Yule Be Swell! Teatro La Quindicina’s musical comedy concert tonight

Teatro La Quindicinas Mathew Hulshof and Rachel Bowron. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The stockings were hung by the green room with care….

In the fraught world of Yuletide concerts (which account for a disproportionate percentage of the world’s supply of opening night nerves), you have a chance tonight to relax and see what happens when real musical comedy pros take to the stage tonight in honour of the sparkly season.

I refer to the forces of Teatro La Quindicina, who tend to use the (much-abused) term “hi-jinks” in its original and precise meaning. Yule Be Swell! is their holiday concert. The evening at the Varscona will include musical numbers, carols, readings, eggnog and mulled wine consumption — and drama, in the form of Holiday Plays By Children, staged and directed by Teatro’s resident playwright Stewart Lemoine.

Teatro artistic director Jeff Haslam’s rendition of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and Yuletide in the Alto Section with Rachel Bowron are among the evening’s offerings. These two Teatro stars are joined by Kendra Connor, Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Jason Hardwick, and Jenny McKillop, along with the pianist Steven Greenfield. And they are joined by up-and-comers from MacEwan Theatre Arts and the St. Albert Children’s Theatre.

Tickets: teatroQ.com or at the door.

Incidentally, the company has announced a 2018 season that includes premieres of two new Stewart Lemoine comedies, as yet unnamed. The finale is a revival of Lemoine’s 2003 screwball Skirts On Fire, which blithely negotiates the intricacies of a literary hoax in the world of ‘50s Manhattan publishing — in a production that stars Andrew MacDonald-Smith as the principal fomenter of chaos, with Louise Lambert, Ron Pederson, and Paula Humby. 

Teatro’s July offering is a venture onto the Wilde side, The Importance of Being Earnest, a  replacement for the production, previously announced, of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple — a question of restricted North American rights.

Ron Pederson and Mark Meer, who were to have starred as Oscar and Felix (or was it Felix and Oscar?) in The Odd Couple, will tackle the subterfuges and cucumber sandwiches of Oscar Wilde’s towering achievement in comedy, as Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, with Louise Lambert and Shannon Blanchet as Gwendolyn and Cecily. Leona Brausen makes her Wildean debut as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell.

Subscriptions (discounted before Dec. 31) are available at teatroQ.com



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It’s beginning to look a lot like … and other weekend possibilities on Edmonton stages

Hey Ladies! From left Cathleen Rootsaert, Davina Stewart front), Trevor Schmidt, Leona Brausen, Noel Taylor. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We’ll start with things of a wintry, possibly Yule-ish, tinge, and their antidotes.

•If you’ve already had it up to here with the fa-la-la’s even though you’re still eating crappy leftover Halloween candy …

If the word “heartwarming” already congeals yours …

If you already ponder homicidal fantasies when you hear the term “holly jolly” and your spirits plummet to dangerous levels when you hear Mariah Carey slide around over All I Want For Christmas Is You in a mall …


•there’s probably no one in the country better to hang out with Trevor Schmidt.

And this Friday you can do it. The Northern Light Theatre artistic director, who has brought us such bleakly hilarious seasonal offerings as The Santaland Diaries and Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, is a special guest on Friday night’s Office Christmas Party episode of Hey Ladies! at Theatre Network.  — He returns for the third year to his Bad Santa alter-ego.

Schmidt, who has an unparalleled purchase on gallows humour, has made multiple Hey Ladies! appearances. And he’s always been a favourite, says Davina Stewart one of the three co-creators and co-hostesses (along with Leona Brausen and Cathleen Rootsaert) of the live comedy, musical, info-tainment, talk/ variety/ game show. Bad Santa’s views will make your own perspective on foggy pudding and all the associated ding-dong-merrily’s seems positively sunny and buoyant.

The evening includes Etown Salsa’s Sabor Divino, Office Party Matchgame, winter comfort booze, “special holiday prizes! perfect for re-gifting!”. And lots of dancing. 

Tickets: 780-453-2440, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

Patricia Zentilli, PattyZee@theRoxy

•Let it snow let it snow…. At Theatre Network Saturday night actor/ cabaret artiste extraordinaire Patricia Zentilli resumes her cabaret series PattyZee@theRoxy with a Winter edition. Don Horsburgh, far too deluxe a musical companion to be called an accompanist, is at the piano. Special guests are Citadel leading man John Ullyatt and 10-year-old wunderkind Will Brettelle. And there’s a (lucky) surprise guest who will sing “a winter duet” with Zentilli. 

Ullyatt incidentally rises above mere seasonal considerations with his musical choices. One is downright counterintuitive, which is worth something at this time of year: David Gilmour’s arrangement of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (you know, “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” which figured prominently in Shakespeare in Love). The other is Be Our Guest, the cutlery production number from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in which Ullyatt has played the riotous French candelabra Lumière.

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

Lizzie The Musical, Scona Alumni Theatre Company and Uniform Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Here’s one that puts the edge (not to mention the rage and gore) back in the season: a bad-girl rock musical starring Lizzie Borden, who (as you may recall) “took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” No one, including the creators of this  musical, has much doubt Lizzie did the deed; (the New York Times memorably called her “the OJ Simpson of 1892). But, hey, she had her grievances.

Scona Alumni Theatre Company and Uniform Theatre go for the gusto with Lizzie The Musical: four killer performers (Carling Hack, Amanda Neufeld, Gianna Read-Skelton, and Victoria Suen) and a band of six. Linette Smith directs and choreographs the far-from-demure maidens. Mackenzie Reurink is the musical director.

It runs Dec. 4 to 10 on the Strathcona High School stage (10450 – 72 Ave.).

A Doll’s House, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

•With her vintage Studio Theatre production of A Doll’s House, opening Thursday, director Beau Coleman finds a home for Henrik Ibsen’s radical 1879 play — and its heroine, suffering in a stifling marriage and culture — in the America of the 1950s. The production references Betty Friedan’s seminal text The Feminine Mystique. 

It runs through Dec. 9. Tickets: 780-492-2495, ualberta.ca/artshows 

•Other possibilities for your nights out (get your butt in gear, the first three end this weekend):

Kingsley Leggs in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

If you haven’t seen Hadestown at the Citadel Theatre yet, at least once, what in hell are you waiting for? The ravishing Rachel Chavkin production (in preparation for a Broadway run next year) only runs here through Sunday Check out my 12thnight.ca Hadestown review.

