Settle down class: the teacher is back, in a new version of Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable

Elena Belyea, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Mike Tan.

By Liz Nicholls,

Imagine: someone loony enough to believe that some unobtrusive terrorist gunman could go into a school and …   

It doesn’t exactly take a paranoid with an apocalyptic persecution fantasy to imagine “a worst-case scenario.” Reality has seen to that.

Playwright Elena Belyea can thank the darkening, dangerous world we live in for ensuring that the what-if? currency of Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, created three years ago, remains white-hot. In fact, hotter than ever: in the time since  Belyea’s solo play arrived here at the Fringe in 2015, gun violence has proliferated with alarming frequency; a world leader has actually proposed arming teachers, for heaven’s sake. 

“The play has increased in relevance; we keep updating,” says Belyea. Her theatre  company Tiny Bear Jaws (“a little theatre company with teeth”) is bringing a new, re-thought, version of Miss Katelyn to the TransAlta Arts Barns’ studio theatre starting Wednesday. “At least a third has been completely re-written.”

Elena Belyea in Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Laurence Philomene.

Bad things keep on happening to good people, as Miss Katelyn is hyper-aware. Parkland, Columbine, Sandy Hook…. On May 18, while this new version was running at Calgary’s Downstage, nine students and a teacher were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas. “I had an audience member cry through the entire show,” says Belyea, who briefly wondered if she should address this in the course of the performance before deciding to let the man “have his private space for that.”

At another performance a Grade 3 teacher with seven years’ experience, exactly Miss Katelyn’s professional situation, had just experienced a lock-down at school. Belyea, who led a writing workshop for junior and senior high school kids last week, says the one student had been in three three-hour lockdowns recently.

Tiny Bear Jaws, a joint venture of Belyea and Tori Morrison, experiments with different audience/stage interactions every time out. Everyone We Know Will Be There, which occupied a suburban house in 2017, was an actual teen party, with the audience as guests. Cleave, produced here by Fringe Theatre Adventures, introduced a stranger into a family with secrets of its own. With Miss Katelyn we’re in school. 

Elena Belyea, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Mike Tan.

Belyea, this year’s winner of the RBC Emerging Playwright Award, traces the origins to Miss Katelyn back to her graduating year in the National Theatre School’s playwriting program — and to her moment of sudden and unaccountable panic and terror when she and her sister were at WEM, surrounded by crowds. “It scared the shit out of me. And I had to wonder ‘where the hell did that come from?’”

The play was the answer. Belyea says she experimented with a ski mask and fake gun. But “that was not what it was….” she says of the play.

Who is the grimly chipper Miss Katelyn talking to when she’s onstage, going through her five-step program for worst-case scenarios? Belyea credits the late great dramaturge Iris Turcotte with the inspiration that the show is “Miss Katelyn is talking to the kids.” Yes, class we are Miss Katelyn’s grade threes.

Belyea, who divides her time between Edmonton and Montreal, worked on the script with her close friend, actor/playwright/director Jon Lachlan Stewart, who’s lately produced a French language version of Miss Katelyn in Montreal. “I tried things on my feet. He’d ask me questions, and I improvised.” Its first outing was at the Fringe in Montreal, a city with “a raw relationship to gun terrorism,” as Belyea says. And she was apprehensive about its reception. It won prizes, and was invited back. 

The new version is under the direction of Emma Tibaldo of Playwrights Workshop Montreal. And, says Belyea, “it feels better to act. The text does more work.”

Pay attention, class: a play for our time has gotten a new life.  


Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable

Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws

Written by and starring: Elena Belyea

Directed by: Emma Tibaldo

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

Running: Wednesday through Saturday


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The importance of being Oscar: a comic masterwork finds a home at Teatro La Quindicina: a review

Leona Brausen (centre) as Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls,

It has been called the most perfectly constructed comedy in English theatre. And it’s certainly one of the funniest. Funny, then, how The Importance of Being Earnest is full of serious people.

That’s the hard, crucial comic truth understood that makes the evening at Teatro La Quindicina in the company of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterwork so entertaining.

We get to watch as elegant and humourless characters acknowledge the social realities and status quo of their glittering, self-contained high-Victorian world. The play is built on an architecture of dazzlingly paradoxical wit. The inadvertent satirists who inhabit it offer a serious running commentary on  money, status, class, religion, education, morals, manners, smoking, cucumber sandwiches, marriage, romance — did I say money? And they’re in earnest. Which is exactly what makes them hilarious.   

Jeff Haslam’s Teatro production gets the pay-off. If there’s one thing Teatro casts know, from experience with the articulate wit of Stewart Lemoine comedies, it’s the comic dividend paid by gravitas. 

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson in The Importance of Being Earnest, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby

In one of the funniest scenes, two young men-about-town are in crisis mode. Being Ernest is of gravest importance to the objects of their romantic pursuit, whose cranks are turned by the name — and their multiplying deceptions on this count are in immediate danger of exploding. John Worthing (Mark Meer) chastises his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Ron Pederson) for his apparent heartlessness. “When I am really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink,” objects the latter reaching for another muffin. He is not kidding around.

Pederson’s breezy, chatter-y mastery of the play’s constant inversion of serious and trivial (“divorces are made in heaven”), is a fine contrast to the more languid, weightier suavity of Meer as Jack, who will later admit to personal distress that “all his life has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” Both actors have finely tuned coming timing, and the rhythm of their exchanges is supple, intelligible, and funny. 

Shannon Blanchet and Louise Lambert in The Importance of Being Earnest, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

In another highlight moment, two women, one worldly urbanite of maximum ruthlessness and one delicate country flower of steel-belted determination have at each other over tea in a garden. Louise Lambert as the flinty Gwendolyn and Shannon Blanchet as the alleged innocent Cecily rise to the occasion with implacable charm and tooth-gritting smiles. Both are excellent. 

