Heather Inglis is Workshop West Playwrights Theatre’s new artistic producer

Heather Inglis, artistic producer Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre has a new “artistic producer.”  She’s Heather Inglis, the founder and artistic director of the adventurous Edmonton-based indie company Theatre Yes.

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With the departure of Vern Thiessen after five years as artistic director,  to pursue his own playwriting and teaching career, Inglis becomes the fifth artistic chief in Workshop West’s four-decade history of dedication to playwrights and the development, promotion, and production of new Canadian plays. 

In the Edmonton-born Inglis, the company acquires an adventurous theatre artist — director, dramaturg, producer, curator, educator — with a zest for experimentation, and indie red to match. The 20-year Theatre Yes archive extends both into the controversial contemporary repertoire, new plays by local (and beyond) writers, and immersive site-specific “experiences” that challenge conventional relationships between actors and audiences.

A National Theatre School grad (“my training is in straight theatre”), Inglis says, laughing, that after two Theatre Yes decades with an ample measure of producing “installations, conversations, explorations, that people could ask ‘is it a play?’” she’s “looking forward to plays that colour between the lines a bit more.”   

Inglis brings with her, as she says, “a fairly comprehensive (record) of every aspect of theatre creation and producing.” Commissioning plays, dramaturging, curating, workshopping and directing them (often in spaces too unconventional to be called “theatres”), writing grant proposals, making much with little … that’s a skill set that happens when , as Inglis did, you build an indie theatre company that’s “small but with a significant set of resources.”

Ah, and with a national profile bigger than its size. Anxiety, a 2016 Theatre Yes promenade project, acquired original 10-minute “immersive performance installations” from six of Canada’s indie companies, Halifax to Victoria, that explored the modern epidemic of anxiety. Then Anxiety bused audiences to a “secret location” in an Edmonton warehouse district.

The National Elevator Project, the Theatre Yes bright idea of 2013, (which proved contagious coast to coast) assembled 16 original five-minute plays — commissioned from playwrights by theatres across the country (including Workshop West) — and presented them, eight at a time, in a succession of downtown elevators.

In addition to its original guerrilla projects, often designed to take audiences into spaces that are too small or ephemeral to be called theatres, Theatre Yes history has its share of producing “scripts no one else in our theatre ecology will grab,” as she has said of plays like My Name Is Rachel Corrie, cancelled in New York and Toronto (and at the Citadel, where it was programmed, then removed from the season),  or David Mamet’s Race, or Shoot/ Get Treasure/ Repeat by the English provocateur Mark Ravenhill.       

In Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Inglis inherits a larger-scale small theatre (with a budget of about $350,000), known across the country for its focus on playwrights and new plays. One of Thiessen’s first official acts as artistic director was to restore the word Playwrights to the official company title. “It’s a bigger company, yes,” says Inglis. “But for me the creation of new Canadian work will always be the aim.… New play development is at the forefront of what I do.” Her new job, she says, “is an opportunity to test myself in a different environment, my production and organization capabilities in a larger frame.”

Like Thiessen who got his first professional gig out of university at Workshop West, Inglis has a history with the company. “When I got out of the National Theatre School I set up an apprenticeship for myself at Workshop West,” she says. David Mann, just taking over from (company founder) Gerry Potter at the time, “took me on as a dramaturg. And it opened up opportunities for me across the country.” And since its official birth in 2000 Theatre Yes has collaborated with Workshop West (Cat Walsh’s The Laws of Thermodynamics, as one example), the Works Festival, and most recently the Citadel on Beth Graham’s Slight of Mind. An exploration of the human desire to transcend limitations, it took audiences into the nooks and niches of Edmonton’s largest playhouse — everywhere except its theatres.

The idea of theatre like Slight of Mind, Anxiety, The Elevator Project, says Inglis, is “engaging writers to work in unconventional circumstances.” Ambulatory these theatrical projects may be, but they’re “text-based,” as she points out.

Meanwhile, Theatre Yes will be looking for new leadership. “It’s lovely to have created the resources” for someone to inherit, says Inglis. And under its new artistic producer (the title and position afford “more financial oversight,” says Inglis), Workshop West Playwright Theatre’s 41st season, which began with Nicole Moeller’s new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, continues as planned. Programming for the Canoe Festival, Workshop West’s contribution to the Chinook Series in February, has yet to be announced.

“I really believe in the importance of Edmonton voices, Canadian voices in theatre” says Inglis. Under her leadership Workshop West will continue to be a repository of new plays at every stage of development from bright idea to “plays getting close to production,” as she puts it. “One of my tasks is to go out and talk to writers in Edmonton and find out how we can support them. We want to keep the door open, start conversations….” …    

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Three Ladies: a ‘journey of healing’ to open the Fringe “Off Season”

Three Ladies, Remix The Ritual. Photo by Kay Bennett.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You might flee violence. But you can never escape trauma, says Lady Vanessa Cardona. The damages linger, and infiltrate your life, your relationships, your identity. “Trauma lives in the body.”

Three Ladies, a new and intricate play by the multi-faceted Colombian poet/ theatre artist/ activist (opening Fringe Theatre’s “Off Season” Thursday), is all about the possibility of healing. For Cardona, who came to Canada at 12 as a refugee and is “passionate about sharing refugee stories,” the notion of a “journey” has multiple dimensions. None of them imply a final destination.

Three years ago, the award-winning poet (she’s the 2018 Canadian individual poetry slam champion) wrote a version of Three Ladies. “I wanted to start addressing the trauma I’d been neglecting for a long time,” says Cardona, who has a “theatre and development” degree from Concordia University. “It was getting in the way of my adult relationships in my adult life.…”

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That first incarnation of the play was “about revealing to myself what that trauma was, and what it had done to my body, my sense of being. That version was more about the impact.”

The play that premieres at the Fringe’s Studio Theatre “does include the impact,” says Cardona, who teamed up with Indigenous actor/playwright Todd Houseman for the 2018 Fringe production Whiteface, now a film. “You do need some back story…. But it’s really about my continuing journey of healing, a journey that’s not finished and never will be finished.” 

