In a big world, the enchantment of small: the Kids’ Fest is back

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

By Liz Nicholls,

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”

— Tom Stoppard

On being a kid.

Do you remember that mysterious childhood tingle that goes through your bones when wood comes to life and goes on an adventure, clay turns into a face and becomes a character, you find yourself seeing into the heart of a glow-in-the-dark fish on a great deep sea adventure? Or when a miniature world comes to life — and is suddenly more real than anything big around you?

There’s a festival for that. And it’s just up the road on the banks of the mighty Sturgeon starting Tuesday.

You can take a kid, or be one yourself. The St. Albert International Children’s Festival of the Arts, our true summer solstice experience, returns for a 37th edition that runs through Sunday June 3 on a variety of stages, indoor and out-, surrounding the Arden Theatre. As usual at the festivities, there’s a mix of theatre, dance, storytelling, music, comedy, circus arts — sometimes in the same production. 

Of the eight MainStage ticketed shows, three of the country’s most innovative puppet theatres — two from Quebec, one from the Maritimes — are arriving to open your eyes to the possibilities that lie waiting in inanimate objects.

The Rainbow Fish, Mermaid Theatre. Photo supplied

The Rainbow Fish is from Nova Scotia’s Mermaid Theatre, which specializes in black light storytelling. It’s their unique stage version of three tales by the celebrated kids’ author Marcus Pfister. And the questing hero you’ll be rooting for is a beautiful fish with shining scales, who goes on an underworld journey of discovery.

For the first time, Montreal-based Puzzle Théâtre visits the west, to reveal the secret inner life that lurks within the most prosaic — indeed controversial, and reviled — objects of them all: discarded plastic bags. Recycling at its timeliest, you might say, and a test case for the creation of characters by breathing life into inanimate objects.

Plastic/ Plastique is the work of Bulgarian-born wife-and-husband  team of Pavla Mano and Csaba Raduly, the one trained as a puppeteer and the other as an actor.

“We’re a family theatre,” laughs Mano, on the phone from Vancouver where Plastic/Plastique played last week at the Kids’ Fest there. “And our scenographer is from Bulgaria too.”

Mano’s earliest work was in more conventional puppet theatre, puppets as tiny recognizable representations of people. But “with time this changed; it wasn’t interesting any more…. ‘Object theatre’ is very rich; it can express more,” she says.

As the company name might suggest, at first Puzzle experimented with object forms — triangles, geometric shapes. Since then, they’ve created theatre using wool (Au bout du fil, Little Yarn Stories), or kids’ drawings on paper (Ciel variable, Variable Cloudiness), pillows and blankets (Bonne nuit!, Bedtime).

With object theatre Mano is attracted, she says, to “the way you don’t know where you’re going when you start…. Every material has its own world, its own life, its own way of thinking. And you have to follow it, and not impose your own will.”

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

“Imposing doesn’t work…. You can try. But eventually you say ‘OK I give up’ and you follow.” When Mano and Radula begin a project, they don’t know in advance whether it will be for kids, for grown-ups, or (as in the case of Plastic/ Plastique) both, whether for large crowds or intimate gathering in tiny dark theatres. “This keeps life being interesting,” she says.

The Puzzle history, for example, includes a unique commission to “animate a forest” at the request of the Saguenay Festival, “in order to bring people to their hill.” Mano remembers at the outset walking through the woods brainstorming; typically, she and Raduly saw possibilities hidden in objects like branches: “we kept seeing weird creatures with strange noses.” 

The origins of Plastic/ Plastique were in a Montreal park, “with plastic bags flying all around.” Mano and Radula’s son was 3 1/2 at the time, and to keep him amused, his parents began to create story possibilities with the flying discards all around them.

Since its 2012 premiere in Montreal, Plastic/ Plastique has toured globally. Depending on where it turns up, there is some language, or none, in the show. “It was meant to be without words; we didn’t know how plastic would speak,” says Mano. “There’s some talking when it’s in English, French, or Spanish; German and Italian we speak less.”

“We have a lot of bags!” she says of the “cast.” And bags are reusable: “we’ll have to keep playing for 15 years more!”

Tommelise (Thumbelina), L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes. Photo by Michel Pinault 2017.

L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes, who brought the Kids’ Fest an exquisite puppet version of Hansel and Gretel (À La belle étoile) in 2015, is back, with another playful adventure in scale. Tommelise (Thumbelina) is a re-telling of the beautiful Hans Christian Andersen tale of the tiny heroine born into the heart of a barley flower, who emerges into a big and scary world.

It is the most recent show by the venerable much-travelled Montreal puppet company founded nearly 40 years ago by the parents of co-artistic director Sabrina Baran. “I grew up literally with puppets!” as she says.

In Thumbelina Baran shares the stage with a dancer, a musician, and a great diversity of puppets of varying sizes and styles — marionettes, stick puppets, shadow puppets, puppets manipulated with a hand.

