‘Immigrants get the job done’: Hamilton’s finally here, in a first-rate touring production

Julius Thomas III (right), Hamilton, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hamilton: it’s epic. It’s crazy rich in its language, music, and theatricality. And it explodes onto the stage with an offer, no, a demand, to focus both history and musical theatre from the outsider perspective.

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It’s been fully seven years (and a wealth, of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize) since the sensational arrival on Broadway of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audacious musical. And a lot has happened in the world (not least to the American mythology of greatness). Hamilton finally arrives in Edmonton, in a first-rate, powerfully performed Broadway Across Canada touring production on the Jube stage. And it will leave you dazzled, and a little dazed, at the achievement of it all — both the broad strokes and the layers of detail. 

I’ve seen Hamilton a couple of times before (like many amongst the cheering (and masked) opening night audience I suspect). But it still had that effect on me. You’ll leave buzzed. 

The story playwright/composer/lyricist Miranda tells — in a wild non-stop swirl of hip-hop, jazz, blues, G&S, rock, pop, musical theatre — is about an impoverished orphan immigrant from the Caribbean, who came to New York “longing for something to be part of” and became one of the American founding fathers. 

Julius Thomas III, Hamilton, Broadway Across Canada tour. Photo by Joan Marcus

Hamilton rose fast. He was an assistant to George Washington, a general in the Revolutionary War, a creator of the federal Treasury, a scholar and a pamphleteering defender of the Constitution. He gets a great delayed entrance in Hamilton, after Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and his arch-rival Aaron Burr review, in rap, this improbable biography.  

Anyhow, the story is, to say the least, an unusual choice of subject matter for the American musical theatre, which has hitherto not given much thought to the Federalist Papers. Hamilton hands over the birth-of-the-nation storytelling to performers of colour. And it gives much of the musical to hip-hop, the street-wise form that comes at you in a sassy barrage of cheeky rhyme, crowded with syllables.   

Hamilton, and Thomas Kail’s production, capture the flow of history in contemporary language, movement, music, and look. Paul Tazewell’s costumes attest to that, with their mix of period costumes and androgynous modern dance gear for the chorus. The cast are set in perpetual motion by Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunningly inventive choreography that takes the story non-stop into the urban whirl of New York, into battle, into backroom politics, “the room where it happens.”

Kail’s stagecraft unspools in a seamless flow of scenes. The room where Hamilton happens, in David Korins’s beautiful design, is lined with wood and brick, with hanging ropes, fold-down staircases, moved by human agency not techno effects. The lighting (by Howell Binkley) has sources like rustic lanterns and candles, and it has dramatic meaning. Characters appear in flickering shadows to command the limelight of history, and disappear into blackness.

At the centre, brilliant, ambitious, brash, maddeningly mouthy, energized (kinda like the musical itself) is Alexander Hamilton. And he gets a superb performance, capturing all those qualities, from Julius Thomas III. “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot,” he declares in song near the outset. Thomas crafts beautifully the arc by which the upstart outsider catapults to success, negotiates tragedy at the intersection of the personal and the political, and then (spoiler courtesy of history) does throw away his shot in a fatal duel with his nemesis Burr.  

Donald Webber Jr. as Aaron Burr, Hamilton, Broadway Across Canada tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Burr, the cautious lawyer who is Hamilton’s rival, a man of careful calculation increasingly smoulders with grievance in the course of time, is something of a tragic figure in Hamilton. And Donald Webber Jr. delivers a performance with real resonance.  

Other stand-outs include Darnell Abraham’s soulful George Washington, and Justin Showell’s a raucously funny double-turn as the Marquis de Lafayette in Act I and a flamboyant Thomas Jefferson, the francophile denizen of Monticello (who never did free his slaves), in Act II.  

 In his recurring cameo As King George III, the monarch who famously lost America and went mad, Rick Negron is great fun. The audience cheered so loudly every time he came onstage that my companion, an independence-minded Scot, wondered if it was partly by dint of performing in a country still tied to British royalty. I’ll have to get back to you on that. 

The women of the production are less distinguished. But Victoria Ann Scovens as Eliza, the wealthy Schuyler Hamilton married and the Milika Cherée as Angelica, the sister he didn’t marry, do deliver their pop ballads feelingly. 

The American Dream, long fractured in the realities of the centuries since 1776, has crumbled into dust lately, as we know in a baleful storm of racism, violence, and right-wing backwardness. It gives Hamilton, with its hand-over of idealism and hope to outsiders, a particularly heart-wrenching quality of loss. “If you stand for nothing,” Hamilton says to Burr in Act I, “what’ll you fall for?” 

As this touring production demonstrates, the resourcefulness of theatre artists at the top of their game, unleashed on a groundbreaker of a musical, turns to stage magic that is human, and essentially low-tech. That’s inspiring in itself. Catch yourself a ticket if you can.

REVIEW

Hamilton

Broadway Across Canada

Book, Music, Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Directed by: Thomas Kail

Choreographed by: Andy Blankenbuehler

Starring: Julius Thomas III, Donald Webber Jr., Victoria Ann Scovens, Darnell Abraham, Justin Showell, Milika Cherée, Rick Negron

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through July 10

Tickets: ticketmaster.com

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Where there’s fire there’s … Smoke: assault, consent and gender in a play with two casts

Jade Robinson, Hayley Moorhouse in Smoke, Tiny Bear Jaws. Photo by Brianne Jang

Gabe Richardson, Jade Robinson in Smoke, Tiny Bear Jaws. Photo by Brianne Jang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Smoke, getting its Edmonton premiere Thursday at Co*Lab, a woman opens her apartment door to discover that the past has showed up.

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Aiden’s -ex is there to confront her about allegations she’s made to a mutual friend that she was sexually assaulted at a university party two years before.

“I’ve never had a play where people have had such different interpretations of both characters,” says playwright Elena Belyea, the artistic director and presiding muse of the sharp-toothed indie theatre Tiny Bear Jaws. Director Jenna Rodgers calls it “a play with two protagonists…. Both characters are likeable and deeply, evidently, flawed. A lot of the work is to continue practising not taking a side.” 

