Préparez vous, mes amis: Lucy Darling is back — with a bilingual magic/comedy show livestreaming from L’UniThéâtre

Lucy Darling (centre, aka Carisa Hendrix), with Richard Lee Hsi and Miranda Allen. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“What I love about magic as an art form,” declares magician Carisa Hendrix at a non-magical hour of the morning earlier this week, “what magic is really about, is the feeling that anything is possible.…”

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The apparently impossible is Hendrix’s theatre and her métier — and the playground for her retro-glam magician persona Lucy Darling. “We are amazing and rationalizing creatures,” says Calgary-based/ Edmonton-quarantined Hendrix cheerfully, musing on her favourite subject. “Our brains are constantly looking for meaning in a world that’s pretty random and full of entropy.” Magic, she thinks, is validation for the liberating proposition that “I don’t need to know everything!”

“I’m a well respected, well established magician, and I get fooled all the time!”

You will, therefore, be in good company this weekend when you’re baffled by the magical mysteries in the online bilingual magic/ improv comedy live-streamed by L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre.

Mes amis, préparez vous: Lucy Darling revient, along with her two Edmonton collaborators, actor/escapologist Miranda Allen and actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi.

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix). Photo by Jon-Christian Ashby.

With Une Soirée Avec Lucy Darling/ An Evening With Lucy Darling, the quick-witted Lucy, a vintage diva with a golden age party frock and shellacked red bouffant coiffure, has acquired a third assistant for the occasion: actor/improviser Vincent Forcier, L’UniThéâtre’s artistic director. And what started with “a fun weird challenge” — “let’s do our show in French!” — has evolved into “a comedy about language, about misunderstanding and miscommunication,” says Hendrix.

Each of the four characters has “a different level of understanding…. Miranda’s character is under the impression that ‘bilingual’ means German. Richard’s character believes he speaks better French than he does. Lucy’s French (flamboyantly accented à la Piaf, and peppered with English) is OK, but she’s struggling.” So she’s hired a new  butler (Forcier) who constantly corrects her. “And you can imagine how that goes!” laughs Hendrix, whose français, which hasn’t been exercised for five or six years till now, has charted its own unique course. French Immersion in school, check. A French grandmother with whom she corresponded in French, check. Circus training in French in Montreal, check. Circus school (“mostly fire-related, and choreography”) in the Dominican Republic living in a condo “with all French speakers,” check.

“The feeling that anything is possible” seems to weave through  Hendrix’s own story — long before she set the Guinness world record for holding a lit torch in her mouth in 2014, and long before the 2016 SuperChannel documentary Girl On Fire.

As Hendrix explains, her Calgary childhood was spent juggling, doing magic tricks, walking on stilts — and volunteering with organizations that supported disabled or disadvantaged children. Her entry point into showbiz wasn’t theatre per se, or acting. “That felt fancy to me, and inaccessible. And somehow subjective. How do you know if you’re a good actor? I don’t know. How do you know if you’re a good juggler? Easy. You juggle.”

Childhood in a dysfunctional family ended abruptly. “I got kicked out of the house at 16 and needed to make money.” Hendrix worked two jobs, one at London Drugs before school, the other making smoothies at Jugo Juice after school, “eight dollars an hour, and it wasn’t enough.” When the manager of a haunted house offered her an entertainment job for 50 bucks a night, four shows a night for 30 nights,” Hendrix jumped at it. “The $1500 was more money than I’d ever seen. … I had no big ambition to be famous; it was how I survived.”

She landed a job at the Boys and Girls Club. “I loved teaching and I loved the kids, but I kept performing on the side because the money was good.” Bookings kept coming, and Hendrix found herself “juggling two lives,” a day life and a night-time life. When the ultimatum came to choose, and Hendrix picked “the noble option,” teaching, she knew it was wrong. “I burst into wet sobbing and disgusting tears, faced with the realization that somewhere along the way (showbiz) had become my calling….”

In the international world of magic, predominantly male, Hendrix is a star on the ascendancy, witness her string of awards, magic magazine cover stories, testimonial blurbs from the likes of Steve Martin and David Copperfield, and residencies in such magic strongholds as the Magic Castle in L.A. and the Chicago Magic Lounge. But Hendrix calls the tricks themselves, no matter how dazzling their execution, “ancillary…. Don’t get me wrong, I am a magician, and passionate about the art form. But as long as the audience is being entertained and is giving in to the experience, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. It’s the experience that matters.”

Generating wonder, overcoming human limitations (or maybe lighting them on fire) … that’s what it’s about. Take fire-eating, for example (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). “Fire is the destroyer,” Hendrix says. So fire-eating is wish fulfillment for the audience: “if she can be on fire and not get burnt, maybe I can, too.”

In a world of improbabilities, making an online magic show might be the trickiest trick of them all. But Hendrix argues that “magic has always valued cutting-edge technologies; magicians have always been very technically savvy…. In the Golden Age, magicians were making automatons.”

“So when there was talk early on in the pandemic about doing virtual shows, the community of magic was one of the first art forms to get on board and really embrace it.” The early shows she saw were “pretty awful,” Hendrix says. “Which the magicians who put them on would happily and graciously admit. But it was a learning curve.”

She admits to having been “trepidatious” about doing an online show with her Lucy Darling character, “mainly because I’ve had a lot of success with her, and I was a bit afraid to ruin it….” But then against the odds the Canada Council came though with a show grant. “Arts funding typically doesn’t go to magic, so I was certain they’d say no!”

Since last March, says Hendrix, “I’ve been lucky enough to be quarantined with Miranda and Richard. They’re not only overwhelmingly talented performers but also writers and designers!” The Edmonton showbiz couple, who’d met Hendrix by chance five years ago during a Nextfest gig, invited her to stay in their spare room. Lately the three artists have just moved 10 floors up in the couple’s apartment building to gain a workable studio space.

They’ve undertaken the digital challenge together. “We weren’t just trying to figure out how to do the tricks, but how to translate the feeling of what we do in traditional performances onstage,” says Hendrix of the audience interaction that seems indispensable to magic. “In a regular show I’d hand you a cup, or a rope, so you could examine it,” and verify that it was for real. “In this environment you’re relying subconsciously on the shine of something or the sound of the glass coming down on the table so your brain can go ‘OK, that’s really a glass’.”

There’s a reason most magic specials onscreen include footage of the live studio audience. “Without that, the magic can seem like a special effect “even if it’s not…. The audience IS the trick,”says Hendrix. She’s “too much of a purist to ever use a laugh track.” Instead, her sound engineer pal Chris Coombs, in a role called “audience manager,” live-mixes the audience sounds,  “so we get the live audience feel.”