Tommelise (Thumbelina) Photo by Michel Pinault 2017

Baran’s artistic preference, working collaboratively with a team, is perfectly suited to the multiple demands of puppet theatre. She started out, as a kid, in classical ballet — “a difficult world for a little girl” — and tried the visual arts too before “turning to puppet theatre with great pleasure!” she laughs. Movement choreography both human and puppet, design, acting, rarefied artisanship, dramatic ideas … theatre with puppet characters requires all of the above, as Baran points out happily.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale has appealed to her since childhood, Baran says. “It stayed with me, my vision of a small child in an enormous world…. In my version, it’s the strength of that little girl in overcoming so many difficult challenges in the big world.”

She thinks of the miniature world as “representing your inner soul…. There’s enchantment in small. We have magic in us. And children have it the most.”

The Kids’ Fest runs Tuesday through Sunday in St. Albert.

Featured Performances: Plastic/ Plastique, Tommelise (Thumbelina), The Rainbow Fish, Neverland, The StepCrew, Singing Africa with Jacky Essombe, The Mystery Wonder Show (with Ron Pearson), and Junie B. Jones The Musical (St. Albert Children’s Theatre).

Neverland, CircusWest. Photo supplied.

Full schedule, show descriptions, site map: (and there’s a free app you can download there).

Site activities: an assortment of 13, from papermaking to calligraphy to design, including The Poetic Art Project, a collaborative enterprise that has kids choosing words to enhance their vision of how to make their community a better place.

Free things to do: an outdoor stage, a regiment of roving performers, tattoos and chalk art, and more.

Tickets: For mainstage shows $13, available at the Arden box office (780-459-1542, the St. Anne Promenade satellite box office, or Ticketmaster,, and $25 for the Festival Finale. Toddler Town for kids up to four, $10 (free for the adult they take with them). Site activities $3.

The best deal: the Butterfly Pass. $20 gets you 1 featured performances, unlimited site activities, free entry to Toddler Town, caricature trading cards, a festival treat, and a child admission to Fort Edmonton Park.

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The art of Indigenous storytelling comes to life: meet Josh Languedoc

Playwright/performer Josh Languedoc. Photo supplied by Thousand Faces Festival.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I’ve always been a storyteller,” says the Saugeen First Nation playwright/ actor/ improviser/ director Josh Languedoc. “It’s just been there … in my bones.”

He can thank his Indigenous heritage, and its great oral tradition for that. And he does — as you’ll see in Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land, with its animal spirits and myths. A “test run” version of the show comes to the Thousand Faces Mythic Arts Festival this weekend before it hits six Fringe festivals, including Edmonton’s across the country this summer.

“It’s always been a part of me, Indigenous stories and culture. But sometimes it’s been in the background,” says the genial Anishinaabe artist who’s playwright-in-residence at Workshop West this season. Theatre has always been embedded in q multi-limbed career that includes improv musicals with Grindstone Theatre and improv Shakespeare with Thou Art Here. And it’s resurfaced in full force at a long overdue moment in history when, adrenalized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous voices are being heard as never before.   

“It’s told me that you can be a voice,” Languedoc has heard from his mentors. “You should have been a voice all along.” He laughs. “It’s more than time…. My passion has good timing!”

The engaging Languedoc, whose Ojibwe dad was adopted off the reserve (“another story! there’s a play in that!”) grew up in St. Albert, a theatre kid and self-styled “musical theatre junkie.” No surprise that, encouraged by his father, whom he credits for his cultural interests, he gravitated to the St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Sondheim? Yes, he says, but “Disney was my big jam. Lloyd Webber. All of it.” Vic, the performing arts high school, was a natural fit. And a playwright was born there.

His first play? Question, he recalls. “Ten pages, four scenes, little moments of what it’s like to be a teen: how to come out to your parents if you’re pregnant, friendships, girlfriends…. Typical teen shit!”

At the U of A he got a degree in sociology, with a specialty in the sociology of Canadian theatre, “its narratives, its themes,” and then a teaching degree with a double-optic focus in drama and science.

The play that Fringe audiences from Ottawa to Victoria will see is framed by two characters, a lonely young boy sick in the hospital and his grandfather who arrives with a cache of stories. “It’s all about oral storytelling,” says Languedoc of the Native tradition, “sucking people in in real time….”

In contrast to the marginalizing of the old in white culture, age is respected in Indigenous culture, as he points out. “Elders are knowledge-keepers. Everyone looks to them for guidance.”

In Rocko and Nakota, the latter is remembering his seminal boyhood encounters with his grandpa, and the transporting inspirations of his stories. “It flips back and forth to the present,” when Rocko is telling his own stories. Languedoc mines a store of traditional Indigenous myths; he creates others. “I embody everything in the stories! Animals, warriors, elders, animals. Trees! It keeps me moving!”

Languedoc credits his mentors for “pushing me along the path.” It’s a list headed by Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen — “he’s helped me in so many ways; I owe so much to that man!”  — and including playwrights Kenneth T. Williams, Colleen Murphy and Reneltta Arluk, the head of the Banff Centre’s new Indigenous arts program.