She’s been working on the play for six months with performers who aren’t “professional” actors or dancers, but “have the gift in them,” and naturally express themselves that way. “As people of colour that’s what we do,” says Cardona. “You ask some of them when they started dancing and they say ‘I’ve been dancing since the womb’.”

The play has an intricate structure, explains Cardona, the founder of the multi-disciplinary collective Remix The Ritual. She herself plays the Lady, one of the title three, who’s “the narrator who keeps the story together and is there in the flesh.” Lady Clown “lives in Lady’s memory,” the forgotten “inner child who’s been trying to get Lady’s attention.” Lady Shadow, the third, “had been birthed in trauma…. She’s all the voices Lady hears in her head.”

These are five in number — Grace, Enabler, Liar, Jealousy, Guilt — played by dancers. Each has “a wounded side and a healed side.” And they speak a poetic text in voice-over.

When Cardona and her family left Colombia they came first to Ottawa. So Edmonton counts as a “personal choice,” as she puts it. “People are very authentic here. It’s one of the last places you see a high amount of Indigenous influence.” In 2018 Fringe audiences saw Whiteface, her striking collaboration with Indigenous actor/playwright Todd Houseman (there’s now a film version). Where Do We Begin?, which premiered at Nextfest, a joint creation of Cardona and Joanna Simon, tracked parallel courses between the refugee and Indigenous experiences of trauma. 

Three Ladies, Remix the Ritual. Photo by Kay Bennett.

“Edmonton raises and supports emerging artists,” says Cardona. “The focus is on growth. It’s a very supportive vibe.” The playwright/director/artistic director  Matthew MacKenzie of Punctuate! Theatre, for one, has been a generous mentor. “So encouraging, and it’s never about him.”   

For a while she lived the Canadian theatre life of the auditioning actor. “A lot of the stories I could relate to. But there were always parts missing…. We don’t have enough ethnic or playwrights of colour.” 

“I’m grateful now,” says Cardona, whose life as a spoken word poet was launched on a trip to Namibia. “Out of something disappointing came the want, the need, to create my own magic, my own art.”

“Telling the story of marginalized people in an authentic way” is all about reclaiming personal narratives, she says. “I can only tell my own story, the path I have chosen…. Other people have chosen other paths.”

PREVIEW

Three Ladies

Fringe Theatre Off-Season

Theatre: Remix The Ritual

Created by and starring: Lady Vanessa Cardona

Directed by: Nasra Adem

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

Running: Nov. 14 to 17

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Everybody knows that the bird is the word: Class of ’63 at the Mayfield, a review

Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

OK boomer.

Yes, my friends, you may have heard: There was a time when you could wear white socks with a suit in a non-ironic way. Nostalgia comes with a great band, first-rate singers, a fulsome sound track and dance breaks in the latest holiday musical extravaganza from the Mayfield.

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In Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion by the mysterious Will Marks — a music archivist and curator of demonstrable expertise — a cast of eight apply themselves to the transitional period between the doo-wop ‘50s and the epochal British invasion of the mid-‘60s. And in the complications of the double-optic theatrical premise, as realized in Kate Ryan’s entertaining production, even the nostalgia has nostalgia. After all, it’s the 25-year reunion of the class of ’63 (go Rockaway High); the present is 1988.

Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion. Photo by Ed Ellis

Ergo … 40-somethings of the ‘80s are remembering the nerd crushes of first-period science, and slow-dancing to Blue Moon, doing the peppermint twist, hand-jiving, and wincing at yearbook predictions of their Grease years. They’re at a reunion of their younger selves, as arranged and hosted by a pair of intense Grade 12 kids who belong to the graduating class of ’88 but who (as conveyed by Melanie Piatocha) have a degree of take-charge brio that has defined party-planners since the medieval period. Jahlen Barnes, a versatile and dexterous singer, plays her pliant boyfriend and gofer. 

Just as there’s inevitably a cool dude named Chip, who’s inevitably a quarterback and inevitably a hit with the gals in every graduating class since Abelard and Heloise went to the prom. Here Chip c.1988 is an elementary school football coach (Kieran Martin Murphy), by reputation a hot-shot in every sport and noted player of “back-seat bingo” in his high school years.

Melanie Piatocha and Jahlen Barnes, Class of ’63. Photo by Ed Ellis

Anyhow, the intricacy of this premise requires an impressive degree of pizzaz and invention from the designers. T. Erin Gruber’s projections play across three screens and the tiled walls of the school gym, as a barrage of yearbook pictures, song lyrics, abstract psychedelic designs. Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting, from the harsh gym glare to more moody and romantic memory shots, is a boost. Leona Brausen’s wigs and costumes, a riot of pleated skirts and prom dresses, are a comedy in themselves, and step up to specific locations. (May I single out Bunny’s show-stopper red party dress, with a matching hair bow that has its own choreography when Stephanie Pitsiladis dances, as she is wont to do?).

And speaking of choreography, Christine Bandelow’s dance inventions are a veritable archive of styles, mashed potatoes and peppermint twists. Piatocha shakes her fringed frock like a refugee from What’s New Pussycat?.

Kieran Martin Murphy and Melanie Piatocha in Class of ’63. Photo by Ed Ellis

The show, under Ryan’s direction, unspools as flashbacks of school life and extracurricular activities: The Diner, The Drive-In (Hitchcock’s The Birds is playing), The Locker Room, The Beach, The Classroom.… Four guys, who deliver doo-wop classics like The Great Pretender or The Wanderer, appear first as feet under cubicle doors in the boys’ can, and emerge as a fully-formed group.

A matching scene takes us to a pyjama party in a girl’s bedroom: four girls (Pitsiladis, Piatocha, Pamela Gordon, Simone Denny) and a medley that includes Johnny Angel, Be My Baby, Please Mr. Postman, such Brill Building products as One Fine Day.

