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.

REVIEW

Hadestown

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.

REVIEW

Jabberwocky

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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The high line to Hadestown

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“How to get to Hadestown/ You’ll have to take the long way down….” And as the world-weary god/narrator Hermes sings “there ain’t no compass, brother, ain’t no map.”

Yes, the road to Hadestown is long, uncharted, and full of unexpected turns. Just ask Orpheus, the musician/dreamer who tries something radical, way off the grid, to get his lost love back from the underworld. Or the musician/dreamer Anaïs Mitchell, a Vermont singer-songwriter of a highly original cast of mind, who created a hit song cycle cum folk opera cum concert musical spun from Orpheus’s story.

“I loved the Orpheus myth as a kid,” says Mitchell. “I was so compelled by Orpheus the idealist, the artist and lover who goes against ‘the establishment’, who believes that art can change the world….  And I guess I’ve also always been compelled by the mysterious tragedy of the ending.” 

The route to Hadestown has taken Orpheus — the artist who must lead his love out of Hades without ever looking back — out of Greek mythology and onto the stage. Hadestown’s first incarnation? “A DIY community theatre project in the state of Vermont where I used to live,” says Mitchell, a New Yorker these days. “It was a much more abstract version of the piece, but it was theatrical from the get-go,” she says of that time “before the concept album era.” 

“The characters are larger than life — literally, many of them are gods — and they just beg to be embodied onstage.” 

Singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, creator of Hadestown. Photo by Jay Sansone.

The road to Hadestown has taken Mitchell’s unusual creation — and her ideas about idealism vs. pragmatism, security vs. freedom — into a hit 2010 concept album with musical stars like Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. 

Among the travelling companions Hadestown has attracted en route to a much-awarded hit 2016 production Off-Broadway at 200-seat New York Theatre Workshop, is a pair of creative producers, Dale Franzen and Mara Isaacs of Octopus Theatricals — and some of theatre’s hottest, most innovative artists, including the young New York director Rachel Chavkin.

And now, in a leap of geography no one in hailing distance of a Manhattan cabbie would have seen coming — “through the underground, under cover of night/ laying low, staying out of sight” — Hadestown has spent the last month or so half a continent away from its Off-Broadway acclaim. The road to Hades is paved in, well, snow for one thing.

So how do you get to Hadestown? 

Since early October it’s been in Canada, at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, quietly experimenting, expanding, getting re-tooled and re-thought for a very different kind of stage than its funky Off-Broadway in-the-round incarnation in the East Village. The Shoctor’s front-on stage is where you’ll find it come tonight (in preview, opening Thursday), en route to the bright lights and big houses of Broadway, in a new Chavkin production with a cross-border cast of 12 (seven Americans and five Canadians) and a seven-piece onstage band.

Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin

“It was seeing Rachel Chavkin’s work on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” that incited Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran to reach out when he heard Hadestown had Broadway buzz. The highly unconventional musical, spun from a 70-page chunk of War and Peace, had incarnations in venues as small as 87 seats and as oddball as a Spiegel tent before it landed in Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, reinvented in each case by the resourceful Chavkin. Cloran was attracted by “the great mix of it, so innovative in staging and storytelling, very visceral and muscular, big bold images — and real heart… I loved how the love story didn’t get lost in all the (theatricality).” He hadn’t seen anything like it, he says. And he figured Citadel audiences hadn’t either.

So Cloran proposed the Citadel as an “out-of-town” — way out of town — theatre where a Broadway re-fit of Chavkin’s production of Hadestown might be tested.

“Very unlikely, but we’ll keep you in mind,” he heard from the producers. Cloran was undeterred. “I kept checking back,” he laughs. “He pursued us. Relentlessly,” says Isaac approvingly.

It echoes back through Citadel history, and conjures memories of Broadway Joe, the theatre’s founding father Joe Shoctor. He never stopped dreaming of New York, of Broadway partnerships. And he pursued them vigorously, as try-out productions like Pieces of Eight and Duddy attest. 

At the outset Mitchell had never met Chavkin (they’d be introduced by a mutual friend later). But she’d seen Great Comet in its first incarnation, at tiny Ars Nova in Manhattan. “It was SUCH an exciting piece,” Mitchell says, “completely immersive in an unself-conscious way. And there was just moment-to-moment visual magic happening from start to finish!”

In this thought, a creative partnership was born. “Everything — lights, staging, etc. — was bound by golden thread to the motion of the music, of which Rachel has a very intuitive sense,” says Mitchell. “I loved her direction, and I think I also saw in her, as a development collaborator, someone who knows in her bones what makes for good theatrical storytelling — but also deeply gets that music and poetry have their own logic that must be served.”

“After Hadestown was such a big hit at New York Theatre Workshop people were clamouring for us to move to Broadway right away,” says Isaacs. “We thought that if our ambition really was to have a Broadway musical, we needed another step…. Broadway is not a forgiving environment. Much better to have the space, take our time, do the work.”

“We were looking for an environment that was enthusiastic and supportive, but away from the glare,” Isaacs says of the tricky theatrical task at hand: “how to scale it up and keep the magic, the relationship of actors and audience, the DNA that makes it special….” The producers and the creative team led by Chavkin found the positive environment — as well as a big, proscenium stage, like 99 per cent of Broadway houses — at the Citadel.

