The double-optic on Christmas: meet the real-life couple starring in Oh! Christmas Tree

Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, the real-life couple who star in Oh! Christmas Tree, have a special rapport with the characters in Conni Massing’s new comedy (opening Thursday at Theatre Network), it’s not surprising. They’ve been together for 18 years. They’ve had three Christmases together.

The pair are amply qualified, therefore, to empathize with Lucy and Algar, whose relationship, marriage-bound, has foundered on an obstacle: Christmas, the celebration and family traditions thereof, and the symbolic centre of it all: the tree. 

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The playwright and the director (Brian Deedrick) are immoderately amused and delighted by their casting coup. “In real life, they have something of the dynamic” of Lucy and Algar, says Massing of the couple, who made their way to a Strathcona coffee emporium to chat last weekend. 

Moreover, for the theatre veterans to find themselves together onstage, for an entire play, and a Christmas play at that, defies history and probability in a striking way. They haven’t been onstage together for, well, years — 14, at least — since the premiere of Doyle and James Hamilton’s Nighthawk Rules at the Fringe of 2004, and, in a couple of fleeting scenes in Bedlam Theatre’s 25 Plays About Love a couple of years later.  “We value theatre,” says Brovold cheerfully. “But we value our relationship more.”

“Conni persuaded me to persuade Collin,” grins Brovold. “And I was successful!” She remains somewhat amazed by this recruitment. For one thing, she forgot to tell him about it. “When I get busy I think I’ve said things, but only in my head.” For another, Doyle, an award-winning playwright (The Mighty Carlins, Terry and the Dog), works full-time as a TV technician at Global, on the 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift.

“I had conditions,” he says. “I have to start at this time and finish at that time. I can only do five hours rehearsal, and I can’t start till 2 in the afternoon…. Just so you know when we start this I don’t have a life. Working, rehearsing, sleeping, that’s it.” He grins ruefully. “I didn’t factor in time for learning lines.” Brovold laughs. “No, it’s not a movement piece!”

Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Ian Jackson.

So here they are, against the odds, in the same city at Christmas, in the same Christmas play. And for once, Brovold, originally from Toronto, won’t be going back to her home town for Christmas as usual. She’s already feeling guilty. “My family have this incredible, unquestioned, expectation that I’ll always be home for Christmas,” she says. When I moved away to go to university (the U of A theatre school), I’d always go back, and they built this rhythm into their lives.… It’s become a ritual for them.” To make matters worse, her brother, an RCMP officer, will be in Nunavut.

Last time Brovold wasn’t home for Christmas, her mom phoned “every two hours on Christmas Day.” Doyle could hear the ruckus. “My mom was crying, my dad was yelling, my brother left the house…. Collin says it’s because I wasn’t there to do peace-keeping.”

“Lora’s family is great,” says Doyle. “Until you get them together in the same room. They feel they should be together at Christmas, but no one gets along.”

In the fraught realm of Christmas traditions, Brovold’s are exhausting. Her usual practice is “to spend Christmas Eve with Collin, then fly home at some crazy hour and get there Christmas morning, and then be back here for New Year’s Eve.” 

Doyle stays here. For one thing, there are nieces and nephews, his brother’s kids. For another,work. “When I was a waiter or someone part-time, a week off was me not making any money, and we had none! Now it’s not wanting to take a week of my vacation….” Brovold teases. “I thought you said you don’t feel like spending Christmas Day hanging out with my dad in his underwear….There’s no cable, only three channels of fuzzy movies. They like to talk and snack. And Collin likes to read books.”

“There’s nowhere to escape to,” sighs Doyle. The Doyle Christmases have a pattern, too, but “it’s pretty laid back in comparison.” On Christmas Day, he has breakfast with his parents and his sister, then on to his brother’s place to open presents with the kids, then supper. “It’s watching TV, drinking, eating.”

It is perhaps revealing that the first Brovold/Doyle Christmas together, in 2013, before they got married that summer, was, to cut to the chase, a bust. Brovold, in her element, got “a beautiful ham, with a recipe off the internet that was actually good.” Doyle was deathly ill, with pneumonia. At the fateful dinner hour, he staggered out of bed, and half a tin of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup later, returned to it.

“Why did I get such a big ham? What was I thinking?” says Brovold. “Christmas dinner is a meal on steroids….”

When you’re in a theatrical production sharing the stage with nine trees, it’s possible that the tannenbaum novelty might wear off by the 25th of December. Last weekend Brovold and Doyle didn’t have their tree up yet, but they will.

Brovold is adamant. “my first year of living in Edmonton, when I knew I’d really moved here, I bought a tree on Boxing Day…. I needed to know that I can have a tree during during December.” Her cats were small enough to sit on the branches. That tree is 15 years old now, “and no longer an environmental faux pas.”

“We do the traditional taking-down of the tree — in April,” says Doyle rolling his eyes. Says Brovold, “I aim for Valentine’s Day. But if I get busy, it might be Easter and time for the Resurrection.”

Thinking there was a shortage of photos of them together, one year Brovold took a photo of Doyle in the Citadel production of Wit and stuck it in a Christmas ornament on the tree, with a photo of her in another. His reaction? “What the hell is that? Get rid of it!” And his family reacted in similar fashion: “why are you on the tree?” Brovold laughs. “My family would be ‘awww, that’s so sweet, you guys on the tree together!’”

Yes, the Doyles do not seem to be a family awash in sentimentality. “If we’ve learned anything from The Mighty Carlins (Doyle’s very black comedy about a dysfunctional family reunion), it’s that,” says Brovold wryly. “Their sharing circle went so well!”

Brovold “loves shopping for people, giving little gifts, wrapping presents  so they’re a feast for the eyes.” The “sumptuous” is something that’s missing in our lives most of the time. Doyle is amused. “I have to appreciate the wrapping first….”

She does concede that festive rituals are largely self-generated, and pressurizing. “Even if we’re just hanging out, eating chopped vegetable and sour cream dip, and a cheese ball, it’s THE Christmas cheeseball…. What was happenstance at the time becomes a tradition. Because we did it once, suddenly it’s a thing.”

I didn’t dare ask whether Oh! Christmas Tree might be year #1 of a tradition.

Conni Massing talks to 12thnight.ca about the real-life inspiration for Oh! Christmas Tree. Read it here.