That sensation is enhanced by the “meet and greet” with audience members in the Zoom gallery at the outset. “Basically, we’re building a cast of characters, and getting to know them a little… we’re helping you forget there’s a screen between you and us!”

Carisa Hendrix and her alter-egos (Lucy Darling right). Photo by Jon-Christian Ashby.

Hendrix has a half-dozen other alter-egos for her comedy/magic entertainments. But it’s Lucy Darling, vamping it up in her old-Hollywood ultra-glam way, who’s the people’s choice. Hendrix “adores” Lucy’s era with its ‘30s high-style screwball sass and charm, “Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor . I could watch them all day.”  And in our own hard-driven hard-edged time — “an era of perfectionism and side hustle and Silicon Valley and optimizing time,” as Hendrix puts it — Lucy is a sort of fizzy antidote. “She walks onstage and you realize all she wants is a bubble bath and a glass of gin and a cupcake and a hug. She gives you permission for that to be OK….”

(12thnight caught An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling online in October. Have a peek at my review here).

PREVIEW

Une soirée avec Lucy Darling/An Evening With Lucy Darling

Theatre: Ballyhoo Entertainment

Presented by: L’UniThéâtre, in French and English

Starring: Carisa Hendrix, Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi, Vincent Forcier

Where: online, live-streamed from L’UniThéâtre

Running: Friday and Saturday

Tickets: L’UniThéâtre  (tickets include a personalized L’UniThéâtre mask)

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The Edmonton Fringe bids farewell to Executive Director Adam Mitchell

Edmonton Fringe Theatre’s Executive Director Adam Mitchell. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Edmonton Fringe Theatre is bidding adieu to its Executive Director. After five years in the demanding administration job atop the company that presents Edmonton’s giant International Fringe Theatre Festival (the country’s oldest, largest, and most influential fringe)  every summer, Adam Mitchell is leaving that stage, effective March 26.

Mitchell, a multi-tasking fringe veteran of some 20 years standing much admired for his calm and thoughtful leadership, decided to leave once before, about a year ago. But he agreed to stay and shepherd the company through this challenging time of multiple uncertainties for the performing arts. This time, his exit is for real. He’ll be returning to his theatre production roots.

Edmonton Fringe Theatre will launch a search for Mitchell’s successor in the fall of 2021. In the meantime Megan Dart has been appointed Interim Executive Director, overseeing the team that will undertake the challenge of producing the 40th annual Edmonton Fringe, under circumstances and health and travel restrictions that are complicated, transforming, and, to understate the case, unpredictable.

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Dart, Edmonton Fringe Theatre’s “communications specialist” and a playwright and events producer of note, is half of Catch The Keys Productions, an indie company with a distinguished history of original experiments in site-specific and immersive theatre — including the annual Dead Centre of Town forays into the spookiest niches of Edmonton history.

The 2021 Fringe will look and feel very different in another pandemic year when live-ness and intimacy, the Fringe trademarks, come with so many strings attached. Dart wonders if it means a return to earliest Fringe times, when our mammoth festivities were a mysterious “fringe theatre event.”

Stay tuned.

   

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The letters you wrote and never sent: Letters To No One, a new show from Dammitammy

The cast of Letters To No One. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Everyone has a stash.

You know, the letters you wrote and you didn’t send.

Letters in which you confess your long-hidden love (possibly in free verse). Or your rage (likely in stinging prose). Or reveal your simmering grievances, regrets, grief, your subterranean resentments, your wounds. Letters where you admit your mistakes or declare ‘j’accuse’. Or set forth the views you squashed at the time in order to seem conciliatory. Or say the goodbyes or sorry’s you were too late to say in person.

That secret hoard of didn’t-send’s, wish-I’d-sent’s, glad-I-didn’t’s was Rebecca Merkley’s inspiration for Letters To No One, the Dammitammy production that opens online Feb. 26. The theatrical concept is simplicity itself, scarily so. A cast of eight actors read, for the first time, nine letters, written by each other, and anonymous. “You don’t know who wrote what, but you know you’re reading a letter by someone in the cast.” Envelope, please.    

It began a couple of months ago when Merkley was getting a new computer, and sifting through the stash of writing lodged in the old one — as one does during an endless pandemic. And there they were, “letters I’d saved to people I’d never sent, quite a few,” some of them dating back 20 years. “Letters it was good for me to write and get it out, but I just didn’t feel safe or comfortable sending them.… Painful moments, memories, but quite beautiful to read knowing what I went through at the time.”

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“How could this turn into art?” Merkley, a diarist of long standing, wondered. Encouraged by fellow theatre artist Brianne Jang (the managing director of the SkirtsAfire Festival), the pandemic-friendly idea became a video project, and Merkley approached actors. “And everyone jumped right in.… They were, like, ‘I’m scared to do it, and I’m gonna do it!’” Which pretty much counts as perfect theatrical motivation in Merkley World.

“Sometimes we doubt our simple ideas!. Sometimes we overthink, especially right now…. We can’t gather and do the big fun spectacles, the stuff I normally do,” says producer/ actor/ playwright/ director/ singer/ musician/ composer Merkley.

The Unsyncables

“Fun spectacles” dot the Dammitammy Productions archive, which begins at the 2016 Fringe with the funny, spirited sleeper hit The Unsyncables, an original Merkley underdog comedy in which an aspirational amateur synchronized swim team goes up against a snazzy and arrogant swim “club.” (It remains the only production in the last two decades to my knowledge in which the characters remain in bathing caps throughout). It was followed by River City The Musical, based on the characters from the old Archie comics, and Merk Du Soleil, an original circus cabaret/ variety entertainment.

You can’t keep a creative spirit down, even in times that have been devastating for live performance. “How can we do theatre now? We have to evolve fast. We have no choice!” Merkley has been looking for do-able alternatives. Hence a couple of Dammitammy radio plays, Camp!, a Halloween offering, and the Christmas comedy They Wanted To Do Chekhov. With more to come, including a Merkley mystery, Murder At The Park And Sleep Inn Hotel, set to be unleashed on St. Patrick’s Day (and having “nothing whatsoever” to do with St. Patrick).

Meanwhile, there’s Letters To No One, woven from real letters to real people, “people who wounded us or people we never had the chance to say sorry, or goodbye to, or who we hurt, or who we have mixed feelings about,” as Merkley puts it. Rage is “the palate cleanser,” she laughs. Hence, one letter is by someone who works in retail, a grocery store, and “has to deal with people.” The fury potential is doubtless stratospheric.

The theatre repertoire has its share of plays constructed entirely of letters. 84 Charing Cross Road and Love Letters spring to mind. Letters To No One isn’t like that. “It’s not a monologue project,” says Merkley, explaining that’s the reason the actors don’t see the letter they’ll read till the moment they open the envelope online, with the camera rolling. “I didn’t want it to be ‘acting’…. I didn’t want (them) to ask ‘who are you talking to, and why?’ I need this to be what it is….” And what that is, as she describes it, is unfiltered, unprepared, responses from people, not actors rehearsing a character. “We get the real raw reaction. It’s what makes the project unique!”