At the centre is the majestic and  terrifying figure of Lady Bracknell, the hard-headed social realist who is the unyielding spokesperson for respectability. Leona Brausen wears a hat with its own hauteur, a veritable architecture unto itself: the ribbons themselves (provided, like a gown with impressively formidable mutton sleeves, by designer Robert Shannon) quiver with grim social certainties. “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” 

Lady Bracknell’s catalogue of the male requirements for eligible suitors is one of the funniest assessments ever made of the male of the species. Her first question to Gwendolyn’s potential beau is whether he smokes. Upon hearing a reluctant affirmative, her response is: “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind.” Lady Bracknell, one of the repertoire’s biggest laugh magnets, has views on every aspect of modern society, including education. “Ignorance,” she declares grandly, “is a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”  

And while Brausen’s performance, at least on opening night, had the odd lapse of decorum — it’s a little hard to imagine Lady Bracknell either shrieking or trotting — the humourless un-ironic delivery, the grim downturned mouth, and the shrewd squint that is light years from being a wink, are on the money. And I do mean money. 

Julien Arnold is a riot as the play’s beaming resident cleric and theological enthusiast Canon Chasuble, whose views expansively include pagan annotations. And his scenes with Miss Prism (Cathy Derkach), Cecily’s fierce governess, are highly amusing (though on opening night, rather startlingly loud). And as a double pair of butlers, the city one sublimely impassive and the country one put-upon (a condition no doubt exacerbated by hair that looks rather unnervingly like an upside-down milk pitcher), are carried off with aplomb by Mat Busby. 

Chantel Fortin’s set, lighted by Stephanie Bahniuk, amusingly requires only small adjustments to take the characters from the countryside to central London — an insight in itself into the Wildean world.

In a production that understands the measure and weight of the title,  the pleasures of a witty masterpiece  are allowed to shine, at a company that is constant in its exploration of the comic terrain. Give yourself a treat.


The Importance of Being Earnest

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written by: Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Jeff Haslam

Starring: Leona Brausen, Ron Pederson, Mark Meer, Louise Lambert, Shannon Blanchet, Julien Arnold, Cathy Derkach, Mat Busby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through July 28



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An all-Canadian trio of mainstage productions for season 44 at Theatre Network

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

By Liz Nicholls,

At the centre of Theatre Network’s all-Canadian upcoming three-production mainstage season announced this week is a new play inspired by a remarkable life — and a life-changing moment in our collective history.

In The Empress & The Prime Minister playwright Darrin Hagen unspools history half a century to imagine and explore the real-life connection between a Vancouver drag queen/activist and Canada’s young minister of justice. The former? ted northe, the “Empress of Canada.” The latter: Pierre Trudeau. And the result was the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country. “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Bradley Moss directs the premiere production (April 16 to May 5, 2019) that stars Hagen, the “Edmonton Queen” as northe and Vancouver-based Joey Lesperance as Trudeau. “Both actors play other characters too,” says Moss, who adds that “the younger generation doesn’t always realize just how difficult it was to be gay at that time.”

The connection between Theatre Network and the star Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch continues in the company’s 44th season. And it too is a window on a fraught time in Canada’s past.   What A Young Wife Ought To Know, which premiered in Halifax at Christian Barry’s 2b theatre with dates cross the country before its high-profile Toronto run this past winter, is set in the ‘20s. Inspired by true stories of young women the playwright explores the nightmare implications of this era before birth control, and even knowledge about birth control, was available.

It’s a love story that goes very wrong. “And it’s also a story about poverty,” says Moss of the play, set in working-class Ottawa of the period.

Marianne Copithorne directs the Theatre Network production that runs Nov. 13 to Dec. 2. Casting has yet to be announced.

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

Edmonton-born Damien Atkins returns to his home town with his own solo play We Are Not Alone. The production, touring  collaboration between Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre the Segal Centre directed by Chris Abraham and Christian Barry, taps Atkins’ own investigations into UFO’s, alien sightings and abductions, government conspirations.

Plays by Actor-turned-playwright Atkins, who grew up immersed in musical theatre at the St. Albert Children’s Theatre, include Miss Chatelaine, Good Mother (the first new Canadian play to premiere at the Stratford Festival, and the cabaret Real Live Girl. Edmonton audiences last saw Toronto-based Atkins, currently appearing at the Shaw Festival, in The Gay Heritage Project at the Citadel Club in 2016.

“Funny, strange, weird,” says Moss, who’s also fascinated about  alien interventions. “And since most stories about alien abductions and violations come from women, the show “probes that human aspect,” as Moss says. We Are Not Alone runs Feb. 12 to March 3, 2019.

The season finale is the 2019 of Nextfest, May 30 to June 9, which celebrates and showcases the multi-disciplinary work of the next generation of artists.

Pinocchio, Alberta Opera. Photo supplied.

Alberta Opera arrives for the first time at the Roxy to launch theThe Roxy Performance series, Theatre Network’s annual series hosting  independent productions and companies. The touring company, which specializes in irreverent and original musical theatre treatments of fairy tales is reviving their version of Pinocchio, with its bright score by the late Jeff Unger and book by the company artistic director Farren Timoteo. It runs Sept. 28 to 30 as part of a season of touring schools.

It would be hard to identify Jezebel, At The Still Point as a two-hander since paws are involved. In this text-movement piece innovative dance/theatre artist Ainsley Hillyard, the highly original residing muse of Good Women Dance, co-stars with her untrained French bulldog Jezebel as an astronaut and her time-travelling companion. The Bumble Bear production directed by Beth Dart is at the Roxy Oct. 9 to 21.

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezel in Jezebel, At The Still Point, Bumble Bear Productions. Photo supplied.

Burning Bluebeard, the anti-panto Christmas panto, has retired from the festive season at the Roxy. Instead Blunt Entertainment premieres Oh! Christmas Tree, a new comedy by Conni Massing. “There’s an absurdist human quality to her writing,” says Moss of a play about holiday rituals and starring a couple with diametrically opposed perspectives on the fraught season. Brian Deedrick directs the Blunt Entertainment production, running Dec. 11 to 23.

Moss himself returns to the Roxy Performance Series to direct the premiere of Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, playwright/magician Ron Pearson’s investigation of a famous female escape artist who came up against the brutal male establishment — including Houdini — in the ‘20s and ‘30s.  

Miranda Allen, sole Edmonton occupant of the actor/escape artist category of showbiz, stars in the Ghost Writer Theatre production running Jan. 15 to 27, 2019. Richard Lee Hsi plays “all the crappy men in Minerva’s life,” as Moss says. He has hopes for touring the show after its run here.

Small Mouth Sounds by the American playwright Bess Wohl is the Wild Side Productions offering of the season. The acclaimed indie company (10 out of 12, Passion Play, Poison, The Realistic Joneses) tried last season to acquire rights to the high unusual award-winner, set among six strangers at a silent retreat. Now it’s happening. Jim Guedo directs the production that runs March 12 to 24.

