Fun with the macabre: two veteran actors together at last in Fly Me To The Moon at Shadow Theatre

Annette Loiselle and Elinor Holt in Fly Me To The Moon, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“We’re two caregivers, two nobodies,” says Frances to Loretta in the dark-hued Irish comedy that opens tonight on the Varscona stage.

In Fly Me To The Moon, by the Belfast playwright Marie Jones, an initiative that starts minor and harmless — and sympathetic to cash-strapped nobodies like Frances and Loretta — will get bigger and faster and crazier by the second.

When their ancient homecare client, Davey, fails to re-emerge from the bathroom — mainly because he’s dead — Frances gets a bright idea. Why not hold off on reporting this fatal turn of events, long enough so they can pocket his 120 quid pension cheque?

“They pull a thread and the whole sweater unravels!” says Elinor Holt, who co-stars with Annette Loiselle in John Hudson’s production. Loiselle calls it “a romp — with contortions.”

“They keep getting into more and more trouble,” says Holt. “And every time they could still get out of it … well, that doesn’t happen,” says Loiselle. 

The actors are hanging out in the Varscona Theatre lobby, on a break from rehearsal last week, making each other laugh, musing on the way comedy can turn into farce, and marvelling jointly how few two-hander comedies for “middle-aged women” there are, on either side of the Atlantic.

OK, there’s Thelma and Louise. And there’s…. They pause to reassess, and come up short. “Well, OK, I’m Oscar and she’s Felix,” says Holt, Calgary-based but with an ample (and regular) assortment of Edmonton productions to her credit. Most recently audiences here saw her in two high-profile (and high-contrast) shows in 2013, Pig Girl at Theatre Network and Catalyst Theatre’s dark fantasia Soul Collector (as the eerie title character). The season before, she cavorted in a wimple at Northern Light Theatre in The Ecstatics, a kooky two-nun clown comedy about women’s body issues.

The unusual Irish comic caper was a draw for them. Fly Me To The Moon brings together, amazingly for the first time, two veteran comic actors who were at the U of A at the same time but have never been onstage together. Any stage, much less the new Varscona stage.

Holt already had her eye on the play — “I’d wanted to pitch it in Calgary” — when the Shadow production was announced, last summer. Then working just out of town at Rosebud Theatre, she drove into Calgary to audition. “I saw the very first Shadow show,” she says of the explosive production of  Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, which launched the venerable Edmonton company 36 seasons ago. She remembers the cast (Shaun Johnston and Lindsay Burns); she remembers the Fringe venue (the old mill in Strathcona). “Oh, I want to work for that theatre!” she remembers thinking.

As for Loiselle, the last Shadow production she was in was The Last Train (by Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic) in 2004. “I loved it!” she says. “It was such a happy experience.” Fly Me To The Moon, she says, is “kind of comedy I like, comedy that comes out of situation, high stakes.”

Elinor Holt and Annette Loiselle in Fly Me To The Moon, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Yes, there’s a long lead time building up to this Shadow duo. And for both actors, it hasn’t exactly been idle. 

Holt, originally from the farm hamlet of New Norway near Camrose, and Loiselle, who’s from an acreage near Namao, have a lot in common. Numerous progeny, for example. Loiselle, one of 10 siblings herself, has four kids including twins; Holt, one of seven kids, has three. In case you hadn’t noticed, kids take time.

So do theatre companies. Both Holt and Loiselle have a tendency to co-found them. Loiselle and five of her equally fresh-faced fellow U of A theatre school grads wanted to do Shakespeare. The Free Will Players started as a summer co-op, and became a professional rep company and a favourite summer festival. And Loiselle has played every kind of role in the canon, from romantic ingenue to venging fury.

More recently, she’s the founder and artistic director of the SkirtsAfire Festival, the six-year-old multidisciplinary arts fest in March devoted to showcasing and enhancing the work of women artists. “Attendance was up 21 per cent this year,” reports Loiselle happily. Trina Davies’ The Romeo Initiative was an over-capacity draw in its tiny Alberta Avenue venue. The houses were full for new play readings, which rarely happens in the real world.  Loiselle smiles, and winces: “Oh no, I think we need a theatre.”

Those kinds of thoughts are not without repercussions; Loiselle has a history of delivering.

Holt, who left Edmonton in 1990, first for a master’s degree at York University and then for Calgary, is a co-founder of Concrete Theatre here, and Evergreen Theatre there. The latter is a “theatre of the natural world” enterprise that started by creating and performing science-based pieces in Kananaskis Country. These days Evergreen, which has its own performing and rehearsal space in Calgary, has taken pieces to such destinations as the Royal Ontario Museum, and schools everywhere.

After the birth of her third kid, Holt curtailed her Evergreen involvement. But here she is in Edmonton, for weeks. Luckily, as she says, Holt is married to a musician, and they alternate gigs. “It takes a huge community to raise a theatre kid.” Loiselle, remembering all the babysitting favours from fellow actors, nods vigorously.

In Edmonton, Holt is staying with actor friends Jenny McKillop and Garett Ross, who co-starred in Outside Mullingar, the Irish play that ran at Shadow in March. On a recent weekend out of town, they left a life-sized cut-out of their Outside Mullingar characters in their spare room bed so Holt wouldn’t get lonely. Now, that’s a warm Edmonton connection.

Meanwhile, Holt and Loiselle are having fun together in the theatre. “Acting is my favourite,” says Loiselle. “I don’t like being the boss, and I end up having to be one,” she says of her other life as an artistic director. “It’s so nice to be in the ensemble.”

The other half of ‘the ensemble” notes, wryly, that they’re in a play that passes the Bechdel test — do the women characters talk to each other about something other than a man? — with flying colours. “We’re not fighting over a guy. Just his pension.”

Exit, laughing, to rehearsal.

PREVIEW

Fly Me To The Moon

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Marie Jones

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Elinor Holt, Annette Loiselle

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through May 13

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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She swings, she kicks, she flies: behind the legend a new Robin Hood for our time in The Silver Arrow at the Citadel

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

 

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the swashbuckler adventure extravaganza that premieres on, above, and around the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday, everything you thought you knew about a certain legendary 12th century outlaw hero (with a proclivity for the colour green) will get an adjustment.

Everything … except maybe the razzle-dazzle archery and the social justice agenda. Robin Hood, as you will recall, addressed the issue of income inequality head-on by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. 

So you maybe weren’t expecting a steam-punk aerial re-boot of the old stories from Sherwood Forest with a hero who’s female, differently abled, and swinging upside down from ropes. Welcome to The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, a new “play with music” by the Edmonton theatre/film artist Mieko Ouchi (with songs by the star Canadian songwriter/musician/cabaret artiste Hawksley Workman).

