Hamilton is coming: Broadway Across Canada announces a new season

Hamilton, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Edmonton audiences will get their first crack at the most acclaimed musical of the era next season. Hamilton, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical of 2015, arrives on the Jube stage July 27 to Aug. 15, 2021, under the Broadway Across Canada flag.

The profoundly influential Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that expanded our notions of what stories musical theatre can tell — and how — is the centrepiece of the Broadway Across Canada season announced Monday. Based on the Ron Chernow biography, Hamilton, which unfolds in a wide and rich spectrum of musical styles including hip-hop, jazz, and R&B, chronicles the story of the immigrant who became one of the American founding fathers.

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It’s the centre of a season that opens in November 2020 with an award-winning 50th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which began life as a 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice album. It runs Nov. 10 to 15 at the Jube.

The season also includes Anastasia, a 2017 musical by the all-star team of playwright Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty (music) and  Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). Based on a 1997 film that adapts the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, it chronicles the epic adventures of a woman on a quest to uncover the mystery of her past. The Broadway Across Canada touring production runs Jan 12 to 17, 2021.

The season option is the return of Come From Away (March 30 to April 4, 2021), the hit that takes us into the heart of the epochal tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 — and finds a story of kindness and generosity set in Gander, Nfld.

Show packages and info at www.BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca, or 1-866-532-7469.

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Can the future be gender-free? Nick Green’s new comedy Happy Birthday Baby J wonders. Meet the playwright.

David Ley, Patricia Cerra (top), Chantal Perron, Mathew Hulshot, Cameron Grant in Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

When Nick Green moved to Toronto 10 years ago this month, Edmonton theatre sustained a double loss.

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There was Green the charismatic young actor (and U of A theatre grad) we’d seen in Catalyst’s Frankenstein musical and Guys and Disguise productions like Two Queens and a Joker and Triple Platinum. And there was Green the playwright, who’d written a punchy and poignant award-winner of a triptych (Coffee Dad, Chicken Mom and the Fabulous Buddha Boi) and turned out a wild assortment of comedies, farces, vaudevilles and musicals for the vintage Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.

A new play Dora Award (for Body Politic) and multiple Toronto productions later, including most recently Nightwood Theatre’s premiere of Every Day She Rose, it seems only fair (to us) that this 10th anniversary should be celebrated in Edmonton — and with the premiere of a new Green comedy. Happy Birthday Baby J, opening Thursday at the Varscona in a Shadow Theatre production directed by John Hudson, is that play.

It’s a sharp-edged, funny, and probing comedy in which a couple trying to bring up their kid without gender has invited friends and family to a birthday bash in honour of two-year-old J. Tensions — challenges, withering responses, zinging put-downs, readjustments and backfires in every angle and power dynamic of what it means to be “progressive” or politically correct — ensue. 

On the phone from Toronto,  Green, quick-witted and thoughtful, says that “Happy Birthday Baby J started for me from a question…. If you look at the story synopsis, it’s two parents raising a child without gender.” And there are distinct satirical possibilities in the parental aspirations and competitive go-for-the-gusto contemporaneity of that, to be sure. But, says Green, “My entry point isn’t gender non-binary. It’s not about that. It’s about gender expression and masculinity.”

“Masculinity,” he sighs. “It’s a convention that’s haunted me throughout my life. And it’s been a struggle…. I’m not someone who can effortlessly portray masculinity in performance. And that’s impacted my career as an actor.”

Playwright Nick Green. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Green is thinking of his drift away from acting towards writing when he made his move across the country. “Theatre as a career wasn’t bringing me joy any more; I lost my drive for it. So I just switched tracks.”

“When you move to Toronto, suddenly it’s about auditioning for beer commercials. Suddenly it’s getting your lunch shift covered so you can go audition for a commercial you’re never going to get cast for.… The casting director would ask me to butch it up a bit, and I’d say the line again and leave. And it was miserable; it made me feel ashamed and awful.”

Writing on the other hand was exhilarating. “I owe a lot to Guys in Disguise,” he says. “Trevor (Schmidt) and Darrin (Hagen) encouraged me early on to keep exploring that.… Those two are such prolific creators; I saw in them a way to exciting queer stories in in a contemporary way. They’re all about diving in, believing what you have to say, and pushing something on to the stage.” Wry and insightful about the coming-out of a boy, Coffee Dad, Chicken Mom and the Fabulous Buddha Boi, started life as separate monologues, submitted to successive editions of the Loud ’N’ Queer cabaret curated by Hagen. “It was an awakening for me…. “

And Fort Edmonton Park was an inspiration, too, for the emerging playwright, who partnered with director Amanda Bergen. For a couple of years “it was my writing school,” as Green puts it. “And we had a built-in audience…. We were putting up three or four new plays of mine a year!” Poof!, the musical he wrote with composer Hagen, stars a rebellious teenager with the classic coming-of-age dilemma: she’s torn between upholding traditional family values and sallying forth with her own choices. The wrinkle, a puckish one, is that she’s a witch. And the family tradition is spreading evil.

In Happy Birthday Baby J, “I was really interested in performances of masculinity, and the impact those performances have on women and femme-identifying people…. How do effeminate gay men ‘perform’ masculinity, and how do they gain access to power by dominating women?”

When Louise and Gary throw a birthday party for J, their friend Patrick brings his latest boyfriend to the festivities. Tensions of every cultural/social strip ensue. Patrick uses “effeminate gender performance on purpose in order to gain power over women,” says Green. He “out-feminizes them. And in doing that he’s almost colonizing women….”

Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre. Photo supplied.

Is a future with no gender even possible? “I don’t think I hold a stance on it,” says Green, congenitally a man of many questions. “I think many people are struggling to manage the consequences of being raised in binary gender roles. And it would be very hard to (envision) a future without gender until we have dealt with the damages gender roles have had on us.”

Hard questions seem to be Green’s specialty; they shape his characters and sharpen his wit. In Every Day She Rose, for example which premiered this year in a Nightwood Theatre production at Buddies In Bad Times, he collaborated with fellow playwright Andrea Scott to explore the tangle of racism and power. “On the surface it’s the story of a white gay guy and a black straight woman, best friends, who go to Pride together the year that Black Lives Matter stops the parade,” says Green. Their friendship unravels. “So, an exploration of racism in the gay community. And then the play takes a step back into a meta-theatrical world that looks at a white gay writer writing a play with a black straight woman.” White supremacy, maleness, the patriarchy … “it’s a complicated play,” says Green cheerfully, as he details the pleasures of co-writing he learned from Schmidt and Hagen, and “which certainly make things feel less lonely!” 

And speaking of collaboration, he’s currently at work on no fewer than three musicals, in association with Toronto’s innovative Musical Stage Company. The Vancouver native says he grew up “knowing the stories of musicals,” not who was in the original cast and got nominated for a Tony and all that. “Such great stories get told in musicals, and not just corny love stories. They can be joyous and exciting, but they can be dark and layered, and tackle sensitive and complex issues in a way that’s accessible to people.” That’s what he’s undertaking at the moment. 

Meanwhile, he’ll be back in this town, happily, for the premiere of Happy Birthday Baby J. “It feels right to me to premiere this show in Edmonton 10 years after leaving, says Green. “A show I’m really proud of, one that’s quite challenging and asks a lot of questions….”

One thing he misses in his Toronto life is “the amazing sense of community in Edmonton. Such a supportive, loving community. People see each other’s shows; they cheer each other on.”

PREVIEW

Happy Birthday Baby J

Theatre: Shadow Theatre

Written by: Nick Green

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: David Ley, Chantal Perron, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Grant, Patricia Cerra

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Feb. 9

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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“See our bodies. Hear our stories.” A complex human portrait of disability in Cost of Living, says actor/activist Teal Sherer

Ashley Wright and Teal Sherer in Cost of Living. Photo by David Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I live my life. I work. I’m married. I have a kid. I deal with the same things as anybody else.”

The voice on the phone from Seattle is amused. Teal Sherer is used to being “sentimentalized,” she says. “People come up to me and say ‘O, I’m so sorry; I hope you get better. Some people are, like,  I’ll pray for you….”

