Sanctifunkadelic: Sister Act at the Mayfield. A review

 

Katrina Reynolds in Sister Act, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Raise the stakes! Raise the game! Raise your voice,” sing the nuns of Sister Act, newly kitted out as a showbiz soul ensemble by the latest recruit to the Sisterhood.

“Feel the flow, dig the scene. Shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene.”

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What they and their disapproving Mother Superior discover in the course of the high-spirited Broadway musical currently raising rafters at the Mayfield is that making a joyful noise gets better pay-off if there’s (a) a common key and (b) an audience in the pews.

What the creators of this 2011 musical (music by the go-to Disney composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater) spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit movie, have nailed is the reliable comic attraction of nuns in full black-and-white regalia getting down and being fabulous. Sisters and sequins and the advice to “boogie till you feel your spirit move”: a no-fail spring tonic (kickier than communion wine) judging by the production directed by Jim Guedo.

Sister Act, as you’ll know from the movie, is set in motion when an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia, Deloris Van Cartier by name (Katrina Reynolds), has the bad timing to witness her mobster boyfriend (Michael-Lamont Lytle) murdering someone. Which is how the exuberant Deloris finds herself hiding out under a wimple in a convent. “Is there a smoking section?”

Katrina Reynolds in Sister Act, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The showbiz gene being contagious, Deloris can’t help herself  transforming a lack-lustre if dutiful choir with an infusion of Philly soul, R&B and disco, and some flashy moves (choreographer Christine Bandelow). And Reynolds, who has a charismatic energy about her, turns in a flamboyant performance as a star-in-progress who learns something about ensemble work back from the nuns, too. 

Susan Gilmour in Sister Act. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The purse-lipped Mother Superior (Susan Gilmour) is appalled by the disruption: “My life’s like the Stations of the Cross. But without the laughs.” But when the pews, long empty, begin to fill (along with the church restoration fund), the Monsignor (Garett Ross) is overjoyed.“Give yourselves a big round of applause,” he says to the assembled, digging the producer groove. “Let’s hear it for the balcony!”

What the Monsignor has discovered, bless his soul, is something the Mayfield knows all about: musical theatre is a big draw — mass appeal, as you might say. “The reviews are in! ’If you see only one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!’” Ross is highly amusing in negotiating this transformation.

Guedo’s production is fuelled by the fun of a gallery of individualized sisters. Pamela Gordon is very funny as the acerbic, whisky-voiced Sister Mary Lazarus, along with Michelle Diaz as the buoyant nun fangirl Sister Mary Patrick. The vocal and comic lustre is enhanced by such top-flight actors as Cathy Derkach and Andrea House, among others. And Jill Agopsowica is delightful as the convent postulant who really lands her wistful, then fiery, solo number The Life I Never Led. Gilmour applies herself to Mother Superior deadpan (top-notes of exasperation) with notable God-give-me-patience results, even in comic lines that aren’t Sister Act’s best feature by a long shot. It’s a kick-ass — or should I say “sanctifunkadelic”? — ensemble.

One of the funniest numbers of the evening belongs to guys, though. In The Lady in the Long Black Dress, the mobster’s hapless trio of hitmen — Brad Wiebe, Jahlen Barnes and Nelson Bettencourt — show off the smooth ‘70s moves that no mere nun will be able to resist. Lytle and Aaidin Church as the mob boss and the underachiever cop are excellent. 

The band, as you have come to expect at the Mayfield, is just first-rate — in ‘70s pastiche numbers, in comic patter songs, in Broadway-type ballads, in every style the musical throws at them. And since the music in Sister Act is sharper than the book, this is crucial. And speaking of transformation, kudos to set and video designer T. Erin Gruber who, assisted by lighting designer Kevin Humphrey, creates the worlds within and outside the convent walls — the pious and the Philly cheesesteak tacky — by playing ingeniously with glass bricks and scaffolding.

The “Sunday morning hustle,” in all its infectious glory, is available nightly. Spread the love. 

REVIEW

Sister Act

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.

Created by: Alan Menken (music), Glenn Slater (lyrics), Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner (book) with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Katrina Reynolds, Susan Gilmour, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Garett Ross

Running: through June 9

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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An anniversary, and a new Darrin Hagen play: we talk to the playwright and his co-star in The Empress & The Prime Minister

The Empress and the Prime Minister, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s been half a century, amazingly, since a spontaneous, and violent, demonstration in a dive bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that would prove to be a galvanizing event in the history of the American gay rights movement.

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Just before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, though, something significant happened across the border in America’s less flashy, apparently more passive neighbour to the north. A young and charismatic federal justice minister, with a gift for the epigrammatic, was arguing “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Against fierce resistance, Pierre Elliot Trudeau championed a bill that decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. Royal assent for that bill pre-dated Stonewall by one day.

The 50th anniversary of that pivotal moment in our history has inspired the play that gets its world premiere Thursday on the Theatre Network stage. Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & the Prime Minister tells a story, that despite the fame of one of the title players, is little known. It’s about the life and career of the drag queen/gay activist whose unstoppable letter-writing campaign caught the eye of the young federal justice minister who’d become the prime minister.

That drag queen/activist is the late ted northe, aka the “Empress of Canada.” Last week in the Theatre Network green room, another drag queen/activist — “The Edmonton Queen” as his memoir moniker has it —  was groaning loudly as he squeezed a foot into a size 16 T-strap pump. With a matronly moderate high heel. There was a time, as playwright/actor Hagen sighs (comically), when his heel choice was the stiletto. His co-star Vancouver-based Joey Lespérance, a perfectly bilingual francophone actor with a certain unmistakeable resemblance to Trudeau, looks on, amused, and rolls his eyes.

If ted northe isn’t a name in your radar, you’re not alone (as I can testify). Lespérance, who arrives in Edmonton from a production of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna (directed by a former Theatre Network artistic director, Stephen Heatley), lives in Vancouver’s West End — right around the corner from ted northe Lane. “And I had no idea who he was!”

It started, says Hagen of his new play, “as one of those drag footnotes in history; you know how I love them, they’re the centre of every story I write.”

northe, who’d invented the elaborate “court system” attached to the drag queen aristocracy, had come to Edmonton once, to the “international court conference” and ball, held here in 1988. “I remember the dress,” says Hagen. “I remember what he sang, kind of a weird choice but it worked: Queen of the Silver Dollar by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.. And then I forgot about it.” He laughs. “You know, queens, full of ourselves, the world ends at the edge of our makeup mirrors….” 

In 2013, their paths crossed again when Hagen was being inducted into the Q Hall of Fame. Northe’s keynote address was a barn-burner. “It was so moving,” says Hagen “He talked about being an activist in the 1950s: can you imagine, in that decade?. He talked about standing in front of the Vancouver courthouse in 1958 in full drag, and getting arrested, and how that was the beginning of his career as an activist. How he started a grassroots letter-writing campaign.” And he talked about how his connection with Pierre Trudeau began, and continued.