Two Roxy series that fill niches not much occupied in the Edmonton theatre scene are also in the season. The unique Hey, Ladies!, starring Leona Brausen, Cathleen Rootsaert and Davina Stewart, returns with four new Friday night episodes of their “info-tainment” variety shows, Oct. 26, Feb. 1, March 29 and May 10. And cabaret artist Patricia Zentilli returns with three new editions of PattyZee@TheRoxy, Oct. 27, Feb. 2, and May 11. 

Further information and subscriptions are available at


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Leona Brausen plays Lady B: The Importance of Being Earnest at Teatro La Quindicina

Leona Brausen in The Importance of Being Earnest, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls,

There will be a moment this evening when an actor who has spent a great deal of time in her career providing perfectly vintage handbags to the casts of period comedies will get the ultimate pay-off.

Leona Brausen will deliver the immortal exclamation “A handbag?!” from the stage — and get the laughs that invariably go with it.

The play is Oscar Wilde’s high-Victorian comic masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest. And Brausen, the long-time Teatro La Quindicina star, muse, and costume designer, will be playing the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, adamantine repository of social proprieties. “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not,. seems too me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”

In Teatro’s summer season, the eight-actor production directed by artistic director Jeff Haslam replaces Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, a switch inspired by the sudden unavailability of North American rights for the Simon canon. And by an uncanny (and in itself hilarious) alignment of stars, the cast of the American comedy classic has been re-purposed for Wilde: the Oscar and Felix, Mark Meer and Ron Pederson, are Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff; the Pigeon sisters, Louise Lambert and Shannon Blanchet, are Gwendolyn and Cecily.

But you can’t possibly consider doing The Importance of Being Earnest without real stage presence in its implacable centre of gravity. And in recent years, Brausen, who’s been part of the Teatro ensemble since its very birth at the 1982 Fringe, has been onstage less (with the exception of comic improv) and backstage (designing costumes) more. She had to be cajoled, she admits, with her usual breezy, self-deprecating good nature. “I’ve never read it; I’ve never seen it,” declares Brausen, from whom actor jargon or theatrical pretension of any kind have never been heard. “Jeff told me Lady Bracknell had hardly any lines…. He lied.”

Leona Brausen and Ron Pederson in The Importance of Being Earnest, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

So The Importance of Being Earnest was ready for Brausen’s  discovery. “Wait a minute! This play is really funny!” she says cheerfully, “1895, and it’s like Carol Burnett! The Marx Brothers, Three’s Company. Bugs Bunny!” She grins apologetically. “They are all my references.”

Earnest, she has discovered is “just way more work, and really long sentences! Wordy but eloquent! So clever, so biting!” There are ripples, she finds, from the Downton Abbey season of Die-Nasty, the weekly improvised soap opera of which she’s been, till this season, a core member. She played an imperiously snooty matriarch, à la Maggie Smith.

Wilde’s is a kind of sparkling and articulate comic wit Brausen recognizes as having similarities with the playwright with whom she’s worked the most. And for his part, Stewart Lemoine, a huge Wilde admirer, considers The Importance of Being Earnest “a perfect comic construction. No need for a mysterious new interpretation; it’s perfect as it is.” He regards Earnest as exemplary in its “impossibly convoluted plot that lines up and makes perfect sense…. Everyone’s splendidly articulate, even in confusion.”

This makes absolute sense to Brausen in thinking about Lady Bracknell, “a snob, a name-dropper, a dragon, obsessed with society, with manners, with what other people think.” In the society conjured by Wilde, “to raise an eyebrow counts.”

It was 36 years ago that Brausen found herself in All These Heels, a new comedy by her old high school friend Lemoine. “I was a lady spy. I smoked, of course.”

Nothing was the same after that. A theatre company named after the brothel in Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt was born in that debut production. And so was an actor. Brausen, who had an instinctive (and, as she says, untaught) grasp of Lemoine’s witty and articulate playfulness,  starred as a variety of exotically literate characters — heiresses, opera divas, society hostesses, eccentric literary agents … and their sidekicks. For at least 30 of those 36 years, she’s been both actor and purveyor of striking and authentic costumes for a theatre that, like Brausen herself,  often gravitates to the decades of style between the ’20s and the ‘80s.

Brausen’s house is a repository of vintage shoes (the shoe department is in the basement), frocks, suits, hats, frocks. There are wigs on decapitated heads everywhere. And, ah, hundreds of purses. One of her favourites, “a deerskin ‘30s purse,” has appeared in so many Teatro shows it’s been dubbed “the Teatro acting purse.” And doilies (“it looks like grandma lives there”).

Lately, she’s been collecting vintage perfumes. “You used to wear Rive Gauche didn’t you?” she says to me, remembering a defunct French scent from years ago. “They changed the formula,” she says disapprovingly.”They did that to Chanel No 5 too.”

It’s so crammed chez Brausen — especially since one of her three kids has moved back home, into a bedroom-turned-wig room — that she’s having a shed built for the overflow.

In a town with a gigantic Fringe, producers show up at her place armed with nothing more than a bright idea. Actors come to be kitted out in style. “I’m a soft touch,” she laughs. “It’s like playing with dolls,” she says modestly of costume design Brausen-style. “It’s not your usual costume design; I don’t draw pictures…. It’s more like recycling.” For her, shopping is “therapeutic; it’s what I do to de-stress….”

She’s modest, too, about a startling natural expertise in period style. “I don’t know why I know things,” she shrugs affably.  “Turner Classic Movies?” Brausen tries to assess her affection for the 20s and 30s: “they’re very eccentric; people would put anything on their heads.    

Brausen is a natural, and fearless, improviser onstage. In Die-Nasty’s ‘Paris in the ‘20s’ season, she played Gertrude Stein with Davina Stewart as Alice B. Toklas. They’ve taken the characters into a new improv show every month at Grindstone Theatre’s new Comedy Club. 

She laughs. “It’s like Jackie Gleason. ‘Hey Alice, what’s for dinner?’! Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt are our upstairs neighbours Fat Frank and Little Dickie…. Instead of salon nights, we play hearts. Ha! We haven’t figured out what sitcom this is!”

