Defy gravity at your peril: Dead Centre Of Town XI at Fort Edmonton

Dead Centre Of Town, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The principle of “what goes up must come down” as applied to air travel isn’t an entirely comforting thought. Defying gravity might have been a blast for Peter Pan but, trust me, it doesn’t always work out. And Edmonton has the history to prove it, as you’ll find out at Dead Centre Of Town XI

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Fort Edmonton Park is an eerie place on a fall night. Fields with a single mystery light planted somewhere in the middle: landing strips for aliens? Old houses with an unidentifiable glow in a single upstairs window: haunted? A long boardwalk threads through the park, and as you walk you catch a side glimpse of a faded poster: a smudgy hand reaches toward the lettering: “A Taste Of Eternity.”

And then, just off one of the Fort’s vintage streets is a giant of a building, the 1929 Blatchford Field Air Hangar, pale in the moonlight, its secrets sealed inside. Before we enter we gather around a bonfire, which is the international signal for ghost story.

Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

Secrets, long buried, are the point  of Catch The Keys Productions’ annual foray into the graveyard of our collective history. Playwright Megan Dart is the exhumer who uncovers the ghoulish, shivery stories that have been composting, unknown to most of us, in the E-town soil. Director Beth Dart and a cast of 13 bring the ghosts to life.

Inside you’re in the maze of an airport which, as in all airports, means you never quite know where you are. Instead of aggro, though, you get anxiety. You thread your way through corridors where shadows flicker and grow huge behind translucent walls, sinister sounds echo, and the undead give you a nudge from time to time — or emerge, in ghastly, hollow-eyed chalk-faced pallor, to smile as they look you right in the eye or whisper in your ear.

Can you find your flight, the one indicated on your boarding pass? No one’s asking for your frequent flyer number; it’s just assumed. The proposition of Dead Centre Of Town XI is that real E-town history can turn complacency to horror. There are freakish accidents, lethal crashes in snowstorms, mid-air conflagrations, mystery disappearances and abandonments, terrible consequences on the ground, live cargoes splattered through the universe. Edmonton after all is the gateway to the middle of nowhere, and it’s a big empty cold nowhere.

Spectral flight attendants from hell, soldiers on a countdown to doom, pilots who are dead before they even take the wheel, cargoes splattered over the cosmos … our history is surprisingly gruesome. I’m pretty sure I saw a ghoulish nun on one of my flights: Edmonton as the gateway to the Great Beyond. As our chief tour steward Colin Matty sneers, “If god had intended man to fly, he wouldn’t have made him so squishy.” 

It’s a chilling immersion in the combo of  human error, mechanical failure and E-town’s terrible weather that is a formidable obstacle to longevity. This conjuring of the ghostly is made possible by a whole team of designers, including Michael Caron (sound), John Evans and Kat Evans (set, costume, make-up and lighting). The lighting sources, like the ghosts, are unexpected in Beth Dart’s production.

Have I said too much? I can’t tell you more without spoiling the hair-raising. Let me leave you with this: Dead Centre of Town XI is not for the queasy air traveller. Have a peek at the 12thnight.ca preview here

Dead Centre of Town XI runs through Oct. 31 at the Blatchford Field Air Hangar, Fort Edmonton Park. Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca,  eventbrite.ca. 

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In the land of Pretenderos, a plot of epic proportions: Die-Nasty returns with a Lord of Thrones season

Photo by Mark Meer

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Epic battles, dynastic conflicts and alliances, murderous intrigues, lethal challenges, fierce creatures (in striking character roles), aspirational heroes, ancient grievances, copious references to The Throne, a plot that no one person can fully understand…. Yes, smells like suds to the deluxe improvisers of Die-Nasty brigade.

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Welcome to Lord of Thrones. In its 28th season, opening its new season of weekly episodes on the Varscona stage tonight, Edmonton’s award-winning weekly improvised soap opera takes us to the Kingdom of Pretenderos. Four great Houses are in lethal and long-standing conflict: House Park “led by Sherwood and gracious Gazebo; House Calgarian “led by the brave people of Calgaria; House Minster “led by Loyd, Boyd, Floyd … and Margot” and House Strathconia “led by Lord, son of Old.”

After a Great Battle, the latter is currently in the ascendancy as Die-Nasty begins — with Margot (Kristi Hansen) is betrothed to Lord Strathconia (Jesse Gervais). But Margot’s dad Lloyd  (Jeff Haslam) remains apprehensive that House Calgarian isn’t as dead as all that. 

After that, no one in any kingdom knows what will happen (except that winter’s coming), as a company of crack improvisers takes to the stage armed with medieval syntax. Lord of Thrones runs every Monday at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) from tonight through May 27. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com or at the door. 