Mike Zimmerman and Pamela Gordon in Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion. Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis

The production has a breezy way with gender (boys don’t own the Elvis songs) and indicators like TV show themes. And the characters are lightly differentiated; Zimmerman, for example, is the rabbity science nerd who is “least likely to get a girlfriend” in his yearbook annotation. The muse of Ryan’s production is comic, and the theatrical challenge is how to animate a period that seems to exist in clichés. Intermission at the drive-in comes with life-size dancing ketchup and French fries. The Beach scene at the top of Act II, with Jan and Dean’s Surf City is an amusing black-light dance number for kids and surfboards.The lifeguard (Barnes) gets to sing I Will Follow You.

My fave flashback was Clubs, and the Glee Club’s contribution, a hybrid of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. I have to admit that my high school graduation theme was Climb Every Mountain. Geez, I hated remembering that.

The moments when the characters return to their present, and reflect on the life lessons they’ve learned from the ’60s, are less successful. And the oh-by-the-way scene that has the characters acknowledge, in passing, the impact on them of the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King seems particularly awkward.    

Since the music is a kind of memory scrapbook, chronology and theme aren’t organizing principles. So a wave of music, from Sam Cooke to the Everly Brothers, Tequila to The Monster Mash, comes at you. As usual at the Mayfield, the musical values are strikingly high. The band, led by keyboardist Erik Mortimer, are stylistically savvy; the ensemble, all strong of voice, serves up a (very) generous song list of songs you know. 

And you can have a cocktail (and dessert) with your nostalgia. There have to be some rewards for graduating.

REVIEW

Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.

Written and compiled by: Will Marks

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Simone Denny, Pamela Gordon, Kieran Martin Murphy, Melanie Piatocha, Stephanie Pitsiladis, Brad Wiebe, Mike Zimmerman

Running: through Jan. 26

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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The 6 wives of Henry VIII do girl-power pop (and stop by en route to Broadway): Six the Musical. A review.

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You’re gonna find out/ how we got unfriended….” sing six queens exploding out of history and into concert in their red-hot opening number. “Tonight we’re gonna do ourselves justice/ ‘cause we’re taking you to court!”

Give it up, Edmonton, for the wives of Henry VIII in Six the Musical! You know them already for being a sequence — “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.” Now they’re “Divorced. Beheaded. Live in Concert.” They’re the ex’s of a guy whose place in history was carved by the peculiar combo of being a terrible serial husband and starting the Church of England. 

The sassy what-if? of Six — which lands the wives on the Citadel mainstage for their Canadian premiere (and only Canadian date before launching on Broadway in March) — is the six Tudor queens as fractious girl-power pop stars. Enough of being a spouse to a louse: they’re competing in a song contest, first prize to the one that got more grief, bullshit, and abuse from The Man. “What hurts more than a broken heart? wonders true-blue Jane Seymour, making her case. “A severed head,” snaps Anne Boleyn.

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True, there have been shows before now that assembled the royal sextet onstage to air their grievances. Edmonton audiences have seen a couple: Tara Travis’s one-woman six-queen production Till Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (which put them in purgatory, jockeying for position) and Send in the Girls’ burlesque Tudor Queens. There has never been a show, however (OK, to my knowledge), till this Edinburgh Fringe student show-turned-West End hit that armed each queen with their own pop diva musical style nodding to Beyoncé, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Ariana Grande…. And also rhymed “Lutheranism.” And mentioned, in passing, the dissolution of the monasteries.

The bright idea from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, newly hatched Cambridge grads in 2017 and only 25 now, turns out to be a clever, slick but personable 80-minute entertainment, Hamilton-ian in the way it weds unexpected musical styles to history. It’s a blast of theatrical fun with a catchy original pop score, wicked lyrics, a message about female empowerment and solidarity— and a sense of humour that’s smart enough to be jokey (but still heart-warming) about the obviousness of its own premise.

The production, directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, has all the trappings of a splashy arena rock concert, production values tweaked for Tudor. Emma Bailey’s set with its neon arches, Tim Deiling’s outstanding lighting with its cross-hatched blare of glare at climactic moments, Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s snazzy synchronized rock choreography, Gabriella’s sexy punkish Tudor-accented costumes … all are fun to watch.

And to listen to. A fine female band of four, the Ladies in Waiting led by Edmonton’s Jen MacMillan on keyboards, rocks onstage with the cast. The actors, from the North American premiere production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this past summer, are first-rate singers and movers, full of style and pizzaz, and dexterous in the comic timing department. And the anachronistic quip-crammed bickering of the queens, both in the songs and between them, will make you smile.

Adrianna Hicks, who has a very funny worldly-wise air to her, lands one of those defiant Beyoncé odes (No Way) as Catherine of Aragon, resentfully sidelined to a nunnery when Anne Boleyn catches Henry’s eye. Winnipeg’s Andrea Macasaet, the only Canuck in the cast, is a riot as the peppery little French-educated flirt Anne. She gets a sparky hip hop-flavoured number (“tried to elope, but the pope said nope…. everybody chill it’s totes god’s will”).

As Jane Seymour, the one who died, Abby Mueller gets Six’s big Adele-ish power ballad Heart of Stone, and knows what to do with it. (She even gets a little musical theatre joke: “stick around and suddenly you’ll see more.” Spot quiz next period).

Brittney Mack as Anne of Cleves, Six the Musical. Photograph by Liz Lauren 2019.

It’s a measure of the pop wit at work in Six — it wears its cheeky anachronisms like sequins on a showgirl — that the fate of Anne of Cleves, rejected because she didn’t live up to her Hans Holbein portrait, inspires Marlow and Moss with the notion of online dating disappointments. Brittney Mack turns in a high-powered screw-you number. Living well (especially in a palace in Richmond, with lots of cash) is the best revenge, it turns out.

Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr in Six the Musical. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Samantha Pauley nails the gummy All You Wanna Do from Katherine Howard, who’s been pawed by guys since age 13. And Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr (“gold star for Cathy Parr”) the sole survivor of Hank’s serial marital history, gets the striking I Don’t Need Your Love, and that feels like resolution. 