The subject matter of Smoke is flammable, to be sure, and nothing if not timely. And the provocation is further fuelled, intriguingly and unavoidably, by the double casting and considerations of gender. Aiden is played by Jade Robinson and the text remains “98 per cent the same,” says Belyea. But on some nights Jordan is played by a man (Gabriel Richardson), some nights by a woman (Hayley Moorhouse). 

“The casting,” says Rodgers, who’s also the dramaturge, “forces us to think about the way we map reactions onto different bodies.” The actors’ two takes on Jordan, though armed with the same words, are very different. And, Belyea adds, “Jade’s performance is definitely different depending on who she’s playing with…. It’s exciting to see that actors can do so many things with the same text.”

“In a play about sexual assault, the automatic assumption is that the sex of the perpetrator is male and the sex of the victim is female. And that is not always the case.”  

Smoke has smouldered for a long time. It premiered at Downstage Theatre in Calgary in 2019 after development in Toronto, at Nightwood Theatre’s Write From The Hip Playwriting Unit and workshops at Tarragon. But it was in Edmonton that Belyea (Cleave, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, I Don’t Even Miss You) felt the spark that would become Smoke. 

It was Wild Side’s 2016 production of The Realistic Joneses that “blew my head apart,” says Belyea of the odd and oddly funny play by the American writer Will Eno about two couples and the complicated dynamics in perception and language that underpin them. “I went home, still buzzing, and started writing that night.” The scene in which Jordan is at the door asking to come in was the start of Smoke.

The news of the moment contributed to Smoke, too, as Belyea explains — for one thing, allegations about Jian Ghomeshi as a serial sexual abuser; for another, the disastrous Fort McMurray fire. So it started with the encounter between “a woman and her parter trying to unpack together whether a sexual assault occurred,” says Belyea. Then “based on my experience as a queer woman, lamenting some of the assumptions people automatically jump to about gender,” other dramatic possibilities occurred to her. “How would the play would be different if Jordan was played by a woman?”

Would questions of sexual assault, rape and consent be different in queer relationships? Rodgers, who’d worked as a dramaturge on the Downstage production, was fascinated to examine audience assumptions and “the ways an audience might respond differently to the same text. … No matter what mental training we have, no matter what we think we understand about consent.” As she points out, theatre people “just assume we have so much in common…. Smoke is “a very large opportunity to encourage conversation in a community that’s often caught preaching to the choir.” 

Says Belyea “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a show where I hear the audience so much — people having opinions, people being surprised….”

“Both characters are, intentionally, really likeable.” Both the script and Rodgers’ direction “actively disrupt the archetype of what a good survivor looks like, what a potential abuser looks like.” Each version of the play “is made to hold up on its own,” Belyea says. Even if audience members don’t see both versions of the show, just knowing that there’s another cast, other possibilities of presenting the script, changes things. “In a strange little way,” says Rodgers, the three actors “do kind of function as an ensemble.”  

“The main question I had while writing Smoke,” says Belyea, “is what if someone had hurt me, or betrayed me profoundly what would it take for me to forgive them? Or if  I found out I had caused immense harm to someone that I had loved very very much, what lengths would I go to try and repair that?”

At a distance, Smoke, with its serious set-up and subject matter under investigation, might seem like “a 90-minute slog” of a prospect, Belyea says cheerfully. “But it’s also a fun and funny play I think… That’s part of what makes it uncomfortable!”  

And, says Rodgers, “I think there’s an ambitious amount of spectacle for a little space.” You may anticipate talking heads. “But there are also some aesthetic surprises!”

PREVIEW

Smoke

Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws

Written by: Elena Belyea

Directed by: Jenna Rodgers

Starring: Jade Robinson (Aiden), Hayley Moorhouse (Jordan), Gabe Richardson (Jordan)

Where: Co*Lab, 9641 102A Ave.

Running: Thursday through July 1

Tickets: Tiny Bear Jaws 

 

 

 

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Sex in the city, hypocrite puritans, corrupt politicians … who’s ever heard of that? Measure For Measure in the park

Priya Narina and Michael Peng, Measure For Measure, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The opening image of Nancy McAlear’s production of Measure For Measure, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s companion piece to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hawrelak Park this summer, is a male pole dancer in a cage.

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It’s perpetual party time in Vienna (it’s been called Shakespeare’s Sex in the City). “The city,” says a disembodied voice by way of introduction to a genuinely strange and eerily modern play, “is about to come down hard on law-breakers.” 

Ah, but what if the cage is way more threatening than the pole, and the enforcers of righteousness are themselves corrupt? Hypocritical puritans in politics? Ring a bell anyone, in the relentless right-ward drift of the times?

The characters have their moments, but they’re all morally ambiguous. You can call Measure For Measure a ‘problem comedy’: the biggest problem might be the queasy open-ended finale that McAlear takes in hand and reinvents.

Really, Measure For Measure is not an easy play to like. Maybe that’s why Freewill has never staged it before (it’s a gutsy choice for this cast of veterans and newcomers). But, as McAlear’s production demonstrates, it is a play to get caught up in — absorbing in its densely worded, intricate arguments about justice and morality, leadership, order and liberty, the political system and the church.

Measure For Measure, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

In the licentious chaos into which the city has fallen, the Duke (Michael Peng), who’s been a lenient ruler, opts to leave town. And he transfers authority for enforcing disregarded laws to his deputy Angelo (Vincent Forcier), a rigidly upright, cold-eyed moralist whose “blood is very snow-broth.” Then the Duke sticks around, in a monk’s disguise. And you don’t ever quite know why, except that the mystery monk sets in motion a variety of plot devices, like the old bed switcheroo, that lighten the tragic colours. 

The Duke doesn’t have the cajones to do his own dirty work? He’s got a case of workplace burnout, and needs some ‘me time’? He already suspects Angelo of not being the moral purist he claims to be? Or maybe he wants to spy on his home town to suss out the political climate? 

In McAlear’s production, Peng’s intriguing performance, full of silences, hesitations and question marks, suggests a character thinking on his feet, looking for tentative answers to a mystery that might be … himself. Either that, or the Duke has been in therapy too long — it is Vienna after all, the good doctor Freud’s home town. 