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“Thicker than water and stronger than bone”: twin performances in Blood: A Scientific Romance at The Maggie Tree. A review.

Gianna Vacirca, Jayce Mckenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At the beating heart of Meg Braem’s intricate Blood: A Scientific Romance are twin sisters whose mysterious bond is an elixir of life. Beyond empathy, beyond heredity, beyond biology, Angelique and Poubelle seem to be joined at not only the cellular, but the soul-ular level.

And in the Maggie Tree production, directed by Brenley Charkow, it’s startling to see that strange and alluring premise come fully to life in star performances by Jayce Mckenzie and Gianna Vacirca.

Those mesmerizing sister performances, intertwined physically and intellectually, are the most persuasive and compelling feature of a production that doesn’t just slide off the rails later, but goes wildly off them and self-destructs in spectacular B-movie black comedy fashion.

But amazingly, even when that happens, you buy into its dark story of obsession and torment — thanks to performances by McKenzie and Vacirca. You understand, at least in theory, why an ambitious doctor (Liana Shannon), a scientist with secrets of her own, might be fascinated, and maddened, by the the twins’ healing link that eludes her scientific research. And why, as they age, she ups the ante gruesomely on her experiments.

A terrible car crash on a prairie highway in 1952  leaves two little Quebec girls (their intertwining of two languages is significant in the story) orphaned at seven, and near death from their injuries. Against all odds and rational explanation, Angelique and Poubelle recover and come to flourish when they are placed next to each other.

Dr. Glass takes them home, an isolated prairie farm house of the gothic persuasion in the middle of nowhere to study further. In the strict regimen of data accumulation in the course of a decade of being investigated they come to realize they are her prisoners and her “lab rats.”

In the most brutal experiment, one twin is submerged in a bathtub of ice water to the point of hypothermia while the other’s vital signs are recorded for comparison. There’s always synchronicity, in a way science can’t explain. What is this bond that can change body temperature and bring the near-dead back to life? Dr. Glass is furious to know, and to present her results to the world.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance, The Maggie Tree. Photo by BB Collective.

There’s a fourth character in the play, a newly graduated doctor (Jenna Dykes Busby) who arrives at the farmhouse in the middle of the night to be Dr. Glass’s assistant. An oddly mousey and solitary creature, maladjusted in the world, she’s studying plant biology as a way to understand human connectivity. Will she rescue the twins from their imprisonment? Or is she just too weird? 

Anyhow, in a mystery/thriller (with a cinematically sinister sound design by Leif Ingebrigtsen) you have to wonder why the play abandons the unnerving believable in favour of over-the top gothic bizarre so decisively in its later scenes. And you wonder, too, why in a play about creeping discovery — the twins’ and ours — the production opts from the start for a full-blooded transparently mad scientist performance by Shannon’s Dr. Glass.

Yes, the stakes are high. But it’s a little hard on queasy ambiguity,  much less suspense and the dawning realization of horror, if the villain is from the outset so flamboyantly psycho, a sadist à la Dr. Mengele. And it certainly leaves the weird assistant role stranded, despite the best efforts of Dykes-Busby to make her plausible.

But you return to the twins, and a mysterious relationship of individuals who are, and aren’t, separate. Who live in and out of half-lit blue world of flashbacks and shared memory. Megan Koshka’s sinister shadowy lighting captures the play’s intricate portrait of doubleness in an eloquent way on a bi-level set .

Are twins duplications, or halves, or each other? Vacirca as Poubelle the starchier more naturally rebellious one, and McKenzie as the more fragile Angelique are uncanny together in Charkow’s production. Their impulsive energy, their alert and instinctive awareness of each other moment to moment has a detailed physicality to it.

At rest their limbs are entwined, a human knot tied against all threats. Their storytelling game is double too. It’s in rhyming couplets, alternating lines at top speed in two languages. And it suggests that the twins share an intelligence as well as a memory bank that dates back to the womb. They are each other’s repository of traditions. You won’t be able to take your eyes off them.

That’s the real draw of Blood: A Scientific Romance, a welcome introduction of Braem’s work to Edmonton audiences. Can the bond of love be dissected? Can poetry triumph over science? Although it stacks the deck in this production, here’s a piece of theatre that wonders about that. And you will too.

REVIEW

Fringe Spotlight Program

Blood: A Scientific Romance

Theatre: The Maggie Tree

Written by: Meg Braem

Directed by: Brenley Charkow

Starring: Jayce McKenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby

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

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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The fear of flying, and the return of Dead Centre of Town

Dead Centre Of Town, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Ladies and gentlemen, we will be boarding tonight by zone. The dead centre zone.