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? As the finale to his first season at the helm, Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran’s quest was a big immersive adventure family show that hits “the sweet spot” for kids and grown-ups together. He commissioned Ouchi, artistic director of Edmonton’s Concrete Theatre (which specializes in theatre for young audiences). As far as they pair know, it’s the first time the Citadel has commissioned a new play from a woman.

For Ouchi, who typically takes three or four years writing a new play, nine months was a breathless pace. “We brainstormed all the stories from our youth that we loved, A Wrinkle in Time, The BFG, The Fantastic Mr. Fox….And we kept coming back to Robin Hood.”

Playwright Mieko Ouchi. Photo supplied.

The Robin Hood reinvention was “a heady mix of hugely ambitious things!” laughs Ouchi, ticking off the must-haves. Archery, of course. And combat, says Ouchi, who already has a stage combat play to her credit; I Am For You (two feuding high school girls who get trained in the art of stage combat), premiered at Concrete.

Ah, and aerial arts. The use of “vertical space” was inspired in part by watching De La Guarda, an Argentine production that has played Off-Broadway, in which performers burst through the ceiling, swoop down and pick up members of the audience from time to time, and take them for a ride. “Now, that’s immersive!” says Ouchi.

And the stylistic flourish: playful steam punk visuals. Ouchi explains the fit for The Silver Arrow. “It’s about discoveries, and people who have abilities outside their time period.” 

AND WHO’S THE HERO? “We wanted a fresh take, a Robin Hood with different origins,” says Ouchi. “Who are we not expecting?”

The answer: Kristi Hansen.

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

Currently the co-artistic director of both Azimuth Theatre and the award-winning indie company The Maggie Tree, Hansen has a history with Concrete. Not only has she been in Ouchi’s Concrete shows, Are We There Yet? and The Bully Project among them, she’s even written one, for Concrete’s annual Sprouts New Play Festival. In A Whole New Wheel, “a little toy train loses a wheel,” grins Hansen. And when it comes back to the toy box, with a button as replacement, the other toys, including a rabbit and a racing car, have trouble adjusting.

Hansen, tall and willowy, is an amputee. She knows what it’s like to lose a wheel and feel different. As you find out in her solo show Woody, with its set made entirely of her own prosthetic legs, of every size teeny to tall, she came though a lot of complex surgeries as a kid — en route to a theatre career that’s included an astonishing amount of dancing, including tap. Which speaks to a heroic measure of sheer determination and fearlessness, in addition to triple-threat theatrical talent.

Ouchi was eager to have a star “with different abilities.” And Hansen was eager to join the fracas in Sherwood Forest. 

“Your relationship with your leg had really evolved, along with your comfort level,” Ouchi says to Hansen over dinner last week. “The industry has changed,” says Hansen. “More and more I’m ‘allowed’ to become more physical…. It’s more a part of it. Instead of ‘oooo, I don’t know, this is gonna be a problem; people aren’t gonna believe the Princess of France has one leg’.”

“It’s important to cast diversely so kids can see themselves in the show,” she says. “Kids in wheelchairs, other amputees….”

HOW DID THEY GET THE STORY OFF THE GROUND?  Two words: Annie Dugan.

The dynamo artistic director and resident muse of Firefly, the Edmonton company devoted to marrying the circus arts and theatre, Dugan was in charge of the aerial choreography — and of getting the 16-actor cast of The Silver Arrow, 12 of them part of this year’s Citadel/Banff Professional Program, up up up and away.

Katelyn McCulloch as Maid Marian in The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

“I took my free-standing rigs to Banff for a month of training, three classes a week,” says Dugan. ”Everyone started with the basics; you need to learn to climb.”

“All different people, an amazing diversity in all ways,” says Dugan of the assortment of abilities — and ages, 25 to 50 — amongst the actors who found themselves defying the laws of gravity, on ropes. Hansen, whose prosthetic would be “on and off during the show,” got five private lessons first.

The classic aerial techniques were adapted a bit for her, says Dugan. “But Kristi is such a diligent hard worker. And tough as nails…. She got up at 7 every day and went for a work-out before a two-hour workout!”

Hanging by your arms and lifting your body while you’re upside down? Try it and weep. The torturous demands of aerial are a far cry from jogging while listening to your Rosetta Stone Spanish course. “It’s all the inversions,” says Dugan.

Supremely fit and toned, Hansen (who’s a subscriber to beachbody.com), describes her regimen, everything from yoga to really really heavy lifting … a lot of stretching, weights, pull-ups, leg lifts.” She and her actor/playwright husband Sheldon Elter have an entire home gym; fellow Edmonton actor David MacInnis sold it to them when he moved to Toronto.

“I had to figure out the foot knots for myself because my body’s a little different,” says Hansen, who “wanders around the Maclab with my leg off, or on.” It stands to reason that getting a rope around your knee to pull yourself up is trickier if you’re an amputee. “I have to really concentrate!”

The only aerial move for which a prosthetic is helpful? Climbing. The most diabolical? “The hip key,” Hansen judges. “You invert yourself and flip the rope between your legs and catch yourself…. I  don’t even know how to describe it.”

The aerial arts have a new convert, one who can remove a leg. “It’s really fun! I’ve got the bug!” Hansen isn’t afraid of heights; she likes them. Ouchi laughs. “Kristi doesn’t have many fears. In life.” 

The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

IS THAT A DAGGER I SEE BEFORE ME?

The cast of The Silver Arrow fight with a veritable arsenal of weaponry (choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis): broadsword, staff, dagger, war axe, scimitar, cutlass, Japanese curved bladed fighting fans (Hansen, amazingly, already knew how to use the latter). Ah, and bows and arrows. The cast had lessons. As Ouchi says, “if you call a show The Silver Arrow, well….”    

There are two practising fight directors, Michael Dufays and Louise Zhu, in a cast that also includes experienced aerialists like Stephanie Wolfe (The Hilaerialists) and Kevin Ouellet. 

WHO TELLS THE STORY?

Of Hawksley Workman’s eight songs in the show, most are delivered by an Allan-a-Dale minstrel narrator: Amal Abdal (Camila Diaz-Varela) is “a Muslim serving girl from Spain.” From the start Ouchi, a big Workman fan (she and her husband Kim Clegg danced to his You And The Candles at their wedding), imagined the Silver Arrow music to be, in a word,  Workman-like. It was Cloran who cut to the chase: “well, we could just ask the actual Hawksley Workman.”