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

If you haven’t seen what happens when the (normally separate) worlds of espionage and retail vacuum cleaner sales collide, get yourself to ’50s Cuba for Bright Young Things entertaining production of the spy comedy Our Man In Havana at the Varscona. It only runs there through Saturday. Check our my 12thnight.ca Our Man In Havana review.

Sister Act gets ’70s Philly soul, r&b and disco back where they belong — in the convent. Jim Guedo’s student (and alumnae) production of the Broadway musical spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie opens MacEwan U’s snazzy new Triffo Theatre in the campus’s  glass-box downtown arts centre, Allard Hall. It runs through Saturday. Have at peek at my 12thnight.ca Sister Act feature/review.

There’s Back To The 80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues at the Mayfield (through Jan. 28), a whole bunch of music and comedy, staged by Dave Horak. I haven’t seen Part 2 yet, but Part 1 was a hoot. The company sets the bar for music high. They also set the bar.

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A legendary clown guru returns to the stage … in a box: Over Her Dead Body at Fringe Theatre Adventures

Christine Lesiak (top), Jan Henderson in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in a coffin lately,” says Jan Henderson cheerfully. “Talk about rubbing your nose in mortality.” 

As a way to celebrate a return to the stage after 25 years, the view from the (unpadded) box comes with its own built-in ironies, of course. They’re courtesy of Over Her Dead Body, a new “clown-esque” Small Matters creation premiering Thursday at The Backstage Theatre and hereby launching the Fringe Theatre Adventures season.

Henderson, an authority with blue-chip clown credentials as a performer/ mentor/ coach/ director/ writer/ clown philosopher, notes with an air of amusement that mortality is the furthest thing from the clown mind. “You’re immortal when you’re a clown; you live in the moment.” And tomorrow never comes.

Tomorrow has come. Over Her Dead Body, which Henderson has created with her co-star Christine Lesiak and director Suzie Martin, takes physical comedy à la Mr. Bean or Buster Keaton into the perpetually fraught world of mother-daughter relationships.

“There are no words,” says Henderson, one of Edmonton theatre’s most engaging conversationalists (an irony in itself). Instead, there’s “physical comedy, with heightened characters,” says Henderson, who plays free-spirited mom, with Lesiak as her brisk, organized daughter. And there’s an original score, by the brilliant up-and-comer Leif Ingebrigtsen, who has created (and also improvised) entire musicals. “It’s the real world with occasionally magical overtones.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

When there are no words, storytelling takes other routes. “The music,” says Henderson, “is there to impart a basic underlay of what’s going on emotionally.” She sometimes gives her theatre workshop students a piece of music, and gets them to create a clown routine that fits. “You’re not ruled by music; you’re informed by music,” she says. “By the rhythm.”

“Clowns,” Henderson says, “experience the entire life span of every thought and every emotion…. As soon as it’s not pleasurable, they move on.” Which sets the clown apart from the rest of us, since we spend a lot of our time mucking around in denial and avoidance, or else clinging — to guilt or disappointment or regret. And so do our moms. She cites Leonard Bernstein on the transmutation of art: “we take the pains of life and craft them into gold….”

“Clowns accept all of their emotions; they feel them 100 per cent, and then it’s over. They turn to something else.” Henderson beams. “Clowns accept themselves…. Most angst comes from doubt.”

Henderson herself entered the world of clowning in something of that abrupt left-turn clown way — via pharmacy. Which makes her an intriguing partner to her Small Matters cohort Lesiak, a physicist-turned-clown.

“I’d never seen a play,” says Henderson, remembering her sudden impulse as a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, to sign up for Drama 100 as an option. A legendary teacher, Robert Merritt, for whom Dalhousie’s teaching awards are named, changed everything for her.

“The first play I ever saw was Waiting For Godot,” with its two vaudevillian tramps at an existential crossroad trying to pass the time as they wait for meaning. Henderson was hooked on theatre. And her fellow summer intern at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre further refined the direction of this emerging career. Richard Pochinko, who would go on to found a famous mask/clown training technique, was a frequent Henderson collaborator and, she says, the instigator of her life as a teacher as well.

It was under his mentorship that Henderson’s own personal clown, the adorable Fender, first emerged. And Fender “still comes out every day,” she says, “depending on what’s happening in my own life.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Production. Photo by Ian Walker

Over Her Dead Body is not only Henderson’s return to the stage — “I was busy!” she says of her complicated life of directing and coaching at the University and Alberta and elsewhere— but her return to an establishment with which she has a long and festive history: Fringe Theatre Adventures. They go back. Henderson was at the very first Fringe in 1982, in Small Change Theatre’s signature charmer One Beautiful Evening, a clown-mask piece set in a small prairie town bingo hall, with wistful, lonely characters who end up sharing a bingo card. 

There have been a lot of clown and mask shows since then, some with Henderson in the cast, some up on their feet with Henderson’s mentorship. Henderson has directed (and co-created) such Small Matters productions as Sofa So Good, Fools For Love, The Heavy Sleeper, Ask Aggie. And now, she’s Minnie, whose middle-aged daughter Mim returns to her small-town origins for a funeral.

“We mined all our mother/daughter experience,” says Henderson of the brainstorming that resulted in Over Her Dead Body. “All those half-drunk cups of tea scattered over the apartment, all the times my mother took off her engagement ring, wrapped it in Kleenex and stuck it in her pocket.…” 

No words. No red noses. Only the complications of real life embodied in physical comedy. “In a good play,” says Henderson, “the characters are always pushed beyond their comfort zone, into the un-characteristic.”

Isn’t it always that way when you’re with your mom?


Over Her Dead Body

Theatre: Small Matter Productions, in the Fringe Theatre Adventures season

Created by: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak, Suzie Martin

Directed by: Suzie Martin

Starring: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Nuns get down, and raise your spirits: Sister Act at MacEwan’s snazzy new theatre

Sister Act, starring Chariz Faulmino, at MacEwan University’s new Triffo Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s something pretty sweet about christening a new theatre with a musical that includes an all-inclusive singing benediction like the one you’ll hear in Act II of Sister Act:

“Bless the songs we’re gonna sing./ Bless the stage that we’ll stand on/ When we stand and do our thing….” sing Deloris and a convent full of nuns. They go on to salute everything from the props to the costumes, the lights and the soundboard, the amps and, hey, the audience. Odes to the collaborative nature of theatre, production to performance, don’t come more detailed.