“It was a really emotional speech. And I knew I had to do it as a play,”

Hagen set about arranging an interview with the Empress of Canada. northe died before that could happen. Instead, Hagen acquired three or four hours of videotaped interviews from one of the activist’s close friends. “A lot of the monologues in the play are ted’s own words.”

The Empress & the Prime Minister was “a very different” play when Hagen began, he says. “My original plan was to have Pierre and ted on opposite sides of the stage, each telling their own version of the story.…  I started to gather Pierre Trudeau quotes, and then I realized how much had been written about the great man — and that what I had to bring to this story was this little piece of him that no one knew about.”

“I started to write scenes for them, dialogue. And that’s when I really started to have fun…. I knew they had many in-person meetings. And I imagined what they would have said to each other.”

Hagen, who grew up in Rocky Mountain House “listening to my mom and dad, well, everyone really, bitching about ‘That Trudeau!’,” knew he’d need a francophone actor. “I wanted Trudeau to be onstage in two languages. Because that’s how I grew up with him, in a bilingual country: I’m hearing him talk in English, and when he moves into French, there’s a woman translating…. There’s always another voice. That’s the Trudeau in my head.”

Director Bradley Moss suggested Lespérance, who’d shared the stage with him 30 years ago in the latter’s first professional gig. Hagen had met Lespérance too, during a run of  Cowboy Poetry at L’UniThéâtre when Hagen arrived as an interviewer, for Access TV’s  Culture Quest. 

Lespérance plays multiple characters, including a Catholic Monsignor and (a first for him) a couple of drag roles. Originally from Montreal, he points to the resistance from Quebec when Trudeau began to push for legalizing homosexuality. “He was a bachelor, he dressed well, he pushed for gay rights, (ergo) he must be gay….”

And of course, the legislation of 1969 didn’t magically transform the attitudes engrained in the culture, as Lespérance points out. It didn’t eradicate “the attitude that homosexuality was wrong; it just made it more complicated to pursue. All it did was make gay sex at home with your partner legal…. Harassing the queer community continued.”

“So it wasn’t the whole package deal from day 1. But it was the beginning of something! Something really important for the liberation of queer, when a major political figure started speaking for it.”

What the bill did change was the definition of gross indecency, Hagen says. His 2016 play The Witch Hunt at the Strand, which premiered at Workshop West, details a shameful chapter in Edmonton history in which the charge of gross indecency had proven useful to city police and the RCMP in their sting operation against closeted gay men.

“I finally realized ted northe’s impact on my life, this man I had met once, who was putting everything on the line in the ‘50s,” says Hagen.  “As a queer man,” says his stage cohort, “it touches me directly, to be able to use my skills for something that’s touched me all my life.”

Another election, another source of anxiety. The world seems to be spinning backwards, as Hagen and Lespérance reflect. “When I got off the stage in The Witch Hunt At The Strand in 2016, Trump was president,” says Hagen. “When I get off the stage in this play….” 

“The work is not done,” says Lespérance. “As artists we have a platform….”

PREVIEW

The Empress & the Prime Minister

Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Written by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Darrin Hagen, Joey Lespérance

Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through May 5

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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A grown-up homecoming in a moving musical: Fun Home, a review

Jocelyn Ahlf in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We are all haunted, every one of us. By the great mysteries of our past: our families. By the questions we live with that never got answered. By the tiny moments that slipped by at the time unrecognized, but in retrospect are vivid, maybe seminal. By the parents we didn’t quite realize were actual people till later, when we were all grown-up and looking back.

That’s the emotional landscape of the remarkably complex and textured, moving, funny and sad musical Fun Home that the Plain Janes have brought to the Varscona in a deeply affecting production directed by Dave Horak. It will get you, right in the heart. And here’s the contradiction that should send you forth to see it: It’s shattering, but somehow it’s not bleak; it’s enlivening. 

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

Based on a best-selling graphic novel memoir by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the 2015 Tony Award winner is a genuine original. So much of the musical theatre is about the embodying the vivacity, the eternal animation, of youth. Subtitled “A Family Tragicomic, Fun Home is a grown-up musical that steps outside nearly every musical theatre convention. It puts onstage Alison the graphic artist at 43 (Jocelyn Ahlf), sketch pad in hand to try and reassess, in comic panels and test captions, her young selves, little-girl Alison (Jillian Aisenstat) and college-girl Alison  (Bella King). It’s the latter who tentatively then decisively comes to realize she’s gay at about the same time she realizes her father is gay, too. All three actors are eye-wateringly good. 

The elusive figure who haunts all the Alisons at every age is her father Bruce, a high school English teacher who also restores old houses, and runs a funeral home (the title “fun home”). He’s a mercurial character, to say the least, a mass of contradictions as Jeff Haslam’s multi-faceted portrait conveys with such fierce attention to detail. He’s harsh and imperious, easily exasperated, always on edge, sometimes oddly soulful. He’s a question mark of a guy: an intellectual, a perfectionist, a stickler for rules and image in art and in life, the spit-and-polish facade of the ideal family. He also picks up young boys.

It’s this double life, in the closet and in lovingly refinished vintage houses, that brings Alison to the remembering and reassessing that is the raison d’être of Fun Home. Who is the man who played airplane with his little daughter, who sent her James Joyce and Colette novels at college, who cruised high school boys? Who is the man who fatally stands in front of a moving truck just weeks after Alison comes out? “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” she sings at the outset. “It all comes back….”

Horak sets his production in motion on a square that’s a sketch pad, open-ended with empty window frames on one side. And Ahlf’s Alison, watchful and often wincing, is onstage drawing the panels from her past, imagined and lived, and experimenting with the right caption. It’s a wonderful performance — alert and engaged, wry, rueful, self-mocking, and appalled — by an actor whose dramatic and musical range seems unlimited. The final father-daughter scene she shares with Haslam’s Bruce, at the point of connection or disintegration, is devastating.

Fun Home’s originality extends to the way the music  — by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by the librettist Lisa Kron — melts into the drama so skilfully you can scarcely separate them. Ah, but there are exceptions to this, too. The scene in which the Bechtel kids, upbraided by dad (“I told you ‘do not play in the caskets!'”), create a home-made ad for the family business is a riot (choreographed by Jason Hardwick). So is the Partridge Family-esque number, Everything’s All Right, a spirited ode to the lie of happy families ‘70s style (costumes by Maralyn Ryan). 

Karina Cox and Bella King, Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

Middle Alice, who realizes at college something about herself she’s always known when she meets Joan (Karina Cox), comes out in a song. King captures the rush and the musing wonder of discovery in the buoyant Changing My Major (“I’m changing my major to Joan”). Aisenstat, who has an amusing kind of sturdy briskness to her that echoes her dad’s decisiveness, is in charge of one of Fun Home’s most elusive, deceptively simple song, Ring of Keys, in which the little girl reveals her secret attraction to a butch woman. Aisenstat knows exactly how to deliver it, without over-inflecting or interpreting. She and King are finds for Edmonton theatre.