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The wheelchair is the trigger. But sentimentality is anathema to Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner that opens on the Citadel mainstage Thursday.

It’s one of the things that drew the Seattle-based actor and activist to it. Sherer, who uses a wheelchair as a result of a car accident when she was 14, plays a woman who’s recently been paralyzed in a car accident. Ani’s thorny relationship with her -ex (Ashley Wright), an out-of-work trucker who signs on as care-giver, runs in counterpoint to the volatile course of a another pair.  John (Christopher Imbrosciano), who has cerebral palsy, is a wealthy and spoiled Ivy League grad student whose care-giver Jess (Bahareh Yaraghi) needs the gig to make ends meet. The definition of disability is spread out among the four characters.

Teal Sherer in Cost of Living. Photo by David Cooper

“As a person with a disability myself and as a disability advocate, that play was on my radar ever since its run at the Williamstown Festival in 2016,” says Sherer, who’s smart and funny and good-natured in conversation. “Society tells us to turn away when we see a person with a disability. Don’t look. Don’t ask questions…. Cost of Living insists that the audience look at disability onstage, see our bodies, hear our stories. And that’s powerful.”

“People get to see that disability is a complex thing, and that we’re human.”

For Sherer, the ring of the real is one of the attractions of the play, by the Polish-American writer Majok, who arrived as a first-generation immigrant and worked as a care-giver. Another is the rare dimensionality of the characters, Sherer says. “They feel so authentic, so human to me, complex and layered. And you don’t often see that…. Very often disability (is represented) in caricatures, stereotypes.”

Teal Sherer and Ashley Wright in Cost of Living. Photo by David Cooper

Sherer eludes those kinds of categories. And she’s also not one of those kids who grow up wearing a theatrical calling like a cloak. “I grew up in a small-town in Tennessee, and theatre wan’t even an option,” she laughs. “I didn’t start acting until I was in college” (at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta) when a drama course, as part of her communications major, changed everything.

“I started acting in plays, and at the same time, dancing with an integrated dance company in Atlanta (Full Radius Dance). And it felt like I was home!” says Sherer. “It just made me more confident with my body, my disability, my ability to express myself, and share that with an audience. And hopefully do what I can to change people’s perceptions about what disability is….”

Her professors started casting her, and often in non disability-specific roles. “Why not?” There are university productions like The House of Bernarda Alba and Antigone on her resumé. But the so-called “real world” was tough. “They’re, like, ‘she can’t play the lawyer; she’s in a wheelchair. She can’t play the mom. She’s in a wheelchair, and we’d have to explain her disability’….”

“No, actually you don’t,” declares Sherer. “I can just be a lawyer or a mom…. It’s getting better though. You’re starting to see more representation in roles where wheelchairs don’t even come into it. It just adds another layer to the character.”

She was in the HBO Emmy-winning movie Warm Springs with Kenneth Branagh, Cynthia Nixon and Kathy Bates. And when she moved to Los Angeles, she not only produced and starred in a production of Proof, she launched her own online comedy series My Gimpy Life, based loosely on her own life. It has an appealingly wry, eye-rolling sense of humour about the challenges and attitudes of the world (have a peek on YouTube).

“You don’t set out to be an activist,” Sherer says. “But you have to start advocating for yourself.… So many places aren’t accessible. Acting classes aren’t accessible. Casting offices aren’t accessible. You have to have a voice. That’s one reason I created My Gimpy Life…. I just realized I have to create my own content and get it out there.”

The play and its cast have already had an impact on the physical lay-out of the Citadel, where Ashlie Corcoran’s production arrives after a run at the Vancouver Arts Club. The Shoctor Theatre has had a $130,000 refit to make it accessible for actors and audience members who use mobility aids.      

Bahareh Yaraghi and Christopher Imbrosciano in Cost of Living. Photo by David Cooper.

Majok’s play demands the casting of disabled actors in the roles of Ani and John. “That’s a powerful thing,” says Sherer. “A lot of the time, (theatre) doesn’t even know we exist. And the great thing is that disabled actors all over the world are getting to play these roles.” She permits herself a small sigh. “You’re so limited in opportunities. At least let me get in the room. At least consider me….”

The climate is gradually changing. When her friend Ali Stroker won the Tony for her performance as Ado Annie in the new production of Oklahoma!, “that was big!” declares Sherer. “That role is not disability-specific at all! It’s motivating, wow! It energized me, seeing that could be achieved.”

Playing Ani in Cost of Living, “a dream role!”,  has been fascinating. “There’s a lot I can relate to. Like her, I was in a car accident. But there was a lot I had to figure out and make specific for myself. Getting injured at 14 is very different than getting injured at 41. She’s newly injured, her relationship with her husband, who’s now with another woman, is very complex. She’s going through a divorce. Her care-giver doesn’t show up…. There are so many layers: she’s sad, she’s angry, she’s combative. But there are these great moments of vulnerability and sexuality.”

There’s an erotic bathtub scene, for example, that has left audiences breathless. Sherer especially appreciates her easy rapport with Wright, who plays caregiver Eddie. “I can really challenge myself, be vulnerable, and feel so comfortable with him…. I feel so safe.”

She points to the differences between Ani and John. “Being wealthy and disabled is a lot different than being disabled when money’s an issue…. Sure, disability is in it. But this play is about class, human connection.”

“It makes you think. And, this is so great, it’s funny, in a human way…. People are shocked by how funny it is. With all these serious, sad, angry moments, you can laugh. That’s so real.”

PREVIEW

Cost of Living

Theatre: Citadel, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre

Written by: Martyna Majok

Directed by: Ashlie Corcoran

Starring: Teal Sherer, Christophe Imbrosciano, Ashley Wright, Bahareh Yaraghi

Running: through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com   

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A New Year’s wish from 12thnight.ca

Happy New Year, theatre friends! 

Suddenly it’s 2020 (a number normally reserved for excellent vision), and the third anniversary of 12thnight.ca. I hope you’ve been enjoying the coverage of theatre, Edmonton’s most exciting and influential arts specialty, on my site, and finding it of value. And at the start of a new decade and a new year, I’m hoping, too, that you’re up for chipping in a monthly amount (you choose the amount) to my Patreon campaign to help that coverage continue. Here’s the link: www.patreon.com/12thnight. Spread the word! 

There is no charge to subscribe to 12thnight.ca and so far all the content is free. So, your patronage, dear reader, is a crucial matter.   To those who have already signed on as patrons, my deep gratitude for your support. It makes 12thnight.ca possible. And I’ll continue to provide as much coverage as I can — news, feature articles, reviews! My mission is to be your guide to what’s happening on stages in this theatre town. 

It’s an age of shrinking arts coverage in the mainstream media, so it’s worthwhile to forge a new way. Please join me in this venture as a patron if you can. Here’s to an exhilarating Part Two of the theatre season!

 Warmest wishes, Liz

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Who am I? Where do I belong? A couple of theatre kids in love in Ellen Chorley’s Everybody Loves Robbie, at Northern Light

Jayce McKenzie and Richard Lee Hsi in Everybody Loves Robbie, Northern Light Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the comedy that premieres Friday at Northern Light Theatre, a starry high school couple, drama kids who live and breathe the oxygenated air of musical theatre, come up against doubts. The kind of doubts that make you pause to reassess. That hand you questions about the sliding scale of sexuality and make you wonder where you belong and who you’re with.

Everybody Loves Robbie, the centrepiece of NLT’s three-production season of plays, is the creation of one of Edmonton’s most adventurous, strikingly versatile theatre artists — a playwright and actor, mentor, dramaturg, curator, director and festival artistic director, founding parent of both a kids’ theatre (Promise Productions) and an experimental burlesque troupe (Send in the Girls)…. The list goes on.

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“It’s not autobiographical,” declares Ellen Chorley, whose exuberant good nature comes with the kind of laugh that makes people at adjoining cafe tables want to buy subscription tickets to a theatre immediately. “But it’s very much based on growing up as an Edmonton theatre kid.”

Richard Lee Hsi and Jayce McKenzie in Everybody Loves Robbie. Photo supplied.