COVID has certainly highlighted the resilience and adaptability of our theatre artists. Even by those standards Merkley’s career continues to unfold and zigzag in a remarkable way, accumulating skills as it goes. For her radio plays, she “had to learn audio editing from scratch.” Each took hundreds of hours in post-production, “no exaggeration.”

Merkley, originally from Creston B.C. (near to the home of the polygamous Mormon fundamentalists who are the subject of her play Bountiful), grew up listening to music, and kids’ story records. Thanks to her mom, “I  listened more than I watched TV.”

In high school, she was an athlete, in love with soccer and hockey. Music was “singing and playing guitar in my room.… It took a long time for me to be able to share,” Merkley says. In her five-year Grande Prairie period that followed, she was a career  singer/musician, hired as part of church youth outreach programs and summer camps designed “to create safe spaces for troubled youth.” And she toured the U.S. doing just that. “It was where I thought my life was heading.”

Then came a falling-out with the leadership, and the life-changing decision to accompany a friend to an audition for Oklahoma!. In a classic theatre story, he got Chorus; Merkley landed a lead role, Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no.” Says Merkley, “it was fun. So good for me to discover a community, a bunch of oddballs I fit into…. Sometimes you need people in your life to give you permission,” she says. “I didn’t know I had (musical theatre) in me.”

In 2011, she rented a car, drove to Edmonton, and aced the last audition spot for MacEwan U’s musical theatre program. Soon the Canadian theatre repertoire would be expanding with new Merkley musicals. And plays.

Letters To No One required a further expansion of Merkley’s already startling theatre skill set. And that was assisted materially by acts of generosity, as she says gratefully. A Merkley pal Aaron Hart, a professional videographer (hartfeltmoments.com), offered his equipment to the production for free. Ditto his encouragement. “This isn’t my wheelhouse,” she says. But she’s discovered she enjoys video editing.

When it came time to shoot, the Woodrack Cafe in Old Strathcona offered Merkley the space for free. “It was sitting there empty and beautiful.” So the actors arrived, one at a time, on a strict schedule.

“It’s all an experiment,” she says. “Hey, maybe I should have a separate webpage for my Pandemic Art!” Merkley laughs. “We had fun. I thought it’d be more sad…. It’s people being themselves. It’s real. And it’s pure.”

PREVIEW

Letters To No One

Theatre: Dammitammy Productions

Created by: Rebecca Merkley

Featuring: Bret Jacobs, Brianne Jang, Calla Wright, Carol Chu, Chariz Faulmino, Kristina Hunszinger, Rebecca Merkley, Samantha O’Connor

Where: online, dammitammy.com

Running: Feb. 26 through March 15

Tickets: dammitammy.com/tixevents

    

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New faces in theatre: meet playwright, dramaturge, theatre scholar Mūkonzi wā Mūsyoki

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet playwright/ dramaturge/ theatre scholar Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki. The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino, sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell

Playwright, dramaturge, theatre scholar Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

MŪKONZI WĀ MŪSYOKI, dramaturge, playwright, theatre scholar

If you ventured out in Strathcona on a freezing October night to experience a series of live (!) five-minute one-on-one outdoor encounters in unexpected locations, you’d have followed your phone app to a little exit staircase outside a church door.

The locale was meaningful. We met a troubled young man (David Madawo), mid-crisis, trying to unravel his complicated nexus of grief, loss, guilt, and spiritual alienation. In Dreams, Desires and Disguises, one of the octet of original five-minute solo plays in Workshop West’s season premiere Here There Be Night, we were seeing the work of Mūkonzi wā Mūsyoki.

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“A very personal piece,” says the thoughtful playwright/ dramaturge/ director, who’s from Kenya and brings with him, along with an accounting degree, two African languages (Kiswahili and Kikãmbã) and a formidable and elegant command of English. “My journey into disconnection with my Christian upbringing…. Very heavy for me,” he says of the piece. A world away from his home and his childhood in the Kenyan countryside outside Nairobi, Mūsyoki was remembering his mother and “the Christian way” from which he’s departed. “If you lose someone, how do you retain that memory?”

A play in five minutes? “At first it was 16 or 20 pages,” Mūsyoki says of the ruthless trim required. “It’ll be a full-length play in future.”

We have academia to thank for the arrival here four years ago of Mūsyoki, a specialist in post-colonial African theatre who came to get a master’s degree at the U of A. Mission accomplished. He’s now one of four international students — including one from Botswana and two from Ghana — working towards U of A doctorates  in “performance studies.”

Since 2016 Mūsyoki has been not only a playwright, but a rising star in a behind-the-scenes line of theatre work that, as a job description, eludes easy definition in English: dramaturgy. And, as a black African artist at this moment in our collective history on this continent, his outsider’s perspective on the colonial inheritance of theatre practice is well-timed, to say the least, to offer insight. Dramaturgy, from the Mūsyoki perspective, has a wider embrace than storyboarding Act II of draft 14 of a script. It’s all about “building a community of collaborators,” and “looking at different modes of creation….” And he feels particularly aligned with Indigenous creators.

The question of “protocols” resonates with Mūsyoki. “It’s one of the things I learned from (influential Kenyan writer/ researcher) Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. When you move out of institutions, universities, and go out to the community, you find where stories exist…. Moving theatre out of a building as an institution allows accessibility to different people.” Confining theatre to institutional buildings, he says, “limits the sense of indigenous performance and creation.”

As a country kid in Kenya, Mūsyoki’s first experience of theatre was the “skits” organized in the church for every festival. “I got my first spark of interest in dramaturgy from that…. looking at a Bible story, extracting something, and staging it within a local setting.” The entertainment value of enacting stories wasn’t lost on him: “we managed to teach  religious lessons without preaching them.”

As a linguistics and English literature undergrad at Kenyatta University in the big city, Mūsyoki’s entry point into drama was the page not the stage, starting with the classics: Shakespeare (Macbeth was first; “I had no idea what was going on. I was still learning my English,” he laughs). Greek tragedy. Ibsen, especially An Enemy of the People, with its radical thrust about the social price tag on a truth-teller’s zeal.

The African writers who particularly engaged him in his post-colonial theatre research, says Mūkyosi, include such leading figures as the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan writer/scholar Francis Imbuga, Uganda’s John Ruganda, and Ngūgī Thiong’o. All wrote in a variety of forms, including theatre.

Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki.