For 11 years now, Catch the Keys Productions has been leading us on nocturnal Halloween expeditions into the macabre, digging in the boneyard where the gruesome secrets of our civic history lie mouldering and our ghosts refuse to stay buried. This year’s edition of Dead Centre of Town, opening tonight at Fort Edmonton Park, takes us into the vast and eerie Blatchford Field Air Hangar, a replica of the 1929 original originally built by Wop May, the World War I flying ace and star aviator.

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Start fearful, and prepare to be horrified. Playwright Megan Dart, whose researches into Edmonton history are the basis of her original scripts for Catch the Keys’ immersive chillers, has discovered macabre stories of landings gone wrong, mid-air collisions, doomed aerial manhunts, flights into destruction. “Acts of God, man vs. nature, the elements, failed mechanics,” says Dart. “Fear that is out of our control.…” Fun fact (Not): “I learned you shouldn’t fly in February. A vast proportion of accidents happen then.”

Suffice it to say that the assumption we can, at will, fly through the air with the greatest of ease, has a lot to answer for in Edmonton aviation history.

Dead Centre Of Town is a name lifted from the grisly local lingo of yore for the intersection of Jasper Avenue and 109th St. One of Edmonton’s first mortuaries had stood there,surrounded by coffin shops and embalming emporia. It was where bodies of soldiers arrived by train and got dropped off during the last century’s wars. Eleven years ago it was a night club, and Catch the Keys’ Dart sisters, playwright Megan and director Beth, specialists in immersive theatre events in found spaces, lived nearby.

That’s where the debut Dead Centre Of Town happened, a one-night stand. And the rest is history — bigger and bigger shows and longer runs on location of Edmonton sites like the former tinsmith shop that turned theatre before it turned into the late lamented ARTery performance venue. Or the ex-cinema that became the Avenue Theatre. Or the first train station on the south side of town.

For the last five years Dead Centre Of Town has taken us down by the river to Fort Edmonton, where fog hangs in the air of an autumn night. We followed ghosts along 1885 Street, into historic saloons or school rooms. Last year, it was the spooky 1920 Johnny K. Jones Midway.

And now, the air hangar. “We’re so thrilled,” says Megan Dart. “It’s been on our wish list since we moved down to the Fort!” The space comes with its own “wildly different challenges,” to be sure, “a big old open warehouse that we fill imaginatively, our biggest build we’ve ever undertaken.” But there’s this: it’s indoors. And after a year of unpredictable interference from the elements, including wind storms gusting to 200 K and snow on Halloween, “we had to cancel two shows for the first time ever,” indoors is a felicitous concept.

The team, 13 strong and the same size as the cast, has scrounged from the Aviation Museum. “We have the fuselage of an old plane. We have wings and propellors…. We’re the Franksteins of aviation,” Dart laughs.

“We’re playing with space in a major way,” says Dart of the production concept: “a labyrinthine airport terminal,” with lighting (or lack thereof) designed by Beth Dart and Chris Dela Cruz. “There are engineers on the team,” she says. “And a mathematician to help us figure out how to move the audience.”

All us travellers into darkness will get a boarding pass, and with four flights to choose from. “The audience can choose what order to see them in.”

Dead Centre of Town, Catch The Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As for the stories, “we explore the period 1929 to 1985,” the latter bookend unusually recent by Dead Centre Of Town‘s historical standards. That, incidentally, was the year that “two Hercules transports collided mid-air, and all 10 crew members were killed, a bizarre fluke of an accident in a fly-over celebration. A very dark day in Edmonton’s aviation history.”

Dart discovered other morbid mysteries. Here’s one: “A military plane carrying unreported cargo vanished in 1943, mid-flight….” The crash site was found five years later. “But the military never confirmed or denied. There was no crash report, no manifesto,” only talk of a million dollars.

“Edmonton (owns) a lot of aviation firsts,” says Dart. “The first air harbour. A major hub during wartime, as the gateway to the North. During one day in World War II, a record number of planes, more than any other air field in Canada, landed and took off from here.”

And here’s the thing that frays the nerves: flying is always a matter of life and death.

PREVIEW

Dead Centre Of Town XI

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions

Written by: Megan Dart

Directed by: Beth Dart

Starring: Colin Matty, Adam Keefe, Christine Lesiak, Morgan Smith, Elisa Benzer, Louise Casemore, Bobbi Goddard, William Mitchell, Rebecca Sadowski, Mat Simpson, Jake Tkaczyk, Barry Balinski, Morgan Yamada

Where: Blatchford Field Air Hangar, Fort Edmonton Park

Running: tonight through Oct. 31

Tickets: eventbrite.ca

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“It calls bullshit on scientific distance.” Blood: A Scientific Romance opens its mysteries under The Maggie Tree.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce Mckenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance, The Maggie Tree. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Something odd is happening to Jayce Mckenzie and Gianna Vacirca. Their cast-mates in Blood: A Scientific Experiment have noticed it. So has their director Brenley Charkow; ditto their producer Kristi Hansen of The Maggie Tree, an indie company dedicated to nurturing and showcasing women theatre artists. 