“It was never Broadway or Bust for us,” says Isaac, whose degree from UC Berkeley in medical anthropology puts her in an unusual subset of theatrical producers. She talks about the job of the producer in “being nimble and responding to the artist and the development of the piece…. We were open to everything, maybe a site-specific installation somewhere. Just because something is a big hit Off-Broadway doesn’t mean it’s destined for Broadway glory (laughter, with sigh)…. But we’ve discovered that Anaïs’s vision really does embrace a Broadway-style experience!”   

“It was win-win,” says the Citadel’s Cloran on the phone from Winnipeg where his production of Ubuntu opened at Prairie Theatre Exchange this week. “For them it was a chance to experiment; for us, it was a chance to have the show!” And have the show — a show with Broadway production values — for the usual Citadel tab for modest-sized musicals, the $500,000 to $750,000 range, as Citadel executive producer Penny Ritco says.

Part of the deal was that there would be Canadian actors in the cast (Chavkin and Mitchell auditioned in Edmonton and Toronto). Then, says Ritco, “the scope of the production changed.” In the wake of a flurry of Off-Broadway award nominations and an escalation of commercial interest, the American producers have stepped up with what Ritco calls “significant but thoughtful ‘enhancement’” of the budget, and their investment. Much of Rachel Hauck’s extended set, built in New York, was shipped here. The cast size is up to 12 from eight. Seventeen American theatre people have found themselves working in Canada, gathering air miles, wearing gloves when they go outside. And the Citadel contribution has remained roughly the same.

For her part Chavkin says “Right now I’m not even thinking Broadway; I don’t actually consider that my job. And I believe that nothing is guaranteed in life,” she says cheerfully. “I’m focussed on the Citadel, on making the show look as great, feel as visceral, be as emotional, as possible….”

“ What’s been really delightful,” Chavkin says, “is that unlike New York Theatre Workshop, where I focussed on creating a vibe and context for the show to happen, here — with choreographer David Neumann and the designers — I get to make stage pictures, focus on striking images that go along with the story! Unlike (the NYTW production) in the round, the viewers are basically in the same spot.”

That “vibe and context” is a wintry Depression Era above-ground world of unemployment and privation: “times being what they are, hard and getting harder,” as Eurydice sings. In Mitchell’s folk re-telling of the Orpheus myth, Hadestown is a well-heated subterranean stronghold of factories, manual labour, full employment — fortified by a wall built to keep out poverty and need.

Hadestown is where Eurydice chooses to repair, in the winter of her discontent “when the chips are down,” in search of a kind of security that her life with an idealistic artist like Orpheus is never going to have. And that’s where her lover must seek her out, and strike a deal with the arch-capitalist Hades himself, “the king of mortar and brick,” if he wants her back.

Expanding and reconfiguring a distinctively off-centre production for Broadway comes with its particular challenges. When Chavkin’s production of The Great Comet went to Broadway, the director basically sacked the big theatre and threaded the house with performing catwalks and performing spaces so the actors could infiltrate the audience. “The Russian cabaret was such a part of the DNA of that show, we knew we didn’t want to lose it,” she explains. “Whereas here (with Hadestown), I do believe the show is going to translate beautifully, and will still have a deep relationship between storytellers and audience, that will feel ancient and warm in the way it did at New York Theatre Workshop.”

“The set is greatly extended…. We’ve added a workers’ chorus, an exciting innovation. Certain songs have gone through quite radical revisions I would say. Anaïs has done some extraordinary rewrites,” Chavkin points out admiringly.

Mitchell, who’s known to be a fearless, and indefatigable, reviser of her own work,  says she “had two main things in mind” with her rewrites. One is the “beautiful highly choreographed chorus of workers”; “they help us understand the physical and political realities of Hadestown.”

“Second, I’ve tried to bring the Orpheus character more into focus,” she says. “For some reason it has always been easier to write for the hard-nosed characters like Hades and the Fates. Whereas Orpheus, who sits in this unusual place as artist, lover, ‘enchanted/nature boy’, and revolutionary, has been harder to pin down. A lot of his stuff is still changing….” 

As for the band’s onstage prominence in Hadestown, “that has not changed!” declares Chavkin firmly, of a musical that marries folk idioms to New Orleans-esque jazz. “There are things you can change and things you really don’t want to lose, the heart of the DNA,” she says. “And the visibility of the band, the fact that this is much a music show as it is theatre, that felt essential not to lose!”

Another challenge has been resisting the temptation to heap on theatrical concepts. “For example, this show never felt like  it wanted video design,” says Chavkin. “After one tech rehearsal Reeve Carney, who plays Orpheus, came up to me and said ‘this set and this world feel like a really well-done meal, not overloaded with too many ingredients’.” She was delighted. 

Chavkin, who describes the concept album as “absolutely glorious,” says her original inspiration for the production was an image: “an image of swinging lamps. Because of the shape of the music, the surges, the wave motion.” 

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

“The second image, which remains a core part of Rachel Hauck’s set design, is a tree. The idea of gathering around a tree to hear a story, the mythic-ness and the ancient-ness of that.”

And what of the image of the wall? In the decade-plus since Mitchell started working on Hadestown, and the five years since it was getting fashioned for Off-Broadway, that image and Hades’ song Why We Build The Wall has gained sinister and tangible new traction, it need hardly be pointed out in this age of Trumpism.