PREVIEW

Oh! Christmas Tree

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Brian Deedrick

Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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To tree or not to tree, that is the question: Conni Massing’s new comedy Oh! Christmas Tree at the Roxy

Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle in Oh! Christmas Tree. Photo by Dana Rayment.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Oh! Christmas Tree, the new Conni Massing romantic comedy that opens Thursday at Theatre Network, a relationship is under extreme pressure. Is it money? Snoring? Musical tastes? Lunatic relativies? Whether to acquire a shitsu?

No, my friends, this is serious. I return you to the the title of this, the second of two back-to-back Massing premieres this season (Workshop West’s Matara just closed) — and the festive tannenbaum. The play, part of the Roxy Performance Series, has to do with Christmas and the seasonal shrubbery, an evergreen situation so to speak — and a couple who’ve just moved in together, with impending marriage plans.  Lucy, the youngest of five sisters and a party-planner by trade, is from a close-knit Scandinavian family with elaborately energetic holiday traditions. Algar, a high school social studies teacher, is none of the above. His family lives across the country, and he likes it that way.

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Where on earth could such a theatrical inspiration have come from? Massing, a droll and effervescent sort with a wicked sense of humour, explains: real life. “Poor Bob,” she says of her  husband. “He’s quite introverted, and I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate having any part of our lives featured in drama. But (Oh! Christmas Tree) was actually inspired by our relationship….”

playwright Connie Massing. Photo supplied.

“I’m less Christmas-mad than I used to be. But when we first got together….” Massing drifts amiably into recollection. “So we move in together, and one day I say, ‘well, maybe we can get the tree this weekend…. And Bob said, ‘uh, do we have to?’.” It stopped Massing in her tracks.

“‘Well, yeah. We have to have a Christmas tree’. He was actually really hoping we wouldn’t have to go there…. I know eh?” Massing is still awestruck by this unexpected development. “OK, not life and death. But it felt pretty big, in the context of our lives together. Was this going to be A Thing?”

“For me,” she says feelingly, “the tree is the epicentre of Christmas…. I care more about the tree than the gifts under it, really.”

In the end, Massing prevailed and they got a tree. “I’m the baby of the family and used to getting my own way; Bob is a long-suffering oldest child. But I’m more grown-up than you might imagine,” Massing laughs. For the sake of the relationship she compromised on an artificial tree, though “it sort of pains me.” She heats pine oil in an incense burner to compensate.

Naturally, Lucy and Algar aren’t exact replicas of their real-life inspirations. “There’s probably more of me in Lucy than Bob in Algar,” says Massing. She’s “so tickled!” (“it’s always been my dream with this show”) that a real-life married couple stars in the production directed by Brian Deedrick, on loan from the opera world  for the occasion. You’ll meet Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in the 12thnight.ca companion piece to this article (read it here). 

“It’s one of my little theories about relationships,” says Massing, “that the thing that really draws you in a romance often has a flip side that you might not really care for when you get deeper into the exploration. The thought works its way into Oh! Christmas Tree, which began life as a 53-minute commission from Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre in 2012.

“The cheerful extroverted (aspect) of Lucy’s nature that Algar really fell in love with has a dark side, it turns out. And in the opposite direction, she loves his sardonic sense of humour. But there’s a flip side to that,” too. And it surfaces during the fa-la-la season when domestic friction really comes into its own.

Not least, Massing agrees, because there’s a kind of obligation to be happy, the unspoken cultural thought that “you’re kind of a fuck-up if you can’t get it up for Christmas.”

Agar is up against it in other ways, too. For one thing, as a teacher, he’s convinced that during the Yuletide season, “a slippery slope from Halloween,” the kids are “completely out of their minds.” Lucy’s line of work means that Christmas is her silly season.  “There she is, making hats for the Mr. Lube Christmas staff party, things like that. And she’s agreed to take on a Christmas Eve wedding.”

“She has a huge kooky close-knit family,” with inviolable Yuletide traditions, of an indeterminately Scandinavian nature. In this regard, Massing, who has four siblings, extrapolates a little from her own family life, adrenalized into overdrive at Christmas. “On top of everything else, by Nov. 30 we each had to buy 24 little presents, for each day of Advent, and write a little poem to accompany each present.” 

“I regress to my worst five-year-old self,” says Massing cheerfully of her personal Christmas avatar. “If I got more sleep and ate less shortbread…. Eating too much sugar is bad for people’s marriages.”

PREVIEW

Oh! Christmas Tree

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Brian Deedrick

Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Keeping Christmas in our hearts: A Christmas Carol to lift your spirits at the Citadel. A review

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge,Jeremy Baumung as Marley, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

For 19 years, Edmonton theatre audiences have had their own special answer, hand-delivered from the stage live and in person. It’s come to us in the Citadel’s theatrically lavish, emotionally rich production of A Christmas Carol.

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here

At its final opening night Thursday (the Citadel has announced its replacement next season by a new Christmas Carol), the sense of wonder that’s everywhere in the production conceived by playwright Tom Wood and director Bob Baker seized the audience and brought us collectively to our feet. It’s been a great run, a civic tradition that lives up to its name — a Christmas present that, unlike a pair of socks, actually lifts your spirits. You have till Dec. 23 to catch it.

Since I first saw the show in 2000, the world, arguably, has grown less hospitable, less charitable. And the journey of a frozen soul back from exile to the hearth of human connectedness, as set forth in Dickens’ iconic 1843 tale of redemption on Christmas Eve, is more heart-filling than ever.

What gives this production its special lustre?

To backtrack, the world repertoire is crammed with stage incarnations  — comedies, satires, melodramas — of Christmas Carol’s familiar seasonal story of salvaging a die-hard misanthrope. The gist of many is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an old curmudgeon in a really bad mood until, whee!, he’s in a really good mood.

I’ve sat through storybook theatre versions and/or actors divvying up the costumes they’ve just discovered in a trunk, and then doing the narrative bits chorally. Narrators in top-hats (and ersatz English accents) introducing the scenes: “I take you now to the humble home of Bob Cratchit….” Musicals with pop songs, or dance breaks, or audience participation carolling (sometimes with song sheets) to show we’re all in this together.