Sister Act, the 2011  musical fashioned from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, is not only a rare opportunity to see nuns in their pjs laying down the boogie (as the song goes), it’s our first chance to see (and hear) MacEwan University’s elegantly tiered, curvaceous new 415-seat Triffo Theatre in full showbiz mode. Which is to say packed to the rafters with people in the seats and a big-cast Broadway musical rocking onstage — and all the trimmings including a 12-piece band that seems to float above proceedings in a crimson box as if it’s just touched down from that great big musical theatre venue in the sky.

When I toured the new proscenium theatre last March, the seats were still plastic-wrapped. I can report that unwrapped, they welcome the posterior and (as overheard at intermission) a great variety of human shapes and sizes. In the two wrap-around balcony galleries, the seats are in a single row — and they swivel. I’ve checked out seats at every level (except the gallery seats closest to the stage), and the sight lines are splendid everywhere I sat.

You enter from the main floor in the airy five-story atrium, criss-crossed with apparently floating staircases. So far your intermission refreshment possibilities are limited to two machines, one for pop, one for chips, plus a drinking fountain (major queues for all of the above). But it’s a potentially festive space that will eventually be attached to a cafe on the southwest corner of Allard Hall.

But I digress. Back to the beautiful Triffo, where Jim Guedo’s highly entertaining  student (and MacEwan alumnae) production of Sister Act is testing the state-of-the-art resources of the new theatre with screens and projections, set pieces from above, turntables (set design by Melissa Cuerrier), big sound (Wade Staples), Scott Peters’ glitzy lighting, and zestfully inventive period choreography (Jacqueline Pooke) for a cast of about two dozen.

In a fundamental way the choreography, the lighting, the catchy ‘70s- style songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are the narrative: Sister Act, after all, is all about a double-sided conversion into musical theatre performance. Guedo’s production is all over that thought.

We follow the fortunes of Deloris Van Cartier (Chariz Faulmino, who’s a veritable human sparkler), an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia who has the bad luck to witness her mobster boyfriend (Damon Pitcher) ice a guy. It’s witness protection with wimple: she hides out under wraps in a convent — disrupting the strict regime of the Mother Superior (Kristi Hansen, a MacEwan grad of yore), kvetching about the “penguin dress,” incredulous there isn’t a smoking section. “Let he who is without sin get stoned first.”

The irrepressible Deloris kickstarts the pious (and tuneless) sisterhood to get down with Philly soul, r&b and disco. “Ride the groove/ boogie till you feel your spirit move,” they sing in Sunday Morning Fever. And, lo and behold!, the long-empty pews start to fill, much to the delight of the Monsignor (Tim Yakimec, another distinguished MacEwan alumnus, and now artistic director of Edmonton Opera).

Amusingly, he starts to sound more and more like a Vegas hustler. “If you see one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!” The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additions by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, is peppered with lines like that.

There is, of course, something perennially irresistible about the sight of nuns in full black and white regalia getting fabulous and shaking their booty — an old joke but an eternal one. And the group numbers, like It’s Good To Be A Nun, have a rousing, contagious spirit to them.

Jackie Kucey as the ebullient Sister Mary Patrick and Stephanie Swensrude as the sardonic Sister Mary Lazarus are particularly striking. And as the convent’s postulant, Bella King really lands a terrific musical theatre-type song of unsurpassing wistfulness-turned-resolve, The Life I Never Led. As the Mother Superior, whose disapproval is delivered in a series of wry wisecracks, Hansen, a Teatro La Quindicina star, is excellent. 

If Deloris has a caffeinating effect on the convent house choreography, she too is transformed by the experience of going undercover. Her exhibitionist soloist ambition (Fabulous, Baby!) gets tempered by an ensemble sister act spirit — a development that speaks to a theatre school with a brand new theatre. Take Me To Heaven, Deloris’s Donna Summer-esque anthem at the outset, gets a reprise that’s more like gospel by the end.

Meanwhile the mobster’s thugs — played by Josh Travnik, Anthony Hurst and Ricky Rivera — get a very funny rock trio number, Lady In The Long Black Dress, executed in hilarious ‘70s moves, where they predict that no nun will ever be able to hold out against them.

The plot is giddy, and the musical is put together by Broadway experts who aren’t departing from formula. At a theatre school that specializes in the multiple demands of musical theatre, in a spanky new downtown theatre, a musical about the impulse to reach out, find an audience, and raise the rafters is on the money.

“Jump in … that is what your spirit is for,” sing the sisters in the finale number. Words to live by. What are you waiting for? Join the crowd.

Sister Act runs at the new Triffo Theatre in MacEwan University’s Allard Hall (11110 104 Ave.) through Dec. 2. Parking, surface and underground, behind the Hall on 105 Ave. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).   

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Fun with espionage: Our Man In Havana, a review

Mark Meer, Ian Leung, Belinda Cornish in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The turquoise paint is fading picturesquely, the shuttered windows are open, laundry is hanging, the light feels warm. Musica cubana is in the air.

Batista’s Havana in the ‘50s — as conjured festively by designers Chantel Fortin (set), Paul Morgan Donald (sound), and Matt Currie (lighting) …. What could go wrong?

“Fiendish, isn’t it?,” says the head of MI6 in London, gravely reviewing the latest, alarmingly illustrated reports from their new recruit in the Cuban capital. “I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon….”

Graham Greene called his unusually light-hearted 1958 espionage satire Our Man In Havana an “entertainment” to distinguish it from his weightier, more lugubrious tomes. And Bright Young Things production of the pedestrian stage adaptation by Brit actor Clive Francis  — which launches the new Varscona Theatre Ensemble series — takes up that spirit. It is highly entertaining. And the largeness of the entertainment value is directly tied to the smallness of the cast, and its expertise.

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

Si, amigos, the rocketing complications in the life of a hapless English ex-pat vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba, recruited by British Intelligence before he even knows what’s happening, are chronicled by a quartet of expert comic actors (thereby answering the perennial question of how many actors does it take to…?).  A: one (Ian Leung) to play Mr. Wormold and three (Belinda Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer) to populate his world, on both sides of the Atlantic, with 31 other characters. In the course of the evening you will see policemen, bartenders, waiters, merchants, Havana showgirls, secret agents, killers, Cuban assistant sales personnel, intelligence brass, bank tellers … did I mention nuns?

