The women run the show: The Merry Wives of Windsor are having a blast in the park

Robert Benz as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Dance party! You will never get a more spirited welcome into a play than you do at the start of the Tudor screwball currently hustling across the stage in the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s summer season in the park.

Resistance is futile, people. C’mon. Even those of you who don’t move to the metre of the iamb for some weird reason can’t resist … disco! Not for long. Welcome to Ashley Wright’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the second of the alternating Freewill offerings this summer (with The Merchant of Venice). 

The party-hearty Host of the Garter Inn (Jesse Gervais), who’s wearing plaid bellbottoms so shriek-y they could probably dance by themselves, is spinning the tunes. And, hey, everybody in Windsor is there — including the big guy himself.

That would be Sir John Falstaff (Robert Benz), the randy overripe boozehound and ladies’ man, back from his ignominious rejection by Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays. There’s an apocryphal but persistent story that Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with the fat knight that she passed along her desire to see “Sir John in love.”

Shakespeare could take a hint from a big sponsor (a practice unheard of in the modern theatre as we know). And, as the completely unsubstantiated legend has it, voilà! Just 14 days later there he was: the dissolute knight had landed on his feet in a bustling market town just outside London, rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with the middle-classes, in Shakespeare’s only suburban comedy.

Falstaff’s misadventures in Windsor, as the (ample) butt of a series of prankish set-ups, are powered by venality (he’s strapped for cash) and by his bloated certainty, backed up by absolutely nothing, that two well-do-to wives are smitten with him.

Mistresses Ford (Belinda Cornish) and Page (Nadien Chu) compare notes: “why this is the very same! the very hand! the very words!”. And, in true screwball fashion, they amuse themselves (and us) by egging him on. In the process, they score the bonus fun of enraging Mistress Ford’s insanely jealous hubby (John Ullyatt), who pops his cork every time.

Director Ashley Wright, a note-worthy Falstaff in his time, has entered the ‘70s disco era (password: polyester) for his rambunctious, very funny production. It’s a perfect playground for the gallery of comic grotesques, manic loons, buffoons, and zanies who revolve through the oddball collection of subplots in this kooky one-off of a play.

And it’s a field day for designer Megan Koshka who decks them out in a giddy collection of ruffled shirts, harvest gold pants hiked up well past the point of no return, a nonpareil collection of acid-hued party plaid. Falstaff’s suit is a punch-line show-stopper.

The main plot, to speak gravely of something as light as air, is a series of schemes to lure Falstaff into farcically compromising positions so the wives can send him careening off in a panic, in ever more undignified circumstances. And the complicity between Mistresses Ford and Page, who dissolve into laughter at every triumph, is one of the delights of the production. The two wives have a nice edge of contrast, too: the breezier elegance of Cornish’s Mrs. Ford to the perkier bustle of Chu’s Mrs. Page.

As Falstaff, the man of the hour, Benz conveys an unassailable, unsquelchable confidence that makes him irresistible to pranksters like the wives, and the pert chatterbox housekeeper Mistress Quickly (the charmer Stephanie Wolfe). Even when he gets the heave-ho into the Thames in a laundry basket, his wording remains lofty: “You will know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.”

John Ullyatt as Mr. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

His nemesis, or vice versa, is the raging Mr. Ford. In Ullyatt’s very funny performance he’s in a constant state of red-alert, ready to burst into flame at every moment. Most amusing of all are his fuming attempts to control his temper long enough to acquire vital information about his wife’s assignations.

Around these principals orbit a whole collection of nutty characters. Ron Pederson is hilarious as the dim and whiney Slender, an adenoidal silly named for the size of his brain, and a distant progenitor of Mrs. Malaprop. Black-eyed from an encounter with Falstaff and co, he actually flinches whenever anyone says anything to him. He’s been badgered by his uncle, Justice Shallow (Julien Arnold in amusing curmudgeon mode), into joining the queue of suitors for the Pages’ captivating daughter Anne (Cayley Thomas). It’s a situation that strikes Slender with terror whenever he comprehends he’s in it.

Another Anne suitor is the preposterous French doctor Caius, played as a preening gallic ninny by Troy O’Donnell. How Dr. Caius ends up in a duel with the Welsh curate (Alex Cherovsky) is something I couldn’t begin to explain.

But then, if it occurs to you to ask yourself something about the narrative complications, there’s Gervais as Host, who is (and has) a hoot, instigating dance interludes so you don’t have to think too much.

REVIEW

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Ashley Wright

Starring: Robert Benz, Belinda Cornish, Nadien Chu, John Ullyatt, Ron Pederson, Julien Arnold, Jesse Gervais

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 16, even dates and all matinees (The Merchant of Venice is on odd dates

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com

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Celebrating the Edmonton theatre season: Irma Voth, Crazy For You, Stupid Fucking Bird lead the 30th annual Sterling Awards

Andréa Jorawsky as Irma in Irma Voth, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson/ EPIC Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Art and life got down, mixed it up, and partied together at the 30th anniversary Sterling Awards gala Monday night, celebrating the best of the Edmonton theatre season.

Three productions that, in dramatically different ways, spoke to the life-changing possibilities of art, and the windows it opens on the world, proved, overwhelmingly, the choice of jurors at the theatre bash hosted, in droll fashion by actors Mark Meer and Nadine Chu. 

In the Outstanding Production category top Sterling honours went to Irma Voth,Theatre Network’s premiere of the new Chris Craddock five-actor multi-character play ingeniously spun from Miriam Toews’s swirling novel about two sisters escaping the brutal paternal oppression of a narrow-sided ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Mexico. Their window of possibility, with its view of the chaotic, inspiring world of art and artists is pried open by the arrival of a film crew.

Craddock’s stage storytelling garnered him the Outstanding New Play award, with leading actress honours as well for Andréa Jorawsky’s luminous performance as the plucky, open-hearted title heroine, and for Ian Jackson’s ingenious (and indispensable) multi-media design.

Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Crazy For You, at the Citadel. Photo by David Cooper

In the outstanding musical category, top honours went to the Citadel’s huge, irresistibly zestful production of Crazy For You. The musical, with its vintage songfest of Gershwin hits, chronicles the resurrection of a deadbeat Nevada mining town courtesy of … yes, theatre! 

Of its eight nominations, the most of any show, three other Sterlings arrived — in the hands of musical director Don Horsburgh, of choreographer Dayna Tekatch (also the director of the show), and of designer Cory Sincennes, whose riotous array of costumes chronicled the arrival of New York showbiz in the derelict Old West.

Robert Benz in Stupid Fucking Bird, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

For the second year in a row, the biggest Sterling magnet of the night proved to be an indie production from Edmonton Actors Theatre. Six Sterlings, including the director’s trophy and outstanding independent production went to Dave Horak’s production of Stupid Fucking Bird. Life and art have a more fractious relationship in this irreverent reboot of Chekhov’s The Seagull by the American playwright Aaron Posner, set in the world of artists who have a sneaking and unwelcome suspicion they might just be  spectators, and not real participants, in their own lives.