I remember writing after one particularly egregious example that you couldn’t help but feel a flicker of sympathy for the growly guy who eats low-cal by himself on Christmas Eve, and flatly refuses to go to his nephew’s place the next day for dinner and party games. That may well have been the same season I had one of my worst ideas ever, a “Bah! Humbug!” contest for the public. God help us, every one.

But I digress. I’ve had 19 opening nights now, to ponder this deluxe production. It’s inspiring to see the full resources of a major theatre and artists at the top of their game devote themselves to a story that, in other versions, is often reduced to a schematic seasonal entertainment. The ingenious theatricality of the production is in the unusual synchronicity of design (by Leslie Frankish, with Robert Thomson’s lighting and Michael Becker’s sound) and stagecraft.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Things aren’t just recounted; they happen onstage. Scrooge’s angry journey though the bustle of Dickensian London and his night of terrors, propelled by phantoms back and then forward in time, are set in motion by the cast themselves. They reconfigure lamp posts and staircases, in a design that opens, layer after layer, like a magic box.

The past, the present, and the future seem to cohabit one mind. In Wood’s adaptation, the word “change” permeates the air, from the obsequies of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley to Scrooge’s encounter with the chilling Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come and beyond, to the rebirth of a man on Christmas morning.

Since the initial run of Wood himself as Scrooge for the first 11 seasons of the production — an acidic humorist and connoisseur of human absurdity who’s rotted from within — every Scrooge has been individual and distinctive in personality and tone. Richard McMillan, James MacDonald, Glenn Nelson, John Wright, and now Julien Arnold (alternating with Nelson) have made the role their own.

Some performances (McMillan and MacDonald spring to mind) are chiselled from perma-frost. Arnold, who amazingly became Scrooge last season from being Bob Cratchit,  isn’t of the icy and withdrawn school of Scrooge-ism. The performance has a kind of furious exuberance about it; there’s something energetic, actively outgoing about the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” in this Scrooge. And the transmutation of that forcefulness into joy on Christmas morning is something to cherish. He’s irresistible.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The cast rises to the occasion. I’m singling out Sheldon Elter as the good-hearted Bob, Beth Graham as fierce and plucky Mrs. Cratchit, Mat Busby as Scrooge’s ever-cordial ever-hopeful nephew Fred, Oscar Derkx as the younger and gradually hardening Scrooge, Patricia Darbasie as Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber, Jeremy Baumung as the tortured ghost of Jacob Marley, Ashley Wright as the inherently celebratory Mr. Fezziwig. But the whole all-Edmonton ensemble, including Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim, is excellent.  Under Wayne Paquette’s direction, parallel scenes chez Cratchit and Fred, designed to reveal a similar festive spirit, inhabit the stage zestfully. The busy-ness of the stage never seems forced.

I wrote earlier this week about A Christmas Carol as a seminal event in Edmonton theatre, a labour of love where whole theatre careers have been forged (read it here). Thursday night, it was the shared experience of being in the audience, unlocking something precious, a sense of wonder. 

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

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Keeping Christmas in our hearts: A Christmas Carol to lift our spirits at the Citadel. A review.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge,Jeremy Baumung as Marley, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

For 19 years, Edmonton theatre audiences have had their own special answer, hand-delivered from the stage live and in person. It’s come to us in the Citadel’s theatrically lavish, emotionally rich production of A Christmas Carol.

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here

At its final opening night Thursday (the Citadel has announced its replacement next season by a new Christmas Carol), the sense of wonder that’s everywhere in the production conceived by playwright Tom Wood and director Bob Baker seized the audience and brought us collectively to our feet. It’s been a great run, a civic tradition that lives up to its name — a Christmas present that, unlike a pair of socks, actually lifts your spirits. You have till Dec. 23 to catch it.

Since I first saw the show in 2000, the world, arguably, has grown less hospitable, less charitable. And the journey of a frozen soul back from exile to the hearth of human connectedness, as set forth in Dickens’ iconic 1843 tale of redemption on Christmas Eve, is more heart-filling than ever.

What gives this production its special lustre?

To backtrack, the world repertoire is crammed with stage incarnations  — comedies, satires, melodramas — of Christmas Carol’s familiar seasonal story of salvaging a die-hard misanthrope. The gist of many is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an old curmudgeon in a really bad mood until, whee!, he’s in a really good mood.

I’ve sat through storybook theatre versions and/or actors divvying up the costumes they’ve just discovered in a trunk, and then doing the narrative bits chorally. Narrators in top-hats (and ersatz English accents) introducing the scenes: “I take you now to the humble home of Bob Cratchit….” Musicals with pop songs, or dance breaks, or audience participation carolling (sometimes with song sheets) to show we’re all in this together.

I remember writing after one particularly egregious example that you couldn’t help but feel a flicker of sympathy for the growly guy who eats low-cal by himself on Christmas Eve, and flatly refuses to go to his nephew’s place the next day for dinner and party games. That may well have been the same season I had one of my worst ideas ever, a “Bah! Humbug!” contest for the public. God help us, every one.

But I digress. I’ve had 19 opening nights now, to ponder this deluxe production. It’s inspiring to see the full resources of a major theatre and artists at the top of their game devote themselves to a story that, in other versions, is often reduced to a schematic seasonal entertainment. The ingenious theatricality of the production is in the unusual synchronicity of design (by Leslie Frankish, with Robert Thomson’s lighting and Michael Becker’s sound) and stagecraft.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Things aren’t just recounted; they happen onstage. Scrooge’s angry journey though the bustle of Dickensian London and his night of terrors, propelled by phantoms back and then forward in time, are set in motion by the cast themselves. They reconfigure lamp posts and staircases, in a design that opens, layer after layer, like a magic box.

The past, the present, and the future seem to cohabit one mind. In Wood’s adaptation, the word “change” permeates the air, from the obsequies of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley to Scrooge’s encounter with the chilling Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come and beyond, to the rebirth of a man on Christmas morning.

Since the initial run of Wood himself as Scrooge for the first 11 seasons of the production — an acidic humorist and connoisseur of human absurdity who’s rotted from within — every Scrooge has been individual and distinctive in personality and tone. Richard McMillan, James MacDonald, Glenn Nelson, John Wright, and now Julien Arnold (alternating with Nelson) have made the role their own.