And now, there’s a comedy of extreme intricacy, and lines that glitter with epigrammatic wit. Brausen, who’s designed epic numbers of costumes and wigs for the Mayfield’s Christmas show and Elvis revue All Shook Up among other assignments across town this past season, is looking forward to wearing someone else’s gowns for a change (they’re designed by Robert Shannon) as Lady Bracknell.

“Look what happened,” she laughs. “I never made plans. I’d say I’m livin’ the dream. But I didn’t have dreams….”


The Importance of Being Earnest

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written by: Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Jeff Haslam

Starring: Mark Meer, Ron Pederson, Leona Brausen, Shannon Blanchet, Louise Lambert, Julien Arnold, Cathy Derkach, Mat Busby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through July 28


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Found Festival 2018: surprising finds, unexpected encounters

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

By Liz Nicholls,

Found, the festival that’s all about the find — art and artists in places you never expected to run into them — is back this weekend in Old Strathcona for a seventh annual edition.

It’s all about the experimental, surprising encounters between artists and audiences. Festival director Beth Dart has assembled them and, as she’s said, “once you take theatre out of theatres, you erase the normal rules.”

Have a peek at five intriguing Found finds: 

Meet Me Under The Gnarly Tree, Cardiac Theatre at Found Festival 2018. Photo supplied.

Meet Me Under The Gnarly Tree: And speaking of mysterious encounters in places you never anticipated … a scroll through Tinder, an escalating flirtation, a first date. Harley Marison’s new site-specific theatre piece explores that tense and thrilling human experiment — on location. The production from Cardiac Theatre (The Listening Room, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes), one of Edmonton’s most inventive indies, takes you to Rollie Miles Athletic Field (Calgary Trail and University Avenue).

Whiskey Business: I feel sure you will never have seen anything like this theatre/ escape arts fusion, a nerve-wracking combo, as billed, of “whiskey, stunts, violence, suspense, comedy: what could go wrong?” Since there will be a live under-water escape from a locked whiskey barrel, there can be no idle theatre chatter about stakes. In fact, you may need a wee dram from Strathcona Spirits (the location),  just to steady your nerves. Actor/escape artist Miranda Allen stars with Samantha Jeffery. Mike Kennard of Mump and Smoot directs. Tickets are pay-what-you-will.

Crime scene simulation, young man lying on floor

Off’d On Whyte: An Old Strathcona Murder Mystery: A prominent businessman has been iced, and there are suspects and clues everywhere in Old Strathcona, every hotel, every bar and bistro. The audience is under the gun, so to speak, to find the perpetrator, in 90 minutes. Created by the newly formed Fox Den collective, led by Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Jessy Ardern, Sarah Feutl. Location: various, along Whyte Ave. 

On The Margin: Elise Jason’s site-specific theatre piece, takes us through the river valley. It’s standing in for Banff National Park, 1982, and Jill’s disturbing vision of a man clutching a beer bottle as he emerges from his old Chevy. Where’s Jill after that? Jason developed the piece as Common Ground Art Society’s 2018 Fresh AiR artist in residence. Meet at Saskatchewan Drive and 104th St.   

Nâsipewin: The title means “going down the hill to the river” in Nehiyawin. And in Jordan Koe’s Found encounter, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. It’s a sound art performances of field recordings taken in the river valley in order to create a sonic history of Indigenous people and settlers there. Meet at Saskatchewan Driver and 105th St.

And there’s much more — theatre, music, poetry, visual arts — on location(s). Found Festival 2018 runs July 5 to 8 in Old Strathcona. HQ is just behind the Backstage Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Tickets, show information, and full schedule for Found are available at 

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Things I learned at the Sterling Awards gala: a coda

The Legend of Sleeping Beauty, Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

Thoughts from the Sterling gala (directed by Kate Ryan and written by Shannon Blanchet and Belinda Cornish).

•For openers: Co-hosts Rachel Bowron and Hunter Cardinal were sparklers. They opened the show with Beauty, a witty and astute song about reacting to art from Adam Gwon’s 2008 musical Ordinary Days. Needless to say, it’s not a household word in titles or composers. But this is but one of the dividends of having the Sterling gala directed by Kate Ryan of The Plain Janes, who knows the off-centre musical theatre repertoire, every nook and cranny, better than anyone in town. And there was an invocation in Cree from Cardinal, currently playing Hamlet in the Freewill Shakespeare Festival production in the park. 

•A new comedy duo: Margaret Mooney, the wry 81-year-old Citadel legend (sitting at Table 81 right beside me) and Citadel administrator Peni Christopher, onstage together to present the Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production (to the Citadel’s Sheila Cleasby), are a riot together. Something a teeny bit Smothers Brothers maybe about the reductive deadpan of the former and the jaunty sunniness of the other.

•Shows I wish I’d seen and now it’s too late so damn I have regrets which is a drag: Seeing Jameela McNeil and Luc Tellier perform a very witty Erik Mortimer song about a cat from Sleeping Beauty, Jocelyn Ahlf’s Christmas panto at the Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton made me long to see this latest in her series of larky Christmas entertainments there. Seeing Amena Shehab onstage to present made me wish I’d seen Hagar, a show about the immigrant experience she created with her husband (it ran at the ATB Financial Arts Barns). She was genuinely funny about being the Arabic outsider. 

•Improv: Rapid Fire Theatre’s “Mother K,” Karen Brown Fournell, den mother to 60 improvisers (how easy can that be?) and manager of a company that does 300 shows a year, pointed out in her acceptance speech (she went home with the Margaret Mooney Award in administration), that it’s remarkable how many actors in this theatre town are also improvisers. Remarkable and telling.

It’s a supportive theatre community, she told us. Sometime we trade tricks of the trade,” she said of her fellow administrators. “Sometimes we just commiserate.”

•In accepting his Actor’s Sterling Award for his performance in the Bright Young Things’ Fringe production of No Exit, Ron Pederson said he wanted to thank Jean-Paul Sartre, but felt the French existentialist might not appreciate this advocacy. He thought it more appropriate to thank Sartre “for nothing, for nothingness maybe.”

In a witty, heartfelt speech, he paid tribute to his actor friend/mentor Jeff Haslam (currently directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the Teatro La Quindicina season). “We are in the transportation business,” said Pederson, as he saluted Edmonton for its supply of “brilliant storytellers.” 