It all leads, smartly, to  high-octane finale when the queens put aside their differences and come together as history’s ultimate girl-pop group. After all, “a pair doesn’t beat a royal flush.” And the six of Six are a crack ensemble. Resistance is futile; bestir yourself to get yourself a ticket if you possibly can and “party like it’s 1499.” The opening night audience, which somehow seemed younger than usual, roared to its collective feet with their cellphones pointed stageward. It doesn’t take the gift of prophecy to predict that Marlow and Moss are going places.

And don’t you dare decapitate your fun night out by leaving before the encore. N-N-N-N-N-N-No Way. Check out our PREVIEW and meet Marlow and Moss here.

REVIEW

Six the Musical

Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Lucy Moss, Toby Marlow

Directed by: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage

Starring: Andrea Macasaet, Adrianna Hicks, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly, Anna Uzele

Running: through Nov. 24

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From the Fringe to Tudor-mania in the big wide world (via E-Town). Meet the creators of Six

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, there were 3,398 shows. Only one of them continues to play to sold-out houses in the West End, and opens on Broadway in March.

That would be Six The Musical, the one that gets its Canadian premiere (and only Canadian dates before that Broadway opening night) on the Citadel mainstage Thursday.  After a packed, held-over North American debut at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. And just before runs in St. Paul, Minn. and the Sydney Opera House.

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Six The Musical: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert, a pop concert/musical starring the wives of serial husband Henry VIII, was created by a pair of Cambridge University grads, best friends who were studying for their finals at the time.

Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, now just 25, were on hand at the Citadel Tuesday, along with the singing queens in their civvies. And, appealingly, they’re still breathing the air of improbability that attaches to the skyward ocean-crossing trajectory of their student production. “It was just supposed to be a fun project before we had to go out and find true jobs,” says Marlow of their bright idea of fashioning the stories of Henry’s wives into a battle of the pop divas — roles to show off the talents of their female and non-binary friends.

How a Fringe show with two £10 lights, a costume budget of £150 or so, and unpaid actors got noticed by London producers (Andy and Wendy Barnes, Kenny Wax) catapulted to hit status ramps up the old showbiz concept Big Break. Not least because it was at a “completely bonkers” festival where, as Marlow points out, the average audience size is “one person or less than one person.”

Their dreams, says Moss, extended to “imagining what if a London theatre wanted to do a week’s run…. then ‘No, No! We’re getting carried away’.” Four Monday nights at the Arts Theatre in the West End, and bam! “That’s when we lost our minds!” grins Moss.

And now, “Wait, Wait! we’re doing an Edinburgh Fringe show that’s going to Broadway!” says Moss. North America, so far? “Wild!” declares Marlow. “We wondered. A show about British history? Are they gonna get it?” Is it enough to change “mate” to “bro”? as he says. Short answer: yes. Long answer: “It’s British history, true. But the form, big fancy glam pop concert, is actually an American thing.”

In Chicago, audience members clustered nightly by the stage door after the show for autographs. And the same thing has happened at the Citadel, 50 or 60 people at a time, after Edmonton previews, reports Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. The run has attracted ticket-buyers across North America. And tickets are scarce. Says Citadel executive director Chantell Ghosh, for the first time, Citadel tickets have shown up on re-sale sites like Stubhub.

Six The Musical. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Six is the second of two Broadway-bound musicals that the Citadel has hosted recently. The first, Hadestown, reworked in Edmonton from its Off-Broadway version in the fall of 2017, played the National Theatre in London, then took home eight Tony Awards in New York, including best musical, in 2018. Cloran, who saw Six in London, was immediately attracted, for one thing because “women were taking their stories back.” And the stories were attached to “fabulous, incredibly catchy pop songs,” as the 50 million-plus downloads of the cast recording attest. “You can’t not be on your feet cheering at the end,” he says. 

The international spotlight is intense on the disarming musical-writing pair whose muse tends to be comic, they say. “Our main focus is comedy song writers,” says Marlow. We love Tim Minchin (Matilda), for example. And also Max Martin (who writes for the likes of Katy, Britney, Justin).” 

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

They arrived in musical theatre by slightly different routes. Marlow grew up “making music, playing instruments….” Moss trained as a dancer before taking up “directing, storytelling, comedy” at university. “The music I loved to dance to was pop music,” she says.

Although Moss had choreographed some of Marlow’s songs, Six was their first writing collaboration. History and an unexpected musical presentation? Sounds like Hamilton, the groundbreaking marriage of hip-hop and musical theatre in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenom. Moss and Marlow are happy to acknowledge the inspiration.  “Huge!” says Marlow. “I was writing my thesis on it at the time. I really love Hamilton!”

“The canon of musical theatre has always reflected the genre of the time,” thinks Marlow, whether that was Rogers and Hammerstein, or rock and roll. “I felt like until Hamilton it had been a while since musical theatre had (embraced) a genre you hadn’t heard before in a musical.”

For a musical theatre creator, Hamilton expands “what you’re allowed to do, the possibilities,” says Moss, who “made a conscious choice not to see Hamilton before we wrote Six.” So the Tudor queens aren’t attached, musically, to the renaissance, to put it mildly; each claims the musical style of a pop diva, Beyoncé or Avril Lavigne.   

Meanwhile, in their non-existent spare time Marlow and Moss are working on a new show. “A show about being single,” sighs the former. “It’s not about us. It’s about two musical theatre writers.” They look at each other and laugh. “I don’t know where that came from.” 

PREVIEW

Six The Musical

Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Lucy Moss, Toby Marlow

Directed by: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage

Starring: Andrea Macasaet, Adrianna Hicks, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly, Anna Uzele

Running: through Nov. 24

Tickets: 780-425-1820  

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“Embrace your weirdness”: the world as seen by Girl Brain, coming to the Citadel

Caley Suliak, Ellie Heath, Alyson Dicey in Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Overheard out in the real world — a cafe maybe, or a wine bar: Three women at the next table are laughing uproariously. “That’s a sketch!” floats your way through the air, like a winged mantra. Chances are you’re sitting next to Girl Brain.

“Anything that happens out of the ordinary, or makes us laugh, or makes us think” could elicit a cry of “that’s a sketch!,” as Ellie Heath says. Dreams, the absurdity, the hypocrisies of the world, dating, relationships, the craziness of theatre … all of it a rich vein of raw material that Heath, Alyson Dicey and Caley Suliak are happy to mine.