Some performances (McMillan and MacDonald spring to mind) are chiselled from perma-frost. Arnold, who amazingly became Scrooge last season from being Bob Cratchit,  isn’t of the icy and withdrawn school of Scrooge-ism. The performance has a kind of furious exuberance about it; there’s something energetic, actively outgoing about the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” in this Scrooge. And the transmutation of that forcefulness into joy on Christmas morning is something to cherish. He’s irresistible.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The cast rises to the occasion. I’m singling out Sheldon Elter as the good-hearted Bob, Beth Graham as fierce and plucky Mrs. Cratchit, Mat Busby as Scrooge’s ever-cordial ever-hopeful nephew Fred, Oscar Derkx as the younger and gradually hardening Scrooge, Patricia Darbasie as Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber, Jeremy Baumung as the tortured ghost of Jacob Marley, Ashley Wright as the inherently celebratory Mr. Fezziwig. But the whole all-Edmonton ensemble, including Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim, is excellent.  Under Wayne Paquette’s direction, the parallel scenes chez Cratchit and Fred, designed to reveal a similar festive spirit, inhabit the stage zestfully. The busy-ness of the stage never seems forced.

I wrote earlier this week about A Christmas Carol as a seminal event in Edmonton theatre, a labour of love where whole theatre careers have been forged (read it here). Thursday night, it was the shared experience of being in the audience, releasing something precious, a sense of wonder. 

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

“The season when abundance rejoices”: a splendid Christmas Carol retires at the Citadel after 19 seasons

Glenn Nelson as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Christmas, sir, is a cheat!” snaps Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge with a grimace of distaste that may strike a chord in your own soul — especially if you’ve done time in a mall, barraged by retail jollity and the seasonal oeuvre of Mariah Carey. 

For 18 seasons, the Citadel’s bountiful production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by actor/playwright Tom Wood and brought to the stage by director Bob Baker, has been a glorious counter-argument to Bah! Humbug!. And Edmonton has taken it to heart. 

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Thursday night is an historic event in the civic archive. It’s the 19th, and final, opening night of a production that has become a bona fide Christmas tradition in these parts. And it’s remarkable not only for its longevity but its thrilling theatrical ingenuity, its emotional complexity, its audience bonding. Next year, the Citadel plans to unveil a new adaptation of Dickens’ celebrated 1843 ghost story novella; that Christmas Carol Yet To Come remains shrouded in mystery.

When A Christmas Carol opened in December 2000 on the Citadel’s open, no-secrets Maclab thrust stage — a single urchin in a pool of light sings God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and vanishes —  Cheryl Hoover, stage manager at the time, now the Citadel’s Director of Production, was holding her breath. She didn’t exhale till intermission.

It was, is, after all, a huge show by any measure — “one of the most complex I’ve ever worked on, and one of the best,” says Hoover. The costumed cast of 39, nearly half of them kids ages seven to 15, are in perpetual motion. So is Leslie Frankish’s design, built entirely in-house. It looks like a vintage Victorian card. And it opens up like a magic Christmas box and then a snow globe, to reveal the world, indoors and out-, of an ossified misanthrope whose soul is reconstituted on Christmas Eve in a last-ditch intervention from the spirit world.

Glenn Nelson as Scrooge, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Street lamps and staircases are reconfigured constantly by half-lit “human manpower,” as Hoover says of the “150 scenery moves” in the show. They’re executed — in a  “choreographed dance” as Hoover puts it — as Mr. Scrooge stomps furiously through London’s crowded streets, past arcades of shops, from the chilly offices of Marley & Scrooge to his own bleak vaulted chambers. The journey orchestrated by the three ghosts takes the frozen-hearted Ebenezer back into his own past and the roots of his soulless avarice, and forward through space and time, even into the grave and back, in a swirl of dramatically escalating scenes.

Julien Arnold as Bob Cratchit. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

Hoover tots up the person-power. “it took about 100 wardrobe, wig- and facial hair makers, carpenters, prop builders, painters, electricians, audio (specialists), riggers and stage craftspeople to build the show,” including its 1500 costume pieces. And it takes a crew of 20 to run every performance, with its 750 sound and 250 lighting cues.

There’s music: the late Michael Becker’s cinematic soundscape of familiar carols filtering through an unearthly musical ether. There’s magic: Scrooge’s door knocker transforms into face of his late and unlamented parter Jacob Marley; his bell lifts off the table of its own volition. The magic is low-tech but tricky on a thrust stage where there’s no proscenium to hide behind. And there are ghosts who preside over Scrooge’s Christmas Eve reclamation for humanity.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by and starring Tom Wood. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

A Christmas Carol is so intricately put together that, in its premiere year, as Hoover reports, “it took us two hours to tech from the end of the opening scene” ( in which we’re watching Marley’s funeral through the fog) to lights-up in the next, a bustling scene of shoppers, vendors and street people — less than a minute in the play. When the show went into its first preview with an audience, “it was our first full run-through.”

“That night was my Christmas miracle,” says Hoover. Michelle Chan, then the assistant stage manager and now the Citadel’s resident S.M., echoes the thought. “It’s a feeling that I will never forget, and I still have that feeling on this show every year. There’s something truly magical and transformative about this production and how the audience reacts to it.”

Pulling it off with four weeks’ rehearsal that first year was a race against time and improbability. Naturally, there have been glitches: improv time in live theatre, and a test of stage managerial nerves.

At one first-year matinee, for example, someone “absent-mindedly plugged in something in the trap room…” says Hoover, “causing a power overload. So (Scrooge’s) bed coming out of the floor came to a halt midway rising out of the floor.” Oops.

Jeremy Baumung as Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

At one Year 2 performance, the ghost of Scrooge’s late and unlamented partner Marley couldn’t connect his harness to the rig that flies him magically out the window — as per Wood’s blithe stage direction “Marley lifts into the air and floats out the window.” So the actor, the late Larry Yachimec, had to walk off instead. He cleverly “exited into the closet door,” Hoover says. “Truly magical…. Problem-solving in an instant is one of the thrills of live theatre.”

Hoover remembers the time the cemetery scene ran over its own cable (en route to the stage) and abruptly halted. In the total blackness, one crew member rushed on, and tripped and rolled over another. “Keystone Kops,” says the imperturbable Hoover, watching on her infrared monitor.