Since his arrival here, Mūsyoki has not only been a scholar (with a string of articles to his credit), but a theatre practitioner, out in the community, much in demand as a dramaturge — from Workshop West (where he was dramaturge-in-residence for a year) to the Citadel (he worked on The Color Purple and was much struck by the rarity of an all-black production) to Victoria School of the Arts. He’s brought his outreach and dramaturgy skills to bear on premieres, including Conni Massing’s Matara, Colleen Murphy’s Bright Burning, Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined.

The latter, his first professional gig in Edmonton theatre outside the ivory tower, “put a lot of things in perspective for me about the place of black people in Alberta,” he says. “Race is an issue in Alberta; it was a bit concerning for someone moving to Alberta….”

“I was a bit shocked really” that the history of black settlers in Alberta was so little known to many, indeed most, people here. “A lot of conversation originated out of that; it’s very inspiring to keep that conversation going.…”

“I’ve learned so much!” he says happily. “Particularly from Indigenous scholarship in Canada.” His mentor has been the Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams (Thunderstick, Cafe Daughter), the first Indigenous playwright to earn an M.A. in playwriting from the U of A.  “And I’ve gotten a lot of mentorship as well from Vern Thiessen,” star Canadian playwright and the former Workshop West artistic director.

Mūsyoki has a new play ready for production at the U of A’s upcoming annual New Works festival (dates TBA). He describes Chanzo (“source” in Swahili”) as an experiment in multi-lingual storytelling (English, Swahili, and an Indigenous language called Sheng, a Swahili slang “spoken by youth to resist the colonial proficiency of English.” The three-actor production is an international affair, with a director from Korea and an assistant director from Venezuela. “It’s about going back home and grief and family; it’s been so much on my mind at the moment,” Mūkonzi says of the pandemic isolation.

Another Mūsyoki play-in-progress is Fumbo, a “reflection from my society where there’s been a lot of recurring domestic violence in some communities.” First workshopped at the 2018 Chinook Series, “it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve written, so it’s taken a while.”

We won’t be seeing a screwball comedy from him any time soon. All his plays have a dark, serious palette to them, Mūkyosi acknowledges. His very first, The Golden Handshake, “was about homosexuality from a Kenyan perspective. A very heavy play…. I’m always drawn to plays that ask questions that I find hard to reconcile with.”

Meanwhile Mūkyosi leads Workshop West’s BIPOC “creative incubator” every second Wednesday, “to explore all kinds of things … ideas that inform our creation, alternate forms of storytelling, looking beyond ordinary notions, drama informed by Indigenous dramaturgies….” Creating space, challenging received notions of what constitutes a point of departure for creating work…. it’s all part of the mandate.

Land acknowledgment (and “moving beyond saying into doing”) has a profound impact on Mūsyoki’s thinking. “He’s invited participants to consider their journeys to the place, the physical here and now they’re speaking from. For the first session, he had them each bring in an object with which they have a relationship in their life, to narrate the history of both object and relationship. He brought a scarf belonging to his mother.

Four years of Canada, winters included, have been “enriching,” he says. They have not, however, entirely prepared Mūsyoki for the meteorological trials of last week. “I’ve been building my tolerance. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.”

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Happy Valentine’s weekend: have some theatre with your champagne

Living Room Love Songs, Citadel Theatre. Photo, Citadel website.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Let’s try to ignore for the moment the origins of Valentine’s Day as a feast day in honour of a martyr, and, more recently, a massacre. Or the source of a bottomless supply of gummy limericks, and dreary memoirs about unsatisfactory ex’s. Arguably, we have enough to contend with in these parlous times without contemplating the baleful prospect of Romeo and Juliet getting poisoned and stabbed, respectively. By themselves. For love. Online.

But I digress. In 2021, this is a Valentine’s Day when you don’t have to feel like the world’s biggest loser because you’re at home alone, eating the chocolates you bought for yourself online. True, it’s a day to feel keenly how much you miss the sense of togetherness, of the shared communal spirit, laughter, breath, of live theatre. But thanks to the sheer ingenuity and wilful persistence of our theatre artists, the V-Day weekend is not without its theatrical prospects, my friends — brought to you on location at home, and consumable with your own champagne throughout.

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•The Citadel taps the romance repertoire with Living Room Love Songs, an online fund-raiser concert featuring the stellar musical talents of Nuela Charles, Farren Timoteo, Tara Jackson, Audrey Ochoa, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, and John Wort Hannam. Each performs a set of three songs, originals and classics. It runs Sunday through Wednesday, and goes well with both chocolate and bubbles. Tickets: citadeltheatre.com.

playwright Natalie Meisner, Legislating Love: The Everett Klippert Story. Photo supplied

•KyleThe Alberta Queer Calendar Project, which spent 2020 premiering  some 13 podcasts of original dramas by AB’s queer writers, is hosting another this Valentine weekend. Co-hosting with Calgary’s Sage Theatre, it’s a “virtual listening party” Saturday at 4:30 p.m. In Legislating Love: The Everett Klippert Story, Calgary’s Natalie Meisner celebrates the life of the last Canadian man jailed simply for being gay. It’s a story little known to Canadians, an homage to a “quiet hero.” And the performance is followed by a Q and A with the cast and crew. Sage’s Jason Mehmel directs. sagetheatre.com.

•If you saw The Rocky Horror Show or Next to Normal at the Citadel, a few seasons ago, or more recently Jesus Christ Superstar at the Mayfield (his Judas was a knock-out), you already know how high Robert Markus rates in the watchability factor. A U of A theatre school grad in the day, he’s Toronto-based these days, with a notable list of Stratford and Mirvish credits like Dear Evan Hansen. His new cabaret Letting You Go — a title that resonates with every theatre artist in the country who’s lost gigs and a livelihood this past year (i.e. every theatre artist in the country) — is part of Stratford’s cabaret series. The song list includes Jason Robert Brown, Ben Folds and Stephen Sondheim. It’s streamed free through Sunday on Stratford’s YouTube channel, before joining the ticketed STRATFEST@HOME archive.

The Free Willies. Photo supplied.

•Revive your long-lost dreams of summer before they atrophy altogether by thinking about Freewill Shakespeare, that al fresco festival with the hot resident playwright. That festival, cancelled for 2020, launched a travelling trio of musical troubadours, the Free Willies (Jameela McNeill, Chariz Faulmino, Billy Brown), in parks and on river banks near you. The Free Willies will be back this summer, says Freewill artistic director Dave Horak. Meanwhile, catch a couple of their music videos at freewillshakespeare.com: The Free Will Song and their light-hearted What A Rogue Am I (which makes a question of I Will Survive) a speed-up musical version of Hamlet.

•The dazzling National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s monumental two-part Reagan era epic Angels in America is available for rent, ntathome.com. I saw it in a memorable double-header day and night in New York. And Marianne Elliott’s production, starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, James McCardle, Denise Gough, and Russell Tovey, is still astonishing, as I found out last night with Part One: Millennium Approaches. I’m saving Part Two: Perestroika for the weekend.

