But hark, a new play! Thou Art Here at Freewill Shakespeare Festival

But Hark, A Voice!, Thou Art Here Theatre (2017 workshop production). Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“For the long and short is, our play is preferred….”  (IV, ii, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

In one of the most reliably hilarious (and heartwarming) sequences in all of Shakespeare, a co-op of serious and inept amateurs are working on a show. 

From the first read-through through rehearsal to opening night at court, the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, applying themselves vigorously to “the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” have brought down the house.

“It’s my favourite part of one my favourite plays,” says the actor/playwright Ben Stevens. It’s the inspiration for But Hark, A Voice!, premiering this week as part of this year’s imminent 30th anniversary edition of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival.

Stevens is a core member of Thou Art Here, the ingenious , indie-minded “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare company, who are all about taking the Bard to the people, in unexpected “found” spaces. “We wanted to tell a bit more of their story,” he says of the artisans led by a bossy weaver, Bottom, who magnanimously offers to play all the parts.

Stevens “started pulling lines and phrases” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and created an arc. Instead of Bottom, the perennial scene-stealer who “talks the most and gets lots of laughs,” as director Neil Kuefler puts it, But Hark, A Voice! highlights Flute. He’s the shy bellows-mender who gets assigned the girl part, Thisbe, and isn’t thrilled about it.

“There’s a lot to heart and fear and honesty about him,” says Stevens. “He’s embarrassed about playing a girl…. We know he’s disappointed. But he gets there in the end. I try to turn up his discomfort and fear. And Neil turns up his buying into the play…. Flute is hesitant, nervous, excited, then fully committed.” 

Which says something about the seductive embrace of theatre. As Stevens laughs, theatre is “more fun if you really go for it. Says Kuefler, “it’s why we do what we do: theatre is for everybody. This is about the community of theatre. And it’s exciting.”

“For the first few scenes they’re in rehearsal. And things go awry,” says the director. The mechanicals have to impress the festival director before the Hawrelak Park fairies reduce their plans to chaos.

But Hark, A Voice!, Thous Art Here workshop production 2017. Photo supplied.

As Edmonton audiences know from such Thou Art Here productions as Much Ado About Nothing at Rutherford House, the company is playful about crossing gender lines. Here, in the the interests of “making things more equitable” (there are exponentially more male than female parts in Shakespeare), Bottom is played by a woman (Monica Maddaford). And so is Flute (Christina Nguyen). Bonus: there’s a fascinating theatrical complexity, as Stevens points out, about “a woman playing a boy afraid of being a woman.”

You’ll be on the move with the actors. “We’re trying to embrace all parts of the site,” says Kuefler of the roving production in which the audience meets just outside the main gate of the Heritage Amphitheatre complex in Hawrelak Park. Yes, you’ll be seeing the mysterious backstage.

 It’s the fifth year Thou Art Here has collaborated with the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Before the mainstage performances, as a service to the plot-challenged, they do larky puppet versions — “the world premiere of a whole new set of puppets!” says Kuefler — of the plays we’ll see, this year A Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. “They’ve been so generous in welcoming us,” Kuefler says of the festival. “This year we have a tent all to ourselves!”

You wonder which are trickier, in creating puppet versions of Shakespeare, the  comedies or the tragedies? Surprisingly, Stevens says Hamlet “is a little bit easier; it’s easier to make jokes about the heavy stuff…. With A Comedy of Errors, the jokes are already there.” 

“We want to make it accessible,” says Kuefler. “It’s all about having fun with Shakespeare.”


But Hark, A Voice!

Theatre: Thou Art Here at Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Written by: Ben Stevens

Directed by: Neil Kuefler

Starring: Christyina Nguyen, Monica Maddaford, Alyson Dicey, Taylor Chadwick, Mohamed Ahmed, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Meet at main gate, Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: June 23 through July 14. For full schedule and tickets see thouartheretheatre.comPuppet versions of Hamlet and A Comedy of Errors run June 21 and 22, Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sunday matinees. 

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What to see at Improvaganza: thoughts from sampler night

Dark Side of the Room at Improvaganza 2018. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Improvaganza is back — and with it the chance to be with people, onstage and off- who are making it up as they go along. 