James MacDonald as Ebenezer Scooge, A Christmas Carol. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

To say there’s a show-behind-the-show isn’t just a fanciful truism in a production as complicated as A Christmas Carol. In Year 6, a new sound operator arrived. To give the newcomer a fighting chance with the barrage of cues, Hoover remembers that Michelle Chan and head electrician Sheila Cleasby (who like Chan is a 19-year veteran of A Christmas Carol) “acted out the entire show so I could call all those sound cues for our new guy to practice.”   

Tom Wood as Scrooge. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

A long-run on the page makes a classic. A long-run on the stage — especially if it happens but once a year, with veterans, newcomers, and lots of kids (and growth spurts) — makes a classic crisis, potentially. Scrooge can get a year or two or seven older (“and not an hour richer,” as he points out acidly). But, face it, it just looks wrong if the Cratchit kids are college age. In 19 seasons of Christmas Carols, families of actors, and generations of kids, have grown up (many of them into acting careers) declaring ‘Merry Christmas!’ in November. And they’ve graduated to other roles in the show as they grew.

The Cratchits. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

Maralyn Ryan, who played Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber for 14 years, has been in A Christmas Carol with both her daughters Kate and Bridget Ryan, and her granddaughter Emma Wilmott. The Dowler-Coltmans, Jordan, Braydon and Tim, have occupied a range of Cratchit roles (this year Braydon is in the show as Joseph). The Cheladyn’s — dad Mitch and his two daughters Lea and Tatiana — were in the show together for years.

In 19 Christmas Carols, a small but distinguished coterie of actors has delivered ‘Bah, Humbug!’ from the Citadel stage. For the first 11 seasons, Wood himself was the flinty Ebenezer, “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone” and poster-boy for spiritual makeovers. It’s a big role (Scrooge is onstage for all but six minutes), and as fashioned by Wood the playwright, an unusually complex one, in an adaptation that’s all about the human capacity for change and redemption. As Hoover says, “if we are overjoyed to see that change in the ‘wake up’ scene, Scrooge has done his job. The message that it’s never too late is so important.”

Richard McMillan as Scrooge. Photo supplied by Citadel Theatre.

The late Stratford and Tarragon star Richard McMillan took on the role in 2010 for a couple of seasons. James MacDonald, now the artistic director of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, was either Scrooge or Marley for six. John Wright has been a Citadel Scrooge. And as a startling testimonial to versatility, the production’s original Bob Cratchit, Julien Arnold, moved from that assignment as the big-hearted victim of Victorian injustice to the old skinflint himself. You’ll see him as Scrooge again this year (alternating with Glenn Nelson), with Sheldon Elter as Bob.

The Cratchit with the crutch might only be in three scenes and the finale of A Christmas Carol, but he does get the big showstopper line and the signature prop. Downside? he has to stay petit — small enough for Bob Cratchit to lift up onto his shoulder. Danielle Checknita at 11 was the first Tiny Tim, who graduated to “Numerous Boys” the next year, and “girl roles” after that. Emma Houghton, currently on the Citadel mainstage as the flighty Lydia in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, has been a Tiny Tim.

Sheldon Elter as Bob Cratchit, with Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim. Photo by Epic Photograph.

The first boy Tiny Tim was Ben Wheelwright, at 9, in 2002. He was the youngest of the Scrooges two years later, as well as Monkey Boy, assistant to the pawnbroker Old Joe, who ends up with Scrooge’s bed linen. These days Wheelwright is on Broadway, in the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and before that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

In the great arc of Citadel Christmas Carols, careers have been honed. Wayne Paquette, a 17-season veteran of the show, has been apprentice stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant director, and for the last two years, director.

For Michelle Chan, “it’s been so very important…. It was my very first show at the Citadel and I feel so proud to have been involved from the beginning. It has made me a stronger stage manager and I have developed some amazing friendships out of it…. It is always the start of my real Christmas season and it will hold a special place for me always.” As Hoover says, “how wonderful to know you are part of someone’s yearly tradition….”

“Tis the season when abundance rejoices,” says one Victorian worthy in A Christmas Carol. And abundant this production of A Christmas Carol has been. For that big, celebratory emotional experience, year after year, we’re grateful.

PREVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella

Originally directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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It’s beginning to look a lot like …

Creatures of Impulse, Empress of Blandings Productions. Photo supplied.

Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s mistletoe, a tree, and an against-the-odds nerd romance in the delightful holiday show currently running at the Citadel.  Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, has taken the initiative on seasonal entertainments, by transplanting us in the evergreen Regency world of Jane Austen, with a modern “sequel” of sorts to Pride and Prejudice

And that is just the start. This is the week when the early signs are confirmed and unmistakeable: seasonal entertainments have arrived for your diversion (and for preventing you from decking your relatives instead of the halls).

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•Starting tonight, it’s Empress of Blandings’ version of Creatures of Impulse by W.S. Gilbert (yes, of G&S fame). It’s an 1871  farce (originally a musical) set in motion by the unwelcome tenure of a particularly problematic client at The Three Pigeons inn. She might be a bad fairy, which would certainly up the Trip Advisor ante.

A young indie collective with a bent for witty, original contemporary reinventions, Empress of Blandings returns to the scene trailing laughter, sold-out houses — and an archive of Fringe comedies including Molière’s The Flying Doctor; Onions and Garlic, an original musical fashioned from a traditional Jewish folktale; amazingly,a version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Creatures of Impulse, billed as “a Christmas romp for the whole family,” is the collective’s first foray into winter season. Celia Taylor’s production runs at Whitemud Crossing Public Library (4211 106 St.) tonight and Wednesday, 7 p.m.; Saturday (Dec. 8), 4 p.m.; Monday (Dec. 10), 7 p.m. Tickets: eventbrite.com or at the door. (Food Bank donations welcome).

Tom Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Wot!? The one that’s as big as me?! It’s the week when the Citadel’s wonderful production of A Christmas Carol returns to the Maclab stage for its 19th, and final, season.  Adapted by Tom Wood from the indelible Dickens novella of 1843, about a frozen-hearted man reclaimed for humanity by a ghostly intervention on Christmas Eve, Bob Baker’s production has been a venerable civic seasonal tradition for nearly two decades. It opens Thursday, and you have till Dec. 23 to see Julien Arnold, an erstwhile Bob Cratchit, as the flinty Ebenezer Scrooge.