It is the comical extremity of this mathematically improbable activity, in a Kate Ryan production both ingenious and shameless — a veritable circus of flying costume pieces and wigs (designer: Pat Burden) — that makes for the theatrical fun. It’s so very NOT a movie, from the moment that the three quick-changers, in a dance opener, spit up the introductory narrative. “Hope seemed as hopeless as trying to sell vacuum cleaners in Havana….”

Mr. Wormold’s recruiter Hawthorne is played with an amusingly unfazable armour of louche Englishness by Hulshof, among his many assignments. “Absolutely,” he says crisply to the proffered buenos dias (“ebb-sol-yute-leh”).  Hawthorne’s minimal interest in vacuum cleaners is reduced still further by Mr. Wormold’s earnest attempts to engage it. “You don’t say. Fascinating.”

The new Brit secret agent 59200/5 is recruited. And Mr. Wormold, perennially strapped for cash thanks to the pricey shopping proclivities of his spoiled airhead teenaged daughter Milly (Cornish), finds himself scrambling to fabricate contacts and especially their expense sheets, and send off to London those rather terrifying reports of military installations. Funny how the weapons of mass destruction — giant tanks, and the two-way nozzles — have a disconcerting resemblance to the inner workings of a Hoover. 

Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

As the unprepossessing PhastKleaner rep, Leung starts with a shlepper’s perplexity, which escalates into glints of dawning realization and and mounting anxiety about being exposed as a fraud with a soupçon of tiny satisfaction in his new ill-fated importance. 

This combo will escalate into a riptide of out-and-out panic in the course of Our Man In Havana. Mr. Wormold’s fictions start turning into reality. And his contacts with the Cuban chief of police, Captain Segura, he of the wallet made of human skin,  played with sinister suavity by Meer, are increasingly frequent and menacing. His perfectly calm explanation of the class system — the torturable and the untorturable — captures to a T the dry humour of the Greene novel.  May I single out Meer’s Lopez, an assistant at the vacuum cleaner shop who is both deferential and resolutely stubborn about retaining his preconceptions about his boss? 

Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

  That’s the thing about Our Man In Havana: the routine stage adaptation turns Greene’s satire, mostly at the expense of British Intelligence, into self-spoofing high-speed farce (à la Patrick Barlow’s more accomplished version of The 39 Steps). But the actors under Ryan’s direction apply serious comic dexterity to creating vivid characters. Except, of course, when they just go shamelessly for broke: I’m thinking of Hulshof, fully clothed and be-wigged as a stripper in the Shanghai Club and Meer, fully clothed and be-crowned, as a regal personage whose presence is the capper to the evening. There is, as well, a dog. But we can’t get into that here.

Cornish is very droll as the ruthlessly manipulative, very Catholic daughter who is delighted that everything you pray for you get. And as Beatrice, the secretary sent by London to assist Mr. Wormwold in his important work for Her Majesty’s government, she is delightful, a reasonable and competent person in a crazy world.

It’s fun to see what accomplished comic actors, game-ready all four, make of this material, under a director who joins the comedy to witty theatre jokes, without larding them on too much. They are precise, they are agile, and they turn a funny premise into a sparkling entertainment. 

See 12thnight.ca preview interview with Cornish and Meer:


Our Man In Havana

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Graham Greene, adapted by Clive Francis

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring : Ian Leung, Belinda Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com   

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I spy with my little eye: Our Man In Havana launches the Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the comical spy thriller that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, you’ll see two worlds that (to my knowledge) rarely meet actually collide: the world of espionage and the world of vacuum cleaner sales.

In Graham Greene’s satirical 1958 novel Our Man in Havana  and in the 2007 Clive Francis stage adaptation that Bright Young Things take in hand — this unusual career overlap happens in the very English person of Mr. James Wormold (Ian Leung).

In the Batista Havana of the 1950s, the recruitment of a clueless cash-strapped vacuum cleaner retailer by the British secret service leads to an escalating series of inventions on the part of the former: fabricated contacts, expense tallies, bogus reports on military installations with eerie and alarming resemblances to … giant Hoovers. And MI6 eats it up. 

And then Mr. Wormold’s made-up stories start coming true.

This zany comic offering from Bright Young Things, a company which mines the rich vein of elite mid-20th century writing (Rattigan, Sartre, Coward are in their archive), launches a new venture whereby a trio of Edmonton’s leading indie theatres have joined forces to produce a season of shows. “Three artistically autonomous but esthetically complementary companies under one umbrella!” as Bright Young Things artistic director Belinda Cornish describes her company’s new collaboration with Plain Jane Theatre and Atlas Theatre.

“We share a spirit,” Cornish says. “We share an audience. We share a theatre, the Varscona.”  And they also share a subscription that includes the Plain Janes’ Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (February 15 to 24) and Atlas’s Going To St. Ives (April 5 to 14).

For Bright Young Things the recruitment of Greene’s espionage novel — which became a 1959 movie starring Alec Guinness (with Noel Coward as the MI6 operative who signs him up) — as a stage play presents them a challenge for high-speed stage traffic, quick costume changes, wig transfer. Especially since there are but four actors.

Cornish, who’s in the cast of Kate Ryan’s production, reports that “one actor plays Mr. Wormold exclusively, and three actors (Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer) play the other 31, without any particular gender bias.”

Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

“It’s impossible! It’s crazy!” Cornish declares happily of “the terrific yarn” the Bright Young Things have chosen for their entry into the season proper. Actors change hats, jackets, feather boas, wigs on the fly — and accents. In a couple of scenes, it’s a classic joke set-up, she laughs: “an Englishman, a German, an Irishman walk into a bar. A Cuban joins them….”

In logistics, speed, and general tone, Our Man In Havana reminds Cornish of The 39 Steps, the larky four-actor stage adaptation of the John Buchan spy novel and the Hitchcock movie. “It’s the sense of three or four people who’s come together to tell the story, grabbing what they can to make it happen….” 

Of all the characters Cornish plays, a gallery that includes Milly (Mr. Wormold’s expensive, spoiled teenage daughter) and Beatrice (the secretary MI6 insists on sending him from London), her favourite, she says, is Miss Jenkinson. She’s the tart-tongued head of the secretarial forces at MI6 HQ. “I’m basing her on Prunella Scales,” laughs Cornish. “She’s sort of Sybil Fawlty….”

Mark Meer in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Ryan Parker.

As for the chameleon comedy star Meer, whose career divides itself rather impressively between screen appearances, radio, video game incarnations, voice-overs, improv and sketch comedy, encyclopedic comic book reference AND the stage, he plays a multitude of characters. Everyone from the head of MI6 to the Queen of England. His favourite? Captain Segura, the head of the Cuban police, aka The Red Vulture, he replies without hesitation.