Mannerisms, gestures add up. McKenzie and Vacirca have taken to sitting the same way: they cross their ankles and dangle their feet. They’re alert to where exactly each other is;  they check in with each other by glance. They look up at the exact same time. They listen;  they “play a lot with breath,” as McKenzie says.

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Mckenzie and Vacirca are becoming twins. They play Angelique and Poubelle in the Meg Braem play that opens Thursday in a Maggie Tree production. And the bond between them, which seems to propel a remarkable recovery after the car accident that orphaned them, eludes the every experiment by the scientist who takes them home to investigate further. “The doctor witnesses a miracle, for want of a better term,” says Vacirca. For Angelique and Poubelle “it seems like being rescued. For a while….”  says McKenzie.

Yes, there’s a mystery at the heart of Blood: A Scientific Experiment. And it has to do with siblings.“Dr. Glass (Liana Shannon) can’t figure it out; she certainly didn’t expect to wait 10 years for answers. It brings the doctor’s stakes way up,” says Vacirca. “The play calls bullshit on scientific distance.” Says Charkow, “she’s straddling a crisis of ethics.”

Human testing: there’s a branch of science that might send a little frisson of apprehension down your spine. Not least because Blood: A Scientific Romance takes place in the post-war pre-cellphone world 1952 to 1962, with the twins at age 17, and flashbacks to their seven-year-old selves. The notorious Dr. Mengele, after all, was fascinated by twins. It “feels like as a thriller,” says Hansen. “A romantic thriller,” amends Mckenzie. “A thriller about love” with a soupçon of sci-fi, says Vacirca.

“The car accident is the prologue,” says Charkow, who calls the play “a ghost story of sorts.” She smiles. “I’ve always been drawn to the dark. And people are not perfect in this play….” She’d thought about creating “a clinical white world” for the twins to live and be tested in. Instead her production opted for “the dark (isolated) farm house.”

Gianna Vacirca, Jayce Mckenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance. Photo by BB Collective.

It’s the human connection that eludes Dr. Glass. “Siblings parent each other,” says Mckenzie, who’s intrigued by the way the twins “are constantly doing what’s best for the other, trying to help the other get through…. Who loves you? Who’s responsible for you when you don’t have parents who have to love you?” Vacirca remembers that, growing up, she and her younger brother “disciplined each other.”

Meanwhile the twin sisters who hatched “in the exact same oven” as Vacirca puts it, start to develop individually. Their relationship evolves in ways that surprise them. 

And speaking of experiments, originally, the play’s two doctors, the famous Dr. Glass and the young medical acolyte (Jenna Dykes-Busby) who’s tracked her down, were played by men. Charkow met with the playwright to ask her “what would it mean if they were played by women?” The playwright’s answer: “I don’t know. Why don’t you try it?” It was an apt way for a production of Blood: A Scientific Romance to start.

12thnight.ca talked to playwright Meg Braem, the U of A’s Lee Playwright in Residence, here.

PREVIEW

Blood: A Scientific Romance

Theatre: The Maggie Tree, in Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Program

Written by: Meg Braem

Starring: Jayce Mckenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby

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

Running: Thursday through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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The mysterious twin bonds of life and art: meet playwright Meg Braem

Playwright Meg Braem

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You try to make sense of things,” says Meg Braem, whose chosen line of work is the transmutation of real life — in all its perplexing, maddening, intriguing potential — into art. “You’re always searching….” 

Braem is a playwright, an award-winning creator of theatre (and the University of Alberta’s Lee playwright-in-residence). And the Braem play that opens Thursday under the branches of the adventurous indie company The Maggie Tree is a prime example of the way her work springs off real life, her own, to explore. 

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 Blood: A Scientific Romance is Edmonton’s onstage introduction to the Braem vision after productions in Calgary and Saskatoon. But she’s worked on plays as a resident playwright at Workshop West (about grave-robbing for anatomical research in 1860s Canada) and at the Citadel’s erstwhile Playwrights Forum (about the circuses that travelled Depression era Alberta.

In Blood: A Scientific Romance we meet twin sisters orphaned by a prairie highway car accident in which they sustain life-threatening injures. The twins survive; indeed their recovery is nothing short of remarkable. And that seems inextricably linked to their mysterious relationship, beyond biology and beyond environment. With a certain sinister Mengelesque resonance, a scientist takes them home for further investigation.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance, The Maggie Tree. Photo by BB Collective.