The creator of the cabaret The God That Comes (it played the Citadel Club a couple of seasons ago) was eager; he’d never before written for other people’s voices. Ouchi gets her first-ever co-lyricist credit for the show (“it was generous of him”). The four-member band are also cast members, who play instruments and fight and climb and hang upside down and act and … otherwise (do the math) explode the old triple-threat designation.   

SO WHO IS THIS NEW ROBIN HOOD ANYHOW?

Ouchi, who drove around Nottingham and the Robin Hood hot spots in England last summer, is a bit mysterious. “For me, the story had to be somehow relevant, with something to say about now.. I think people will be surprised by what Robin Hood ends up meaning. This is my version of how the myth might have evolved.”

“I have the hero’s journey!” Hansen is beaming. “I’m the one who gets the call to action and answers it, learns about myself, and comes out the other end!”

“And yes, I have a merry band.”

PREVIEW

The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Mieko Ouchi (with music by Hawksley Workman)

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Kristi Hansen and 15 others

Running: through May 13

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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“Changing time for you”: Infinity at Theatre Network, a review

Larissa Pohoreski and Cayley Thomas in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The downside of infinity, as the odd comic has noted, is that it’s really long getting to the end. But when does infinity start?

That’s one of the intriguing questions that engages us in the highly intriguing play currently running on the Theatre Network stage. It’s by Hannah Moscovitch, which means (according to the laws of probability) that its intellectual complexities will have very human dimensions and dramatic momentum. And that’s exactly what happens in Infinity, a play about Time that turns out, unbeknownst to two of its three characters, to be a story about Love.

Bradley Moss’s haunting production suspends the three characters — a theoretical physicist, a musician and a mathematician — in a multi-layered matrix of shimmering musical scores or scientific loops and orbits (as an early physics drop-out I’m going to just go ahead and imagine they’re conjuring string theory or something quantum). Ian Jackson’s projection designs are stunning; beautifully lit by Scott Peters, they create a kind of magic forest of abstractions. 

It’s time that brings the characters together — and it’s time in the end that tears them apart. Carmen (Larissa Pohoreski), a musician and composer, and Elliott (Ryan Parker), a theoretical physicist, meet at a college party. She’s just broken up with her fiancée. He makes the overture (so to speak), attracted, as he explains, by the way that musicians “speak in intervals.” They have, he says, “a sense of what time is, that it doesn’t exist, it … slides.”

This is not a pick-up line that has had widespread currency in the history of dating. Carmen is amused. There’s more of chemistry than theoretical physics in the accelerated “slide” of time, including an unplanned pregnancy, that follows.

So suddenly then there’s a kid, Sarah Jean (Cayley Thomas), a marriage, a family. And a love story has expanded to become a family drama — and not a happy one, fractured as it is by a chronic shortage of time. One career, Carmen’s, is sacrificed to expedite the other, Elliott’s. That Carmen has lost a husband to a scientific mission of proving that time doesn’t exist has a sad irony all its own.

Ryan Parker in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Elliott, who’s raced to finish his PhD, ever short of the time he doesn’t believe in, tells his daughter, age eight, that “time is a fake.” She is enraged (the girl gives great tantrum, full-bodied and floor-pounding). Time may be a construct but she wants the new alarm clock he’s promised her.

We’ve already met Sarah Jean, grown-up and a mathematician, in the opening scene of Infinity. Dismayed by the suggestion from a college roommate of yore that she’s “fucked up about love,” Sarah Jean, in denial, lays out for our perusal her long, grievance-riddled sexual history. It’s a chronicle of commitment avoidance. Love? A fake, a gambit, a trap. That’s what she’s concluded from her upbringing with an obsessive, driven father and a mother steeped in sorrow and resentment.

Moscovitch is a masterful writer of monologues for self-justifying characters who make a case for themselves and, anticipating our objections, make concessions and qualify every assertion. OK, I know what you’re thinking… they tell us. Sarah Jean is that character here. Thomas, who makes use (possibly overuse) of an extensive arsenal of sighs, of every pitch, duration, and volume, invests the self-centred, wary Sarah Jean with a convincing bundle of grievances and anxieties at every age. But it’s as the little kid version of Sarah Jean that the actor really shines.

Carmen, in Pohoreski’s performance, isn’t a very distinctly outlined character, and she seems gradually to disappear into vague plaintiveness in the course of the play. Partly, of course, that’s where the narrative is taking us. Carmen exists most fully in the musical interludes Pohoreski appears in the shadows to play. The music for unaccompanied violin is fierce and harsh, tuneless in its abstract patterns. It’s the music of anxiety and hostility, a veritable attack on the strings: Carmen’s version of string theory.

At the centre of the production, in Parker’s terrific, alert performance, is the nerdy brainiac who discovers nearly too late what his “theory of everything” is missing. Parker brings a charm, a charisma to the self-absorbed Elliott. The act of thinking, making intelligence active and compelling, is devilishly hard in the theatre. Parker — a resourceful actor who never relies on cliches except to springboard off them obliquely — owns it.

Moss’s production captures the jagged rhythms of Moscovitch’s love story. Like the musical interventions, tuned to pauses, silences, and outbursts. The director separates the characters in the wide darkness of the stage, too much distance between them, or clusters them uncomfortably close.

Mortality will in the end unmoor Elliott’s Einsteinian certainty that time isn’t real, only “a persistent illusion.” Time can run out; the future isn’t infinite. A love story gone wrong rights itself on that thought.

REVIEW

Infinity

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Ryan Parker, Cayley Thomas, Larissa Pohoreski

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through May 6

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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The siren call of the wild: Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, a review

Miranda Allen and Nadien Chu in Pretty Goblins. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Something happened to me today,” says Lizzie in Pretty Goblins. “Something happens to everyone every day,” says her twin sister Laura.

There it is, in a nutshell: the hard, maybe irreducible, human mystery at the crux of Beth Graham’s new drama. And the two breathtakingly fearless performances in Brian Dooley’s premiere production at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre bring you smack up against it. Why can some people recover from trauma fall-out and resist the lure of addiction? And why are some people sucked into a vortex of self-destruction?

Pretty Goblins doesn’t let you take refuge on either side of the old nature vs. nurture debate. It flings you past all that into the ether where tragedy kicks sociology’s ass, and disturbing thoughts of destiny roam. Like their namesakes in Christina Rossetti’s 19th century seduction/salvation fantasy poem Goblin Market, Lizzie and Laura are twins, in both inheritance and environment mirror images of each other .

“Tell me a story,” Laura (Nadien Chu) nags Lizzie (Miranda Allen) as they slide into their little girl selves. The story is always the same, The Tale of the Hoodly-Doodly: two twin fetuses occupying the same womb, holding hands, “two hearts beating together.”