“Renowned for his skill in torture and mutilation,” says Meer with a certain macabre glee. “Always fun to play a character who has a wallet made of human skin.”

Meer, who has a cult following for his voice work as Commander Shepard in BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy. seems to be attracted to off-centre swashbucklers and out-and-out blackguards over romantic leads. Captain Segura is the most recent in a long and distinguished line of villains Meer has been drawn to play.

As a leading member of the Die-Nasty company of improvising soap-sters, he has exercised the villain option frequently. Who can forget his evil usurper à la Richard III in the medieval season, for example? Or the thoroughly despicable Douche of Venice in the Renaissance year? Or this year’s smarmy Dr. Rex Roquefort, who runs a chain of clinics offering pro bono plastic surgery to the homeless?

Along with Mass Effect Andromeda, his year has included The Long Dark, a Canadian video game in which he plays the bush pilot protagonist. The  fourth season of the APTN sketch comedy season Caution: May Contain Nuts — Meer started his association as “a writing consultant on the nerdy stuff” and his presence grew—   hits the small screen in January.

But for all that, Meer’s year has included unusually ample live theatre content. He was in back-to-back Teatro La Quindicina productions, first as the title character, a life-sized automaton, in a revival of Stewart Lemoine’s Salon of the Talking Turk. Then, in a whirl of high-speed comic virtuosity he played eight roles at least in Going, Going, Gone!, a new screwball comedy by Jana O’Connor.

And now, the theatrical multi-tasker finds himself rushing around on and off-stage in a farcically tangled espionage thriller/ comedy that, as Cornish puts it, “tells its story and winks. But not too much.” The premise, curiously, has an echo of Meer’s Teatro debut in 2002. In a Lemoine screwball called Vidalia (after the onion), Meer played an entirely innocent suit salesman reluctantly drawn into an intricate corporate espionage intrigue.  

As for Our Man In Havana, its riotous progress through Havana and across the Atlantic involves scamming, lying, dim-bulb gullibility, and shameless cover-ups on the part of our venerable institutions, Meer says wryly “I wouldn’t say it isn’t topical.” Reality has seen to that. Cornish, amused, sighs her assent.

Pretending to discover weapons of mass destruction? Fake news? Butt-covering and face- saving? Who’s ever heard of such a thing?


Our Man In Havana

Theatre: Bright Young Things, part of Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Adapted by: Clive Francis from the Graham Greene novel

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Ian Leung, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com

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Shakespeare reimagined into Cree cosmology: Pawâkan Macbeth

Curtis Peeteetuce in Pawâkan Macbeth. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Whenever you do indigenous theatre, it’s never just theatre,” says Reneltta Arluk. “It’s theatre and….”

The Inuvialuit Cree Dene actor/ playwright/ director/ artistic director — and the Banff Centre’s new head of indigenous arts — is talking about the way indigenous theatre reverberates with cultural connections, traditions, mythologies, history, practices.

And so it is with Arluk’s Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Tragedy, opening Thursday on the Westbury Theatre stage in an 11-actor collaboration between Akpik Theatre, the Northwest Territories’ only professional indigenous company, and Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero. It reimagines Shakespeare’s swift, brutal, escalating tragedy in the harsh wartime world of the Plains Cree in the 1870s. The Scottish lord who discovers in himself, and embraces, a dark and murderous ambition, egged on by his wife, is a great Okihcitâw warrior. Macikosisân is consumed by an evil cannibal spirit, Wihtiko, who urges him (and his wife) on to assassinate the Chief.

The inspiration, says Arluk, came from an Akpik/Theatre Prospero residency at the Frog Lake First Nation. “The original idea was to adapt The Tempest,” she says of the late Shakespeare romance. “But (the kids) told us ‘we just don’t relate to it; we don’t see how our culture fits into it…. What we can connect with it the cannibal spirit of the Wihtiko and the greed of Macbeth’. The idea came from the students … and I of course  took it to the max!” 

“The Elders were so responsive to the process they supplied shirts for the men, breast-plates, headdresses,” says Arluk. “I was so blown away by the generosity and the unity; it brought together Elders and young people.… It was such a positive experience with such dark material I wanted to try adapting it for the professional theatre!”

Since then Arluk, a Fort Smith native who grew up in Yellowknife — as a pre-schooler, she was raised nomadically by her grandparents on the trap-line — has led residencies in other Cree schools across the country. “None of them ever included the spirit (of the Wihtiko) the way Frog Lake did,” she says. “I thought that was interesting: they believe the spirit exists; it’s part of their cosmology, their culture, not something from way long ago!” 

Arluk, the first Aboriginal woman (and the first Inuk) to graduate (2005) from the U of A’s theatre program, “grew up hearing stories of the Wihtiko….” Where she’s from, in the Northwest Territories, “it was a fear tactic mostly, told to kids so they wouldn’t stay out late…. It’s not just Cree, it’s part of every indigenous culture, with a different name everywhere.”

The attraction to one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, and to the question of whether the witches are an external manifestation of Macbeth’s own lethal ambition, isn’t surprising to Arluk. Her mother is a residential school survivor, and Arluk knows something about “generational pain passed down,” as she puts it. 

In her Macbeth adaptation, Arluk says she’s asking “what makes a man? what makes a man vulnerable to the Wihtiko? Is it inherent? Is it inherited?”

Bruce Sinclair, Allyson Pratt, Curtis Peeteetuce in Pawâkan Macbeth. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

“There’s a more female focus in my version,” she says. Lady Macbeth, for example, who isn’t exactly a model of maternal instinct in Shakespeare, “is seven months pregnant.” And as for the witches, playful tricksters in Arluk’s adaptation, they get more stage time than Shakespeare’s play gives them.  The script is a weave of Cree and English: “there’s enough Cree you feel you’re in another world, but not so much you feel you’re getting lost,” says Arluk.

“It’s all about the resurgence of a culture…. We have to embrace the dark as well as the light. You don’t learn what’s bad, you don’t learn what’s good, until you have both. We have to find balance.”

The production, co-directed by Barry Bilinsky and Mark Henderson, has assembled “a cultural team” that has reached out to Elders. “We’re diligent about following protocol,” says Arluk. “We smudge before every rehearsal; we have done sweats together…. We have incorporated everyday living, of the culture, into the play. Because we’re dealing with such a dark spirit, we’re careful to treat everything with respect and consideration.”

