An ensemble devoted to expanding the comedy spectrum: Teatro at 40, the birthday season continues

Gianna Vacirca, Evelyn Strange, Teatro La Quindicina. Image supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Teatro La Quindicina at 40. An artist-run company specially tuned to comedy, with co-artistic directors who both made their Teatro debuts as actors: same season (2005-2006), different plays, roles written specially for them by playwright/Teatro muse Stewart Lemoine.

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Seventeen years later Belinda Cornish and Andrew MacDonald-Smith have chosen a live 40th anniversary Teatro season of four high-contrast Lemoine comedies — all of them revivals, each revealing another facet of the company’s unusual temperament,  aesthetic, modus operandi, and devotion to expanding the “comedy” spectrum. They themselves are part of that unique history of originals. 

Cornish and MacDonald-Smith are thinking about that in the lead-up to the second production of the Teatro season, Evelyn Strange, opening next week at the Varscona in a production directed by ensemble member Shannon Blanchet. 

Cornish’s introduction to Teatro was Lemoine’s first-ever farce, A Grand Time in the Rapids, in 2006, “the same year I became a Canadian citizen!” she says. The role Lemoine created for the London-born actor/playwright/director in his four-door three-actor farce was a Brit mystery widow who hailed (as the character told us brightly) “from a ludicrous and unappealing part of England.” Thalia Cumberland enlists the advice of an etiquette expert to assist with any awkwardness attached to having a suitor. 

Farren Timoteo, A Grand Time in the Rapids, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo suppkied.

“A classic farce!” declares Cornish, who will direct this birthday season’s revival July 8 to 24, starring MacDonald-Smith, Kristen Padayas and Farren Timoteo. Doors slam, towels drop, “yes, unconscious people are dragged through doorways.… It’s every classic farce trope through a Lemoine lens.”

Cornish recalls the memorable night during the debut 2006 run that the towel fell off altogether and actor Jeff Haslam “left the stage very fast wearing nothing but a very small tea towel.” This hasty exit was “so agonizingly funny that the Ron (Ron Pederson in the role of an etiquette expert) “put his whole face in the ice bucket.”

MacDonald-Smith’s Teatro debut wasn’t quite as convulsive but was equally memorable. It came in the 2006 premiere run of The Salon of the Talking Turk, a curious Lemoine comedy in which an automaton, a life-sized fortune-telling mechanical, enters the world of 20s New York high society. Since the part of Wally Peverell, a breezy over-achieving orphan, was written specially for him, “I was so flattered; I couldn’t wait to see what what kind of character Stewart Lemoine read me as.” 

He laughs. “It turned out I was someone who’s basically good at putting things from IKEA together .… Which is so absolutely true! I love putting IKEA furniture together. And I’m very good at it.”

MacDonald-Smith has used the name as his alias ever since; “Wally Peverell is my favourite name, my game tag online….” 

MacDonald, a recent MacEwan grad at the time, had just returned from a never-ending tour of Jack and the Beanstalk with classmate Farren Timoteo. They dreamed of working for Teatro. “We felt a specific kindred spirit with the shows and how Stewart never did the expected.”

He and Cornish have put together a season of Lemoine comedies to prove the point. Since the Teatro archive is fulsome — at least 75 comedies since that first Lemoine, All These Heels, at the first Fringe in 1982 — how did they choose? “What went into deciding the shows wasn’t chronology,” says MacDonald-Smith, currently appearing in 9 to 5 at the Citadel. “It was more based on the over-arching history of Teatro; ’what are the values Teatro has had over the years?’”

Their season opener was an unclassifiable oddball of a comedy, Caribbean Muskrat — a 2004 collaboration between the resident playwright and Josh Dean, a member of the young Teatro acting company at the time. “Collaboration, mentoring first-time and early stage playwrights … that’s part of Teatro history,” says MacDonald-Smith. 

Like Cornish, whose own plays (Thrubwell’s Pies, Diamond Dog) have premiered in Teatro seasons, MacDonald-Smith himself has been a beneficiary of that ensemble spirit; He’s the co-writer (with fellow Teatro star Jocelyn Ahlf) of the musical Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s with fellow (music by Ryan Sigurdson, lyrics by Timoteo), that was slated for revival at the moment the pandemic hit. 

“Teatro,” says Cornish, ‘has always been an ensemble, onstage and off-.” And their skill sets are constantly expanding. Company  member Blanchet, for example, who played the title role herself in a 2006 revival, makes her directing debut with Evelyn Strange. Rachel Bowron, another Teatro leading lady, is designing costumes for A Grand Time in the Rapids. Cornish, who has designed and painted Teatro sets occasionally, is directing the season’s farce, and acting in Evelyn Strange. MacDonald-Smith, who has stage managed Teatro shows in his time, and co-written one, is acting in A Grand Time In The Rapids. The co-artistic directors are learning theatre administration on the job.   

Evelyn Strange (May 27 to June 12), is a distinctive “mystery/comedy/thriller” of the Hitchcockian persuasion, set in ‘50s New York. Blanchet’s production stars Gianna Vacirca as the beautiful amnesiac who finds an opera ticket in her pocket. The cast includes Cornish, Oscar Derkx, and Jesse Gervais.

Evelyn Strange shows off the company’s affinity for the cadence, style and look of the ‘30s to ‘50s era. It’s a particular favourite of resident costume designer Leona Brausen, whose Teatro history goes back to Teatro’s origins and includes many appearances onstage. “There I was, this 6’4” kid who’d never had someone look at me and tell me exactly the size of suit I would wear in the ‘40s,” MacDonald-Smith laughs.  