Anyhow, the crux of the plot is that in the new puritan climate, a young man Claudio (Yassine El Fassi El Fihri) has been sentenced to death for knocking up his fiancée Juliet  (Dayna Lee Hoffman). And Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella (Priya Narine), a nun-in-progress, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. 

That’s when Angelo, poster boy for probity, finds himself attracted to Isabella and makes a fateful proposition: her brother’s life for her virginity. She’s horrified, and refuses the offer: “more than our brother is our chastity.” Which is an austere line to take, as poor Claudio argues when he changes his mind in a great jail scene between brother and sister. “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, to lie in cold obstruction and to rot….”

Vincent Forcier, Measure For Measure, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

What gives Measure for Measure its disturbing twilight ambiguity is that no point of view can be dismissed outright — all get some heft, in densely worded confrontations or, especially in the case of Angelo, soliloquies. And McAlear’s cast really dig in. In the meaty role of Angelo, the bureaucrat in the conservative brown suit who’s more tempted by resistance than by easy vice as he’s shocked to realize, Forcier conveys an unwelcome sense of discovery. Angelo’s gradual resort to threats is scarily plausible. “Say what you will. My false outweighs your truth.”

Isabella is one of the most challenging “heroines” in the canon, as the quotation marks suggest. She can seem awfully fierce and unappealing. But in her persuasive performance, newcomer Narine mounts Isabella’s arguments to Angelo for mercy with real eloquence: “it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant….” 

As for the comedy in Measure For Measure, the urban demi-monde, fractious and licentious (costumed zestfully by Alison Yanota), is where it’s at, starring a rancid and amusing triumvirate: Brett Dahl as a sassy, dissolute man-about-town, Ian Leung as a smart-mouth worldly pimp, Nadien Chu as the cackling proprietor of a “house of resort” in the ‘burbs. Thanks to the dimbulb Constable Elbow (Troy O’Donnell), a repository of malapropisms, law enforcement is incomprehensible buffoonery.  

And Aaron Macri’s score, which veers between an ominous industrial buzz and thundering party rock, captures a crucial feature of the whole enterprise.  

To say that the ending of Measure For Measure is weird is something of an understatement. McAlear’s production goes to some pains to solve the problem that, after many convolutions, Isabella ricochets from one indecent proposition to another, even more bizarre, from the Duke himself, in and out of disguise. She, along with pretty much everyone onstage, is thunderstruck. In this version, we’ll see the women, all of them wronged in one way or another in the course of the play, moved to bond.  

The reinvented ending solves one problem and leaves another: the Duke himself. As the play closes he tortures everyone by insisting at sadistic length, as both a faux monk and himself, that Claudio has been executed although he hasn’t, and threatening many people, including the kindly jailer (Sarah Gale), with jail time. On preview night Wednesday, a formation of cynical gulls crossed the sky just then, squawking with laughter. 

Peng’s performance, full of subtlety and nuance, has made a good case for the Duke as a conflicted authority figure. But the more he’s in charge, the more manipulative he gets.  Maybe the contradictions of the play, as it explores abuses of male power at every level, are exactly what makes it relevant. In any case, it’s a fascinating and welcome chance to catch a rarely seen Shakespeare play in the great outdoors.

And since the city plans to shut the entire park for three years, a stunning lack of civic creativity, see Freewill at their creative work while you can. 

REVIEW

Measure For Measure

Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2022

Written by: you know who

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Priya Narine, Vincent Forcier, Michael Peng, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Ruth Alexander, Ian Leung, Nadien Chu, Brett Dahl, Kijo Eunice Gatama,  Moses Kouyate, Troy O’Donnell, Meegan Sweet, Dean Stockdale, Dayna Lea Hoffman, Sarah Gale.

Running: through July 10, odd dates and July 10 matinée, alternating with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even dates and most matinée.s

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate  

 

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More about folly than love: A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings Freewill Shakespeare back to the park. A review

Nadien Chu as Titania and Ruth Alexander as Nicky Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz,

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Blow blow thou winter wind…”  oops, wrong play. 

After two years of wandering the town in small-cast entertainments, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back on the big stage in Hawrelak Park. And on Tuesday’s blustery, unremittingly soggy preview night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first of this summer’s alternating Shakespeares, capricious Mother Nature, who always gets an “ambience director” credit in Freewill productions, seemed to have screwed up her cues. You mean, it wasn’t going to be The Tempest? Or maybe Macbeth? Or the shipwreck in Twelfth Night?

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But that’s the fun, and the challenge, of outdoor Shakespeare on a summer’s eve in Edmonton. Sometimes the counter-intuitive impulses are bright sunshine instead of fog on the ghost of Hamlet’s father; sometimes it buckets down on the big festive marriage party at the end of As You Like It.  

You wouldn’t call Dave Horak’s kooky, high-spirited, aerobic production of Shakespeare’s early and most popular comedy — a web of romantic miscues and entanglements woven into no fewer than four plots in intersecting worlds — dreamy, or even Dream-y, exactly. It’s set in a world that’s gone somehow askew. 

Alison Yanota’s set is all wonky angles, brick-faced doorways and bright-coloured panels, a mash-up of the vertical and horizontal, the aftermath of some sort of earthquake perhaps, set down in the park. In a play where Wall is actually a character (later on in the play-within-the-play), one wall has a road with a yellow line going straight up, with a vertically placed manhole cover like a porthole, and a green compost bin sticking out. Characters appear and exit from it, along with lawn chairs, “magic” wands, and assorted props.

Have we perhaps, like a collective Alice, tumbled down the manhole into a world where Titania the fairy queen (Nadien Chu) talks about Nature in chaos, “the whistling wind,” “contagious fogs,” flooding rivers, the altering of seasons? O, wait….

Anyhow, there’s no “bank where the wild thyme blows,” as per fairy king (Ian Leung) Oberon’s idyllic vision. But there is a park, very visible, surrounding us. And as Yanota’s very odd assortment of costumes suggest, the play’s urbanite humans seem to be sprouting. The courtiers, led by Duke Theseus (Leung) and his captive bride Hippolyta (Chu) are growing leaves on their heads, flowers studding their their lapels, branches entwining their cloaks and jackets. Ditto the quartet of Athenian lovers (Freewill newcomers all). The guys, Lysander (Vincent Forcier) and Demetrius (Moses Kouyate), have outsized collars where flowers have popped up. The gals, Hermia (Kijo Eunice Gatama) and Helena (Brett Dahl), are flower shops on legs.  