Arluk is calling the Edmonton run of Pawâkan Macbeth a “workshop production”  — “we want to see what we have” — with plans for an official premiere next fall, probably in Edmonton, followed by a tour to “indigenous communities that don’t normally have access to theatre.”

Arluk took up her new position at the Banff Centre last week, fresh from the success of Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole which premiered this past season at Stratford in a production she directed. A large-cast indigenous production, with a polar bear protagonist who spans some 500 years of Canadian history, The Breathing Hole served up another kind of first, too: Arluk was the first indigenous woman to direct at the festival.

The multi-disciplinary artist brings brings big plans to the Banff Centre, where indigenous arts are now a full-time commitment (up from six months a year). Arluk, who’s already consulted with Kevin Loring (the head of the National Arts Centre’s new indigenous theatre program), is in charge of the whole panoply of indigenous arts. She’s particularly pleased, she says, to be charged with “bringing back indigenous theatre to Banff. It hasn’t been there for over a decade.”

“It’s a very exciting time for indigenous artists in this country.” Stay tuned.


Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Tragedy

Theatre: Akpik Theatre and Theatre Prospero

Written by: Reneltta Arluk

Directed by: Barry Bilinsky and Mark Henderson

Starring: Gilbert J. Anderson, Theron Auigbelle, Mari Chartier, Lancelot Knight, Nathan Loitz, Sophie Merasty, Joel D. Montgrand, Curtis Peeteetuce, Allyson Pratt, Mitchell Saddleback, Bruce E. Sinclair

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

Running: Thursday through Sunday

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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The road to hell is paved in song: Hadestown at the Citadel, a review


Kingsley Leggs in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hell … yes!

If you get yourself a ticket to the Underworld — and really you must! and soon! — you’ll be going to hell and back wrapped in a ravishing dream of love and loss, and the terrible accommodations we make to survive in a world that’s “hard and getting harder all the time.”

Seldom have poetry and music taken to the stage together with such visceral camaraderie and theatrical invention as they do in Hadestown. And at the Citadel, where Rachel Chavkin’s stunning new production of the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera musical is getting its Canadian premiere (en route to a Broadway opening in 2018), a packed opening night crowd actually held its collective breath when a singer-songwriter named Orpheus, a star of Greek mythology, makes a fateful choice and loses, big time.

Hadestown unspools its own original thread from the story of Orpheus who ventures into the kingdom of the dead to retrieve his lost love Eurydice, and manages to make a special deal with Hades. He can lead her out of the Underworld provided he doesn’t look back.

A musical about music, about artistic creation: that’s what’s taken Mitchell’s gorgeous songs, and lyrics with unexpected imagery, agile wit, reimagined turns of phrase and rhymes, into the theatre — first as a hit 2016 Off-Broadway production, and now, in Chavkin’s new and bigger production, the Citadel’s Shoctor stage.

There’s a sophisticated kind of simplicity involved in its occupancy there, thanks to Chavkin and scenic designer Rachel Hauck. The look is Depression austere. On a stage that’s bare save a gorgeous bare tree which chronicles the passing seasons in light alone (by the master lighting designer Bradley King), two concentric revolving turntables — and an eight-member band who prove their worth immediately with a jazzy trombone solo (Edmonton’s Audrey Ochoa) — the cast of the story assembles. 

The characters are introduced, with annotations, by the wonderful Kingsley Leggs as Hermes: our worldly-wise narrator has seen it all before, “an old tale from way back when,” but can’t help being moved by the cycles of human affairs.  And he looks us in the eye to share.

We meet the three singing Fates, a draped in industrial-burnished Depression punk (designer: Michael Krass). “There’s no telling what you’re gonna do/ when the chips are down,” sing the Fates, who are experts on the price of everything — every choice, every deal, every test. And, as these resident cynics of Hadestown sense, the chips are seldom anywhere else but down in Mitchell’s vision.

In a world of wintry privations, Hadestown is a heated underground kingdom of prosperity and factory jobs, ruled by the ruthless oligarch Hades (black-clad Patrick Page in sunglasses)and surrounded by a wall. Mindless, soul-scorching labour in exchange for security, that’s the ticket.

It’s a proposition that the penniless idealist Orpheus (Reeve Carney), who gravitates “to the world we dream about” not “the world we live in now,” easily resists. Eurydice (T.V. Carpio), starving and cold, is more pragmatic, and more amenable to Hades’ offer of a train ticket.

Ah yes, “the railroad line to Hell.” Hades’ wife Persephone (Amber Gray, who is sensational), steps off that train with “a suitcase full of summertime” as Hermes puts it, for the six months she’s above ground, a flower party girl. And she steps off again as she returns to her husband’s hothouse stronghold below. Mitchell’s lush but rhythmic and jagged music lives and breathes with the narrative.

Amber Gray in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper 2017.

The New Orleans jazz idiom of Livin’ It Up On top is embraced with contagious sensual energy by Gray and co as Persephone emerges bringing wine and flowers. She slides into gospel mode as she returns to the kingdom of death: “I hear the high and lonesome sound…. of my husband coming for to bring me home.”

The strange long-distance relationship between Hades and Persephone has a kind of tension and heft that underpin the whole musical. The performances from Gray and Page are (along with Leggs) are the most powerful in the production. Gray is magnetic as the beautiful woman whose travel itinerary organizes the earth’s calendar; you can’t take your eyes off her every second she’s onstage. And with his startling bass timbre that rattles your ribcage, Page is thrillingly authoritative as the sinister and persuasive ruler of a world that works.

Reeve Carney in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper 2017.

While Carpio has a luminous grace as Eurydice, her Orpheus seems a little under-hefted in the performance by Carney on tenor guitar. The performance is not without some fragile charm, but he sings like you could shatter him with a single trombone blast.

True, Orpheus is fashioned as a singer-songwriter in a folky not musical theatre mode. But for a star musician artist who’s called upon, by the plot, to captivate and subdue the forces of darkness, I don’t know that you can quite believe it happens. His crucial song, at least as delivered, just doesn’t have the 11 o’clock number traction. 

And when the Act I curtain number is a showstopper like Why We Build The Wall, Hades’ call-and-response number which escalates in an ominous way, with a litany of responses from the docile workforce, well…. That number is downright heartstopping in this age of Trump. And it takes Act II a while to recover, in truth.

The workers’ chorus in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper 2017.