Mat Simpson and Melissa Thingelstad in Stupid Fucking Bird, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Three of the four actor Sterlings Monday night went to the cast of Horak’s production, including Mat Simpson’s starring performance as the struggling playwright Con, and the supporting work of Melissa Thingelstad as the play’s imperious grande dame actress and Robert Benz as the doctor who muses on time and disappointment. Stephanie Bahniuk’s witty set design, domestic cubbyholes at one end of a gangway and a stage at the other, with the requisite Chekhov birch trees, garnered her a Sterling, too. 

Beyond the focus of those three productions, Sterling jurors noted only T. Erin Gruber’s lighting for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production, and the score, by Jenny Boutros and Etelka Nyilasi, of The Maggie Tree’s 9 Parts of Desire.

The theatre for young audience Sterlings were divvied up between Punctuate! Theatre’s Bone Wars and Concrete/L’UniThéâtre’s Bello, a new Vern Thiessen play.

The Fringe Sterlings were dominated by The Fall of the House of Atreus: A Cowboy Love Song, the three-actor comic extravaganza Jessy Ardern fashioned from the Greek tragedy, and its ingenious high-speed Corben Kushneryk production. That irreverent bunch went home with three awards. The Fringe acting Sterlings went to Jayce Mackenzie (Salt Water Moon) and Robert Benz, his second of the night, for Scaramouche Jones, a veritable theatre history for one sad clown.

Sterling honours in administration, named for the legendary producer/administrator Margaret Mooney, went to the Citadel’s veteran Cheryl Hoover. It was presented by the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran, who’s poised to be a considerable beneficiary of her multi-faceted expertise.The Ross Hill career achievement in production Sterling went home with Betty Hushlak whose work has enhanced every theatre in town. 

This was the year a new theatre opened from the bricks of an old; there was a slide show salute to the Varscona. There was a  tributes to Edmonton’s multi-faceted community theatre scene, hatchery for many of our working artists.

And speaking as we are of art and life, the Sterling for most valuable contribution to Edmonton theatre went to an artist who has understood, in every way in an exceptional 40-year (and counting) career, that theatre gets inspired, works, and proliferates by mentorship: actor/director/playwright/founder of theatres Maralyn Ryan. 

The explosive theatrical chemistry of talent, originality, passion, and discipline is built into the Ryan career every step of the way. And Edmonton has been the beneficiary.

The 2017 Sterling Awards

Outstanding Production of a Play: Irma Voth (Theatre Network)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: Crazy for You (Citadel Theatre/Theatre Calgary)

Outstanding New Play: Irma Voth by Chris Craddock (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Director: Dave Horak, Stupid Fucking Bird  (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Mat Simpson, Stupid Fucking Bird (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Andréa Jorawsky, Irma Voth (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Robert Benz, Stupid Fucking Bird  (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Melissa Thingelstad, Stupid Fucking Bird (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: Stupid Fucking Bird (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Set Design: Stephanie Bahniuk, Stupid Fucking Bird (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Cory Sincennes, Crazy for You (Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary)

Outstanding Lighting Design: T. Erin Gruber, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Ian Jackson, Irma Voth (Theatre Network) 

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Jenny Boutros & Etelka Nyilasi, 9 Parts of Desire (The Maggie Tree in association with Theatre of the New Heart)

Outstanding Musical Director: Don Horsburgh, Crazy for You (Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary)

Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction: Dayna Tekatch, Crazy for You (Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary)

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Bone Wars (Punctuate! Theatre 

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences: Vern Thiessen & Brian Dooley, Writing and Translation, Bello (Concrete Theatre / L’UniThéâtre)

Individual Achievement in Production: Chris Kavanagh, Technical Director

Outstanding Fringe Production: The Fall of the House of Atreus: A Cowboy Love Song (Troglodyte Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): The Fall of the House of Atreus: A Cowboy Love Song by Jessy Ardern (Troglodyte Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Corben Kushneryk, The Fall of the House of Atreus: A Cowboy Love Song (Troglodyte Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actor: Robert Benz, Scaramouche Jones (Blarney Productions)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actress: Jayce Mackenzie, Salt Water Moon (Whizgiggling Productions)

The Margaret Mooney Award for Outstanding Achievement in Administration: Cheryl Hoover

The Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production: Betty Hushlak

Most Valuable Contribution to Theatre in Edmonton: Maralyn Ryan


 

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A world of casual bigotry darkens: Freewill Shakespeare Festival revisits The Merchant of Venice. A review

Belinda Cornish as Portia, John Wright as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Vivacious women, high-spirited men, spontaneous dancing, drinks and keep ‘em coming…. Venetian cafe society is in a festive mood at the start of the absorbing production currently bringing one of Shakespeare’s most troubling plays outdoors into an Edmonton summer dusk.

A stooped, black-clad figure passes through; gaiety (along with Matthew Skopyk’s cleverly jazzy soundscore) suddenly stops in its tracks. We hold our breath. In a moment of startling ugliness, the old man will be spat at. And racial slurs that in the play are reported by their victim a couple of scenes later will actually be hurled at him, on the spot: “misbeliever!” “cut-throat dog!”

In that opening moment, Marianne Copithorne’s production of The Merchant of Venice steps up to the implications of its chosen setting, the gathering darkness of 1939 Europe. The outsider is Shylock, the Jewish money-lender. And as he triggers in his world a disturbing mixture of vicious racial hatred, casual bigotry, deep urges for vengeance and competing pleas for mercy, it’s clear that resolution won’t be within the compass of this four-century-old play as it surges forward. Not then. Not now. Not any time soon. 

Maybe it never was, in any setting. But it’s a measure of maturity and confidence that the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, now in its 29th summer in the park, would return to the challenges of The Merchant of Venice with such a thoughtful and probing production.

Director Copithorne not only shows us what Shylock is up against routinely in a society where anti-Semitism is endemic, but there’s this: it’s Antonio, the Merchant capitalist himself (Nathan Cuckow in a brave performance), who’s the most aggressive and brutal of Shylock’s abusers at the outset. In that opening burst of racist vitriol, even Antonio’s friends seem taken aback, at least by the social awkwardness of his vehemence.

Later, their repeated testimonials to Antonio’s kindnesses and generosity — he’s a stand-up friend — are poisoned by our memory of that moment. Even the horrifying developments in court are coloured by it. Under the circumstances, when Antonio comes to borrow money to finance his friend Bassanio’s courtship of a wealthy heiress, the acid of Shylock’s rejoinder — “hath a dog money? is it possible a cur can lend 3,000 — seems almost mild, a sort of sardonic resignation. 

As John Wright’s moving performance makes clear, Shylock has survived a thousand such blows. The “ancient grudge,” like the deck that’s been stacked against him, has been constructed moment by moment, plank by plank.

