’ll hedge, take pratfalls, pun, and blurt Malapropisms. They’ll “yoke” (as Vidashka says). Of course, there’s a pregnant nun. Why wouldn’t there be? And one of the repertoire’s largest current repertoires of nun puns. 

Jesse Lipscombe and Thom Allison, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The characters are back for this “sequel” with telling little differences and telling consistencies. Lipscombe, for one, unerringly calibrates Bill’s minute development in the intervening nine months. The performance is very funny; our man is always a half-beat behind comprehension of any moment, reverting under the merest whiff of pressure to Sharkman epigrams. As someone says of his political acumen, Bill has always thought “incumbent” was “the belt part of a tuxedo.”

As the only “serious” character, the straight man (sorry, straight person) to the unravelling comic mayhem around her, Burns steps up with fortitude to a role that’s written with minimal jokes and more repetition. There are a lot of repeats of the moments where the tiniest flicker of a grimace is code for  “you’ve got to be kidding.”

You could chart plot developments in these two productions in the exact gradations of smiles — from the molar-grinding suck-it-up incrementally through wincingly pained or noblesse oblige to high-beam fake. 

Colleen Wheeler, centre, The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At the centre of the action, in constant high-jog across the stage from entrance to exit, is Wheeler’s Pauline, the foul-mouthed fixer in charge of family values optics, damage control, and photo ops, and her assistant Dill, whose wide-eyed idealism is beginning to erode a little around the edges. Tellier’s comic timing is one of the delights of the evening.

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks nails the teenage cynicism of a smart adoptee. And Rachel  Bowron as — well, again I must hedge, for your own enjoyment — a daffy but determined new character (and continuing Sharkman fan) is amusing, too.

Designer Koshka rises to the preposterous double-barrelled visuals, in props and costumes, with evident glee. And Kimberly Purtell’s lighting salutes the full theatrical potential of the political arena. 

The Candidate starts (and has to, by the premise) at such a feverish comic pitch that it strains at times to to sustain itself for the two hour 15 minute running time. But once set in motion, the farce machinery is fuelled by inopportune disclosures, revealing repartee,  mistaken identities, sight gags, out-and-out lies buffed up to be half-truths. And here’s the cool craziness of the experiment: it’s paralleled by the near-misses of the farcical logistics of doing two plays in two theatres at the very same time with one cast. Every exit from The Party is (not counting sprint time between theatres) an entrance into The Candidate. And vice versa. 

The media and celebrity culture and politics, in the sack together in an ungodly three-way,  political correctness platitudes and their vicious old-school reverse, earnest idealists and pop culture trash-talkers … they all get teased or defrocked or compromised in the course of The Party and The Candidate. Both comedies have flaws. But both are funny, and fun. You can see just one — of course you can — and laugh. See both, and you’ll be ringside for a fulsome view of absurdity where principles are caught with their pants down, in compromising positions. Ah, politics. 

Sharkman isn’t real, one character is moved to advise a die-hard fan, who is only momentarily fazed. “Real life isn’t real,” she retorts. Whew, thank god for that. They really had been going for a sec there.   


The Party and The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Kat Sandler and Daryl Cloran

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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A work-out for body and brain: Martha Burns is running in The Party and The Candidate at the Citadel

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Martha Burns and Kevin Bundy, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are two plays getting their world premieres simultaneously tonight in the Citadel. Martha Burns is in both of them.

Burns and her nine cast-mates play characters who inhabit not one but two new Kat Sandler political comedies. Come 7:30 p.m. you’ll find them on the gallop between scenes in The Party happening in the Rice at one end of the complex and scenes in The Candidate happening in the Maclab at the other. Stairs and distance (and nine months in fictional time) are involved. “We’re about to get in excellent shape!” amends Burns, who made time to chat pre-rehearsal of both plays last week. She plays Heather Straughan, one of two rival candidates vying for the party nomination in an impending election, and courting a fat-cat donor.

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The Dora, Gemini, and Genie Award-winning stage and screen star has been in Edmonton before. But it’s been a while. The last time — for Citadel productions that included Hamlet, As You Like It, Alan Ayckbourn’s Invisible Friends — she had a tumultuous schedule, too, though of a different kind. Her daughter Hannah was two (“she learned to skate here, in Hawrelak Park!”). Now Hannah is 29, “shooting a movie in Toronto with Viggo Mortensen,” reports her mom. 

Part of the work-out has been mental, of course. “We’ve been hunkering down a lot to work on the many changes Kat has been making to the script… Such intense brain work. It’s been amazing to watch that process. She had to overwrite, to figure out what to move around and take out so it work out.”

Martha Burns

Burns, who has a vast body of starring work on the country’s largest stages — Stratford, Shaw and Soulpepper among them, in addition to such original TV series as Slings and Arrows — marvels at the playwright’s dexterity. “You think Wow!  What was it like just to begin, to figure out who can be where when. In addition to just writing funny comedies.”

“Everyone has been wide-eyed through the whole experience…. We had to be the last part of her writing process. So we’ve been witnessing this lightning speed of writing on the spot, cutting, shifting, changing things around, timing….”

“Kat Sandler’s brain must be taking up her whole head!” Burns laughs. “And moving out into the corners of the room.” She loves “the snappy back and forth” of Sandler’s comedies, including the hit Mustard, which have mostly premiered hitherto in Toronto.

The razor timing needed to execute and pair The Party and The Candidate is extreme, true. But it isn’t unfamiliar to Burns; working in film has seen to that (and besides she’s recently been in a Montreal production of the great play-within-a-play modern farce Noises Off). “A film set is totally about the clock,” she says. “What I like about acting on film, too, is that the actors come in ready to go. We find out what the scene is about by doing it…. We had a bit of that feeling in rehearsal here!”

Burns’s calendar this year is tilted heavily towards theatre: A Doll’s House 2 (the contemporary “sequel” to the Ibsen classic) at the Belfry in Victoria last fall, then this double-premiere, which came with the pre-contract warning that things could get pretty crazy. When The Party and The Candidate have raced towards election night, and Burns has hung up Heather Straughan’s Hillary-like pantsuit for the last time, she’s off to the Shaw Festival — for a very different pair of challenges.

One is Victory, by the provocative, notoriously difficult, rarely produced Brit playwright Howard Barker. “It’s an extraordinary play,” says Burns, “historically, politically….” The other is a production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, including the celebrated Don Juan In Hell “interlude,” directed by the hot up-and-comer Kimberley Rampersad (the ingenious  choreographer of the Citadel’s Matilda). Burns will play the The Devil. “It’s a year when our world is opening up!” she says happily of this gender expansiveness.

Meanwhile, on the eve of a real election here, riddled with scandals, dirty secrets, sell-outs, rampaging egos, and rancour, there are a couple of plays at the Citadel that, amazingly, are all about that.

Real life has muscled in on satire with “wild displays of who’s got to the power,” as Burns puts it. “Who’s going to lead? What do we decide to be horrified by? The influence of social media…. It’s fun to be in the theatre, and not know what’s coming.”

Have a peek at my interview with playwright Kat Sandler and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, co-directors of this madness, HERE.


The Party, The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com


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