From story to myth: Lake of the Strangers asks “how do we heal?”

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Lake of the Strangers, the solo play that premieres this week at the Backstage Theatre, you’ll meet two Indigenous brothers, 10 and seven, on a mission out in the natural world.

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“It’s their last summer adventure together, just before summer ends,” says Hunter Cardinal. “And their goal is to catch a really big fish….” And if it takes sneaking out of the house at 2 a.m. and trekking through the woods to get to the lake, well….

He laughs. “Conflict ensues. You knew it would….”

Cardinal, one of the country’s young generation of accomplished and versatile Indigenous actors, stars in Lake of the Strangers. And he shares the playwriting credit with his big sister Jacquelyn Cardinal for this, his first one-man show.

“It starts in 1973 in Sucker Creek, the First Nations reserve on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake,” where the Cardinal family is from. “There’s an old house there my dad’s dad built.” And that’s the starting point for the brothers on their journey.

“1973 was a really powerful time for our people — and also for my dad and his brother growing up,” says Cardinal, a U of A theatre grad. “We’ve used a lot of our own family history….” It’s a family with deep roots and “a long line of sibling partnerships.”

Cardinal’s dad Lewis Cardinal is a well-known human rights activist, Indigenous educator, and sometime political candidate. His uncle Lorne Cardinal is a stage, film and TV star (Theatre Network plans to name the studio space in their rebuilt Roxy Theatre after him). And Cardinal traces his lineage back through his grandfather ,Cree Elder Don Cardinal, and Don’s writer/ activist brother Harold, back to the signing of Treaty 8 at the turn of the last century.

Now there’s a theatrical sibling collaboration in the family. Cardinal and his sister have been working on Lake of the Strangers for a year. Hunter follows the impetus back to a conversation with “Cree astronomer, Elder and knowledge keeper” Wilfred Buck., “He knows a lot about the myths that have been woven into the stars,”  says Cardinal, who took on English theatre’s most storied role when he played Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s Festival hit production of last summer.

“Their purpose is not only to guide us on the long journey, but keep us on course morally as well.” The Cree concept for this starry tapestry of myths is “misewah,” and it’s been a mantra and a method for the young artist. “It’s our connection to all that was, all that is, and all that will be. And it reminds us that those stories exist in a sea of other stories that have yet to be created and shared.. I took that as a call to action!” 

Myth-making fascinates him, says Cardinal, heir to a whole tradition of Nehiyaw myths. The idea is “to begin with the seed of a truth, and drive that truth upward through all levels of interconnectedness: your family, your community, your nation, through the natural world to the spiritual world.” The spiral he describes “ends with a story placed in the stars as part of a new constellation.”

The story of Lake of the Strangers began, he says, with a question: “how do we heal?” And “in typical Edmonton fashion a great team has joined us,” distinguished veteran artists like director Ron Jenkins (who’s known Hunter and Jacquelyn since they were little kids), designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll, singer-songwriter Sarah Pocklington, sound designer Aaron Macri. Cardinal plays multiple characters, a challenge in focus and clarity. “Hamlet was great preparation!” he laughs.

Cardinal is “story director” at Naheyawin, an Indigenous communication agency designed to build community, to help clients find ways of embracing diversity, to invite them to look at the world “through an Indigenous lens,” as he puts it. “Building community to reconfigure the spirit of peace and friendship that’s at the core of our identity as Canadian Indigenous and treaty people…. I’ve been using all of that win my artistic practice as well. Naheyawin has been a lifeline for me as an Indigenous artist”

As Hamlet, I based my performance heavily on my unique experience as a young indigenous male in exploring Western concepts of masculinity. I used it to frame the deep anger, rage, sadness that Hamlet is going through, his feeling of not being able to live up to certain expectations.”

The spirit of inclusiveness is a theme that Hunter returns to repeatedly. “It’s another way of looking at language,” he says, “to think of it as a way of taking part, singing the song of the world.”

He singles out the Cree word “patawaw” (which Naheyawin uses to title its workshops). “It translates as “welcome’. But what it really means is ‘there is room’.”  

PREVIEW

Lake of the Strangers

Theatre: Naheyawin, in collaboration with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Jacquelyn Hunter and Hunter Cardinal

Starring: Hunter Cardinal

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

Running: Tuesday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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The Cardiac Shadow: where the soul goes under extreme duress. A review.

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the theatre, the dim light glints off the barbed wire that separates us from the stage.

At the back we can just make out a kind of altar, draped in bulbs. It turns out to be a dismembered upright piano from the back, its keys hanging from the sides, along with a selection of violins and cellos, and wooden spoons. The pianist sitting beside me is disturbed by the image.

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Actually everything about the prospect of The Cardiac Shadow, premiering at Northern Light Theatre, is disturbing. It is, after all, imagined from a chilling footnote in the real-life book of Holocaust horrors: a Nazi extreme-temperature experiment that used the prisoners of Ravensbruck concentration camp to ascertain whether body heat and proximity can re-warm near-frozen human flesh. Jewish male prisoners were immersed in ice-water tanks to the point of death; women prisoners were made to lie naked with the survivors to assess whether life can be restored on this terrible threshhold between survival and extinction.

Grim, to say the least (and theatre that takes on the immensity of the Holocaust often seems to be saying the least). 

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

But The Cardiac Shadow, which began as a series of monologues by the American writer Clay McLeod Chapman, isn’t a re-enactment of torture, or an invitation to be appalled, or even a cautionary tale. Not exactly. In the conception of Northern Light director Trevor Schmidt, it’s an elegantly artful little chamber piece. And the chamber in question is the mind, or more precisely the memory vault where the human mind can travel and warm itself when the present is too terrible to bear.

Where is that place? The Cardiac Shadow finds it for each of the four women, used as bodies, human thermometers, by the Nazi Dr. Rascher.   

In extremity, the body and the soul are able to go their separate ways. The director’s performance concept is to separate the women’s voices, a vocal track of monologues from four actors, from their bodies, a quartet of accomplished dancers from The Good Women Dance Collective.

There’s a certain paradox, to be sure, built into the conception of  survival as a matter of the soul breaking free of the body, to imagine instead this liberation as … bodies in motion. But the imagery of remembering, as created by dancers who express themselves physically, makes for haunting theatrical visuals. The dancers step out of sculptural-looking group tableaux, bathed in painterly golden light (designed by Beth Dart), to present their monologue in physical form, against the sound of an actor’s voice and Dave Clarke’s music. And then they return to the group.