A dozen years ago when Wright played Shylock, he had a pulsing subterranean rage to him. This time, it’s more like embittered restraint, born of endurance; Shylock seems battered, more forlorn. There’s a catch in his voice. His insistence, beyond every practical consideration, on the terms of his bond — a pound of Antonio’s flesh upon default of a loan — has the ring of a last stand by the time the case comes to court.

Shylock is, finally, after revenge, but it’s after a lifetime of persecution and only as a last resort. And he seems bowed down with the weight of knowing what’s to come in the world. 

Troy O’Donnell, Nathan Cuckow, Julien Arnold, John Ullyatt, in The Merchant of Venice, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

In view of this sad portrait, Copithorne’s compelling production has evidently thought about the tricky contradictions of the play, the problem of Shylock’s tormenters, the fact that his persecutors are the very characters whose romantic fortunes we’re meant to care about. In this, it has the huge advantage of two appealing, highly intelligent performances from Belinda Cornish as Portia and John Ullyatt as Bassanio.

Both characters have a certain rueful tone. . There are top-notes of self-deprecation in the wit they present to the world. Cornish’s Portia is a genuinely witty, animated heroine; her jocular comradely relationship with her staff, especially Nadien Chu’s Nerissa, is one of the delights of the play. Their joint mockery of the accents and attire of Portia’s series of foreign suitors come to test their luck with the three caskets — Portia’s late father’s condition for marriage — is tempered with an indulgent sense of amusement.

And those casket scenes are unusually funny in this production;. I can’t remember the last time I got a kick out of them. Here I laughed out loud to see Alex Cherovsky’s delightful turns as the preposterously self-regarding Princes of Morocco and Arragon. 

Despite the oddly spread-out staging of the courtroom scene, where Portia has arrived in lawyer disguise to argue the case against exacting the bonded pound of flesh, you feel she’s troubled, thinking on the spot, improvising desperately to save Antonio, but reluctant to corner Shylock past recovery.

Ullyatt’s urbane, breezy, accommodating Bassanio, is naturally conciliatory, which sets him apart a little from the nasty-ness of his set. When Launcelot (Ryan Parker) joins his staff, he refuses to accept a servant’s bow from the cowed newcomer, opting instead to shake hands. It’s an impulsive gesture that speaks volumes.

Apart from this natural pairing, though, Copithorne’s production resists the impulse to celebrate romantic comedy resolutions. Nerissa and the amusing but vicious Gratiano (Jesse Gervais) are at odds; in the end she rejects him. Shylock’s conflicted daughter Jessica (Cayley Thomas), who’s fled her father’s household bearing his casket of loot, can find no respite from her dilemma, impaled between love and loyalty. 

Haunted by the ominous diaspora image of Shylock who exits, suitcase in hand from the upper level of Jim Guedo’s classic staircase design, she sends away her beau Lorenzo (Ron Pederson),  to sing the saddest of songs, alone.

There’s a price to be paid for a society whose sense of humanity is selective; this fine production balks at the thought it can all be smoothed over.

REVIEW

The Merchant of Venice

Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

Starring: John Wright, Belinda Cornish, John Ullyatt, Cayley Thomas, Nadien Chu, Jesse Gervais

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 16, on odd dates, alternating with The Merry Wives of Windsor (on even dates and all matinees)

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com 

 

 

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Going, Going, Gone! a sparkly new Teatro screwball from Jana O’Connor, reviewed

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina! Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I can explain….”

Just guessing, but those three words have sent more screwballs hurtling into comedy space than any other phrase in the lexicon, including “I’ll get the door.”

Every time you hear them in Going, Going, Gone!, a sparkly, appealingly warm-hearted new 30s-style screwball by sketch and improv comedy star Jana O’Connor, its escalating tower of lies teeters crazily. In Teatro La Quindicina’s premiere production, directed by Dave Horak, our cautious, serious-minded, habit-bound hero is realizing, with some alarm, that while he’s become “inadvertently engaged” to one woman, he’s on a madcap impromptu adventure with another.

Celina Dean, Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Only spontaneity can save him now. And spontaneity isn’t something you can plan for. It’s life as improv. Fun if you’re up for it, the way Edie (Rachel Bowron) is. Terrifying if you’re not, the way nerdy antiques dealer Grant Carlyle (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) isn’t.

The tingly boost you get from screwball comedies is the way they lift the weight of expectation from the shoulders of their characters. And they watch, amused, as inevitability gets replaced by something airier and more effervescent, but in a way more substantial: the sense of possibility.

Horak’s production sets forth that proposition physically in his highly amusing stagecraft of the jaunty, speedy opening scene. It’s wordless but set to sprightly Stephane Grappelli/ Django Reinhardt tunes. 

The set pieces — multiple doors, screens, mirror — exist in both real and painted 2-D versions in Chantel Fortin’s amusing design (lit by Matthew Alan Currie). And they’re assembled with jazzy bustle by Horak’s all-star cast. It comes down to a physical counterpoint duet, on either side of the stage, between a man who is ironing his socks before he puts them on, and a larky woman trying on dresses and stockings, rejecting them and casually flinging them down.

Bowron is enchantingly vivacious as Edie, born to wear red lipstick and say breezily “sorry, I can’t hear you over all those bubbles!”

The official fiancée (Celina Dean, returning to Teatro after a decade’s absence), is high contrast. Betsy is a formidably brittle sort, a chicken factory heiress with a disapproving air. She’s bent on (a) marriage and (b) prospects, namely a more impressive income than Grant’s “little hobby” with “that antique-y thing” can possibly provide. Dean gives her a soprano trill of a laugh that could shatter frozen poultry at 100 paces.

And the wonderful MacDonald-Smith is alert to every comic possibility in a tentative bloke for whom the pursuit of a George III candlestick has the only kind of urgency he has ever experienced — until now. As Grant, a non-swimmer, so to speak, in the sea of romance fumbling his way to stay afloat, MacDonald captures anxious nerdism with sublime expertise. The grimace of sheer horror — even his straw boater seems taken aback — with which he greets the sight of his free-spirit mother (Davina Stewart) in the arms of her Latino lover will make you smile out loud.    

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

I know, I haven’t told you a thing about what sets O’Connor’s amazingly intricate screwball plot in motion. I can explain…. Just kidding. Anyhow, two objects figure prominently: a George III candlestick and Grant’s Great-Gran’s diamond ring. There’s a moment, a crucial moment, when both go AWOL and order gives at the seams. And it’s a classic of period screwballs, farces, and espionage capers world-wide: two identical suitcases get switched at the train station and leave with the wrong people.

Panic ensues on the part of one of those people — and I leave you to guess which one. 

O’Connor and Horak hang a multi-character plot of surpassing complexity on the  comic virtuosity of one man, Mark Meer. As required, moment to moment, Meer switches out every ‘30s supporting character: bellhop to waiter to Lothario, crusty old rich guy father to prim desk clerk, eight or more. Sometimes, hilariously, he’s two in the same scene, with O’Connor lines to match: “Never fails!” barks Edie’s dad with cheery exasperation, re-entering the scene after the exit of the waiter. “You leave the table, the waiter comes….”