Mathew Hulshof, The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied

As often happens in Lemoine plays, important moments in life are attached to music. In Evelyn Strange, it’s Wagner’s Siegfried (the eponymous heroine finds herself in a box at the Metropolitan Opera). In The Margin of the Sky, Teatro’s Fringe offering (Aug. 13 to 28), it’s Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder that plays “an actively dramatic part” in the play. “Stewart wrote the dialogue to match the emotional licks of the music,” says MacDonald-Smith. “He writes with the sound design in mind.” 

And speaking as we are of the festival at which Teatro was born, Cornish and MacDonald-Smith felt it was important to end the anniversary season at the Fringe where the company began 40 summers ago. Besides, The Margin of the Sky,  which hasn’t been seen since its 2003 premiere, is all about inspiration, and the act of creation. And that’s something that has driven Teatro for four decades, 


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Sexual assault in the world of Friend or Unfriend: Tell Us What Happened at Workshop West. A review.

Michelle Diaz, Matt Dejanovic, Bonnie Ings, Gabby Bernard (above), Jameela McNeil in Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

In Michelle Robb’s tense new play, premiering at Workshop West in Heather Inglis’s production, young characters slam up hard against complicated questions — at contradictory angles.

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But here’s the rub: they live in a world that trashes complication, social media either-or’s, For or Against, Follow or Unfollow, Friend or Unfriend, Like or Delete.  

True, these roommates share a real-life apartment, with a real door, a real fridge, a real couch, Red Bull, junk food (designer: Brian Bast). And the play and Inglis’s production convincingly and at length set up a collegiate domestic scene in all its jostling dynamic, interruptions, cross-hatched exchanges, running teases. So, yes, there is a “real” world. But it’s just a landing pad for occasional use. 

Clutching their cellphones, the characters ricochet through a twinkling galaxy of keyboard symbols and happy, sad and heart emojis (designer: Ian Jackson). And their soundtrack (designer Kiidra Duhault) is the ubiquitous percussion of computer clicks and pings.  

Charlie (Bonnie Ings) and her roommates run a private Facebook group called Tell Us What Happened with 438 members and a worthy goal: to provide an online “safe space” where members can share their stories and be listened, believed unconditionally, supported.

Robb, who wrote the play at age 20 (she’s now 25), puts the idea of the internet as a “safe space” up for perusal, and finds that it explodes on contact. The only narrative arc in social media is escalation. There’s no such thing as a throwaway line or self-exploration; every impulsive reaction is written in indelible ink, and spreads. The same thought powers the musical Dear Evan Hansen, as the title teenage protagonist discovers, to his sorrow. 

And as for the internet as an instrument of justice, Robb’s play wonders about that, too. Which is brave, because the issue at hand couldn’t be more horrifying: sexual assault. 

Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo supplied

When their friend Leah (Jameela McNeil), a 17-year-old university student, posts to the group that she’s been sexually assaulted after a drunken party, others report similar experiences … with the same young man. It’s prime Tell Us What Happened FB territory, and the roommates prepare to step up on behalf of the victim, in ways they’ve mandated. But the terrible fracturing discovery that the serial transgressor is Josh (Matt Dejanovic), an amiable pal to all and Charlie’s best friend, puts the group into crisis mode.

For Charlie, torn between the competing calls of social conscience and friendship, it’s a nightmare. Not least because the FB group was her idea and Josh was the stand-up friend who came to her rescue when she herself was sexually brutalized as a young teenager. 

Of Charlie’s two roommates, Zoey (Michelle Diaz), Leah’s cousin, is the fiery enforcer of “group protocol,” who has no inside voice and is one of those rare people who probably shouldn’t give up smoking. She knows no such ambivalence, countenances no nuanced response. When Charlie struggles, Zoey is remorseless. “Good things don’t count if a bad person did them,” she says definitively. When Leah expresses uncertainties about what happened to her, Zoey pushes her through them towards a public interface, on the grounds that “the system must change” and “it’s our time to win.”  

Piper (the appealing Gabby Bernard), who has taken refuge from heartbreak in art, is more obliquely involved, there to be enlisted as an ally. As stress is upped, she begins to lose her grip; she’s collateral damage on shaky legs. 

Meanwhile, “a storm of sad emojis” rages through social media, gathering force. And the stress fractures widen, dividing a household and a community of friends, upping the stakes. It’s a tense evening of questions and mounting dread: by the end I found I’d been clutching my reading glasses so hard in one hand I’d bent them out of shape.

In wondering about justice, and what that might mean in the forum of instant judgment where musing can’t happen. Tell Us What Happened does treat Leah seriously. How could it not? As McNeil’s performance conveys, she has been traumatized, changed by the experience of sexual assault. Unusually, though, this is a play that’s not really about the victim. It’s about the consequences of sexual assault on other people, and the pursuit of justice, or even some sort of emotional reckoning, in the time of social media.

It takes time, two intermission-less hours, but seems to need its hammering duration to build to a gut-wrenching finale. In a repertoire of foregone conclusions, this new play is impressively fearless.


Tell Us What Happened

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Michelle Robb

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Gabby Bernard, Matt Dejanovic, Michelle Diaz, Bonnie Ings, Jameela McNeil

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8429 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through May 22



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Revenge, cartoon-style: 9 to 5 the musical at the Citadel, a review

Patricia Zentilli, Julia McLellan, Sharon Crandall in 9 to 5, Citadel Theatre. Photos by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls,

Joy to the girls. The vintage revenge fantasy now charging around the office on the Citadel’s Maclab stage — propelled by Dolly Parton songs and a perennial point about exploitation of women in the work place — doesn’t mess around with subtlety. 