The production begins with the voice of Dr. Rascher, the scientist who presided over the so-called “Cold Conference” experiment. You hear the voice of actor Vance Avery against an eerie, vintage-looking 12-minute black-and-white film.

It’s a strangely uninflected delivery. It’s As Dr. Rascher, apparently a devoted and indulgent father, talks about his gold-haired little daughter, you see a beautiful little girl in the snow, happily unpacking an old suitcase of props and costume pieces, playing dress-up. Amongst the articles she removes from the case to play with are a tiny menorah and a Hebrew prayer shaw. Your heart stops when you see them. And then they’re gone.

In the monologue the playwright gives him, Dr. Rascher talks imperturbably on about his precious little girl in one breath, and in the next the Ravensbruck women on whom he’s experimenting — as if they were on a continuum, with no acknowledgment of moral contradiction. “Seeing how peaceful they looked, how serene they seemed, huddled together on that bed — I swear, I never wanted to wake them.” If there’s anything the 20th century has taught us it’s that the human mind is capable of any kind of acrobatic contortion.

The dancers have risen to the challenge of expressing the voice-over monologues in different ways. And the writing is different in each. To a score dominated by cello, Mary, danced by Alida Kendell (with the voice of Nadien Chu), in the most erotic of the segments, reflects on an unbearable present: “our bodies are our blankets now…. It’s difficult to say whose shivers are whose. We shiver for each other.” From this she returns again and again to the bed where she explores, in close-up, a mole on the body of her lover. 

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

In a lovely balletic fantasy fuelled by the spirit of classical music, Kate Stashko, with the voice of Rachel Bowron, is Anna. She’s a musician herself who finds her escape in music, especially Mozart. Her image about playing the body of a first lover like a cello is memorably realized.

Ainsley Hillyard (with the voice of Megan Dart) remembers a young and vibrant self,  conjuring a trip to the beach, “basking in the sun, warming ourselves.” It happens onstage in Hillyard’s invention, in strange, almost playful, body angles and collapses, to the sound of waves. And she’s joined in her memory by the other dancers, a ghostly corps of smiling friends.

One of McLeod Chapman’s monologues stands defiantly apart from the others. Jarringly so, I think. Sarah, danced with muscular force and eloquence by Alison Kause to the edgy, angled voice of Elisa Benzer, is firmly rooted in the bleak present — and the decision to  survive, not by finding a secret place of spiritual sustenance but by taking food from the mouths of the dying in the camp. It’s a confession of sorts (“thank God I’ve gotten hell out of the way”), accompanied by Edvard Munch-ian  facial contortions and aggressive Beethoven riffs (Clarke’s musical choices are always expressive). 

Is it a (possibly unnecessary) reminder that survival is only a fantasy under the circumstances (though it certainly explains the wooden spoons hanging from the “altar”)? The ending, a startling theatrical effect in lighting that evokes thoughts of religious miracles, returns us to the mind of Dr. Fascher, and his discovery about the heart. In hypothermic shutdowns, it is the last to give up the ghost, .

“Multi-disciplinary” is an oft-tortured term in the arts. Here’s a production that experiments with using dance, theatre, music, and film in an original amalgam — as an homage to imagination under unthinkable circumstances.

REVIEW

The Cardiac Shadow

Theatre: Northern Light/ The Good Women Dance Collective

Written by: Clay McLeod Chapman

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: The Good Women Dance Collective (Alida Kendell, Alison Kause, Kate Stashko, Ainsley Hillyard, and (voice-overs) Nadien Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart, Vance Avery

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

Running: Friday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

    

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Sweat, a blue-collar tragedy of work and race, at the Citadel: A review

Nicole St. Martin and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you’ve ever wondered why disenfranchised workers seem to vote, time and again, against their own economic self-interest — and it’s a moment in history to be awestruck by that — the play currently onstage at the Citadel speaks powerfully to that. 

In a world where ruthless capitalism has leached not just the future but the soul from blue-collar labour, simmering disappointment, betrayal, and bewilderment turn into rage. And rage looks for an easy target, like race. Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s prophetic Pulitzer Prize winner, which dates from 2015, pre-Trump, is about that. It’s ugly, it’s compassionate, and its violence has the inevitability of Greek tragedy. 

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Sweat arrives on the mainstage in a gritty and intense Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production directed by Valerie Planche, that bristles with fully committed performances. The focal point of Nottage’s big, crammed canvas of an industrial America going down down down, is the neighbourhood bar that’s a second home for factory workers to gather post-shift to chill, share news, and/or get wasted. In Shizuka Kai’s atmospheric design, it’s one of those cluttered havens, where the bartender has a jar for the car keys of the blotto, in the shadow of an eerie skeletal town. 

It’s where three old working-class friends, who’ve sweated on the line for decades (like their parents and grandparents before them), always celebrate their birthdays together: Tracey (Nicole St. Martin), Cynthia (Marci T. House), and Jessie (Lora Brovold), along with an empathetic bartender (Ashley Wright) who worked the line himself till a leg injury at work intervened.

Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We’re in the the dying rustbelt town of Reading, Penn.(where the  playwright did extensive first-hand research), sustained for generations by its steel tubing factory factory and by blue-collar loyalty. What happens to a haven that turns into a dangerous tinderbox, and what happens to friendship that operates easily across racial lines, is a complex story of disintegration — of friendships, marriages, dreams, hopes. Lay-offs, lock-outs as a negotiating tool, salary rollbacks, the corporate crushing of unions, picket lines and the temps who cross them … they all take their toll on the old bonds. And as Planche’s production chronicles, tensions escalate, fuelled by white racist venom and lubricated by booze and drugs. The past, and all its sweat equity, is under siege; the future may not exist.

“Tell me what I did wrong,” says Cynthia’s sometime husband Brucie (Anthony Santiago), sliding into druggy despair. He stood with the union, that’s what he did. And he got locked out for years, for his loyalty.

The immediate trigger is a promotion to low-level management of the African-American Cynthia over the head of Tracey, her white co-worker. And nothing is the same after that. As the former, House, compellingly authentic, conveys the conflicted drive of a woman torn between loyalty and the only opportunity for advancement she’s ever had, as a black person in a oppressive racist culture. The moment will turn to ashes. As she breaks the news of a 60 per cent pay cut and lay-offs she wonders if the promotion wasn’t a set-up so that that the African-American will be the message-bearer.

Marci T. House and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

St. Martin is just superb as the fiery Tracey, incinerating her own better, more cordial instincts in a conflagration of resentment, anti-immigrant and racist fury, and irrational blame. It’s a performance that really bites into the character, and virtually ricochets across the stage on a jet stream of anger. Brovold as Jessie, gradually dissolving in booze, is excellent too.