The most riotous of all is Meer as a gravel-voiced auctioneer so short he can’t be seen over the podium. There’s a laugh-out-loud fight scene I won’t spoil for you.

It’s not a quickie play: the panic takes time and scenes get played out at length. People say “I can explain” … and then they actually do. So you’ll have time to savour the fun of Leona Brausen’s assembly of ’30s costumes: Bowron spends much of the play wearing a bowed polka-dot chapeau that should get its own curtain call.

At the heart, and there is one, of Going, Going, Gone! is unpremeditated self-discovery by a man who has hitherto always ordered the Salisbury steak in restaurants. His gradual, reluctant transformation into a man who’s up for trying the special of the day — without even knowing what it is  — will lighten your heart, and make you laugh. 

And this transformation is surrounded by other discoveries, too. Though parental expectation is a traditional obstacle to happiness in comedy — not to mention a compelling reason for the escalating web of lies — O’Connor in the end has a soft spot for the older generation. The Act I scenes between father and daughter and mother and son change contours in their Act II counterparts.

Adventures, it seems, happen in increments. But as in auctions, there’s a fleeting life-changing moment before the gavel comes down and the candlestick of your dreams goes to someone else, when the cosmic fun quotient is up for grabs.

As its title hints, the show is a short-run proposition (it ends July 1). After that, Gone!. So the moment to enjoy a full-on screwball assault on caution is now.

REVIEW

Going, Going, Gone!

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written by: Jana O’Connor

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Rachel Bowron, Celina Dean, Mark Meer, Davina Stewart

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through July 1

Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com

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A festive spirit prevails in E-Town tonight: 2 festivals and a screwball comedy set to open

Robert Benz as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

And then let up later, for heaven’s sake! It’s opening night this very evening for not one but two of Edmonton’s summer arts festivals. AND Teatro La Quindicina’s new screwball comedy.  

It’s comedy night at the 29th annual Freewill Shakespeare Festival which opens the first of its alternating pair of plays in Hawrelak Park: The Merry Wives of Windsor. The kooky comedy happens in a ‘70s disco production directed by Ashley Wright. (It’s rep partner is Marianne Copithorne’s production of the The Merchant of Venice, opening Friday). Merry Wives is on even dates, like tonight, plus all the matinees. Merchant is on odd dates. The full schedule (and tickets): freewillshakespeare.com

And the Found Festival — festivities that take art right out of theatres and into, well, the world — launches its sixth annual  weekend of spontaneous encounters with art in unexpected places tonight. By 5 p.m. you can be listening to local bands at Found headquarters, the Gazebo Park next to Walterdale Theatre in Old Strathcona (83 Ave. and 104th St.). Get yourself some tickets, study the map, have a beer, figure out your evening, and sally forth for discoveries. It’s a lineup full of resourceful experimenters of every artistic persuasion. The schedule is at commongroundarts.ca/found.

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

And at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.), it’s the Teatro La Quindicina premiere of  Jana O’Connor’s new screwball. Going, Going, Gone! only runs till Canada Day, at which time it will be Gone Gone Gone. It concerns the fortunes, both romantic and professional, of an antiques dealer (Andrew MacDonald-Smith), increasingly beleaguered in both departments. They escalate towards chaos. Tickets: teatroq.com

Also available for your viewing pleasure tonight, a Foote in the Door production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at La Cité francophone. And Edmonton Musical Theatre’s 40th anniversary revue Don’t Stop Believing: 40 & Fabulous at the Westbury, in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).   

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Why stop now? A (newly expanded) theatre quiz for summer! More questions for you!

Ron Pederson and the cast of For The Love of Cynthia, at Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Repair to your deck, clutch a mojito or an iced latte, and muse on the theatre season:

  1. What was the very first play that the Free Will Players produced in Hawrelak Park 29 summers ago?

(a) As You Like It

(b) All’s Well That Ends Well

(c) A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(d) A Comedy of Errors

2. Which of the following has never been produced by the Freewill Shakespeare Festival?

(a) Henry IV Part One

(b) Henry V

(c) Troilus and Cressida

(d) Titus Andronicus

3. Which indie theatre brought a Jordan Tannahill play to Edmonton for the first time this season?

(a) The Maggie Tree

(b) Punctuate! Theatre

(c) Broken Toys Theatre

(d) Cardiac Theatre

4. How long has Edmonton celebrated the best in theatre here with Sterling Awards?

(a) 15 years

(b) 25 years

(c) 30 years

(d) 47 years

5. The character Black Stache, in Peter and the Starcatcher, produced this past season at the Citadel, is…

(a) a Marx brother

(b) a pirate

(c) a Stalinist

(d) a trapeze artist

6. Dottie, the heroine of Darrin Hagen’s Tornado Magnet, which was revived at Theatre Network this past season, has a particular attachment to…

(a) her pop-up toaster

(b) her window box of pansies

(c) her 1977 Chevy

(d) her Tupperware collection

7. What substance is at the heart of Catalyst’s Fortune Falls, which premiered this season?

(a) chocolate

(b) perfume

(c) water

(d) cocaine

8. Stupid Fucking Bird is a cheeky contemporary re-mix of which of the following plays?

(a) An Enemy of the People

(b) The Black Swan

(c) Mother Goose: The Musical

(d) The Seagull

9. Chris Craddock’s new feature movie It’s Not My Fault And I Don’t Care Anyway, released this year and starring Alan Thicke, is inspired by his own play called…

(a) Passing The Buck

(b) The Summer of My Amazing Luck

(c) Moving Along

(d) Public Speaking

10. Which new play premiered this past season and revealed an ugly chapter in Edmonton history?

(a) Witch Hunt at the Strand

(b) Sister Sister

(c) Annapurna

(d) Irma Voth

11. Which theatre production this past season assembled creators from six indie companies across the country?

(a) Terror

(b) Fear and Loathing

(c) Anxiety

(d) The Trojan Women

12. Raoul Bhaneja, creator and star of Life, Death And The Blues returned to the Citadel this past season in which of the following? 

(a) Peter and the Starcatcher

(b) Disgraced

(c) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

(d) Crazy For You

13. What master farceur worked 18 vintage Gershwin songs into the musical Crazy For You?

(a) Ray Cooney

(b) Georges Feydeau

(c) Ken Ludwig

(d) Michael Frayn

14. Jesus Christ Superstar, which had a compelling production at the Mayfield this season, started out as a…

(a) concept album

(b) workshop production

(c) poetry collection by T.S. Eliot

(d) novel by Colm Tóibin

15. Cannibalism figured prominently in which of the following productions of last season?

(a) Love’s Labour’s Lost

(b) Star Killing Machine

(c) Bust

(d) The Fall of the House of Atreus

16. Which of the following productions seen last season in Edmonton was not a musical?

(a) Bust

(b) Star Killing Machine

(c) Bonnie and Clyde

(d) Bone Wars

17. The feuding couple in Bone Wars were…

(a) orthopedic surgeons

(b) paleontologists

(c) musical theatre writers

(d) Weimar cabaret puppets

18. In Irma Voth, two oppressed sisters flee the family home and escape to…

(a) Deadrock, Nevada

(b) New York City

(c) Duluth, Minnesota

(d) Mexico City

19. Which of the following musical legends does not appear in Million Dollar Quartet, directed by Ted Dykstra at the Citadel this season?