Forget the hockey mantra ‘maybe next year’. The theatre company plans to retire this production, and next Yule season unveil a new Christmas Carol adaptation.

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com. Food Bank donations welcome. More from 12thnight.ca on this grand finale incarnation soon.

 

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Dreaming of home: Matara takes us to the zoo and a lone elephant, at Workshop West. A review.

Elinor Holt and Minister Faust in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This is her home. And we are her family.” 

That’s Karen the zookeeper (Elinor Holt) taking on protesters and talking about her charge, who’s big, exotic, fascinating — and languishing a world away from her ‘country of origin’. Matara is an elephant — no, the elephant — in a small, struggling zoo in a dark, wintry city with a river running through it.

And if you don’t recognize in that dramatic scenario the high-profile controversy about Lucy, the sole elephant aging into decrepitude in Edmonton’s Valley Zoo, well, you’ve been in ra-ra chamber of commerce meetings too long with the door closed.

The thorny idea of “home,” what it means, what it can legitimately claim to possess, what it plants in the heart, is everywhere in Conni Massing’s provocative, thoughtful, absorbing — and genuinely strange — new play Matara, directed by Tracy Carroll to launch Workshop West’s 40th anniversary season. Matara, the title character, is recently bereaved: her friend Cheerio, the zoo’s other elephant, has recently died. And since elephants are sociable animals who need the company — and in frozen exile, you’d think the consolation — of other elephants in order to thrive, the incipient tragedy attached to Matara’s elephantine solitude is the urgency that drives the play.

Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli in Matara, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Not that Matara’s human foster family, so to speak, in the “home” she’s had for decades, is inattentive or negligent. Au contraire. Karen is devoted, passionately, fiercely, unequivocally, to the elephant, to the exclusion of human relationships. Matara is her only friend. She converses with Matara; she advocates for Matara; she interprets Matara’s every footstep, every gesture of ear and trunk. “Are you dancing, my love? Is it a waltz?” She wonders at times if she’s “an alien.” She may have gone mad.

Holt, who stomps the stage in her rubber boots like someone testing the ground for a possible subterranean attack, is compelling in the role.

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As Karen explains at the outset, that protective empathy originated in the exposure to exotic animals that zoos deliver to kids. Karen’s defence of zoos will alter in the course of Matara, haven to prison. 

The zoo, for its part, is needy too. It needs its star attraction alive and healthy. It needs an audience, and funding, two related goals as every arts company in the country will understand. Enter Romney (Patricia Zentilli).

She’s a perky and beaming “corporative narrative consultant and fund-raising facilitator,” as she explains. Her gig is to put a positive spin on the zoo and “change public perception”  in the light of the elephant controversy and the Wild Watch protesters outside the gates.

Sending Matara to an elephant sanctuary would be a public relations, and revenue, disaster: look what happened to Ringling Brothers Circus when they got rid of the elephants, says Romney. She’s all about “good news stories” and “competing narratives” as she  launches a series of pr initiatives, like a “Perspectives on Nature” series, a solstice ball, a hilarious poetry contest. 

In Romney, Massing, who has a wickedly sharp ear for corporate-speak — “under-promise and over-deliver, that’s the rule in my business” — has created a juicy comic role. And Zentilli makes a meal of it, in a very funny performance that nails the glib cadence of spin-doctoring, and should make practitioners in every field wince a little.

Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

The third character, Marcel (Minister Faust), is the zoo night security guard, a PhD student far from home — someone completely outside Romney’s ken. As a survivor of the Rwandan genocide that claimed his family, he’s a solitary exilé, like Matara. He brings a perspective on human tragedy and displacement to a setting dominated by an animal tragedy and displacement. Struggling to adjust to his frigid new surroundings without judgment, he is, as Minister Faust’s performance captures, wary, bemused, and curious.

Romney has never seen wariness that she didn’t want to overcome and “cure,” or a reference to “instinct” she didn’t want to pursue. But it is perhaps a misstep for the play and production to take her dimness into out-and-out farcical territory in one scene with Marcel. We already know how little she understands what people, much less animals, are thinking. But the actors negotiate with aplomb.

Like Karen, Marcel has a relationship with nature. But he doesn’t talk to the elephant; he communes with the river, rising daily in the non-stop rain and sleet and snow. And his sense of an impending watery apocalypse gives Matara its strange, lyrical quality as it joins with the story of Noah and his boat-building venture in animal rescue.

As for Matara herself, the elephant is conjured in an ingeniously deconstructed low-tech creation — trunk, eyes, ears — by the combined forces of puppet designer Randall Fraser and sound designers Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil. She’s mysterious, unknowable, and moved onstage by human agency. 

In Carroll’s production, smartly, the zoo is the idea of captivity in a foreign world, imagined and not put onstage. The inhospitality of that world where wild animals have been relocated and detained is suggested by designer T. Erin Gruber’s creative collection of bars and umbrellas, across which projections play, with non-stop shafts of precipitation. Eerie pewter winter half-light, which we know so well here, is perfectly captured; you’ll want to give every living creature mitts. 

The multiple perspectives on zoos and our fascination with animals are admirably touched on in Matara. And the question is floated for our perusal: Can we legitimately ever say we “know” what’s best for an animal? Can we dream their dreams for them?

The issues are there. But there’s a strangeness, too, that gives the play its lustre. Matara is infiltrated by lyrical visions, the sense of loss, dreams, dreams-turned-nightmares. Home, in the end, is what haunts you, says Massing’s play. And at the zoo, we’re seeing strangers in a strange land.

REVIEW

Matara

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Elinor Holt, Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli

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

Running: through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-477-5955, workshopwest.org

  

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Is history spinning forwards or backwards? Shows at Studio and MacEwan wonder about that

On the Verge, U of A Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It is a disconcertingly à propos moment in the space-time continuum for both the plays opening this week at Edmonton’s biggest theatre schools. You can easily make yourself dizzy wondering whether history is catapulting forward or spinning backwards. Both shows play with your vertigo.