•Upcoming: Actor/ director/ playwright Chris Bullough is writing a Fringe play — and it’s about the oil that runs through our veins. The inspiration for Rig Pig Fantasia can be traced back to Fort McMurray, where he’s originally from.

•Hot on the page: From 44 submissions, the grand prize winner of this year’s Alberta Playwriting Competition is Cipher by Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths. A special initiate award goes to Christine Lesiak for The Space Between The Stars.

•Everyone in the music world here undoubtedly already knew this. But Tommy Banks’ granddaughter Mallory Chipman (gracefully introduced by Sheri Somerville) is a terrific singer. Make Someone Happy (which she recorded with her beloved grandpa) was a knockout. Chipman said that Tommy loved vintage musical theatre; they’d watch the oldies together whenever they could. 

•Sending in the clowns: You can see why Jan Henderson, this year’s recipient of the Sterling for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre, is such an inspiring teacher, mentor, and friend. As introduced by her Small Matters Theatre cohort Christine Lesiak, the case she made for hopefulness, for being playful, for the fool as the truth-speaker in a world of truth-concealers, was downright inspiring. Henderson, incidentally, arrived here from Toronto in 1979 to do a show, and never got around to leaving.

A favourite Henderson saying? “As the Irish say, the situation is hopeless, but not serious.”

•In his graceful acceptance speech for the outstanding new play Sterling, playwright Collin Doyle (Terry and the Dog) took the trouble to note the other nominees in the category — and to add two new plays he felt should have been nominated. One was Cleave by Elena Belyea, the other Do This In Memory Of Me/ En Mémoire de moi by Cat Walsh.

His own play Doyel described as 12 years in the making. And he thanked his dad for “allowing him to keep writing plays about him.”

Indie theatre is hard: Dave Horak, artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre, explained that he tore down his fence to use the wood in the set for his production of Terry and the Dog. “I would like to thank my neighbours for letting me do it.”

He was droll, as well, on the subject of his cast. “It’s the first time I ever directed my mother-in-law,” he said. “Talk to me later.” He’s lucky: she’s  Maralyn Ryan, nominated in the supporting actress category.

•No one thanked their agent. Or the Almighty. But Amber Gray, of Hadestown, did thank terrible Edmonton weather last fall for the conception of her baby, about to be born in New York on Monday night when she got the outstanding supporting actress Sterling in absentia.

If you haven’t checked out the Sterling awards recipients, here they are, at



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Nostalgia for a lost age: Forever Plaid at the Mayfield, a review

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls,

In their one review ever, in The Wiltsburg Times Chronicle, a nameless writer delivered the opinion that The Plaids’ sound “is to modern music what Formica is to marble.”

It is a measure of their infinite hopefulness that the guileless lads from Plaid  “chose to take this as a compliment.” And they even saved the clipping.

That’s the bowtie-and-Brylcreem ‘50s evoked by this affectionately cornball jukebox homage to the close-harmony guy groups of the era. The American Dream is still in working order. Sincerity rules over irony, even when it pertains to cardigans. Harmony is a many-splendored thing. Where do unresolved chords go? Not here, ladies and gentlemen, not here.

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The fun of Kate Ryan’s Mayfield production of Forever Plaid — with its musically dexterous foursome of charmers —  is the playful way it negotiates between nostalgia for a lost age and light-handed mockery of its white-bread squareness.

It’s February 9, 1964. And four earnest amateurs with big dreams are en route to their first pro gig, at the Fusel Lounge in the Harrisburg, Pa. Airport Hilton (amusingly evoked by Ivan Siemens’ set, with Matt Schuurman’s video design). It all ends with a bang: a busload of Catholic schoolgirls going to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Yes, the lads meet their untimely end in a head-on collision — with rock.

“We’re the Plaids and we’re dead.” Forever Plaid is their reprieve. Thanks to a convergence of astral plains and an expanding hole in the ozone, not to mention the the cosmic power of harmony, Frankie (Stephen Greenfield), Sparky (Andrew MacDonald-Smith), Jinx (Farren Timoteo) and Smudge (Kamyar Pazandeh) are back from the Great Beyond after 54 years. They file apprehensively onto the stage in the dark, with candles, to do the concert they never got to give in life. O death, where is thy sting (and thy E-flat diminished seventh)? It is, says one Plaid looking on the bright side, “the biggest comeback since Lazarus.”

What you hear, in Stuart Ross’s early jukebox musical (it dates from the West Bank Cafe in New York in the late ‘80s), is a vintage collection of ‘50s guy-group classics, more than two dozen of them: Three Coins In The Fountain, Rags to Riches, Magic Moments, No Not Much, Moments To Remember Love Is A Many Splendored Thing…..

It’s the white end of the pop culture spectrum, the milieu owned by the likes of The Lettermen, The Four Aces, The Ames Brothers, Andy Williams, Perry Como, crooning over sunshine and falling stars. And when four eager-to-please white nerds, inordinately pleased with little staging coups like their plaid cumberbunds, go “ethnic” — they don straw hats to go Latino, or venture into calypso (with palm tree) — the results are, in every way but the musical, amusingly tone deaf.

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis

When the Plaids get a little wistful about the careers they might have had, or they sing the Plaid version of She Loves You (“she loves you … yessiree!”), you realize that the Catholic girls just hastened the inevitable. Sh’boom, dramatic irony.

The shrewd appeal of Forever Plaid is the musical expertise in four-part harmony of a cast who artfully perform as artless amateurs scrambling to do a home-made show. It wouldn’t be funny if the four couldn’t sing, beautifully, together. They do.

They have their little idiosyncracies. Greenfield’s Frankie, the MC, is, as in life, still wheezing asthmatically when the going gets tense. Pazandeh as Smudge, reaches for the Tums periodically. Timoteo’s Jinx has regular nosebleeds on challenging high notes. With his round-eyed double-entendres, MacDonald-Smith’s Sparky is in charge of the prim, deadpan narration, full of inadvertent double-entendres. “We’ll serenade your every affair.” 

Each has a star turn on a song. Pazandeh’s impressive account of the proletariat anthem 16 Tons, accompanying himself on a ketchup bottle, is a highlight, with amusingly bland annotations. “We work hard to sing about men who love, and we love to sing about men who work.”