(a) Elvis Presley

(b) Carl Perkins

(c) Buddy Holly

(d) Jerry Lee Lewis

20. Which of the following productions featured cross-gender casting in the starring role?

(a) Henry V

(b) Stupid Fucking Bird

(c) Irma Voth

(d) Sister Sister

21. Which of the following theatre companies turns 35 this year?

(a) Teatro La Quindicina

(b) Blarney Productions

(c) Die-Nasty

(d) Toy Guns Dance Theatre

22. In which of the following Stewart Lemoine comedies does a common vegetable have unusual prominence?

(a) What Gives?

(b) Cocktails at Pam’s

(c) Witness to a Conga

(d) Caribbean Muskrat

23. Match the designer to the production:

The designers: Chantel Fortin, Alison Yanota, Megan Koshka, Cory Sincennes

The shows: Bust, Witness to a Conga, 9 Parts of Desire, Fortune Falls

24. The characters in 9 Parts of Desire, produced by The Maggie Tree this past season, reflect on…

(a) war

(b) teenage sexuality

(c) the growing opioid crisis

(d) climate change

25. Which of the following does not contain a play within a play?

(a) For The Love of Cynthia

(b) Irma Voth

(c) Stupid Fucking Bird

(d) Art

26. Which of the following has a concert pianist character?

(a) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

(b) Witness to a Conga

(c) Bust

(d) Sense and Sensibility

27. The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, which premiered in an Azimuth production, takes place in…

(a) a bird sanctuary

(b) a church

(c) an apartment

(d) a university comparative literature department

28. Which of the following plays contains a character named Joyous?

(a) The Believers

(b) What Gives?

(c)  Star Killing Machine

(d) Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes

29. Fire played a crucial role in which of the following?

(a) Cocktails at Pam’s

(b) The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow

(c) Bonnie & Clyde

(d) Bust

30. At which of the season’s productions did you have the most fun?

Just kidding. There’s no wrong answer, my friends.

No peeking in advance! The answers: 1 (d), 2 (a,c), 3 (d), 4 (c), 5 (b), 6 (d), 7 (a), 8 (d), 9 (d), 10 (a), 11 (c), 12 (b), 13 (c), 14 (a), 15 (d), 16 (a), 17 (b),  18 (d), 19 (c), 20 (a), 21 (a), 22 (b), 23 Chantel Fortin and Witness to a Conga, Alison Yanota and 9 Parts of Desire, Megan Koshka and Fortune Falls, Cory Sincennes and Bust, 24 (a), 25 (d), 26 (b), 27 (c), 28 (a), 29 (d), 30 (a, b, c, d) All 30 correct? Congrats, you never stay home! 15 correct? Congrats, you are no couch potato! Less than 5 correct? You really need to get out more. This is a live theatre town. And you are missing out!

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A (newly expanded) theatre quiz in honour of summertime!

Luc Tellier and Kristi Hansen in Star Killing Machine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Repair to your deck, clutch a mojito or an iced latte, and muse on the theatre season:

  1. What was the very first play that the Free Will Players produced in Hawrelak Park 29 summers ago?

(a) As You Like It

(b) All’s Well That Ends Well

(c) A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(d) A Comedy of Errors

2. Which of the following has never been produced by the Freewill Shakespeare Festival?

(a) Henry IV Part One

(b) Henry V

(c) Troilus and Cressida

(d) Titus Andronicus

3. Which indie theatre brought a Jordan Tannahill play to Edmonton for the first time this season?

(a) The Maggie Tree

(b) Punctuate! Theatre

(c) Broken Toys Theatre

(d) Cardiac Theatre

4. How long has Edmonton celebrated the best in theatre here with Sterling Awards?

(a) 15 years

(b) 25 years

(c) 30 years

(d) 47 years

5. The character Black Stache, in Peter and the Starcatcher, produced this past season at the Citadel, is…

(a) a Marx brother

(b) a pirate

(c) a Stalinist

(d) a trapeze artist

6. Dottie, the heroine of Darrin Hagen’s Tornado Magnet, which was revived at Theatre Network this past season, has a particular attachment to…

(a) her pop-up toaster

(b) her window box of pansies

(c) her 1977 Chevy

(d) her Tupperware collection

7. What substance is at the heart of Catalyst’s Fortune Falls, which premiered this season?

(a) chocolate

(b) perfume

(c) water

(d) cocaine

8. Stupid Fucking Bird is a cheeky contemporary re-mix of which of the following plays?

(a) An Enemy of the People

(b) The Black Swan

(c) Mother Goose: The Musical

(d) The Seagull

9. Chris Craddock’s new feature movie It’s Not My Fault And I Don’t Care Anyway, released this year and starring Alan Thicke, is inspired by his own play called…

(a) Passing The Buck

(b) The Summer of My Amazing Luck

(c) Moving Along

(d) Public Speaking

10. Which new play premiered this past season and revealed an ugly chapter in Edmonton history?

(a) Witch Hunt at the Strand

(b) Sister Sister

(c) Annapurna

(d) Irma Voth

11. Which theatre production this past season assembled creators from six indie companies across the country?

(a) Terror

(b) Fear and Loathing

(c) Anxiety

(d) The Trojan Women

12. Raoul Bhaneja, creator and star of Life, Death And The Blues returned to the Citadel this past season in which of the following? 

(a) Peter and the Starcatcher

(b) Disgraced

(c) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

(d) Crazy For You

13. What master farceur worked 18 vintage Gershwin songs into the musical Crazy For You?

(a) Ray Cooney

(b) Georges Feydeau

(c) Ken Ludwig

(d) Michael Frayn

14. Jesus Christ Superstar, which had a compelling production at the Mayfield this season, started out as a…

(a) concept album

(b) workshop production

(c) poetry collection by T.S. Eliot

(d) novel by Colm Tóibin

15. Cannibalism figured prominently in which of the following productions of last season?

(a) Love’s Labour’s Lost

(b) Star Killing Machine

(c) Bust

(d) The Fall of the House of Atreus

16. Which of the following productions seen last season in Edmonton was not a musical?

(a) Bust

(b) Star Killing Machine

(c) Bonnie and Clyde

(d) Bone Wars

17. The feuding couple in Bone Wars were…

(a) orthopedic surgeons

(b) paleontologists

(c) musical theatre writers

(d) Weimar cabaret puppets

18. In Irma Voth, two oppressed sisters flee the family home and escape to…

(a) Deadrock, Nevada

(b) New York City

(c) Duluth, Minnesota

(d) Mexico City

19. Which of the following musical legends does not appear in Million Dollar Quartet, directed by Ted Dykstra at the Citadel this season?