These days Languedoc has a sense of re-committing to an identity that was there all along. He’s been working as a substitute teacher, and he’s poised to plunge into the world of theatre full-time when he heads to the Ottawa Fringe mid-month.

“It’s been the last year or two that I realized ‘I can’t ignore this any more, if I’m going to go forward’…. It’s a gift, and I want to use it in a big way!”


Thousand Faces Festival of Mythic Arts

Where: Alberta Avenue Community League, 9210 118 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday, full roster of shows and schedule at

Admission: by donation


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Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, bigger than ever and ready to roar this summer

Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, the upcoming 2018 edition of the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

By Liz Nicholls,

He’s the monster who started small, rampaged through Old Strathcona like his own pleasure garden, and grew and grew. And he seems to have a history that goes back to the pre- of everything.

As announced Wednesday, our upcoming 37th annual Edmonton Fringe Festival, the continent’s oldest and still biggest, has its  signature theme — and a grinning mascot. At Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, coming our way Aug. 16 through 26, you’ll be having an epic-scale live theatre blow-out day and night, noon through the wee hours, with a dino.

Forget extinction; people have a long-standing love affair with dinos, the bigger the better. With Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, our summer theatre bash has burst its buttons yet again. At 229 shows (up from last year’s 220 and 215 the year before that), the 2018 edition is the biggest ever. Of this glorious profusion, some 105 shows happen in lotteried venues, “theatres” outfitted and scheduled by the Fringe. There are 11 of them clustered in and around Fringe headquarters, the ATB Financial Arts Barn — one more than last year’s 10 with a return to the festivities of the Strathcona Community League, the designated theatre-for-young-audiences destination.

The other 124 shows happen in some 29 BYOVS (bring-your-own venues), acquired, kitted out, and curated by artists themselves. Fringe director Murray Utas reports that there’s more clustering of shows in BYOVs. That roster of indie venues, including the Varscona Theatre and Theatre Network at the Roxy, is enhanced by the addition this year of Grindstone Theatre’s newly opened and charming comedy club in Strathcona.

Sugar Swing Ballroom, for example, has a whopping 16 shows in its two-storey locale. Holy Trinity Anglican Church has 18. Together the three venues at La Cité francophone in the French Quarter, curated by actor/playwright/director Jon Paterson, will house 24 shows, eight apiece. The music venue The Sewing Machine Factory (under the Mill Creek Cafe on Whyte at 95 St.) has Fringe shows. St. Basil’s Cultural Centre (71 Ave. and 109 St.) has two venues, a 400- and a 150-seater, and an assortment of Fringe productions — including The Irrelevant Show, invariably a hot ticket wherever it goes. 

Utas, whose usual condition of exuberance is already approaching stratospheric Fringe levels, is pumped about this year’s theme, a dream-come-true for props visionaries. “This one is gonna be fun! Just fun!”

The Fringe schedule will be announced Aug. 1. And tickets go on sale Aug. 7. There’s more info at



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Planting seeds for kids theatre: the 17th annual Sprouts Festival

Morgan Yamada, Colin Dingwall, Sprouts Festival, Concrete Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

For 17 springs now, Concrete Theatre has planted new plays at their annual Sprouts Festival — and watered them for future seasons. The idea from the start was to stimulate growth in the Canadian theatre repertoire by finding sources that are more ethnically and culturally diverse in the writing pool — and even tapping new wells of writing talent altogether.

And so it is with the three new and original 20-minute seedling plays getting staged readings at this year’s edition. It runs Saturday and Sunday for the 18 months to 12-year-old crowd at the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. 

Sisters, a story of siblings who were once best friends and are now on the outs, is by actor/playwright Holly Lewis. Wild Runner, which explores the coming-of-age challenges of a young boy initiated into the ways of a Dene tribe, is by actor/ improviser/ teacher/ playwright/ social activist/ playwright Josh A. Languedoc.

With Screen Time, Sprouts enlists an actor/playwright whose bold black comedies (Murderers Confess At Christmastime, Bitches, Happy Kitchen, Lavender Lady, The Ladies Who Lynch) tend to peel back bright, sometimes absurdist surfaces to find psycho nightmares lurking beneath. In other words, Jason Chinn has always written for grown-ups. Till now.

“It was a chance to flex different muscles,” says Chinn cheerfully. “My writing tends to be extreme, over the top….” This was a chance to see how the Chinn satirical proclivities and sense of humour could work for a younger audience.

The issue in Screen Time is all-ages, which you will know if you’ve seen grade three kids texting madly lately. The family is over-using the title commodity, as Chinn explains. “The brother is obsessed by animé. The sister is a gaming addict. The mom is hooked on YouTube and social media.” Every dinner time is a riot of bleeps and bings, and electronic noises. “It’s a hot-button issue,” says Chinn, “and always a struggle for me and my adult friends.” Without a cellphone, there’s separation anxiety, and sometimes (as Chinn confesses) “a phantom feeling my phone is vibrating in my pocket.”

“I wanted to be family friendly while not black-and-white. The family keep trying to manage itself, and keeps failing….”