•Mile Zero, the dance theatre headed by the unstoppably inventive Gerry Morita, is back tonight and Saturday (7 p.m.) with For Cruising At 30 Kilometres A Second And Attempting Not To Crash. It’s an online “community participatory performance” which amalgamates pre-recorded video from participants who identify with Edmonton’s LGBTQ and/or BIPOC communities (and don’t have prior knowledge of each other’s contributions). Kevin Jesuino provided each with a score, and the footage is unedited and unseen till show time. Hey, video editing improv! Tickets: milezerodance.com.

•From the Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro, an outfit with a festive regard for all high holidays, host Kyle Canniff presides over an online Valentines Revue Saturday and Sunday (7 p.m.), featuring Byron Martin, Danielle LaRose, Jocelyn Anselmo, Monica Gate and Terry Knicle. All pre-recorded in strictly distanced COVID-ian safety. Tickets: grindstone theatre.ca.

Ronnie Burkett and friend. photo from High Performance Rodeo website.

Catch this year’s 35th annual edition of Calgary’s great groundbreaking performance festival, the High Performance Rodeo, founded by One Yellow Rabbit. Who Are You Now? Thirty-Five For Thirty-Five had been transmuted for these pandemical times, by repairing to Instagram till Valentine’s Day (and then to the Rodeo website hprodeo.ca). An international array of 35 artists of astonishing variety and diversity who have appeared in the first 34 Rodeos were invited to answer the “who are you now” question, in any form they liked, in anywhere from 45 seconds to two minutes. Theatre companies, musicians, burlesque artists, unclassifiable multi-disciplinarians, avant-garde clowns … the list is long and fun to explore. And, hey, it includes marionettiste/playwright extraordinaire Ronnie Burkett.

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Fun with Greeks: Orestes, “a live online mythic adventure” from Tarragon Theatre. A review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Home Sweet Homepage.”

In a new and witty Orestes, premiering in a livestream production by Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, the House of Atreus, world’s most famous dysfunctional family is online with you (hey, just like your own family). And they’re airing their dirty laundry.

For this “Iive online mythic adventure” the veteran actor/director Rick Roberts has re-imagined the Greek tragedy for the age of screen interfaces. And director Richard Rose and video/ streaming designer Frank Donato has created a colourful and (dare one say) highly entertaining world for characters to watch each other, plot, interact across platforms. They suddenly appear and disappear as disembodied heads in other vividly coloured backgrounds, and shimmer into pixels. Video calls and Zoom captures freeze and return to motion; configurations change.

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In an uncanny way (as Roberts points out in his playwright’s note in the program) the conventions of Greek theatre are made for the digital world, with its Greek chorus of “followers” and so-called “friends,” and Likes and Unsubscribes, its particular forms of voyeurism, and conspiratorial break-out rooms.

As a large-cast online production (as opposed to a filmed production), it’s one of the most ambitiously inventive theatrical infiltrations of multi-screen technology I’ve seen yet. And it’s fun, if that isn’t a blasphemy in Greek tragedy circles.

The title hero (the charismatic Cliff Cardinal), an internet star with millions of followers, is screwed up by guilt and grief in the aftermath of killing his mom Clytemnestra (who as you may recall arranged for the death of her war hero hubby Agamemnon). Orestes has just been exonerated of murder. BUT — here’s the rub — he’s been “de-platformed,” evicted from all his social media platforms. “Banned from Twitter, banned from TikTok, banned from Instagram…” the list goes on in the incantation of his sister Electra (Krystin Pellerin, in a powerful performance). In short, “a sentence worse than death.”

Electra, mostly seen in grainy close-ups and not a model of emotional equilibrium herself, mounts a risky campaign to restore him. “If I put him back online there is no turning back…. Already people are flooding the site.”  

The reinventions of the characters for this very post-Trojan War world are witty and sharp. In Richard Clarkin’s excellent performance Menelaus, who waves the Family First flag, is the ultimate political operative, a cunning and smooth self-server. With its echoes of Mark Antony’s virtuoso funeral oration in Julius Caesar, his speech about his nephew Orestes starts with protestations of familial affection and ends with a death sentence.

Richard Clarkin (centre) in Orestes, Tarragon Theatre. Screen shot.

Menelaus’s bombshell wife Helen (Lisa Ryder) — Helen of Troy, for whom the endless war was fought — is the ultimate glamour  celeb, a creature of the virtual world and, as Electra points out acidly, “always camera-ready.” Helen’s daughter Hermione (Eleanor Guy) won’t even answer her calls. Any breath of criticism and Helen says “I blame the media.”

David Fox as the fierce old family patriarch Tyndareus gives his offspring, including Menelaus, a withering review in a memorable diatribe against the younger generations.

To me the interactive part — you click on a character to hear a supplementary monologue — seems a little grafted on, in truth. For one thing I couldn’t get it to work without stopping to re-enter my password. But the show is lively and absorbing. And it reminds us of one of the few bright sides of this strange and isolating moment in history where we’re stuck. We get to see what bright ideas are happening on the other side of the country.

“The real was never an option for him,” says Electra of her troubled bro. I think we all know how that feels.

Orestes is live-streamed through Feb. 14. Tickets and schedule at tarragon.com.

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New faces in theatre: smile, here’s sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet sketch comedian/ improv star/ comedy writer Sydney Campbell. The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino. Look for others upcoming in this 12thnight series. 

Sydney Campbell, of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Photo by Mike Tan. Make-up by The Raven Virginia.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

SYDNEY CAMPBELL, sketch comedian, improv star, comedy writer

“This holiday season marks one year since I made a life-changing decision,” says an earnest personage gravely, against a soulful sound score. A major change in career, you wonder?  A new sexual identity, perhaps? Rehab? A cult?

This life-changer, it transpires, is the decision to stop eating turkey. And the short sketch that follows sets forth the motivation: a home invasion by hordes of blood-thirsty turkey vampires exacting a revenge carnage fantasy.

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If you’ve been laughing at short sketches from the queer comedy duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them, on Instagram or TikTok — and if you haven’t, you’re missing out — you’ll already know something about Sydney Campbell’s sense of humour. Along with their sketch partner actor/playwright Elena Belyea (they co-created the online production httpeepee), it’s a sense of funny that plays along the spectrum between the satirical and goofball, revelling in deadpan and anti-climax, and taking shots at the political and the cultural status quo from oblique angles on the way.