In a way, Alison’s mother Helen is the least-explored character, living within the cruel and secret confines established by a closeted gay husband. The song in which she emerges from the shadows to explain to her daughter how she’s kept the facade going, Days and Days, has huge impact in Kate Ryan’s performance. She doesn’t cry; you will.

The veteran musical director Janice Flower does a terrific job with the huge variety of music, from the fragmented and dissonant to the tuneful and jaunty. She and her musical forces give Horak’s production a momentum that never feels hard-driven. It’s not that kind of musical, even though the stakes are life and death, survival and happiness. 

Life is funny; our motives are tangled, and look different from every angle. Fun Home is for funerals, but it’s also a house of mirrors. Seek it out, and see yourself.

REVIEW

Fun Home

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: The Plain Jane Theatre Company

Written by: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jeff Haslam, Bella King, Jillian Aisenstat, Kate Ryan, Karina Cox, Gabriel Gagnon, Carter Woodley, Connor Woodley

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through April 20

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com 

 

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Nun but the brave: for your theatre habit, a grand assortment on E-town stages this weekes this week

Rachel Bowron and Luc Tellier, The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

 

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What is it with all the nuns on Edmonton stages this week? It’s a bumper crop, second to nun.

Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photograph

In The Candidate at the Citadel, you will see two different heavenly examples, (in a sense three) of nun drag. To anticipate your inevitable question, there is a pregnant nun, and a lot of nun puns. (There’s also a drag queen nun, and a desperate political intern-in-nun costume nun; forget I told you that, it’s part of the plot.)  May I just say that the Catholic Church lost a considerable amount of traction in musical comedy and farce when nuns stopped wearing that long black regalia, so convenient for disguises?

Anyhow, the very funny seven-door farce that is The Candidate is one of two Kat Sandler political comedies running simultaneously in two different theatres with the same cast (just thinking about the second-to-nun logistics makes your brain hurt and your Fitwatch explode). The other is The Party — which is one! —  in the Rice. Are there nuns there, too? Nun of your beeswax.

Check out my 12thnight.ca REVIEW of The Candidate and The Party here:

Count Ory, Edmonton Opera.

You just can’t expect to go the opera and see nun drag; you just have to savour it when it happens. In Rossini’s Count Ory — which you also can’t just expect to go to the opera and see any old time — you are treated to the mesmerizing sight of 14 chevaliers dressed up as nuns drinking wine they’ve stolen from their host who’s off fighting in the Crusades  (oops sorry, that would be part of the plot).

This highly unusual experience comes courtesy of Edmonton Opera, and Brian Deedrick’s wildly colour-drenched production (lit in dazzling fashion by Narda McCarroll). Believe me, the nun frocks are the only black-and-white feature of the evening. The nun millinery designed by Deanna Finnman is riotous; the nun ensemble looks like a giant meringue about to levitate.

Count Ory, apparently, hasn’t been staged in Canada for, oh, a couple of centuries. So don’t blow your chance, last performance Friday. Tickets: 780-429-1000 or edmontonopera.com.

At the Mayfield (opening Friday), it’s Sister Act. In the rockin’ 2011 Broadway musical spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, an aspiring disco diva in ’70s Philly takes refuge in a convent when she has the bad luck to witness her mobster boyfriend offing someone. This improvised protective custody will have a ripple effect within the Sisterhood, and they’ll learn to raise the rafters. “Jump in … that’s what your spirit is for.” Sister Act runs at the Mayfield through June 9. Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca.

In other theatre news:

Super$tition, Firefly Theatre and Circus. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Speaking of levitation, Firefly Theatre & Circus returns to the stage, and above it, with Super$tition, their new gravity-defying circus and magic cabaret that explores prophecy, fortune, luck. The workshop production runs Thursday to Sunday and April 18 to 21 at La Cité francophone.  Tickets: fireflytheatre.com.

 

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

The Plain Janes, purveyors of the off-centre and original in musical theatre, are bringing us Fun Home this week. In the moving, innovative 2015 Tony Award winner, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s  best-selling graphic novel memoir, Alison is trying to piece together the mysteries of her past, the secrets of her family, her father’s life and death, and the discovery of her own sexuality. The Plain Janes production directed by Dave Horak, part of the Varscona Theatre Ensemble, opens on the Varscona stage Friday and runs through April 20. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com.

12thnight.ca talks to the three actors who play Alison at three different ages, here:

Through Saturday, there’s action above the Westbury Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barn). 13 Encounters at the Bottom of the Sea, is the latest from the innovative writer/theatre artist Nicole Schafenacker. It’s interdisciplinary performance that explores love and heartbreak using “aerial circus, rich poetry, sound, and physical theatre.” Elizabeth Hobbs directs the Fringe Theatre production. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

You can fly an airline where the platinum passengers don’t get to board first and put their bums in the best seats and all that. There’s no class system at Icarus Air. Slight of Mind, the latest from Theatre Yes, takes you on a flight pattern into the unknown, the nooks and crannies of the Citadel’s non-theatre spaces in three-intertwined stories. Ingenious. And moving. See 12thnight.ca’s REVIEW here.

On Sunday Script Salon celebrates their fifth anniversary of launching new scripts into the big wide world of theatre with monthly staged readings. The special epic edition features Gerald Osborn’s Hearth and Homer, “the untold story of the troubled teen years of Homer, poet of antiquity.” No nuns are involved, to my knowledge. But there is a Greek chorus, which always clutters a teenager’s living space.

Since it is a festive occasion, Osborn provides a bonus curtain-raiser, Bonobo Bacchanale, billed as a “hard-hitting documentary about the sex lives of bonobo apes.”

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. in the Upper Arts Space at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (10037 84 Ave.). But if you get there early, there’s live music and cake. Admission is free, but donations are accepted with loud hallelujahs.

And there’s the Bonfire Festival at Rapid Fire Theatre — an extravaganza of original new ideas in long-form improv thought up by the quick-witted risk-takers who don’t have to have a script to make a play. It runs through Saturday at Rapid Fire headquarters, Zeidler Hall at the Citadel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Alison at three ages, and the actors who play her in groundbreaking Fun Home

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Everything about the clever, heart-wrenching musical that opens Friday at the Varscona stands off the beaten track in the musical theatre-land. And it’s produced by a little company that specializes in off the beaten track musicals, Plain Jane Theatre.  

For one thing, Fun Home — which scooped up five Tonys (including best musical) in 2015 — is adapted from a best-selling graphic novel memoir, by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. And in it she’s trying to unravel the mysteries of her past, growing up and coming out in a family full of secrecy and facades, discovering she’s gay at the same time she realizes that her father was gay, too.

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Alison Bechdel, that haunted cartoonist, is a character in Fun Home. Cartoonist’s pen in hand, she’s onstage drawing her younger selves, her siblings, her mother, the configuration of her parents’ strained marriage, in the quest to make sense of them, and the tragedy of her closeted father.

In this highly original musical — music by Jeanine Tesoro, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron — there are three Alison’s onstage. And 12thnight.ca had the chance to talk to the three actors who play them in the production directed by award-winning Dave Horak.