The brevity of a 20-minute play wasn’t traumatic for him. “I love writing short plays,” says Chinn, who wrote a five-minute play for the Citadel’s One On One series last year, and a play for Theatre Yes’s Elevator Project. “I want to move, to be fast, to have saturation!”

Occasionally, language has to be adjusted, of course. “I changed ‘parameters’ to ‘rules’. Kids know about rules!” But the best advice he got from Concrete Theatre’s Caroline Howarth was “just don’t talk down to kids. They’re really smart!”

Lobby activities begin in the ATB Financial Arts Barn (10330 84 Ave.) at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, with the shows in the Westbury Theatre at 2 p.m. Tickets: all $8, available at the door only.

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Escape Room theatre adventure puzzle: The Snow Queen is Azimuth’s latest collaboration

The Snow Queen, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

In The Snow Queen, a strange and haunting fairy tale by the 19th century Danish master Hans Christian Andersen, a magic troll mirror distorts everything it reflects. It shatters, scattering icy splinters across the world. Anyone who gets a bit of troll shrapnel in the eye will see only the bad and the ugly.

A young girl travels far and wide through fantasy lands and into the epicentre of the Snow Queen’s frozen kingdom to discover her own power and rescue her childhood friend held captive there. 

It’s a tale with global, and contemporary, reverb. The Snow Queen has inspired film animations, live-action movies, animé, stage and radio plays, musicals, operas, ballets, video games — and in the case of Disney corp, a movie and a Broadway musical. Now, it’s inspired a contemporary live adventure adaptation, an experiment in “immersive Escape Room puzzle-based theatre,” as Vanessa Sabourin puts it.

This is not a tired category, to say the least. The Snow Queen, which runs tonight through May 27 (202 10545 108 St.) in a workshop debut, is a new and original collaboration between the theatre pros of Azimuth Theatre and a corps of high school theatre kids.

Sabourin, and her Azimuth co-artistic director Kristi Hansen, took time from their day of Freewill Shakespeare Festival rehearsals for A Comedy of Errors to describe the initiative. It’s been a long time coming. “Fifteen years ago, Vanessa, Amber Borotsik and I were thinking about an adaptation of The Snow Queen,” says Hansen, fresh from a starring role in The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood at the Citadel. Other theatre intervened, but they remained haunted.

“There’s something about an epic journey through a fantasy world,” says Sabourin, “finding your own grounding points, and how you interact….” The protagonist Gerda “goes a great distance to find somebody who is important to her,” a journey framed by the troll mirror and its fall-out: “it infects the whole world, making it hard to enjoy the truer things in life.”

These resonances made Hansen and Sabourin think young. “It’s about the experience of growing up and finding oneself,” says Hansen of the fairy tale. They consulted with young people, but getting feedback wasn’t enough. “We’re making a lot of guesses about what teenagers are like these days. We need them in the room with us, their influences, their pop culture references, the way they use social media, the grand ‘eye’ watching everything.” If someone did go missing now, as Gerda’s friend Kai does in the Snow Queen original, there would be an veritable epidemic of Facebook shares.

A true creative collaboration was born, one that syncs with Azimuth’s idea of “ensembles that combine professional theatre artists and emerging artists,” says Hansen. She and Sabourin, along with fellow mid-career pros Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, and  Aaron Macri, plus emerging artists Andrés Morena and Michelle Diaz, teamed up with a “very game” seven-member ensemble of high school creator/performers.

The Snow Queen, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

And tonight, in a venue far from the soft seats in rows of conventional theatres, audiences — a max of 20 a night —  will puzzle out a puzzle for themselves. “They’re a vital part of the process,” says Sabourin. “We won’t know what we have till we see what happens, how the puzzles reflect the story of Gerda’s journey, video game logic…. It’s something from nothing; the world shifts and moves in a single room.”

Designer Tessa Stamp, has thrown her experience in creating Escape Rooms into the project, too. And the Azimuth creators were influenced by Everyone We Know Will Be There: the Tiny Bear Jaws production was an actual real-time teen house party in an actual suburban house.   

So, what exactly is a play-based Escape Room? How will the audience pick up clues? You’ll have to show up and be part of it to find out. “We think of this as a sketch book piece; not everything is a final destination,” says Sabourin. She and Hansen laugh. “The whole point of doing this is not knowing how to do it.”


The Snow Queen

Theatre: Azimuth

Created by: Aaron Macri, Amber Borotsik, Andrés Moreno, Belinda Cornish, Michelle Diaz, Kristi Hansen, Vanessa Sabourin, Michael Watt, Zachary Nay, Olivia Staver, Maya Parkins, Joshua Graham, Rashaun Ellis, Jacquelin Walters

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: 202 10545 108 St.

Running: tonight through May 27


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“I need you like water”: relationships in a time of oil in Last Chance Leduc

Alison Wells, Emma Houghton in Last Chance Leduc. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

The fulcrum of Katherine Koller’s Last Chance Leduc — the third in her Alberta Landworks Trilogy about human relationships destabilized by seismic shifts in industry — is the moment of Alberta’s gold rush. I refer, of course, to oil — and the discovery in the winter of 1947, of a vast deep Devonian sea of it near a small Alberta farm town.