The workers’ chorus, which includes Canadian actors Vance Avery, Hal Wesley Rogers, Tara Jackson and Andrew Broderick, is a knock-out. David Neumann’s choreography, eloquent throughout, sets them in motion, muscles rippling in the striking diagonals of repetitive stress motion, like socialist/ realist posters of the ‘30s.

Chavkin’s stagecraft seems to proceed organically from the kind of imagery that is everywhere in Mitchell’s song cycle. And though ingenious, it’s not high-tech. A walking trip down down down to Hades’ kingdom, for example, is conjured in a parade of moving industrial lights.

Imaginative lighting by Tony Award-winner King is a dramatic contributor to the narrative. The down-under world of Hades, in his hands, seems to give off unnatural heat.

And there’s Mitchell’s extraordinary art rock/ folk/ trad jazz all-embracing music everywhere, brilliantly arranged by Michael Chorney, from an expert band *musical director Liam Robinson) and a cast of charismatic actor-singers. And the sound (designer: Nevin Sternberg) is unerring. 

So, going to hell is something you shouldn’t miss the chance to do, in this rare collaboration between New York producers and a theatre company across the continent whose resources have been amplified for the occasion.

“Come home with me,” says Orpheus  to Eurydice at the outset, even before their first date.  “This is the middle of nowhere,” she says, amused and resistant. Orpheus’s rejoinder is an unintentional little Alberta joke. “You should see it in the spring.” That’s what we tell all our visitors. But spring is too late. Hold that thought.



Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Anaïs Mitchell, in collaboration with Rachel Chavkin

Directed by: Rachel Chavkin

Starring: Reeve Carney, T.V. Carpio, Amber Gray, Patrick Page, Kingsley Leggs

Running: through Dec. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Meet the god of the underworld himself: Patrick Page talks about Hadestown

Patrick Page in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“And the wall keeps out the enemy/ And we build the wall to keep us free/ That’s why we build the wall….”

In Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell musical that opens at the Citadel Thursday en route to Broadway, Hades, the god of the Underworld, explains in song why there’s a wall around his subterranean kingdom of jobs, employment, security. 

Mitchell wrote the song a full decade ago. But, says Page, the Broadway star who wraps his velvety bass voice around the role and the song, it resonates in a new and eerie way in the current age of paranoia and protectionism and … The Wall.   

“Every time the world changes, your relationship to the material changes. And the audience hears the material differently,” he says. “When we opened in New York, it was before the Republican nominee had been chosen. And the idea of Donald Trump actually getting the nomination seemed pretty absurd.”

“It was a frightening song before…. Now that it has a place in the real world no one could have imagined before, it’s even scarier,” says Page. “But I hope the audience doesn’t only hear it in literal terms now….”

“The circular logic of why we build the wall has a kind of madness to it…. I’ve seen the question asked online: what do they actually make in Hadestown? What they make in Hadestown IS the wall,” as Page says. “ The wall is the economy. And that circularity is the same as the economy.” 

He sighs. “The military industrial complex (designed to protect the economy) is the economy…. If we were to cut our military budget in half, whole towns would collapse. Because that’s what they make, nuclear warheads that can never be used. It’s a crazy world.”

Patrick Page, Hadestown at the Citadel Theatre.

Page got to Hadestown  — and, as it’s turned out, to Edmonton — the old-fashioned way.

The distinguished Broadway actor, who’s propelled a stellar and lengthy gallery of stage villains onto the stage — including such juicy notables as Green Goblin in Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, Scar in The Lion King, and Dr. Seuss’s Yule-stealing Grinch — got intrigued and called his agent. 

“I run an acting studio in New York,” the genial Page explains. “So I go on the trades (the industry sites detailing upcoming projects) every day, Playbill, Backstage, to look for roles I think my students might be right for” (note to self: we all want a teacher as generous-minded as that).

His eye was caught by the notice of workshops for a new musical, and a role that glimmered with possibilities. In Anaïs Mitchell’s musical, Hades, the god of the Underworld, is the factory oligarch whose subterranean empire of employment and security lures Eurydice away from an uncertain life with poet/musician boyfriend Orpheus.

What drew Page to Hadestown in its formative stages as well, he says, was the name Rachel Chavkin. “She’d directed something I’d seen and admired a lot: Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 was by far my favourite musical of last season.”

And then there was the folk/jazzy score. At the outset “I didn’t know Anaïs Mitchell’s music. Which was surprising to me in a way, because I’m a big fan of American folk music.” He laughs. “But then I’m not really up to date; my tastes run in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s.”

“Anyhow I downloaded, and was blown away” by Mitchell’s 2010 concept album of Hadestown. The music didn’t sound to Page like anything he’d ever heard in the musical theatre. “Which is what appealed to me about it,” he says. “It wasn’t like other musicals. And that drew me in….”

The stars were aligning. And Page arrived onstage in Mitchell’s highly unusual musical in 2016 in Chavkin’s hit Off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop

A classical actor who knows his way around stage villainy, Page has applied that rumbling subterranean voice of his — one New York reviewer likened it to “boulders rolling down a mountain” — around a variety of leading stage “villains,” including Macbeth and Iago. Is Hades in that crowd? “I don’t think of him as a villain,” says Page, a thoughtful, gracious sort in conversation. “I think of him as a capitalist. And a husband with a long-distance relationship (his wife Persephone is above ground away from him for six months a year). He’s someone who runs something and provides for people…. And suddenly, everything is falling apart.”

“My business,” he says in Hades mode, “is threatened by this boy (Orpheus) who comes in and wants to take a girl back.” This, as you’ll know from the Greek myth, is strictly against the rules of the Underworld. Returning from the dead is saved for special arrangements.    

“You’re not allowed to leave Hadestown once you decide you’re taking that deal,” as Page puts it. “I don’t abduct Eurydice; I don’t force her to come down. She chooses; she buys a ticket. I offer her a chance to live there and have security and never have to worry about whether she’s going to eat…. And suddenly this boy comes and wants to take her back.”

It’s “not a big problem” till the boy begins to incite rebellion amongst the work force. As Hades sings, “give them an inch and they’ll take it all….”

By the kind of coincidence that’s forever smudging the lines between art and life in theatre, the Chavkin production that’s brought Hadestown to Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to be ramped up for Broadway, is, amazingly, a reunion for Page with two of his Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark co-stars, T.V. Carpio as Eurydice and Reeve Carney as Orpheus.“We have a lot of history together,” he says. “It’s very easy for us to work together. I adore Amber Gray (who plays Persephone) as well…. All those relationships feel deeper, And we just have real comfort with one another.”