“I feel a bit honoured,” says Jocelyn Ahlf, who plays grown-up Alison at 43, looking back. “It’s an important story. And I’m playing a real person…. It’s someone’s actual personal family.”  Jillian Aisenstat, who plays Small Alison, age 11, echoes that thought. “It’s a real story!” says the 15-year-old actor in something like awe. “Not just sort of a fairy tale like many musicals. It’s by a real person.” 

Actor/playwright Ahlf, a Teatro La Quindicina and Plain Janes star whose startling musical range even extends to opera, is thinking about the father-daughter relationship at the heart of Fun Home. “In a way it’s just as much about Bruce (Jeff Haslam), the tragedy of Alison’s dad,” who was fatally hit by a truck, a possible suicide, shortly after Bechdel came out, 20 years before. “Is she like her dad?”

Jocelyn Ahlf in Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

“In a way she always knew…. And 20 years is a lot of baggage,” says Ahlf of “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t be himself. He’s an English teacher who snuck around with underage boys … and he’s not a lovable dad.”

Ahlf pauses. “ Well, it’s complicated. Alison needs her dad; she really needs to have the conversation where they can say ‘we are both gay’. And it never happens.” There’s a particularly touching moment when father and daughter, a college student by then and newly out, are in the car together, and that conversation could have happened. It’s poised to happen. Alison desperately wants to happen. And it doesn’t.

Bella King, the recent MacEwan theatre grad who plays Middle Alice, is struck by the scene, too, and the delayed letter Middle Alice finally gets back from her parents when she comes out. “Her father’s response isn’t what she wanted to hear…. The anger, the pain. I can’t imagine what that would be like, to hear that from a parent.”

The heart of the story, she says, is Alison and her father “and how their lives affected each other.” King loves the mother character (played by the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan), too, the keeper of family secrets who knows, and doesn’t know, about her husband.   

There are touchy, difficult issues at play in the musical (sex with a minor, suicide among them). But Fun Home, deemed the first in the Broadway musical repertoire with a lesbian protagonist, steps bravely up to them in “a really human way,” thinks Ahlf.

The star of the Plain Janes’ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (“bonkers! I’m comfortable in bonkers!”) last season, Ahlf loves the Fun Home score. Her favourite song? Changing My Major To Joan, in which Middle Alison, a college student, sings about the exhilaration of first love. “It’s so romantic, so excited and active; (in that) it reminds me of She Loves Me!” says Ahlf, whose own play A Momentary Lapse, co-written with Stewart Lemoine, is part of the upcoming Teatro season. . “And it also has to be about sex. That’s the point.”

But, curiously, the song that’s lodged in Ahlf’s head? Everything’s All Right, a jaunty ‘70s Partridge Family song that’s the Bechdel family mantra.

Karina Cox and Bella King, Fun Home. Photo by Mat Busby

Bella King, who grew up in Winnipeg saturated in musicals (like most of the Plain Jane people), she saw her first, Annie, age four — charts the musical theatre arc that led her to Fun Home: “I loved Annie, then as I got older I was listening to Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Only when I went to MacEwan was it Sondheim and (the classics) Rodgers and Hammerstein….” Fun Home, which started Off-Broadway and got its Broadway premiere in a beautiful production at Circle in the Square, wasn’t a show in her radar. But once introduced to it, King was irresistibly attracted to “the music and the story, both so beautiful….” Ah, and “to the theme of memory and where it can take you.”

Aisenstat, who appears “mostly at the beginning and the end,” has been intrigued by the striking theatricality of three Alison’s: “and we’re all playing the same person!” Director Horak, she reports, has been tuning up “the small physical and emotional gestures” that remain constant in Alison at every age.

Aisenstat, a Grade 10 student at Paul Kane High, is the possessor of a startlingly long resumé that includes TV (Caution: May Contain Nuts, Tiny Plastic Men), stage work (16 St. Albert Children’s Theatre productions, most recently a starring role in Tuck Everlasting) and improv comedy (The Kidprovisers). She’s used to playing playing younger characters. Especially 10-year-old boys, as it’s happened, like Ralph in A Christmas Story and James in James and the Giant Peach.”

Small Alison, a tomboy who resists her dad’s exhortations to wear a dress, is a welcome change. Playing younger is about “subtle changes in mind,” Aisenstat says. “I tend to stay on the balls of my feet more. Kids are always ready to go. Everything’s faster; kids are so curious.. You don’t worry when you’re nine to 12. The world is yours.”

All three Alisons are finding Fun Home a special experience, well outside the realm of chin-up musical fantasies. “It’s a grown-up musical,” says Ahlf. “It’s a show that’s a heart-changer.”

PREVIEW

Fun Home

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre

Created by: Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), Jeanine Tesori (music) from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jeff Haslam, Bella King, Jillian Aisenstat, Kate Ryan, Karina Cox, Gabriel Gagnon, Carter Woodley, Connor Woodley

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through April 20

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com 

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Farce within farce within farce: politics, celebrity and the media. Two new Kat Sandler comedies running simultaneously at the Citadel. A review

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

Jesse Lipscombe in The Candidate, photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Talk about real-life horning in on theatre (stealing punchlines, sucking up the supply of public outrage, eating all the fake cheese out of the collective fridge). Here’s the thing: It’s an age when politics (in many locales and close to home) has actually become a farce.

An architecture of escalating lies teetering on promotional fictions and propped up by ever-more frantic spin-doctoring? Come on. You’ve watched the news; work with me here. 

And the Citadel has stepped up to this giddy state of affairs with not one but two new entwined political comedies whose behind-the scenes connections and logistics constitute a high-speed farce in themselves. The Party and The Candidate, by the hot Toronto playwright Kat Sandler, run simultaneously in two different theatres, many staircases apart, with the same 10-actor cast pelting between them, scene by scene, to play the same characters, nine months apart. So what we’re looking at, moment by moment watching either show, is the farce behind the farce behind the farce. This full-throttle theatrical experiment that taps directly into the adrenalized vein of farce is directed jointly by the playwright and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, who commissioned it.

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“Repeat after me ‘everything is perfectly fine’,” as the old-pro campaign manager Pauline Abel (Colleen Wheeler in a sensational comic performance) snaps at earnest new intern Dill Pickerel (Luc Tellier, equally funny) on his first day in politics. In farce, as in politics, this is never true. By the time of The Candidate, she’s declaring “we are killin’ it!” when she’s not saying “the shit show must go on!” Also, never true. 

At The Party — which happens first in chronological time and is a lot of fun with one very big detraction — we’re at one. A party, that is. In the intimate cabaret setting of the Rice, we’re guests at a posh birthday bash for filthy rich media mogul Butch Buchanan (Glenn Nelson). As per tradition, the occasion is also a fund-raiser for a political party, The Left, where two rival candidates for the party nomination as Chief Leader are courting Butch’s endorsement and donor cash — with nods to us, his old rich fat-cat guests. OK, we’re the only characters at the gathering having drinks in Citadel sippy-cups instead of champagne flutes or highball glasses, but it’s pretty damn incriminating. “Rich old people make me really nervous,” says Dill, who’s instantly been re-christened Virgin by Pauline.