Alberta was on the map. Nothing would ever be the same after that in “the land of the free.” Including the land. And there’s a character in the play, old Cree trapper/ earth mother/ sage Nôhkum (Alison Wells), to speak to that.

Since Leduc #1 actually happens in the course of Last Chance Leduc — offstage, conjured in lighting and shadowplay in Tracy Carroll’s production — the play contains the Just Before of “the big show” and the Just After.

That’s where we find Ev (Emma Houghton), an ex-Saskatchewan farm girl with a baby in a shack in the bush near the oil rig where her husband Wes (Evan Hall) is currently working, or rather over-working. Ev spends her time waiting — for Wes to get back from his shifts and double-shifts, for spring, for a garden, for time to pass, for the impending moment they have to move again.

Oscar Derkx, Emma Houghton, Evan Hall in Last Chance Leduc. Photo by Tracy Carroll.

This, as you will glean, is not a satisfying way of life. We lost the family farm for this? In this respect Last Chance Leduc doesn’t need oil; it joins a long line of plays about marriages threatened by workplace obsessions: the long hours of one partner, the boredom of the other. For his part Wes is becoming increasingly agitated and desperate: drilling in the area has been  a bust, over and over, “five years of dry wells.” And the moment approaches when the boss will pull the plug, so to speak.

The other character, who’s from Ev’s previous farm life, is Wes’s best buddy and co-worker Tricky (Oscar Derkx). His attentions to the neglected Ev create tension and a sort of love triangle, at least in the minds of the men.Wes doesn’t even like sharing Ev with her new friend Nôhkum. 

The marriage is clearly on the rocks, and despite its promise of prosperity, the excitement of the big oil discovery doesn’t in itself change that. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” says Ev, on the subject of waiting around for Wes. Will love overcome? Will Ev and Wes be able to move forward together, as they will say ‘e’re long in corporate boardrooms? Will Wes and Tricky stay friends? 

There’s an intricate, if somewhat meandering, narrative — farms, parents both estranged and not, urban life vs. the bush — that unspools in Last Chance Leduc to answer all the above questions. And there’s the Indigenous seer Nôhkum, in tune with the natural world, wolves included, and with the female principle of continuity. “All mothers speak from the river…. We are the river,” she says to her new friend Ev. This is a theme she returns to repeatedly. “We are never alone…. We are the river, all the mothers.”

Wells brings a certain charm and welcome lightness to this ponderous epigrammatic specialty. But it’s a tendency that seems to be catching. Soon Ev is saying “the river is you; the river is me.” Tricky is explaining to Wes that Ev’s need for a garden as “it’s the land in her … it’s her giving back” (he should give up the oil patch and try the arts). And even Wes is showing symptoms of that incantatory contagion: “I’m going to keep you close like water on rock.”

The actors are appealing and commit to the story, even in these more “written” artifices and repetitions. But epigrammatic wisdom does not always spoken dialogue make, in truth. Having said that, I must add that the performances are alert; there’s chemistry in Carroll’s top-drawer cast. Houghton brings a lovely musing, watchful quality to Ev. The dynamic between Hall’s fierce, excitable Wes, on a short fuse, and the playfulness of lovestruck Tricky, is compelling, as set forth by Hall and Derkx. 

In tune with the narrative tensions of the play, Sarah Karpyshin’s design, with Kai Villneff’s moody lighting, creates a claustrophobic shack world unnervingly abutting against an oil-splattered canvas backdrop. Behind that, we see stylized shadow choreography of Wes and Tricky working on a derrick.   

“We can get it back, our Leduc,” says Wes late in a play that sets a relationship crisis against an epochal economic dislocation. Not really, judging by the current Alberta landscape. Oil seeps through every seam, every pore, in the weave of this place.  


Last Chance Leduc

Theatre: Snowflake Productions with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Katherine Koller

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Emma Houghton, Evan Hall, Oscar Derkx, Alison Wells

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

Running: through May 19 (with 12:30 p.m. matinees May 15 and 17)

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A man, his ghosts, his dog, his quest for meaning: Terry and the Dog, a review of Collin Doyle’s mysterious new play

Robert Benz in Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I’m trying to find meaning here,” Terry tells us in the very first line of Terry and the Dog. It’s a theme he’ll return to at the end, and regularly in between.

So are we all, Terry; we’re with you on this. Collin Doyle’s new play is, strangely, both gut-wrenching and elusive, raw and mysterious. How can this be? I hear you ask.

In Terry and the Dog, and Dave Horak’s gripping Edmonton Actors Production, we meet a man who is haunted by memories of his sins and the damages they’ve inflicted on those he loves. This is the situation at the outset: Terry, a recovering alcoholic (a status that is perpetually in-progress) is on his front porch, waiting for his dead dog to come back to life.

Buddy has died twice before, in accidents at the hands of his drunk master, and has returned to life both times. “The morning your dog comes back to life can be an… interesting one. My dog was dead. And now he isn’t dead.”