In fact, the ensemble takes the overlapping rhythms, the ebbs and surges of bar encounters, into its collective bones. As Stan the bartender, Wright, who is a terrific actor, presides over the scene as a the calming, humane father figure and seer whose resignation occasionally splinters. Did the company reward the loyalty of a worker of 28 years standing when he got injured? “I was nothing!” he says.

In an ensemble that’s convincing through and through, Oscar, the ignorable Colombian-American bar busboy, is mostly silent and altogether invisible to the clientele — until he isn’t. Alen Dominguez is excellent: watchful, patient, wary, shut out by both the corporate and the social culture. A little scene, furious and somehow a bit poignant, between Oscar and the hostile Tracey as he tries to bum a cigarette lingers in the mind. 

Chris W. Cook and Anthony Santiago, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The play, which unfolds in scenes separated by an ominous industrial heartbeat in Mishelle Cuttler’s score, opens in 2008 (the year not coincidentally that America’s banks pleaded crisis and got a bail-out). It opens with Tracey’s and Cynthia’s sons, Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Chris (Andrew Creightney) respectively, getting out of prison for an unspecified crime that will be revealed at the end.

They are struggling with disappointment and failure, in different ways. Jason, still rippling with fury, has turned into some sort of white supremacist. Chris tries his luck with religion. Their lives have been tainted forever, and they know it. And Sweat returns to them at the end. They are, after all, the human cost going forward of a terrible failure to read the writing on the wall, and understand that the world has left them behind. 

PREVIEW

Sweat

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club and Citadel

Written by: Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Valerie Planche

Starring: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez

Running: Thursday through Feb. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs: the fascination of escape, an unlikely radical. A review

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The international stage repertoire has no shortage of shows about the entertainment world and its fractious backstage — where dreamers and achievers, stars and wannabes, artsy bright-idea types and antsy bottom-line producers, collide.

Still, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs is, I strongly suspect, the only show of the season in which new play development, and rehearsals, involve a handcuffed performer sticking her head in a bucket of water, and emerging with a gasp, triumphantly dangling the cuffs.

The fascinating new play, by magician/ illusionist/ playwright Ron Pearson — starring a stunning performer with an equally improbable collection of those qualifier slashes, actor/ escape artist Miranda Allen — premieres in the Roxy Performance Series in a production directed by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

It opens in the dark, to the sound of water and a ticking clock. Together, they equal suspense. In the show that follows, we meet an entertainer who finds her place in showbiz and her true self in life holding her breath underwater, breaking free of chains and ropes and locks of every kind, and counting down to deadlines. It makes me nervous even thinking about it. 

Uniquely qualified for the role, Allen plays the real-life Edwardian escape artist Minerva Vano, whose prowess (and radical novelty as a woman showing it off) made her a sensation — and a rival of Harry Houdini. And Pearson’s script, which springboards from the gallery of characters provided by history, all of them male except her, has an organic feminist momentum to it.

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

It’s framed by flashbacks to performances and backstage encounters conjured under hypnosis, a new turn-of-the-century fad. Plagued by crippling mid-career panic and anxiety — in that line of work, who wouldn’t be? —  Minerva consults a hypnotist (the chameleonic Richard Lee Hsi, in one of his multiple roles). And under his prompting, her memory coughs up flashbacks from a career built on an extraordinary talent for escaping shackles, of one kind or another.

What is it you do? wonders the hypnotist. “I escape from things,” says Minerva. And then, onstage and with audience participation to tie the ropes, tighten the straps, and lock the locks, she does. 

Allen and Lee Hsi deftly create a performance style that nods to the period and the vintage escapes that are its source material. Allen’s Minerva doesn’t have a contemporary street hustle and edge about her as she deals with her audience volunteers: there’s a whiff of risqué about her bustling cheerfulness, but only a whiff. Radicalism still wears button shoes, a high-topped dress, and a pleasant smile in 1905.

Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As all the men in Minerva’s world, including the suave and threatening Houdini, a villain in a tux, Lee Hsi creates a variety of 19th century showbiz men, from the patronizing to the sinister. They don’t realize that the era is changing, right under their well-shod feet. 

Minerva’s signature act and greatest hit was escaping from a water-filled barrel while chained (while it’s not re-enacted, it’s evoked). For run-of-the-mill claustrophobes such as myself, this is of course the ultimate nightmare, followed closely by jumping off bridges while chained. But for Minerva, who’s addicted to the adrenalin rush from escaping as the clock ticks, panic is a horrifying new development.

We see Minerva with her first husband Willie, a n’er-do-well touring magician with a certain chipper, wheedling, ever-hopeful charm and the financial acumen of a gnat, as Lee Hsi plays him. And Minerva’s first escapes are from flea-bag hotels in the middle of the night, to avoid paying. “We’re gonna hit the big time,” Willie is fond of saying. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, it’s Willie who suggests an “escape act” involving water and a locked barrel. He needs, he says, “something no one else is doing.” Minerva is game, but wonders “so how exactly do you escape?” And he cries “details!” Idea guys are like that. He reads the racing form while Minerva hits the (rehearsal) bucket.

Tessa Stamp’s design for Moss’s production, lit by Scott Peters, is responsive to the conjuring that goes into magic-making and escape. The fore-stage has an alluring simplicity: a trunk, a chair, hanging bulbs. They’re the props of a magic that has to start from nothing to be persuasive, and transcends predictable human possibility. The backstage, shrouded behind a black veil, is lit by a dim chandelier. The combination of preternatural skill and mystery, what is lit and what is in darkness, is at the heart of the show.

And by the time Allen is escaping from a triple-knotted noose or an impossibly tightened straitjacket in three minutes — will she? won’t she? is this the one performance where the straitjacket wins? — you feel you’re holding your breath. Artfully framed as a story, the play relies on that escalation of tension and sense of wonder.

For all that, and the big reveal of a mystery at the end — it’s a wowsa! — there’s a certain heart-on-sleeve innocence about Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Bonds and escapes, it points out, come in many challenges, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a man’s world, after all.

It invites you to cheer when Minerva unlocks thumb cuffs “used by Scotland Yard.” And, equally, you’re invited to cheer when Minerva declares her intention to have a solo escapist career, or resists sexist advances from a thuggish manager in an expensive coat. It wants to be inspiring in the time-honoured, applause-magnet way that escape acts work. And it is.