The fairies are kitted out as the kind of party people who improvise vintage from thrift shops. Puck (Meegan Sweet), the “merry wanderer of the night” and instigator of the romantic mismatching, looks like a dealer in a Vegas casino. And in Horak’s production, fairy magic is deliberately and amusingly low-tech — human you might say.   

Brett Dahl as Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz.

That’s one of the hallmarks of this version of Dream. It’s a romantic comedy that’s more about the nature of human absurdity than the nature of love. The lover plot — four young people ricocheting furiously through the woods ending up with the wrong person and in pursuit of the right person (or vice versa) — is set in motion when a father (Troy O’Donnell as Edges) invokes Athenian law to insist his daughter Hermia (Gatama) either renounce the man she loves (Forcier as Lysander) and marry Demetrius (Kouyate) the man he’s chosen for her — or else die or become a nun, either of which would be a real drag.

Meanwhile Helena (Dahl) has the hots for Demetrius and … but heck, you probably won’t care who ends up with whom. Chemistry isn’t involved. And there is no quiz next period. Andrés Moreno’s pre-show Thou Art Here puppet version of Dream gets a kick out of the plot complications in a little tent at the top of the grassy hill.

Brett Dahl, Moses Kouyate, Kijo Eunice Gatama, Vincent Forcier in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

Humans in love, as Horak’s 15-actor production tells us, are figures of fun, ridiculously overheated, indistinguishable, and on short fuses. Kouyate and Forcier play Demetrius and Lysander as grotesques with no anger-management filters. Forcier, especially, has a streak of the smart-ass sardonic about him, Gatama and Dahl, who translate girly friendship and lovestruck intensity into high-kicking choreographed brawling when crossed (fight direction Anastasia St. Amand, choreography Amber Borotsik). Deep-voiced Dahl gets lots of laughs for Helena’s high-dudgeon outrage at offences against maidenly propriety.   

Meegan Sweet as Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

No wonder Puck is amused, in a detached way, by their dopey antics. Oberon’s fairy fixer is a veritable repository of malicious amusement in Sweet’s original performance. Puck has been at the human circus too long and is a tad jaded. Leung and Chu preside over this world with regal charm, and command the lyrical verse with authority.

As always in Dream, it’s the “hempen homespuns,” the “rude mechanicals,” who tend to steal the show (Matthew Skopyk’s appealing original score adds tuba parts whenever they’re onstage). They’re theatre people wannabes in workers’ construction jackets—  especially Nick (here, Nicky) Bottom the Weaver, a bossy histrionic stage-struck amateur who magnanimously offers to play all the lead roles. Ruth Alexander, equipped with a Scottish accent you could cut a haggis on, is a hoot. 

Their earnest rehearsals for Pyramus and Thisbe, as beleaguered stage manager Peter Quince (Sarah Gale) divvies up the parts, are amusing and even a bit touching in their generosity for fellow talents. It is, in the terms of a later age, a collective creation with amusing audience trigger warnings — all Bottom-ed out by star power.  You do hope they won’t be  reviewed too harshly by the courtiers when they put on their show. 

And when, as an instrument of Oberon’s revenge against his wife, Bottom is magically endowed with an ass’s head and Titania falls in love with him, Bottom effortlessly insinuates himself into the fairy world. And he brings his native bossiness with him. 

It all starts and ends in dancing. Like Pyramus and Thisbe with its prologue, this Midsummer Night’s Dream gets a prologue too — fairy speeches borrowed from Act II. It’s all, Puck says, about mirth and merriment. And, at the moment in our own world, those are words to live by. 

REVIEW

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2022

Written by: you know who

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Ruth Alexander, Ian Leung, Nadien Chu, Brett Dahl, Kijo Eunice Gatama, Vincent Forcier, Moses Kouyate, Priya Narine, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Troy O’Donnell, Meegan Sweet, Dean Stockdale, Michael Peng, Dayna Lea Hoffman, Sarah Gale.

Running: through July 10, even dates and most matinées, alternating with Measure For Measure odd dates and July 10 matinée.

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate  

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Their long journeys to Canada and the shoes they wore: The Shoe Project at Workshop West

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

To understand someone you must first walk a mile in their shoes. The old truism gets renewed and powerful resonance in the performance event happening at Workshop West this weekend.

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In The Shoe Project, Saturday and Sunday at the Gateway Theatre, immigrant and refugee women share their stories of their journeys to Canada — the why, the how, their struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new identity, a new culture — through a pair of shoes. 

As Workshop West artistic director Heather Inglis explains, 11 years ago novelist Katherine Govier started a course for immigrant women. “Since the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto offered free space, the venue inspired the central image that focused the course. The Shoe Project was born in that inspiration.

“It was a super-successful initiative,” says Inglis. In the decade that followed, companies — “not all of them theatres, not all with playwrights as mentors” — across the country took up the idea. She caught up with The Shoe Project in Calgary, at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo in January 2020. 

The experience was unforgettable, she says. “Something about the collecting of voices from around the world, stories about the extraordinary experience of coming to a new country, not knowing the language or the culture, the challenge of learning a language later in life….” 

 “It was so inspirational: the resilience, the perseverance” required to leave one life and be transported to another, says Inglis. “It was narrative, yes, but felt intrinsically theatrical. And I wanted to use the Workshop West platform to amplify it.” 

The result was the Edmonton branch of the national project. And at Workshop West, the mentor has been star playwright Conni Massing. Refugee and immigrant women working on their English were recruited for “a free 10-week course, during which they would write a 600-word story centred on a pair of shoes. “The stories already have a sense of the dramatic; “having a playwright teaching the course gives them a (theatrical) texture,” says Inglis. And since most of the participants have never “performed” (with the exception of a Syrian singer), they got four weeks of coaching in performance by actor/director Alison Wells.

That was two years ago (“feels like 10!” sighs Inglis). Because of the pandemic, the 2021 participants were unable to have a public showing (they previewed online). They’ll be onstage this weekend, along with the 2022 cohorts (the schedule of performances, matinées and evenings, is at workshopwest.org). 