“Certainly, it has accumulated new meaning since I started working on the show,” says Chavkin. “That’s how myths function. And that’s what Anaïs has done in adapting the story in a way that’s poetic but not overly literal. It allows the myth to keep being relevant. It’s what myths want to do….”

“You see things in a new light; they gain significance in every age.” Chavkin points to the song Hey, Little Songbird, which Hades sings to Eurydice when he first comes above ground. “In the light of all the sexual harassment allegations coming out … that song is eerie in a way it never quite was to me before….”

“For me Hadestown has always been an archetypal story, bound to the original myth,” says Mitchell. “There’s nothing new about the wall as an image or even a song,” she says, citing Pink Floyd. “It’s a powerful image that political leaders have invoked for thousands of years because it appeals to people who feel vulnerable.”

“I was as surprised as anyone when the current American president began using language that sounded like this song, which I wrote in 2006. But in hindsight it’s not surprising. It’s China. It’s Israel-Palestine. It’s Germany, It’s any run-of-the-mill gated community, and so on….”

Isaacs echoes that thought. In 2016,“before the Republican nomination” as she points out, the metaphor of the wall “resonated with the Syrian refugee situation. The Hungarian leader even talked about building a wall…. We build walls at every turn.”

Hadestown has always felt like a struggle between the idealist and the pragmatist, across the millennia,” she says. “The world we live in is full of difficult choices and conflicting paths that somehow we have to navigate…. You’ve got principles but you’ve got to eat. What are you willing to give up to survive?”

PREVIEW

Hadestown

Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Anaïs Mitchell Developed with and directed by: Rachel Chavkin

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

Running: through Dec. 3

Tickets: 780-420-1825, citadeltheatre.com

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Reimagining our own lost history: John Ware Reimagined at Workshop West, a review

Jesse Lipscombe, John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

John Ware could do many things in life. He could ride horses too wild for any other man. He could wrestle any rampaging steer into submission, organize a cattle drive, run a ranch, walk through a prairie blizzard for a hundred miles when the train ground to a halt. He could stay put in the saddle when his mount galloped off a cliff and into a river, and emerge, like Neptune, triumphant from the water.

There was one thing John Ware couldn’t do, in life or in death. He couldn’t gain a foothold in Alberta history and lore that would propel him out of the 19th century and into our own. It’s a tricky thing to stride through the story of a place, much less its cowboy mythology, if you leave no footprint.

John Ware was black. And as you’ll see in the play by Calgary’s Cheryl Foggo that launches the new Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season, colour has been a cloak of invisibility in a world of white stories and white storytellers. Even if you’re wearing a cowboy hat.

Hence this ambitious and important, if uneasily structured, show.

The imagining in Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined is done by a young girl growing up black in an overwhelmingly white ‘60s Calgary embedded with Stampede iconography. Joni (Kristen Alter) is besotted with the Stampede and cowboy pop culture — “my Stampede rituals are solid!” — and with the kind of against-the-odds Western heroism in which she will always be a spectator, not a participant.

Through a series of extended monologues directed our way, Alter’s high-spirited performance, with its bright effervescent kid energy, exudes something of the generosity this requires. And she captures too, the coming-of-age awareness of the toll it takes to never see anything of yourself in the world you most admire. 

Joni is dumbfounded when she discovers that John Ware had the same skin tone and hair texture as her own. “He was smart, he was funny, he hated fences” — and he was, what?, black? This discovery changes her life and a world view that is gradually getting frayed around the edges by casual racism. 

Running parallel to this, and kind of embedded in it, is the fascinating story of John Ware himself, a former slave who, on the strength of a magnetic personality, unusual stature and improbable skills, could straddle the chasm between one era and a new, well newer, age.

The old Cole Porter ditty Don’t Fence Me In, played by the musical team of Miranda Martini and Kris Demeanor who drift on and off the stage, filters through our introduction to him, like smoke. 

In a way the John Ware story is itself all about stage presence, uncontainable amounts of it. In this Kevin McKendrick’s production has the considerable advantage of Jesse Lipscombe. He’s an actor of captivating personal charisma. And he uses his physical eloquence and stature in a compelling way, to create a wry, self-aware character who’s easily self-assured in his professional “cowboy” life, so to speak, and sweetly diffident in his domestic life.

In one amusing scene, Lipscombe, a find for Edmonton theatre, conjures single-handedly Ware’s fight with a bunch of white cowboys who have stolen his axe — a fight he astutely contrives to both win and not win. Ware is evidently savvy about negotiating his way through the racial minefield of his world.  You can’t help wishing for more scenes that reveal the unusual mixture of resistance and compliance that Ware brought to bear on his situation.  

Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Kirsten Alter in John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

There’s a love story here, as Ware courts and marries Mildred (Jameela McNeil). They’re a high-contrast couple: she comes from a well-established Toronto business family and arrives in the harsh wide-open expanses of  the West like an interplanetary traveller, wearing gloves. McNeil is an appealing actor. But the scenes in which Mildred confronts the world seem less fleshed-out and more generic somehow.

The 19th century scenes are happening in Joni’s mind, you glean — except when the 19th century characters seem to step out to address us directly. Gradually, the parallel time lines of Joni and the Wares converge, as Joni is drawn into their world, during a life-and-death blizzard.

It’s a structure that is potentially powerful, but isn’t quite set forth enough to have the impact it should. And it seems to leave the original music awkwardly stranded, or at least without much traction. Which is a shame since there’a a quantity of it, and the songs created by Martini and Demeanor are tuneful, atmospheric and appealing in lyrics. Even Joni gets one, for dramatic reasons that seem less than convincing so far.