REVIEW

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Written by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

    

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The Cardiac Shadow, a multi-disciplinary exploration of human resilience at Northern Light

Kate Shashko in The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“We were the thermometers of these men. The mercury was in our veins, rising and falling with every heartbeat. Our bodies measured the temperature of death.”

The Cardiac Shadow, Clay McLeod Chapman

In the play the opens Friday in the Northern Light Theatre season, you’ll meet four women selected for a extreme-temperature science experiment in calibrating the fine line between life and death.

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The women, prisoners of Ravensbruck concentration camp, are made to lie, naked, with Jewish male prisoners who’d been immersed to the point of death in tanks of ice water. Can they be resurrected by the pulse of human contact? Can the life force be passed on?

It’s not just a terrifying hypothesis. Chillingly, The Cardiac Shadow, by the American writer Clay McLeod Chapman, is based on a true story; the so-called “Cold Conference” is a historical footnote, a short paragraph in the long horrific archive of Holocaust atrocities. “It gives voice to the voiceless, the women,” says director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, who’s fashioned a multi-disciplinary production — in partnership with The Good Women Dance Collective — from the four inner monologues, prologue, and epilogue of the piece.

Schmidt discovered the script — which has had only one public reading ever — a decade ago online. By one of those coincidences that seem to fuel theatre, he met up with the playwright — who’s since left theatre to write youth novels and Spiderman comics for Marvel — in Edmonton. In 2008 and 2009 McLeod Chapman brought The Pumpkin Pie Show, a selection of his monologues, to the Fringe.

In typical Northern Light fashion, Schmidt has taken a script of some dozen pages, which doesn’t specifically call for dance, and extrapolated creatively with his collaborators.

“The first part of the show is a 12-minute film (created by Katrina Beatty of Loud Whisper Production), with the doctor (SS Second Lieutenant Dr. Sigmund Rascher) as a recorded voice-over (Vance Avery).”  The women’s monologues are delivered in voice-over by a quartet of actors: Nadine Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart. And the stage belongs exclusively to dancers, a quartet from Good Women Dance. They’ve created movement, and dance to the voice-overs and the Dave Clarke score.

“Dave’s way into the show was that it was a musical piece,” says Schmidt. “Each woman is attached to a particular instrument, cello, violin, drums, piano, as leitmotif.” And the music, largely from the ‘20s and ‘30s, “has informed what we’re doing with set design.”

The Cardiac Show, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Schmidt, potentially a career dancer himself till a serious injury at 22 (“my body gave me the hint”), was attracted to dancers as the live performers for his production. It is, after all, as Good Women’s Kate Stashko says, “about the body, and its reactions. Can it be done, passing on the life force? And who gives it back to you? How do you keep a little for yourself?”

“You could have actors just stand and deliver, of course,” Schmidt says of the production possibilities he considered. “But I didn’t want the man onstage; it’s not about him…. I think the women have to be bodies. I wanted to see them as real women (not film images). And I wanted to see them move….” He’s dressed his live cast in flesh-coloured costumes: “it’s the idea of columns of flesh; they all appear to just be skin.”

Stashko plays Anna (to Anna’s voice-over, actor Rachel Bowron) who escapes the extreme duress of imprisonment to her thought haven, memories of music. The play, Stashko thinks, is not about the graphic detail of torture, and “more about resilience…. How do you get through it? how do you muster that? what do you cling to at your lowest moments?”

Dancers are used to creating from set pieces of music; it’s what they do. But in creating a movement-scape for Anna, Stashko has found herself thinking about what it means to be a dancer in a theatre production where the characters are also voice-overs. The separation of voice and body is tricky. “You have to think how much is needed, so you’re not over-riding the text. How to support and give some visual information, without so much that people don’t hear the voice…. If there’s too much, visually, the lines don’t land.” The dancer is devising how to move, and also “when to be still, to let a line arrive, ” she thinks. “It’s all about the phrasing.”

Putting dance and theatre together in a multi-disciplinary enterprise, says Stashko, is about “the abstract vs. the literal. The aesthetics (of the two) are different. And it’s a challenge to communicate. Your languages are different, and so are your audiences — the amount of information they want, and need….”

Stashko, who recently returned from dance workshops in Israel, was surprised a bit  at her “strong emotional attachment” to The Cardiac Shadow, beyond the more universal revulsion at the Holocaust. True, her grandfather was Jewish, but there wasn’t much in her upbringing to reinforce a Jewish heritage. The Cardiac Shadow and her reaction, she says, “reminded me that people store things in their bodies.”

For his part Schmidt was struck by the collaborative way the Good Women work — and their capacity for mutual positive criticism. It’s not like theatre, he says. Stashko smiles at this. For one thing, “dancers are good at taking criticism,” she says. “Not necessarily a good thing but that’s the way it is in the dance world.” And, second, “we’re a collective. We build everything together. So we’re obligated to take information (from each other) and make everything better. That’s what we do.”

“Your strength and technique and stamina are incredible, all of you,” Schmidt says to Stashko. “You’re athletes as well are artists….”

Working with these women has been amazing for me,” says Schmidt, a little wonderstruck by the lack of ego in their way of creating. “It’s so different than in theatre…. Kate says she needs to generate movement for her part. So they all listen to two minutes of music, and everyone goes off to a different part of the studio and creates dance. Then they all come back, and Kate says ‘show me what you’ve got’.”

“I think this play is going to be really rich…. It’s multi-disciplinary in a way we don’t see very often.”

PREVIEW

The Cardiac Shadow

Theatre: Northern Light/ The Good Women Dance Collective

Written by: Clay McLeod Chapman

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: The Good Women Dance Collective (Alida Kendell, Alison Kause, Kate Stashko, Ainsley Hillyard, and (voice-overs) Nadine Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart, Vance Avery

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

Running: Friday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

     

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The collapse of the blue-collar dream: Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, comes to the Citadel

Marci T. House, Ashley Wright, Nicole St. Martin in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“They don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything. They squeeze us like a sponge, drain every last drop of blood out and then throw us away.”

— Stan the bartender in Sweat, Lynn Nottage

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 play that opens Thursday at the Citadel, you’ll see friendships disintegrate along with the long-held belief in the social contract that says, without spelling it out, that we’re all in this together. In a time of economic stagnation, viable blue-collar jobs and a righteous sense of identity are vanishing into the ruthless no-man’s-land of corporate profit margins. And rage and disappointment — the kind that helped propel Trump to the White House —  are on the rise.

