Improvised Star Wars on the planet YEG, at the Grindstone

Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Spring seat sale: I visited the planet YEG last night, a gritty post-apocalyptic landscape (and cantina) “far from everything that’s really happening.”

Kanuck, cantina proprietor and aspirational Bounty Hunter in training, had evidently screwed up his first assassination assignment in last night’s edition of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Guilt-plagued, Kanuck (Tristan Ham) was visiting his gruesomely wounded victim (and party-hearty bro) PartyBot (Jesse Gervais) in hospital — and revisiting his career goals. “I don’t have the killer instinct,” he wailed. “You’re in pieces, a shell of what you were….” Which only goes to show that being a BH isn’t all fun and games and cheery acts of murderous violence, my friends.

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We’re ensconced in a tiny, lively comedy club just off Whyte on happening 81st Ave. The bar is dotted with improv stars having a snack and a beer after a performance of Wagon Load, a recurring improvised entertainment (directed by Dana Andersen) in which a major television network is vetting scripts for a new Western series.

At the 9 p.m. performance of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga, happening at the Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro twice a month, a deluxe (and rotating) cast of improvisers, many of them Die-Nasty regulars, has assembled to unleash their low-budget ingenuity and comic chops on one of the most high-budget high-profile other-galaxy scenarios the entertainment world has ever seen.

A repressive imperialist regime is in progress. The military, led by General Nova Toxin (Tom Edwards), is in charge, in a dithery, slightly needy way. Captain Jane Phasma (Chantal Perron) is the formidable, quite possibly out-and-out evil head of enforcement and torture. “We need to extract information,” says the one. “And an organ or two,” says the other.

Naturally, there are rebel forces. One of them, with particularly fetching wind-swept hair, is being tortured. The prisoner, Frank O’Phoné (Vince Forcier) is looking quite a lot worse for wear. He bravely proposes that “it’s the accent, right? That’s ethnic profiling….”

An exuberant and very funny pair of Keystone rebels, played by Jesse Gervais and Donovan Workun, are brainstorming an expedition into the heart of the enemy establishment. The smaller and rounder of the two is complaining about “the paper work” involved in the hatching of rebellion. Soon they will set forth to infiltrate and sabotage, etc. As soon as they find the keys to the space ship.

Matt Alden Dykes directs — a wry, amused introducer and annotator of scenes. “In this scene Vincent Forcier will be making acting look very very hard….”

The costume pieces, props, masks, fun to see, are selected for their cheap-theatre hilarity. And a variety of sound effects is supplemented by improvised music (the invaluable Paul Morgan Donald), full of portentous Star Wars references, and nods to the gummier end of musical theatre balladry. Yes, to anticipate your question, there are improvised musical numbers.

The Grindstone, after all, is the home of The 11 O’Clock Number, led by Byron Martin (the founder and artistic director of the Grindstone), in which entire musicals get improvised, an amazing weekly feat of musical theatre dexterity.

Also amazing is this: The cast of Kanuck’s Cantina, supplemented by guest stars, is obviously tuned to the classical frequency. They do Shakespeare once a month — the plays that somehow Will never quite got around to writing.

I can tell you this, but keep it to yourself: A Jedi in disguise has been detected on planet YEG. What will happen next? No one knows; there’s no one to ask. The only thing to do is show up at the Grindstone, grab a drink, and find out for yourself.

Check out the full schedule of performances, six nights a week till late — sketch comedy, standup, cabaret, improv of every size, shape, and style — at


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Dear Evan Hansen arrives in the upcoming Broadway Across Canada season

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls,

An innovative award-winner of a Broadway musical with every kind of contemporary traction is the finale of the upcoming three-show Broadway Across Canada season.

Dear Evan Hansen, arriving at the Jube Feb. 11 to 16 2020, has been  sold out in New York ever since it opened on Broadway in late 2016. It chronicles a declension into deception by a solitary and awkward high school kid caught up in an escalating social media frenzy set in motion by his own failure to correct a misunderstanding about a teen suicide.  The musical — book by Steven Levenson and music by the wunderkind team of Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) — gets to the very heart of the experience of being young and feeling desperately alone.

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Among its competitors for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2017 (which it took home, along with five other Tonys) was Come From Away, currently stopping down in Canadian ports of call on its North American tour.

The new three-show Broadway Across Canada season opens in September (3 to 8) with another landmark Tony winner: Jonathan Larson’s Rent returns as part of a 20th anniversary tour. The 1996 rock musical updates the scenario of the Puccini opera La Bohème and takes its scenes of imperilled youthful exuberance to New York’s East Village.

The heroine of Waitress, the heartwarming 2016 musical based on the Adrienne Shelly movie (with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles), is a woman trapped in a bad marriage — and finally empowered to do something about it. It runs Nov. 26 to Dec. 1. The add-on option is the much-travelled Wicked, the untold backstory of the witches in the Oz story (Aug. 12 to 22, 2020). 

There’s a big bonus attached to subscribing: when they renew, subscribers from the 2019-2020 season get first crack at tickets to Hamilton, coming in the 2020-2021 season.