(a) Elvis Presley

(b) Carl Perkins

(c) Buddy Holly

(d) Jerry Lee Lewis

20. Which of the following productions featured cross-gender casting in the starring role?

(a) Henry V

(b) Stupid Fucking Bird

(c) Irma Voth

(d) Sister Sister

21. Which of the following theatre companies turns 35 this year?

(a) Teatro La Quindicina

(b) Blarney Productions

(c) Die-Nasty

(d) Toy Guns Dance Theatre

22. In which of the following Stewart Lemoine comedies does a common vegetable have unusual prominence?

(a) What Gives?

(b) Cocktails at Pam’s

(c) Witness to a Conga

(d) Caribbean Muskrat

23. Match the designer to the production:

The designers: Chantel Fortin, Alison Yanota, Megan Koshka, Cory Sincennes

The shows: Bust, Witness to a Conga, 9 Parts of Desire, Fortune Falls

24. The characters in 9 Parts of Desire, produced by The Maggie Tree this past season, reflect on…

(a) war

(b) teenage sexuality

(c) the growing opioid crisis

(d) climate change

25. Which of the following does not contain a play within a play?

(a) For The Love of Cynthia

(b) Irma Voth

(c) Stupid Fucking Bird

(d) Art

26. Which of the following has a concert pianist character?

(a) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

(b) Witness to a Conga

(c) Bust

(d) Sense and Sensibility

27. The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, which premiered in an Azimuth production, takes place in…

(a) a bird sanctuary

(b) a church

(c) an apartment

(d) a university comparative literature department

28. Which of the following plays contains a character named Joyous?

(a) The Believers

(b) What Gives?

(c)  Star Killing Machine

(d) Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes

29. Fire played a crucial role in which of the following?

(a) Cocktails at Pam’s

(b) The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow

(c) Bonnie & Clyde

(d) Bust

 

30. At which of the season’s productions did you have the most fun?

Just kidding. There’s no wrong answer, my friends.

No peeking in advance! The answers: 1 (d), 2 (a,c), 3 (d), 4 (c), 5 (b), 6 (d), 7 (a), 8 (d), 9 (d), 10 (a), 11 (c), 12 (b), 13 (c), 14 (a), 15 (d), 16 (a), 17 (b),  18 (d), 19 (c), 20 (a), 21 (a), 22 (b), 23 Chantel Fortin and Witness to a Conga, Alison Yanota and 9 Parts of Desire, Megan Koshka and Fortune Falls, Cory Sincennes and Bust, 24 (a), 25 (d), 26 (b), 27 (c), 28 (a), 29 (d), 30 (a, b, c, d) All 30 correct? Congrats, you never stay home! 15 correct? Congrats, you are no couch potato! Less than 5 correct? You really need to get out more. This is a live theatre town. And you are missing out!

 

 

 

 

 

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Losing yourself at Found, the festival of art in unexpected places

Found Festival 2016. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Unexpected things happen when you take theatre out of theatres. 

And we have a festival for that. The Found Festival returns Thursday to Old Strathcona for a sixth annual weekend of strange and surprising encounters, up close, with art and artists — in places you never expected to meet them.

You could find yourself in Mill Creek Ravine, for example, wandering through a magical dancing Ukrainian folktale. Or on a Whyte Avenue rooftop watching a play about forgiveness and revenge. Or in a hotel room paying tribute to the late great Leonard Cohen. Or having a dance/theatre experience in the glass public washrooms on the corner of Whyte and Gateway.

Or this: you could have a one-on-one eyeball-to-eyeball, encounter with a brave playwright up-and-comer who will create something just for you, personally, on the spot. Art doesn’t come more attentive to its audience than that.

From 40 proposals, artistic director Beth Dart, in her second year finding herself at Found, has assembled “a broad spectrum” of artists, some 120 of them of every stripe,  persuasion, and age from 19 to 60. What they share is the experimental impulse. The festivities dismiss the usual boundaries between art and its audiences like so much poplar fluff on a summer breeze.

“We bring art to you!” says Dart, whose own innovative Catch The Keys productions specializes in site-specific performance events in found spaces. “It’s exciting! Once you take the work out of the theatre, you erase the normal rules.. It’s totally up to the artist to re-define the relationship with the audience.…”

Sometimes that relationship is on the move: Short Girls Productions’ In Shoes takes you on a walking memory tour.  Sometimes it’s unnervingly static. Playwright David Walker will lifestream his life for 72 hours as he sit, holed up in a borrowed apartment, writing a play. Then you can see the premiere live on location at 7 p.m. Sunday. “It sounds absolutely terrifying!” declares Dart cheerfully.

And sometimes, it’s a one-off experience custom-made for an audience of one. As Dart concedes, laughing, the Admit One series is “not really a sustainable concept…. It’s hard to justify but so worth it!” for both artist and audience.

Balloon Lending Library, Found Festival 2016. Photo by Mat Simpson.

There are “poetry slams,” plays, and pop-up theatre. There’s music: 30 local bands, curated by Double Lunch Productions and Sweaty Palms, will play in the Gazebo Park, Found Festival headquarters, in the course of the four-day weekend. There’s free entertainment of every sort. There’s beer. And there are food trucks. 

“It’s much the same spirit as the Fringe,” says Dart. “Come and take a chance on something!”

WHAT TO FIND AT FOUND (half a dozen discovery possibilities to be intrigued by)

The Three Ladies: Lady Vanessa Cordona, a Colombian immigrant with a far-ranging skill set, has fashioned what Dart calls “an extremely personal poetic play, with support from a Colombian dance troupe. “It’s a ‘spiritual remedy’,” says Dart of a piece that explores healing from the trauma of sexual assault and civil war. “It’s a beautiful positive piece!” It happens in the back alley behind Meat and Gravity Pope.

Strife: a new play — the beginning version of a longer one —  from the ever-adventurous playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bust, Bone Wars). Murder and the alt-right are involved. Discover three actors — which is three times the size of the audience — are on the roof of the building (10816A 82 Ave.) that houses the Northern Light Theatre offices. Patrick Linden directs the Pyretic production in the festival’s Admit One series.

Glass Washrooms: Niuboi’s dance theatre exploration of the tension between public and private for the gender non-conformist. It happens for 25 people at a time in the public washrooms on Whyte Ave. and 103 St.

Once A Champion, Always A Champion: Star musician Brett Miles explores the fascinating pre-Edmonton Eskimo career of his illustrious athlete father Rollie Miles. It’s on location at the Rollie Miles Athletic Field (10480 73 Ave.).

The Author Will See You Now: in this “installation durational piece,” as Dart puts it, playwright Bevin Dooley will be ensconced for at least six hours every festival day at the Wee Book Inn on Whyte. And she’ll create something — a short play? some prose? a poem? —for you. 