Sweat, by the star American playwright Lynn Nottage, is inspired by her two and a half years interviewing residents of the dying rust-belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, which went from thriving to one of the nation’s poorest when its steel factory closed. A dwindling industry, a loss of work, economic tension…. It has a familiar ring in the here and now.

Amongst the regulars at a steelworkers bar, who gather after their shifts to chill, to bitch, to console each other and themselves, stress fractures are appearing. The easy solidarity of the place is shattered when one of their number, Cynthia, an African-American, is promoted from the shop floor to supervisor, over the head of her best and oldest friend Tracey, who is white.

Marci T. House and Nicole St. Martin, who are Cynthia and Tracey in the Vancouver Arts Club/ Citadel co-production directed by Valerie Planche, met up this week for lunch to chat about their roles in a play that seems more topical every day. Since Sweat rehearsed and ran in Vancouver before Christmas, the pair have lived with their characters long enough they refer to them in the first-person.   

“The tension is really amped up by that promotion,” says the Vancouver-based House, originally from Chicago, who plays Cynthia. “There we are, living our lives, crushed by the same forces … and then one of us is promoted and the balance changes, and friends wonder where loyalty lies.”

Cynthia applies for the supervisor job because “I want to be a ‘white hat’; I’ve always wanted that job. And I argue that ‘it’ll be good for all of us’ if I get it.” Of Tracey, St. Martin says “I just wants to put in my years, as in prison, then retire at 55….”

For Tracey “it’s a betrayal” when her friend applies for the promotion, and she burns with a sense of injustice when Cynthia gets it. Inevitably, the race card, with its affirmative action fine print, gets played. House says “The ‘Haves’ continue to have as long as the ‘Have-Not’s are at each other’s throats.”

Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Like their friends, Cynthia and Tracey have devoted the better part of their adult lives to the plant, which is now in danger, according to management, of moving to Mexico. Or closing. Or is that a management strategy to squeeze out salary and working hour concessions?

Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Nottage called it the De-Industrialization Revolution. It “changed the American narrative,” she said of the dream where working hard pays off, and reaps loyalty.

Anthony Santiago, Marc T. House in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At audience post-show talkbacks during the Vancouver run of Sweat,  St. Martin was asked “how do you get that rage every night?” House laughs at this. “You turn on the television…. It’s not hard; are you not paying attention to what’s happening in the world?”

House, who deems Nottage her “favourite playwright,” has a bond with her work.  She’s been in Canadian productions of Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (a story of a black seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York) and Ruined (about Congolese women during a civil war). Sweat, which House saw in its 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiere, is her third Nottage play. “I championed it to the Arts Club…. I saw how important it is to the current political dialogue!”

“I think I have a visceral connection to everything (Nottage) writes,” says House, both “as an artist of colour and as a playwright on the international stage…. I understand her stories — small stories particular to the African-American experience all the way to Africa, like her latest play Mlima’s Tale (about the illegal smuggling of ivory).”

In Sweat, NAFTA is a barbed term for workers under the threat of factory closure or re-location. For House it has a particular resonance. “I’m a product of NAFTA,” she says. She arrived in Canada 13 years ago, from a stint in L.A., on a NAFTA work visa. House is a rare example of an architect/actor: “I call myself an architress,” she smiles.  As a kid in Chicago, House acted, in regional and community theatre; she designed her first house at nine, and her dad actually built it.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, “I got to see the reality of what happens when an industry fails,” she says of watching her uncles struggle in that culture. “GM, Ford, Western Electric … I saw entire communities decimated when the plants went down. I saw the devastation of schools closing down, homes getting foreclosed.” At 21 and without a college education, her youngest uncle, now in his mid-60s, was working at a factory, making $60,000 a year. Serious money.” As she points out, these jobs are blue-collar in terms of education, but middle-class in terms of income.

For her part, Montreal-born St. Martin, who arrived in Edmonton from Toronto four years ago with her director husband (Michael Bradley) and young son, “lived through my dad, at 62, losing his job in the recession here…. It was devastating to my family.”

In one Arts Club talkback, St. Martin was asked “is education key?” She says “I had to say No…. My dad was highly educated, multiple degrees and certifications. At age 62 what do you do? Nobody wants you because you’re worth too much…. Experience is expensive.”

In the process of packing up a storage unit of stuff to move here from Ontario (Bradley got a master’s degree in directing at the U of A), St. Martin discovered an old cheque book. It revealed that as a teenager at the time, she’d given her parents money. The sense of that humiliation for her dad, “to have his teenage daughter forking out,” has never left her.

When she read Sweat and “was blown away,” St. Martin, who considers Nottage “a genius playwright,” was struck, she says, by the way “people tie their identity to what they do, the company they work for….” That bond is not reciprocal. “I have no loyalty to the company,” she says in Tracey mode. “Our value (to it) is the money we make for them….”

It takes place in a real American city, Reading, Penn. But in the end how exclusively American is Sweat? Both actors consider the question, and dismiss it. House, who weaves TV and film gigs into her theatre life in Vancouver (“there’s more sense of community in theatre, more opportunity to shape a career”) points out “it’s only set in the U.S.”; it speaks to the Canadian experience too, witness the closure of GM’s Oshawa plant. Ah, and Alberta…. 

“The more specific it is, the more universal,” says St. Martin, who’s happily ensconced in the Edmonton theatre community, as audiences here have reason to know (Anxiety, Do This In Memory Of Me, an upcoming indie production of Richard III with Le Fixe). House concurs. If it’s particular, “people will see themselves in that.” 

PREVIEW

Sweat

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club and Citadel

Written by: Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Valerie Planche

Starring: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez

Running: Thursday through Feb. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Hell tour via the circus: Firefly Theatre’s Inferno

Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Go to hell.

That’s what Jocelyn Ahlf and Belinda Cornish have been wanting to do for years. And now they have.

Firefly Theatre’s 14-performer workshop production of Inferno, that takes to the stage, and also the air, starting Thursday, is their theatre/circus re-telling of the first (and liveliest) part of Dante’s epic 14th century poem The Divine Comedy.

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Hell has always tickled their creative fancy, as the pair explain mid-rehearsal last week at the Westbury. “Fifteen years ago we were thinking about … hell,” says Ahlf. “We thought  sketch comedy first,” laughs Cornish turning to her creative partner. “And then we thought we might as well go to the source, the classical version of hell,” says Ahlf.

“That’s the way our brains work, not very earnestly,” says Cornish. Ahlf concurs. “If we’re going to find darkness we do it through levity.”