Rapid Fire Theatre’s 18th annual international extravaganza, which assembles top improv and sketch comedy acts from around the world (and match-makes them when they get here) opened its 10-day run Wednesday night with a sampler show of excerpts. 

So here I am, back to suggest some possibilities for your #GANZA 2018 entertainment. And also to report that Improvaganza is a veritable repository for great T-shirts of diverse provenance (Paul Blinov’s Live Deliciously, for example; much to ponder there).

What Resonance got from the audience was a suggestion for “a poetic image. So, “a burnt newspaper.” And what this startlingly gifted Edmonton duo (Joel Crichton, Marguerite Lawler) did with it was improvise a complete, fully-formed and -crafted, blues-y song based on the death of the newspaper industry and the time-honoured tradition of reading the paper. “I’m feelin’ like yesterday’s news.” Perfect for media night.

Come Ova! is, as billed, “Queens’ first and only improvised sitcom’. What the New York troupe wanted from the audience was a possible episode title, like The Proof is in the Pudding or Fluffy’s Dead. What transpired was a family game of rummy, with a track of bickering and kibitzing and commentary on a stream of domestic free association. Hey, just like home — only very funny.

Rapid Fire’s Blinov, who’s naturally a very droll performer of the understated stripe, stepped in as a replacement for Devon Henderson in the Toronto duo Twoson. And he and Jackie Twomey did an amusing scene set (at an audience suggestion) in the smoke pit outside a high school — between the principal and a nerdy social underachiever kid.

Marv N’ Berry’s DJ audition sketch was a hoot. The “international ensemble” consisting of improvisers from, well, everywhere who basically met for the first time onstage, went the surreal route, with possible embedded allusions to the rude mechanicals’s scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.… There was a wall, and people lived in it and came out of it.

Judging by Dark Side of the Room’s contribution to the evening, you mustn’t miss their Saturday night showcase. They’re an ensemble of engaging African-American improvisers from Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage, a sister company to Rapid Fire. And their inspired premise, which has a satirical kick to racial stereotypes built in, is to imagine classic white scenarios as if they were populated by black characters. “Something you don’t think black people know about” was their request to the audience. Country music, a brunch gone wrong.” Very funny, and with an edge.

Sphinxes, a top-drawer ensemble of women and non-gender-conforming performers from Rapid Fire , did a high-speed round of “that reminds me of the time …”  It’s a sort of baton-passing tag-team of unravelling free-association that started, in this iteration, with “cellphone” and travelled far and wide.

Success 5000 is an original musical comedy duo well worth seeking out. Their sketch showcase is Sunday night.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photo supplied.

I’m here to tell you that if you have a chance to see Showstopper! The Improvised Musical from a virtuoso English company that includes Adam Meggido, don’t blow it.  They’re dazzling. Their other show, The Society of Strange, sounds dauntingly difficult — something it shares with Improbotics, an experiment by Rapid Fire’s brainiac Kory Mathewson which combines improv and artificial intelligence (no kidding!).

The Society of Strange is devoted to the bizarre and sinister kind of storytelling made famous by H.P. Lovecraft. How can anyone possibly improvise suspense? Check out my 12thnight.ca interview with Meggido.

As for the Theatresports party of Improvaganza, the coveted trophy, the Stanley Cup of improv, was on display Wednesday night, as incentive to improvisers in the crowd. Personally constructed by Schuurman (he says), it’s an impressively towering and triumphal three-layer, er, object, that devotes itself vigorously to the concept of recycling. It includes a high school boys’ band trophy, and several trophies pertaining to high-impact sports such as bowling. Or was it curling? 

Improv knows no seasons, my friends. As co-hosts Julian Faid and Matt Schuurman (Rapid Fire’s artistic director) revealed, Rapid Fire has a hand (and artists) in some 14 Fringe shows in August. It should be a pretty crazy, unpredictable summer. 

Improvaganza 2018 runs through June 23 in a variety of venues at the Citadel. Consult rapidfiretheatre.com for show descriptions and a schedule.