On the phone from her Calgary home where she’s on maternity leave (the sound track from her baby daughter is in the background) Braem, who’s originally from Victoria, traces the idea of Blood: A Scientific Romance back. Back to her own life experience with a twin, her sister Jen. “When we were young people were always asking us ‘can you read either other’s minds?’”

It’s not an outlandish notion. Though they didn’t come from an artsy family, there was a moment when the Braem twins together took a turn into left field, so to speak, and ended up in theatre. “We were theatre kids in high school; it was hard for Dad to accept what my sister and I chose.” Mr. Braem senior might have preferred a dentist, or a lawyer, “but all it took was one great drama teacher.”

Jen Braem was a professional stage manager for a long time before she got an MBA and became a chartered accountant (she’s the chief financial officer for Rugby Canada). Meg got a degree in acting at U Vic, before being onstage ceded to writing plays (“you get to talk about what you want to talk about”). When Braem moved to Calgary to get a master’s degree in playwriting — “it was a hub of new play production” —  and left her sister behind, the separation was traumatic. “I was SO homesick,” she recalls. “It was brutal.”

When the Braem sisters get together these days, “we close off everything else,” Braem laughs. “We send our husbands away. And we don’t really DO much; we just sit in each other’s houses and talk….”

In Victoria, Braem’s first pro gig as an actor had been in a troupe that created theatre with the inmates of William Head Penitentiary. Braem’s Potentilla came out of that experience, not least because “we had a cousin who was murdered…. I wasn’t there for the purposes of social justice. But ultimately it was a very positive experience, spending that time. The circumstances were so much more interesting than the plays we did.”  

Flight Risk, “about a 99-year-old war vet in an old folks home” according to its author, was inspired by the experience of “sitting with my dad, a vet on his death bed. He was never weak. And now he was…. I thought about how our culture doesn’t deal with old age.” Besides, she says, “the stories were amazing.”

In Braem’s The Josephine Knot, a grandmother dies, and a family who’s assembled to clean out her house begins to unravel secrets. “Very based on real life and my family!” says Braem cheerfully. “Before the (concept) hoarder was a thing, my grandmother was one …. She never even put food away. She was a canner, and the house was full of pickled cantelope, pickled eggs, all over the place.” Her later years were a declension into chaos, as Braem describes. “She had an affair with a married man and (eventually) showed up in Vancouver, eating peppermints for dinner….”

“My dad came to a reading of the play. And he was so embarrassed he never came to a play of mine ever again.”

Bream, whose gig as U of A work as playwright-in-residence includes mentoring young writers, muses on the attraction of theatre to her younger self. “High school is so brutal anyhow. And it was partly I liked being treated with so much respect,” she says. “The being held accountable for consequences. The collaboration.”

Not every kid drawn to theatre makes it a career, of course. “But I never think it’s a waste; it’s such a training in empathy, in listening….”

Come January, Braem will be back in Edmonton for the university term. And she’ll be working with the drama department’s student actors — eight women four men — on the new play commissioned especially for them as part of her writer-in-residence tenure (to be produced in the 2019-2020 season). “I’m looking at Greek tragedy, the Oresteia as a jumping-off point. “Family, betrayal…. Especially now, it’s a climate where Greek tragedy really works.” 

Check out what director Brenley Charkow and actors Gianna Vacirca and Jayce Mckenzie say about the play here.  

PREVIEW

Blood: A Scientific Romance

Theatre: The Maggie Tree, in Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Program

Written by: Meg Braem

Starring: Jayce Mckenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby

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

Running: Thursday through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca

Posted in Features, Previews | Tagged , , , , , , ,

A great leap forward, by excavating the past: Origin of the Species opens the NLT season. A review.

Holly Turner, Kristin Johston in Origin of Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Archaeology, says an elderly member of that profession in Origin of the Species, is “simply knowing where to look.”

It would seem to have that at least in common with theatre, judging by the mysterious discoveries of Northern Light Theatre and an artistic director who unearths the highly unusual season after season.

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NLT launches the current season with Trevor Schmidt’s  Canadian premiere of this quirky early two-hander by the Brit playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen, The Believers) — an odd and oddly touching little fable about time, evolution, inheritance, the myth of progress, and extinction. Origin of the Species has a sitcom skeleton and a feminist heart (not to mention a wry vision of science). 