Kevin Bundy and Martha Burns, The Party, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Heather Straughan (Martha Burns), the career politico with the Hillary pantsuit and the Hillary accessory of a persistent cheating husband scandal, sizes us up for our wallet-opening potential like a tiger surveying fresh lunch meat. Heather is a veteran of gritting her teeth and rising to any occasion; still, the unexpected presence of  the cheating husband in question, played to Clinton-esque comic perfection by Kevin Bundy, is not going to be a plus to her evening, you feel.

The other candidate for Chief Leader, Bill Biszy, (Jesse Lipscombe, in a charmingly funny performance), is a distractible dim bulb of an ex-movie star with a string of hit Sharkman action flicks to his credit and not much more in his noggin than Sharkman speeches and the habit of a fan base and being adored. 

Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison in The Party. Photo by Ryan Parker

Bill has a partner, too, a breezy drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison) with a fabulous wardrobe (designer Megan Koshka), a gift of the gab, and a talk show, What’s The Butt?. Marky is someone you’d always want at a party, and Allison lights up (in neon) any scene he’s in.

So, a veteran politician with a grasp of the issues and a platform with planks and all that, not to mention a campaign manager in perpetual overdrive (Pauline’s pulse no doubt enhanced by mad dashes from The Candidate, at the other end of the building). Versus a political ninny with a one-word platform (“Hope!” because it’s, well, hopeful), who’s “this country’s only gay, black, aquatic super-hero.”

Sandler has a way with comic lines and wise-ass throw-aways, withering putdowns (Wheeler has a feast), overlapping staccato repartee, cranked up to manic tempo, not least because everyone’s in two plays simultaneously. And the party setting, with its free-floating kookiness, its witty tangents and smart-ass small talk, its unexpected entrances and exits, suits Sandler’s kind of sassy comic writing to a T.

Glenn Nelson, Amber Lewis in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson

One of the juiciest characters, Vidashka, a glamorous and beaming siren of Soretria, an eastern European country of hilariously unremitting awfulness, is suddenly on the scene (for reasons I cannot reveal for fear of Soretrian revenge). “Vy vood you bury hatchet?. You can use for many things.”  And you just can’t get enough of her: Amber Lewis is a knock-out in a role that’s written with shameless pizzaz. 

That’s why the ending, which lets the air out of this airy but piquant concoction so alarmingly, is a huge letdown. The extended rant has none of the sparkle of the writing in the rest of the play. Alas, The Party thuds at the end in a way I never did understand (even after I saw The Candidate the next night). But the getting to this moment is highly entertaining.

The Candidate, which is on the Maclab stage thrusting into a 700-seat house, picks up nine months later on the eve of the election. It’s a full-fledged, old-school door-slammer, a seven-door farce. The opening scene, at matching podiums, is a political debate between the title character and the incumbent, Butch Buchanan’s racist, homophobic, right-wing twin brother Woodruff Buchanan, antediluvian in his views, played by Nelson in his spare time. “I never said people of colour were all lazy. They’re not. All lazy.” You will see the off-again-on-again fortunes of Nelson’s moustache in this venerable farce device.

Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson.

In the course of The Candidate, people will enter and exit in a mad rush (or, if they’re lucky like Marky, in Megan Koshka’s flamboyant costumes). Trousers will drop, doors will slam, the wrong doors will get opened at the wrong time, people will try to look like they haven’t been canoodling (there’s a word I’ve never used). They’ll heap bald-faced lies on each other; they’ll hedge, take pratfalls, pun, and blurt Malapropisms. They’ll “yoke” (as Vidashka says). Of course, there’s a pregnant nun. Why wouldn’t there be? And one of the repertoire’s largest current repertoires of nun puns. 

Jesse Lipscombe and Thom Allison, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The characters are back for this “sequel” with telling little differences and telling consistencies. Lipscombe, for one, unerringly calibrates Bill’s minute development in the intervening nine months. The performance is very funny; our man is always a half-beat behind comprehension of any moment, reverting under the merest whiff of pressure to Sharkman epigrams. As someone says of his political acumen, Bill has always thought “incumbent” was “the belt part of a tuxedo.”

As the only “serious” character, the straight man (sorry, straight person) to the unravelling comic mayhem around her, Burns steps up with fortitude to a role that’s written with minimal jokes and more repetition. There are a lot of repeats of the moments where the tiniest flicker of a grimace is code for  “you’ve got to be kidding.”

You could chart plot developments in these two productions in the exact gradations of smiles — from the molar-grinding suck-it-up incrementally through wincingly pained or noblesse oblige to high-beam fake. 

Colleen Wheeler, centre, The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At the centre of the action, in constant high-jog across the stage from entrance to exit, is Wheeler’s Pauline, the foul-mouthed fixer in charge of family values optics, damage control, and photo ops, and her assistant Dill, whose wide-eyed idealism is beginning to erode a little around the edges. Tellier’s comic timing is one of the delights of the evening.

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks nails the teenage cynicism of a smart adoptee. And Rachel  Bowron as — well, again I must hedge, for your own enjoyment — a daffy but determined new character (and continuing Sharkman fan) is amusing, too.

Designer Koshka rises to the preposterous double-barrelled visuals, in props and costumes, with evident glee. And Kimberly Purtell’s lighting salutes the full theatrical potential of the political arena. 

The Candidate starts (and has to, by the premise) at such a feverish comic pitch that it strains at times to to sustain itself for the two hour 15 minute running time. But once set in motion, the farce machinery is fuelled by inopportune disclosures, revealing repartee,  mistaken identities, sight gags, out-and-out lies buffed up to be half-truths. And here’s the cool craziness of the experiment: it’s paralleled by the near-misses of the farcical logistics of doing two plays in two theatres at the very same time with one cast. Every exit from The Party is (not counting sprint time between theatres) an entrance into The Candidate. And vice versa. 

The media and celebrity culture and politics, in the sack together in an ungodly three-way,  political correctness platitudes and their vicious old-school reverse, earnest idealists and pop culture trash-talkers … they all get teased or defrocked or compromised in the course of The Party and The Candidate. Both comedies have flaws. But both are funny, and fun. You can see just one — of course you can — and laugh. See both, and you’ll be ringside for a fulsome view of absurdity where principles are caught with their pants down, in compromising positions. Ah, politics. 

Sharkman isn’t real, one character is moved to advise a die-hard fan, who is only momentarily fazed. “Real life isn’t real,” she retorts. Whew, thank god for that. They really had been going for a sec there.   

REVIEW

The Party and The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Kat Sandler and Daryl Cloran

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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A work-out for body and brain: Martha Burns is running in The Party and The Candidate at the Citadel

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

Martha Burns and Kevin Bundy, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are two plays getting their world premieres simultaneously tonight in the Citadel. Martha Burns is in both of them.