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The art of spontaneity enters a disturbing new dimension: The Society of Strange comes to Improvaganza 2018

The Society of Strange, at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Unlikely. Improbable. Unpredictable.

Improvaganza, the 10-day festival with bona fide global connections, expressly devoted to the adrenalized art of the spontaneous, is all of that. With The Society of Strange, arriving from across the pond for the 20-act 18th annual edition of Rapid Fire Theatre’s festivities go a step further into unpredictability.

“It’s an experiment,” says the English improv star Adam Meggido on the phone from London. “An investigation into whether we can make improv spooky.”

“Even with the big resurgence of popularity in improv all over the world, people still think of improv, generally, as comedy. And a lot of it is. Which is great.” The Society of Strange is an exploration of “the weird, the out-there,” as the genial Meggido puts it. “Can we disturb whilst improvising?”

The challenge of the improbable isn’t something new to Meggido and his English cohorts. After all, they launched such improbable improv initiatives as the full-length “utterly bespoke” Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Ten years (and a thousand performances) old, it was the first  — and remains the only — improv show in the world to be nominated for, and win, a major theatre award (an Olivier, the English Tony) for its West End production — on a night when the audience suggestions included the Bee Gees, The Sound of Music, and Hamilton.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photo supplied.

Edmonton audiences have a chance to see Showstopper! in action, in a six-actor-plus-live musician edition. The show, which tours and has regular dates at the Lyric Theatre in the heart of London’s theatreland, has an Improvaganza berth June 22, en route to its annual return to one of the largest venues at the Edinburgh Festival, the Pleasance Grand.

Meggido, along with Sean McCann, both familiar to Edmonton audiences from Die-Nasty’s Soap-A-Thon appearances and Freewill Shakespeare Festival fund-raisers, continues to tour an eerily virtuostic show called Rhapsodes. The pair acquire real-life stories from the audience. And then, based on them, these masters of difficult poetic metres custom-make the play that William Shakespeare somehow didn’t get around to writing, whether comedy, tragedy, history, or romance.

Meanwhile, with The Society of Strange, there’s a venture beyond improv comedy into improv in other disturbing dimensions.    

“Sometimes it’s very funny,” says Meggido of The Society of Strange. “Sometimes it just switches and becomes really strange and sinister. And we never quite know where that line is…. It’s a question of listening to the audience, and trying to decide which way to go, depending on how they’re reacting.”

As he explains, the inspiration for The Society of Strange — in which the intrepid Meggido and three cast-mates spin two or three tales of the strange and sinister on the spot from audience suggestions — is the “Weird Tales movement, which came to the fore in the 1920s and ’30s with writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood….”

Along with Mary Shelley, Stephen King, the purveyors of Black Mirror, you could call them horror-meisters. But, like the tales of their great progenitor and godfather Edgar Allan Poe, their work is more nuanced than that. “They’re somewhere between horror, fantasy, and sci-fi,” says Meggido. “Strange tales that are unsettling, and not explained. Not neatly tied up. Something like David Lynch.”

Adam Meggido, The Society of Strange. Photo supplied.

In impulse, The Society of Strange is “in so many ways, (downright) anti-improv….” muses Meggido. “You have to do all the opposites to traditional improv, where you agree very quickly to create the same reality onstage. But in The Society of Strange, we’re trying to create slightly different realities.”

Meggido himself is particularly drawn, he says, to the tales of the Blackwood, many of them set in Canada as it happens. “The most terrifying story I known is The Wendigo … the only book I’ve had to put down because it scared me so much. Extraordinary. ” And he’s a fan, too, of the world of the American Thomas Ligotti.

For the Improvaganza showcase June 21, The Society of Strange is joined by Edmonton improv virtuoso Mark Meer, whose knowledge of the “world of weird,” and in particular the H.P. Lovecraft canon, is, as Meggido says, vast and deep. “What lies at the core of them is inexplicable, the world of the other. You’re gripped. But to try to understand, to really comprehend, is to go mad!”

Since lighting and sound are huge contributors to the genre as it lives onstage, The Society of Strange travels with design improviser Chris Ash. “We take a suggestion (from the audience) before each story, and sometimes we might even ask the audience to share something odd, something that’s happened to them, as a lever.”