Nope. In 9 to 5 the musical three women office workers have had it up to here with their tyrannical, leering lying lech of a boss who’s never seen a skirt he didn’t want to look up and a dress he didn’t want to look down. They band together to take him down by trussing him up. And, hell’s bells, you go girl, they actually do.

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A 2008 stage re-creation of the 1980 movie lodged in your memory (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Parton herself), 9 to 5 is pretty clunky and obvious as musicals go, too clunky to be slick. Which is probably all to the good, as the big go-for-the-gusto cheeriness of Rachel Peake’s production demonstrates.  

It’s unapologetically unencumbered by taste, unafraid of the wink, the open-mouthed gasp, the exit wiggle of a plaid-clad male butt. And maybe that’s the smart way to do a cartoon comedy onstage — by cartooning it. A cartoon of a cartoon is a viable choice at least: half-measures would probably just be queasy (and take longer).

A top-drawer cast of likeable singer-actors don’t just buy in, they commit gamely to individualizing the typing pool, and to outsized cartoon performances (go big or go work at home, right?). The production lets them have their musical moments (backed up by Janie Flower’s expert all-female musical forces). And they all know how to sell a song, a considerable plus even if that sell sometimes seems a little hard given the flimsiness of the material. 

You could argue that’s the point of revenge fantasies anyhow: since life is short, who could be bothered to have a subtle, nuanced revenge fantasy? And besides, the image of Dolly Parton, who seems on the public stage to be a fusion of business savvy and appealingly straight-forward self-assessment — as in Parton’s famous quip that “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap” — hovers over the proceedings.  

How much fun you’ll have at 9 to 5, through more than two hours, depends to some extent on your enjoyment of mouldy sight gags, panto-style throw-away groaners and double-entendres, and a plot line where the taking down and stringing up of the evil boss is an actual stage demo. This is a show, pretty much subtext-free, that is presumptuous enough to make a punchline out of “I swear, if you say another word about me, I’ll get that gun of mine and I’ll change you from a rooster and a hen in one shot!” — and, as delivered by the backwoods bombshell Doralee (the show’s Dolly Parton figure) fully expects audience laughter. And gets it, I’m here to report back from opening night. 

9 to 5 The Musical, Citadel Theatre, photo by Nanc Price.

Playwright Patricia Resnick (who also wrote the screenplay) sets 9 to 5 in 1979. But, hey, anyone who thinks that equal pay for equal work, job-sharing, flexible hours, in-house daycare are by now universal givens in the work world must live off a trust fund. Besides, the ‘70s visuals of Peake’s production make vintage genuinely amusing. Dana Osborne’s set is a kind of set is a kind of era jukebox cum bandshell, two-level as befits an oeuvre about office hierarchy. The secretarial pool is at floor level, natch, and in a jokey touch they even have to sit-walk their own desks on and offstage.

Osborn’s costumes are a riot of mis-matched plaids, icky sweater vests, the shacking up of harvest gold and maroon with pukey shades of green. Hip to the plot, the colours of the office step up to a brighter palette in Act II once Franklin Hart, the CEO of Consolidated, has had his sexist privileges, er, suspended. And they always involve a blast of pink top to toe when it comes to Doralee, as you will have anticipated.

Sharon Crandall, Patricia Zentilli, Julia McLellan in 9 to 5, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

To take your mind off the history of polyester for a sec, after the caffeinated 9 to 5 opening sequence the show gathers together a series of showbiz tropes. Some are fantasy reversals of classic musical theatre production numbers like the Western, the film noir, the fairy tale, reinvented with men in the bum-wiggling ensemble and women kicking those bums.  It’s occasioned by the time-honoured (lame) device of women getting stoned together to bond. It’s tit for tat — hmm, pretty much literally, with the tat being plaid pants on male derrières.

Sharon Crandall in 9 to 5, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

As the aggrieved office manager and single-mother Violet, who’s been overlooked for promotion countless times due to her competence, Sharon Crandall is excellent. It’s not exactly Cole Porter, but she does get to rhyme ‘high-class’ and ‘kiss ass’. And equally fine are performances from her co-conspirators. As the sassy blonde firecracker Doralee, Julia McLellan captures the bright Dolly cadences in speech and song (Backwoods Barbie is hers to claim). And as the office newcomer with self-esteem issues, Patricia Zentilli smartly charts the confidence-building arc that starts at zero and leads to Get Out And Stay Out, addressed to her smarmy ex-husband. It’s an anthem to reclaiming a life wherein she can be perfectly happy, as she notes, “without Dick.” Zentilli really nails it.  

As the irredeemably despicable misogynist boss, Juan Chioran steps vigorously up to villainous awfulness, no holds barred. He’s the setup and he doesn’t shirk his histrionic duty, whether in pratfalls or torchy numbers (choreography: Julie Tomaino).  

The smaller roles, not all of which are well-written, are well occupied nonetheless. The show’s repository of sincerity and understatement is Joe (Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the sweet junior accountant who delivers a Parton ballad about taking a chance on love, to plead his case with Violet.

The funniest performance of the evening belongs to Kristin Johnston as Mr. Hart’s sour-faced gorgon of an assistant who’s sweet on the boss. I laughed out loud in the scene she re-invents for comic purposes, the classic trope of the drab bun-headed scowler who takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, leaps onto the boss’s desk and, voilà, an improbable wild-eyed siren is born. 

 It’s surprising in a way that the rest of the evening just isn’t. But then, sometimes revenge is its own showbiz sustenance: you can play with it, you can dress it up and accessorize, you can sing about it (if you have a cast with chops). You can boo the villain, cheer the heroines, savour the taste of a worthy message. It’s not a great musical by any means. But sometimes it’s enough.