And Cindy Kerr’s choreography, with its earnest guy-group synchronized moves just slightly gone wrong, is consistently funny onstage,

Their pièce de résistance is a frantic three-minute 11-second version of an entire Ed Sullivan season, a snapshot of life in the ‘50s, complete with Señor Wences, Topo Gigio, the Singing Nun, and a dizzy variety of magic, acrobatic, and animal acts. Holy cannoli, even the acquiring of an audience volunteer for a number seems unusually relaxed, since it’s also a homespun spoof of audience participation.

And there’s the music, songs preserved in amber. Shlock never sounded so tuneful. The rapport between the Plaids and their band, Ryan Sigurdson at a grand piano and Derek Stremel on bass, is supple and fun. And the sound (Harley Symington) is, as usual at the Mayfield, impeccable.


Forever Plaid

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Stuart Ross

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Steven Greenfield, Andrew Macdonald-Smith, Kamyar Pazandeh, Farren Timoteo

Running: through July 29

Tickets: 780-483-4051,

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The Sterling Awards celebrate the season in Edmonton theatre: Onegin, Métis Mutt, Terry and the Dog lead the way

Josh Epstein, centre, in Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper

Sheldon Elter in Métis Mutt, at Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

A Canadian indie-rock musical hit that played its hot-blooded operatic passions with an irreverent light touch scored top musical production honours from jurors at the 31st annual Sterling Awards gala Monday night. And a solo coming-of-age story that played expertly along complex cultural and personal fracture lines, was its counterpart, in the play category.

As the theatre community celebrated the season on Edmonton stages at a bash hosted by actors Rachel Bowron and Hunter Cardinal (currently playing Hamlet in the park), Onegin, a Vancouver Arts Club offering brought to us by kindred spirit Catalyst Theatre, was voted outstanding musical production. And of its six nominations,  director Amiel Gladstone, whose playful production party-ed in two centuries with the audience, received a Sterling too — along with Jacqueline Firkins’ double-optic costumes and composer Veda Hill’s musical direction of the onstage actor-infiltrated band The Ungrateful Dead.

The musical director category is now, in this season of his passing, re-christened in honour of the late great Tommy Banks — a musician of note himself and an eloquent arts supporter and lobbyist. Banks’s singer-songwriter granddaughter Mallory Chipman performed Make Someone Happy (the pair had recorded it together). 

The season’s Outstanding Production honours went to Métis Mutt. The new incarnation (directed by Ron Jenkins) at Theatre Network of a show that — like its protagonist — has travelled widely, and resonates with a broader social reverb. Its charismatic creator Sheldon Elter took home the leading actor Sterling as well, for his memorable performance as … himself at every age in a harrowing story of domestic abuse, racial stereotyping, addiction, and reinvention. 

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

For the third straight year an Edmonton Actors Theatre offering directed by Dave Horak was voted the season’s Outstanding Indie Production. The protagonist of Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog is a man haunted by the reverberating sins of his alcoholic past, trapped in a cycle of second chances that doesn’t distinguish between present and past. It garnered the playwright the Outstanding New Play Sterling, and the supporting actor award for Cole Humeny’s performance as a son ricocheting between his inheritance and his hopes.

Amber Gray in Hadestown,
New York Theatre Workshop. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The jurors’ wide dispersal of Sterlings Monday night radically adjusted the proportions of their nomination list announced earlier this month. Of its eight nominations in 24 categories — the most of any show in the season — Hadestown, a high-octane collaboration between the Citadel and New York producers on a Broadway re-fit for Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera/musical, came away with but two Sterlings.

One was for Amber Gray’s riveting supporting performance as  Persephone, whose annual departure for the Underworld leaves the earth wintry and bereft.  And one was for Bradley King’s masterly lighting in which the changes of the season, and the journey to the subterranean world, were inventively chronicled. 

Michael Dufays and Kristi Hansen in The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The season’s second most nominated show with seven nods, also at the Citadel, Mieko Ouchi’s The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, took home a single award. It was for Jonathan Hawley Purvis’s choreography/fight direction, in a swashbuckler with every kind of weapon on, and above, the stage.

In sum, after juror voting, the 30 nominations for shows at Edmonton’s largest playhouse came to three Sterlings Monday night.

Nadien Chu’s starring performance in Pretty Goblins at Workshop West, as the sister who watches the self-destruction of her twin, garnered her the outstanding actress Sterling — in a category where her cast-mate Miranda Allen (and both performances in Atlas Theatre’s Going To St. Ives) were nominated.  

The Legend of Sleeping Beauty, Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied

In a field that included music for “plays with music” The Silver Arrow, Shakespeare’s R&J, and Blood of Our Soil, the Sterling went to the versatile composer/musician/musical director Erik Mortimer, for his work on Jocelyn Ahlf’s panto version of Sleeping Beauty at Fort Edmonton Park. 

And in a category that included big-budget extravaganzas like Hadestown, Shakespeare in Love, and The Silver Arrow, Citadel productions all (in addition to a nomination for Megan Koshka’s Pretty Goblins design), the set design Sterling went home with Daniel Van Heyst  — for his atmospheric evocation of an Irish cottage for Shadow Theatre’s Outside Mullingar. Ian Jackson’s invaluable projections for Theatre Network’s Infinity, which located the characters deep within their intellectual pursuits, won the multi-media design Sterling. 

Coralie Cairns, Jenny McKillop, Glenn Nelson in Outside Mullingar, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Mieko Ouchi’s Consent, a play for young audiences on a difficult subject, took two Sterling Awards in the theatre for young audiences category — one for outstanding production, one for Mieko Ouchi’s double-achievement as playwright and director of the Concrete Theatre production.

The Fringe categories recognized were dominated by two small but high-impact indies: Impossible Mongoose, for Corben Kushneryk’s production of Jessy Ardern’s Prophecy, starring Carmen Niewenhuis; Bright Young Things, for Ron Pederson’s performance in Sartre’s  No Exit. But the outstanding new Fringe work Sterling was Louise Casemore’s Gemini.  

In a year of multiple readjustments in the showbiz industry, the gala included an acknowledgment of the #MeToo movement: a #WeToo version of Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing, with Larissa Pohoreski, Michelle Diaz, Jaimi Reese, and Hillary Warden. 

The Sterling award in administration, named for the legendary Margaret Mooney, went to Rapid Fire Theatre’s indefatigable and resourceful Karen Brown Fournell. The stellar four-decade career in production of Sheila Cleasby, a 36-year Citadel veteran, was recognized with a Sterling.