Jesse Lipscombe and Kirsten Alter, in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Epic Photography.

Ah, so far. What’s clear already is that there’s a powerful and persuasive reason for the creation (and production) of this play; it speaks from the heart, and you can’t help but be struck by that. But John Ware Reimagined seems to need a re-jigging to come fully into its own as a play with music.

The design by T. Erin Gruber (who also lights it beautifully) is strikingly Western: a raised circular wooden disk with a half dozen ramps leading away from it like spokes. But the staging involves quite a lot of noticeable shifting of chairs and trunks off and on and around the circular playing space. There’s a homespun quality to this, true. But it just doesn’t seem necessary. And I  wonder if a more fluid and mysterious co-existence of the two storylines in two time zones, would focus this double-optic about identity and our lost black history.

Here’s a story that needs to be told and to be heard — and a play that might be reimagined to have its full impact. 

REVIEW

John Ware Reimagined

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Cheryl Foggo

Directed by: Kevin McKendrick

Starring: Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Miranda Martini, Kris Demeanor

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

Running: through Nov. 19

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

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Beware the Jabberwock: the Old Trout Puppet Workshop is back

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/ The jaws that bite, the claws that catch….

You can’t help noticing. There’s a storybook rabbit on a chair, head only and larger than life, gazing balefully into the mid-distance. His body is nowhere to be seen. Uh-oh. Has the Jabberwock come and gone?

And centerstage, is a mysterious wonderland of Victorian frames hung with huge canvas rolls of painted scenery and ready to be scrolled vertically, on pulleys, by real live humans.

Yes, my friends, the Old Trout Puppet Workshop is back in town — at the theatre where they’ve unleashed so many of their dark, strange, imaginative initiatives in puppet/human collaboration. These playful connoisseurs of puppet possibility, still Calgary-based in theory but assembled from across the country in practice, are ensconced at Theatre Network to premiere a new show.

With Jabberwocky, opening Thursday at the Roxy on Gateway before it goes to the Cultch in Vancouver and on to European destinations, they’ve lit on a lilting nonsense poem by the eminent Victorian fantasist Lewis Carroll. Jabberwocky the poem sits in the upside down world of Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There, puzzling Alice and blithely eluding every attempt to “translate” it definitively. Which is one of the things that most attracted the Trouts to it in the first place, as a trio of the troupe’s founding fathers muses on a dinner break this week.

“It’s mysterious,” says Pityu Kenderes. “It allows for a broad interpretation,” says Peter Balkwill. “The words sound like the creatures.” Says Judd Palmer, “as puppeteers, we try to reinvent puppetry every time out — or does that sound arrogant?” he looks at his Trout confrères. “‘Reimagine’ puppetry,” amends Balkwill.

Which is, in either case, something the Old Trouts have been doing, show after show, ever since they gathered at the Palmer family ranch in southern Alberta on the eve of Y2K in 1999 to create their own kind of puppets to star in “a metaphysical Punch and Judy show for adults.” In The Unlikely Birth of Istvan, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop was itself born.

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

Jabberwocky is alluring to the Trout mind. “It’s the nonsense-ness of it,” thinks Palmer, an illustrator by trade and the prime writer of the three (Kenderes is a originally a sculptor, Balkwill an actor with a specialty in masks). “It’s the way an epic heroic tale, of a monster-slayer, is (told) in nonsense…. It’s nihilism, with a sense of humour.” The quixotic Palmer and his Trout cohorts love that mixed sense of existential dread and absurdity.

The Trout aesthetic is forged in it. For them puppets have always been star players in a sort of existentialist nightmare. They’re inanimate objects  — sometimes exquisitely crafted, sometimes as simple as a couple of twigs and a stone — who come mysteriously to life. They breathe with the complicity of humans, and expire at their whim. Eyes open, they perpetrate terrible acts of violence on each other; they’re subject to egregious acts of brutality. Abandonment issues, premature burial…. no, it’s no carnival of chuckles to be a puppet. Dimpled smilers need not apply.

“What I really like about it,” says Palmer of Jabberwocky the poem, “is that it feels like the founding myth of some strange culture, the story that holds them together, that urges them forward.”

By the end of the Lewis Carroll poem, we get that the hero has slain the fearsome Jabberwock. And there’s general rejoicing: “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” Balkwill says one of the four performers said to him after rehearsal one day, “you’ve made a sad play.” He was bemused. “There’s a possibility in hope in all our stuff, actually,” he says. “We always have that….”

“Puppet shows should be dark,” argues Palmer. “Puppets allow us to have a relationship with the dark!” The Trout canon backs him up. In scene after scene in Famous Puppet Death Scenes, for example, puppets confront mortality and expire. Ignorance is a faux-doc investigating why happiness has always eluded our grasp. The Tooth Fairy is all about the trade-off of childhood innocence for cold hard cash.

The route by which Jabberwocky comes to the stage in a Trout production is as strangely  connected to the big wide world as you might expect. “It started in Lyon, France,” says Balkwill, who has the first go at telling the story. It was at the avant-gardiste festival Les Nuits de Fourvières. And in addition to the Trouts’ Ignorance and Famous Puppet Death Scenes, which both ran there, the festival director co-opted three Trout puppets for The World Puppetry Museum. He  commissioned a new show, too, to be produced in partnership with Republique Theatre of Copenhagen.