Chorley, who took over the reins of Nextfest (Theatre Network’s innovative emerging artist festival) in 2016 — “my dream job!” — revels in memories of her younger self immersed in the magic-making of live theatre. High school drama will never have a more enthusiastic front-line soldier. “I went to Ross Shep, a very sports school,” she says. And they had a very tiny drama program, with a really champion woman (Pamela Schmunk) who was our drama teacher and invested in us! Amazing!”

And the program grew and grew; Ross Shep now has a real theatre instead of a chunk of the gym separated from the jocks by a removable garage door. Says Chorley, “that experience really changed my life, shaped what kind of theatre artist I am today! I left high school knowing I’d work in theatre for life! I’m forever grateful….”

“We could do all these awesome things,” says Chorley, musing fondly. “I started playwriting… In Grade 11 I was in the first year of Teens at the Turn (a Citadel program mentored by Vern Thiessen)…. Writing, directing, costume design, costume building, stage managing, lighting designing. And then acting!” At 16 she and her Citadel Theatre school classmates collaborated on a show (Caroline’s Court) and took it to Nextfest. For Chorley, from the start, theatre artistry was a multi-stringed instrument. “And I’m forever grateful.” 

“Not everyone gets out of high school wanting to work in theatre, of course,” says Chorley. “But the skills you get from theatre are transferrable…. Creative problem-solving, working as a team, project-based deadlines, accountability, empathy.” Everybody Loves Robbie is “a bit of a love letter to high school drama.”

“Theatre programs,” declares Chorley decisively, “are so essential to building community, and giving kids a place to belong…. That’s what the play comes down to, these kids finding a community and finding out who they are and where they belong. That’s where the action and the conflict are.”   

Chorley, who has a contagious way of speaking in high-speed exclamations, remembers “we’d go to improv, Rapid Fire Theatre at the Varscona at 11 o’clock at night,” an era when queues would start forming outside the theatre an hour before curtain time. She doesn’t have time to do improv these days, but the friendships last. “I didn’t set out to put that stuff in the play. It just sort of came out,” grins Chorley.

Jayce McKenzie, playwright Ellen Chorley, Richard Lee Hsi. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“I tried to see everything. As much as I could. Every kind of theatre, every way to tell a story, anything I could get a ticket to,” says Chorley, who went to MacEwan, attracted by the musical theatre program founded and led by the late Tim Ryan. “This city really gave me an education…. I tell young artists they must see plays!”

Stewart Lemoine’s A Grand Time in the Rapids, “a lesson in how to write a farce.” She remembers Kill Your Television’s production of Shakespeare’s R&J and “the way that story could be told with a piece of fabric, four actors, and a metronome.” Shadow Theatre’s Three Days of Rain sticks in her mind, along with The Drowning Girls, Stop Kiss, Leave It To Jane’s Violet, Wonderful Town….

By her second year of college Chorley’s playwriting career was nudging acting off the stage. “I had the revelation that I was going to be a dime a dozen,’ she laughs. “There were a lot of young girls like me who could sing and dance and smile.” And she’d had her first play produced, Bohemian Perso at Nextfest (“that’s where all my firsts are!”). Soon Chorley would be launching Promise Productions and writing the first of her 18 plays for young audiences. She’d be landing commissions from the Calgary theatre Mob Hit (Bridezilla, Good Girls Don’t, Emma Burden). And in 2010 she and Delia Barnet would be experimenting with marrying theatre to burlesque.

“We wanted to try the medium out,” says Chorley, Send in the Girls’ resident playwright. So she and Barnet applied to the Nextfest performance nite clubs for a slot. “Can we make a play out of this? With burlesque numbers instead of singing?” She laughs. ‘We knew we’d have to make it work; if we don’t we are literally going to be naked onstage. With nothing!” The debut of Send In The Girls was Tudor Queens, in which the six wives of Henry VIII reveal more than their thoughts on the monarchy.

Everybody Loves Robbie started life as a 12-minute playlet for Loud ’N’ Queer in 2014, on prompting from Darrin Hagen. Last year Northern Light general manager Gina Moe and artistic director Trevor Schmidt (who had directed the little three-scene play) asked Chorley whether it had expandable full-length potential. Short answer: yes. A commission was born. The full-length one-act unspools farther into the past: we meet Robbie and Chloe in Grade 10, and follow them through high school, in a drama program that sprouts impressively, along with their relationship.

Two top-drawer actors (Jayce McKenzie and Richard Lee Hsi) play Robbie and Chloe, and everyone else in their world, “from acting teachers to the other kids at theatre camp, people they meet….”

When Robbie — a character inspired by a close friend of Chorley — suddenly considers he might be gay, Chloe has questions too, not least about their future together. The characters are young, yes. But, says Chorley, “I believe everyone has had the experience of being in a relationship, whether love or friendship, where the rules have changed without you knowing it. You don’t have to be a kid who went to a drama program in Edmonton to feel that belonging and un-belonging. And that’s the heart and soul of the play.”

It’s especially meaningful to Chorley that the premiere of Everybody Loves Robbie, the first of her shows commissioned for a theatre’s official season (and one she didn’t have a hand in producing), happens at Northern Light. Chorley has a history with the company that goes back a decade — sometimes as an administrator, sometimes the box office manager. “I’ve been watching Trevor’s NLT shows since I was 15,” says Chorley of Schmidt, who directs and designs the premiere production. “He’s very much part of my education; the way he directs and imagines shows has really influenced the way I work.” She beams. “This. Is. Big!”

PREVIEW

Everybody Loves Robbie

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Ellen Chorley

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Jayce McKenzie, Richard Lee Hsi

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

Running: Friday through Jan. 25

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

  

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But soft, enter our first Winter Shakespeare Festival

Julius Caesar, Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

As the playwright has said (zestfully, in Twelfth Night) “this is very midsummer madness.” Except that it’s in the bleak midwinter.

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Have a peek at Edmonton’s newest festival, the Winter Shakespeare Festival inside the vintage wooden vault of Holy Trinity Anglican Church. For the last three Januarys, Malachite Theatre, a trans-Atlantic London-Edmonton collaboration, has staged a Shakespeare play in early January, just barely after retail stores start allowing returns. Who on earth would do this? During the post-holiday hangover when “the air bites shrewdly,” we’ve had the re-charge of seeing Henry V, Twelfth Night, and last year Macbeth.

For the start of this new year and new decade — and taking their cue perhaps from Cassius’ pep talk in Julius Caesar “I am fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly.” — they’ve launched a Winter Shakespeare Festival.

’Tis true, we do already have festivities devoted to the work of Will. But that’s in the summer (speaking of air that bites shrewdly), and the venerable Freewill Shakespeare Festival (which this year pairs Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth) seems a long way away. The Winter Shakespeare Festival is now (Friday through Feb. 2), and indoors.

Sara Louise, Liam Coady, Emily Howard, Owen Bishop in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied.

Artistic director Benjamin Blyth alternates two productions for the debut edition of the Winter Shakespeare Festival. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s early romantic comedy, and a cheeky and counter-intuitive choice for winter, starts Friday. And it runs in rep alongside the political thriller Julius Caesar, which starts performances Jan. 9.

In his Malachite productions, Blyth has always been alert to contemporary resonances in the plays. The problematic idea of nationhood, for example, was at the forefront of his Henry V. With its provocations about power and populism, democracy vs. tyranny, the drift of revolutions, Julius Caesar should prove equally fascinating.

Blyth’s casts, which he sends into every nook and aisle of the church sanctuary, tend to be play across the gender divide. His production of 2017, for example, starred the country’s first female Henry V (Brynn Linsey).

The “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Malachite Theatre’s Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied.

The inaugural festival is similarly divided. In Dream, Monica Maddaford occupies the plum role of Bottom the stage-struck weaver with delusions of theatrical grandeur. In Julius Caesar, the title ruler is played by Tom Bradshaw, with Miranda Allen as Brutus and Nikki Holowski as Antony.