Exactly. I’m thinking about Hump, Ahlf’s very funny chronicle of a community theatre preparing to do Richard III (it starred Cornish as the winter-of-our-discontent mass murderer). Cornish is thinking about “the closing night of Paradice City,” her repurposing of the hard-driving Guns N Roses repertoire as chipper musical theatre. “We sat around a fire with the RibbitRepublic boys (a male collective) reading Dante’s Inferno,” she says, as if this were a traditional campfire activity of an Alberta summer night.

Annie Dugan (rear), Belinda Cornish and Jocelyn Ahlf, Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Time has passed. Ahlf and Cornish, actor/playwrights both, are no longer in their mid twenties. “Now I know what real hell is,” grins Ahlf, who’s juggling full-time university, with theatre, with kids, with the voice-over studio she runs with her husband. “I didn’t understand then what real suffering is….”

“When you’ve lived…” says Cornish, the artistic director of Bright Young Things (and star of that collective’s recent Fallen Angels), trailing off. “There’s no way we could write then what we’ve written now!” declares Ahlf decisively.

In formal terms, The Inferno as sketch comedy isn’t a completely outlandish notion: Dante’s nine circles of hell “as set pieces in a kind of vaudeville,” as Cornish puts it. But what then of the narrative, Dante’s quest, his journey led by Virgil (of The Aeneid fame) through hell and beyond to find his lost true love Beatrice?”

Finding a contemporary context for a complicated medieval, and very Catholic, cosmology full of pop-cultural references of 1300, wasn’t easy. “At 25,” says Ahlf ruefully, “we would have said ‘wouldn’t it be funny if it was an office and some bureaucrat had to fill out forms for all eternity?’”

“We were looking for a modern context that would make sense,” says Cornish. “And it makes no sense to keep references to people who were semi-famous at the time….” Spot quiz: how many of you smart-pants remember Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, who get big placement in the icy ninth circle of hell? Punishments were tricky, too. Damning imprecations against heresy, or  suicide, don’t have the same traction these days, to say the least.

In their adaptation, heretics are human plinths, with heads on top, “like Beckett’s Play,” says Cornish. “They’ve spoken against truth. Out of malice, to promote their own ends. Fake news.” Says Ahlf, “we’ve sucked the Catholicism out of The Inferno,” says Ahlf. “We tried to find a way to address suicide without passing judgment…” says Cornish. 

Another inspiration for the pair was The Gates of Hell, a group sculpture by the French artist Rodin depicting Dante’s Inferno. “We used that a lot,” says Ahlf.

“We’re amazing,” laughs Ahlf, “but we have only the skills we have.” And Inferno “needs to be more, more theatrical, than people standing talking,” says Cornish. Setting Dante in motion cried out for a context, like circus, where “gravity doesn’t operate,” says Cornish, who’s stepped in to play one of the airborne Furies, who swoop down to snatch the damned and carry them off to hell.

Jonathan Hawley Purvis and Mat Busby in Inferno. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Hell is other people, argued Sartre in No Exit (produced, incidentally, by Bright Young Things at the 2017 Fringe). Wrong wrong wrong Jean-Paul. He was definitely not talking about theatrical adaptations of Dante, where a pooling of other people’s talent is what it takes to make the Fire Demons fly or the Furies swoop or The Wrathful contort.

“This is totally different, so awesome,” Ahlf smiles. “We are very aware that our contributions are a small part of telling the narrative…. We’ve said ‘this is the story’ and handed it over to Annie (Annie Dugan, artistic director of Firefly) and Christine (choreographer Christine Bandelow). And the talking and the aerial (stuff) happen at the same time.”

Jonathan Hawley Purvis and Mat Busby in Inferno, Firefly Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

Hell is complicated, theatrically speaking. There’s original music, underscoring and three songs, by Paul Morgan Donald. The collaborators got to the eighth circle, and discovered that there are 10 categories of the fraudulent, with specific punishments for each in 10 ditches. “So near the end! What to do!” they cried. So Morgan Donald wrote a patter song “about these hideous, terrible people, very Mel Brooks” to encompass the lot. “We tried to balance the serious and the comic,” says Cornish.

Dugan’s cast for the journey through hell includes actors who keep their feet on terra firm, actor/aerialists like Cornish who don’t, very game thesps (like Mat Busby, who as Virgil leaves the ground clutching an umbrella, like a medieval Mary Poppins) venturing into circus for the first time. There are aerialists, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, a small cute dog….

And yes, you will see actors throwing caution to the wind and walking on rolling balls. Cornish and Ahlf feel that they’re doing the same. “It’s not small-scale; that’s the luxury,” says Cornish. “We wrote it for a cast of 400 and budget of $40 million. So this requires ingenuity…. What will people think? I haven’t ANY idea! Really!”

“I think people will be delighted! It’s weird!” says Ahlf. “Weird and scary and gross and thoughtful….It’s going to be entertaining.” Cornish nods. “If you’re going to do hell, it had better be fun. We’re living the life of anticipation….” Words to live by.

The production that runs through Jan. 26 is a Firefly workshop. Look for the full production two years hence.

PREVIEW

Inferno (a workshop production)

Theatre: Firefly

Adapted by: Jocelyn Ahlf and Belinda Cornish

Directed by: Annie Dugan

Starring: Jonathan Hawley Purvis, Mat Busby, Tara Bergen

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

Running: Thursday through Jan. 26

Tickets: at the door.

       

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KaldrSaga: the secret lives of gods and heroes in Cardiac’s genial storytelling pub show. A review

Jake Tkaczyk and Nasra Adem in KaldrSaga, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Laroche-Humby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Tell me a story” (preferably “funny but dark”). And make it snappy.

Hey, what are friends for? In KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night, Harley Morison’s free-wheeling new pub show for Cardiac Theatre, two old pals of the Norse persuasion meet up once a year in the same bar, in the dead of winter, to catch up and re-bond. This they do in the time-honoured way — by hoisting beer and sharing stories of their trials, their tribulations, their setbacks and their fancies. “Our friendship is like one of those old familiar tales,” says one.

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Kaldr (Jake Tkaczyk) and Saga (Nasra Adem), who are well-connected in Norse god, hero and giant circles, are propelled through life with a classic and crucial question: “does everyone feel love differently?” In Morison’s playfully subversive, loose-limbed and limber concoction of queer origin stories, spun from an all-star list of Norse characters, love is love.       

The production, which ricochets through the back room of The Almanac like a fizzy cocktail special, feels appealingly impromptu thanks to amusing performances from Tkaczyk and Adem. The former is lanky, with a kind of wide-eyed earnest deadpan; the latter is small and wry, with a modern eye-rolling sort of skepticism. And Morison’s script, which nods to archaic cadences, is peppered with anachronisms both sly and sassy. 