The sisterly dynamic is set forth in the convincing chemistry of Dooley’s production. The sisters are allies in fortifying themselves against the cruelties of booze-fuelled maternal abuse; they have nicknames, shared code phrases, rituals. They giggle at the same things; the same dirty words make them shriek with laughter.

Allen’s Lizzie, who dreams of being an astronaut sailing the big wide universe, is the less cautious one, the quick-witted instigator. Chu’s Laura is more compliant, and more fearful. She has to be talked into daring, the follower who yells “wait for me!” It’s Laura’s perspective — her heartbreaking vision of the terrible fall of her twin into a dark world of addiction and her own futile attempts to halt it — that frames Pretty Goblin.

Under Dooley’s direction that fall is chronicled, meticulously, in a series of flashbacks at different ages, in which the black comedy of awkward social moments gets uglier, grimmer, and finally disappears altogether in rage and self-loathing. The way the celebratory turns inevitably strident will make you flinch and nail you to your seat. This is definitely not the kind of show that makes you want to rush to the bar afterwards.

“I belong to you and you belong to me….” Lizzie consoles her sister at a moment of sexual awakening when their paths seem to first diverge. That consolation turns into something appalling in Pretty Goblins, as the bonds of childhood become the the most fragile of life-lines, and the rope that strangles. Chu and Allen don’t venture, they dive, full-throttle heart-first into this dark material.

I did wonder, at the outset, whether the presence in the play of the Rossetti poem itself — the sisters recite snatches of it from the volume they shared as kids — wasn’t a little artificial and stage-y. It took some getting used to, in truth, but the actors made it work.

As horror-meister Edgar Allan Poe got, the nightmare that unnerves you to the marrow isn’t glimpsing the bizarre. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing the familiar turned strange — a monstrous version of yourself looking back at you crying “I wanna be human again.”

In Goblin Market, one sister is irresistibly drawn into tasting the lethal magic fruit of the goblin men. And sisterly steadfastness does, in the end, save the day: the “dwindling” sister is snatched back from the brink of destruction. It’s a different story here.

In Jason Kodie’s sound design, the soundscape of the city grows distant, and cedes to a harsh high-pitched flatline. Megan Koshka’s design makes of the stage a slatted platform over an eerie abyss of green light. Little Laura is right: The monsters are lurking underneath.

At eight, Lizzie constructs a “girl-made tin can solar system” to show her sister a magical play of stars on an overhung sheet. The galaxy is all there waiting. But you have to look up. 

REVIEW

Pretty Goblins

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed by: Brian Dooley

Starring: Miranda Allen, Nadien Chu

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

Running: through April 29

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

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Capturing time for the theatre: Hannah Moscovitch talks about Infinity

Ryan Parker in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Time. It surrounds us, envelopes us, embeds us in a present that’s gone before you know it. It accumulates when you don’t want it and dwindles to nothing when you do. It keeps the past and future from colliding. It’s something to be saved, or lost, or gained….

Or else it doesn’t exist.   

It’s the elusive multi-limbed subject that the acclaimed Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch wrestled down, made flesh-and-blood, and shepherded into the theatre in the play that opens Thursday at Theatre Network.

“Time is fake,” declares  Elliott, the theoretical physicist in Infinity. “Like religion … a dumb story that got repeated too much.” The playwright isn’t one to deal in that kind of certainty. Time, she sighs, re-tracing the origins of her 2015 play,  “is so fundamental and structural, it’s not even a topic. It’s like starting with … air!”

Moscovitch, who has an appealingly wry, tentative way of sharing insights on the big, dark, complex subjects that attract her, is laughing. She’s on the phone from New York. That’s where another highly unconventional Moscovitch project, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story — a 2b theatre production coming to the Citadel Club May 9 — is currently getting raves Off-Broadway. 

If Elliott says of time that it’s “a persistent illusion,” Moscovitch might be inclined to disagree outright these days.

“Everything’s been a little … ah, like, hectic,” concedes the country’s starriest playwright of a life divided between Halifax, where her husband Christian Barry (a co-creator of Old Stock, with Ben Caplan) is artistic director of 2b theatre, and Toronto. Ah, and Brooklyn, where she’s currently hanging out with 2 1/2-year-old Elijah, “spending a lot of time at the zoo and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.”

“Am I enjoying myself? (pause) I think so; I’m not sure….” She laughs.

And then there’s Philadelphia where Sky on Swings, a Moscovitch opera with composer Lembit Beecher, opens the Opera Philadelphia season in the fall. The list goes on.

playwright Hannah Moscovitch

“We seem to live in Halifax; I’m not sure if we’re lying to ourselves,” says Moscovitch, bemused. “It’s incredibly quiet and there’s an ocean…. I work daycare hours.”

“I’ve always been fear-based in my writing: all these deadlines…” laughs Moscovitch of her multi-media list of commissions. The morning last week when she’s on the phone from Brooklyn, she’s carving time from a day without much of that to spare since it includes Elijah, and meetings with TV and opera people.

And now, in light of the first production of Infinity in western Canada, she’s considering again a play that embraces competing ideas in theoretical physics to become a love story — a love triangle  when you add an unexpected kid to the push-and-pull geometry of marriage.

“In a lot of ways my work (with Infinity) was to find a way for big ideas to be personal to me,” Moscovitch says of a play, seven years in the making, that acquired had its own real-life theoretical physicist (Lee Smolin, author of Time Reborn: From The Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe) as a consultant.

Larissa Pohoreski and Cayley Thomas in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In Infinity, a theoretical physicist, a composer, and a mathematician, each with a different view of time, collide in the time-strapped laboratory of modern family life. “I spent a lot of time connecting time to death, time to love…. That’s my way in to what felt like an impenetrable beginning point.”

A decade ago, the provocation was a challenge from Ross Manson of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre to “write a play about time.”  As dramatic propositions go, the theoretical physics of time wouldn’t be alluring to every writer of plays, to say the least. But then, Moscovitch has never shied away from oblique doorways into vast labyrinths. 

East of Berlin, for example, Moscovitch’s full-length breakthrough hit that launched a much-awarded cross-border career in 2007, explored the inheritance of the Holocaust from an unusual optic — the perspective of the children of perpetrators. This Is War probed the reverb from Canadian participation in the Afghanistan war. Little One, the tense little thriller that Theatre Network audiences saw in 2014, was spun from the clash between liberalism and socio-pathology.

The troubled characters of What A Young Wife Ought To Know, a 2015 Moscovitch touring this season in a 2b theatre revival, are a window into the fraught history of women’s reproductive rights, again contentious in a world that often seems to be spinning backward. 