The women come from around the world to be here, and arrive for different reasons, “a huge range of experience and stories,” says Inglis. “Some are fleeing totalitarian governments, or ISIS. Two came here because they fell in love. One woman came because her husband got a job….” Among the women you’ll meet are architects, electrical engineers social workers, a visual artist from Ukraine, a woman whose precipitous exit from Iran was facilitated by the Canadian embassy, a children’s author…. 

Actor/playwright Amena Shehab, a Syrian refugee herself with experience as a journalist and TV producer, coordinated the recruitment of the participants. “Stories of lives written by the women who lived them,” says Inglis of The Shoe Project. “There’s a poignancy to it: these are people living in our community with one degree of separation from the world news.”  

They’re from Afghanitan, Chile, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine, Philippines, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Vietnam, Ukraine. They’ve had major journeys to find a life in Canada. And they’re part of what it means to be Canadian.

PREVIEW

The Shoe Project

Theatre: Workshop West

Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd. 

Running: Saturday and Sunday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. each day

Tickets: workshopwest.org 

  

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Let the journeying begin: Northern Light Theatre announces a new season

Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The journey. After two years of our collective fretfulness — isolation, scrambling on the ground, pivoting on one foot, running on the spot as the world crumbles — theatre’s favourite metaphor gathers new dimensions.

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Journeys, and travelling, get unusual graphic treatment in Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming 47th season of three productions, announced Monday. And along with the trio of plays — two British and one American, all three by playwrights pretty much unknown here — the company has a new general manager to introduce, Bridget Norris-Jones.

Speaking as we are of journeys, Norris-Jones moved this year from Toronto and arrives at NLT with a history that includes both performance (as actor, dancer, and musician) and management credits at such companies as Nightwood Theatre and the SummerWorks festival.

There is journeying at the centre of all three shows in the 2022-2023 lineup, as artistic director Trevor Schmidt explains. The season opener Squeamish, by New York-based playwright Aaron Marks who specializes in the tricky art of “horror for the stage,” as Schmidt puts it, is “a thriller for one person.… Dark and disturbing, and it gets darker and darker.” 

Davina Stewart in Squeamish, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

In this third of Marks’ trio of “mono-tragedies,” a “grotesque tale of phobia and compulsion” as billed, we meet a therapist (Davina Stewart) in her late ‘50s, who leaves New York for south Texas and the funeral of her nephew, who’s died suddenly. A mental disorder clearly runs in the family, and while she’s there, uh-oh, she goes off her medication. 

Schmidt, whose own one-person thriller We Had A Girl Before You ran at Northern Light in 2020, directs the production, which occupies the spooky season time slot Oct. 20 to Nov. 5. Davina Stewart stars as the shrink with her own shrink. 

There are two flight attendants, long-time friends, in Enough by Scottish playwright Stef Smith, which premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2019. Thirty thousand feet above the ground, their professional lives seem organized, well managed. On the ground below them, though, they have a sense that things are falling apart.  

“Both have a sense of dread,” says Schmidt of the existential angst that fuels the play. They feel the ground shudder; they sense apocalyptic change in the air. “They’re overwhelmed by the news, by climate change.… They’re envious of each other’s lives, the one single in a relationship with a (possibly abusive) man and the other married with children.” 

Schmidt was attracted by the formal intricacies of the play, which unspools “in both the first and third person.” As he describes, “they narrate each other’s stories,” and there’s a weave of “choral work, monologues, dramatized scenes” as Enough explores the relationship between the women and the nuances of female friendship. There are only two actors, “but it’s a big show,” he says. “Lots of light, sound, movement (created by Good Women Dance’s Ainsley Hillyard). It’s gonna be very full.” 

“There’s one play every season that really challenges, frightens me.” And Enough is that one, says Schmidt. His Canadian premiere production (Jan. 19 to Feb 5, 2023) stars Kristin Johnston and Linda Grass.

Dayna Lea Hoffman in A Hundred Words For Snow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The season finale A Hundred Words For Snow is one of the trio of solo plays in Heretic Voices, the volume of published monologues that Schmidt mined for Annie Fox’s Woman Caught Unaware. Schmidt directed the latter at last summer’s Fringe, and his production (starring Davina Stewart) has recently run at Victoria’s UNO Festival, with upcoming dates at the Vancouver Fringe. 

Tatty Hennessey’s A Hundred Words For Snow is the story of a teenage girl who undertakes an expedition to the North Pole with the ashes of her late father, who’d always wanted to go to the Arctic. “It’s about grief, loss, family … a beautiful play,” says Schmidt of the 90-minute piece. His production, starring Dayna Lea Hoffman (currently to be seen at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival), runs April 20 to May 6, 2023. 

Additionally, we can catch the Northern Light Theatre production of Mickle Maher’s The Hunchback Variations, slated to run this past January and cancelled due to COVID, at the upcoming Edmonton Fringe. Davina Stewart directs; Ian Leung and Dave Clarke star as Beethoven and Quasimodo, respectively.  

All three Northern Light productions for 2022-2023 happen in the Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barn. And subscriptions are available at northernlighttheatre.com. 

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Under the big top: after two years Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back in the park

Freewill Shakespeare Festival setting up in the Heritage Amphitheatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The geese are milling around backstage in the greenest of green rooms. A crew is planting marigolds on the route between the gate and the stage. The mosquitos are working out their ensemble numbers. Sound cues are floating through the air….

Yes, after two summers on the road the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back home. Back with a cast of 15 human actors (and assorted squirrels), many of them new to the company, in two alternating high-contrast productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure For Measure. And the artistic director, in his signature ball cap, is sitting at a picnic table with his laptop pre-rehearsal, at the top of the rise above the seats in the Heritage Amphitheatre.

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“It’s a hard space to do a show in,” says a smiling Dave Horak, who landed his Freewill gig in 2020 at the very pandemical moment the 33-year-old company had to shut down its big-cast full-length outdoor Shakespeares there. “But as soon as we’re back here we just realize what a unique and beautiful space it is… Being in a big tent so we can run rain or shine! There’s nothing like it in the city!” 

“I’m really hoping Edmonton audiences come and see how much of an event this is!”