“You know, one of the things that attracted me to the piece in the first place is that it’s talking about big things, big important things in the world at large…. About the economy, about work, about love and marriage. About death. These are all huge things to get to have a conversation about. And they’re so captivatingly presented in Anaïs Mitchell’s lyrics, these big ideas….

“The lyrics are delicious, the puns, the turns of phrase, the rhymes,” says Page, a playwright himself (his Swansong explores the friendship rivalry between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson). “I just love that about it….”

“I began writing because I wanted to understand more about what a writer goes through, what the process is,” he says. “Which is another reason I like to be involved in new works…. I’m always in awe of the way a writer keep re-writing and re-writing, making it better and better.”

“As a writer I get to the point where I can’t do any more; I can see the flaws, but don’t know how to fix them.”

It’s not like that with Hadestown, says Page, who’s working on a couple of new projects with Bob Martin, the Canadian co-writer (now New York-based) of The Drowsy Chaperone and Slings & Arrows. Mitchell and Chavkin have kept the re-writes coming in Edmonton for this new and expanded production at the Citadel.

“I’ve toured with shows through the States; I’ve played lots of regionals,” says Page. “And there’s a big difference between audiences in, say, the Midwest and the West Coast. I’m curious to find out about Canadian audiences.”

Hadestown runs at the Citadel Theatre through Dec. 3. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

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And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? A haunting new show from The Old Trouts at Theatre Network: a review

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Jason Stang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At the start of Jabberwocky there’s a momentous drum roll, and a classic old-school red velvet theatre curtain parts — to reveal another. Which parts to reveal … another. Which….

Ah yes, layers of anticipation and further mysteries within: it’s a Trout specialty. The latest from Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, now getting its world premiere at Theatre Network, is an invitation into the dark wood where dangers lurk, nightmares hatch, and epic stories are born.

It is no surprise that The Trouts, a puppet troupe of weird and wonderful imaginative scope and originality, have been inspired by the Victorian fantasy-master and riddler Lewis Carroll. Theirs is a theatre that plays hide and seek with the big existential questions: life, death, happiness, desire, art. Death. The Trouts are big on death.

In the hands (and occasionally fins, tentacles, trotters) of puppets, the Trout theatre is a miniaturized forum for dream logic, grotesque images, free-associative games, surreal images,  playful anachronism.

In this new piece, by Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes, they’ve gravitated to Carroll’s great nonsense poem Jabberwocky. In Through the Looking-Glass, there it sits unexplained, embedded in one of literature’s most indelible adventures, a baffling and irresistible piece of verbal sculpture, to be perused from every possible angle (including upside down),. ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves….”

Unfolding in the jogging nonsense verse, peppered with neologisms and rhymed like an incantation, Carroll’s poem seems to record a grave danger, a great fear, a solemn warning passed between the generations (”beware the Jabberwock, my son!”), a heroic expedition against a monster — and a celebration of a triumphant return (“come to my arms, my beamish boy!”). 

The fateful red curtain finally opens on scenes of a dark, free-floating world, in the air, on the ground, under the sea, where every creature has its own monsters and nightmares. And what happens after that is the story of how we get born in struggle, emerge as questers into the world, and grow up to take our fathers’ vorpal sword in hand to do battle with our demons, the ones we inherit and the ones we own. It’s the portrait of the hero as a young  … rabbit, an Everyrabbit. 

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by: Jason Stang

In Jabberwocky, the storytelling is both innovative and affectionately tuned to archaic theatre tradition. The “puppet theatre” is a Victorian mechanism: a series of metal frames with pulley, which seems to have landed in the surrounding darkness of the Roxy. Rolls of painted canvas hang on metal frames, present the settings. They’re cranked by human agency to reveal landscapes, domestic interiors, urban high-rise jungles.

Trout production credits are always an ensemble affair, shared between performance and artisanship. But kudos to the sound cues, unfailingly inventive and apt.

As for the characters, they play with scale and dimension (2-D vs. 3-D) in ingenious ways. The Trout canon over the years is an archive of shows that redefine “puppet” and thereby change up the relationship between puppet and puppeteer. There has never been a Trout show that looks like this one.

The puppets include life-sized rabbits (which is to say humans with exquisitely sculpted rabbit heads atop their own). There are small rod puppets characters set in motion in captivating ways by humans in full view. There are 2-D cut-outs of every size and shape, strange fantastical creatures, giant morphing frogs, fish and unidentifiable serpents, propelled by humans to vanish behind the screens. Phantasmagorical clusters of antique soldiers charge by, or knights, or monster school teachers from our hero’s past. There are memorable visions of urban life as nightmare, populated by grotesque party animals or oppressed by mindless routine. There are visions of the past.

Pop art meets Victoriana in the strange scene in which our hero is formed, by the invasion of an egg by a take-charge sperm. There’s a pop-up storybook look to scenes in which our young hero, at every stage of his life, is flattened by a cut-out bully, who’s faster, flashier, more aggressive — and gets the girl. 

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Jason Stang.

 The domestic scenes, in which we see the little fellow, at his father’s knee, playing with his small-scale vorpal sword, are touching and heart-felt, in a very human sort of way. The mother does the ironing,  enwreathed in steam. The father listens to the old stories on a crackling radio. The young rabbit aspires to confront what most he fears. It’s what we do. 

In every case, the Jabberwocky puppeteers, which is to say a very agile, physically expressive cast of four, aren’t invisible dark-clad proles. The puppeteers are fully visible. Even when they wear the rabbits’ heads, which magically seem to change expression with the merest adjustment in an ear or an angle, their own faces peek out underneath.

What the play seems to be after is the  sense of a grand old story, replayed and retold till it’s engrained in the collective unconscious. It’s applied like layers of antique varnish on our own terrors, our battles, our disappointments, our sense of all-enveloping mortality, till they glow.

We humans are haunted beings. And this is a marvellous theatrical adventure, fantastical and ingenious and somehow close to home, that leaves us breathless at every turn into dark corners where our fears lie waiting for us — along with our heart. Can we keep the Jabberwock at bay? The finale is very moving.



Theatre: The Old Trout Puppet Workshop

Created by: Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill, Pity Menderes

Starring: Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanov, Pityu Kenderes, Sebastian Kroon

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

Running: through Nov. 26

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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