The festival comes with “satellite events”: staged readings of two fascinating plays by Shakespeare contemporaries — both with Edmonton in the title (really! OK, it’s a north London borough). The Merrie Devil of  Edmonton (Jan. 29), originally thought to be by Shakespeare, is an Elizabethan city comedy about the fortunes of a magician. The Witch of Edmonton (Jan. 22) is a truly weird play about an old woman who makes a pact with the devil in the form of a dog. Hey, the jolly avant-garde of the 1620s! Edmonton theatre artist John Richardson has adapted the texts for contemporary performance. 

Tickets and full schedule: wintershakespeare.com.

  

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Welcome back! Act II of the Edmonton theatre season is about to begin

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Photo by Citrus Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

I know what you’re thinking — post-festivity regret, punishing resolutions, the sense of finale. But cast off these thoughts: the theatre season isn’t ending. It’s only intermission. And intermission is over. Welcome back; Act II is about to begin. So, what looks unmissable? That’s a long list across a wide spectrum of companies in this theatre town. But here’s a selection….

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The fascinating premise of Catalyst’s much-anticipated new “musical,” (book, music, lyrics by Jonathan Christenson; design by Bretta Gerecke) is espionage. Moreover, it’s inspired by real life, the seven-member Allied team of crack female operatives who dropped behind enemy lines in World War II to sabotage the Nazi war machine. After an award-winning premiere run at Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre (with a record nine Betty Award nominations), The Invisible finally makes its Edmonton debut in February, billed irresistibly as “a genre-busting mash-up of historical research, film noir, graphic novels, and musical theatre.”

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•GEF: I think we can all agree that “psychological thrillers cum Jazz Age musicals” are not a dime a dozen. The beguilingly named indie company Impossible Mongoose has one (book by Jessy Ardern, music by Erik Mortimer). And it’s ready to reveal in June (dates to be announced) as an Azimuth Theatre “showcase.” . Corben Kushneryk drew his inspiration from accounts of a mysterious voice behind the walls of a remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the 1930s. 

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dear Evan Hansen: A highly unusual Broadway pop-rock musical that gets to the heart of teenage alienation and social anxiety, this 2016 multiple Tony Award-winner by the starry young team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who did the music for La La Land, incidentally), tells the story of a lonely, awkward high school kid and the  misapprehension that, uncorrected and introduced into the social media bloodstream, goes viral and changes his life. It arrives at the Jube Feb. 11 to 16, under the aegis of Broadway Across Canada.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL

Sara Louise, Liam Coady, Emily Howard, Owen Bishop in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied.

•For more than three decades Shakespeare has made himself at home in summertime E-Town, letting his hair down and camping out in Hawrelak Park rain or shine on behalf of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. It’s not just a summer fling. The 32nd annual edition runs June 16 to July 12 in the park, alternating Much Ado About Nothing (directed by Dave Horak) and Macbeth (directed by Nancy McAlear). Now, courtesy of the London/Canada collective Malachite Theatre, there’s a Winter Shakespeare Festival too (Jan. 3 to Feb. 2, making its debut at the venerable arts-friendly Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Strathcona (indoors, you’ll be relieved to hear).  In a festively counter-intuitive move for the dead of E-Town winter, director Benjamin Blyth alternates A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that magical romantic foray through the maze of dreams, folly and mis-identifications, with Julius Caesar. Now there’s an exploration of power, authority, tyranny, sabotage, treachery that can’t help but seem “new hatch’d to the woeful time.”

Value added: intriguingly, the new Winter Shakespeare Festival includes staged readings of two anonymous 17th century scripts by Shakespeare’s contemporaries — both set in “Edmonton.” Well, OK, the north London borough of Edmonton, but still…. The Merrie Devil of Edmonton (Jan. 29) is an Elizabethan city comedy about a magician, once attributed to Shakespeare; The Witch of Edmonton (Jan. 22) is a highly peculiar Jacobean play about an old woman who makes a pact with the devil who’s in dog form.  Edmonton artist John Richardson has adapted the texts for contemporary performance.

The Society of the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network. Photo supplied.

The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius: Undoubtedly the most outrageously salacious prospect of the season, from one of the country’s most fearless playwrights, Colleen Murphy. Quentin Tarantino is a Sunday school picnic kind of guy in comparison. Its play-within-a-play is a no-holds-barred presentation of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s most notorious revenge tragedy cum gore fest — complete with cannibalism, dismemberments, evisceration, infanticide, not to mention assorted low-ball murders. Ah, as done by a troupe of grotesque Euro-style clowns whose purchase on the social proprieties is …. zero. Bradley Moss’s five-actor ensemble, led by Robert Benz, is at Theatre Network Jan. 30 to Feb. 16.

Here comes the sun

As You Like It: Shakespeare’s glowing and joyful romantic comedy set to the music of … the Beatles. Aren’t you curious? Daryl Cloran’s ‘60s-style production, which has acquired rights to some 25 Beatles songs, a noteworthy achievement in itself, broke every box office record at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach in 2018. It’s at the Citadel Feb. 16 to March 16. And after that, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (where Six made its North American debut before coming to the Citadel this fall).

We, us, ours

The Garneau Block: What could be more of this place, here and present, than this very Edmonton story of mis-matched, fractious neighbours, idiosyncratic individuals all, who defy the cultural odds by banding together to save their ‘hood? Belinda Cornish adapts Todd Babiak’s funny, satirical but affectionate novel for the stage. Rachel Peake directs the Citadel production that runs March 14 to April 5. 

•Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s Teatro La Quindicina’s 2009 musical comedy, by the team of Jocelyn Ahlf and Andrew MacDonald-Smith (book), Ryan Sigurdsson (music) and Farren Timoteo (lyrics), puts on a party dress and invites us into Edmonton’s thriving supper club scene of the ‘60s — and the particularly E-town self-doubt that if we were really any good we’d be some place else. Kate Ryan of the Plain Janes and herself a Teatro actor of note, makes her Teatro directing debut with the revival that runs July 9 to 25 at the Varscona. 

Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Isaac Andrew in The Blue Hour, SkirtsAfire Festival.

The Blue Hour: Michele Vance Hehir’s dark and funny Alberta Playwriting Competition winner of 2017, returns us to the fictional small prairie town of Roseglen, AB., the scene of her trilogy of plays about small-town dreams, dropped hints, gossip, disappointments, long-buried family secrets buried at different depths and in different periods. The Blue House takes us to post-war Roseglen, where we meet a struggling single mother (Nicole St. Martin), a young son (Isaac Andrew) and his older sister (Helen Belay) who’s desperate to exit the small-town confines. It premieres (Feb 27 to March 8) as the featured production at this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival; Fest founder Annette Loiselle directs. And hey, the festivities move across the river for the occasion from their usual Alberta Avenue turf to Strathcona (the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns).   

The here and now

•The Children: This 2016 post-apocalyptic gripper, from the English playwright Lucy Kirkwood, is set in the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown. Two retired nuclear scientists, a couple in retreat from fallout, are joined by a mysterious third character, another physicist from their shared past. Big moral issues, both eco- and human, play out. Jim Guedo directs the Wild Side Production (March 12 to 22), an onstage reunion of  a trio of premium actors, Marianne Copithorne, Christine MacInnis, and David McNally.

•Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes: The latest from the star Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who has a long and fruitful relationship with Theatre Network (Infinity, Little One, What A Young Wife Ought To Know), draws a bead on the relationship between a 40-something professor and an admiring student, through the #MeToo lens. It premieres at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre this week. The Theatre Network production (April 23 to May 10), directed by Marianne Copthorne, stars Dave Horak and Gianna Vacirca.

•After The Fire: The blaze in question is Fort McMurray’s devastating inferno of 2016. And the aftermath is the human turf of Matthew MacKenzie’s (very) dark comedy, which began its stage life as the surprising and enigmatic Bust at Theatre Network. The ground was still smouldering when he wrote it. The play returns (April 18 to May 10) in re-worked form to the Citadel’s new Highwire series, in a collaboration between Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Arts.   