“I thought it would be hard to create a lot of content,” says Campbell (they/them), a comedy writer/ sketch comedian/ Rapid Fire Theatre improv star and teacher, who’s a buoyant and droll conversationalist on the phone. They have the kind of laugh that makes you want to say something funny and hear it again. “But the thing is, you need to create less. I’d create a minute-long sketch then challenge myself to cut it in half…. The smaller, the funnier.”

And speaking as we are of ‘smaller,’ “It’s great to work with Elena,” they say, “the only person in the world who is smaller than me. Finally, I get to be the tall one!”

comedy writer/performer Sydney Campbell. Photo supplied.

Campbell, who came to sketch comedy via improv, and improv via theatre, “grew up watching Grease with my mom every weekend, wanting to be Rizzo…. I was never really into musical theatre, but really into theatre. My degree is in drama. But theatre had a huge fall from grace for me,” prompted by the self-assessment that “I’m not as good as other actors. I wouldn’t be great….” A life in comedy wasn’t exactly a comedown. “Nothing could be as fun as comedy —  surprise surprise!”

And Campbell, in their ‘20s, has already made a notable career creating it, directing it, forming it into new shapes, writing it, making it up on the spot — and coaching/ encouraging/ inspiring kids to create that kind of bond with audiences too.

Campbell did improv all through high school, and into university (the U of A) even when they were taking drama courses.” And “this beautiful outlet” took over. “I wanted to make poop jokes. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to have a show that looked as messy as it felt! That transparency — ‘we don’t really really know what we’re doing, any more than you know what you’re gonna see’ —  is so fun, so joyful.”

Sydney Campbell. Photo by Mike Tan. Make-up by The Raven Virginia.

Getting onstage without knowing what’s going to happen sounds to most people (like me), absolutely terrifying, the stuff of actors’ nightmares. Campbell concedes “yeah, terrifying.” But adds “people forget that the audience also knows that you don’t know what you’re doing. So anything you do that’s even slightly funny they’re like ‘o my gawd I can’t believe you created that right off the top of your head’….”

“You get to live in this really special world where you can fail, yes, but where the margin for success is enormous.”

One reason improv in this town is deluxe is the overlap of improv and theatre. Campbell laughs. “It’s a great place for actors with low skills: joke!” In improv, they muse, you’re looking to “tell an honest narrative and have genuine moments onstage. And you have to allow yourself to be surprised, moved, changed” — prime actor skills.

Campbell met Belyea met when the latter hired them as an “assistant stage manager” for Tiny Bear Jaws’ Everyone We Know Will Be There, a play about a teen party that actually was a teen party, in a big suburban house. Campbell’s unique debut in stage management was to “be an audience partner, and take them through everything,” and nudge them to the basement, or to “impromptu” gatherings around the fridge or in a bedroom. Stage management: “not my skill set or forte,” they say firmly. But a creative partnership was born.

When Belyea’s Cleave premiered in 2018, Campbell was the assistant  director to Vanessa Sabourin. “A crash course, Vanessa was very cool to work with, and I learned a ton really quickly.” What they discovered, says Campbell, is “I love directing…. I was like OK, this is what you’re aiming for!”

And they’ve applied that to directing for sketch and improv. In the latter, where “directing” sounds like a sort of showbiz oxymoron, “it’s about curating the tone of the show, the shape, the genre…. it’s ‘I want the show to look like this, however it gets there. And I’m excited to be on that journey’. You’re telling stories, yes, but the fun thing is you never have to do it the same way twice.”

“The director is in cahoots with the audience: ‘I’m here with you. And I’m gonna get you want to see from these improvisers’.”

Campbell is in a cluster of RFT improv troupes. One is Motion, “where we take turns being the director.” Another, a Campbell fave, is Sphinxes, an RFT ensemble of women, female-identifying, trans and non-binary performers. The audience is invited to (anonymously) share a personal moment in their lives in response to three questions, from which scenes are spun onstage. “It’s something really special that this really cool space has been made for women and trans people in comedy. And the audience holds us so tenderly…. It’s a really nice show.”

Sydney Campbell

For five years Campbell has been part of RFT’s outreach program run by Joleen Ballendine. A highlight for them is the live improv comedy classes at the Boyle Street Education Centre. The youth there “have a lot going on their lives; the last thing they’re thinking about is giggling in the afternoon with us…. Boy did I fall in love with that!,” says Campbell of the feeling of providing people with skills “to be listened to by other people.

”I find the biggest joy in the moment when they say something and other people laugh, and you watch them be so proud…. You could be the most cynical person alive but it warms your damn heart.” Besides, they laugh, “I get to play games all day. Which is really up my alley.”

Meanwhile, Campbell and Belyea are equipped with a grant to continue with pre-production for their upcoming seven-episode first season of Gender? web series, to be filmed as soon as that’s feasible. The pilot, was shot (just before the pandemic hammer came down last winter) in a two-block radius of Campbell’s place. “We love that it’s set in in Edmonton; we love the prairie landscape. That’s our vibe.”

“We’re getting together a writing room over Zoom,” they say. “So who’s gonna order the greasy pizza?” Both the writing and the acting ensemble will feature other Alberta talent. “It’s cool not to act in every one, to sit back and watch it all happen!”

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The Situation We Find Ourselves In, and other theatrical possibilities for your weekend

Daniel MacIvor, co-creator of The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

And for your cold winter weekend … theatre to the rescue. Yes, there are plays, two-minute films, a new book club — all online, from Punctuate! Theatre, Northern Light, Theatre Network, Play The Fool Festival, Catalyst.  Here are some suggestions for your theatrical entertainment.

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The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This (a title that’s also a mantra for the times): Saturday you have a One Night Only! chance to catch something special online. The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This is a solo play about the time playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bears, The Particulars, The Other) spent with the star Canadian dramaturg Iris Turcott in the last two weeks of her life.

Dramaturg? What sort of job is that? I hear you ask. Fierce, funny, rigorous, a champion of Canadian theatre and its writers, Turcott literally wrote the Merriam-Webster definition of dramaturge, according to the announcement by Punctuate! Theatre, a co-producer of the online production. The way Turcott created it, dramaturgy was a kind of one-on-one mentorship, an inspiring relationship custom-tailored for every playwright and fledgling play she encountered. Which made her so impressive, fun (and formidable) to talk to, as I found on any occasion I had the chance.

I remember MacKenzie telling me that Turcott would say to her to playwright charges: “get yourself a six-pack. You’re going to need it.”

Matthew MacKenzie and Daniel MacIvor, co-creators of The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This. Photo supplied.

The evening is a collaboration between MacKenzie and the celebrated playwright/ dramaturg/ director Daniel MacIvor. And it’s produced by the partnership of Punctuate!, reWork Productions, Cape Breton University and The Theatre Centre. The YouTube Live Event (it’s free) starts at 5 p.m. here.