Moscovitch, an indefatigable researcher who grew up in the Jewish activist circles in Ottawa, says “I’ve heard criticism of my work sometimes that I don’t go after the big, existential questions…. For me those actually aren’t the big questions. For me, the big questions are about sexuality, identity and politics, psychology and anthology!”

As she confirms ruefully, Moscovitch has said that Infinity is “more personal” in inspiration than other plays she’s written. What she simply meant, she said, was that as the child of two high-powered academics with different specialties — like Sarah Jean in Infinity — she “had a bit of an insight into the world of professors trying to create a body of their own work, trying to contribute to the discourse and never having enough time.”

“Now I have written something that actually is super-confessional,” says Moscovitch of a solo piece about motherhood (going up at The Theatre Centre in Toronto): Maeve Beatty plays a character named Hannah Moscovitch.

Old Stock, too, has a personal provenance. A musical love story with an original klezmer score, it’s inspired by family history: Moscovitch’s great-grandparents arrived in Canada as refugees in 1908. That sort of story has a newly tragic currency, times being what they are.

The same thing has happened with What A Young Wife Ought To Know and Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, which recently had a reading at Seattle Rep. The latter, which Moscovitch had been working on “for a number of years,” chronicles an affair between a first-year university student and her professor. “Wow, I’ve never been so in step with the zeitgeist before!” she says. “When we premiered what A Young Wife Ought To Know in 2015, the questioned we most often got asked was ‘is this even relevant?’ Now every interview starts with ‘this is so relevant!’ The whiplash is insane!”

“Women want to hear about their own history,” concludes Moscovitch. “They’re empowered, in a way. And the other side is that the forces of conservatism are stronger.”

Has Moscovitch’s sense of Infinity changed since it premiered, in a joint Volcano/Tarragon production in 2015. The difference, she thinks, is Elijah. “I was six or seven months pregnant at the opening night. Now I know (first-hand) what it’s like to bring a child into the dynamic between a man and a woman,” one of the crucial developments of Infinity.

“You become more aware of what you’ve inherited and what you’re passing down,” Moscovitch muses. “You hear yourself say things that echo through time, great-grandparents, grandparents, my parents.  One of the beautiful things about having Elijah is watching my mother and father be so wonderful with him. And you have an insight into what they were like with you….

“There’s more connection between between Infinity and Old Stock than I’d thought….”

PREVIEW

Infinity

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Ryan Parker, Larissa Pohoreski, Cayley Thomas

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through May 6

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Sisterhood and addiction: Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins premieres at Workshop West

Playwright Beth Graham with Miranda Allen and Nadien Chu. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Morning and evening/ Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,/Come buy, come buy….

Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti’s 1859 fantasy Goblin Market, a piece of Victorian erotica which has got to be one of the weirdest poems of the 19th century, conjures a world of temptation, seduction, appetite, addiction — and redemption by sisterly love.  

There’s a whole catalogue of musicals, operas, operettas, chamber duets (not to mention the odd Playboy “concept” spread) inspired by Rossetti’s tale of virginal sisters and the lure of goblin men and their irresistible fruit. “She sucked and sucked and sucked the more … she sucked until her lips were sore.”

Edmonton playwright/ actor Beth Graham had lingering memories of the poem’s lush strangeness when she was creating Pretty Goblins, premiering Thursday in a Workshop West Playwrights Theatre production directed by Brian Dooley.

“It’s all over the place! Wild! It just doesn’t follow any rules, any (conventional) rhyme,” she says of Rossetti’s compellingly un-conformist tale of Lizzie and Laura, and their encounter with a disturbing troupe of come-hither goblin fruit pedlars and their enchanted fruit elixirs. “And that’s one of the things I really liked about it; it’s always stayed in my brain….”

“Addiction and Victorian eroticism,” she says cheerfully. “And there’s a violence to it…. It’s nightmarish! I was very interested in all of that!”

At the centre of Pretty Goblins, which chronicles a heartbreaking declension into the chaos of addiction, is a pair of twins — one who “goes down that dark path of addiction” (as Graham puts it), one who has the agony of seeing that spiralling descent into a half-life.

Miranda Allen and Nadien Chu in Pretty Goblins. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

“I knew I wanted to write about sisters! Maybe because I don’t have one and I’ve always wanted one!” ” Graham (who has an older brother) says, laughing. “I’ve always been fascinated by that relationship, and kind of romanticized it.”

“And I was interested in finding the closest family (bond) I could imagine…. When you’re twins, you start in the womb together. You hear the other person’s heartbeat; you know there’s another person with you always, a person who shares so much of your DNA. When are you ever alone?” There is, Graham thinks, “a weird magic” in that. “And I believe in it.”

The award-winning actor-turned-playwright has written about that alluring and unsettling doppelgänger effect before now. Victor and Victoria’s Terrifying Tale Of Terrible Things, a whimsically macabre Victorian thriller co-created by Graham and Nathan Cuckow, was inspired by the eerie Victorian visions of the illustrator/poet Edward Gorey and filmmaker Tim Burton. The title twins are irresistibly drawn to, and repelled by, fear when they discover a mysterious book. It hatched at the Fringe, and got its full-length unveiling in a 2012 Kill Your Television Theatre production.

There are fractious siblings in Graham’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, which got its Edmonton premiere at Theatre Network in 2014. In that heart-wrenching family drama, nominated for a Governor General’s Award, three siblings (a pair of high-contrast sisters and their awkward brother) are summoned  to a family conference to hear the traumatic news that their mom Bernice, a widow in her ‘50s, has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Their reactions are strikingly different.

For bona fide, full-bodied dysfunction you just can’t beat a family, agrees Graham, whose acting career has taken her to a wide spectrum of Edmonton theatres. “There’s a different kind of decorum with friends….” Twin sisters “gave me licence to go all over the place.”

“There’s a kind of push and pull that happens with family. And with addiction. Where it’s ‘come here/ go away/ come here/ go away…. It’s isolating for everyone, not just for the addict. Everyone starts to protect themselves.”

What signifies, Graham thinks, is “how we move toward solitude; how we can learn to be alone. Sometimes it’s in a good way, sometimes in a really horrific way.”

Graham’s most travelled play The Drowning Girls (co-written with Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson), has dark thoughts about that. It’s a fantasia on our misconceptions about love and married life, spun from the homicidal marital career of Edwardian-era polygamist/serial killer George Joseph Smith, who drowned a succession of brides in the bath. Graham reports, bemused, that currently The Drowning Girls, which has toured this country and played Off-Broadway, is chalking up multiple productions in Texas high schools, along with Catalyst’s Poe musical Nevermore (Graham was part of that ensemble cast). “Hmm, Edmonton, Texas….”