9 to 5

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Patricia Resnick (book) and Dolly Parton (music and lyrics)

Starring: Julia McLellan, Sharon Crandall, Patricia Zentilli, Kristin Johnston, Juan Chioran, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeremy Carver-James

Running: through May 29

Tickets: 780-425-1820,






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‘It’s no o’clock’: Bloomsday at Shadow Theatre, a review

Alexandra Dawkins and Chris Pereira (front), Coralie Cairns and John Sproule (rear), Bloomsday, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

A rosy glow suffuses the Varscona stage (designer: Even Gilchrist):  it’s either dawn or dusk, nearly day or nearly night, in a Dublin that’s both real and literary. And the sound (designer: Dave Clarke) is a double-proposition, too: oldie-timie Irish cut with modern edges.

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As one of the four characters in Bloomsday says, “it’s no o’clock.” Those indelible moments in life that are time-less, that stop time in a past that never quite recedes and a present that never quite moves on, is at the heart of the (very) intricately wrought time-looping 2015 play by the American writer Steven Dietz. 

[As a counter-argument, Shadow Theatre’s production is back (through Sunday) after its week’s pause for COVID that, luckily, didn’t stop time. And I’m coming very late to it.] 

Anyhow, the production, directed by John Hudson, returns with gusto. It opens with a blast of intensity (and volume) that nearly topple the early scenes, in which a pompously irascible American literary prof of middle years returns to Dublin after 35 years. He’s in search of a woman he’d met by chance, fallen for, and lost, 35 years before — and his own callow 20 year-old self. 

It was on a walking tour of James Joyce hotspots. Caithleen (Alexandra Dawkins) had been the guide, leading visitors on one of those Bloomsday walk-abouts that follow the ramblings through the city of Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Joyce’s dauntingly complicated (and famously unread) novel Ulysses, “his doorstop of an opus” as Robert (John Sproule) puts it. And Robbie (Chris Pereira) had been enlisted for the tour by the random chance that he was there, looking at a map, when Caithleen needed to boost her tour number to 14.  

Bloomsday, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

The play is a virtuoso series of duets, trios and quartets, some of them addressed to the other characters onstage, and some of them to the audience as you come to realize, and some of them both (I think, it’s confusing). Bloomsday gives Robert and Cait (Coralie Cairns) the chance to meet up with their younger selves, Robbie and Caithleen, and re-visit and re-assess the might-have-been moment, full of possibility and frozen in time lo these many years.

The play’s dramatic infrastructure is almost too abstract and intricate to be poignant; it’s more analytical than that. And complications about choice and fate are further complicated when we learn that Caithleen can foretell the future, a dark and death-centric view of life (the cliché would be that it’s Irish) that unnerves the young man she meets. Cait, her older self, who thinks of time as “a jumble,” says that “every woman knows the future if she’s got the nerve to look.” And she can’t help having the nerve. 

It’s for the actors to inhabit this elaborate set-up with flesh-and-blood characters. And they do. In Hudson’s production Dawkins and Pereira play off each other in a way that charms with its youthful chemistry. Caithleen, in Dawkins’ performance, is an impulsive, quick-witted original. And Robbie scrambles to catch up, his reactions convincingly delayed in Pereira’s amusingly timed and judged performance.

As Sproule conveys in a performance full of regret turned sour, Robert is sadder, wiser, more pissed off. He’s scathing in his criticism of his younger self, and the self he’s taken into a future he’s found wanting. As played by Cairns, Cait is the play’s most mysterious character, a gentler, more amused, less judgmental character than young Caithleen. She seems to have turned the terrible gift of prophecy into a sense of inevitability, maybe even absurdity.  

You can go back to a place, but Bloomsday wants to know if you can go back to a time. Can you pick up where you left off? Can you unlock a moment? Do you only get one chance to land the love of your life? That, my friends, is the story. And you don’t have to read Ulysses to find out.



Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Steven Dietz

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Coralie Cairns, John Sproule, Alexandra Dawkins, Chris Pereira

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Sunday




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Lighting the Bonfire: Rapid Fire’s wildest festival is back, and it’s live

Bonfire Festival, Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

For two years, the members of the Rapid Fire Theatre ensemble have been storing up their wildest, coolest, most ridiculously challenging new ideas in improv. And that, my friends, is a lot of pent-up crazy.

RFT’s Bonfire Festival, a conflagration of “wouldn’t it be fun if…” experiments in long-form improv, all of them new, is back Thursday, for a short and intense three-day and night edition at the Backstage Theatre. And for the first time since 2019 the festivities are live.

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“It’s a pretty special occasion,” says artistic director Matt Schuurman, for whom ‘never-attempted-before’ is an ultimate incitement and not a caution. True, for two years Rapid Fire, at a youthful 41 years and counting, has been a veritable poster child for online adaptability. But for a theatrical specialty that’s all about exchange — performing with, and among, an audience — the return to live is momentous. “We can’t wait! We’re so excited!”

The improv festival that has sprouted such virtuoso hits as TEDxRFT, Probotics, Folk Lordz — is back with 11 improv ideas pitched and curated by ensemble members. Revealingly, many of them were inspired by theatre and film. And, as made up on the spot, all of them are on the spectrum between improbable (Screwball!) and manifestly lunatic (World Record). The Schuurman mantra? “If it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be fun.”

Thursday’s opening night, for example, leads with The Play I Wrote. As Schuurman describes, it’s the brainchild of Nathalie Feehan. “One of our performers writes a script (spun from audience cues solicited online). And a cast of four or five find out who they’re playing, and in what, on the night!” In Act II, Edgar Allen Prov, devised by Breck Wiltshire, six improvisers undertake to make up a tale or two by the horror meister, ones he evidently forgot to write.