•Happy Birthday Baby J: This new comedy from the Dora Award-winning actor/playwright (a U of A theatre grad now ensconced in the Toronto scene) has a zinger of a set-up: a couple throwing a second birthday party for the kid they’re raising without gender. Warning: political correctness might show up in a too-tight flowered party dress, and pieties might well get skewered. It premieres in the Shadow Theatre season Jan. 22 to Feb. 9.

And there’s more…

Noises Off: It’s true, I’m a sucker for farces (is it the savoury combination of terror, quease, and hilarity?) And Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off is the crowning glory of the contemporary farce repertoire. A play within a play, Noises Off affords prize onstage and behind-the-scenes views of a terrible sex farce called Nothing on, from rehearsals through performance, then 10 weeks into a punishing tour of the boondocks. A declension into absolute mayhem. The Mayfield Dinner Theatre production runs Feb. 4 to March 29.

•Crave: A new theatre company, Stonemarrow, brings us a rare foray into the formidably challenging, sometimes shocking work of English playwright Sarah Kane (Psychosis 4:48), who hanged herself at 28 in 1999. Perry Gratton, a Stonemarrow co-founder along with Samantha Jeffery, directs this lyrical chamber quartet about love, lovelessness, and death. It opens Jan. 16.

But first up …

Everybody Loves Robbie by the stunningly versatile playwright/ actor/ mentor/ festival director Ellen Chorley, premiering next week at Northern Light Theatre, explores sexuality and gender uncertainties in a pair of high school drama kids. Chorley, director of Nextfest, calls it a love letter to high school drama. The stars of Trevor Schmidt’s production are two of E-town’s hottest young actors, Jayce McKenzie and Richard Lee Hsi. It opens the same night (Jan. 10) as a new revue, Cafe Wanderlust, assembled and directed by Plain Janes’ Kate Ryan for the Citadel’s House Series.

 

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The return of the 12thnight holiday quiz

Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Curl up, hoist a glass to the intrepid energy and invention of our theatre artists, check out our review of 2019 theatre highlights here— and try our holiday theatre quiz.

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  1. In which show, produced this year in E-Town, do the characters meet at the outset in a train station?

(a) The Color Purple

(b) A Likely Story

(c) Elise contre l’extinction

(d) Lake of the Strangers

2. Which of the follow productions asked its audience “are you a bit racist? a bit sexist? a bit violent? none of the above?”.

(a) The Cardiac Shadow

(b) Boy Trouble

(c) Fight Night

(d) Sleuth

3. In which production on an Edmonton stage this year does a father say, sternly, “I told you. Do NOT play in the caskets….”

(a) Fun Home

(b) KaldrSaga

(c) Matilda The Musical

(d) A Momentary Lapse

(e) The Skin of Our Teeth

4. Which of the following productions does not include a writer among its characters?

(a) Nassim

(b) Mesa

(c) We Are Not Alone

(d) Two Gentlemen of Verona

5. Which of the following is not a musical?

(a) The Ballad of Peachtree Rose

(b) Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

(c) Poly Queer Love Ballad

(d) Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

6. Which of the following productions does not involve air travel?

(a) Come From Away

(b) Sweat

(c) A Momentary Lapse

(d) Slight of Mind

7. The characters in Small Mouth Sounds, staged this year by Wild Side Productions, are …

(a) speech therapists

(b) choir members

(c) dental hygienists

(d) strangers

8. The characters in Six, which played the Citadel mainstage this year, are …

(a) wives with a high-end husband

(b) versions of the same character at different ages

(c) singing nuns

(d) bikers in a gang with links to organized crime

9. Name the production, seen on an E-Town stage in 2019, in which the following figure prominently:

(a) an expensive seasonal vegetable

(b) handcuffs

(c) a sketchpad

(d) pie

(e) an accordion

(f) Homer Simpson

(g) a mastadon

(h) letters from one sister to another

10. Which of the following productions contains the song La Vie Boheme?

(a) Rent

(b) Lend Me A Tenor

(c) The Color Purple

(d) The Skin of Our Teeth

(e) The Tempest

11. What was the official nickname of the 2019 Fringe?

(a) Born To Fringe

(b) Planet of the Lost Fringers

(c) Where The Wild Things Fringe

(d) Go Fringe Or Go Home

(e) Much Ado About The Fringe

12. Approximately how many show tickets did the 2019 Edmonton Fringe sell?

(a) 94,000

(b) 147,000

(c) 83,500

(d) 114,200

13. Name the production, seen in E-town in 2019, in which the following characters appear…

(a) Amelia Earhart

(b) a dog named Crab

(c) Houdini

(d) ted northe

(e) Bob and Doug McKenzie

(f) Church Ladies

(g) Anne of Cleves

(h) a descendant of a prolific serial killer

(i) an opera house manager

(j) June Carter

(k) the star of an action flick series

(l) a child with killer instincts

14. In which production, seen this year, does a character counsel 15 minutes of “smiling practice,” working up to half an hour?

(a) A Likely Story

(b) Million Dollar Quartet

(c) Miss Teen

(d) The Party

15. Simone et le whole shebang, seen this year at L’UniThéatre, is set where?

(a) Quebec City

(b) Excelsior, New Jersey

(c) St. Boniface

(d) Fort McMurray

16. Which play, produced in Edmonton this year, was based on an actual historic event in Alberta history?

(a) The Cardiac Shadow

(b) E Day

(c) Fight Night

(d) The Skin of Our Teeth

17. In which production of 2019 did unmarked cardboard storage containers, shelves and shelves of them, figure prominently in the striking design?

(a) Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

(b) The Particulars

(c) Simone et le whole shebang

(d) The Ballad of Peachtree Rose

18. Which of the following productions of 2019 was directed by Dave Horak?

(a) E Day

(b) The Skin of Our Teeth

(c) The Winter’s Tale

(d) Lend Me A Tenor

(e) Fun Home

19. Which of the following productions this year was set in a farmhouse?

(a) Bed and Breakfast

(b) Dead Centre of Town XII

(c) The Roommate

(d) Fun Home

20. Name the playwright:

(a) Bed and Breakfast

(b) The Skin of Our Teeth

(c) Deep Fried Curried Perogies

(d) A Momentary Lapse

(e) Miss Teen

(f) Lend Me A Tenor

(g) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

(h) The Ballad of Peachtree Rose

(i) The Party

(j) The Empress and the Prime Minister

(k) E Day

(l) KaldrSaga

21. In which production, seen on an E-town stage in 2019, did the following lines occur?

(a) “Raise the stakes! Raise the game! Raise your voice.”

(b) “I think I thought you knew…”

(c) “Nobody’s gonna change my story but me.”

(d) “My life stands in the level of your dreams”

(e) “I am a wild turkey!”

(f) “I’m beautiful. And I’m here….”

(g) “Confidence means you could kill someone, but you choose not to.”

(h) “I’m changing my major to Joan.”

(i) “Read whatever appears on the screen in a loud voice.”

(j) “Just once I would like to feel what it’s like to win.”

(k) “This is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice.”

22. Match the director and the show:

Directors: Josette Bushell-Mingo, Benjamin Blyth, Heather Inglis, Kimberley Rampersad, Ron Jenkins, Patricia Darbasie, Andrew Ritchie, Valerie Planche, Daryl Cloran, Jim Guedo, Trevor Schmidt

Shows: Sweat, Matilda The Musical, The Tempest, Macbeth, Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Sister Act,  Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Lake of the Strangers, The Color Purple, Mesa, Slight of Mind

23. The setting this season of Die-Nasty, E-town’s award-winning live weekly improvised soap opera, is …

(a) the Elizabethan court

(b) the French Riviera in the 1920s

(c)  the golden age of vaudeville

(d) a televised late-night talk show

24. Which of the following productions of 2019 had a “splash zone” in the first two rows of the house seats?

(a) Lake of the Strangers

(b) The Roommate

(c) Burlesque Babylon

(d) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

It’s the third anniversary of 12thnight.ca! Happy New Year, theatre-loving friends. Here’s to more excitement on Edmonton stages in 2020.

ANSWERS (no peeking in advance).