The oddly flat, conversational tone you’re reading in that is built into Robert Benz’s powerfully restrained performance. Unlike many of Doyle’s characters in his other plays, Terry isn’t a witty or articulate man. Bemusement is nearly but not quite within his compass. Terry is not a self-dramatizer; he’s not trying to convince himself, or us, of anything. So it’s not clear what he wants from us, his audience, in telling us the story of his wife Diane (Maralyn Ryan), his son (Cole Humeny), and his dog.

Maralyn Ryan, Robert Benz, Cole Humeny in Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

It’s one of the many mysteries of a mysterious play. And Benz impressively resists every temptation to clarify or resolve it for our benefit. The character is an unimaginative man confronted with … dreams? hallucinations? memories? experiences that never retreat from the present into the past to become memories? Benz’s Terry is a steadfast chronicler of his own guilt and loss, a man with a long history of “disappointing other people.”

Terry’s wife, played with a complementary sturdy quiet resolve and understatement by Ryan. leaves him, over and over. And returns, over and over. Ditto their son, trapped in his own raging mysteries, possibly inherited, and played with compelling force by Humeny. This is a play that’s not afraid to be horrifying.

Maralyn Ryan, Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Ryan and Humeny appear, in light, as ghosts at the either end of the alley along which we sit, on either side. And after re-lived scenes with Terry that will make you flinch, they disappear into darkness. The scenes are written with considerable economy, and acted with no embellishment. 

Designers Guido Tondino and Victoria Zimski, who create an angled, multi-layered porch from weathered wood, bathe Terry in an eerie blue light of the perpetual present as he tells us story. And, curiously, that light gets warmer, more “real,” in the flashbacks. As props go, a six-pack of unopened Pilsner has never seemed more ominous and momentous; the stakes are high.

So, back to the dog, and the review of Buddy’s previous deaths and returns. “Is it presumptuous of me to expect a third resurrection?”

Maybe. Hard to say. There are things about Terry and the Dog I shouldn’t reveal. There are things about Terry and the Dog I couldn’t reveal even if I wanted to; the ending, I think, got away from me. But there’s this: like time and serial music, alcoholism is a loop — repeated attempts at sobriety, repeated returns to destruction, chaos, the loss of self. Miracles are on Terry’s mind. A miracle has something to do with forgiveness, and forgiveness has something to do with love.


Terry and the Dog

Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre

Written by: Collin Doyle

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Robert Benz, Maralyn Ryan, Cole Humeny

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

Running: through May 19

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,

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Seek out Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story at the Citadel. A review

Ben Caplan, Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Photo by Stoo Metz Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

“We all come out of the same box,” declares the top-hatted bushy-bearded Wanderer (Ben Caplan) who’s just emerged from an outsized shipping container at the start of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.

What is so true of our fellow human beings in this land of immigrants isn’t necessarily true of theatre, my friends. So I’m urging you to catch this exceptional piece of theatre, travelling like its characters from town to town, before it’s on the move again. It arrived here from a two-month success (with critical raves) Off-Broadway, and it’s only staying through Sunday.     

What happens when the doors of the shipping container (a magically cozy design by Louisa Adamson and director Christian Barry) open is a highly original theatrical creation from Halifax’s 2b theatre company. It’s a klezmer musical/song cycle, a multi-generational folk tale, a love story prised from a particular real-life family history (the great-grandparents of the playwright Hannah Moscovitch who arrived in Canada as Jewish-Romanian refugees in 1908). And it’s also the larger story of a world of perpetual displacement — of inhumanity, terrible suffering, and dreams of refuge, of something better. And what could be more topical than that?

Even the title is topical: it references a prejudicial distinction made by ex-PM Stephen Harper for political reasons between“old stock” Canadians, presumably legit, and more recent arrivals who, presumably, aren’t.

Ben Caplan in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Photo by Stoo Metz Photography.

The Wanderer presides, as narrator, Jewish chorus and, occasionally, God. And in the figure of musician/composer Caplan (who wrote the songs with director Christian Barry), he’s a fantastical figure, a kind of capering Old Testament zany with a Tom Waits growl and air of puckish melancholy. In him is embodied the flavourful gallows sense of humour of a piece with theatrical chutzpah and a complex tone. Old Stock is funny, and also tragic and moving, with a klezmer liveliness that is jaunty in a minor key. You might want to call quintessentially Jewish (so I will).   

The cast of characters are also the musicians in the band, led by Chaim (woodwind player Dani Oore) and Chaya (violinist Mary Kay Coady). Their first meeting, tentative on his part and prickly on hers, happens in a medical queue at Halifax’s Pier 21, where most refugees arrived in this country by boat a century ago, fleeing violence and pogroms in Europe.

What did Chaya think of the boat? wonders the younger Chaim fumbling about for a pick-up line. “I don’t have another boat to compare it to,” says the phlegmatic Chaya.  She cuts to the chase: “what kind of wife are you looking for?” The Wanderer cuts to the chase too, in a salty selection of euphemisms for “the conjugal act.” He alludes to the biblical exhortation to be fruitful and multiply, alongside more modern notations. The sense of a ripple through time and generations might well bring a tear to your eye; that’s what happened to me. 