Of the dozens of Trout suggestions they pitched, including Oedipus Rex, the festival picked Jabberwocky, thinking perhaps that this would be a version of Alice in Wonderful.

An outdoor location in a former P.O.W. camp and long-range artillery emplacement from World War II, which Palmer went to France to see, was part of the thinking. So was a contribution from a French hip-hop dance ensemble. Long story short, it didn’t happen. And the Trouts, who felt that theatre already had an ample supply of Alice’s, were relieved to go back to their original idea: Jabberwocky.

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

Specialists in theatrical anachronisms, they set about creating a theatre with Victorian-style scenic gadgetry, and incorporating two-dimensional eccentricities of toy theatres of the period. Palmer explains the social practice whereby people would set up cardboard frames in their living rooms, and populate the miniature world with paper cut-out characters stuck to sticks.

“Very Lewis Carroll,” says Palmer. He describes the “scrolling panorama” of the Jabberwocky scenography “as a sort of animated film — with lots of sweating.” With the Trouts, “anachronistic precedents” are a plus. 

En route to dinner, they survey the life-sized Victorian toy theatre they’ve built, and muse on the fat rolls of canvas that will unspool and set Jabberwocky in motion. They pay tribute to the lingering inspirations of a Trout field trip of yore — to the whaling museum in New Bedford, Mass (home of Melville’s Moby Dick) where the entire history of whaling is painted on a 1300-foot expense of canvas, cranked by hand by the narrator.

The Trouts look at their own handiwork. “A lot of canvas,” observes Kenderes. “How long is a football field?” Balkwill wonders. None of us knows.

Anyhow, we’ll get to see the mechanism at work. “Why not?” says Palmer. “Puppets are so vividly not the real thing anyhow. They’re an invitation to the audience to actively participate.”

“It’s the collective agreement,” agrees Balkwill. “That’s the alchemy of puppets; we create a turtle out of this block of wood and we all collectively agree that it’s a turtle.” Says Kenderes, who’s also one of the performers in the show, “that’s our Trout slogan: “we’re all in this together.”

That’s exactly what Professor Nathaniel Tweak, a puppet himself, tells us in the, er, dying moments of Famous Puppet Death Scenes

PREVIEW

Jabberwocky

Theatre: The Old Trout Puppet Workshop at Theatre Network

Created, directed, and designed by: The Old Trout Puppet Workshop

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

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Nov. 26

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca 

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Don’t let preconceptions define you: meet the stars of John Ware Reimagined

Jesse Lipscombe in John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

On a cold morning last week before rehearsals started for the day, I met up with Jesse Lipscombe and Jameela McNeil, who play John Ware and his wife in the production of Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined that launches the Workshop West season Thursday.

“My attraction initially was the John Ware mythology,” grins Lipscombe. He’s the multi-talented actor/ film and TV producer/ fitness entrepreneur/ activist — and the exclusive occupant in these parts of that rarified category — who plays the legendary title character in John Ware Reimagined, opening the Workshop West season Thursday at the Backstage Theatre. And why not? “A black superhero? Larger-than-life? A real-life story?” Lipscombe shrugs eloquently.

John Ware was a 19th century cowboy and rancher of epic stature and remarkable natural gifts, who easily fills the expansive Western mystique. By reputation the man never met a horse he couldn’t ride, a calf he couldn’t rope, a ranch he couldn’t run, a racial stereotype he couldn’t effortlessly transcend. 

After that, though, “it was the human aspects of Ware” that has kept Lipscombe fascinated, he says. “He didn’t allow labels to fence him in,” he says of the former slave who escaped oppression in the American south in the 1880s, came to the Canadian west, and built a career of unusual profile and dimensions. “In a world where everything was designed to diminish,” Ware refused to be contained. “And that will resonate with everyone….”

“The only fence in his life Ware accepted was family,” muses Lipscombe, who feels much the same of his own life. “Everything is possible.”

For Jameela McNeil, a recent MacEwan University theatre grad who comes to Workshop West from the Mayfield Theatre production of Soul Sistas, the story has been “a history lesson for me…. There were so many things against him, so many reasons to give up…. It’s a story about the underdog rising to the top. Regular people doing amazing things!”

Lipscombe is entitled to a certain buoyancy of spirit and sense of possibility. It’s been a year of multiple honours, including the Obsidian Award for Top Business Leader in Western Canada. He was Diversity Magazine’s Community Man of the Year, in honour of the year-old #MakeItAwkward campaign he launched with his wife Julia and Mayor Don Iveson to combat racism. The #MakeItAwkward “inclusivity summit” planned for Feb. 1 to 3 (MIAsummit.com) will assemble workshops, panels, speakers — with “disrupters and groundbreakers” in every field from around the world. Two weeks ago Lipscombe was named to Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of metaphors to appreciate that high jump was the athletic specialty that landed the young Lipscombe a full scholarship to Morehouse, the black Ivy League college in Atlanta. He picked Morehouse “because that’s where Martin Luther King went to school”  — and Samuel Jackson and Spike Lee….

Among the year’s firsts for Lipscombe, here’s another. Although the Edmonton kid “grew up on musicals” and landed his first acting gig at 14, in the Sidney Poitier film Children of the Dust shot near Calgary, John Ware Reimagined is, amazingly, Lipscombe’s Edmonton theatre debut. Strange, really, especially when you consider that even in Atlanta, where athletics were his ticket, he was drawn to theatre. “Theatre was huge there in the late ‘90s,” he says of “the olive branch” extended to him out of the sports world.