Molly the archaeologist (Holly Turner) has a New Year’s Eve story to tell us about going on a dig to the Olduvai Gorge in Africa in search of a perfect man. In an act of cradle-robbing from the very cradle of civilization as she says, Molly smuggles back the remains of a woman instead, “a crime of passion.” The four-million-year-old (Kristin Johnston) comes to life with a kiss in fairy-tale fashion, and Molly names her Victoria in honour of her grandma.

Kristin Johnston and Holly Turner in Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

So Origin of the Species is a mismatched roommate comedy of sorts, a reinvention of the human-out-of-time premise that peppers the comedy repertoire (I’m thinking, for no good reason, of Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man).

Molly, a delightfully eccentric and conversationally shrewd character as created by Turner, has to “fill in a four million-year time gap.” In a motherly turn (“good girl!”) she teaches her wary young-old charge how to put on a cardigan, how to use language, and hold a pencil — and in an escalation of sophistication how to think and how to imagine. The increments are negotiated with finesse by Johnston, an alert, impressively kinetic performer with real stage presence

A sweet and amusing relationship develops, as charted in Schmidt’s production. And it turns out that Victoria has things to teach Molly too. In four million years, the He/Him/ His-centric view of human history has made false claims stick. Man didn’t invent fire, for example; it was Woman, taking a cue from volcanoes. Contrary to popular wisdom Man doesn’t have exclusive proprietorship over the invention (and lethal use) of weaponry. And as for thinking….

Molly’s home turf, as designed by director Schmidt with gorgeous (and dramatically purposeful) lighting by Elise Jason, is the beautiful clutter of a civilized mind that collects — artifacts, books, diverse memorabilia, knowledge. Ah yes, and an assortment of every kind of clock, ticking and chiming and reduced at times to a sort of human pulse (sound design by Kiidra Duhault).

Origin of the Species, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photograph

Clocks and time figure prominently, though the play reintroduces the idea of extinction (the “vanishing clock”) in an awkwardly compressed and to me unsatisfying way in the last quarter of the play — after an opening that is, thanks to Turner’s appealingly chipper, confidential tone, genial and leisurely. Origin of the Species seems to be a play looking for more length. 

But maybe it’s all a New Year’s Eve dream of fulfilment and continuity, and a way forward from a scientist with imagination, who has found her fellow scientists wanting in that capacity. The ending, after all, is a rebirth of a species whose potential hasn’t been explored — not even close. And the womanly future awaits.  

REVIEW

Origin of the Species

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Bryony Lavery

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Holly Turner, Kristin Johnston

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

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , ,

And in other theatre news: Tonight! Teatro’s season-end grand finale bash and Collin Doyle’s new play at Script Salon

Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This is how the Teatro La Quindicina mind ticks: the last production of their 2018 season, Skirts On Fire, has just closed, ergo it’s the moment for a grand finale … of grand finales. 

Bring Down The Curtain: An Evening Of Grand Finales, tonight only at the Varscona, is a song-and-dance extravaganza that gathers musical numbers, scenes, and speeches that bring down the curtain at the intermission or the show’s end.   

Some are imprinted forever on your memory: Climb Every Mountain, the Act I close of The Sound of Music and Everything’s Coming Up Roses, which occupies the same thrilling position in Gypsy. Or Tom’s “I never went to the moon” speech at the end of The Glass MenagerieHere’s a spot quiz: “I’m determined to do it — and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof — is there? Is there, baby?”

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Jenny McKillop claims Maybe from Annie; Jason Hardwick straps on his tap shoes for  Anything Goes from that effervescent musical. Rachel Bowron does a a mash-up of “parade” songs: Don’t Rain On My Parade and Before The Parade Passes By. Kendra Connor sings Dear Friend from She Loves Me.

You can expect to hear the grand finale speeches from the Teatro shows this past season, as well as finales from some of Stewart Lemoine’s earlier work, like What Gives? from the pocket musical of that name, and the lovely concluding speech from The Margin of the Sky. “The sun sinks down to the margin and it exits the sky. In time, it approaches the other margin and it gets back in. I want to do that too….”

Yes, there will be Sondheim.

The evening at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) is hosted by Teatro artistic director Jeff Haslam. Cathy Derkach and Steven Greenfield are at the piano. And the cast includes the company of Skirts on Fire, with an array of Teatro stars including Andrea House and Sheri Somerville. Tickets: teatroq.com.

playwright Collin Doyle

•A new play by Collin Doyle! Tonight’s Script Salon is your first glimpse at The Takeoff, by the award-winning author of The Mighty Carlins, Let The Light Of Day Through, and Terry and the Dog. The Takeoff follows three generations of one family  — “the couplings and un-couplins of new love, old love, and broken love.”