Before The River: Larissa Pohoreski’s inspiration in this five-performer folkloric piece is to take you through Mill Creek Ravine on the Eve of Kupalo, by Ukrainian legend the time when the mortal and spirit worlds are closest together. Half the audience of 30 experiences the story going forward, half going back, explains Dart. At moments, the two groups cross paths. “The ravine becomes a character.”

PREVIEW

6th Annual Found Festival

Produced by: Common Ground Arts Society

Where: Gazebo Park, 83 Ave. and 104 St. and assorted spaces in Old Strathcona and a bit beyond

Running: Thursday through Sunday

Tickets: yeglive.ca, in Gazebo Park, or at the door 

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Once more unto the park dear friends: the 29th Freewill Shakespeare Festival draws nigh

 

John Wright and Belinda Cornish in The Merchant of Venice, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The love of summer Shakespeare runs deep in this town.

One morning last week, the guest director at this year’s 29th annual Freewill Shakespeare Festival arrived for rehearsal at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park. And there was a coyote, hanging out in an aisle. Late for an audition perhaps?  Early for a preview?

In 29 summers of camping out with Shakespeare in the great outdoors, the audience demographic for Free Will’s boldly physical, accessible productions has included chattering squirrels, squawking gulls, screaming jays, ducks, a voluble troupe of crows, a family of weasels, and a memorable orange oriole (as identified definitively by Julien Arnold, a leading company member and bird-watcher extraordinaire). Mosquitoes don’t count. 

Free Will, the troupe that’s on a first-name basis with the world’s starriest resident playwright, is back in the park — with two alternating high-contrast productions, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice.

And Ashley Wright and Marianne Copithorne, the directors of this year’s alternating festival shows, are on location at a picnic table — the former giving off a distinct air of after-shave Off, the latter unwrapping new repellent wipes — to discuss a pair of plays that, at first glance, couldn’t seem more different. And yet….

“It’s in the strength of the women characters in both” that resonates with Freewill artistic director Copithorne. It’s her second crack at directing Merchant, a “comedy” that sits very uncomfortably in that category. It has become one of the most challenging in the entire Shakespeare canon with its depiction of Shylock the Jewish money lender and the casual bigotry of his Gentile tormenters. And clever, agile, strong-willed Portia is at the heart of both the romantic events of the play, and (disguised as a lawyer) the legal loophole that shuts down Shylock’s “pound of flesh” revenge. John Wright is back in the role he  occupied in Copthorne’s 2004 production, with Belinda Cornish as Portia.

Robert Benz as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

As for The Merry Wives — Shakespeare’s exuberantly oddball 1597 comedy in which Falstaff and his cronies suddenly appear in middle-class suburbia (and a variety of disguises) — the action of the play is engineered by two resourceful housewives. They take revenge against the dissipated, preposterously self-regarding Falstaff, who’s convinced himself that both ladies are smitten with him. In the process of their plotting, a value-added bonus, the fun-loving Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page get to torture the former’s choleric, irrationally jealous husband with doubts.

John Ullyatt as Mr. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

Women rule Windsor. Mrs. Page’s daughter Anne turns out to have a sharp mind of her own when it comes to matrimony; she insists on marrying for love. “There’s feminist bent to it,” says Wright who, like Copithorne, rejects the notion that Shakespeare shortchanged his female characters.

The Free Will production is an outdoor homecoming for Wright, whose memorable turns in the park include a riotous Falstaff in a 2002 James MacDonald production of Merry Wives. Of late, the actor and newly minted U of A directing grad has been doing his summer Shakespeare elsewhere (Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach).

Wright and Merry Wives go back, way back, to a 1994 production in which he played Slender, the dimbulb “hero” of one of the many subplots, and a contender for Shakespeare’s daffiest character. Wright has twice played Falstaff in Vancouver,  most recently last summer in a production set in ‘60s (in Windsor, Ont., with an onstage band, playing country). He loved it, especially since the concept “didn’t overtake the play.”

Wright is back, in the very park where he played Falstaff 15-years ago as an over-ripe vainglorious Hollywood star of the ‘1930s. For his own production of Merry Wives, the play Shakespeare set in small-town middle-class England, Wright says “I’ve gone for 1970s disco. We haven’t changed the words; we haven’t changed the plot points.”

He describes the spirit of the concept: “I remember being 10 years old, and the dads would come me from work on Friday night, and all the parents would end up doing the hustle.” Sound designer Dave Clarke has mined the top hits of the ‘70s, naturally including “anything by Earth Wind and Fire,” laughs Copithorne. “I’m not afraid to admit it. I loved, I still love, disco!”

Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, Merry Wives, as Wright points out, is a natural for the great outdoors. “Eighty per cent of Act II is outdoors,” he says, of a kooky assortment of events including a duel and a prank fairy revel scene in Windsor Park. As for the interior scenes, they’re set in a bar, the Garter Inn: it’s that kind of play.

Finding an apt time and place for The Merchant of Venice is a tricky business: Copithorne considers it “almost impossible to place the play right now.” Persecutions around the globe have seen to that. Instead she locates the play, as she did her 2004 production, in 1939 Venice. Fascism is on the rise…. People can look back and get perspective; you can see very clearly how this (the events of the play) could happen.”

Copithorne argues that “it’s not an anti-Semitic play; it’s a play about that.” In Shylock Shakespeare didn’t write a stereotype; “Shakespeare wrote a human being, like he does with all his characters….”  The biggest challenge? “Finding the balance between the comedy, the romance, the serious stuff.”

Wright loves Merry Wives not only for its strong women characters  — “women plotting and making fun of men!” — but “a real sense of domesticity that you don’t find in any other of the plays.”

The challenge, he says, is what to do about “all this crazy characters, all those colloquialisms, the subplots, the local jokes.”  A joke about Banbury cheese? An incomprehensible sequence with Germans, and stolen horses that aren’t really stolen? Huh? Wright smiles affably. “You look at them, and then you cut, cut, cut!”

What on earth are Falstaff and his cronies from the Henry IV plays doing out in the countryside amongst the townspeople of Windsor anyhow? “Who the hell are these people?” laughs Copithorne who played Mistress Quickly to Wright’s Falstaff in 2002. “The Adams Family?”

She and Wright allude to the traditional story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Elizabeth herself personally commissioned this, “the most farcical of Shakespeare plays,” because she wanted to see Falstaff in love.

Who wouldn’t? You’ll be seeing that raucous hilarity starting Thursday and all even dates (and matinees). And on alternate nights, as the light fades to summer dusk, you’ll see what happens when a man nearly inured to the casual cruelties of his world is pushed too far.

PREVIEW

The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice

2017 Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Ashley Wright, Marianne Copithorne

Starring: John Wright, Robert Benz, Belinda Cornish, Nadien Chu, Cayley Thomas

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: Thursday through July 16, with Merry Wives on even dates and all matinees, and Merchant the odd dates. Full schedule at freewillshakespeare.com

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or at the gate

 

 

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For the love of the screwball: Going, Going, Gone! by comedy star Jana O’Connor at Teatro La Quindicina

playwright Jana O’Connor and the cast of Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls@12thnight.ca

The hero of Going, Going, Gone! Jana O’Connor’s new 30s-style screwball comedy, is an antiques dealer: “shy, uptight, uncommitted, afraid to make a wrong move in life” as the amused playwright describes him.