They’re the trio of Edmonton actor/writers who share a brain, a Girl Brain. And the synapses are firing on all cylinders. The popular sketch comedy troupe arrives on the Citadel’s Rice stage this weekend (as part of the House Series), on an upward trajectory powered by applause from club and festival houses across the country.

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Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography

“The universe just led us to it,” says Dicey by way of explaining the birth of Girl Brain. There’s a kind of cosmic inevitability, not least because theatre and a hot tub are involved. For starters the trio are actor pals of long standing who love to write almost as much as they love to laugh. “Writing stems from being working actors, and the desire to create your own work … to take charge and not wait around for people to cast you,” says Suliak. “And don’t get me wrong; I’d still love for people to cast me!” Laughter all round.

“Actually we’re so busy doing Girl Brain we don’t always have the time to do other acting gigs,” says Heath.   

They’d been returned to each other’s company through the interventions of (showbiz-friendly) fate. Why sketch comedy? Heath, who’d written a Fringe play (Tree Hugger) with Dicey — they’ve known each other since they were 15, at Arts Trek — had been in a Vancouver sketch group, The Sweater Zeppelin. Caley Suliak, a Grant MacEwan grad who’d starred in RibbitRePublic’s Spiral Dive and written kids’ plays and her own solo memoir Inside Out, had lived in San Francisco for a while. “When Caley came back we just started telling our stories to each other — and they came out in short vignettes,” says Dicey, a member of Thou Art Here, a “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare troupe.

Their great pal Byron Martin was launching the Grindstone Comedy Club in the spring of 2018. And he was casting about for comedy shows that weren’t improv, to add dimension to programming. Which brings us to the hot tub, the group conversation therein, and Dicey’s helpful “I have an idea!”

“We spent a lot of time together before we got Girl Brain off the ground, basically over glasses of wine, laughing hysterically.… We all love to write,” says Dicey. “And sketch comedy is such a nice art form,” says Heath cheerfully, to general assent. “You get your ideas out in two pages, as opposed to 75 pages!”

Girl Brain. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

In April of 2018, Girl Brain was born, in an hour-long sketch show that instantly became a monthly gig at the Grindstone. “I was so nervous,” says Heath. “I had no idea what to expect, no idea if people were going to like it.” In the end “we were two people away from selling out that show, and it went off like fireworks! Just insane, the reception we got for that show. We were on a cloud for a week after that, so proud of what we accomplished!”

Some of Girl Brain’s signature recurring characters were born in that debut show. Anxiety and Depression are two favourites: Suliak plays the former (“she comes to me really easily,” laughs the actor); Dicey the latter. “Ellie’s character is always in some situation where they show up unannounced, and try to ruin her life!” says Dicey. “In an interview, say, or swimsuit shopping, the doctor’s office, weddings, New Year’s parties.… Kinda cool.” Says Heath, “sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t.”

“A strength we have as a sketch troupe, that sets us apart, is our theatrical background…. We put a lot of thought into characters; that’s our strong suit.” And the three actors get a particular charge out of writing characters for each other. “I think it’s hilarious when Caley plays ‘the mansplaining guy’.” says Dicey. Heath plays a Suliak creation, Magda, an “aggressive blind Russian lady” who reads people’s skin, their acne, their boobs.

No age or gender is safe. Dicey and Heath love playing a recurring male cop duo who are secretly in love. “They solve crime; they go to therapy,” says Dicey. Every once in a while, “it’s ‘what did Dr. Abigail say?’ and the scene just continues.”

The large, and multiplying, coterie of their returning fans (there’s even a Girl Brain fan club) make it “so satisfying to do recurring characters and have knowing laughter in the audience,” says Heath. “We can feel an energy in the room, a powerful and loving energy.”

If dating worked out all the time, would Girl Brain suffer from oxygen deprivation? “We’d have a lot less material,” laughs Suliak who admits that “sometimes I go on Tinder just to get material, and go on a date…. Men of Edmonton, I’m exploiting you!”      

Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography.

The troupe got its name from a catchy Suliak aphorism: “O man, I’m having girl brain today!” as opposed to “logic brain.” And “as we’ve grown together,” girl brain has turned out to be a validation, a position of strength. “It’s about being empowered; we’re smart women!” 

“We try to send a message of love and positivity,” says Heath. “You are beautiful no matter what you look like. Love yourself! Being weird is beautiful!” Says Suliak “embrace your weirdness!”

“The writing has evolved,” she says. “Practice makes perfect, right? The more we write, the more we learn. And we’ve learned so much from making connections at sketch festivals. When we started we really didn’t know much about it!”

Dicey laughs. “Talk about not knowing anything! …. When Carolyn Taylor (of CBC’s Baroness von Sketch) asked us ‘do you do black-outs?’ we said ‘yeah, we turn out the lights after every scene.” A black-out, in sketch-speak, is a snappy two-line scene.

At the Toronto Sketch Fest last March, Girl Brain met Good Game, three guys from London, Ont.  whose take on sketch comedy is to follow a narrative through a whole show. “They inspired us; We put that into practice in our Fringe show,” says Heath. 

This season, Girl Brain expands its reach, first to the Citadel and this weekend’s House Series gig and then to four dates (Dec. 14, Feb. 29, March 28 and May 16) in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series.

The Citadel show, a dream gig directed by actor/playwright/improviser Belinda Cornish, expands the usual hour-long format into two 45-minute acts, organized on the theme “Girl Brain grows up,” from the adolescent years of Act I to “where we are in life right now in Act II,” as Dicey puts it. And for the first time, a sketch troupe accustomed to being ingenious with a couple of black chairs, gets costumes and a bona fide set (designer: Tessa Stamp), who’s provided “a beautiful girl’s bedroom” for them to play in.

All very deluxe “and feeling more formal and legit,” as Heath puts it. But be assured,  “Anxiety and Depression will be there!” Suliak laughs. “Especially Anxiety. Right before the curtain goes up!”