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At the U of A’s Studio Theatre, opening tonight on the Timms Centre For The Arts stage, it’s On The Verge or the Geography of Yearning, Eric Overmyer’s nutty, fantastical chronicle of the adventures of three intrepid Victorian lady explorers on their way to Terra Incognito in the Antipodes in 1888. “High adventure and stupefying risk are my metier!” cries one, after they’ve negotiated another “awful, yawning chasm,” not to mention jungles, crocodiles, glaciers, cannibals, a troll….

En route to the last of the brave new worlds, as odd phrases pop into their heads, they come to realize they’re travelling not just through space but through time — until they arrive in the strangest location of all, 1950s America.

In MacEwan University’s Triffo Theatre, where it opened Wednesday, it’s 9 to 5, the 2009 Broadway musical fashioned from the movie of two decades before that, and spun from Dolly Parton’s irresistibly catchy title song (doesn’t just reading the title make the tune emerge from the depths of your brain to centrestage?). The book is by Patricia Resnick, the score is by the irrepressible Dolly.

It reverses through time to the age of slime in which the workplace was was dominated by creepy, lying, patronizing, hypocritical chauvinists — otherwise known as The Boss. “Be a good girl, go get my coffee.” Hey, wasn’t that earlier today? And hey, even in this enlightened age, aren’t there some countries in the world with bosses like that? What on earth happened to the notion of progress? Just asking.

In 9 to 5, it’s payback time.

On The Verge, directed by the former U of A drama department chair Kathleen Weiss, runs through Dec. 8 at the University of Alberta’s Timms Centre for the Arts. Tickets: 780-492-2495 or ualberta.ca/artshows. 9 to 5, directed by theatre arts head Jim Guedo (and launching the MacEwan University season), is at the Triffo Theatre in Allard Hall through Dec. 8. Tickets: Tickets@MacEwan.ca.

      

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“The elephant in the room is … an elephant.” Conni Massing’s Matara opens the Workshop West season

Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli in Matara, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

That not one but two new plays by Conni Massing are premiering this season is noteworthy. That they open a  mere two weeks apart, the work of two different theatre companies, is more striking still.   

And here’s the capper. One falls within the signature Massing turf, seeded with romantic comedies as wry and funny as the playwright herself. The other is a radical departure for Massing into a “very different tone” and a controversy that has galvanized heated, polarized feelings which she admits candidly she hasn’t entirely resolved for herself.

“It’s complicated,” says Massing of Matara, the first and only play of the season in which an elephant takes the stage. “My feelings about zoos have evolved but I still don’t know what I think….”

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You’ll have to wait till a fortnight for Oh Christmas Tree!, a festive “Christmas Valentine,” (to mix our seasonal references). It opens Dec. 13 in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series in an indie production directed by Massing’s old friend Brian Deedrick, retrieved from the world of opera for this special occasion. More in a future post about a Yuletide “relationship comedy” in which the old conundrum “to tree or not to tree” figures prominently.

Matara, which launches Workshop West’s 40th anniversary season Friday at the Backstage Theatre, “inevitably wades into controversy” (as Massing puts it) with the fictional story of an elephant in a small zoo. Ring a bell? Yes, it’s inspired by our Lucy, the only solitary elephant in the country, and in a frozen winter city to boot. OK, Christmas may have its stresses (and the ancient argument over real vs artificial trees). But as Massing says, laughing, “public controversies don’t normally break out over romantic comedies. I’m not expecting any protests outside the door of Oh Christmas Tree!.”

In Matara, as Massing has said, “the elephant in the room is … an elephant.” And on a break between rehearsals for both her new plays last week, she made time to explain why it had theatrical potential. “I’ve always felt strongly about animals,” she says. “But that on its own does not a dramatic premise make. And then I heard about Lucy….” Since Massing “doesn’t go to zoos” — “I thought they were flat-out creepy.” — it took a Free Lucy! button in a grocery story to pique Massing’s curiosity.

playwright Connie Massing. Photo supplied.

“I wanted to investigate this special relationship we have with animals. It’s complicated; it runs the gamut from household pets to wild animals.” And the story of Lucy, with all the attendant tumult of controversy, was “an interesting context to think more about the very peculiar, artificial environment where we plunk animals from half-way across the globe … so we can look at them.”

Massing was already working on a play about the relationship between an elephant and an elephant-keeper, inspired by Lucy, when Workshop West’s Vern Thiessen launched his 2016  initiative in playwright/community match-making. “Where would you like to spend a month?” he asked a diverse octet of Edmonton playwrights, with a view to generating diverse 10-minute playlets that could add up to a cultural mosaic of this place. Massing’s answer: “at the Valley Zoo,” where she’d never before gained backstage access.

The staff, naturally, were a little gun-shy. After all, they’d weathered the reverb of the Lucy controversies, including death threats: Should Edmonton keep Lucy? Should Edmonton send Lucy to join fellow elephants somewhere a lot more socially and climatically hospitable?. “People feel SO strongly about her. There’s so much anger, so much sense of being right…. It’s complicated and that’s great for me as a playwright.”

Massing donned steel-toed rubber boots and grabbed a shovel. She observed and shadowed the zookeepers through their shifts, and says she felt “a bit funny” about not offering up the information she was already writing a play about Lucy. “But I was so grateful to be able to hang out and learn….”

Some knowledge was practical. “This is how the keepers arrange themselves around the elephant when she’s on a walk. This is how you bathe an elephant. Elephants’ feet get sore: this is what you do….”

Some knowledge was insight into the “emotional connection” between the zookeepers and the elephant. “They’re not really supposed to anthropomorphize the animals; they’re supposed to be arm’s length. But they’re not! They LOVE the elephant. And the elephant seems to care for them too…. She’s been there since she was three or four years old. And now she’s 42. So I’m really torn about what she considers to be her home. And she’s really bonded with her keepers.”

Minister Faust in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Massing sighs. She went into the research thinking “it’s just not right for Lucy to be here. Let’s send her away. The End…. The activists think that she hasn’t been examined by the right calibre of vet to make a judgment.” But in the end, “now, at this point in time, I really don’t think moving Lucy is the best thing to do.” Even if you concede that argument, there’s the self-fulfilling prophecy to consider: why was Lucy here in the first place? And then, knowing how unnatural solitude is for elephants, why on earth did the city wait so long that it eventually became problematic to move her? 