Meanwhile, subscriptions are available at 1-866-540-7469 or


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Small Mouth Sounds: the human comedy gets the silent treatment at the Roxy. A review

By Liz Nicholls,

There aren’t many words in it, but Small Mouth Sounds isn’t what you’d call quiet. The silent treatment is loud in the ingenious, funny, and mysteriously affecting play that the indie company Wild Side has brought us in a superb Canadian premiere production at the Roxy. It’s not to be missed.

In the play, by the young American writer Bess Wohl, six strangers, a mismatched assortment of urbanites who would ordinarily never meet much less spend time together, have showed up at a bucolic five-day silent retreat led by a famous spiritual guru. Each is steeped in private miseries, fears, rage, pain. And as Jim Guedo’s perfectly calibrated production reveals, in a world with minimal verbiage, throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising are major incidents.

Every sigh, cough and grimace, every snort and munch, gasp and giggle, count. Big time. And Nature, as captured and amplified by Guedo’s sound design, is a veritable sound fest: rain, wind, birdsongs, the rustle that could be a bear, the roar that is a bear.  The guru himself (Nathan Cuckow), a disembodied, miked voice with an exotic sing-song to it, is a veritable windbag under the circumstances. You can hear his spit rattling around; the spiritual leader has a cold. He also has a cellphone — which he actually answers but hastens to assure is not his own — and issues that are his own.

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No cellphones, no booze, no smoking, and no talking (clothing is optional): these are his rules. It’s all a test case for human communication. And there’s comedy in the misunderstandings that arise as the participants, evidently in various states of unease and distress, arrive, and notice each other, or not. Guedo choreographs an all-star cast (all-star but truly ensemble) in the intricately timed and detailed theatricality of this enterprise.

Least anxious is Rodney (Richard Lee Hsi), a perfectly toned yoga instructor with an impenetrable Zen serenity about him, clothes on or off (witness some very funny encounters with other characters). Most anxious — and therefore by the cosmic law of perversity Rodney’s assigned roommate — is furrow-browed Ned (Garett Ross), with a perpetual wince about him. He’s earnestly trying to take notes with a pen that won’t work.

An accomplished-seeming couple (Belinda Cornish and Kristi Hansen) arrive showing some strains in what is evidently a long-time relationship under pressure. They’re already mid-squabble over the directions to the place. 

There’s the smiling, slightly dazed Jan (Dave Horak) who nods amiably and keeps dozing off — when he’s not fending off hordes of mosquitoes and scratching his bites. And there’s a late arrival (Amber Borotsik), who crashes in breathlessly, clutching too many bags, muttering “sorry sorry,” Rules notwithstanding, Alicia and her cellphone cannot be separated; she texts frantically, and seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Who are these people and what sorrows, dissatisfactions, miseries and pressures have brought them to this retreat? It’s for us to piece that together, the same way the characters discover each other. And that’s a highly entertaining kind of audience participation, especially since the actors, all of them, are so skilled at making the minutest adjustments eloquent.

Without the carapace of small-talk to fortify (and conceal) themselves, the characters scramble to make themselves understood. Only Ned gets an extended monologue — he’s asking the teacher a question — and it’s delivered with a fragmenting hilarity by Ross.

Ned’s life is a veritable catalogue of tragedies, and the accumulation of them shows just how close human suffering is to a cosmic sense of, if not comedy, absurdity. The world is disintegrating into apocalyptic chaos, and we’re looking for … peace? Ned is wondering if that makes any kind of sense.

But the guru, whose elliptical ways, flights of fancy and declensions into jargon are captured beautifully by Cuckow’s cadences, isn’t about answering questions. Nor is the play. 

Instead, there’s a kind of compassionate embrace of the human struggle in all its mysterious dimensions. Do the retreat-ers leave cured of their spiritual malaise? The guru has rejected the idea of exorcism; he’s told his students that the five days are the best kind of vacation since “you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.” There are a lot of variables in that, of course. The only thing that’s certain, though, in Small Mouth Sounds is that there’s a consolation to be had, an affirmation of sorts, that whatever bad things you’re up against, however isolated in sadness and pain you feel, you are not, in the end, alone in this. There’s a human embrace.

It sounds like a morbid and weighty thought. But it doesn’t feel that way, oddly enough. It feels like taking a deep breath and then exhaling.


Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee Hsi, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440,


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Small Mouth Sounds and the silent scream: a unique challenge comes to the Roxy

By Liz Nicholls,

“When you see the ocean, you may not be able to return. To the well.”

Small Mouth Sounds

The play that gets its Canadian premiere tonight in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series is a theatrical puzzle of sorts, in every way — for the director, for the actors, and for the audience.

Small Mouth Sounds is mostly silent — in premise, conception and execution. The play, by the American actor-turned-playwright Bess Wohl, is set at a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York. Six strangers, troubled and lonely in various ways, have repaired there in search of solace, or answers, or release. On this journey they are led by a guru, present only as a disembodied voice.