Mosey, son of the macho god of thunder Thor (the guy with the big hammer), breaks the news to dad that he isn’t going to take Competitive Wrestling. Instead, he’s going into the arts. Yes, he’s signing up for Musical Theatre Study: Gershwin to Guettel, and hoping to be in Light In The Piazza. Thor is not amused. “What will people think?” Tkaczyk gets a funny drag number out of it (My Man from Funny Girl). 

Saga doesn’t get much encouragement either from her single mom, who’s perpetually expiring (with a New York accent) and trying to fix up her daughter with a marriageable guy. Like that’s gonna happen. Adem is a bustling and charismatic stage presence. 

Their coming-of-age adventures en route to what purse-lipped sociologists of another age will call self-actualization are a violent swirl of squirrels (really) and bugs, giants and villainous innkeepers, master craftsmen, ill-fated bets and doomed marriage contracts. And Kaldr and Saga helpfully step in to play the character parts in each other’s tales (with a song at the end, A Better Burden by Rebecca Merkley). It turns out that the tapestry of Norse mythology, which doesn’t exactly position gods on pedestals, has all kinds  of queer threads and obstacles to true love. And KaldrSaga has a sporting time following a selection of them, leaving a trail of contemporary breadcrumbs.

“An artist’s work is never done,” sighs an artisan who carves a perfect chess queen, in return for room and board at a hostelry. She gets cheated in the deal. ’Tis the way of the world; you’ve got to be smart and step lively to survive. And this genial, messy, good-humoured show knows it.

REVIEW

KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night

Theatre: Cardiac

Written and directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: The Almanac on Whyte

Running: through Jan. 26

Tickets: cardiactheatre.ca

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Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs: a woman trapped in a man’s world

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Photo: Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“In life you feel you’re trapped in a situation and there’s no out, no gap, no light. Everyone can relate to that feeling of being stuck, in some way…. There’s a real-ness to that.” 

— Miranda Allen, actor and escape artist 

Finding a way to get out of an impossible life impasse, puzzling out that “some crevice, some crack” in the trap … that’s the thrill (and “the theatrical metaphor”) of the fine art of escape, says the star of Ron Pearson’s Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, premiering in the Roxy Performance Series Thursday.

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Miranda Allen plays the turn-of-the-20th century escape artist whose fame in a man’s world in the early days of vaudeville catapulted her into rivalry with Harry Houdini. I feel confident declaring, now and in advance, that the Ghostwriter Theatre production is a shoo-in for hard-to-cast show of the season. Where on earth do you find a star who can escape from a straitjacket, handcuffs, shackles in a water barrel — and act?

Edmonton, as it happens. That’s where the adventurous, exotically multi-talented Allen is based, with her partner and Minerva co-star actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi. There is, I need hardly add, no understudy, no plan B for casting the play, by magician/ street performer/ illusionist/ playwright/ “magic history buff” Pearson, Ghostwriter’s artistic director and muse. 

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

Minerva, whose signature was the water barrel escape, jumped off bridges in police handcuffs or a straitjacket. She escaped from jails. She could unchain herself from just about anything — except the struggle that women had in a tough, competitive male-dominated world, says Pearson, who came across Minerva and her rivalry with Harry Houdini in his research into one of her five, possibly six, husbands. “Not a lot has changed” in that status quo, Pearson thinks, whose Ghostwriter Theatre is devoted to restoring sideshow and carnival attractions.

Says Allen, an engaging and thoughtful sort, “for me the most exciting part of escapology is how it reflects life, us as people…. Through Minerva’s journeys and escapes, we get a view of where we are and where we were, in the entertainment industry, women’s rights, women in the work force. … Ron has written a play that speaks so strongly to my experience as a female entertainer.”

For the Revelstoke, B.C. native, who grew up with dance and martial arts (and of course skiing), that entertainer experience started with acting — a degree from the University of Windsor and an obligatory period in Toronto theatre. “My first gig was with a giant puppetry company; they taught me to stilt-walk. And that became my day job….”

Nominated for a 2018 Sterling Award for her performance in Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, Allen originally came to Edmonton to audition for a Theatre Prospero Shakespeare tour. “I just really liked the people and the theatre community…. Eventually a friend cleared out my storage locker in Toronto, and I haven’t been back.”

Allen and Pearson aren’t entirely sure where they met. Was it perhaps one of Pearson’s signature series of sideshow illusions? “I was the head on the table,” says Allen. “My favourite!” Or was it the Edmonton Street Fest “the year I was stilting?” Pearson thinks “Grande Prairie! I was working on my silent show and Miranda painted me a Show Time sign.” Allen laughs. “We met in true vaudeville fashion. We can’t exactly pinpoint it.”

It was in London en route Down Under, that Allen made her street debut. “The concept was that people like Canadians,” she smiles. “So I did a lumberjack show — with zero actual lumberjack skills! It lasted all of two weeks.”

In Australia — “one of the toughest places in the world to perform on the street,” says Pearson — Allen learned the art of escaping. By night she was onstage in The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear for a Sydney rep company. By day, she performed on the street, “and learned my first straitjacket escape” from a fellow performer, in the time-honoured mentoring way.“I looked at street performers and thought, man, they have so much autonomy.”

Street performing is a showbiz education, Pearson says. “If you can work in that situation you can work anywhere! You’re creating a theatre out nothing! No middleman! And when it works, it’s exhilarating!”

It’s also daunting, gathering an audience that might leave at any moment and not lay down a dime. Lee Hsi tried it only once, as a dance busker when Allen was performing in Bath, England. “And I haven’t since,” he says decisively. “I was freaked out…. Performing is a whole different proposition when you’re out there, no company backing you, making it all by yourself. Intimidating. Really intimidating. It really hit home.”

The straitjacket is one of the escapes Allen will do live in Minerva, with the audience doing the tying and binding to ensure there’s no trickery. And there are always risks to ventures across the relative safety of the fourth wall, as Pearson points out. “Things can happen; if Miranda can’t get out the show could become very long…. We want to give the audience the experience of watching Minerva perform live in 1905.…”

When a trick goes wrong in a magic show, you can bail out the situation. In a play that’s actually about an escape artist, the stakes are much higher. “You have to make choices” that involve the storytelling. “People want to see what happens. They’re excited to see how we deal with it,” says Allen.