“I get why people are appalled that we have this lone elephant. In Edmonton. In winter for gawd’s sake…. So far from home (Lucy is from Sri Lanka). And the climate! In the natural order of things Lucy would be wandering through teak forests holding the tail of the elephant in front, with 40 others behind. They’re meant to live in herds, in families.”

“Times have changed. (The zoo) would never get another elephant. When Lucy dies, that’s the end of the chapter.”

“It’s been an interesting journey,” says Massing of her work on Matara. “I’ve gone from absolute black-and-white (certainty) to thinking this is actually quite complicated….”

The three characters in Matara are there, says the playwright, “to represent three points of view, on animals and on zoos generally. It helps me include my own complicated feelings.” One is Lucy’s keeper (Elinor Holt); one is a foreign PhD student from Rwanda (Minister Faust) working as a security guard. And the third is a marketing/ outreach/ image consultant (Patricia Zentilli). “I’m familiar with that kind of person from the arts,” says Massing, “someone who gets parachuted in to an organization having trouble, in order to help them come up with ‘a new narrative’.”

And there’s a fourth role, too, and not easy to cast: Matara herself, as created by the joint forces of puppet designer Randall Fraser and projection scenographer T. Erin Gruber, and sound designers Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil. 

“I’ve learned many admirable things about zoos,” Massing says. “They do great work in conservation and all that. No argument there. But, bottom line, to walk around any zoo, it’s hard for me to see giant wild animals — OK, not snakes or fruit flies — in cages. It hurts my head, my heart maybe….”

There’s something downright magical about elephants, as Massing muses. “They’re brilliant; they’ve had a place of honour in many cultures and mythologies…. People really care about them, find them so appealing.” So what is it about these huge exotic creatures that is irresistible, that makes you care about their fortunes in the world? 

Intelligence, for one, thinks Massing. And size: “people have the feeling of being in the presence of something grand.” And eyes. “We stare into their faces and see … ourselves. It’s much harder to make the public feel sympathy for animals who don’t have big eyes.” 

PREVIEW

Matara

Theatre: Workshop West

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Elinor Holt, Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli

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

Running: Friday through Dec. 8

Tickets: 780-477-5955, workshopwest.org

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“Ripe for a lapse”: Fallen Angels is a Bright Young Things lark. A review.

Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The “nice part” of Julia is perfectly content with matrimonial “happiness and tranquillity.” There lurks, however, “a beastly, unworthy thing waiting to spring.”

And, she adds darkly, “it hasn’t been fed for a long LONG time….”

In Noël Coward’s light and fizzy 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, best friends Julia (Belinda Cornish) and Jane (Vanessa Sabourin), “wretchedly happy married women,” are sent into a tailspin by the imminent arrival of the exotic French lover with whom they each had a “grand passion” seven years before. 

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After five years of marital worthiness, a certain downside has begun to reveal itself — in boredom. And the women cut to the chase (and to and sensational quantities of champagne). “We’re both ripe for a lapse,” declares Julia. “A re-lapse,” amends Jane, as they dissolve into laughter. My own favourite line, in their joint assessment, belongs to the latter: “we shall go down like ninepins.”

Drunkenness! Nostalgia for pre-marital sexual adventuring! From respectable married ladies! Coward’s scandalous hit comedy, which unleashed torrents of outrage in the press and activity at the box office, has been taken up with gusto and style by Bright Young Things. And in Marianne Copthorne’s production, the big offender (and the big draw) — the virtuoso scene in which Julia and Jane get drunk and disorderly — is calibrated in a masterful way by the actors.

Giddy laughter turns hysterical, rather astute analysis of marriage and sexual politics gets de-railed or upended by non-sequiturs or wistful thoughts of lost romantic passion … and two old friends work themselves into a major row. Cornish and Sabourin — the one more languid and fluting and the other a bit more furrowed and intense —  negotiate the wild fluctuations of the unravelling scene with great comic dexterity, chemistry, and detail. “Riotous” is, I guess, exactly the word for a two-woman riot against the Victorian certainties that are melting away in the cultural climate change of the modern age. And the actors are great fun together, as they weave gambits and feints and insights. 

In Fallen Angels, effervescent as it is, you get to see the Coward’s sassy intersection and reinvention of of three classic theatrical stage biz riffs. And all are accomplished with considerable pizzaz in this production. One is inebriation and the many shades of tipsy en route to completely corked. One involves telephones — both the calls and the cords thereof (Cornish in a self-strangulation tango with the cord is a sight to cherish). The third is the smart servant, since the time of Roman comedy way more knowing than the master.

The upper class ladies, languishing in idleness and exquisite gowns (lighted by Alana Rice), are no match for Julia’s remarkable maid “Saunders” — as re-christened imperiously by Julia since Jasmine is “rather a sticky name … for the house.” Saunders (Rachel Bowron) is arguably the model for The Modern Woman. She’s been everywhere; she’s done everything. She’s an expert in golf, tropical medicine, hangover cures. She has perfect pitch; she speaks excellent French; she sets herself down at the piano with aplomb to deliver art songs.

Bowron is very funny as this formidably capable person, whose catalogue of accomplishments is an affront to the class system. She steps forward with a pert and condescending smile of bemusement to be helpful. And when rebuffed by her dismissive employers she retreats into a position of professional maid-ly impassivity. Bowron gets laughs every time she crosses the stage.

Vanessa Sabourin, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt, Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels. Photo by Mat Busby.

Act II is so light it’s actually in danger of floating away into the ether. It’s a measure of deluxe Bright Young Things casting here that the minor roles of the golf-playing husbands, who are there to be complacent and patronizing, then outraged, are taken on by substantial actors: John Ullyatt and Nathan Cuckow. The former has a lighter touch and charm; the latter is more of a blusterer and harder to budge. But, clearly, it’s a little late (by, oh, a couple of decades) for their kind of tweedy Victorian pomposity.

It makes Mark Meer’s cameo as the suave, alluring Frenchman, their worst nightmare, even more fun. And it takes your mind off passing thoughts about the vanishing of the plot. But by then, little glimmering points about sexual hypocrisy and equality have already landed, lightly and on their tippy toes, with bubbles in hand. 

12thnight.ca talks to stars Belinda Cornish and Vanessa Sabourin here. 

PREVIEW

Fallen Angels

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Noel Coward

Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Mark Meer, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 1

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com/ensemble/

   

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