1 (b); 2 (c); 3 (a); 4 (d); 5 (a) 6 (b); 7 (d); 8 (a); 9 (a) Vidalia; (b) Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs; (c) Fun Home; (d) Waitress; (e) Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs; (f) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play; (g) The Skin of Our Teeth; (h) The Color Purple; 10 (a); 11 (c); 12 (b); 13 (a) Slight of Mind; (b) The Two Gentlemen of Verona; (c) Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs; (d) The Empress and the Prime Minister; (e) Canada 151; (f) The Color Purple; (g) Six; (h) Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs; (i) Lend Me A Tenor; (j) Ring of Fire; (k) The Candidate; (l) The Bad Seed. 14 (c); 15 (d); 16 (b); 17 (d); 18 all of the above; 19 (b); 20 (a) Mark Crawford; (b) Thornton Wilder; (c) Michelle Todd; (d) Stewart Lemoine and Jocelyn Ahlf; (e) Michele Riml; (f) Ken Ludwig; (g) Anne Washburn; (h) Nicole Moeller; (i) Kat Sandler; (j) Darrin Hagen; (k) Jason Chinn; (l) Harley Morison. 21 (a) Sister Act; (b) Betrayal; (c) Matilda The Musical; (d) The Winter’s Tale; (e) Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; (f) The Color Purple; (g) The Ballad of Peachtree Rose; (h) Fun Home; (i) Nassim; (j) E Day; (k) Songs My Mother Never Sung Me. 21 (a) Josette Bushell-Mingo and The Tempest; (b) Benjamin Blyth and Macbeth; (c) Heather Inglis and Slight of Mind; (d) Kimberley Rampersad and The Color Purple;  (e) Ron Jenkins and Lake of the Strangers; (f) Patricia Darbasie and Mesa; (g) Andrew Ritchie and Mr. Burns, a post-electric play; (h) Valerie Planche and Sweat; (i) Daryl Cloran and Matilda The Musical; (j) Dave Horak and The Winter’s Tale; (k) Jim Guedo and Sister Act; (l) Trevor Schmidt and Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs. 23 (c); 24 (a).

20 or more right? You’re out all the time, and enjoying Edmonton’s most impressive, creative and exciting asset – live! Less than six right? You are missing out, living in 20d.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The year in Edmonton theatre: looking back on 2019

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photo by BB Collective.

Six The Musical: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Social media, video games, pop culture, the 2-D screen world … “all worthless, and we don’t even watch the same worthless things together,” rages Vanya, letting loose an elegiac full-blooded rant on the modern devaluation of bona fide human connection.

In its array of Chekhov winks, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Christopher Durang comedy produced by Shadow Theatre this year, lands a zinger on behalf of live theatre. In a year of desperate viciousness and lies, globally and locally, that liveness has never been more welcome, nay, necessary.

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And the embrace of live theatre in this theatre town has extended, bit by bit, in the diversity and inclusiveness of performers, directors, creators, characters. And of audiences? That’s a crucial question, with economic reverb, still unanswered.

We’ve seen coming-of-age stories through Indigenous eyes (Lake of the Strangers), and the ears of a hearing kid with a deaf mother (Songs My Mother Never Sung Me). We’ve seen momentous self-discovery by a poor black abused girl who survives horrors in the rural South of the early 20th century (The Color Purple). We’ve seen what happens to friendship when oppression directs rage towards an easy target, like race (Sweat). In an original Stewart Lemoine comedy (A Likely Story), strangers  discover themselves and each other by creating their own story when they decide to collaborate. In Darrin Hagen’s The Empress and the Prime Minister, an outsider bravely insists on inclusion in the collective culture, and a politician steps up to change. 

And then there’s the little matter of the end of the world: On E-town stages this year, we’ve seen not one but two three-act epics and a hit musical that explore, in memorably distinctive ways, surviving the apocalypse. In Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play (You Are Here, Blarney Productions) it’s through the collective act of storytelling, from pop- to high-culture. In The Skin of Our Teeth (Bright Young Things) it’s the cyclical continuity of the family propelled through space and time. In Come From Away (Broadway Across Canada), it’s a surge of cross-border human kindness; in Nassim (hosted by the Citadel) an overture of inclusion that crosses languages.

It’s all in the connection of real people. And that’s what live theatre is for. On that note, let’s look back at the year on E-town stages, and remember some of its highlights. 

MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OF 2019 (a selection, in random order)

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

Fun Home – The Plain Jane production of this genuinely original musical, directed by Dave Horak, was one of those experiences that sticks with you. Based on a best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, it unravels the great mystery that haunts all of us: our families. Grown-up Alison, age 43 (Jocelyn Ahlf), with her sketchpad, conjures and reassesses her younger selves — Alison the feisty little kid (Jillian Eisenstat), and Alison the college student (Bella King) who discovers she’s gay at the same moment she realizes her dad is, too. Horak’s production, heart-breaking and lively, was beautifully tuned to the tangled feelings of this coming-of-age coming-out story.  Read the full review HERE

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photo by BB Collective.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: So, in a world that’s melting down,  what do we do now? Anne Washburn’s strange 2013 play proposes that we survive by re-telling stories coughed up by pop culture, specifically our favourite Simpsons episodes. A strange play that dances along an arc from shared pop-culture to high-culture ritual in its three acts, Mr. Burns was imagined in a highly theatrical way by Andrew Ritchie’s production (You Are Here/ Blarney Productions) that created three intimate theatres — one immersive surround, one thrust, one proscenium — from the chilly expanses of the Westbury. Read the full review HERE

Matilda the Musical, Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Matilda the musical: In this wickedly clever musical (based on the deliciously dark Roald Dahl novel), a brilliant little subversive (Lilla Solymos) not only resists adult stupidity but triumphs over it. Daryl Cloran’s snazzy, vivid Citadel production found the perfect mix of cartoon excess and something more heartfelt. In every age group his cast bit in, with riotous conviction. And the bold, choreography, by Canadian star Kimberley Rampersad, really nailed the dynamic. Read the full review HERE.

Lake of the Strangers: In this haunting tale by the brother-sister team of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal, a young Indigenous boy and his little brother set forth on a secret night-time adventure, the last of the summer, to catch a big fish and thus instigate a family celebration. In Ron Jenkins’ exquisite production, starring Hunter Cardinal, the coming-of-age story emerges, with luminous simplicity and imagination, from an onstage pool, conceived by designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll. Read the full review HERE

Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn in Six. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Six: A true Fringe success story, this musical (by the young English team of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss) began as an Edinburgh hit, vaulted across the Atlantic, first to Chicago, then the Citadel here, and soon (with other stops in between) on to Broadway. A bright idea  (a rock concert by the much put-upon wives of Henry VIII, with a pop-diva style for each) executed with zest and theatrical savvy by a kick-ass cast. It married a catchy original pop score to wicked lyrics, plus a lightly weighted message about female empowerment.  Fun fun fun. Read the full review HERE.

Small Mouth Sounds: Intriguingly perverse though it is, the premise of Beth Wohl’s play — six strangers at a silence retreat led by a famous guru — really doesn’t account for either its comedy or its mysterious haunting effect. The characters get to know each other as we do — mostly without words. Jim Guedo’s Wild Side production, with its superb ensemble, was perfectly judged to calibrate the way the tiniest gestures and flickers can become momentous in the larger human struggle. Read the full review HERE

The Color Purple, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The Color Purple: Kimberley Rampersad’s beautiful Citadel/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production (the first on stage or screen to be directed by a black woman) captures the four-decade spaciousness and the intimacy of the heart-breaking life-affirming story, as Celie (stunningly played by Tara Jackson), poor, black, and endlessly oppressed, emerges from survival mode into the self-discovery of creation. Read the full review HERE

Mat Hulshof, Rachel Bowron, Vincent Forcier, Jeff Haslam, Jenny McKillop in A Likely Story, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

A Likely Story: The title is double-sided,  skeptical or affirmative. And so was this playful, strangely moving new experiment in comedy by Teatro La Quindicina’s Stewart Lemoine. It wonders about the might-be’s that go into the making of stories. Anonymous strangers discover, together, who they are at the same time we do. Lemoine’s first-rate five-member ensemble perfectly judges the delicacy (and very funny literal-mindedness) of this “journey,” with Mathew Hulshof as everyone the travellers meet en route.  Read the full review HERE.    