The intricate challenges of screwball comedy have deterred many a playwright before now. As Schuurman points out, not only is this “precursor to the romantic comedy” built on narrative complications, but “witty wordplay and gender dynamics” are everywhere in a form that had a golden age in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In Screwball!, Friday night’s opener, as thought up by Paul Blinov and Kelly Turner, you’ll see one created from audience cues on the spot. 

Bottle Episode, says Schuurman of the initiative of Dill Prusko, is inspired by sitcoms,” and more specifically, episodes of Community, an NBC comedy about friends at a community college. “The idea is characters are confined to a single space, and the narrative plays out in real time…. We’re leaning into relationships and dynamics.”

The improv idea with the maximum anarchy potential belongs to ensemble member Joe Vanderhelm. World Record is “pure chaos,” declares Schuurman happily. “Absolutely unhinged.” Our goal, he says, “is to set the world record for the most suggestions taken and incorporated into a single scene…. Of course, we don’t know what the record is that we’re actually trying to break,” or even whether there is one. The suggestions keep coming as the scene plays out. Guinness has not been notified. “100 should do it,” thinks Schuurman. 

In It’s A Mystery Show!, an idea from Susan Evans inspired by the Netflix improv-based series Murderville, “the premise is a detective trying to solve a murder,” says Schuurman. “The cast will have a murder plot they’re in on. And one performer, coming in completely cold, has to solve it.”

In a celebration of live, this year’s Bonfire even has a site-specific show, out of the theatre and into the world, Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. Concocted Jane’s Walk, named for urban planner/philosopher Jane Jacobs, is a walking tour through the Queen Alexandra neighbourhood (106th St. south of Whyte Avenue), led by “tour guides who are making up everything on the spot.” 

In this, Schuurman muses appreciatively on the idea of “false narratives” in a real hood, thinking of (Todd Babiak’s) The Garneau Block and the “improvised ghost tours, totally fake” that proved a hit several Fringes ago. Concocted Jane’s Walk is a meeting of minds between site-specific theatre expert (and Found Festival co-founder) Andrew Ritchie of Thou Art Here Theatre, with Christina Harbak (“a master composter recycler” and educator) and Stephen Raitz, whose offstage career is in urban planning.

In Act I of Saturday night’s innovations, a cast of six undertakes Die Noired, an idea from Matt Kusmire. It pairs two high-contrast styles, buddy cop movies of the ‘80s and film noir. What will happen? No one knows … yet. 

Moot Courtroom, ensemble member Sarah Ormandy, who’s currently studying law, the cast improvises a court case according to the outlines of a classic law student exercise. 

The late-night Bonfire finale Saturday at 11 p.m. is a double-header. Lyrical Song & Dance, LSD for short, brings to life, in a poetic, lyrical, and trippy way, the inner life of an inanimate object. “It gets unhinged very quickly,” predicts Schuurman, “when you go deep into the psyche of a water bottle.” 

Avatar 2 is “an absolutely ridiculous idea,” Schuurman says cheerfully. “The sequel was delayed again and again, and the trailer just came out this week. So the timing is perfect!.” The premise of Michael Johnson’s concept is is that since Avatar has mined the Pocahontas story rather fully in its exploration of a world in space, it’s time for another classic story. Ah, enter the audience.

Johnson and his cast of six came to Schuurman this week with an inquiry about blue body paint. It’s a hint of the festival to come.


Bonfire Festival 2022

Theatre: Rapid Fire

Running: Thursday to Saturday, full schedule of shows

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



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Taking down the boss: 9 to 5 the musical at the Citadel, a preview

Sharon Crandall, Patricia Zentilli, Julia McLellan in 9 to 5, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight. ca

Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living…. 

“It’s joyful, it’s funny, it’s absolutely a revenge story!” says director Rachel Peake of the musical comedy that opens this week at the Citadel, after a week’s COVID-ian delay.

“And at the same time 9 to 5 looks at important issues about what it means to be a working woman, a working mother … and the challenges of the glass ceiling and the old boys’ club.” 

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The 2008 musical based on the hit 1980 movie (starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton), three office workies, fed up past the point of no return by their autocratic, sexist lech of a boss, dream of revenge and together hatch a plot to take him down. Things go wrong and (no spoiler here) things go right, in gratifying ways.  

The film was born from an activist impulse. Explains Peake, the associate artistic director of Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre (last here to direct The Garneau Block and Hiraeth), it was inspired “by a coalition of office workers in the ‘70s, bonding to apply the strength-in-numbers concept (on behalf of) women working in offices, to improve working conditions. And Jane Fonda the activist was involved…. It was ‘let’s make a movie that will help the cause. And let’s make it a comedy so people will want to see it!’” 

The songs are all Dolly Parton, some written especially for the stage version, set in 1979, that arrived on Broadway in 2009. And like their appealing creator, a COVID hero, they have a diverse cross-genre bounce to them. Country, yes, but Parton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past week, over-ruling her own objections that she wasn’t really a rock star. 

But 9 to 5, says Peake, “is absolutely a musical theatre piece…. lots of up-tempo songs, catchy like 9 to 5, but also beautiful ballads, and a couple of really strong power songs,” like Get Out And Stay Out that Judy (Fonda in the film, Patricia Zentilli in the Citadel production) delivers in Act II.  Janice Flower leads the musical forces, with a five-piece rock band.

“She says she doesn’t engage in politics, which isn’t completely true,” says Peake, musing on Parton’s diverse evergreen appeal. “But it means she avoids certain conversations on hot-button topics” that would align her with one camp or another in a ferociously partisan America. “She side-steps, usually with a joke. And that keeps everyone open as a possible fan…. She doesn’t shut anyone out.”  She has country music fans, she has Christian music fans, she has a large queer following. “Everyone feels she’s approachable; she’s unpolarizing.” 