Pretty Goblins has had multiple transformations en route to opening night, explains Graham, a U of A theatre school acting grad who ventured into playwriting first at Nextfest (The Dirt On Mo, 2000). Its origins are in Graham’s time as playwright-in-residence at Workshop West; she continued honing it at the Citadel’s Playwrights Forum. .

“At first it was a four-person road trip with a set of sisters in it. But there was no end in sight after 100 pages. So I stopped and had a re-think….” Graham is a fearless re-thinker and serial re-writer of her work. She tried having a narrator, then figured it was “a writing cheat to figure out the story.” She took that out. She says Pretty Goblins has had “more drafts that I’ve ever written.”

The theme of addiction is powerfully central to both Goblin Market and Pretty Goblins. And, like a goblin pomegranate, the actual writing of the Rossetti poem, with its strange cadence, its asymmetrical rhymes and unpredictable rhythms, “just kind of seeped into” Pretty Goblins, says Graham, who’ll be onstage in Studio Theatre’s upcoming  production of Ionesco’s Exit The King. “The poem has a presence in the play. Some actual lines put in an appearance….”

PREVIEW

Pretty Goblins

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed by: Brian Dooley

Starring: Nadien Chu, Miranda Allen

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

Running: through April 29

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

  

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All Shook Up shakes up the jukebox at the Mayfield: a review

All Shook Up, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Finally. A jukebox musical with an actual jukebox. And it’s busted.

Which should tell you something about the sassy, light-hearted self-awareness of All Shook Up, currently at the Mayfield cavorting its way through the Elvis canon (with winks and nudges at all manner of musicals and even the odd Shakespeare comedy).

The songs, including an ample contingent, less familiar, from those preposterous Elvis movies, are there for the plundering  and re-purposing by musical theatre smarty-pants types. But it’ll take the arrival, by motorcycle natch, of an itinerant hunk à la Brando (but with a guitar, an allusively Elvis coiffeur, and shoes of bluest suede) to do a restart on the long-dead jukebox.

Fuelled by comic energy, the production directed by Kate Ryan and choreographed by Cindy Kerr sings and dances its way through the manifold complications of a story concocted by Broadway stalwart Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change). There are bits and pieces of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all shook up with with Hairspray and Footloose and Bye Bye Birdie. Oh, and Grease and….

This is a jukebox musical crammed with allusions. It flirts with parody (which would be awfully tiresome for an entire evening) but, as Ryan’s production smartly judges, doesn’t quite succumb.

It susses out how seriously to take itself (not very); it frames its  moments of more heartfelt delivery with genial self-mockery. Would that most productions of Mamma Mia!, the mother of all jukebox musicals, were as playful about the flimsiness of the play in which the songs of ABBA are embedded.

All Shook Up is what you get when you re-boot the lugubriously smoulder-y songs of Elvis as high-spirited musical theatre — you know, triple-threats and inventive production numbers that are full of references. And Ryan’s production, with Kerr’s genuinely funny choreography to set it in motion, enjoys the disconnect.

Back to Chad, the wandering smoulderer, who gets an excellent comic performance (not an Elvis impersonation) from Robbie Towns. His mere proximity is magical to the lonely people in a town of “broken down jukes and disappointed women,” as he sums up his initial impression. The townsfolk will start pairing off at a great rate quite soon after his arrival.

In a nod to the dance-free municipality in Footloose, the Mayoress (Kendra Connor in full Edith Prickley regalia) of this ‘50s anyplace is an enforcer of the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act. And everyone’s on the all-inclusive plan at the Heartbreak Hotel, so to speak. Chad, a prophet of the libido, is aghast. “No public necking? What’s the point of living?” 

Robbie Towns, Melanie Piatocha in All Shook Up, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Anyhow, Chad’s motorcycle is making an ominous “jiggly wiggly sound.” That’s how the Roustabout, as everyone calls him, meets Natalie (Melanie Piatocha), the fetching grease-monkey who’s “good with a wrench” and works at the garage owned by her widowed dad (Paul Morgan Donald). She falls big-time for Chad, breaking the heart of the wistful tongue-tied nerd Dennis (Jason Hardwick) who’s been in love with her forever. And Chad falls for the icy aristocrat (Melissa MacPherson) who runs the local museum who falls in love with …. 

But, hey, that’s the plot, a chain reaction propelled by the philosophy of One Night (“one night with you is what I’m now praying for”). Its secrets are safe with me, but I can reveal that its complications include a girl dressed up like a boy and a forbidden inter-racial romance.

Piatocha, whose starry musical theatre versatility is on display front and centre in All Shook Up, is a sparkling and spirited lovestruck heroine. Hardwick, a terrific dancer who commands an entire spectrum of wistful gazes and double-takes as the official nebbish, is very funny. And McPherson is a riot as the unassailable museum goddess who gets assailed (by love, of course!) in an unexpected way, courtesy of Twelfth Night.

Adam Charles and Jameela McNeil are charming as the young Romeo and Juliet who, lucky for them, are in a jukebox musical and not that old downer tragedy that ends in tears.

There are lots of good singers in this big 17-member cast, backed up, as usual at the Mayfield, by a first-rate band (this time out under musical director Steve Thomas). And the ensemble numbers including the Jailhouse Rock opener, which give over the sacred Elvis oeuvre to bunches of characters, are especially striking:  Kerr’s choreography never stops being witty and amusingly referential.   

Leona Brausen’s costumes — and she keeps ‘em coming — are amusing in their own right. T. Erin Gruber’s design, dominated by a kind of winking galaxy of projections, is jokey but romantic, a combo that’s pretty much indispensable to the proceedings here. We are, my friends, talking about a production with its own Tunnel of Love scene and light-up hearts. The effects are playful about their own shamelessness. You can just about hear them whispering affectionately “I know, right?, ridiculous!”

It’s a fun night out.

REVIEW

All Shook Up

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Joe DiPietro

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Robbie Towns, Melanie Piatocha, Paul Morgan Donald, Jason Hardwick, Melissa MacPherson, Adam Charles, Jameela McNeil, Kendra Connor, Jenni Burke

Running: through June 10

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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Secrets of the staff room revealed: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge at Bonfire 2018

Joe Vanderhelm, teacher and Rapid Fire Theatre improviser. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Haven’t you always wanted to go backstage in the education system?

Admit it. Haven’t you always wondered what goes on in the teachers’ lounge after the bell rings? What — and who — are the nation’s educators kvetching about? What’s the most absurd homework no-show excuse they’ve ever heard? What’s the grossest thing they’ve ever seen slime out of a school locker?. What’s the most moronic thing ever written on a Social Studies term paper?