Tonight’s staged reading — 7:30 p.m.) in the Upper Arts Space at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 10037 84 Ave. — features an all-star cast: Patricia Darbasie, Glenn Nelson, Michelle Todd, Ian Leung, Jeff Halaby, Ellie Heath, Maralyn Ryan, Jim DeFelice, Robert Benz, and Damon Pitcher. The dramaturg is Mieko Ouchi.

And there’s more: Tuesday night at the Almanac (7 p.m., 10351 Whyte Ave.) the playwright celebrates the launch of his volume of plays. The Mighty Carlins And Other Plays includes that title work, a raucous black comedy of family dysfunction and chronic underachievement. It’s a reunion between a father and his two grown-up sons on the anniversary of their mother’s death.

In Let The Light of Day Through, which premiered at Theatre Network in 2013, a couple in their thirties, in order to survive a great tragedy, have invented a comedy for themselves to be in, and characters to play.  The hero of Routes, originally commissioned by Concrete Theatre, is a 15-year-old kid who escapes the violence of his home life by riding the bus nightly through a dark and dangerous Edmonton suburb. All three reveal Doyle’s uncanny way with dialogue, and his expertise in marrying dark comedy and tragedy.

Edmonton actors, including John Wright, James Hamilton, Jeff Page, Jesse Gervais, Beth Graham and Doyle himself (most recently seen in a Fringe production of The Zoo Story) , will do readings from the plays. And you can pick up a copy.

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A mission to defeat time: Jezebel, At The Still Point. A review

Jezebel and Ainsley Hillyard in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It beings with an explosion somewhere in the galaxy, a crash landing, smoke, red emergency lights, a siren. 

Matt Schuurman’s video design, spread across jagged meteor fragments amid showers of light (by Elise Jason) is, quite precisely, awesome. The music is in the grand cinematic adventure tradition. What planet is this?

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In the two-hander love story currently running at Theatre Network, half the double-act moves through space in asymmetrical arcs, one-footed cartwheels, angled flips in defiance of gravity. And keeps up a grave running assessment of the damages (be very apprehensive when your flush capacitors get blown out; I get that). The other half looks around impassively and leaves the stage.

As a career theatre-goer, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like Jezebel, At The Still Point, created by and starring Ainsley Hillyard and her dog Jezebel (and thereby introducing a new two-member theatre collective, Bumble Bear Productions). The former is an actor/dancer/choreographer/playwright; the latter is a French bulldog. And the show is built on an extravagant imbalance in stage labour — which turns out to be both comical and then touching.

Hillyard and Jezebel, both wearing space suits, are the pilot and co-pilot of a spaceship that’s crash-landed on an alien planet. They are on a time-travel mission to subvert, or perhaps reverse, the course of earthly chronology, for reasons that the pilot will reveal in the course of the show. The pilot does all the talking and most of the moving, issues the instructions, outlines the goals, encourages initiative, offers positive reinforcement at every turn. The co-pilot, mostly silent, is a minimalist actor, to say the least. Without noticeable change of expression Jezebel takes a sip of water from a bowl, lies down, delivers an occasional sneeze or snort, and occasionally walks off stage. 

It’s the quintessential unfairness of showbiz that Jezebel gets instant and sustained attention — and all the laughs — from the “non-corporeal life forms” in the house seats. And she does it without apparent effort. Or even changing expression.

Jezebel is a natural (as opposed to a calculating) upstager. She has no apparent interest — much less insatiable appetite — for being onstage. Every once in a while she looks out at us with a kind of appraising but non-judgmental look, a ‘whatever’ look as if to say it’s OK that we’re here and it would be equally OK if we weren’t. Or maybe I’m reading something into the gaze; is this, perhaps, a demo of the secret power of the mask? In any case, you’ll get no hammy over-acting from Jezebel. The mystery of the craft is safe with her. 

What happens in a love story when the two parties are in very different time dimensions? Dog years and human years have dramatically different durations, at least on earth. And there’s cruelty and grief in that, of course. Which is why living in the immediate Now is an urgent imperative for Hilyard and Jezebel. And why time travel is (if I get the gist of relativity) a possible solution; as Hillyard points out, if you travel fast enough, faster than the speed of light maybe, you can get somewhere before you left.

“This expedition is all about time,” says the pilot, who explains that she and her co-pilot are searching for “a temporal anomaly.” And the downside of time is mortality. In short, if quantum physics finally gets useful instead of being something you’re doomed to not quite grasp, Jezebel might never have to die.

The still point of the title (possibly Jezebel herself, having a snooze) is the axis of the past and the future where the present lives, either fleetingly or forever. And Hillyard’s text, and her graceful lexicon of sign language, together wax poetic and at length on that subject.

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel, At The Still Point. Photo by Tracy Kolenchuk.