PREVIEW

Girl Brain

Created by and starring: Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak

Directed by: Belinda Cornish

Where: Citadel Rice Theatre

Running: Thursday (added due to popular demand) through Saturday

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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In hot pursuit of justice: The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. A review of Workshop West’s season-opener

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Welcome to the team!” says a mysterious executive (Laura Raboud), to the street kid she’s just recruited. “I really believe in you.”

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Team spirit: It’s music to the ears of Peach (Alexandra Dawkins), who ricochets through a desperately lonely, hard-scrabble existence of low-level crime, minor scores, temporary fixes. Even more seductive to the wary new recruit is the concept of family, sisterhood, home. And ah, the beautiful two-storey family house with a wrap-around porch that is the physical embodiment of the abstract concept “rich.” 

Nicole Moeller’s intriguingly crafted new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, premiering at Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre, unspools from the worldly skepticism that all rescues come with strings attached. There’s a price tag on love and the precious sense of belonging. A taste of it is never enough. And that being the case, what does justice mean?          

Here’s another question that occurred to me, watching The Ballad of Peachtree Rose: Who writes stage thrillers? In this country, almost no one.  And you can see why; they’re hard to pull off. The storytelling is tricky: what starts in mysterious murk is gradually lit. The plot has to take expected turns and angles that surprise the characters (or some of them) as much as us. Information is withheld and leaked out, bit by bit; suspense escalates. Moeller scores on all of the above, with the bonus of a social perspective on crime. And we have the fun of connecting the dots — or arguing that they don’t quite connect. 

(This is not, of course, an evening about the professional challenges of theatrical scribes. But it’s devilishly hard to write about a thriller without spilling a spoiler. Just saying.)

Shannon Blanchet (front), Alexandra Dawkins, Bobbi Goddard, The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

I digress. The play, and Brenley Charkow’s adrenalized production, land us, instantly, into a high-speed swirl, with characters who don’t explain who they are, and where they’ve been. Who is Max, anyhow? Everything about Max’s line of work, including the other employees and associates (all played, with smart precision, by Shannon Blanchet), is shady. Clearly she works for a high-level criminal organization with cross-country connections, and an aversion to using FedEx. OK, fancy parties in Toronto are one thing; but no one just ups and goes to Winnipeg for no reason.

Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud in The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

Max undertakes a makeover upgrade on the latest ragtag employee: shopping, a Saskatchewan Drive apartment with a view, fancy clothes, free drinks, a more confident walk. “Confidence means you could kill someone, but you choose not to.” (note to self … oh, never mind).

Daniela Masellis’s clever minimalist set speaks volumes: a warehouse of unmarked cardboard storage containers (that Max expressly forbids Peach to open) on moveable shelving that reconfigures the playing space. So does Sauvé MacBean’s score, dominated by the sounds of the Tragically Hip. In the Backstage Theatre we surround the action in a U-shape configuration. 

Weaving through the play, on the sidelines waiting for a turn to speak, is Belle (the excellent Bobbi Goddard) who mourns, furiously and feelingly, her loss: in an unsolved crime her mother was murdered and no application of “justice” will ever be a proper redress. She’s a little repetitive, in truth. But I guess you could argue that’s what it means to be a victim, trapped in a memory by anger undimmed by time. And Belle has narrative duties, too, announcing the passage and dislocations of time that move the play forward and backward. “one month goes by…”     

The characters are engagingly set forth by Charkow’s cast, who are tasked with holding dark secrets close to the chest and letting them loose sparingly. As the twitchy Peach, Dawkins compellingly conveys the sense of a predator/prey whose existence has always depended on alertness and perpetual motion. Raboud’s brisk and vivid Max, whose cunning operates at a more refined level than that of her new associate, can (and does) wield the mantra “honesty, loyalty, integrity” on a spectrum from irony to absolute sincerity. She doesn’t walk if she can stride; she appears and exits at top speed.  Is she a hard heart softened by Peach? A criminal stage manager? Blanchet has the fun of playing a gallery of losers and winners.

And speaking as we are of fun, you’ll be able to claim the thriller fun of arguing about the outcome (so far I’ve heard three possible interpretations, convincingly promoted, by three different people). What seems more certain is that the world — Edmonton, actually — is a harsh and treacherous place for the characters of The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Its victims are its victimizers, its betrayals and its rescues are indistinguishable at 100 paces. And justice is an elusive concept, a matter of deal-brokering not truth. 

Meet the playwright in this 12thnight PREVIEW.

REVIEW

The Ballad of Peachtree Rose

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Nicole Moeller

Directed by: Brenley Charkow

Starring: Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, Bobbi Goddard, Shannon Blanchet

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

Running: through Nov. 10

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

 

 

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What to see this weekend on E-town stages (don’t stay home)

James Gnam in Running Piece, Grand Poney. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Time (a possible paradox). There’s never enough of it. It never stands still. It’s almost impossible to make a dent in it. You can move forward through it, but are you actually standing still? 

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The show that comes to the Mile Zero Dance season tonight for one night only is all about that. Running Piece, by Jacques Poulin-Denis for the Montreal-based company Grand Poney, is a 55-minute work for dancer and treadmill. The former (James Gnam of Vancouver’s Plastic Orchid Factory) never leaves the latter, which should give you a shudder of recognition.

It’s at the Westbury Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.) tonight. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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

•”Who are the monsters?” Playwright Nicole Moeller wonders about that in her new thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, bringing car chases, illicit money, smuggling, an high-speed criminality, to the  Workshop West season tonight at the Backstage Theatre (where it runs through Nov. 10. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). Like so many of Moeller’s plays, this one was inspired by the news. 12thnight.ca had the chance to talk to her in this preview. You can check it out here.

•At La Cité francophone, you’ll meet beleaguered Gordon, whose life is unravelling to a soundtrack of scratching and chewing, a home invasion by vermin and a yard invasion by insect forces. Will an obsessively regular routine by day save him from desperation by night?

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

The show is Matthew MacKenzie’s black comedy The Particulars. The Punctuate! Theatre production directed by the playwright returns from a hit Toronto run for a two-night run (tonight and Saturday). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). 12thnight.ca talks to the playwright in this preview.   