•If there’s any plus to the dreadful situation in which live theatre finds itself, it’s got to be the chance to see what’s happening in the big wide world. And here’s a stunning example. Don’t miss a chance to catch The Approach, from the Project Arts Centre in Dublin (presented by Landmark Productions and St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York).

In this mysterious and intricate little piece, by (and directed by) the Irish writer Mark O’Rowe, we meet three women. Two of them are sisters, and they’ve all been roommates in their younger years. Now they meet up in a cafe for tea, intermittently and in pairs of shifting alliances, leaving with promises to catch up soon that seem never to be kept. The actors, two at a time, sit distanced at a table on a big dark stage hung with overturned chairs.

And in the weave of banal small talk fragments, shards of memory, and real-life minutiae, multi-layered relationships emerge and, strangely enough, mingle. Are they co-opting each other’s memories? Love, friendship, evasions, betrayals, lies, grievances — it’s all there, in a thrilling and tense hour. The three Irish actors (Cathy Belton, Aisling O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty) are superb.

Streaming tickets for the production (available till Sunday) are available at stannswarehouse.org.

Linda Grass in The Look, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

•Northern Light’s filmed production of The Look, a solo play by Australian screenwriter Alexa Wyatt that is admirably suited to the online world, continues through Sunday afternoon (1 and 3 p.m.) on Vimeo. And it looks good: check out the 12thnight PREVIEW with director Trevor Schmidt and star Linda Grass and the REVIEW. Find tickets and the weekend schedule of performances at northernlighttheatre.com.

Darrin Hagen in Hosanna, Theatre Network, 2005. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

•Theatre Network is launching its new Book Club (for plays) this weekend. The debut edition this month is led by playwright Darrin Hagen, who chose Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna. Hagen, MacEwan U’s new writer-in-residence, talked to 12thnight about his choice HERE.

•A seven-minute video of Catalyst’s until the next breath, an epic-scale Grand Act of Theatre that ran live and outdoors in early October, continues to be up and on YouTube, available through the National Arts Centre site. It’s part of the NAC’s cross-country invitation to a dozen of Canada’s most innovative theatre companies to create something big, memorable, outdoors, and COVID-safe that speaks to the time. Then check out the amazing array of strikingly different responses to the NAC provocation from other companies. Here’s the 12thnight PREVIEW  with Catalyst artistic director Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke. And 12thnight reported back from that frosty October night HERE.

Chronicles of a Mime, two-minute film by Shawn Koski for Play The Fool Short Film Festival.

High-order amusement for short attention spans: did you ever check out the winners of the Play The Fool Festival’s first annual Short Film Competition in the fall? You’ll get a big kick out of the array of the two-minute (and under) award-winners still online. I loved Chronicles of a Mime, an insight (by Shawna Koski) into what mimes do when they’re just hanging out (the people want to know). A clown homage to Beckett, Tapes Last Krap (by Jesse Buck) is excellent too. And for the COVID-ian moment we’re in, Lady Rona in ‘Don’t Change Your Lifestyle’ by Ross Travis. The films are at playthefool.ca.

You should, incidentally, be hard at work on your own two-minute clown film. The deadline for this year’s Short Film Competition submissions is March 7.

•The Métis version of Mary’s Wedding, adapted by Tai Amy Grauman from the beautiful Canadian love-and-war story by Stephen Massicotte, continues on streaming video, from the Citadel, through Nov. 30, 2021. Meet Grauman HERE, and check out the 12thnight REVIEW.

  

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The play that haunts Darrin Hagen: the debut edition of Theatre Network’s new online book club (for plays)

Darrin Hagen in Hosanna, Theatre Network, 2005. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In February of 1983, a kid from Rocky Mountain House, newly arrived in town, went with a pal to the theatre. The play Darrin Hagen saw that winter night would linger in his mind over the years, in every detail. And it’s come back to haunt him periodically, as a writer and actor, ever since.

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Which made Hosanna, a 1973 groundbreaker by the star Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay, a perfect Hagen choice for the debut edition of Theatre Network’s new online Book Club (for plays!) he will moderate this weekend. The monthly series is designed as a meet-up of theatre-lovers led by notable Edmonton playwrights, to discuss a Canadian play that’s been important to them. And Hosanna, Hagen points out, is still contentious, politically important,” still regarded by some commentators as a metaphor for Quebec separation.

Is the story of Hosanna’s humiliation at the hands of his lover and their friends a portrait of a society? Hosanna is multi-faceted, juicy raw material for discussion. “It’a measure of a great play that everyone finds themselves in it,” says Hagen.

Darrin Hagen. Photo supplied.

Hosanna was “one of the first plays I saw in Edmonton,” he says of the Workshop West production (starring Richard Gishler and Jack Ackroyd) in the Rice Theatre downstairs at the Citadel. “I’d never even heard of Michel Tremblay. It was the first play I’d ever seen that fractured stories, and played with time.” A landmark for Canadian theatre, it came at a seminal moment in Hagen’s own life. “It was about a drag queen. And I was on the verge of starting my own career,” says Hagen of his entrance, in sequins and size 14 pumps, into the entertainment scene at Flashback, the late lamented gay club.

A decade later Hagen saw Hosanna again, this time in a David Mann production starring Glen Gaston and Timothy Sell. And it felt different to him. By this time “I’d been through everything and come out the other side,” says Hagen of the trials and triumphs of his drag queen family life. “It marked two different periods in my life.”  The arc that forces the beleaguered Hosanna to think about “who I am underneath?” as Hagen puts it, “resonated with me differently…. The meaning keeps changing for me.”

Darrin Hagen in La Duchesse de Langeais, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By 1990 Guys in Disguise, Hagen’s drag troupe that had evolved into a bona fide theatre company, had produced other Tremblays, La Duchesse de Langeais and Damnée Manon Sacrée Sandra. And at Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss had given Hagen Tremblay novels — News From Edouard and The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant among them — that flesh out the lives of the characters in Tremblay’s plays. And Hagen was struck by them.

Darrin Hagen in Hosanna, Theatre Network, 2005. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Then, in 2005 at Theatre Network, Hagen starred in Hosanna alongside Jeff Page as Hosanna’s biker-stud lover. It was a capital M moment, “my favourite acting experience of my life!” Hagen declares.

“It’s visceral, it’s truth — so real and so truthful,” says Hagen of the play. And it took bravery in the early ‘70s, in a country that had only recently de-criminalized homosexuality,  “to talk about the violence, the cruelty, the meanness of that world…. And Tremblay does it without judgment,” says Hagen in admiration. There was an important playwright’s lesson in that, he thinks. “Yes, you can show the foibles, the cracks, without judging the characters…. Let them be wrong; let them be flawed; let them be angry!”