Burns and her nine cast-mates play characters who inhabit not one but two new Kat Sandler political comedies. Come 7:30 p.m. you’ll find them on the gallop between scenes in The Party happening in the Rice at one end of the complex and scenes in The Candidate happening in the Maclab at the other. Stairs and distance (and nine months in fictional time) are involved. “We’re about to get in excellent shape!” amends Burns, who made time to chat pre-rehearsal of both plays last week. She plays Heather Straughan, one of two rival candidates vying for the party nomination in an impending election, and courting a fat-cat donor.

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The Dora, Gemini, and Genie Award-winning stage and screen star has been in Edmonton before. But it’s been a while. The last time — for Citadel productions that included Hamlet, As You Like It, Alan Ayckbourn’s Invisible Friends — she had a tumultuous schedule, too, though of a different kind. Her daughter Hannah was two (“she learned to skate here, in Hawrelak Park!”). Now Hannah is 29, “shooting a movie in Toronto with Viggo Mortensen,” reports her mom. 

Part of the work-out has been mental, of course. “We’ve been hunkering down a lot to work on the many changes Kat has been making to the script… Such intense brain work. It’s been amazing to watch that process. She had to overwrite, to figure out what to move around and take out so it work out.”

Martha Burns

Burns, who has a vast body of starring work on the country’s largest stages — Stratford, Shaw and Soulpepper among them, in addition to such original TV series as Slings and Arrows — marvels at the playwright’s dexterity. “You think Wow!  What was it like just to begin, to figure out who can be where when. In addition to just writing funny comedies.”

“Everyone has been wide-eyed through the whole experience…. We had to be the last part of her writing process. So we’ve been witnessing this lightning speed of writing on the spot, cutting, shifting, changing things around, timing….”

“Kat Sandler’s brain must be taking up her whole head!” Burns laughs. “And moving out into the corners of the room.” She loves “the snappy back and forth” of Sandler’s comedies, including the hit Mustard, which have mostly premiered hitherto in Toronto.

The razor timing needed to execute and pair The Party and The Candidate is extreme, true. But it isn’t unfamiliar to Burns; working in film has seen to that (and besides she’s recently been in a Montreal production of the great play-within-a-play modern farce Noises Off). “A film set is totally about the clock,” she says. “What I like about acting on film, too, is that the actors come in ready to go. We find out what the scene is about by doing it…. We had a bit of that feeling in rehearsal here!”

Burns’s calendar this year is tilted heavily towards theatre: A Doll’s House 2 (the contemporary “sequel” to the Ibsen classic) at the Belfry in Victoria last fall, then this double-premiere, which came with the pre-contract warning that things could get pretty crazy. When The Party and The Candidate have raced towards election night, and Burns has hung up Heather Straughan’s Hillary-like pantsuit for the last time, she’s off to the Shaw Festival — for a very different pair of challenges.

One is Victory, by the provocative, notoriously difficult, rarely produced Brit playwright Howard Barker. “It’s an extraordinary play,” says Burns, “historically, politically….” The other is a production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, including the celebrated Don Juan In Hell “interlude,” directed by the hot up-and-comer Kimberley Rampersad (the ingenious  choreographer of the Citadel’s Matilda). Burns will play the The Devil. “It’s a year when our world is opening up!” she says happily of this gender expansiveness.

Meanwhile, on the eve of a real election here, riddled with scandals, dirty secrets, sell-outs, rampaging egos, and rancour, there are a couple of plays at the Citadel that, amazingly, are all about that.

Real life has muscled in on satire with “wild displays of who’s got to the power,” as Burns puts it. “Who’s going to lead? What do we decide to be horrified by? The influence of social media…. It’s fun to be in the theatre, and not know what’s coming.”

Have a peek at my interview with playwright Kat Sandler and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, co-directors of this madness, HERE.

REVIEW

The Party, The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

  .

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Slight of Mind: boarding now at the Citadel, flights into the unknown. A review

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Notes from the departure lounge:

We’ve been welcomed by a ground crew of beaming and perky flight attendants. We’ve been through security. Very professional. “Have you been on a farm?” No. “Have you consumed anything organic?” Well, there was that kale margarita flatbread. “Kale!? Step this way please….” Scanning wand, more questions: “Do you have a chicken on you?”

I’m flying with Icarus Air tonight, first time. And the flashing board in in the departures lounge (which, incidentally, looks quite a lot like the Citadel’s Shoctor lobby) gives some idea of Icarus’s global — no, galactic  — reach. TO London, VIA Stansted. TO Universe, VIA Milky Way.

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Welcome aboard. Smiling flight attendants will helpfully inform us of the “non-existent safety features of the aircraft… no emergency exits, no safety cards in the seat in front of you.…” 

Through departure gates all over the Citadel (except its theatres), Slight of Mind will take us on flights of fancy (on foot) into the great unknown. In Theatre Yes’s latest promenade production to pry theatre out of theatres (and into unexpected encounters with audiences), there are scenes in the secret niches, the corridors, corners, chambers and caverns, of the labyrinthine brick and glass playhouse downtown. Ah, and in locations in adjacent buildings that are in sight outside, through the glass walls.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

I’m not going to tell you where they are: disorientation and discovery is part of the experience, and the fun, of Slight of Mind. Suffice it to say that, with the exception of the odd public staircase, where one scene unexpectedly happens, you won’t have been there before. Unless you’re a Citadel employee, or a member of IATSE Local 210.

The award-winning playwright/actor Beth Graham (Pretty Goblins, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble) has written a play, directed by Theatre Yes’s Heather Inglis, that takes off through the starry sky, up up up and down down down. And its flight pattern — which is, in ways both literal and metaphorical, all about flight — takes us into three intertwined stories.

At the heart of Slight of Mind is the yearning to break free of our earthly bonds and take wing. And in addition to its iconic characters,  Graham’s script captures that aching desire in occasional lyrical outbursts of rhymed poetry.     

The poster boy for exhilaration and risk — borrowed for the occasion from Greek mythology for a moving little father-son drama — is Icarus (Philip Geller). He and his inventor dad Daedalus (Ian Leung) have beautifully written and compelling acted scenes together. And they’re staged with striking ingenuity by Inglis in locations that add exponentially to the life-and-death stakes. 

Daedalus, as you may recall, fashions his son a pair of wings from wax and feathers, with the warning not to fly too close to the sun or they would melt. Icarus famously is too dazzled to heed his dad; what teenage dreamer ever really does listen?

There are two other signature risk-takers in Slight of Mind. Amelia Earhart, the ground-breaking ground-leaving pilot, chalked up a cluster of firsts — first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, for one —   before her fateful flight of 1937. On a circumnavigation of the globe she disappeared. The mystery has never been resolved.

She is played, with gusto, by Melissa Thingelstad, as a brisk, amused, vivid woman who dispenses with objections (and dopey questions about her fame as “a girl pilot”) like they’re so much lint. “Why do you do it?” she’s asked by a media dimbulb. “Because I want to,” she declares. “Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying.” 