•At the Varscona Theatre, two mis-matched roommates, both women and both in their ‘50s, continue to resolve their differences in the quest to change their lives. Jen Silverman’s comedy The Roommate opens the Shadow Theatre season; Nancy McAlear’s production, starring Coralie Cairns and Nadine Chu, runs through Nov 10. Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org. 12thnight.ca talks to the playwright in this preview. Read the 12thnight review here.

Kristin Johnston in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

• Come to the cabaret. Baroness Bianka sips her last suspiciously red cocktail this weekend. Saturday is your last chance to find out if you’re her type: that’s when Northern Light’s production of Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, directed by Trevor Schmidt, turns off the i.v. 12thnight meets the star Kristin Johnston in this preview. Have a peek at the 12thnight review here.   

•In six days during the Blitz, the darkest days of World War II, Noel Coward dashed off a new comedy poised on the threshold between the dead and the living. Coward, a blithe spirit himself, said of Blithe Spirit “I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed and I also knew that it was going to be a success.”

Comic chaos is unleashed when a highly eccentric medium, Mme Arcati, inadvertently introduces a deceased first wife into the urbane household of the second. Novelist Charles Condamine thereby finds himself in a marital predicament; is he, as he points out, an “astral bigamist?”.

That’s the frothy comedy that opens the theatre season at Concordia University of Edmonton. Glenda Stirling directs the student production, which runs tonight through Sunday, and Nov. 8 to 10 at Concordia’s Al and Trish Huehn Theatre (7128 Ada Boulevard). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or at the door.   

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The Particulars: the invasion of the minutiae. Punctuate! is back in town

Simon Bracken and “the Mourners” in The Particulars, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Poor Gordon. He has a complicated problem. His life, an infestation of minutiae moment to moment, is driving him crazy. Especially at night.

The scratching of vermin in the walls. The chewing of insects in his yard. The drip of a tap. The sound of breathing.… The Particulars, says Gordon’s creator, playwright Matthew MacKenzie  “is not about pest control.” It’s “about a guy who goes on with living without his reason for living.”

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MacKenzie’s spring-loaded black comedy for one unravelling man and seven dancers makes its way back to Edmonton Friday and Saturday in a Punctuate! Theatre production, after an impressively successful run at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.  “At first you laugh at him,” says MacKenzie of the insomniac obsessive at the centre of “a very funny one-man epic.” And then, when you discover something of the mystery of Gordon’s past, “you’re implicated for having laughed at him. But by then you’re strapped in for the rest of the ride.”

“I wrote it 15 years ago, after a bad heartbreak,” MacKenzie explains. “And the story grew.” The 20-minute “mini-show for myself” at the National Theatre School expanded into a full-fledged solo play that, directed by Patrick Lundeen and starring Simon Bracken, was a sleeper hit at the 2008 Edmonton Fringe. In a 2013 incarnation MacKenzie himself starred as Gordon. What happened in that version wasn’t dance, he laughs. “Not really. Just me running around the stage like Oedipus with his eyes put out.”

The Particulars, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

And now, in this latest version of The Particulars, the beleaguered Gordon (Bracken again) has acquired a Greek chorus of seven dancers called Mourners, who create the abstract maze and signposts of Gordon’s interior world. 

Dance, says MacKenzie, Punctuate! artistic director, is a way of arriving at “a heightened state” that often eludes a single actor alone on a stage. The Particulars isn’t the only time that MacKenzie has populated a “solo” show with dancers. In Bears, his captivatingly strange and imaginative 2015 piece — which won awards both for its Edmonton and Toronto productions — the playwright set his Indigenous protagonist forth on a transforming journey into the wilderness, with oil company enforcers in hot pursuit. In the decade’s only “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Trans-Mountain Pipeline,” the visceral Indigenous connection with nature was brought to life by a chorus of dancers who were wildflowers, birds, animals, a shrinking glacier. 

The Other, produced by Punctuate!’s sibling indie company Pyretic Productions (MacKenzie and Lundeen were co-founders and they email each other as Pyrunctuate!) starred a woman who is somehow an outsider to herself, a spectator looking in on her life. A corps of dancers set that intricate idea in theatrical motion, in a production that starred actor/dancer/choreographer Amber Borotsik, .

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

MacKenzie thinks The Particulars, in its current incarnation, might be the trickiest theatrical challenge of all — as three workshops in the past year will attest. Choreographer Alida Kendell of Good Women Dance, “laid down the law,” MacKenzie grins. “She didn’t want dance to be decorative,” movement pasted on to a text. It had to be organic.

He’s the director, but MacKenzie is keen to avoid the perception that The Particulars is “the Matthew MacKenzie show.” He says “Alida’s voice is the most prominent in the room, definitely; she casts all her dancers.”

In a way the evolution of The Particulars as dance theatre is the story of a theatre company aesthetic. By now, at Punctuate!, “the majority of artists we hire are dancers,” says MacKenzie. “My chief collaborators are dancer/choreographers…. The possibilities with dance (in theatre) are really limitless.” He points to the Jonathon Young/ Crystal Pite collaboration Betroffenheit. “I don’t want to mimic it, of course, but it’s powerful as hell! The term ‘art’ his thrown around a lot. But that’s art!”

“I want words and dance…. That’s where the magic is for me!”

If dance has been one of MacKenzie’s prime theatrical motivators, the other has been the discovery and exploration of his own Indigenous (Cree, Métis, Iroquois) roots. Bears was a bold declaration. Now he’s working with Bears star Sheldon Elter, a Métis actor of huge charisma, on a new solo show, Poster Boy.

The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This, MacKenzie’s new solo show, is in progress after a September workshop production in Toronto. It’s about his time with the great Canadian theatre mentor/ dramaturge Iris Turcotte during her final days. He’s off to the Ukraine in February with Pyretic’s Lundeen and Lianna Makuch (Blood of Our Soil); the latter is developing a new play spun from her heritage in that war-ravagef part of eastern Europe. And in April, After The Fire, a re-thought re-worked version of Bust (first seen at Theatre Network) — MacKenzie’s very dark comedy set in Fort McMurray in the aftermath of the devastating 2016 fire there — plays the Citadel’s inaugural Highwire series.   