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So … how to stage it? “The actors are silent for 90 per cent of their time onstage,” says Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions, who’s been trying for a couple of years to get the rights for the 2015 play. He was fascinated by the challenge, and refers to the American director Peter Sellars who has famously said of a play he’d read that “I didn’t know how to do it. So I had to do it….”

The playwright herself had the experience of a silent retreat, says director/ designer Guedo. The setup in the play is authentic, “including the packet that tells (the participants) what’s optional, what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re not supposed to do…. The ultimate challenge for the characters is the need to put away everything in your life that made you want to come to the retreat in the first place.”

There are hints of Waiting For Guffman, and (Annie Baker’s) Circle Mirror Transformation, with its needy community theatre participants,  in the scenario, Guedo agrees. But ultimately Small Mouth Sounds isn’t like either. “Depending on how you’re feeling when you see it, it’ll be either incredibly funny or incredibly sad. Every character is looking for … something. A fix. That’s the human comedy.”

Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions. Photo supplied.

“It’s a very different kind of storytelling,” Guedo says of his attraction to the script. Silent, yes, “but not silent movie.,” he laughs.  “(The characters) are not world-class mimes.…”  The “perversity of it is appealing,” he says. “In theatre we take words, dialogue, for granted….”

In one way, the experience for his all-star cast has been “liberation: no lines to learn,” he reports. Wohl’s stage directions, which are basically back stories for the characters, have many more words than the script.

How then do we discover who the characters are? “It calls for a different kind of specificity,” says Guedo. Like the characters trying to connect with each other, “the audience is looking for non-verbal cues.”

“You reveal character not just by what you do but how you do it,” says Guedo. “I feel like I’m the midwife, and (the actors) are doing all the pushing….”

Intriguingly, the guru/teacher is on a mic, “so the disembodied voice is not quite human.” That voice might conceivably be taped. But that approach doesn’t breathe in the same nuanced way as having an actor (Nathan Cuckow) present to interact, though invisible. “There’s a lot of verbal jazz in people’s breath, in the noises we make, the small mouth sounds, when we’re not speaking.” In rehearsal, Cuckow sat across from his cast-mates at first, facing them. “Gradually we weaned him off being physically present….”

To read the script is to wonder if the teacher, as a new-age-y sort of guru, is an object of mockery. “But the playwright does not want to take easy pot shots….” Guedo thinks of it as “gently satirical.”

“All the characters have a private pain, a weight on them. And they’re trying to dislodge it…. This is a very human play, very compassionate.”


Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440,

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Poly Queer Love Ballad at SkirtsAfire: negotiating romance in a complicated world

Sara Vickruck and Anais West in Poly Queer Love Ballad. Photo by Emily Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls,

Last night at SkirtsAfire, I caught a charming and  intricate new two-hander musical that explores, in an original way, how to tell a contemporary, perpetually-in-progress love story.

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The eighth and (at 10 days) biggest-ever edition of E-town’s annual celebration of women artists, has acquired a hit from  last summer’s Vancouver Fringe and beyond. Slam poetry hooks up with folk-pop songwriting in unexpected and playful ways in Poly Queer Love Ballad by Sara Vickruck and Anais West. Love, like theatrical storytelling, is complicated, right?

Gaby and Nina meet at an open-mic night; their mutual attraction is instant and powerful. But in the classic rom-com infrastructure of relationship obstacles, here’s a challenging one: Gaby (Vickruck) is a monogamous lesbian singer-songwriter, an old-school romantic and “the straightest gay you’ll ever know.” Nina (West) is a polyamorous bisexual poet of the experimental stripe, a quester whose mantra is “no gender or genre unread.”

It’s “I’m in it for the long haul” from the songwriter versus “wanna be my primary partner?” from the poet. It’s “I need something that’s just ours” vs. “jealousy is a learned behavior.”

In Vickruck’s cleverly cheeky, rhymed songs and West’s unsettling erotic poetry, as well as funny jagged conversational fragments and juxtapositions, Poly Queer Love Ballad chronicles their fortunes in love and their search for a viable elasticized relationship. “You’re so genuine you startle my metaphors,” says the self-possessed Nina, rattled out of her composure.

Which might sound like heavy going, I realize. It isn’t, though. A puckish self-deprecating sense of humour is woven into the fabric of the piece. And performances by the creators, two likeable actors, are so appealing and self-aware you’ll fall a little in love with both of them.

As Gaby, the charismatic Vickruck plays guitar and sings, and uses loop pedals and the mic in amusingly inventive ways (her sly Tinder cellphone sound effect song is a hoot). West’s Nina, kitted out in a nerdy denim skirt and fanny pack, trots across the stage to deliver her poems — like “Is My Love Doomed?” complete with histrionic gestures. 

It’s fun, wistful, and genuinely experimental, in ways that are never pretentious.

As a bonus I got to see the last performance of Statue, a silent show in which a nude torso comes to life, in music and an expert kind of full-body puppetry by Quebec’s Kristina Troske and Céline Chévrier. A neutral vessel tests out male and female incarnations, in body language (and footwear), and rises above. Enchanting.