Your golden opportunity to ask a teacher is at hand: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge comes to the Bonfire long-form improv festival Saturday night (10 p.m.). It is the brainchild of Rapid Fire Theatre star Joe Vanderhelm who is, as it happens, a high school chemistry teacher who also, as it happens, teaches drama.

In fact, 12thnight.ca caught up with Mr. Vanderhelm (as he’s known by day) on the eve of Louis St. Laurent High’s first student matinee of the school production of The Little Mermaid. The school has acquired new theatre equipment, and he’s spent much of week trying to figure out the sound board, an improv exercise in itself. “Always an adventure,” he says amiably. “I’m a life-long learner.”

For Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, he has mined the talents of the seven Rapid Fire Theatre improvisers who are also employed as educators — in the Edmonton Public, the Edmonton Catholic and the Red Deer school systems. The improv roster includes one student teacher, and one school outreach worker.

Joe Vanderhelm aka Mr. Vanderhelm), Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, Rapid Fire Theatre’s Bonfire Festival. Photo supplied.

“For a long time I was the only one,” says Mr. Vanderhelm of his Rapid Fire cohorts. “Then there was one more. Another then another.” Class, this kind of bench strength should not be wasted.    

When you think about it, improv and teaching aren’t world’s apart. What is teaching but improvising? All day long teachers are performing extempore in front of an audience that’s constantly feeding them cues and reacting. “It’s a captive audience,” laughs Mr. Vanderhelm, a 10-year veteran of the profession. “The audience can’t really leave for 88 minutes.”

“It’s the same adrenalin kick at school or doing improv onstage…. The bell rings. The curtain goes up! In education there are some real stakes….” 

“Since Grade 10 I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher,” he says. The problem was deciding which of his passions — chemistry, physics, theatre — should be his major. “After a risk benefit analysis,” he jokes, science got the nod: more chances for a job, especially if you can teach in French too, as Monsieur Vanderhelm can. 

For Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, “the plan is to invite the audience (in person and online) to submit their actual questions they’ve always wanted to ask a teacher. ‘Is it true … you pick favourites?’ Or ‘what’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen in school?'” 

“Then, whichever questions the audience finds the most appealing, we’ll improvise scenes based on them.” He dreams up an example. “The grad prank when kids left a whole bunch of dead fish in school over the May long weekend” might give rise to a scene about fishing.  The connections might be thematic; they might be free-associative, or character-based. “Teacher World” as Mr. Vanderhelm puts it, is “a treasure trove of possibilities.”

By the time the school year gets to April, there’s an ample supply of stories from which to cull — anonymously and disguised, of course, so as not to breach any confidentiality agreements and codes of conduct. “We’re starting to get exhausted,” he laughs. “In September everyone loves being a teacher. In April….”   

So, ask away; the teacher brigade is in a weakened and susceptible state, and ready to divulge.  As Mr. Vanderhelm says, “everyone goes through the educational system but not everyone gets to be a teacher….” 

PREVIEW

Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge

Bonfire 2018

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Directed by: Joe Vanderhelm

Where: Citadel Zeidler Hall

Running: Saturday 10 p.m.

Tickets: eventbrite.ca

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Bonfire: the improv festival that plays with matches

Bonfire Festival, Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

How’s this for a cool and crazy idea for an improv show?

Lights up. Go. What if … a show was improvised from its own sequences of lighting cues?

That’s Lumen, one of the 24 experiments in long-form improv comedy at the seventh (and largest-ever) annual edition of Rapid Fire Theatre’s Bonfire Festival. And it’s the bright, possibly illuminating, and certainly rather terrifying idea of the company’s artistic director Matt Schuurman.

Schuurman happens to be a top-drawer lighting and video designer, who got the idea from an improv/lighting designer pal in France. He explains that he’s “creating in advance a randomized series of lighting cues” using the equipment in the theatre, RFT’s Zeidler Hall headquarters at the Citadel. When the lighting changes, the performers, who have no inkling what to expect, improvise scenes from the lighting design.

In this, Lumen lights a match under the normal order of things. “In improv, the technician is usually following what the improvisers are creating onstage.” In Lumen “you’ve got to work to meet the tech!”

Will this fly? The question mark is the draw, says the genial Schuurman of a festival based on the impulse to say “Sure, let’s give it a try!” instead of the somewhat more cautious “You’ve GOT to be kidding!”

Matt Schuurman, artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo by Aaron Pedersen.

“It’s our playground!” declares Schuurman of a festival spun from company brainstorming, with newcomers and veterans alike on an equal footing. Bonfire is all about running with “wouldn’t it be fun if…?” he says. “It’s our chance to try formats we’ve never seen before. Or seen before somewhere else. Or guilty pleasures….”

“Some stuff sticks,” and gets incorporated in Chimprov seasons at Rapid Fire. Schuurman laughs. “Some stuff is ‘well, we got that out of our system; we never have to do that again!’”

Risk factor notwithstanding, the Bonfire archive of experiments is full of success stories. Folk Lordz, the innovative (and much-travelled) Ben Gorodetsky/ Todd Houseman improv that combines Jewish folk tales and Cree-Blackfoot storytelling, started at Bonfire. Kory Mathewson’s experiment in improvising with artificial intelligence crashed at Bonfire, as Mathewson recalls. But Mathewson, who’s working on a PhD in robotics and A.I., persisted and refined. And his show went to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, under the title Human Machine. It’s back for this year’s Edmonton Fringe, as ImproBotics.

Kory Mathewson and Julian Faid in TEDxRFT. Photo by Aaron Pedersen

TEDxRFT, an impossibly difficult, improvised PowerPoint presentation by the brainiac team of Mathewson and Julian Faid, has travelled the world. “The early seeds were planted at Bonfire,” says Schuurman.

An improvised Star Trek show, a Schuurman idea (“me, nerding out”) with “a huge video component,” was a Fringe hit here, joined the RFT season, and is headed back to the Fringe this summer. The refinement? “Special guests.”

This year’s edition of Bonfire has its share of groundbreakers,” says Schuurman. He points to Perfect Bound. Its perpetrator is Faid, whose idea as Schuurman explains is “an entire improvised magazine — stories, editorials, ads, comics, the works…. And you flip through the pages. The print media brought to life.”

Tokens, directed by Kelly Turner, ventures into social satire. It’s an improvised sitcom with “typical cheesy white issues … Friends, say, or Seinfeld, with a cast of our players of colour.” Schuurman himself plays a stage hand charged with wrangling “the live studio audience” between takes. We get to be the laugh track.