He wrote, he acted, he directed, he made costumes and worked backstage. And he produced. “I loved it, and I loved the people…. I always thought I’d come back to it.”

A why? question does present itself. The “olive branch didn’t exist here,” he says of his return to Edmonton after college. “I’ve never been onstage in Edmonton theatre in my entire life. This talk of diversity is new,” he says, applauding initiatives by Workshop West (the Black Arts Matter initiative embraced by the company’s Canoe Festival) and the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran (it’s Lipscombe’s photo on the program of Ubuntu, which recently ran on the Citadel’s Maclab stage). “The theatre community didn’t look like my community.”

McNeil muses on the same question, with thoughts on growing up black in an overwhelmingly white world, as she did. “The theatre community is beautiful here,” she says. “But if you don’t ever see yourself onstage you don’t know if you’re invited in.”

Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Jesse Lipscombe in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

McNeil was the only black kid in her high school class and then the theatre program at MacEwan, which parallels the situation of the 1960s character whose reactions to the John Ware mythology are part of Foggo’s play. “I know who I am,” says the engaging McNeil. ”But I noticed being the only one! I’m trying to seek out cultural diverse theatre, theatre that attracts a diverse audience!”

Lipscombe argues that John Ware Reimagined “isn’t so much a black story, it’s an Alberta story.” Which points to our woeful ignorance about our own history, and the lively part in it played by black Albertans — for generations. “I want to take the colour off it.”

“There’s a certain kind of individual who just will not accept restrictions,” Lipscombe smiles. John Ware “was able to continually change: he was a pliable hero. And that gives the story universality,” he thinks. “He understood he had to play the game. And so do most North American black guys: I don’t wear a hoodie at night, for example,” he says, with a shrug, of the accommodations to stereotype he accepts, and those he doesn’t.   

“He knew what he had to do but it didn’t define him.” For Lipscombe these are words to live by.

And McNeil, as a young up-and-comer in the theatre scene, is inspired as well by the way Mildred, John Ware’s feisty wife — who arrived in the Wild West from a much more established black community in Toronto — “held the reins” in social encounters. Mildred certainly made it awkward. “Yes, I’m a young black woman! I’m not going to be confined by societal expectations! John Ware wasn’t going to let his flame be (extinguished),… I just smile when I think of him.” And she does.

Says Lipscombe, “he left everyone and everything better…. That’s an inspiring way to live.”

John Ware Reimagined, directed by Kevin McKendrick, runs at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.) through Nov. 19. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). Meet the playwright Cheryl Foggo at 12thnight.ca.

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The making of a (black) cowboy legend: John Ware Reimagined at Workshop West

Kris Demeanor, Kristen Alter, playwright Cheryl Foggo, Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Miranda Martini, in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He was a high rider, a figure carved from the X-large dimensions of Western mythology. A late 19th century Alberta cowboy of extraordinary  skill and savvy, capable of startling feats of agility, daring, horsemanship.

What young Cheryl Foggo didn’t realize, growing up, was that John Ware was black.

And as a black kid in the ‘60s in a whitebread Alberta city where cowboy culture lassoed the collective imagination, Foggo says that knowledge “would have made a huge difference to my sense of identity. “The Stampede loomed very large in our world…. Unfortunately I didn’t know there was a cowboy who looked like me….”

That was before the Calgary playwright-to-be began to research black Western Canadian history, before she began to write books on the subject, before she discovered live theatre as a vivid way to tell those stories. John Ware Reimagined, the award-winning 2014 Foggo play that launches Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre’s 39th season Thursday, brings that larger-than-life rancher and his story to life, in a Kevin McKendrick production starring Jesse Lipscombe as Ware and Jameela McNeil as Ware’s wife Mildred Lewis.

Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Jesse Lipscombe in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

And it counterpoints Ware’s story with another, more contemporary perspective, in the fictional character of Joni, much like Foggo herself a black girl growing up in mostly white Calgary in the 1960s, smitten with the cowboy culture but looking in from the outside.

In its original incarnation the play didn’t have a Joni. “I was reluctant to put a character like me in the play…. But the impact of John Ware on my life was interesting to a lot of people,” says Foggo of  the play’s evolution from presentation with a narrator to its 2014 premiere by the Ellipsis Tree Collective at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre.

Ware, as Foggo explains, had escaped slavery in the American south — probably South Carolina — to arrive in the southern Alberta foothills in 1882, via the first major cattle drive from Texas.

Foggo herself is descended from black pioneers who’d fled persecution in the U.S., headed north, and arrived in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the Great Migration between 1905 and 1912. “My great grandparents were enslaved in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and they’d gone to the territory of Oklahoma….” At the same time that Oklahoma gained statehood, and lost whatever civil rights advantages it had once held for  black people, the Canadian government was advertising in the south, to attract settlers north. Which looked like opportunity, especially at a distance.

Foggo’s Great Uncle Buster ended up in the black community of Amber Valley, north of Edmonton, where Foggo would set her play Heaven; the rest of the family in Saskatchewan.