But first, after “a couple of years of urban frenzy,” MacKenzie does what he always does to clear his head and recharge his creative skills. He heads to nature — specifically to Canmore for “some time in the woods.”  As Turcotte used to say to her playwright charges, “get yourself a six-pack. You’re going to need it!” 

PREVIEW

The Particulars

Theatre: Punctuate! Theatre

Written by: Matthew MacKenzie

Directed by: Matthew MacKenzie, choreographed by Alida Kendell

Starring: Simon Bracken, Amber Borotsik, Bridget Jessome, Richard Lee Hsi, Krista Lin, Rebecca Sadowski, Kate Stashko, Raena Waddell

Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 Street

Running: Friday and Saturday

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-4201757, tixonthesquare.ca)

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Crime plays: The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, a new thriller from Nicole Moeller, opens the Workshop West season

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Who are the monsters?”

That’s what playwright Nicole Moeller wonders. It’s what she’s always drawn to wonder in her plays, and the answer is never clear-cut. She asks again in the new high-speed thriller that premieres Friday to launch the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season.

“It’s fun! It’s exciting! A criminal organization, car chases, smuggling, money!” she says of the sensational world of The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. “But underneath it asks a lot of questions…. How do we end up doing the things we do? How far are we willing to go for a new start and a new life?”

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Like so many of her plays, this latest, five years in the making, was originally inspired by the news, says Moeller who came to playwriting via musical theatre and a degree in journalism. True crime: “a case about a young street kid who got involved in a criminal organization.”

For Moeller, a thoughtful and rather soft-spoken sort, the news has always been a theatrical magnet. But she gravitates to the oblique angles, the ambiguous underside views, the side players. In The Mothers, for example, which premiered at the 2015 SkirtsAfire Festival, a teenager has taken a gun to school, with terrible results. Moeller didn’t investigate the kid’s elusive motive; she wrote a play about his mother, and her life. 

Moeller’s award-winning 2011 play An Almost Perfect Thing was inspired by a luridly awful 2006 news story about a young Austrian girl, kidnapped at 10, who’d escaped her captor after eight years as a prisoner in an improvised basement dungeon under her house. The public turned on her when she refused to play victim; instead she took charge of her fortunes, manipulated her image, and became a media star. 

playwright Nicole Moeller

Monsters tend to come in black and white; Moeller’s preferred colour palette, as she acknowledges cheerfully, is gray. Moeller’s 2017 The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow paints a shaded portrait of a man, both his own prisoner and jailer, who struggles against his predatory demons.    

Five years ago — “it takes me a long time to write; ideas stay in the back of my brain” — the news came through again with theatrical inspiration.  And  Vern Thiessen’s first official meeting in his new job as Workshop West artistic director, was with Moeller to discuss the true crime idea that would become The Ballad of Peachtree Rose. Friday’s opening night at the Backstage Theatre is the grand finale of his last week on the job.

Typically, Moeller, the company’s playwright-in-residence at the time, immersed herself in first-person research. “I wanted to look at crime from all angles,” says Moeller. “It was not a world I understood.” She sat through trials, including the high-profile Travis Vader double-murder trial, “just to see what that world was. I spoke with lawyers, police, people who’d been victims of crime.…”

“It was good to embed myself into that world and put a face on it, try to understand,” she says. “And that also made it more difficult: What story am I going to tell? Whose story do I have the right to tell?”

Volunteer work with people who’ve been through the criminal justice system was revealing: “I can see how they’re led into that life.” What research for her new play offered additionally, says Moeller, was the chance to “to see their effect on victims. And that can really hit home…. You can see what questions are being asked and how they’re being asked. When you read, things are black and white. But if you’re there, experiencing that world, you sense a lot more gray.…”

Says Moeller, “it opened up my world to meet the people. Writing is so isolating…. I could write five plays from the research I did! And you never know how research is going to inform you.” Eventually, in the surfeit of fascinating possibilities she uncovered, she had to choose. 

“I ended up focussing on two women,” says Moeller of her deliberate choice of female characters. “You don’t very often see women having those roles onstage….” Women are often victims of violence, in life and in theatre. But “women who inflict violence?” Not so much. “It creates and a complexity and a rage we need to explore,” Moeller thinks. “This isn’t girls playing boys…. Women are monsters, too.” There is violent crime in The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, and there is “victim representation.”

Peach (Alexandra Dawkins) is a kid who’s “involved in street crime but at a lower level.” Her chance encounter with Max (Laura Raboud), who works for one of the country’s notorious criminal organizations, changes both their lives.

“When I started this play, ‘true crime’ was just gaining its popularity — it raises a lot of ethical questions since it involves real people,” Moeller says. “I’m attracted to the sensational, yes. But what I like to do is draw people in, then ‘what universal questions can you ask?’” In The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, says its creator, “we meet people involved in crime. And we meet someone whose family has been affected by criminal violence.”

In rehearsals for Brenley Charkow’s production, Moeller is struck by the irony that “we’re working on a play that’s interested in exploring how you can get caught up in the world of crime. And here we are, rehearsing, and (that world) is exciting, and fun, and seductive!”

The play is set in Edmonton. “And I’d like to do that more,” says the playwright. It’s fictional, yes, but “it was inspired by something that happened in Alberta — in our own backyard. We should be doing that more. It makes the questions tougher; you don’t get to run away from them as easily….”

One of those questions is about justice. “Where is justice for someone with no options? Someone who comes from poverty and abuse?…. It’s such a hard concept, justice. So it’s good we wrestle with it.”

“I almost had more questions at the end of this than the beginning.” Which is exactly how Moeller likes her theatre. 

PREVIEW

The Ballad of Peachtree Rose

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Nicole Moeller

Directed by: Brenley Charkow

Starring: Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, Bobbi Goddard, Shannon Blanchet

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

Running: Friday through Nov. 10

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

  

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