Valentina Tereshkova, in Lora Brovold’s striking portrait, is a fierce but oddly soulful, Russian who becomes the first woman in space. As she’s constantly reminded by party headquarters (Cole Humeny’s Krushchev), she’s been chosen by the party to score points in the space race with the Americans. We meet her again, later, in orbit, wonderstruck and potentially doomed, since there’s been a malfunction. 

The dreamer-in-progress we meet at the outset is Agnes (Ivy DeGagné) on her 10th birthday, the daughter of a flight attendant (Rebecca Merkley) and an airplane technician (Byron Martin). She dreams of flying, of being a pilot. And in the course of Slight of Mind, she will learn something unforgettable about the high stakes. That scene, in truth, suffers from a little from acoustical problems. 

The nine-member corps of flight attendants (most of them U of A theatre school grads) are highly amusing: identical blue airline power suits with jaunty caps, identical red lipstick and professional smiles, and that brisk official flight attendant gait. They usher passengers to and from assorted gaits, offering jokes and philosophical asides (“flying is always just a state of mind”), their smiles undimmed. 

The scenic design (by Daniela Masellis and Tessa Stamp) rises to the challenge of multiple spaces in inventive ways. And these are enhanced by contributions from costume designer Brian Bast, videographer Ian Jackson, and sound designer Gary James Joynes. Among the latter’s inspirations is a kind of spacey sound installation in a chamber that, as a flight attendant acknowledges brightly, is very small. “But that’s because it’s coach.”

It’s Amelia Earhart who declares that “there’s more to life than being a passenger.” And that’s something that an immersive theatre experiment like this one hints at it, too. I must admit I don’t quite get the title, though. Slight of Mind is by no means slight in the thoughts it offers about aspirations and risk-takers. 

Carry on, dreamers, into the wild blue yonder. And keep your carry-on to a minimum.

REVIEW

Slight Of Mind

Theatre: Theatre Yes in collaboration with the Citadel Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed and produced by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Lora Brovold, Ivy DeGagné, Philip Geller, Cole Humeny, Ian Leung, Byron Martin, Silverius Materi, Rebecca Merkley, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Meet at Citadel box office for instructions

Running: March 27 to April 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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“If I’m honest…”: 19 Weeks steps up to the wall of silence. A review.

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The woman we meet up close in 19 Weeks, folding laundry in a toy-strewn room, says “if I’m honest…” and “being honest …” and “in all honesty …” a lot. And then she looks right at us, hesitates, takes a breath, and forges ahead with her story. Honesty is her mantra. And honesty costs.

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If Emily (Vanessa Sabourin) seems to be bracing herself a little against resistance, you can understand why. For one thing she’s telling us — and in Sabourin’s compelling performance re-living — a traumatic experience that’s barely more than a year old; it still feels raw. And Sabourin, a gutsy actor, steps bravely up to raw.

For another thing, in sharing her story full-disclosure, Emily, the stand-in for the Brit-turned-Australian playwright Emily Steel, is up against a formidable wall of silence on the subject.

At age 38, 19 weeks pregnant, Emily has a late-term abortion. Many have had the experience; few talk about it. As she discovers in the course of this gut-wrencher of a solo show — the season-ender for Northern Light in collaboration with Azimuth Theatre — her baby has Down Syndrome. All along, as she reveals near the outset, the pregnancy hasn’t been the source of untrammelled delight. It’s more on the spectrum of “O God, what have we done?” and “not quite the same amazing miracle it was the first time.”

Emily introduces us to her partner Chris, a generous-minded and caring guy, and their two-year-old kid Frank. She tells us about her family, all “on the other side of the world,” and the heartbreak of an beloved uncle with a degenerative genetic disease (and the mother who sacrificed everything her life to take care of him). She’s continually, violently sick, to the point of being unable to work and barely able to take care of Frank.

19 Weeks, a title that speaks both to duration and to countdown, is propelled by stress. It’s full of tense phone calls for test results, and waiting for tense calls to be returned, then further tests, and more tense waiting for results. We do the waiting with her. And the tone, while emotionally fraught, has an unexpectedly  earthy, matter-of-fact quality, resistant to self-pity and sentimentalism. Even under duress — and she goes through the wringer — Sabourin’s Emily retains a certain sturdy core sense of self, of resolve, as she re-creates her own experience. 

The pressures of the world are tilted against Emily’s decision, and she acknowledges the gaze, the potential for disapproval and controversy. “Maybe if I was a real mother I would sacrifice everything. But I’m not that person. With perfect clarity, I know who I’m not.” But, as Sabourin conveys so eloquently, she’s baring her own story, and stepping up to the consequences; she’s not in the end trying to convince people to change their minds.

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

Which is something theatre does: expand your vision/compassion meter, let you meet a character, and see the world through their eyes.

Director/designer Trevor Schmidt deliberately doesn’t make it easy for Emily. The back wall of his beautiful design for the TransAlta Arts Barns’ Studio Theatre is dominated by opaque screens, slightly angled so light shines through the cracks (lighting design: Beth Dart). And the stage is dominated by a haunting painting (by Maria Pace Wynters). A grave, composed little girl in a red dress gazes directly out at us; a white bird of prey hovers over one shoulder. Under the circumstances you can’t help feel that she’s the “maybe,” the  “what if?” of a nerve-wracking story.

The little girl is still there, gazing out, when Emily muses, in the end, that “wondering isn’t the same thing as regret.” 

In stripe-y socks that speak to vulnerability, Sabourin pads around a lit, lived-in, colourfully child-friendly room, surrounded by blackness. In Schmidt’s production, a story much concerned with call-backs and medical technology dispenses with actual telephones or computers or ultra-sound monitors.

Liz Han’s clever original score punctuates its lyrical impulses with ominous buzzing at crucial moments as the tension escalates.  It’s just occurred to me, a couple of days after the opening, that the pre-show music includes Cole Porter’s “I’ve got you under my skin…” which has a witty morbid reverb in context.

The nightmare immediacy of the experience, with its punctuation marks of anger (“my life has value too!”) and desperation cedes to a kind of resolution in the arc of Sabourin’s performance. She leaves us with Emily reflecting on it, sadly but not with self-recrimination. And you realize, I think, that embedded all along in the calibrated anxiety and turmoil attached to the experience, is the core of Emily’s certainty. 

“And I know how certain that past-me was about how she felt and what she wanted,” she says. “And I have to trust her and believe her … because she made this-me possible.”

Everybody who watches 19 Weeks will react differently, but react you will. Discussion is open. Read 12thnight.ca’s INTERVIEW with playwright Emily Steel here.  

REVIEW

19 Weeks

Theatre: Northern Light, Azimuth

Written by: Emily Steel

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Vanessa Sabourin

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

Running: Friday through April 13

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door

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The season’s craziest logistics: Kat Sandler’s two new political comedies at the Citadel happen at the same time

The Party, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s beyond, (way beyond) coincidence that 4:05 minutes into two plays that both run on the same night, with the same cast, in two different theatres at the Citadel (starting tonight in preview), a scene begins that will last exactly 3:55 minutes.