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

The Party/ The Candidate: There wasn’t a more crazily ambitious experiment in theatricality in 2019 than this pair of Kat Sandler political comedies, putting a satirical boot into the unholy intersection of politics, celebrity, and the media. The two shows ran simultaneously in the Citadel’s Maclab and Rice Theatres — with the same 10-member cast dashing pellmell from one to the other, scene by scene. The Party, all free-floating asides, smart-ass stage whispers and small talk, cast us as the fat-cat potential donors at a political bash. On the theory that spin-doctoring and damage control are naturals for farce, The Candidate was one — a full-out old-fashioned door-slammer on an election eve nine months later. Not everything worked in the double-productions directed by Daryl Cloran and the playwright. But the entertainment value was vast, especially in an election year. Read the full review HERE.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics

Slight of Mind: Beth Graham’s lyrical play about risk, ambition, and breaking the bonds of earth — an ode to dreamers — extrapolated theatrically on the myth of Icarus, the flight-obsessed kid who flew too close to the sun and melted his wax wings. Heather Inglis’s Theatre Yes production took us through every nook and cranny of the Citadel (except its theatres). Read the full review HERE. 

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

We Are Not Alone: In his solo creation, which arrived in the Theatre Network season, ex-Edmontonian actor/playwright Damien Atkins tells the story of his fascination with UFOs, and the perennially related questions of belief and  ‘are we alone in the universe?’.  And in the course of expertly conjuring a spectrum of research and a gallery of individual characters (some kookier than others), he makes a compelling case for rattling the cages where belief and doubt normally reside in solitary splendour. A captivating production directed by Chris Abraham and Christian Barry. Read the full review HERE.

Vincent Forcier, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Lauren Hughes in The Skin Of Our Teeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

The Skin of Our Teeth: With this Thornton Wilder epic, Bright Young Things set before us the strangest play of the year, still playfully experimental and unnervingly on point after 77 years. It  chronicles the fortunes of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey through one epochal apocalypse after another, from the Ice Age to devastating climate changes, wars, the migration of refugees, assorted extinctions…. With a starry cast (led by Jeff Haslam, Stephanie Wolfe, Vincent Forcier, Lauren Hughes) director Dave Horak figured out how to bring this unwieldy story, mythical and meta-, funny and oddly hopeful, onto the stage. A riveting evening that seemed strikingly of this moment. Read the full review HERE.

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The Cardiac Shadow: In this clever multi-disciplinary experiment in dance, theatre, music and film, Northern Light Theatre’s Trevor Schmidt reimagines a play (by the American Clay McLeod Chapman) that extrapolates from a horrifying experiment that’s a Holocaust  footnote. Under extreme duress, the body and the soul separate. Schmidt had dancers (Good Women Dance) animating the monologues, and the words delivered by actors in voice-over. The concept may sound aridly conceptual, but the effect — bathed in golden light by Beth Dart with music by Dave Clarke — was stunning. Read the full review HERE.

Cody Porter, Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook in Betrayal. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Betrayal: Harold Pinter’s infinitely clever, intricate 1978 masterwork is the three-sided story of an affair — told in reverse chronology. Broken Toys Theatre’s welcome revival, directed by Clinton Carew, was so alert to the nuances of Pinter’s language, including the tense pauses, that you could just about hear the characters listening and reassessing what they think they know. A cast (Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook, Cody Porter) in prime form. Read the full review HERE

Laura Raboud, Alexandra Dawking and (rear) Bobbi Goddard, The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

The Ballad of Peachtree Rose: Nicole Moeller did something rare in her new play, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. She crafted a bona fide thriller (set in Edmonton), with intriguing mysteries, withheld information, alternate possibilities, mounting suspense. Brenley Charkow’s production, starring Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, and Shannon Blanchet, knew what to spill, what to hint, what to unravel and re-ravel. Read the full review HERE.

Tara Jackson as Celie in The Color Purple, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR  (a small selection, in random order)

Tara Jackson – As the abused heroine Celie in Kimberley Rampersad’s Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Color Purple, the actor, a powerhouse singer, captured the stirring emergence of an oppressed soul into a world of wonder and joy in this story of empowerment against all odds.  A knock-out performance.

Lilla Sólymos and Nicola Elbro in The Bad Seed, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby

Nicola Elbro — In The Bad Seed, Teatro La Quindicina’s revival of the Maxwell Anderson thriller of the ‘50s, she calibrated to an exquisite degree a mother’s incremental escalation of apprehension, suspicion, and then suspense attached to an apparently perfect ‘50s daughter.

Ted Dykstra as Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Ted Dykstra – The centrepiece of the Citadel’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol by David van Belle — which replaces the 19-year Victorian version by Tom Wood — is Dykstra’s performance as the furiously brisk, acidic Mr. Scrooge. It’s 1949, and this toxic party, a test-case for redemption, runs a department store with a steely-eyed glare and an iron fist that scatters termination notices as if there were no tomorrows. A stakes-raising performance.

Sheldon Elter – As a king who explodes into unmotivated, self-destructive jealousy in Dave Horak’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter’s Tale, Elter’s Leontes seems as baffled as his courtiers that his natural cordiality has curdled into murderous rage. A portrait of a man trapped behind a smile that suddenly feels foreign to him.

Simon Bracken and the Mourners, The Particulars. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Simon Bracken – In Matthew MacKenzie’s black comedy The Particulars, he was riveting as a man suffering the invasion of his life by noxious pests. Surrounded by six dancers, it was a performance of expert comic physicality.

Bobbi Goddard, Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, in The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, Workshop West. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Alexandra Dawkins – As the wary new recruit to an organized crime network in Nicole Moeller’s thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre,  this newcomer conveyed the harsh contours of a hard-scrabble life, and the seductive lure of family, the sense of belonging, of being valued.

Colleen Wheeler – A sensational comic performance as the foul-mouthed campaign manager cum fixer who’s in constant motion between crises (and theatres) in The Party and The Candidate. She leans into a stomp like she’s exterminating ants while she talks.  

John Ullyatt as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

John Ullyatt – How can you ever un-see Ullyatt, riotous as the dread tyrannical head-mistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, vaulting over the pommel-horse in gym class? Or flinging a kid like a hammer. A comic show-stopper of a performance.

Luc Tellier – Unfailing droll as the earnestly naive political intern Dill Pickerel in The Party and The Candidate. A performance that timed every reaction half a beat behind the action.

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Vanessa Sabourin – As a woman who’s stepped up to a shattering decision that came with the potential for the world’s disapproval, the charismatic star of 19 Weeks, produced by Northern Light Theatre, turned in a performance of confidential honesty. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.

Jocelyn Ahlf – As the middle-aged version of Alison, a graphic artist trying to sketch her family in the Plain Janes’ production of Fun Home, the actor created a memorably alert, wry character who comes to  understand something heartbreaking about the maddening, mercurial, and finally tragic man who was her father.

Jeff Haslam (see above) – As the closeted father, he turned in a fascinating, heart-breaking portrait of the terrible cost of a double life in Fun Home.

Hunter Cardinal – In Lake of the Strangers, this magnetic actor/playwright played a pair of young brothers on an adventure, conveying effortlessly the dynamic of the older bro in charge of an exasperating, wayward younger sibling.

Lilla Solymos as Matilda in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Lilla Solymos – This remarkable 12-year-old triple-threat commanded the stage as the plucky, gravely focussed heroine of Matilda the Musical, who takes charge of her own story, and refuses to ingratiate herself with either authority or sentimental clichés. And she followed that up with an expert comic turn as the terrifying little girl who plays all those clichés for all they’re worth in The Bad Seed at Teatro.   

Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira – In Bed and Breakfast, a deceptively mild-mannered Canadian comedy by Mark Crawford (Theatre Network), this pair gave us the fun of watching two actors populate the stage at top speed with two dozen characters, of every age, gender, sexual persuasion, biker to real estate agent. And sometimes, in scenes of maximum virtuosity — a committee meeting, a dinner party, the b&b opening weekend — there was a crowd.

Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira in Bed and Breakfast. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Nicole St. Martin — In a bravely harsh performance she was explosive as a woman whose resentment turns to fury when the going gets tough for blue-collar workers in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat (Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club).

(clockwise from left) Gianna Vacirca, Ben Stevens, Patricia Cerra, Oscar Derkx in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker

Oscar Derkx – In Two Gentlemen of Verona (Freewill Shakespeare Festival), an early Shakespeare romantic comedy with unappetizing developments in male behaviour (and a downright sour ending), this resourceful actor brought to the role of Proteus a sense of wonder at his own unexpected capacity for terrible behaviour. It didn’t explain the play, but made it so much more palatable.   

AND IN OTHER HIGHLIGHTS …

Image of the year: A tie. In Heather Inglis’s production of Slight of Mind, we gasped from inside a Citadel lobby as Icarus fell back to earth from the roof of an adjoining building. Dave Horak’s production of The Winter’s Tale embraced the oddities of this strange late-period romance, and brought an unexpected sense of humour you’d have to call goofy. Witness a bucolic Act II dance especially choreographed for sheep (no kidding), later to be seen strolling through the park.

Experiment of the year: Fight Night, by the Belgian avant-gardism company Ontroerend Goed, investigated why we vote the way we do, in a fun, Survivor-type entertainment that handed us five candidates about whom we know nothing — and a clicker. And then it tallied the results on the spot.

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo by Dave DeGagné

Ensemble of the year — A tie. (a) Dave Horak’s compelling in-the-round 12-actor production of E Day, Jason Chinn’s political comedy, took us behind the scene to a constituency office during the countdown to the historic provincial NDP victory of 2015. The largest-scale indie production of the year, it was a study in perpetual motion, and the translation of the small to the momentous. (b) In Jim Guedo’s six-actor Wild Side production of Small Mouth Sounds, a gallery of characters, from least anxious to most, emerged from the situation — and mostly without the benefit of words since they’re at a silent retreat.

Chutzpah Award for 2018: The Winter’s Tale/ Two Gentlemen of Verona — With Dave Horak’s al fresco production, Freewill Shakespeare Festival audiences saw a version of The Winter’s Tale that actually embraced (instead of camouflaged) the weirdness of Shakespeare’s strange and magical late period romance. Its companion piece, Kevin Sutley’s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, bravely took on (instead of detouring around) the bitter aftertaste of a “romantic comedy” in which a guy comes on, with cringe-making aggression, to his best friend’s beloved.

Changes at the top: With the departure of playwright/mentor/teacher Vern Thiessen and manager Marian Brant, Workshop West found a new artistic director in Heather Inglis of Theatre Yes an interim operations manager in L’UniThéâtre’s Milane Pridmore-Franz. The artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, Marianne Copithorne, left last February, after a decade at the helm and an association with the company that dates back her Freewill acting debut as Lady Macbeth in 1999. Not only has she not been replaced, the company hasn’t even announced her departure yet.

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

Most impossible casting triumph of the year: (a) If you can find an actor who’s also an accomplished escape artist you have to consider yourself a lottery winner. Enter Miranda Allen, multi-talented star of Ron Pearson’s fascinating new play Minerva — Queen of the Handcuffs, which premiered in the Roxy Performance series. (b) Ditto, if you can find an actor who’s convincing in sight and sound as a young justice minister named Pierre Trudeau. Enter Joey Lespérance in The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network.

Small-space design ingenuity and wit award for 2019: Two of Trevor Schmidt’s designs for Northern Light productions in the ATB Financial Arts Barn’s intimate Studio Theatre are up for this award. So, a tie between the bandstand in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs (an outsized set of sparkly teeth, with pointy incisors) and the “altar” that’s a backdrop for The Cardiac Shadow (a dismembered upright piano, with its keys hanging at the side).

Improv bright idea of the year: Rapid Fire Theatre’s current production of The Blank Who Stole Christmas, partly scripted partly improvised. A guest improviser in a costume of their choice shows up in the production, an homage to Dr. Seuss’s Grinchian classic, to play the villain of the piece. Sheer lunacy, like so many of RFT’s most impressive inspirations. 

  

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Don we now our gay apparel: With Bells On is back, in festive mode

James Hamilton, Jake Tkaczyk in With Bells On, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The glamorous lives of drag queens (to be cont’d….).

It’s Sunday morning. And Darrin Hagen is in an unheated garage in Belgravia looking for a disco ball, the official Guys in Disguise disco ball. “We must have lent it to someone,” he sighs. “Someone who forgot to give it back.”

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People, that’s a hint. It had better be there on the night — to wit, Wednesday when Hagen’s award-winning 2010 holiday comedy With Bells On opens on the Varscona stage in a new production. In the course of it, you will see the unlikeliest of urban neighbours — a pipsqueak sad sack of an accountant and a towering drag queen decked out like a glorious giant tannenbaum — not just thrown together but trapped when the elevator in their high-rise apartment building gets stuck between floors.

It’s the Saturday night before Christmas. And the seven-foot human tannenbaum  Natasha is on a tight timetable. If she doesn’t arrive at the Magic Crystal Palace for the Christmas Queen Pageant by midnight, she will forfeit forever her chance to be Christmas Queen. And she is disinclined, to put it mildly, to let that happen. As for the hapless, mild-mannered Ted, on the rebound from a nasty divorce and challenged in the self-esteem department, he’s on a quest, too, albeit a less flashy one. This evening is to be his re-introduction into the scary world of dating.

How does it come to pass that the busy playwright/actor/composer/musician/sound designer/drag queen, who’s of the Scroogian persuasion when it comes to seasonal festivities — “I hate Christmas!” he declares feelingly — has ended up writing a Christmas play? And a Christmas play with a lot of sparkle and charm, to boot? Hagen remembers being tickled by the comic potential of the visuals.“I was at a staged reading, and James Hamilton was one of the actors there. And I thought he and I would look so funny together onstage. That was the image I had in my head….”

Hagen, a husky seven-footer in his high heels, towers over the much smaller, more delicate-looking Hamilton. As Ted says, tentatively, in With Bells On, “you move well for such a … (pause) … statuesque performer.” 

With Bells On premiered at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre in 2010, with Hamilton as Ted and Paul Welch as Natasha. Hagen had originally thought to play Natasha himself, but was happy to cede  the role: “I can’t stand in heels for a full hour; I’m way too lazy….” In  the decade that followed, the comedy has been absent from stages in this country and across the border for only one year. Its American debut in 2018 was in Key West, Fla. in a production directed by the notable Canadian drag performer Christopher Peterson.

The idea of mismatched strangers stuck together against probability and comfort isn’t a new one in theatre, of course. Hagen credits the particular setting to his friend Neon. “We were in the elevator in my apartment building, and it was (lurching) down, as usual. And she said ‘you should write a play about this elevator!’.” And so he did.

The visuals were further enhanced by the reverb from Hagen’s own stage direction: “she’s huge and garish, and looks like a Christmas tree.” Ahah! Similes have a way of becoming costume choices at Guys in Disguise. Trevor Schmidt, a Hagen collaborator on many of the company’s hit shows, has designed a new show-stopper gown for this revival (keynote: red and green tinsel).

If Natasha seems defensive in the (close) company of a stranger, it’s hardly surprising, says Hagen. Hagen played the first Street Performers Festival here as a mermaid, in full regalia. And he still shudders at the memory of “being taunted for two-and-a-half hours by children, the worst couple of hours of my career.” That story is now part of With Bells On.

Hamilton returns to the show with his “killer deadpan,” as Hagen puts it. This time, Jake  Tkaczyk, whom Edmonton audiences saw most recently in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,  is Natasha. It’s not Tkaczyk’s first drag collaboration with Guys in Disguise; he co-starred with Hagen and Schmidt in Don’t Frown At The Gown in 2018. 

“A new version, new actor, new jokes, new stories,” says Hagen. “And a new dress!”  

PREVIEW

With Bells On

Theatre: Guys in Disguise

Written by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Darrin Hagen

Starring: Jake Tkaczyk, James Hamilton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Wednesday through Saturday

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

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