Cobra, an idea from newcomer Michael Johnson, is “so out there that, to be honest, I do not fully understand it,” laughs Schuurman. “It’s based on acid free-style jazz, a jazz ensemble where any one of the performers could take charge.”     

For every intellectually hefty idea there’s one founded on the airier principle of “pure unadulterated guilty fun,” as Schuurman says. Mark Kelly’s proposal, Jurassic Place, is one of those. “Wouldn’t it be fun to play dinosaurs some place chosen by the audience?”

Or how about Magic Marv XXS, an improv in the Magic Mike mode, with improvised male burlesque. The company is currently training with an expert. 

The logistics of Tap Tap Tap are daunting. The source is a traditional Theatresports challenge: an ongoing two-character scene is infiltrated by an improviser who taps a character on the shoulder and takes over. For Tap Tap Tap every performer in the company is onstage, and ready to tap. “Sixty people! It’s chaos!” says Schuurman cheerfully. “Just ridiculous!”

For Write On!, Vincent Forcier’s idea, improvisers perform a 10-minute scene. And based on it, two playwrights in the audience each write an entire script,  in 45 minutes, which then gets performed. Schuurman is finding it hard to believe this is even possible: “it’s so extreme, the challenge!.” This makes him happy. “We love to surprise ourselves.”

Inspired by the PostSecret website, The Confessional is your chance to spill the beans, anonymously, on your own misdeeds (https://www.tinyurl.com/rftconfessional). The RFT company will improvise your guilty stories. “It has the potential to be whimsical, or heavy and heartbreaking…. We just don’t know,” says Schuurman.

And here, potentially, is the craziest idea of them all: “a Bonfire take on a public improv workshop. “People can register for a two-hour improv workshop,” as Schuurman explains. Instead of one instructor, there are three — but they’re playing one person. “Yup, a three-headed instructor who has not put together a course outline or lesson plan of any kind,” says Schuurman. And here’s the kicker: “each of them only gets to say one word at a time.” 

“Imagine two hours of that!” says Schuurman. “In an intimate classroom setting!”

With a 24-experiment festival, be prepared to not be prepared. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Schuurman says affably. “Whether it flies or crashes and burns, it’s still fun — for us and for the audience.”

PREVIEW

7th Annual Bonfire Festival

Theatre: Rapid Fire

Where: Citadel Zeidler Hall

Running: Thursday through Saturday and April 19 to 21, various times

Full schedule: rapidfiretheatre.com/festival/bonfire/

Tickets: eventbrite.ca 

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“Is it possible I just like sex?” Slut, at Northern Light Theatre: a review

Michelle Todd in Slut, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

S. L. U. T. The funniest set design of the season  — and the only one (to my knowledge) that actually engages in smart-ass repartee with the character onstage — is to be found in the Northern Light Theatre season finale. 

The outsized letters, 10 or 12 feet high and defined in flashing lightbulbs, spell out the ultimate deal-sealing class-dismissed upstaging putdown. SLUT. They glow; they flash on and off, separately and (in periodic displays of collective moral solidarity) together, in the production of Brenda McFarlane’s solo comedy Slut directed and designed by Trevor Schmidt.

The insist on having the last word; hell, they are the last word. Sometimes, the character we meet sits balefully on the U like a swing, or retreats to the L. Sometimes she phones from the T.

Michelle Todd in Slut, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

You’ve heard the term “the male gaze.” SLUT is “the social gaze.” It’s on Matilda J. McHartle (Michelle Todd), who arrives onstage, hair bouncing in indignation, all in white — in a satin-and-lace corset get-up with stiletto boots — like a big beautiful disgruntled meringue.

Matilda is an accountant who, she assures us, does own glasses and flat black shoes. And, much to her exasperated incredulity she’s been arrested — for indecency and running “a common bawdy house.” How could this happen?

Dander up and nearly squealing with outrage, Matilda is happy to tell us how she’s been framed by her senior citizen high-rise neighbours in revenge for complaining about their garbage and their loud polka party music. ABBA pushes her over the edge. Her nemesis is an ancient widow who, as bad luck would have it, was an ex-National Geographic Magazine wildlife photographer with a specialty in night shots. So there’s documentary evidence of our heroine having sex on the hood of her car. With a variety of guys.

Matilda has lovers (lots of them), not clients. She’s an unattached woman who enjoys sex and is generous-minded about sharing that enjoyment widely. She isn’t a madam. Or a prostitute. She’s not a nymphomaniac or “troubled” or out-and-out mentally ill. Ergo she must be a … SLUT. 

That’s the sharp-eyed premise, a barbed satirical commentary on our hypocrisy about, and resistance to,  liberated female sexuality. Matilda, a wide-eyed Candide in the field of social attitudes apparently, discovers it in the course of the play in which she channels all the characters in her story. Matilda’s stage partner, the light-up SLUT sign, steps brazenly up to it and undermines her confidence.

There’s a cartoon gallery of characters on display in Slut, all channelled by Todd as Matilda. We meet a cop, Detective Bruce, more of a dramatic convenience than a character. His view that males are predatory animals and women are the prey has led to a completely fallow celibate period: he’s waiting for love before he gets laid. There’s the purse-lipped old widow. There’s a sex addiction counsellor, a snazzy call girl, a ditzy girlfriend. And Todd, an eminently likeable performer, has fun with the voices.

But the play has a tendency to repeat and explain itself in thudding add-ons where it might profitably let its one-liners land lightly, for our perusal. In amassing the evidence, for example, Detective Bruce comes to a photo of an ex- roommate that Matilda rejects in high dudgeon. “He’s like 22 years old! What do you think I am? Oh right, a prostitute. Because a woman can’t have a few different lovers and not be a whore, right?”

Or this: “They put me in a holding cell with a bunch of women who look like hookers to me. O right. They think I’m one too.”

The character we meet in Todd’s performance, child-like and blithely innocent, and pitched high toward wide-eyed incredulity and fury, just doesn’t seem likely to say “maybe false bravado would work better than lame confusion.”

But having said that, I must add that Slut, which premiered at the Toronto Fringe in 2000, long before the #MeToo reveals of our time, is amusing in its premise and refreshing in its insights. It’s not about women as victims of male predation. It’s not about sexual aggression or cynical calculation. It’s about our collective resistance to the idea of female sexual pleasure, outside relationship commitment. Matilda lives it, is coerced into having doubts about it, and rises again.

And you want to cheer her on.

REVIEW

Slut

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Brenda McFarlane

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Michelle Todd

Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 104 St.

Running: through April 14

Tickets: 780-471-1040, northernlighttheatre.com 

   

  

     

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