Everything, in short, that his creator is not.

There is something pure screwball — a zest for spontaneity? a delight in surprising turns? — in the escalating logic of the comedy career that’s brought O’Connor to the premiere of her first full-length mainstage comedy.

This is happening at Teatro La Quindicina. Of course. It only makes sense. If you had an original ‘30s screwball comedy burning a hole in your pocket, as O’Connor did — first a scene about a suitcase mix-up, then a first act in which the hero’s pursuit of vintage candlesticks begins to unravel his life — really, where else would you take it? Teatro, after all, is the natural home for comedy of every shade and degree of intricacy. And O’Connor and Teatro go back; their history together has a screwball vein running through it.

Celina Dean, Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

The actor/ improviser/ playwright made time for chai last week between comedy genres, so to speak. Her day had already included TV: she’d been holed up writing sketch comedy with the all-star team that creates and stars in APTN’s Caution: May Contain Nuts

In the  evening it would move on to radio. CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show, the sketch comedy hit for which O’Connor writes and performs, would be on the Maclab stage with a best-of show, as headliners in Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza comedy festival.

“This time last year, I’d been thinking ‘what’s my dream next step?” grins O’Connor. “Yup, writing for TV. Visual jokes! Finally!” She’d already gotten a gig “punching up jokes” in Caution: May Contain Nuts scripts, a specialized branch of dramaturgy she’s dubbed “com-iturgy.” 

O’Connor’s TV debut as a performer? A Caution: May Contain Nuts sketch in which she was a mom in an Old West town, offering orange slices to kids who are having a fight,” she says. Dana Andersen, directing that episode, was so amused that Orange Slice Mom turned into a recurring part on the spot.

So the brave new world of TV writing, with its hidden portals and secret passwords, has opened at last. “I didn’t see it coming! I’m so thankful for it!” beams O’Connor, who retains an appealing wide-eyed appreciation for mentorship. “It’s so different from radio or theatre…. The stage directions don’t tell the actors what to do!”

“Finally I’m at a place in my career where I have confidence to come into a new field and not feel like I can’t handle it,” she says cheerfully.

There’s an appealing spirit of improvisation and free-association about O’Connor; she embraces turns in conversation with delight: “interesting you should say that!…” It seems to apply to her own arrival in showbiz, which has a certain hilarity all its own.

As is the case with so many theatre artists in this town, first came improv at Rapid Fire. Then came The 11:02 Show, where Teatro’s Stewart Lemoine and Jeff Haslam took a turn directing and spotted her unusual comic talent. That’s where The Irrelevant Show creator Peter Brown saw her. And that’s where she met her future husband actor/playwright Chris Bullough. “The Varscona,” she declares emphatically, “is where EVERYTHING happened for me.”

Back to Bullough. “It was a scene about a baker. My character has feelings for him, and I was being dramatic, pretending to rip my shirt open to show my heart.” She’d forgotten her shirt had snaps instead of buttons and it flew open, much to her moritification. “Everyone in the theatre saw; the only one who didn’t was Chris! He had his back to me, downstage.”

Originally there was a whimsical stab at standard employment. “Did I tell you about my little foray in ‘visual communication’? Yes, I took window display at MacEwan, and worked in retail.” She does one of those silent “I know, eh” eye rolls, amused by the memory of those tableaux vivants. Her first job, at Tip Top Tailors, came with so many instructions from head office that she quit on the spot.

Then, as she explains, O’Connor got a job  — at the place she went to for advice about getting a job: when does that happen? At the Youth Employment Centre O’Connor and Mark Meer, who’d met just out of high school whilst improvising,  developed a two-hander about career-planning; it had a game show concept.  And they took Game Show on the road to questing youth across the province. O’Connor smiles. “It reinforced the idea that there is no path, it’s a meandering sum of all of you.” 

She has fond memories, though, of road trips through Alberta with the laid-back amiable Meer, “listening to music, riffing on Simpsons references.”

O’Connor’s MainStage Teatro debut was in the 2008 Stewart Lemoine screwball A Rocky Night For His Nibs, in which she played the perky mistress of a University of Calgary prof arriving at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton, AB. for a dirty weekend. Meer played a cab driver.

Davina Stewart, Mark Meer in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

 

“Everything significant and important in my career, Mark has been part of,” grins O’Connor. It is only right and proper that he would be in the cast of her new screwball comedy. In Going, Going, Gone!, fresh from the title role in Teatro’s revival of The Salon of the Talking Turk, he is Other Man — an eight-character assignment that includes a bellhop, a train porter on the Boston/New York line, a father, a lover of the hero’s mother, a gardener and (as the press release says mysteriously) “the world’s smallest auctioneer.”

In the O’Connor archive are short plays. Fringe audiences in 2013 saw her Lonely Hearts, a startling anatomy of a serial killer. Before that, with her Panties Production pals, she wrote a Jane Austen spoof called Nonsense and Insensibility. For Concrete Theatre, Early Bloomer, O’Connor’s charmer of a play for kids about being a misfit, has been touring again.

Encouragement and support from the Teatro gang has threaded its way through all of it, she says. And the premiere production of Going, Going, Gone!, directed by Dave Horak of Edmonton Actors Theatre, has been assembled in a way she calls (with exclamation mark) “deluxe!”  

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

For the character “Drew was always the voice in my head,” O’Connor says of  “the wonderful comedic leading man” Andrew MacDonald-Smith. Fresh from a double-city run of the Citadel’s Crazy For You, he stars as Grant Carlyle, the increasingly beleaguered antiques dealer, opposite his own life partner Rachel Bowron. She’s the blithe adventurer, “carefree and bold,” who introduces havoc into his well-ordered life, and “they find themselves increasingly tied together, having to invent lies. It unlocks something in both of them…. In a way it’s two people who have found the right person to improvise together! I told Chris yesterday ‘I think I’ve written a play that is a tribute to … us!’”

Is Going, Going, Gone! a Teatro show? “I hope so!” says O’Connor, who’s been in an assortment of Lemoine comedies since Rocky Night. “Stewart has an amazing way with language, and dialogue.  Everything wonderful comes from that!”

Com-iturgical skills, incidentally, might be hereditary. Six-year-old daughter Olive came to a live taping of The Irrelevant Show in April. At a particularly hilarious moment, Olive turned to the producer, and explained helpfully “It’s funny because….” With reasons. Olive’s 18-month-old baby brother Gus seems to have the comedy gene too, since he instinctively knows to laugh at a punch line.

“Having that ability to laugh at yourself, and know the world can be so ridiculous…. It’s stood me in good stead.”

PREVIEW

Going, Going, Gone!

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written by: Jana O’Connor

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Rachel Bowron, Celina Dean, Davina Stewart, Mark Meer

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through July 1

Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com   

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