Risk. Unpredictability. Pearson knows something about that. Conjure the moment: it’s  Saskatoon and Pearson has come to the grand finale of the magic show he’s toured to Britain. He gets audience members to tie him up in 75 feet of rope. Two ranchers oblige. “And I literally could not move. I couldn’t budge.” At the outset he’d assured the audience that “if I don’t escape in three minutes I will not pass my hat.” He didn’t, and he didn’t. It took a sweaty half an hour to escape. Interestingly, “I made the same money as I would have if I’d succeeded.”

Allen loves that story. “OK, there are escapes I do where not getting out would horrify me,” she shrugs cheerfully. “You need a lot more assurances you’re going to survive when you add fire or water or falling.”

Miranda Allen and Samantha Jeffery in Whiskey Barrel, Found Festival 2018. Photo supplied.

Last year, at the annual Found Festival, Allen premiered Whiskey Business at the Strathcona Spirits distillery, a live under-water escape from a locked whiskey barrel, an homage to Minerva’s signature escape. “One hundred per cent, the barrel thing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Allen says. The second-hardest? “Building the barrel, learning to do the stunt, writing the show, producing the show — in six weeks!”

Underwater escapes (which Minerva doesn’t include, since the logistics of draining 50 gallons are a small-theatre nightmare) require “a whole risk assessment,” with actual calculations and safety measures, and training regimens. That kind of thinking isn’t foreign: “I was raised by an architect and an avalanche technician,” says Allen. “How do we mitigate the risks in a way we can tell an entertaining story? It’s like stage-fighting but with a higher thrill.…” The lack of certainty “is a reality of life you don’t often get to see reflected on the stage.”  

Allen, who spent a week in the summer training with the Vancouver artist who does all the underwater stunts for film and TV there, started with holding her breath for 35 seconds. And she worked up to four minutes. “You have to be in a super-relaxed state; your muscle and brain are consuming as little oxygen as possible. It’s a mind game.”

You can do this at home — if you’re really single-minded. In their small apartment Allen and Lee Hsi kept a barrel in the middle of their kitchen. “I came to really enjoy it,” Allen laughs. “After a hard day I’d come home and sit in it, empty, in the dark.” As for the rain barrel on their balcony, says Lee Hsi, “in the middle of the day Miranda would get into her bathing suit and climb in.” He’d sit beside it, manning the stopwatch. Allen would emerge in chains and gasping for air, much to the astonishment of neighbours on adjacent balconies.  

With Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs Pearson takes small liberties with chronology, and hypothesizes from historical records. Did Houdini actually come backstage at a Minerva show? Maybe. Houdini, né Erik Weisz, is usually cast as a hero,” with an appealing immigrant story the world knows from Ragtime, as Pearson points out. In Minerva, he’s “very controlling, very territorial,” says Lee Hsi, who plays Houdini, plus all the other men — husbands, managers, a judge — in Minerva’s story. Seventeen quick-changes mean that Minerva is “a magic show backstage,” he laughs. 

“There are very dark aspects to these men,” says Lee Hsi, who teaches movement to actors at MacEwan University (and can hold his breath for two minutes 15 seconds “if I’m lying on the living room floor and not in cold water”). The possible exception is husband #1, Willie, “a lovable scruff and a dreamer.” 

“It’s an exciting time to take this retrospective view,” says Allen of the new play. It has a personal resonance for her. “It’s been a struggle for women in magic, in street performing, in escapology. And women are still less than 10 per cent of the industry.”

“But it’s been gaining momentum! The show is perfectly timed!”

PREVIEW

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Written by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

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Hoist a pint, tell a tale: Cardiac Theatre’s KaldrSaga at The Almanac

Jake Tkaczyk, Nasra Adem in KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Winter’s Night. Photo by Kelsi Kalmer.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the dead of winter in dark northern cities, humans put on their boots and gravitate to pubs. There they congregate, hoist beer, and tell tales. 

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That time-honoured oral tradition is honoured in the play/ storytelling cabaret premiering Friday at the cozy Whyte Ave. bistro The Almanac. In KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night, two old friends, Kaldr and Saga, come together once a year in their favourite pub to catch up on the 364 days they’ve been apart, and to share stories — of gods, giants, heroes, creation myths.

In the unusual two-hander by (and directed by) Cardiac Theatre co-founder Harley Morison, queer origin stories are “inspired by and riff on” Norse mythology — the heavy-hitters like Thor and Odin, the more obscure figures (can you name Thor’s kids?), and “the one-off mentions.”

Since its own origin story began, some three years ago with Ella Hickson’s Hot Mess, the enterprising indie Cardiac has consistently brought Edmonton audiences “things we’ve never had before,” as playwright/director Morison puts it.  Challenging things like Pacamambo by the Canadian star Wajdi Mouawad,  Pompeii L.A. by Australia’s Declan Greene, Edmonton’s first first-hand exposure to the work of Canadian wunderkind playwright Jordan Tannahill in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

And now, something new. In Norse mythology, Morison found inspiration for “characters who are probably queer.” And pre-rehearsal this week, he cheerfully tossed out some examples. Did you know, for example, that the hyper-masculine Thor, he of the famous hammer that comes down like thunder on his enemies, once went to a wedding dressed as a woman? The name of one of his kids, Mosey, means brave, says Morison. “What if the kid wanted to take up musical theatre?”

Morison has found a “goddess of forbidden love” character in the Norse annals, “a sort of marriage commissioner.” The shape-shifter Loki “once transformed himself into a horse and gave birth to a foal.” The enigmatic war god Odin “is associated with the female practice of witchcraft.” The list goes on: “four different main stories, woven together by Kaldr and Saga catching up….” Morison says.

Between them Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk conjure 23 characters, some famous, some mentioned briefly, some altogether invented.  “How to distinguish them is our big challenge,” laughs Morison. “It happens so fast.” There’s original music: playwright/musician Rebecca Merkley was written a song, with Morison providing the lyrics. There’s choreography, by Man Up!’s C.J. Rowein.

With KaldrSaga, Cardiac is moving to incorporate new work into the mix of its repertoire. They’ve put out a call for submissions to the Alberta Queer Calendar Project, a go-big-or-go-home partnership with What It Is Productions, to be rolled out in 2020. Their aim? To workshop, record, and present as podcasts, new plays by queer Alberta writers: “one new play for every month of the year.”

PREVIEW

KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama For A Midwinter’s Night

Theatre: Cardiac

Written and directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Nasra Adem and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: The Almanac on Whyte

Running: Friday through Jan. 26

Tickets: cardiactheatre.ca

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