Juan Chioran and Julia McLellan, 9 to 5, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.,

As Doralee, Parton’s stand-in in 9 to 5 (Julia McLellan in Peake’s production), sings in Backwoods Barbie, “don’t judge me by the cover ‘cause I’m a real good book.” It comes from the archive of Parton witticisms that includes such memorable observations as this: “although I look like a drag queen’s Christmas tree on the outside, I am at at heart a simple country girl.”  Or “I’m not offended by the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. And I’m not blonde either.”

There’s still a conversation to be had about working conditions for women. As Peake says, “the statistics are pretty intense. Globally, one in 17 CEOs are women; in Canada women make 87 cents on the dollar (made by men).”

But in 9 to 5, “it’s done with such love.” The heroes of 9 to 5 are women, to be sure. “But there are so many great parts for the guys, too — a villain yes, but allies too. By no means is it anti-man,” Peake laughs. “It’s anti-a certain kind of man!”



9 to 5

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Patricia Resnick (book) and Dolly Parton (music and lyrics)

Starring: Julia McLellan, Sharon Crandall, Patricia Zentilli, Kristin Johnston, Juan Chioran, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeremy Carver-James

Running: through May 29

Tickets: 780-425-1820,


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Tell Us What Happened: sexual assault and social media, in Michelle Robb’s new play at Workshop West

Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

The new play that premieres Thursday in Heather Inglis’s Workshop West production invites us into a circle of young female friends who find themselves in crisis in the fraught border country between social media and the “real” world.

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But the origins of Tell Us What Happened “weren’t political at all,” laughs Michelle Robb,  thoughtful and quick in conversation, of this, her first professionally produced play. “I wanted to write a play that would be really fun for young women to perform,” she says simply. “I wanted to write young female characters who were kinda wild, who were very smart, who had lots to say. I wanted to write female friendships in a play where they were going to eat things, throw things, shout things.”

And she did. “I put some girls in a house together… Something would go wrong. What would destroy their world?”

playwright Michelle Robb, Tell Us What Happened. Photo supplied.

That’s when Robb, a recent graduate of the U of A acting program, “started exploring my conflicting feelings about sexual assault and how it affects a community, and friendships…. It’s part of the struggle we’re living with right now.” 

Charlie and her roommates run Tell Us What Happened, a Facebook group with 400 followers. “And they take it very seriously,” says Robb. Motivated by “feeling failed by the systems available to them,” and the desire to do something, they’ve made “a space where people can be heard and listened to and find support within their community.” It’s a space with its own policies, promises, ‘rules’, “which come back to bite them,” as Robb puts it.

When one of the FB group posts that she’s been sexually assaulted, others report online similar experiences — with the same young man. Then comes the shattering, complicated discovery that the assailant in question is Charlie’s good friend. 

That complexity is woven into Robb’s play. Our collective goal, after all, as she says, is a culture “where survivors of sexual assault can come forward and disclose what happened to them. And we’re moving towards better systems … to help them heal.” But “if we have more women disclosing their traumas, we need to prepare for the harsh reality that people we know and love are the perpetrators. It’s really uncomfortable to admit, but sexual assailants aren’t always hooded figures in alleys with knives. They’re people we know, our friends, our brothers, our cousins, our uncles.” 

And as a forum for justice, the internet is problematic. “In the moment, it’s easy to fail to consider the consequences of what you post in a public space. If you disclose a trauma online, whoever you write online is going to be there — for years, forever. Social media immortalizes the past.”

“Everything in them wants to believe this never happened,” says Robb of her young characters. “To have the initial impulse to wish (something tragic) away doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s part of what it means to be a human and receive horrifying news.” And any time you’re finding your sense of self-worth from the internet, that’s troubling, she muses. “But maybe not every 21-year-old knows that.”

It has taken fully five years for Tell Us What Happened, which won the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Award in 2020, to arrive onstage at the Gateway Theatre, Workshop West’s new home in Old Strathcona, in a production directed and dramaturge by Heather Inglis. Blame COVID for two of those five years: three weeks from opening night in 2020, the world shut down. 

Robb was 20 and in the Citadel’s Young Company playwrights’ circle, when she wrote the play. And Workshop West artistic director Inglis has been a mentor through its 12 or 13 drafts. “When I wrote it, I was younger than the characters; now I’m older,” Robb laughs. “Which is kinda fun.” 

Her showbiz origins, so to speak, are in dance, from age three onward through “the studio dance competition scene.” Dance, she thinks, is a useful entry point for a playwright. “It’s all about composition, so it slips into writing pretty well.” 

Robb the “high school drama freak” followed, with stops at Nextfest. One of them involved a play she co-wrote with a friend. “It had a very edgy, dramatic teenage title, Semblance,” she laughs. “We were ‘let’s make something very artsy because we’re artsy’. That’s what you do when you’re a teenager.” 

Tell Us What Happened is “my first play that worked, that took on a life of its own”: the one where “you start typing really fast.” 

As an actor/playwright Robb was at pains to create characters who were all “exciting to play…. If I’m writing a character I wouldn’t want to play, I’ve got some re-writing to do,” she figures. “That’s the fun of playwriting, writing for actors to physicalize.” And now, in rehearsal, “watching actors being unleashed on the text, is a lot of fun even though the material is quite tragic.”

Part of that fun, as she describes, is the challenge of differentiating shifting relationships between the characters. “Some people have higher status in one relationship and lower in another, depending on who’s in the room.” And there’s a crucial difference between the way we ‘speak’ on the internet and way we speak to each other face-to-face.  “The internet has a certain voice to it. It collapses nuance — because it has to. Because it’s all about short and sweet and concise.” in all its judgments, including the way “we attack people who aren’t reacting the way we want them them.