Kat Sandler flips open her laptop to scroll through a chart, “one of many” she says, a spreadsheet dauntingly crammed with minute calibrations on a double-timeline. It looks like something an astrophysicist or a cardio-vascular surgeon might have on hand. But in a theatre? From a playwright?

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The Party and The Candidate, are the self-contained but interconnected new full-length comedies she’s created especially for the Rice, at 150 seats the Citadel’s smallest house, and the 700-seat Maclab. And since, in an apotheosis of lunatic logistics, the same 10 actors are playing in both, simultaneously, “the running times have to match,” she says.   

When Sandler says “running” she’s not kidding. The Citadel is big and spread-out. Getting from the Maclab, on the lower floor of the Lee Pavilion, to the Rice (formerly the Club formerly the Rice), scene by scene, is a matter of running up two punishing floors of cement stairs. Then shooting across the public lobby space in front of the Second Cup hoping no one gets in your way and you have your pants on. Then taking the hallways behind the Ziedler and down, as Sandler’s co-director (and Citadel artistic director) Daryl Cloran explains. “There is no secret underground tunnel.”

Hey, no problem. If you have the fitness level of Roger Federer.

Luc Tellier, the youngest member of the cast, is the current record-holder at 45 seconds (without costume changes). The average, says Sandler, is 1 minute 10 seconds, down from 1 minute 20. “People are already fitter…. Daryl and I try to always take the stairs. In solidarity….”

This state of galloping theatrical hyperactivity can be traced back to Cloran. “What we have here is a lot of spaces,” he grins. “We’re at our best when we’re full of different things happening.” 

He got intrigued by reading Alan Ayckbourn’s 1999 House and Garden, where the same actors run between interconnected plays in next-door theatres. He offered Toronto’s Sandler, one of the country’s hottest younger generation playwrights, an option. She laughs. “Either adapt a Restoration comedy or … do this crazy two-play thing. And I was, like, let’s do the crazy thing, it sounds like fun. And easier than adapting something! And … it wasn’t!” Cloran shrugs comically.

Playwright Kat Sandler. Photo supplied.

“I wanted the plays to be in the world of politics,” says Sandler. “And politics lends itself really well to farce!” No one who has even a passing acquaintance with the news will be inclined to argue.

“We knew we wanted them to be big broad fast-paced comedies, with larger-than-life characters, comic archetypes, outlandish scenarios, high stakes, accessible, ripped from the headlines…. You really can’t make up the stuff happening in politics right now.”

Sandler’s muse is comic. And farce sits well with her, as you might guess if you caught Punch Up, her (very) dark comedy about comedy, at last summer’s Fringe. It’s the only one of her plays to be produced here — till now, and “here I am, you guys double-dosed me.” She says “I have roots in old-time-y comedy. My dad had me listen to a lot of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. That’s what what my comedy sensibility is, dark, fun, fast, a lot of patter jokes, ‘who’s on first?’”

Says Cloran, “when Kat decided on the ‘crazy two-play idea’, we toured all the theatre spaces at the Citadel” (running between venues, stopwatches in hand). What appealed to her most were the Maclab and the Rice. “For one thing, she says, “they were the most different. The Rice feels immersive and exclusive; the Maclab is so much bigger, and more open.” Her two comedies are specifically tailored for the spaces they occupy.

“Certainly they’re linked thematically and by story, but the atmosphere and tone are very different,” says Cloran. The Party, which happens first, chronologically, is a birthday party fund-raiser in which two political rivals, vying to be the party’s candidate, are both courting a powerful sponsor. One (Martha Burns) is a career politico, a Hillary-esque figure in a pantsuit trailing the old scandal of a cheating husband. The other is a glossy but not-too-gifted up-and-comer (Jesse Lipscombe), an ex-movie star with a drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison).

The Party happens in the Rice, with “the actors all around you, maybe sitting at your table,” says Cloran. “You’re in the middle of it. You’re at the party!” In the Maclab,The Candidate takes place nine months later, on the eve of the election, and has to do with containing a scandal whose seeds have been planted at the fateful party. “It’s much more a door-slamming farce.” Sandler grins at Cloran. “I’ve never had this many doors! Thank you for all the doors!” Both plays, she summarizes,  have a lot of classic comedy hallmarks — “secrets, hiding, lewd humour, twins. But one is more immersive, and one has doors!”

With its big thrust stage, the Maclab “looks like the kind of space where a presidential debate could happen,” says Sandler. “I envisaged two people at podiums.” So in The Candidate, the audience isn’t just watching the play they’re the audience in the story too, part of the experience, the 11th character, with a role to play.”

Cloran is tickled by the meta-theatrical jokiness of it all. “We have the classic twin gag (Glenn Nelson whips a funny moustache on and off, as required). But if you think about it, the plays themselves are a twin gag.… We’ve created moments when we tip our hand to the audience. And that’s been really fun.” In one scene, for example, a character says “I’m so tired; I feel like I’ve been running up and down for the last two hours.”

“Theoretically, you could come see the farce and have no idea the actors are running between theatres the whole time…. Kat has written a breathless farce. And the characters are going to be breathless!” 

Sandler does think there are “big issues and big themes” at play: “scandal, #MeToo, ideas about sexuality, the sacrifices we make for power, social media, a melting pot of stuff…. But it’s exciting to explore them in a way that doesn’t take them too seriously.” She calls it “dark comedy with lightness,” a Sandler signature.

“I take shots at politics, celebrity, Hollywood. I love making fun of showbiz. And politics are showbiz now, too. We’re asking people to think about story a new way.… What I really wanted to explore was cause and effect. In The Party you see wheels set in motion. In The Candidate you see how choices play out in the future.”

“Kat’s been so clever,” says Cloran. “Each play has lot of jokes. Sometimes the set-up is in one play and the punchline’s in the other….” While you can see just one and be happy, “you get a lot of extras when you see both!”

So how on earth does a playwright wrestle down the season’s craziest logistics? “I should have written one play first and then written the other one around it. But I kind of wrote them both at the same time!” declares Sandler, who’s bright and funny, and talks really fast as if she might actually be in a high-speed farce herself.

Under the circumstances there’s no such thing as a simple rewrite. A revision in one play demands a precisely corresponding change in the other, “down to the second.” Every run-through is a time-trial. Q: How many stage managers does it take to run The Party and The Candidate? A: Five, each armed with a stop-watch. “And the stop-watches never quite agree. It’s weird,” says Sandler.

“We’re asking so much of the actors,” she says of the emotional and mental aerobics” that go with the physical work-out. “We’re asking them to run a lot for two hours, back and forth in space and also on two different timelines,” says Cloran. For every character, an exit from one play is an entrance into another, months in the future or the past.

Sandler laughs. “It’s a really twisted version of Scrooge and the ghosts. With more sex jokes.”

PREVIEW

The Party, The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

   

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