Meanwhile, in this pandemical year, Hagen, one of E-town’s premium sound designers and theatre composers (you can hear his latest theatrical work in Northern Light’s online production of The Look), is “writing music for me,” he says. A series for piano and string quartets is his quarantine venture: “a chamber suite?”. And he continues his deep-dive into queer history, that’s already resulted in two plays, Witch Hunt at the Strand and The Empress and the Prime Minister. A total-immersion researcher, he’s transcribing interviews and assembling documents and social context for his upcoming play (and book) — working title Pisces — about the ignominious 1981 police raid on the Pisces Bathhouse.

And through April, Hagen is the writer-in-residence at MacEwan University an appointment that follows his year as the U of A’s writer-in-residence and before that a writer’s residencies at the Edmonton Public Library). It’s an appointment timed to coincide with Pride Week, and to sync with The Queer History Project based at MacEwan. “Residencies are fascinating for a writer,” Hagen has found.“Working with other writers is good for your own work!” His Zoom office hours (by appointment) are Mondays.

Next up for Theatre Network’s book club is a play to be picked and introduced by the playwriting team of Hunter Cardinal and his sister Jacquelin Cardinal. Register at theatrenetwork.ca (it’s free; donations are encouraged).

   

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New faces in theatre: meet triple-threat Chariz Faulmino

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet triple-threat Chariz Faulmino. The series has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason and techno whiz Bradley King. Look for others in this continuing 12thnight New Faces series.

Chariz Faulmino. Photo by Ana Carmela Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

CHARIZ FAULMINO, actor/ singer/ dancer

“I went with the flow, and I never wanted to resist it,” says the exuberant, laughing voice on the phone. As if that accounted for the entrance of a stellar new triple-threat onto the scene any more than matches account for fireworks.

If you saw one of the guests knock it out of the park at the Fezziwigs’ annual holiday bash, in the Citadel’s ‘40s account of A Christmas Carol, you’ve already know something about the high-impact voice and sparkle of Chariz Faulmino.

Sister Act, starring Chariz Faulmino, MacEwan University. Photo supplied.

Even before she burst out of MacEwan U in 2018 with a theatre arts degree — and a knock-out star performance in Sister Act on her resumé — Faulmino had been catching the eye of producers and directors across town. And she’s been on stages of every size and description ever since — even a farm on one memorable afternoon as part of the Citadel’s summer roadshow initiative of intimate backyard concerts on location (“people sang along, and the horses did neigh at some points, or was that yay?”).

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It’s a list that includes outdoor troubadour gigs of songs and scenes in parks for the Free Willies (the Freewill Shakespeare Festival). A radio play (Dammitammy Productions’ They Wanted To Do Chekhov). An interactive online mystery (S.I.S.T.E.R. by the Fox Den Collective). A cabaret (Kate Ryan’s Cafe Wanderlust). A variety show (Teatro La Quindicina’s Welcome Home). A new musical (The Killing Jar, for Scona Alumni Theatre).

With the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol, “I met people I’ve seen onstage before; I got to work with them and be friends with them!” says Faulmino, who retains notes of awe-struck in her voice. “You meet your heroes, stars, and they’re all normal people and they’re awesome!”

Chariz Faulmino in Pinocchio, Alberta Opera. Photo by Mat Simpson.

And on a tour, more than 350 performances long, of Alberta Musical Theatre’s charmer of an original musical Pinocchio, she played the title character who emerges, in sprightly fashion, from a trunk, and immediately starts singing and dancing like a seasoned trouper.

Faulmino, who arrived age nine in Sherwood Park with her family from the Philippines, grew up speaking Tagalog, but singing in English “a regular thing for us there; we love our karaoke!” Her models came from the international world of pop music: “Whitney Huston (especially Whitney Huston), Celine Dion, Mariah Carey…. ”

So … Canada. Of her immigrant experience, Faulmino says “my English wasn’t very good. I didn’t fit in right away, and I didn’t have any friends…. I really tried to make friends, to become a people person!”, a self-appointed task that comes with rave reviews in the theatre community. Music, not theatre, was her jam at first. “I was a pop music kind of person…. I didn’t even know who Sondheim was till I was in post-secondary,” she says. “And did I miss out!”

Chariz Faulmino in Cafe Wanderlust. Photo by Ryan Parker.

“Music was always in our family remember singing forever. My grandfather always sang to us, and so did my dad….. The only theatre person I knew was Lea Salonga; I love Lea Salonga!,” a fellow Filipina who’d catapulted to Broadway stardom in Miss Saigon and become the first Asian woman to win a Tony. “I didn’t know theatre till I was in junior high, and was forced to audition for Aladdin.” Faulmino laughs. She “went with the flow” as she puts it cheerfully  — and landed the leading role of Princess Jasmine.

Musical theatre took hold. “I found a lot of heart in it; I think that’s what drew me to it,” says Faulmino, who’s in her early ‘20s.  “The songs are sung by characters, by people, by a person who’s walked a certain life.”

The Faulmino family was musical, true. But a musical theatre career?  “It was an odd route to take,” she says, a smile in her voice. “My dad was an engineer; my grandfather was an engineer…. But (the family) was always very supportive. When they see me perform, they know my heart is there….”

It’s been a tough year for that heart, a year of “huge life-changing events.” At about performance 270 when the long Pinocchio tour was in the Rockies, Faulmino had news that her father had suddenly passed away. Alberta Musical Theatre artistic director Farren Timoteo stepped into her role; so did musical director Mackenzie Reurink. “And the cast fully supported me through the terrible time…. I couldn’t have asked for better people.”

Later that year, on an Alberta Workers’ Health Centre tour, Faulmino learned that her grandmother, who speaks no English, was in hospital. Faulmino spent a month at her side daily, translating and assisting. Actor Michelle Diaz stepped up. And Faulmino is grateful.

If there’s a positive to come out of the pandemic isolation, it’s been “time to absorb everything, to be with my family,” she says. “A huge blessing to have this break in the world, and step back.”

Jameela McNeil and Chariz Faulmino. Photo by Cody Mulch

In the lockdown hiatus she and (fellow Free Willie) Jameela McNeil have formed a duo. And they’re currently Zoom rehearsing a play list  of “songs about love — with a partner, with yourself, with the world … R&B songs, songs that have influenced us, mostly made by people of colour, artists we’ve looked up to…. Lea Salonga is one!” CJ will make its debut at the SkirtsAfire Festival in March, with any luck live and if not online.

Faulmino is part of Dammitammy’s upcoming radio play Letters to No One (letters written but never sent); she even wrote one of the monologues. And when the delayed revival of Teatro’s musical Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s happens, we’ll see Faulmino in it.

Will she stay in Edmonton? “It’s a question I also ask myself,” Faulmino says. “But I’ve found something here that’s on the cusp of getting built, a great community that’s only growing.”

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