The bond between human and animal, which stands well outside the pet-owner relationship, is the driving pulse of Jezebel, At The Still Point. Unlike Jezebel Hillyard wears her heart on her (space suit) sleeve. She steps up fearlessly to sentiment as she reviews the history of Soviet dogs who got sent into space, or remembers the story of doomed dog from Pompeii, or dances to The Way We Were.

And gradually, in Beth Dart’s production, a show that is not without its own puckish sense of humour (witness a fashion show of space suits) cedes to a different tone; the theatrical premise gets tossed, and yields to direct address to the audience. Jezebel has changed her life, Hillyard tells us, in an impassioned ode to love between the species. “She has taught me to slow down and see the beauty in things…. She has taught me to be a better person.”

Quantum physics aside, you can’t help thinking that however heartbreakingly brief a dog’s tenure may be, Jezebel has been awfully lucky, to have such love and creative energy lavished upon her. To be the object of such devotion is a rare thing.

Jezebel remains calm and cool, and not slavishly grateful for the tribute. If Jezebel were an actor on Tony Awards night, she would not be bursting into tears while thanking her agent and her mother. You wonder if she’s wondering. But it’s hard to tell.

REVIEW

Jezebel, At The Still Point

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Bumble Bear Productions

Created by and starring: Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel

Directed by: Beth Dart

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

Running: through Oct. 21

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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No one’s staying home this weekend: why would you? A wealth of choices on E-town stages

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca 

At the U of A’s Studio Theatre, it’s back in the USSR with Lenin’s Embalmers, Vern Thiessen’s black and absurdist 2008 tragicomedy (imagined from a true story) about two competing Jewish biochemists landing the unenviable joint task of preserving for all time the corpse of Lenin. Hey, no pressure, Boris and Vlad: it’s only Stalin giving the order. Talk about redefining gallows humour.   

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Alexander Donovan, an MFA candidate, directs. His cast is led by Doug Mertz, a highly accomplished actor/ director/ voice coach, as Stalin. And the award-winning playwright himself, Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen, puts in a rare stage appearance as Lenin. It opened Thursday and runs at the Timm’s Centre (112th St. and 87 Ave.) through Oct. 20. Tickets: ualberta.ca/artshows.

L’UniThéâtre, E-town’s professional francophone theatre, opens a new season (their 26th) tonight with Fabien Cloutier’s Billy (Les jours de hurlement, in English “days of howling”) in their galleried theatre at La Cité francophone (8627 91 St.). Nancy McAlear directs Carline Lemire, Vincent Forcier and Giselle Lemire. And 12thnight.ca talked to the company’s new artistic director Jöelle Préfontaine about her season, and the show, which runs through Oct. 20. Read about it here. Tickets: lunitheatre.ca.

Tonight, Northern Light Theatre launches the new season with Origin of the Species, a unique two-hand comedy (with trimmings) by the English playwright Bryony Lavery that pairs an archaeologist (Holly Turner) with a four million-year-old woman come to life in the contemporary world (Kristin Johnston). It runs through Oct. 27 at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. 12thnightca talked to NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt about his upcoming season, and the implications of this off-centre season-opener; read it here. And stay tuned for my 12thnight.ca review. Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com. 

At Theatre Network, another unusual pair takes the stage, to launch the Roxy Performance Series. Jezebel, At The Still Point stars the French bulldog of the title and her human companion (actor/playwright/dancer/choreographer Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance Collective) in an exploration of time travel and mortality (especially the canine kind). 12thnight met up with the cast last week; read about it here. The show opened Thursday and runs through Oct 21. Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca. My 12thnight review is coming up.       

At Walterdale, a community theatre that knows no fear of challenge, Barbara Mah directs a cast of 20 in The Triangle Factory Fire Project. The American writer Christopher Piehler revisits, dramatically, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy that cost 146 young immigrant women their lives in Manhattan in 1911. A tale of corporate greed and the kind of inhumane treatment of workers that hasn’t exactly vanished from modern practice. It opened Wednesday and runs at Walterdale’s vintage Strathcona ex-firehall playhouse through Oct. 20. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).

PLUS….

It’s your last chance to catch Once, an oddball charmer of a musical about the life-changing potential of making music. It’s at the Citadel through Sunday. You can meet the director Ann Hodges at 12thnight ca, and read my review here. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com. 

You have till Saturday night to be delighted by the madcap escalations of an original screwball comedy. Teatro La Quindicina’s production of Stewart Lemoine’s Skirts On Fire is cavorting pellmell across and behind the Varscona stage (10329 83 Ave.). Read here about what makes screwballs screwy, courtesy of the playwright and Teatro leading man Andrew MacDonald-Smith. And take a peek at my review here. Tickets: teatroq.com

    

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