Moscovitch’s script is a fascinating, and lively, blend of the lyrical and the earthy. And the twinkling theatrical framework of this memorable little 85-minute “musical” is unfailingly inventive, with compelling performances from Oore and Coady, the one sweetly gangly and the other with a bristling carapace of defences.

“You gotta live in the world to get to the truth,” as one of the clever songs has it. And it’s in the world that Old Stock finds its place, as the setbacks, the dangers, and the possibilities of life in a new land unfold, and resonate. You can survive, if you’re very lucky. But can you be happy in a world that’s “a bundle of burdensome yesterdays”?

There’s the question. It’s for all of us, the lucky ones, to help with the answer. 


Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Theatre: 2b theatre company at the Citadel

Created by: Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry, Ben Caplan

Directed by: Christian Barry

Starring: Ben Caplan, Mary Fay Coady, Dani Oore, Graham Scott, Jamie Kronick

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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Katherine Koller’s Last Chance Leduc: marriage on the brink of the boom

Oscar Derkx, Emma Houghton, Evan Hall in Last Chance Leduc. Photo by Tracy Carroll.

By Liz Nicholls,

The play that opens tonight at the Backstage Theatre is poised at the moment of a dramatic shift — in thinking, in focus, in perspective. In Alberta in 1947, big oil was discovered near Leduc. One economy supplanted another. And the world changed.

Last Chance Leduc takes us back to that time, and its impact on the people who lived it, especially the women. In a career that regularly takes Katherine Koller from theatre to radio drama, film to fiction, she’s always been fascinated by “how industry changes people’s lives, and affects relationships,” as she says.

Koller’s  “Alberta Landworks Trilogy” began with a play about coal. In Coal Valley: The Making of a Miner, commissioned by the city of Drumheller, “a boy looks for his father underground,” she says. In The Seed Savers, the change was in the agricultural way of life threatened by the corporate economy of GMOs, genetically modified organisms. With Last Chance Leduc, Koller casts her playwright’s eye on the oil and gas industry — and on “the human story.”

It was the lives of the women that struck Koller most forcibly in the course of her archival research. Before the age of gigantic camps which house men work while they work in the oil patch, their families lived near the rigs, in little tarpaper shacks. And they moved when drilling moved. “Imagine,” says Koller. “An itinerant life, with children, in winter. Living with the noise, constantly on the move. How did these women cope?”

Last Chance Leduc, an Alberta Playwriting Competition winner in 2013, is “is a story about women, and a marriage,” says Koller. At its centre is a young couple (Emma Houghton and Evan Hall) living in the woods, with all the stress fractures of a marriage in hard times, including a baby and the husband’s best friend (Oscar Derkx). “But the first character who started to voice her opinions to me was a Cree woman trapper in the woods (Alison Wells).”

Alison Wells, Emma Houghton in Last Chance Leduc. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

For Koller, whose life as a writer began with CBC radio drama in the ‘90s, jumping between genres has always been a matter of “finding the right container for a story.” And she was inspired by “this lovely festival happening here,” the Fringe, where she made her playwright debut with Cowboy Boots And A Corsage.

She’s written screenplays and short stories, four story ballets for Citie Ballet, including Ariadne’s Gate. For a program run by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, she’s even written an opera libretto, an updated version of the “handless maiden” fairy tale common to many cultures. Her first novel Art Lessons was a finalist for the Edmonton Book Prize reader’s choice award, and a Koller collection of short stories is slated for publication.

Sometimes she reinvents her stage plays for radio, sometimes the reverse. Writing for the theatre, says Koller, is a matter of hearing a character’s voice. “Sometimes it takes a while for them to start to talk to me…. I monologue all the characters to get their voices in my head, before they can be in a scene with others.”

The characters of Last Chance Leduc are no exception, says Koller, who curates Edmonton’s Script Salon monthly series of new play readings along with director/dramaturg Tracy Carroll. Last Chance Leduc was the first of them, in 2014. 

Koller and director/dramaturg Carroll have been workshopping Last Chance Leduc all year, says the playwright. Carroll took the cast and crew on location, to the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre, where they did a staged reading for the centre’s annual opening day, Feb. 13. It’s had a reading in another of the  world’s oil towns, Aberdeen Scotland, and a college production in Grande Prairie.

“But I wanted to bring it to Edmonton with a full professional production,” says Koller. And, in a partnership between Koller’s indie Snowflake Productions and Fringe Theatre Adventures, that’s what happening at the Backstage. 

The time is right for a play about the oil and gas industry, as you know if you’ve dropped the word “pipeline” at a dinner party lately. “We’re at another one of those points of change,” says Koller. “It’s a wild time in Alberta! A time for asking where we’ve come from; where do we want to go next? These are the questions people will bring into the theatre.”