Poly Queer Love Ballad continues at SkirtsAfire Saturday and Sunday at the festival’s cabaret theatre, Alberta Avenue Community League (9210 118 Ave.). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,  The full schedule of festival events is at   

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On the edge of the world: Come From Away. A review.

    Becky Gulsvig and Emily Watson (front) in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls,

Welcome to the Rock. “You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world,” sings the ensemble in the opening number of Come From Away, the irresistibly warm-hearted Broadway hit that’s arrived on the Jube stage this week — in an American touring production that’s brought a story of Canadian-ness back to its country of origin.

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And with this modest declaration in song, the story of what else happened on Sept. 11, 2001 finds its geographical coordinates, its true-life source, and its groove. In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. And a hospitable little town, population 9,000, “on an island in between there and here,” welcomed, housed, and fed nearly 7,000 stranded passengers in a newsworthy demo of generosity and kindness in a blasted world.

Becky Gulsvig centre) in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The unusual musical, by the Toronto husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is culled from real-life interviews with the townsfolk and the passengers. And there’s another Canadian story in its improbable route from a Sheridan College student workshop incarnation in honour of the 10-year 9-11 anniversary to premieres at Seattle Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse and on to massive successes in New York and now London. Come From Away has landed at its rapturous reception here on a jet stream of raves, major awards (including Dora Awards, a Tony for director Christopher Ashley, and now multiple Olivier nominations across the pond), and sold-out runs. The Mirvish Toronto production is now booking through September.

In this improbable and massive success  — in New York, it’s among a handful of shows that regularly gross more than a million dollars a week — it was materially assisted by timing. Its celebration of hospitality and generosity arrived on the big-stage international  theatre scene at the moment when America seemed particularly mean, stingy, xenophobic, closed to come-from-aways, and unusually receptive to an antidote, and from a country they’d barely noticed before.  

Yes, it’s not as if there’s no reason to be cynical in theory about Come From Away. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong, way wrong. A musical about 9-11? A musical about the upside of 9-11? Think about it. A musical without a star, about people being nice?

And, in truth, there are occasionally moments in Come From Away when you can’t help resisting the irresistible that’s coming at you: the perplexed and unnerved passengers have landed, albeit as a byproduct of a horrifying disaster they don’t know about yet, in a place where there are quirky individuals but nary an unkind jerk, or racist, or homophobe, much less an out-and-out villain. Friction is for the passengers, not the exemplary locals. As one of a splintering gay American couple both named Kevin notes near the outset, Newfoundland is “like going back in time.” 

But Come From Away is so smartly put together, musically and theatrically, and the piece so imbued with a self-deprecating and distinctive sense of humour, that it would take a rocky soul indeed not to be warmed by its unwavering celebration of human connectedness. 

The stage, as designed by Beowulf Boritt, is simply appointed. It’s dominated by a few bare trees, some wooden chairs, and a back wall of wood that turns out, at crucial moments, to be slatted (lighting designer: Howell Binkley). In one corner, a really excellent eight-piece band, including pennywhistle, fiddle, and bodhran, stands ready to deliver the Celtic-flavoured folk-rock of the score. And their rocking curtain-call number is celebratory, in all the right ways: it’s a kick-ass finale. 

The characters are winsomely individualized and quirky — an effect amplified by the reverb  that they’re based on real people. The dexterous 12-member ensemble in this fine touring production play the passengers and the Gander-ites interchangeably.

The fateful day in which 7,000 people from everywhere will spend that night and the next four, begins with Gander’s small-town daily morning rituals. “Everything starts and ends at Tim Horton’s,” declares the crusty Gander mayor, played outstandingly played by Kevin Carolan. True, there’s something you might want to call labour friction pertaining the school bus drivers. But, hey, that whole business stops for coffee too.

Other standouts include Julie Johnson as Beulah the teacher who bonds with another mother (Danielle K. Thomas), traumatized by the lack of information about her New York firefighter son. As Bob, a wary New Yorker who can’t quite believe his wallet is safe on the Rock, James Earl Jones II is genuinely amusing in his incredulity. And Becky Gulsvig as a groundbreaking pilot delivers, in compelling fashion, the show’s only bona fide solo, Me And The Sky. The nature of flying, her true passion in life, changes forever on 9-11. And in the course of the song she realizes it.

Nick Duckart, Kevin Carolan, Andrew Samonsky in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Of the two couples in the piece, one comes together and one falls apart in the “who knows where” of the outer edge of Canada. Christine Toy Johnson as a middle-aged Texas divorcée, finds herself drawn to an awkward Englishman (Chamblee Ferguson, whose accent pushes its luck) who works for an oil company. In the least convincing scene, designed to show off comically the natural open-mindedness of the locals — some of their relatives are gay! — the couple of Kevins (Andrew Samonsky and Nick Duckart), who are used to being cautious about revealing their relationship, are caught off-guard by the progressive attitude of Gander. 