There’s poignance attached to this joy. For two years, in a test of agility, the resourceful company has been on the move, light on its feet, with moveable, small-cast Shakespeares in unexpected locales. Last year’s Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth played backyards, parks, and communities, and even went to the Fringe, and they sold out all their performances everywhere they went. “We didn’t have to cancel any shows, for weather or COVID,” says Horak. “Surprisingly it all went off with a hitch.” 

And in its travels Freewill gathered new fans. “Our informal surveys showed that the majority of audiences had never seen our big shows in the park….”

Dave Horak, Freewill Shakespeare Festival artistic director, overlooking the stage pre-rehearsal.

Now Freewill is back in the river valley park where it was born, roughly the same size (and budget of about $650,000)  … for a single summer. Next year, the city plans to close the entire park for three YEARS (unbelievable but true) for renovations. And Freewill will be hunting down another locale, “another park where there won’t be as much space, and doesn’t have a tent…” So, to experience Edmonton’s much-loved outdoor Shakespeare festival in its full fun glory — big set, big cast, concession, puppet versions of the shows, seats under a canopy — the moment is now (June 14 through July 10). 

This summer’s pair of alternating offerings are both called “comedies,” which goes to show how elastic that term can be. Horak directs the romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which counts as Shakespeare’s most popular, and produced, play. He chose it to balance it with Measure For Measure, a so-called “problem comedy” that’s something of a rarity. Nancy McAlear’s directs Freewill’s first ever production of it.

There are Dreams aplenty in the Freewill archive. Horak himself was in the last one, which alternated with King Lear in 2013. “I was one of the fairies, Moonshine I think,” in the comedy where mortals and magic sprites, lovers and courtiers and artisans collide in the woods. In fact, in 1988, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Horak’s first Shakespeare ever — as one of the stage-struck rustics, bellows-mender Flute who plays Thisbe, in Dream’s always riotous play-within-a-play — as a Mount Royal student actor in Calgary’s outdoor Shakespeare that inspired our own festival a year later.

“I’ve never wanted to direct it,” he laughs, “because I’ve done it! As a teenager, as soon as a band I loved got popular I stopped listening to it…. But if I ever was going to direct Dream, I’d want to do it outside.” 

Director Nancy McAlear (right) in rehearsal with actor Kijo Eunice Gatama. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz.

Measure For Measure was McAlear’s choice, an unusual one, and she’s been waiting for the moment for a long time. Ever since she was a theatre student here building props for a Tim Ryan small-cast production a couple of decades ago at the Fringe, the play has fascinated her. Later the Toronto-based actor/director was supposed to be in a university production that didn’t happen. “It’s one of those plays for me; it’s always been in my head.”

“It is a weird play!” says McAlear. “That’s partly what I like about it…. The comedy is so base Shakespeare; the drama is so dark.” The play veers from big-city brothel to nunnery to courtroom. The story wraps around a corrupt justice system, ambiguous political leadership, the knotty moral problem of a virginal heroine who has a chance to rescue her brother from a death sentence for fornication by sleeping with a judge. 

Any play that makes a director wonder ‘what do I do with this?’ is intriguing, says McAlear, who hasn’t been at the festival since acting in the 2015 pairing of Coriolanus and As You Like It. With Measure For Measure she started with an image (the facade of a building sliding off to reveal the toxic ruin beneath) and the problematic ending, and worked backwards. The setting? “the not-so-distant future.” 

As both McAlear and Horak point out, the world has taken care of Measure For Measure’s continuing relevance. Things seem to be spinning backwards into the past, as the rise of the hard right and the Roe vs. Wade overthrow attest. As Horak notes, “there’s nothing about the plot that’s inconceivable now…. You think it’s fantasy, and … whoa!”  

As for Dream, there’s been no shortage of interpretations in the last 400 years. “For me, it’s been pulled apart and done so many different ways in many great and important versions, from Peter Brook to Julie Taymor, I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Horak, who sets his production in “a fantastical post-apocalyptic kind of world; the world has fallen, something has happened.” 

Freewill Shakespeare Festival artistic director Dave Horak (left) in rehearsal with Ian Leung and Nadien Chu. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

But he was at pains to keep things light and fun in his production, he says. “We’ve been working on really playing silly and goofy. Which has been hard this last little while.” He’s been in productions of Dream where there are more edges, he says. The raw material is there: marriage is problematic, people get drugged, the patriarchy is strong. The play, after all, opens with a captive bride and death threats. There’s jealous rage; there’s talk of climate change and the drift towards chaos. “All valid,” says Horak. “But that’s not this one. We haven’t shied away; the text is there…. If we pull it off, it’ll seem very light and easy, But that’s been hard.”  

Of his concept of the fairies Horak says “I flipped it around a little bit” There are versions where the fairies are leather-bar toughies; sometimes they’re acrobats, or malicious demons, or winged sprites in ballet dresses. Horak’s idea, as he explains, is that “the fairies come from the audience; they are the audience, and they look like regular people… but they have magic. They are magic.”

“I don’t want to get too sentimental, but being back after so long without an audience … the audience really is the magic.”

PREVIEW

Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2022

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure For Measure

Directed by: Dave Horak, Nancy McAlear

Starring: Priya Narine, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Troy O’Donnell, Meegan Sweet, Dean Stockdale, Nadien Chu, Moses Kouyate, Michael Peng, Dayna Kea Hoffman, Brett Dahl, Ian Leung, Vince Forcier, Ruth Alexander, Sarah Gale, Kijo Gatama

Running: June 14 to July 10 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream even dates and most matinées; Measure For Measure odd dates and July 10 matinée)

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate

 

 

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Re:Construct, at RISER, is a celebration of self in trans-it. A review

Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam in Re:Construct, RISER 2022. Photo by Brianne Jang

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Welcome!” declare the beaming go-for-the-gusto duo who greet us in Re:Construct. “You are SO SO SO … valid.”

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Valid! Hurray! Unless, of course, we’re not. Ah, there’s the rub: All good! Relax! “Do whatever it takes!” — unless we make other people “uncomfortable.” 