“Everyone agrees that we need balance, complexity and nuance,” as Robb says. “We all know it in person, and we all forget about it online….” Five years haven’t dimmed the immediacy of the challenges that Tell Us What Happened explores. “We definitely need to sit down as a community and see how we are are going to treat each other when we learn horrifying news like this, that someone we know and love has committed an act of violence against someone else we know and love.” 

Theatre “is the right place to ask those big hard complicated questions.” 


Tell Us What Happened

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Michelle Robb

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Gabby Bernard, Matt Dejanovic, Michelle Diaz, Bonnie Ings, Jameela McNeil

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8429 Gateway Blvd.

Running: May 12 to 22




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‘Orchid, pause recording’: I Don’t Even Miss You, a Tiny Bear Jaws dance musical for a contactless world. A review.

Elena Belyea, I Don’t Even Miss You, Tiny Bear Jaws. Photo by Brianne Jang

By Liz Nicholls,

If you think that the last two years have kicked the crap out of satire, think what they’ve done to speculative fiction. Or existential crises.

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With I Don’t Even Miss You, premiering in RISER Edmonton’s 2022 series, Tiny Bear Jaws, those intrepid theatrical explorers, sink their teeth into our collective sense that the familiar is suddenly incomprehensible. That the world has changed fundamentally for no discernible reason, and somehow wriggled out of every off-the-rack size of meaning that meaningful comes in. Its connections may be as global as the internet, but they are now, both literally and figuratively, ungraspable (not to say unhuggable). 

Basil (they/them), the hero of Elena Belyea’s new play, wakes up to discover that the world has gone contact-less overnight. It’s now in practice a transaction with the digital. They’re in familiar surroundings but they are suddenly, utterly, alone. Basil has to make their own fun — not to mention create friendships, family, romance, love, gender, formerly byproducts of human connectivity — from memory, or digital ether. 

Can it be done? Can it be sustained? I Don’t Even Miss You wonders about that. And Basil gives it their best shot. 

Their continuing resourcefulness will hit your heart and give it a crank. It’s a show that speaks in an original way about a predicament that has suddenly elided into … life. I’ve found I Don’t Even Miss You an experience that’s hard to shake off afterward. But then, as we know from productions like Cleave or Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, when you see a Tiny Bear Jaws show you’re apt to leave with little bite marks on your psyche.  

Basil (Belyea herself, and Sarah Emslie at some performances) is the star of their own show, a performer in the production they create, moment to moment, in live performance, dance, music, video, for an audience that is theoretical. Call Basil a life impresario, if you will. Collaborating on a multi-disciplinary ‘musical’ about aloneness is a particularly theatrical kind of contradiction, one that intrigues the playwright and a bevy of creative technical design collaborators among them Tiny Bear Jaws producer/ video and sound designer Tori Morrison, director Emma Tibaldo, lighting designer Daniela Masellis, choreographer Gianna Vacirca. 

In their punchy, exuberant dance numbers, Belyea’s Basil, small but fierce in a blue snowsuit (costume designer: Whittyn Jason), exercises an unstoppable urge to perform. In Vacirca’s movement tracks, they do mighty battle with the invisible — a celebratory assertion of the will against, what?, the improbable? the inevitable? the air? The rhythmic electronic pop score, which divides into songs in Basil’s new ‘musical’, is the co-creation of Belyea and Morrison (with Miranda Martini).  

Can you even call I Don’t Even Miss You a solo show? Basil shares the stage with the digital assistant they’ve created. Orchid (the voice of Vanessa Sabourin) is an A.I. who’s programmed to manage Basil’s digital memory bank, onscreen captioning, music. And in the course of I Don’t Even Miss You, in which time has the weird fluidity that we know from our last two years — what? is it Tuesday? a month has gone by? — their exchanges evolve. “Orchid, play Tonight,” or “Orchid, pause recording” become something more human, more shared. Orchid can chat; Orchid can play your favourite music if you’re upset.

In front of a double-screen like big pages of an open book, Basil presents their autobiography as a succession of short “chapters.” They breezily juxtapose innocuous titles like “Family” or “Birthdays” or “Puberty” with titles like “Survival” or “Basil’s Worst Day … a day that began like any other.” And we know where that’s led.

When you’re all alone, like Basil, little things, like the last bite of your mom’s stash of chocolate chip cookies, are momentous. The chapters are separated by lists of small, ordinary “things I’m grateful for” — bathmats, piñatas,  fanny packs, watermelon seed spitting contests … — and Basil’s energetic dance musical numbers.

Belyea has written before now about the tension between belonging and having your own identity. If Cleave and Everyone We Know Will Be There are close-ups, the one a family and the other a teen party, I Don’t Even Miss You ups the ante on self-creation and self-reliance. It’s life as a ritual of memory and performance in which you have to step up to create and program your own stage partners, make your own lists, write your own signature tunes, and dance your own dances — against a backdrop of fathomless loneliness. The rest is silence.


I Don’t Even Miss You

RISER Edmonton 2022

Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws

Written and performed by: Elena Belyea (Sarah Emslie at some performances)

Where: Co*Lab, Community (Arts) Laboratory, 9641 102 A Ave.

Running: through May 4

Tickets and masking and vaccine requirements:  

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An inheritance in stories: ren & the wake, a new Catch the Keys musical. A review

Marguerite Lawler and Helen Belay in ren & the wake, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s a funny thing, don’t you find, the way memory works. How the past gets unearthed from its subterranean lair in detached moments, a snippet of melody, a smell, the sound of a laugh, a scribble on a recipe? And it’s in no particular order: if memory has an organizing principle, it’s certainly not chronology.