Last Chance Leduc

Theatre: Snowflake Productions, with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Katherine Koller

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Emma Houghton, Evan Hall, Oscar Derkx, Alison Wells

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

Running: through May 19 (with 12:30 p.m. matinees May 15 and 17)

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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The curious incident of Terry and the Dog: the new Collin Doyle premieres at Edmonton Actors Theatre

Maralyn Ryan, Robert Benz, Cole Humeny in Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

In the archive of Edmonton Actors Theatre — an award-winning indie company with a solemn name but wildly playful theatrical appetites — there’s everything but the kitchen sink.

There’s a a gleeful, insurrectionist satire, Fatboy. There’s a moody contemporary retrofit of a classic, Stupid Fucking Bird, spun from Chekhov’s The Seagull. And there’s a hyperactive one: The Bomb-itty of Errors, a hop-hop re-telling of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. There’s a weird experimental spin on that most familiar of forms, the modern relationship comedy: Jeffrey M. Wright’s 70 Scenes of Halloween. (Yes, there are 70; no, they’re not in numerical order).

The Edmonton Actors Theatre take on holiday entertainment, the multiple Sterling Award-winning Burning Bluebeard, which has returned for three seasons at the Roxy, is a jaunty anti-panto in which the cast emerge, singed and smudged, from body bags at the outset to finish the show they never got the chance to finish because the theatre burned down.   

Are you getting the drift?

So when Edmonton Actors Theatre artistic director Dave Horak announced the premiere production of a new Canadian play, more naturalistic than usual for his company, and he even invoked the term “reality,” it was something of a surprise on all counts.

It’s here. The play is Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog, formerly called Too Late To Stop Now, opening Thursday in the tiny PCL Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns. The new title — with its nod to the famous Jerry and the dog monologue in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story — is “more welcoming,” says actor/director Horak. 

Dave Horak, artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

  In Terry and the Dog, a 60-ish recovering alcoholic tells us a story about his wife and his son and … yes, his dog.

But that’s where the Edmonton Actors Theatre aesthetic comes into play. Realism? A fourth wall? “Well, not really,” says Horak, pleased by this ambiguity. Naturalism? “Hmm, well, it’s a memory play. A bit dreamy. Ghosts float through….” The audience, says Horak, whose aesthetic involves experiments with that connection, “is never sure what’s real and what isn’t”  — mainly because we see the world through the eyes of the narrator. “He’s re-living and re-telling his memories, addressing us in the first-person.” 

And as for walls, either real ones or the invisible “fourth wall” that separates us from the onstage world, “the play has never felt like it had to be happening in a house. Or a basement,” says Horak. That’s why it invited so-called ‘alley staging’ (designers: Victoria Zimski and Guido Tondino), with the audience strung along either side. “There’s a sense that everything is on a loop; Things float in and then float out again. Collin is so good at making these things flow….”

Which brings us to the canine in question, and this mysterious description: Terry is “waiting for his dead dog to come back to life” as he reviews “his dog’s previous deaths.”

“The dog keeps dying and coming back to life. Why? That’s the mystery of it? Why does that keep happening?” Horak lets his own questions hover in the air. 

Robert Benz in Terry and the Dog, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

In this Year of Doyle in Edmonton theatre, Terry and the Dog is the playwright’s second premiere (Shadow Theatre produced Slumberland Motel in January). It’s the latest from an Edmonton playwright known for his unusual skill in marrying sharp, funny, darkly comic dialogue to moving drama. And, as Horak explains, it’s the third in a Doyle trio of black comedies — with The Mighty Carlins and Routes — about disintegrating families. “Alcoholism and the traumas associated with that….It’s about coming to terms with those, and forgiving a father. And it’s got a kind of grace to it,” says Horak.

When Horak isn’t directing he’s an actor (most recently he was onstage in Elena Belyea’s Cleave as a father with a dark secret). In Wild Side Productions’ 10 Out Of 12, in 2016, Edmonton audiences saw him as an actor playing a director. That part of his career began in his home town of Calgary; he appeared in that city’s summer Shakespeare in the Park. He came here for U of A theatre school and (as he puts it, with a grin) ended up in a blueblood theatre family, the Ryans: he’s married to actor/director/playwright/cabaret artiste Bridget Ryan.  

As with his onstage work, an unusual versatility attaches to Horak’s freelance directing credits. They range from full-scale Broadway musicals (Footloose) to difficult chamber pieces by Caryl Churchill (Love and Information) to new screwball comedies (Jana O’Connor’s Going Going Gone). This summer he’s directing The Comedy of Errors at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, followed by the musical revue Two Good Knights at the Mayfield, followed, later next season there, by the sublimely zany Ken Ludwig farce Lend Me A Tenor.

Horak has been attracted to Doyle’s writing for quite some time, as he explains. “I loved Let The Light Of Day Through,” a 2013 Doyle award-winner in which a young couple deals with tragedy by reinventing themselves in a comedy.

And now, there’s a play that’s caught between the dream world and “reality.” With ghosts. And a dog. 


Terry and the Dog

Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre

Written by: Collin Doyle

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Robert Benz, Maralyn Ryan, Cole Humeny

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

Running: Thursday through May 19

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




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