It’s at moments like that Come From Away pushes a wee bit too hard at its sentimental thought that on the periphery of tragedy, no one is untouched by Canuck worthiness. Much better is the way Come From Away astutely lays off co-opting an epic tragedy. It offers fleeting glimpses, in the mother’s vigil by the phone, and the harsh excluding treatment of the passenger from the Middle East (Nick Duckart), whose fortunes in the post-9-11 world will, as you know, be rocky.

Mostly it confines itself to odd, and endearing stories on the edge of that terrible main event: the rookie reporter on her first day, who lands the story of her career; the SPCA rep who gets a career high, too, when she saves a rare chimpanzee from the hold of the plane. 

The sharp inventiveness of the stagecraft is fun to see. An unobtrusive re-arrangement of the chairs, and voilà, we’re inside the plane, or the air traffic control tower, or the school. And the performances, as 12 actors of every size and shape reinvent themselves as 40-plus characters, is a match. 

The rollicking production number, a highlight bash in the Legion Hall, is riotously contagious. It feels like a party. If they’d been passing the Screech and the cod around, I’m sure we’d all have had a slug and a smooch. It’s a world afflicted by a deep mistrust of The Other, where, on the other hand, everyone has come from away, it’s the right moment for a musical like this.  


Come From Away

Broadway Across Canada

Created by: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Directed by: Christopher Ashley

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday




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“You have to put it right!” Matilda the Musical, at the Citadel. A review.

John Ullyatt as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

Wicked, I tell you.

Wicked fun, that is, the smart, joyful musical that’s currently promoting anti-authoritarian resistance, empowerment, and self-determination  — for children! — from the Citadel’s Shoctor stage.

Based on Roald Dahl’s delightfully dark 1988 kids’ novel, Matilda follows the fortunes of a brilliant little girl, neglected and oppressed by fantastically dreadful parents, who finds her defence and refuge in … books, not TV. What a crushing disappointment to mom and dad (not to mention the culture at large).

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When the other kids are apostrophizing their fawning parents in an early number (“my mummy says I’m a miracle”), Matilda, unperturbed, is singing “my mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/ my daddy says I’m a bore….”

Lilla Solymos as Matilda in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Yes, Matilda Wormwood, bright and brave and bookish, is a born subversive, I’m afraid. As you find out in the musical ingeniously fashioned as stories within stories by playwright Dennis Kelly and the Australian composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, she’s a natural rally-er of forces against injustice, unfair punishments, tyranny, illiteracy, and general stupidity. At school, Crunchem Hall, where the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull presides with an iron, er, hammer (she’s a British champion hammer thrower of yore), things are just as bad, maybe worse. 

The musical, which had its origins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 (before West End and Broadway incarnations), comes at us in a lavish, gothically high-style Daryl Cloran production courtesy of the combined forces of the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. And, as I can attest, it’s that rarest of showbiz commodities: clever and bracing for the ruling class (i.e. grownups who were once kids) as well as their offspring, who know full well what it’s like to be up against it in a crazy, mean-spirited world. 

Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan (centre) in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

If ever there was an anthem to the prodigious possibilities built into children, it’s the musical itself. Matilda is a veritable singing/dancing testimonial. For the nearly three hours of Cloran’s production, you’ll see child performers right alongside their taller, older cast-mates, not indulged for cuteness, but bona fide working members of the excellent ensemble.

Locally recruited for the Edmonton run of a production that ran first in Winnipeg with Winnipeg kids, they sing confidently; they execute the intricacies of Kimberley Rampersad’s bold, crisply jagged, fist-first choreography with dazzling conviction. And under Cloran’s direction they know that being funny onstage is a matter of seriousness and stakes.    

At the centre, Dostoyevski and Dickens defiantly in hand, is Matilda, played by Edmonton’s Lilla Solymos (who alternates with Winnipegger Anna Anderson-Epp). And she’s wonderful in her grave solemnity, her plucky refusal to ingratiate or indulge pathos (she prefers revenge), and her general air of determination — not to mention her singing voice.

Julio Fuentes, Alison MacDonald and Lauren Bowler in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Her parents are a repository of brassy lunacy and hysterical self-centredness. Sleazy Mr. Wormwood, a used-car salesman whose attempts to sell old beaters to the Russian mafia (rarely a good idea), is played to cartoon comic excess by spaghetti-legged Ben Elliott. Lauren Bowler is very funny too as Mrs. Wormwood, obsessed with ballroom dance, her partner Rudolpho (Julio Fuentes)  and blonde highlights, in interchangeable order.

As Matilda’s older brother Michael, Corben Kushneryk takes sullen listlessness to a level of virtuosity rarely seen in a sentient being. I laughed every time I saw him onstage.

The epicentre of tyranny is the formidably scary Miss Trunchbull. Her reign of terror — introduced before we ever meet her in a set-up song by the students — is set forth in a showstopping performance of comic villainy from John Ullyatt. His delivery, which sharpens its edges on an English accent designed to amputate limbs, veers between a sinister faux silkiness (accompanied by a faux-pitying smirk), and bosom-levitating rage. Given the epic nature of that bosom, the world trembles.