Foggo had always assumed her ancestors were “among the first black people here. I thought John Ware was a one-off.” The more research she did, the more she realized that however little we Canucks know about our history, we know even less about the black contributions to our heritage. “When my ancestors came, there was already a black community here….” John Ware was not only not the first black settler, he wasn’t the only black cowboy either.

“It was quite common,” says Foggo. “As many as one in four cowboys (here) were of African American descent. The cowboy culture was actually multi-racial…. The Saturday afternoon movies did not include that information,” as she says wryly. “It’s a community grossly under-represented in the public record.”

“I was a history buff before I was a playwright,” says Foggo, currently at work on a National Film Board documentary about John Ware, due for release in 2018. Research about Ware’s life in America before he arrived in Canada at the Bar U Ranch is “extremely difficult,” she says. He has no living descendants to provide the kind of oral history detail Foggo has tapped for her own family history in such books as Pourin’ Down Rain.

“Births and deaths were not even recorded before 1870; slaves were not considered human beings.”

In southern Alberta, though, Ware was a notable figure, getting special mention often in the press of the day, a striking rarity as Foggo points out. There’s a handful of John Ware place names too. Diamond Joe White’s album High Rider is spun from Ware’s story.

Says Foggo, “he was evidently a big, handsome man. A great personality from everything I’ve read — funny, engaging, very skilled socially. Some of it was what he needed to do; some of it was just who he was.”

Ware’s wife Mildred, who came from a leading family in the Toronto black community, was a study in contrast. For starters, she hated horses. As a slave, Ware was not allowed, by law, to learn to read and write. Mildred came from an educated business family; one of her uncles was a lawyer. Where Ware negotiated his way through confrontations with racists, with his friends as a buffer, “Mildred wasn’t willing to accept any guff, any racist language,” says Foggo.

Foggo, who’s married to Calgary-based playwright Clem Martini, has always written in a variety of forms. And John Ware Reimagined isn’t her first play: Turnaround, written for Quest Theatre, chronicles the fortunes of a young girl who takes her mother to court to “divorce” her. But Foggo’s continuing fascination with Ware has sealed the deal. “I always went to a lot of theatre but I was intimidated,” she says. “I saw what Clem went through! But theatre is so alive! So visual! The connection with the audience is so powerful!”

For a writer with an urgent story to tell, and a neglect to redress, that makes it irresistible.

PREVIEW

John Ware Reimagined

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Cheryl Foggo

Directed by: Kevin McKendrick

Starring: Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Miranda Martini, Kris Demeanor

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

Running: Thursday through Nov. 19

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

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A homecoming for playwright Trina Davies, at Concordia U, Walterdale and SkirtsAfire

Waxworks by Trina Davies, Concordia University of Edmonton. Photo by Tom Corcoran.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A couple of decades ago, an Edmonton kid found herself onstage, at a theatre festival where the plays were new, and specially designed for teen actors and their teen audiences.

It was at the Citadel Teen Fest, in plays written and directed by the pros — Conni Massing’s Terminus and Brad Fraser’s Prom Night of the Living Dead among them — that Trina Davies first heard the fateful question “so what are you writing?”

Davies remembers being bemused; after all, she didn’t consider herself “a writer.” She’d written poetry, and even gotten it published. But playwright? “In the ‘90s I didn’t feel I had something to write about,” laughs Davies. She remembers that it was director (then-Theatre Network artistic director) Ben Henderson, recently re-elected as an Edmonton city councillor, who pulled her into Nextfest as a director, dramaturg, and, yes, as a playwright.

Clearly they all sensed something about Davies, that she had yet to fully discover about herself. Her award-winning multi-media game play Multi-User Dungeon, which won the Alberta Playwrights Network’s “discovery” award” in 1998 should have been a tip-off.

Since that time, plays by Vancouver-based Davies have premiered across the country and gone international. And they’ve won major awards everywhere they’ve been, most recently both the National Uprising Award and the 2017 Woodward International Playwriting Award in the U.S. for The Bone Bridge

This weekend Davies is back in the city she considers “my theatrical home” for a production of a Davies play that is one of three opening on Edmonton stages this season.

Waxworks, opening Friday at Concordia University of Edmonton in an eight-actor  student workshop production directed by Glenda Stirling, explores the life and extraordinary career of an artist who started as a tabloid journalist and developed “the first worldwide brand in entertainment history,” as Davies says.

In the play, which won the Alberta Playwrights Network new play award in 2007 you’ll meet Madame Tussaud, the showbiz reinvention of Marie Grosholz), who, as Davies puts it, “learned how to tell her own story” in the course of creating wax figures on the eve of the French Revolution. It’s a moment in history when, as Davies puts it,  “the political dynamic shifted every day.” And the artist is under the gun to identify her subjects as “patriots” or “enemies,” a situation that resonates in a vivid way in the Now.

Waxworks, Concordia University of Edmonton. Photo by Tom Corcoran.

Waxworks, which  has had an earlier workshop production at Williams College, the prestigious Massachusetts liberal arts establishment. The Concordia University production, which reunites Davies with Stirling, a theatre colleague since their Nextfest days, will be much different, the playwright predicts. “That’s the magic of theatre…. It’s fantastic for young artists to work on new work. Edmonton has always been great for that!”

Edmonton theatre weaves its way through Davies’ busy itinerary this season. In December she’s back for Walterdale’s production of Shatter (directed by Josh Languedoc, Dec. 6 to 16). The play, which had a New York production in 2014 but hasn’t been seen here since The Maggie Tree’s 2011 production, probes the climate of fear and accusation unleashed by the catastrophic Halifax explosion of 1917. 