“There are no wrong answers … but if you do it wrong….” That’s the crux of Even Gilchrist’s clever and insightful new play, premiering as part of RISER Edmonton 2022. Re:Construct is a playful, theatrical, very personal de:construction (a much-too sombre word for the fun of being in the audience) of gender — and on the notions of perfection that underpin it. To be trans in a world of gender orthodoxies is to be undermined  by doubts and un-validating signals.

In the conception of Gilchrist, a queer trans writer/designer with a witty purchase on theatricality, we’re at a celebration of Self. There’s  even a cake and party hats. Émanuel Dubbeldam and Geoffrey Simon Brown are a trans man and his idealized cis alter-ego, an endearingly nerdy study in physical contrast (the one compact, the other tall and leggy). They speak in unison, a jaunty two-person chorus of upbeat affirmative solidarity — until their voices separate under the pressure of perfectibility. 

I don’t want to spoil your fun, so I’ll be vague. Except to say that the pair invite the audience to join in thinking about body images, and the actors are delightful and funny.  

Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam in Re:Construct, RISER 2022. Photo by Brianne Jang

In its high-spirited way, Re:Construct is the chronicle, a funny and poignant theatrical diary, of a trans man reviewing his beleaguered past self, and wanting to embrace that youthful quester. He’s still shaken by the trauma of being outed on a rugby field (“I begged for death”). Shame and lovelessness are overwhelming: mere survival seems the only reasonable goal and invisibility the only viable option. 

So he disappears, even to his own view. “I don’t feel real,” he tells us, under a barrage of images of perfect male pulchritude (the projection and set design is by Gilchrist). Whittyn Jason’s lighting, a story in itself, flickers between heightened brightness and the romantically celebratory, and every once in a while catches a face, mid-second thought, in silhouette.

It’s when the characters share the memory of a magical moment of sheer, exhilarating romance under the stars, that a life-giving sense of possibility glimmers. “This feeling is possible? I am possible? I could carve myself anew?”

Émanuel Dubbeldam and Geoffrey Simon Brown in Re:Construct, RISER 2022. Photo by Brianne Jang

As “a love letter to my younger self,” Re:Construct is powered by a puckish, surprisingly sturdy sense of absurdity that gives Sarah J Culkin’s production its unusual funny/sad tone and lightness of touch. Hoping for instructions on “how to become the voice inside my head,” our protagonist Googles authenticity and “better ways to be more real.” Understanding the galaxy doesn’t mean connecting the dots in a clichéd way and arriving at the Big Dipper; it means “tilting your perspective” until a powerful new image emerges.

It’s a good day, the pair tells us. The best of all possible days since, against all the odds,  “today I might start to believe in my own invention.” 

Heartbreaking and hopeful, an unexpected show you shouldn’t miss. 

REVIEW

RISER Edmonton 2022  

Re:Construct

Written by: Even Gilchrist

Directed by: Sarah J Culkin

Starring: Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam

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

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

 

  

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Trying to ‘do gender right’ through the trans lens: Re:Construct, at RISER

Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam in Re:Construct, RISER Edmonton 2022. Photo by bb collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Playwright Even Gilchrist was in full producer mode at home one morning last week, making a cake for his new play.

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The play? Re:Construct, premiering Wednesday at the Backstage Theatre in RISER Edmonton’s 2022 series. The cake? “the coveted and illustrious rainbow cake mix from the Dollar Store…. Yes, Betty Crocker is coming through today.” 

Be afraid, very afraid, for the cake. The two people we meet in Gilchrist’s Re:Construct have a jostling, playful, competitive relationship with each other and with The Onlookers (that’s us, the audience). Well really, you can’t expect their views on gender, or their pictures of perfect masculinity, to jibe; one of them is a trans man and the other is his idealized cis self.

A “queer, trans theatre creator and designer” by his own description,  Gilchrist, who’s droll and thoughtful, explains that the impetus for Re:Construct came at “a weird impasse of my life.” In 2018, he got a lottery slot at the Ottawa Fringe. “I didn’t think I’d get it,” he laughs. “And then I said ‘O no O no…. Maybe this is a chance for me to write a play, not about me being trans but about a trans experience. And that’s what I did.”

Since Gilchrist immediately set forth west after that run, to do a master’s degree in theatre design at the U of A (Edmonton audiences have seen his designs in The Mountain Top and Bloomsday at Shadow Theatre), the play “became a document sitting in my laptop for a couple of years.” Until now. As he puts it, “he’s been re-investigating and re-delving into what the play was, and what it means to me now.” The “was” and the “is” of the play are very different, he says. And it’s mainly because his feelings about sharing his trans identity openly aren’t the same now. At the time “it was me being more stealth.” 

Designer/ theatre creator/ scenographer Even Gilchrist. Photo by Brianne Jang, bb collective.

“It was aways a two-hander, never just me onstage baring my soul onstage by myself,” says Gilchrist, who was in the original version himself. “It was always less about ‘the Even Gilchrist experience’, and more about coming to terms with being trans when you don’t want to be.” And the work he shared with the director/dramaturge in Ottawa was to make it  “more of a play and less of a poetry slam dunk.”

“At the time I didn’t want to be known, or perceived, as trans,” says Gilchrist, who has a cheerful candour about him. His friends knew him as a queer artist, but a lot of them didn’t know the trans content of his story. “This was me coming to address and love that part of myself with that play — and sharing it with everyone else.” 

He thinks now that the first version of the play was “very heartfelt and earnest … but way more saccharine” In any case it was a bold move, and brave, to take that personal tension onto the stage in a play. “I was at a crossroad in my life. I was so deeply unsatisfied with my relationships because I never felt people knew me — because I wouldn’t let them get to know me in a true way. A lot of things I couldn’t actually talk about with people because I didn’t want to be outed.” 

By the time Re:Construct hit the Ottawa Fringe, Gilchrist’s family knew, and he’d come out to his friends. And the play, he says, was “the final push to say ‘I’m actually OK with being perceived this way’, to find a way to celebrate that part of the person’” It was, he says “so empowering, and I found such amazing, beautiful, wonderful human beings because of it.”

RISER, a national initiative dreamed up by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre to support indie artists, has been a wonderful boost to re-thinking his play (“it’s the only reason I can actually concentrate on being an artist and not everything else!”). And so is his cast (both Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam are innovative playwrights themselves). “They have a lot to offer, including their own experience.”  