Miss Trunchbull simmers ominously, like a volcano just before red-hot lava delivery, and can sniff out “the odour of rebellion, the whiff of insurgence, the stench of intent” before it even forms. Being sent to the principal’s office, under the circumstances, has something in common with getting sent to the guillotine in 1789.  

John Ullyatt (right) as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The sight of Ullyatt’s Miss Trunchbull in full gym garb vaulting over the pommel horse in that most dreaded of all punishments (well, second-most), phys-ed, is unforgettable. Equally, the sight of Miss Trunchbull winding up to fling a pupil by the pigtails, like a hammer, is something you’ll have for life. Ullyatt is, in all senses of the word, riotous. 

With foes like that, a kid needs friends. Matilda has two: the excitable librarian(Sharon Crandall) who’s addicted to her stories, and her teacher Miss Honey (sweet-voiced Alison MacDonald), torn between fear and conscience. The moment when Matilda by example mobilizes her quavering classmates into out-and-out rebellion is savoury indeed.

Lilla Solymos (centre) with Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Becky Frohlinger in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

After all, as the insurrectionist Matilda has pointed out, in one of Minchin’s clever, witty, multi-syllabic songs, Jack and Jill, whose tumble is widely regarded as inevitable, should really have sucked it up and re-written their narrative. “Nobody’s gonna change my story but me….” In fact, as an imaginative child, she is tuned to stories — and storytelling, and the criss-crossing of narratives and life. Which explains why there’s an acrobat team in the show,  one of the many delights of Matilda.

A cavil: Speaking of the songs, Minchin’s incisively funny lyrics sometimes get lost in a bright, forward sound mix (Brad Danyluk) that’s otherwise fine. Perhaps it’s inevitable given the timbre of kid voices, but it’s still a loss.

The West End and Broadway productions were framed by a teetering proscenium of books that looked ready to fall. Cloran sets his large cast in motion on an amusing design by  Cory Sincennes that’s dominated by a wall of stylized bendy bookcases; they’re full of gray untitled volumes punctuated by intermittently by glowing TV screens, and have a wonky outsized frame that shines in the dark. Sincennes’ costumes, in flamboyant acid hues, are fun to look at. The show is luridly lit, in cartoon fashion, by Gerald King.

There’s a dark sense of humour at work in Matilda, which approaches loneliness and rejection in an appealingly oblique way. Matilda earns its sentiment (and, yes, your eyes will water, sometimes while you’re laughing!) and its heartbreak: it takes its cue from a heroine who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She keeps it tucked away, under the armour that activists wear, and saves it for her stories.

Wicked, as I say. Be a little naughty: step up to the revolution and get a ticket. Nobody’s gonna change your story but you.


Matilda the Musical

Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Arts Club Theatre

Written by: Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, from the Roald Dahl novel

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Lilla Solymos, Anna Anderson-Epp, Ben Elliott, Lauren Bowler, Alison MacDonald, John Ullyatt, Alison MacDonald

Running: through March 17

Tickets: 780-425-1820,


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The road to Mesa: a buddy pic with a difference. A review.

Julien Arnold and Richard Lee Hsi in Mesa, Atlas Theatre Collective. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls,

Funny how the concept “road trip” conjures two sets of images, almost entirely contradictory.

One is fuelled by sheer romance, the cinematic sweep of conquering vastness in a first-hand way: the questing spirit with car keys, so to speak. The other is fuelled by the reality of being locked into a relatively teeny space with someone who, you’ll soon discover, doesn’t share your world view, or your taste in music or your pace in roadside pit stops. Sometimes they’re related to you. Often they snore.

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This is the situation in Mesa, an odd and surprisingly surprising buddy-pic comedy by Calgary’s Doug Fisher, a founder of Ghost River Theatre. It’s the choice of the Atlas Theatre Collective, whose artistic director Julien Arnold is in the show, alongside Richard Lee Hsi. 

Julien Arnold, Richard Lee Hsi in Mesa, Atlas Theatre Collective. Photo by Mat Busby.

The opening image of Patricia Darbasie’s production is one to cherish: an old guy (Arnold) in one of those hats with major fur earflaps and a young guy (Lee Hsi) in a toque are sitting in the front seat of a car. OK, you have to imagine the front seat and the car, which is fine (the production is staged with astute simplicity). Yes, they are Canadians. And yes, they are driving south. They have 1500 miles (that’s an infinite number of kilometres) ahead of them, so “are we there yet?” has a particular edge.

Paul (Lee Hsi), a 35-year-old writer, struggling with both his career “as an artist” and, it turns out, his marriage, has agreed to drive 93-year-old snowbird Bud, his wife’s grandfather, to his retirement trailer in Mesa, Arizona.

The destination is a time-honoured punchline. But there’s the getting there. In this, the younger man has been moved by a desire for re-invention of self, for rebirth in a journey of discovery. What he’s anticipating, as he says, is the America of Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, The Battle of Little Big Horn, the OK Corral, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon.

Grandpa Bud, on the other hand, is all about getting to his trailer in Mesa. As soon as possible.