March 1 to 11, thanks to the SkirtsAfire Festival, it’s finally Edmonton’s turn to see Davies’ Governor General’s Award-nominated The Romeo Initiative, which premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects in 2011. “I still lived in Edmonton when I got the idea,” she says of a Cold War romantic comedy cum thriller cum drama inspired by “a spy week on the History Channel.”

Davies got her title from an real East German espionage program designed to exploit the romantic insecurities of underachieving women. 

“I research and read forever,” she says cheerfully of her playwright’s modus operandi. “Then I write the first draft in anywhere from 24 hours to seven days.” Shatter, for example, was born at ATP’s 24-hour playwriting competition.

In January Davies’ Silence, about the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, premieres at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. in a Peter Hinton production in which half the cast identified as hard of hearing or deaf. 

“I definitely feel my place in theatre is in the writing….” she says. “I get my charge from the collaborative nature of it; the dark part of the whole process is being by myself writing. The magic of it is seeing what happens in the rehearsal hall. I crave that!”

PREVIEW

Waxworks

Theatre: Concordia University of EdmontonS

Written by: Trina Davies

Directed by: Glenda Stirling

Where: Al and Trish Huehn Theatre, 73 St. and 111 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday, and Nov. 10 through 12

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

       

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Monday nite special: seductive looks, upward mobility in CAL-gry, as Die-Nasty soaps return

Jesse Gervais and Mark Meer, as estranged brothers bDax and Dr. Rex Rochefort in Die-Nasty, season #27. Photo by Janna Hove.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Welcome to the archive of lingering glances and lip-quivering gazes: troubled, dreamy, steamy, wistful, reflective, yearning, sultry, moody, sultry-moody crossover. Yes, the new season of Die-Nasty — “Die-Nasty does Dynasty,” makes Edmonton’s award-winning live improvised weekly soap opera a veritable adjective magnet.

Except, that is, when it comes time to say the word CAL-gry, a noun. And in season 27 of Die-Nasty it often comes time to say CAL-gry, the mythically alluring world-class city where oil byproducts rule, where beautiful people dream beautiful dreams, sleep with each other, slag Toronto, get rich, and stay that way. 

I caught episode #2 on Monday night. CAL-gry has just landed the Winter Olympics. Bold plans for a world-class hockey arena in the shape of a saddle, or maybe a cowboy boot, are getting argued about. Sulky Dax Rochefort (the very funny Jesse Gervais), the owner of the Calgary Flames, has deep pockets, shallow ideas, an an amusing glum assistant (Jason Hardwick).

Dax has enlisted top-drawer architect Jason Waterfalls (Matt Alden) , who comes loaded with a full lexicon of Frank Lloyd Wright aphorisms. In a moving scene, we see him so stressed by “creative differences” that he cries his moustache right off while watching Terms of Endearment. Naturally, this creates the right moment for an ‘80s number of eye-watering intensity. 

CAL-gry 1983: a perfectly sudsy place for a multi-talented improv crew like Die-Nasty’s that can flip into flashbacks, do musical production numbers, speak in poetry, have dance breaks, switch genres — as exhorted in excitable stage instructions provided by director Jeff Haslam in the inflammatory cadences of a sports announcer (it is CAL-gry, after all). It is perhaps no accident that the show finds itself on the Varscona stage on the starry and evocative set for Shadow Theatre’s Constellations, currently running every day other than Monday. CAL-gry, after all, is a cosmology of rocketing possibility and galactic self-reinvention.

In fact, Matilda Marble, a maid (Delia Barnett) employed by the Rocheforts, the richest family in CAL-gry, studies rocket science by correspondence. She stands dreamily on the balcony of the palatial Rochefort establishment, gazing at the sunset, and reflecting on her humble origins in Red Deer. Who would ever have thought…? she marvels, pondering the technicolour possibilities of a future in CAL-gry.

The Rocheforts — led by Tom Edward as a silver-topped Chaz and his glamorous (much younger) former EA  and now fiancée Jewell (Stephanie Wolfe) — have it all. The Camemberts, led by the embittered Beef (Peter Brown), his unravelling lush wife Gini (Sheri Somerville), and their disaffected but aspirational daughter Vermouth (Shannon Blanchet) — who has a complicated past, as we glimpse in flashback — want it all.

Die-Nasty has a nervous breakdown. Photo by Janna Hove.

The stakes are high. Desire, both illicit and licit, is starting to smoulder: was that a spark I saw between Dax Rochefort and his new young stepmother Jewell, as she tries on wedding dresses? 

Belinda Cornish and Stephanie Wolfe in Die-Nasty. Photo by Janna Hove.

Speaking of flames, embers, etc., they’re fanned by such seductive outsiders as Chester Gardner (Vincent Forcier), a perpetually shirtless gardener with bedroom eyes and, er, movement vocabulary to match.  Ah, yes, and high-contrast twin chauffeurs, Pony and Colt Maloney (Wayne Jones), the one prim and the other louche. 

It’s a promising context for a big-cast season of bosom-heaving, nouveau-riche class warfare, twinkly bits on the clothes, thrilling weeper music (Paul Morgan Donald), and ruthless ambition, as big as the hair. Go, indulge your guilty soapy side. Die-Nasty runs every Monday at the Varscona.   

   

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