Geoffrey Simon Brown, Émanuel Dubbeldam in Re:Construct, RISER Edmonton 2022. Photo by Brianne Jang, bb collective

Under Sarah J. Culkin’s directorship (and dramaturgy) Re:Construct is funnier now than it was, says the playwright, who identifies, puckishly, as an “experimentalist” (witness his Puppet Pub Crawl at the Found Fest in 2021). “Before, there was levity, yes, but I would say not a lot a lot of opportunities to laugh.” And, when you think about it for more than two minutes, as Gilchrist says, “the conceit of gender and gender roles is very absurd” — and not just for queer and trans people.

The subject invites a comic touch, he says. “For me, gender isn’t by any stretch of the imagination dead. It’s not unimportant for so many people, and so not to be erased from conversations. But the appointment of gender by other people, for the convenience of other people, is just ridiculous! When people tell you what you are….”

Both characters in Re:Construct, the trans man and his cis self, “are trying to do gender capital-R Right. And it’s for the Onlookers to decide.” 

Gilchrist sighs. “People are upset if you do things outside the box and they don’t how to label you any more. ‘You look like a girl but you’re saying you’re a boy, and I don’t know what to do with that, so you need to change something about yourself before I can understand’.”

As to whether society or not is finally growing up and out of its  neediness about labelling people, Gilchrist pauses. “Yes and No,” he thinks. “With the age of information, there’s more access to understanding, more chances for people to understand things beyond their experience…. But at the same time there’s still so much anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-woman feeling, people digging their heels in” — arguably more and more, witness the relentless drift to the right across the border. 

“It honours us as humans to address the complexity of human beings.” 

PREVIEW

RISER Edmonton 2022  

Re:Construct

Written by: Even Gilchrist

Directed by: Sarah J Culkin

Starring: Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam

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

Running: Wednesday through Sunday

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

 

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Creation and destruction: the story of an artist in Stone and Soil, at Nextfest. Meet playwright Gabby Bernard

Gabby Bernard in Stone and Soil, Nextfest 2022. Photo by Amanda Goldberg.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s not random chance that the role Gabby Bernard wrote for herself in her first full-length solo play is an artist character. It’s a sign of the age.

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After all, theatre artists have had two years of punishing isolation to wonder, to doubt, to reassess their profession, their talent, their place in the world. And the 19th century French sculptor Camille Claudel, we meet in Stone and Soil, opening Sunday at Nextfest, spent years in self-imposed lock-up in her studio. Not only did she doubt her own work as an artist, she destroyed it, over and over. 

“What drives a person to destroy their own work? Where does that anger come from? What level of loss and grief, and not getting the life you think you deserve?”

Bernard discovered Claudel on an art museum immersion trip to Paris just before the pandemic. It was a tiny sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay that caught Bernard’s eye. Of the three figures grouped in The Age of Maturity, the one in the middle, as Bernard describes, ‘is a young woman reaching out to a man who’s turned away. Over their shoulders is an older woman hunched over above them….” The blurb below explained that Claudel was a brilliant artist in her own right but better known as a more famous artist’s lover and muse. 

Gabby Bernard in Stone and Soil, Nextfest 2022. Photo by Erin Pettifor.

“The image really struck me,” says Bernard, most recently seen by Edmonton audiences as another troubled artist character, in Michelle Robb’s Tell Us What Happened at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. The piece, she says, “is often interpreted as (representing) the relationship between Rodin and Claudel; the looming figure is the woman he wouldn’t leave for her, the woman who tore them apart.”

A MacEwan University musical theatre grad with a BFA in acting from the U of A, Bernard tucked the character into the back of her mind. Or perhaps Claudel invited herself there, and moved in. And when the pandemic struck down live theatre in early 2020, Claudel and her tragic story were Bernard’s inspiration to turn to writing.  

“At the time I was heartsick about not being in a theatre with others, not knowing when the next project would be, thinking if I could write a role for myself, what would it be? I kept coming back to her….”

“I was drawn to her boldness, her sensuality,” says Bernard. “And there was a stubborn-ness about her. You had to be so settled in your convictions, so passionate … there were so many obstacles.”

Gabby Bernard, Stone and Soil, Nextfest 2022. Photo by Erin Pettifor.

Claudel’s story, in movies and novels, “is always structured that she fell in love, had her heart broken, went mad, locked herself away, got dragged away to an asylum” where she spent the rest of her life…. I was interested in picking that apart a bit.” What she was moved to explore was the way “history has often shortchanged talented opinionated women,” relegating them to the male shadow. “They’re not taken quite seriously, not given the support they need, ultimately shunted off to the side.” 

Bernard has found Claudel “a big challenge to embody… as an actor and a writer.” She fashioned Stone and Soil, workshopped online in last year’s digital edition of Nextfest, as a ghost story of sorts. A ghostly incarnation of the artist returns to her final studio, smashing her sculptures over and over.” In the play she’s addressing “the other woman,” the lover Rodin wouldn’t leave — and the audience is collectively cast in that role.

Stone and Soil isn’t Bernard’s debut in writing. “I wrote a lot as a kid — short stories, poetry … my introduction to storytelling.” Then acting took over. “And in the last couple of years, I’ve picked up writing again,” she says of the challenge of “adapting narrative storytelling into theatrical storytelling.” 

The proverbial “learning curve” and “journey of self-discovery” find a natural home at Nextfest, as Bernard has discovered. She’s been at the festival before. First it was as an actor: “my  first Nextfest show after graduating (in 2018) was Mark Vetch’s Pretty Boy The Musical.” In 2019 she co-wrote a small cabaret piece for Nextfest’s clown festival, exercising her attraction to “bouffon style clowning,” dark and satirical.    

“There are so many creative young artists in this city, And Ellen (Nextfest director Ellen Chorley) and the whole team create an environment to try things out,” says Bernard. “It’s great to have the support and the platform to take artistic risks…. A lot of things are taken care of at Nextfest. So we have more time and room to do the creative things!”   

“My first full-length piece in a brand new theatre! How exciting is that?”

Stone and Soil runs Sunday, and also June 7, 11 and 12 on the Lorne Cardinal stage in the new Roxy Theatre. Tickets and times: nextfest.ca.

 

 

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