It’s not starting well. Paul is dreaming of “the backroads of America”; Grandpa Bud says “we’ll stick to the Interstate.” What they will see, to Paul’s mounting irritation, is the America of Motel 6s and Denny’s. Grandpa Bud is adamantine on the subject of schedule, and diet.

No, he won’t eat at Wendy’s. No, he absolutely refuses to stop in Ketchum, Idaho and see Ernest Hemingway’s house. “He won’t be there. He’s dead.” He insists on Idaho Falls. Why? The Denny’s is right next to the Motel 6. You can sense Paul grinding his molars even if you can’t hear it. 

The play, produced here by Workshop West in 2001 (in a production starring Ashley Wright and Teatro La Quindicina artistic director Jeff Haslam), hasn’t been updated. Times being what they are, you’re bound to notice that a Trump-ian America would have darkened (or politicized) Paul’s dreams. He might never have signed on to go anywhere near Arizona, for one thing. But Paul’s rhetorical awe, “how did we get from Sitting Bull to Denny’s in 100 years?” — Grandpa Bud’s lifetime — does still stick, even if the concept Trump infiltrates the mind’s eye.

The chemistry of these two excellent actors is what makes the play, and the production, tick. Arnold turns in an amazingly convincing performance as Grandpa Bud. And he does it largely through breathing (a lot of it) and fragmented rhythm, and a kind of stiff-legged gait — not a scratchy cliché old-guy voice. He barely moves his mouth when he talks, as if he’s making sure his teeth are in place.

It’s a strikingly unsentimental portrait of old age, in all its harsh cut-to-the-chase lack of interest in the new, and resistance to change of any kind. He’s pragmatic, petulant, opinionated, and given to tantrums when crossed. In Arnold’s performance, the contours are softened only in flashbacks, when Grandpa Bud steps out of the car and the ongoing journey, and remembers selected aspects of his life, mostly to do with his late wife and his music hobby.

Lee Hsi, who’s a subtle and appealing actor, conveys the sense of good intentions undermined by exasperation. And it’s infiltrated by a sense of the character’s dissatisfaction, his self-doubt, his need to fix his life.

When that change comes, or at least begins, it’s in an unexpected way. The play doesn’t explain it, just floats it, and let’s us be as surprised as Paul is. Proximity to old age, however irascible, and to death, has something to do with it. Paul has to reassess his reactions to the seniors of the Citrus Gardens trailer park, with their garden gnomes and their rituals, their Saturday night dances and bad jokes, their matter-of-fact view of mortality, their reviews of the dearly departeds.

Amusingly, the pre-show music is Sentimental Journey. And what’s puckish and wry at the beginning has a different feel at the end. It’s for Cathy Derkach to step away from the keyboard, where she weaves wispy fragments of golden oldies, to become Americans that Paul and Grandpa Bud meet. The sequences in a casino, for example, or in Tombstone, a detour where the famous OK Corral battle has devolved into a feud between two opposing gunfight “attractions,” seem a little over-extended on this viewing (I was kindly permitted to see a preview). But the combination of confrontational and cordial, with a little good ol’ American hustle, hits the mark.

Chantel Fortin’s design, with its cut-out Shangri-la mesas and cactus, seems just the right weight for the piece. The sunsets are by lighting designer Jeff Osterlin.



Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Atlas Theatre Collective

Written by: Doug Curtis

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Julien Arnold, Richard Lee Hsi, Cathy Derkach

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 2



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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: theatre magic in New York

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Liz Nicholls,

NEW YORK — “Keep The Secrets” say the little buttons you get handed out when you leave the Lyric Theatre near Times Square.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t apply to the golden star-studded blue ceiling in the lobby, or the new red carpet, woven with the insignia of the four houses at Hogwart’s. So before a Dementor gets me I’m telling you this: look up and look down.

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But you’ll have to keep your voice down when you’re in a bistro, de-briefing with experts between Parts I and II of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays are total-immersion Harry Potter days in New York, when you can see both parts of this thrilling non-stop extravaganza of storytelling and theatrical stagecraft, 2 and 7:30 p.m., set in motion by wizard director John Tiffany. That’s what we did.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The plot of the Jack Thorne’s two-part play (based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Thorne) is a a veritable 100-acre wood of complications (oops, wrong story), to put it mildly. And it takes nearly six hours, and two full-length plays, to negotiate it. But then, in truth, what true Harry Potter fan, seven intricate Harry Potter novels later, would be satisfied with simple? And besides, you don’t have to be a die-hard Potter-head (I’m not) to be dazzled by the experience, though it’s extra fun to know some of the back stories (remember Moaning Myrtle?). What is magical indeed is how the cast, 40 strong, manage the non-stop activity of two-show days.