And the award for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre went to the puckish theatre artist Jan Henderson, an expert in the rarefied twin arts of mask and clowning, and a mentor/teacher of legendary generosity and influence.

And here they are, the Sterling Awards for 2017/2018

Outstanding Production of a Play: Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/One Little Indian Productions)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding New Play (award to playwright): Terry and the Dog by Collin Doyle (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Director: Amiel Gladstone, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Sheldon Elter, Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/One Little Indian Productions)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Nadien Chu, Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Cole Humeny, Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Amber Gray, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Set Design: Daniel vanHeyst, Outside Mullingar (Shadow Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Jacqueline Firkins, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre at Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Bradley King, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Ian Jackson, Infinity (Theatre Network)

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Erik Mortimer, Sleeping Beauty (Capitol Theatre)

Tommy Banks Award for Outstanding Musical Director: Veda Hill, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre at Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction: Jonathan Hawley Purvis, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Consent (Concrete Theatre)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences:  Mieko Ouchi, direction/playwright, Consent (Concrete Theatre)

Individual Achievement in Production: Erin Birkenbergs, Technician

Outstanding Fringe Production: Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): Gemini by Louise Casemore (Defiance Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Corben Kushneryk, Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actor: Ron Pederson, No Exit (Bright Young Things)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actress: Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose)

The Margaret Mooney Award for Outstanding Achievement in Administration:  Karen Brown Fournell

The Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production: Sheila Cleasby

The Sterling Award for the Most Valuable Contribution to Theatre in Edmonton:  Jan Henderson

Posted in News/Views

An exciting new Hamlet for the park: a review

Kevin Sutley, Bobbi Goddard, Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Is not this something more than fantasy?”

The guards on duty in Elsinore are talking about a dead king who’s been appearing nightly from behind his official royal portrait. They’re right on another count, too.  Something fresh and startling is happening in the park. And you should be there for it.

At the centre of Marianne Copthorne’s dynamic production of Hamlet is a performance of captivating intelligence and originality from a young actor who will engage you every moment he’s on the stage. Which is, incidentally, a lot of moments, since Hamlet talks more, by a ratio of two to one, than any other character in the Shakespeare canon.

He’s Hunter Cardinal. And (famous lines notwithstanding), he speaks our language. In this startlingly vivid and natural performance, the actor takes charge of the most celebrated role in English theatre, one haunted with the ghosts of the great Shakespeareans who have occupied it, and makes it his own.

The Hamlet you meet in the park is neither a bookish recluse (a perpetual philosophy grad student probably writing his thesis on existential dilemmas) nor a reluctant action hero. He isn’t the outside observer; he’s neither paralyzed by moral distaste nor self-loathing. No, the performance brings us up close to an intense, passionate young man living a nightmare of loss, grief, and betrayal in a dangerous, corrupt world.

This Hamlet looks, and feels young: he’s comprehensibly impulsive, quick-witted and quick to act. He’s likeable; the word Cardinal’s Hamlet most anatomizes, in every nuance, is “friend.” For once it’s believable when Claudius late in the play plots to exploit his “free and open nature.” And Cardinal’s Hamlet is funny, in a way that turns scalding on a dime when it’s galvanized by outrage. He’s an exciting actor to watch.

Ashley Wright and Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The production runs a fleet two-and-a-half hours (which in Hamlet terms means that considerable trims are the judicious work of Copithorne). But it seems faster than that; it flies by. There’s a thrilling sense of forward propulsion about the whole show. And Matthew Skopyk’s eerie, often dissonant score, and underscoring, are a very striking participant.

Hamlet’s youthful radar is fine-tuned to hypocrisy detection and absurdity. And that, and not a predisposition to meditation, seems to propel him from grief toward the character’s great soliloquizing explorations of what it means to be human. “To be or not to be” or “o  that this too too sullied flesh” aren’t so much explorations of the largest human questions of life and death, but  visceral, believable, immediate responses, moment to moment.

There is, arguably, something to be lost, a certain over-arching grandeur, in that. What you gain is a kind of kinetic dramatic engagement with a young character whose struggles and rage you feel you understand.

Ophelia is a problem character in contemporary productions. The history of Hamlets onstage is littered with forlorn, bedraggled Ophelia’s. Hamlet’s doomed girlfriend, apparently railroaded into betraying her beau by a bossy windbag dad. How did these two get together, you’re apt to wonder.

Gianna Vacirca is exceptional; she’s sparky and knowing, not quite deferential to authority. She winks at her brother behind Polonius’s back as he dispenses endless father advice. Her reaction to Laertes (Nathan Cuckow), his father’s son in pompous advice-giving, gives off a soupçon of irony.

So you can understand the mutual attraction between Vacirca’s Ophelia and Hamlet, intensified when as Vacirca presents her, she’s more substantial. And you can certainly understand the intensity of Hamlet’s feeling of betrayal when she betrays him to the plot hatched by her dad.

There’s an electrifying moment in Copthorne’s production when Hamlet realizes that an encounter with her is a set-up. She’s caught in the act, guilty in a look, and for a second the world of young love stands still. In this striking performance she seems to be undone by her own part in the plotting: the madness scene, which replaces shreds of Hamlet’s love letters for the flowers that Ophelia strews, is hair-raising.

Ah, hypocrisy and treachery: they’re everywhere in Elsinore. As designed by Jim Guedo, and useful for the multi-door farce that is The Comedy of Errors (on alternate nights), Elsinor has a chilly monumental aspect,  a court maze of plotters and spies. Ashley Wright turns in a fine performance as Claudius, the capable, professionally cordial, ruthlessly decisive usurper who’s murdered the old king. He has never expected to feel the pangs of conscience, you glean, and it’s unsettled him to the core.

Here, Claudius’s relationship with Gertrude, the excellent Nadien Chu,  is playful, close, and affectionate. So there’s something tangible for Gertrude to give up, as Hamlet gives her the appalling goods on her consort. She ever so gradually cools and congeals in her behaviour toward the latter.

Robert Benz is equally fine as Polonius, a comic, maddeningly self-important figure who’s not without real concern for his kids. And there are fine performances from both Bobbi Goddard as Horatio (an easeful gender-cross for Hamlet’s best buddy) and Nathan Cuckow as Laertes.    