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 Ren & the wake, a new musical by alt-folk rocker Lindsey Walker (music and lyrics) and playwright Megan Dart (book), is all about being at the intersection of the past and the future, traffic moving in both directions, and not knowing what to do. Or even how to step off the curb.   

The Catch The Keys production, directed as a show-within-a-show by Beth Dart, invites us to a wake at the Backstage Theatre. It’s crammed with an oddball sepia-tinged assortment of stuff (an atmospheric design by Whittyn Jason) — dusty curtains, old lamps, a vintage typewriter, empty wine bottles, a fake fireplace, keys, a sock, boxes of indeterminate things. Ren (they/them, played by Marguerite Lawler) is at the door, looking more than a little dazed by grief, to welcome us on behalf of their late mother. 

Marguerite Lawler in ren & the wake, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

As Lawler’s performance conveys, with its impromptu memories,  stops, starts, annotations, they’re overwhelmed by the requirements of the occasion. They’re trying to conjure someone loved from knowledge they fear is impossibly sketchy. And the loss feels irretrievable. “I don’t know her favourite colour,” says Ren, stricken. Or the year she was born (“I’m not good with numbers”). Or where she was born (“Perth? Port Hope? Somewhere in Ontario?”).

They review their inheritance from a mother who was “undefeated at crib” and “could tell from the smell when a Sunday roast was done.” But “she had a big life…. I want more.” 

The haunting new musical created by Walker and Dart is about that “more,” and how to claim it in the stories that connect us through time. It assembles stories from exceptional women who, though little known, are part of our lineage, an inheritance of female resourcefulness and resilience that gets us through the toughest times.

The host is a mysterious sage (the engaging Ainsley Hillyard, also the movement director) who emerges in a puff of smoke at the outset and free-associates enthusiastically.  “Grief,” she tells ren, “is just lovesickness in reverse, working its way out again.” We should all have have a life coach this empowering.

From the murk of the past this impresario conjures a series of characters, each with a remarkable personal story mined from history by Dart, and an original Walker song, melodic and artful, in a variety of styles. It’s a show for ren’s benefit; they watch together. 

Laura Raboud as Mother Brown in ren & the wake, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

The characters are vividly played, in multiple high-contrast assignments, by Laura Raboud, Larissa Poho, and Helen Belay, strongly dramatic singer/actors all. As a Gold Rush era seal hunter and prospector, a “matriarch of the North,” for example, Belay recounts a terrible winter journey (“a hard slog,” as she puts it mildly), from Michigan to Whitehorse. Hers is a bluesy song, “the risks I would take for the life I would make….”  

One of the memorable characters played compellingly by Pohoreski owns the story of a hair-raising life-and-death border-crossing journey, through an eastern European forest on foot, in 1948. And she sings a striking song about finding shards of memory “in everyone I meet.” Among Raboud’s characters, each with haunting Walker songs, are a seer, and a wife who takes arms against her abuser in a tragic, thrilling way. “How do you know … when it’s time to fight?” 

Larissa Poho in ren & the wake, Catch The Keys Production. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Walker’s score and lyrics are one of the great pleasures of the production. The songs, lyrical and catchy, are custom-crafted for characters who are distinct in personality and time. The star singer-songwriter is a discovery for musical theatre, which should claim her right now.

The musical is a tribute to storytelling, and a kind of anthem to our connectedness — in moments of grief and loss when we feel the most alone and need them most (now, for instance). “We forget, we learn, we remember.” It’s story time.


ren & the wake

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions in the Edmonton Fringe Theatre season

Composer and lyricist: Lindsey Walker

Playwright: Megan Dart

Directed by: Beth Dart

Performer collaborators: Helen Belay, Candace Berlinguette, Marguerite Lawler, Larissa Poho, Laura Raboud, Ainsley Hillyard

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn

Running: through May 7





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You can’t not discuss this one: As You Like It, A Radical Retelling is the first play at the New Roxy, a (very) short review

Cliff Cardinal, As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, Crow’s Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Thus we may see … how the world wags.”William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II, vii

It’s bold. It’s ballsy, a genuinely provocative theatre experiment. And — here’s a 100 per cent guarantee — you WILL be discussing it after the curtain comes down. Really, you can’t not.

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That’s Cliff Cardinal’s new play As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, the show Theatre Network has chosen to open the beautiful, long-awaited new Roxy on 124th Street. It’s a gutsy way to start this new era for the company. 

Live theatre regularly makes claims to being surprising and risk-embracing: the Indigenous playwright provocateur Cardinal, a mischief-maker of serious intent, brings it. To theatre, to the rituals of theatre-going, to the cultural trappings and infrastructure that support it.

Since the experience is built on surprise, I can’t tell you very much about the Crow’s Theatre production that’s arrived from Toronto on the Roxy’s new Nancy Power mainstage. It is indeed a “radical retelling,” unforgettably so, and the Nancy Power is  equipped for the occasion with a red velvet curtain. That’s it. Nearly everything else, including revealing the cast in advance, would count as a spoiler. 

Whatever you think — and I’m imagining theatre-goers will be divided, judging by Saturday night’s audience — you’ll think. The “radical retelling” has big questions for you (and it’s gripping from beginning to end). Isn’t that what live theatre is for?


As You Like It, A Radical Retelling

Theatre: Crow’s Theatre at Theatre Network

Written by: Cliff Cardinal

Starring: cast will be announced at every performance

Where: Theatre Network, the new Roxy, 10708 124th St.

Running: through May 15

Tickets: theatre

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