Anyhow, time has flash-forwarded since last you met the characters. Harry Potter (the excellent Jamie Parker) is an anxiety-plagued grown-up, an employee of the Ministry of Magic. His boss is Hermione (Noma Dumezweni), who’s married to Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley. And as the show opens, Harry and his wife Ginnie née Weasley (Poppy Miller) along with Hermione and Ron are at King’s Cross station, platform 9 3/4, seeing their own kids off to Hogwart’s at the start of term.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. From left, Noma Dumezweni, Susan Heyward, Paul Thornley, Olivia Bond, Ben Wheelwright, Jamie Parker, Poppy Miller, Sam Clemmett. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Their awkward younger son Albus (Sam Clemmett), who has a troubled relationship with his dad, will find a friend in the son of his dad’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. The elder Potter son James is played by Edmonton’s Ben Wheelwright (who’s been a Tiny Tim in the Citadel’s Christmas Carol in his time), among many other of his assignments in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And it’s a thrill to see him onstage in this spectacular hugely demanding diptych.

“It’s been a blast to be a part of,” says Wheelwright, whose first New York assignment was the alternate lead in the Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. “Super exhausting at times, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend this year doing anything but swishing cloaks and being part of all the magic.…The show is choreographed by the same person (Steven Hoggett) as Curious Incident. So when I signed up I knew the type of high-intensity, physical demand he asks of his actors….”

How Christine Jones’ vaulted set is transformed to the grand hall at Hogwart’s is wizardry all its own, and the same can be said for Neil Austin’s lighting. The wonderful thing about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that, despite its huge size (and budget: reportedly $68 million U.S.), the magic of the show is is magic of the theatre, created by the ingenuity, sophistication, and resourcefulness of theatre artists at the top of their game. It’s not some sort of showcase of cinematic special effects.

The actors are deeply committed. And in addition to its flamboyance with time travelling, the story itself has a coming-of-age heart, a human pulse you can feel — the craving for friendship, the bonds of parental love and expectation, guilt and the fear of being alone in the world. I loved it.


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Haunted by the past: The Ferryman in New York

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, with (centre) Paddy Considine. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Liz Nicholls,

NEW YORK – It’s a chilly winter’s night in New York (that’s “chilly” not “arctic”). And the mid-town working population — hotel bellpersons to parking valets to ticket takers to Sabrett’s hot dog vendors — seem to be walking ads for Canada, via its most conspicuous export here:  Canada Goose down coats.

Inside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th, a vintage 1927 Broadway house decorated with fanciful “Spanish”-themed murals, a packed house will be breathless (i.e. holding their breath a lot of the time) for more than three fleet hours.

The play is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. And it’s a big, thrilling experience in every way — crowded the way life is, with people and food, memories and stories, politics and poetry. To be in rural Northern Ireland in 1981 is to be in a place where the violent past won’t stay put and the IRA never lets go, even if you’re in a big multi-generational family in the countryside in County Armagh.

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sam Mendes’ production, which began at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2017 and has taken its British cast to New York, is a wild and irresistible swirl of characters — 21 of them, grown-ups and ancients, children of every age from infancy to teenagers, rushing in and out of doors, up and down stairs, dancing, singing, taking a nip of Bushmill’s, telling stories. Ah, and watering grievances with whiskey and opening old wounds.

And that’s not including the animals in the cast, notably a goose and a rabbit. The former is named Peggy (featured in a New York Times article) who really nails her scene with the play’s only Englishman, a gentle, slow-witted character who tucks her under his arm. Apparently, Peggy has been relaxed enough in showbiz to lay an egg offstage. The latter, a dwarf Netherland rabbit, is Pierce, named (according to the same article) because his fur markings resemble early Pierce Brosnan. Two babies play the baby: whichever one isn’t having a crisis gets to be onstage. You feel, in retrospect, that the stage manager should be part of the curtain call.

Justin Edwards with Peggy the goose, in The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Against a backdrop where Bobby Sands et al are on a hunger strike in the Maze, we’re at the Carney farm at harvest time. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine, the charismatic Irish star who’s, amazingly, making his stage debut with The Ferryman), presides over his brood. He’s haunted by the never-explained disappearance years before of his brother Seamus, whom he recruited for the IRA. And he’s troubled by his attraction, a mutual thing, to his sister-in-law (Laura Donnelly), whose widowhood has never been resolved.

His wife has grown ever-more distant; his auntie Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) inhabits an ancient world of Irish fairies and folk legends, returning from time to time to the present to report. Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert) is a storyteller in the grand Irish tradition, rooted in mythology. Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) is a fierce and unremitting republican whose grievances are unshakeably rooted in the ill-fated Easter Uprising of 1916.

And into this haunted environment, shaken by the discovery of a well-preserved body in a bog, an IRA hitman arrives with an ominous warning. 

The past is never buried and gone. Jerusalem, the last Butterworth play I saw in New York, effortlessly lived in the past and the present, too, as it probed the very heart of English-ness and what that means now. At its centre was the antic figure of the anarchist Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, in a mesmerizing performance from the great Mark Rylance a sort of Falstaffian figure-turned-drug dealer in the reduced circumstances of this green and pleasant land in the contemporary world. 

Mendes’ stagecraft — which extends in detail to the smell of burning peat, a cooked goose served up steaming for a harvest dinner, including potatoes roasted for every performance in duck fat — is an extraordinary achievement. His production revels in the way Butterworth’s play ripples with the sense that the past is alive, and still bloody, in Ireland. The ending is shattering. 

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