On opening night, punctuated by rumbles of thunder (in addition to Skopyk’s ominous score), Mother Nature took the perverse tack of providing a ray of sunshine every time the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Kevin Sutley) appeared. He couldn’t have looked more corporeal if he’d grabbed a mike and said “hello, Edmonton!” Then, as a summer sky darkened gradually, you realize again that there’s something quite wonderful about locating a great tragedy in the world — outdoors, lived in, moving. And there’s a production in the park and a hero ready to haunt you. Don’t miss the chance.



Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Hunter Cardinal, Gianna Vacirca, Ashley Wright, Nadien Chu, Robert Benz, Bobbi Goddard, Nathan Cuckow

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 15, even dates (alternating with The Comedy of Errors, odd dates and matinees)

Tickets: or at the gate

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The world’s a zany, baffling place: The Comedy of Errors in the park

Kristi Hansen in The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

At a crucial mistaken-identity moment in The Comedy of Errors — a transaction-gone-askew involving a goldsmith, a chain, and a wayward husband arranging delivery on pricey bling for someone not his wife — a magpie perched on the lighting grid looked down and screeched in amusement.  

Was it the situation? The Coriolanus joke that made the bird crack up? That’s the thing about summer Shakespeare in the park: not only do you get impromptu stage effects as dusk gathers, you get laughtracks courtesy of the unpaid extras.

And so it was on the opening night of this year’s 30th anniversary edition of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Dave Horak’s funny, colour-drenched, carnival-esque production of The Comedy of Errors returns the company to the first show they ever did, three decades ago. Shakespeare’s earliest, shortest, most farcically manic comedy catapults an entire town — merchants, servants, husbands, courtesans, cops, passersby — into a state of red-alert confusion. 

Ashley Wright, Belinda Cornish in The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

It’s the impromptu arrival of a man and his servant from Syracuse that lights the match. From that moment on, Ephesus is inhabited by two sets of identical twins — a pair of twin masters both named Antipholus and a pair of twin valets both named Dromio. And the proverbial identity crisis takes on exponential new dimensions of misunderstanding in every transaction, financial, legal, romantic, domestic. “Am I myself?” a character will ask himself at one point. And, really, who’s to say? 

We’re on a cut-rate Hollywood backlot in Horak’s production, which explains the amusing tangle of music (Dave Clarke) and dance numbers which arrive onstage and wander off. The Comedy of Errors is, after all, a play all about non-sequiturs — the empirical kind, in a world where your senses are unreliable, evidence is contradictory, and belief is at a premium. Yup, Hollywood, the illusion factory. In the middle of Hawrelak Park, with real live nature looking particularly verdant I might add, an assistant wheels an a series of screens painted with fakey generic nature.  

The opener is a Mack Sennett Keystone Kops chase, blithely gender-oblivious. In the sight gags that ensue, a glum Snow White and seven hilariously put-upon dwarves will dutifully troop onstage, try to rehearse One Day My Prince Will Come, and get hustled off. In the world of Shakespeare’s comedy, there’s neither  rhyme nor reason (and hey, that’s a line from the play).

Director Horak finds, and uses, nine or so entrances and exits in Jim Guedo’s cinderblock set, and even adds a free-standing locked door which the cast breezily reaches around, as required. Led by an inspired foursome of Antipholus-es and Dromios, the prevailing theatrical impulse is heightened physical comedy, farcical pratfalls and drubbings, high-style gestures, the extravagant B-grade poses, double-takes, and tableaux of an era gone by.

Gianna Vacirca and Vanessa Sabourin in The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

It’s a physicality intensified by the neon-hued costumes and complementary wigs devised by designer Megan Koshka, and fun to look at. Out of the corner of your eye, you might catch sight of two sisters, Adriana (Vanessa Sabourin) and Luciana (Gianna Vacirca), one in hair-to-toe teal and one in acid orange, strolling behind the stage, arm and arm, cartoon characters in a real-live park. Now, that’s the kind of layering that’s pure Comedy of Errors

You’ll get to see mystification and exasperation defined in physical terms: meet the Antipholi. Kristi Hansen as Antipholus of Syracuse is a veritable question mark of a young master out on an adventure in a strange new world. Every exit is long legs first, impossibly horizontal. She’s a riot. And so is Belinda Cornish as the local, Antipholus of Ephesus, a more self-assured, venal, confident sort of cat, with a hint of swagger. And everything familiar in his world gets incomprehensible, a choleric vein in his personality is increasingly uncovered.

Robert Benz and Ashley Wright in The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker

The Dromios, Robert Benz and Ashley Wright, are delightful as a pair of shrugging servants (with subtle differences between them) who are much more used to the unexplained vagaries of the world than their respective employers. That’s what it means to be an underling, after all, taking absurd orders, getting smacked for nothing. To Benz’s Dromio of Syracuse goes the most wistful line of the play, a reference to his status as an ass. “’Tis true,” he concedes. “She rides me, and I long for grass.”

As a Day-Glo farce, Horak’s production doesn’t have a lot of time and energy for either the Death Row sentence of the twins’ dad Egeon (Troy O’Donnell),  or the marital problems of  Adriana, who’s waiting for her wandering hubby to get home for dinner. It’s shamelessly unshaded that way. But Sabourin and Vacirca are both very funny.

The former, apparently on a short fuse anyway (which may be why her lips are teal), gets steamed to boiling point by the increasing confusion. She gives great tooth-gritting tantrum. The latter is trying to be a loyal sibling support group of one, but she’s compromised by her attraction to one of the Antipholi. Amber Borotsik has choreographed an amusingly tentative tango for them.  

Naturally, when unhinged chaos has reached a kind of maximum escalation, there’s an appeal to religion. In a tiny role that points out the bench-strength of the company, Jesse Gervais is a show-stopper Dr. Pinch, a vampy drag show shaman. 

You’ll see incredulity on legs down at the park. And right in the middle of a city with its share of more prosaic improbabilities (off the top of my head I’m thinking of the insane signage outside Hawrelak Park), there’s fun, and catharsis in that. The world is baffling: sit back and savour the fun.


The Comedy of Errors

Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Belinda Cornish, Robert Benz, Ashley Wright, Vanessa Sabourin, Gianna Vacirca

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 15, odd dates and matinees

Tickets: or at the gate

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