Creating fright isn’t easy in the live theatre. Meggido, who reports that The Society of Strange is experimenting with one-a-month podcasts recorded live in front of an audience, thinks it’s because “unnerving people requires such a suspension of disbelief..…” In order to buy in, “you have to really immerse yourself in what’s going on.”

“It’s the most challenging form you can put onstage, I think…. And that’s why we’re doing it!”

The Society of Strange showcase is June 21 (10 p.m.); Showstopper! The Improvised Musical runs June 22 (8 p.m.). For the full schedule and description of Improvaganza shows, check out http://rapidfiretheatre.com


Improvaganza 2018

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Where: the Citadel — Zeidler Hall, Citadel Club, Citadel Bentley Salon A, Foote Theatre classroom C

Running: tonight through June 23

Tickets and schedule: rapidfiretheatre.com

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A season on Edmonton stages: a look back

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop at Theatre Network. Photo by Jason Stang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the opening scene of Jabberwocky, the latest from the Old Trout Puppet Workshop (at Theatre Network this past season), a drum roll announces the parting of a red velvet theatre curtain. Which opens to reveal another red velvet theatre curtain. Which opens to reveal yet another….

And finally, ta-dah, a world  — with its own mysteries and logic,  its own way of engaging with us. That’s live theatre for you.

Onegin, the playful Canadian rock musical hit that arrived in the Catalyst season from Vancouver’s Arts Club, had something of that same thought. At the outset the ensemble gathers on a stage (overhung with red velvet curtains), and gazing upwards at a theatre sky lit by chandeliers and constellations of twinkling lights, sings a theatre prayer: “Send us a good time.” (They did).

Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

Hold that thought as we look back, in a highly selective way, at what happened in Edmonton theatres this past season.

2017-2018 was a season when …

•two of the most memorable productions, Betroffenheit and Onegin, came from elsewhere. A third, the strangely haunting Jabberwocky, was built and premiered here at the invitation of Theatre Network. And a fourth, Hadestown, worked on and unveiled a new version of itself here at the Citadel, a highly unusual collaboration between New York producers and Edmonton’s largest playhouse with a view to a Broadway run and, first, dates at the National Theatre November through January. 

•Edmonton got a new theatre (the spiffy 415-seat Triffo Theatre in MacEwan University’s airy Allard Hall), and a new comedy club/ restaurant a block off Whyte on 81st Ave. and 100 Street. The Grindstone, a 75-seat theatre and licensed restaurant, is the work of Grindstone Theatre, an improv/musical theatre company which evidently takes its name seriously.

It takes a triple-threat: In a city that is congenitally unable to get a bridge or an LRT line finished even approximately on time, the Grindstone, led by the evidently indefatigable Byron Martin, is already up and running — either producing or hosting improv, sketch comedy, stage plays and musicals, improv and theatre classes. Six nights a week.

The QEII is not the wall. Azimuth Theatre, born collaborators, launched two unusual initiatives this past season. One is the bi-city Alberta Emerging Company Showcase with Calgary’s Downstage. Cardiac Theatre’s premiere production of Michaela Jefferey’s post-apocalyptic proposition The Listening Room, which played both cities, was the result. The other, an Escape Room version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen, was developed by pros alongside high school theatre kids. 

•Edmonton audiences got introduced to the work of the Dutch star playwright Lot Vekemans when Wild Side Productions took on her hit Poison, a two-hander about the lingering, possible indelible, aftermath of loss — and the mystery of who moves forward who stays trapped.   

Non-news of the day (money, money, money.) A showbiz axiom: Till the last dancing queen among us has hung up the last dancing pump, Mamma Mia!, will always play to sold-out houses. a sort of production/fund-raiser combo. And as for the ABBA score, there is no known antidote. So it’s a matter of paying the price and having the fun you knew you’d have.

•The Conservative party in Alberta gave a jolt of renewed topicality to an old play when they took against gay-straight alliances in school. In this oppressive backward step, suddenly, Shakespeare’s R&J, a rebellious initiative inside a repressive regime (produced by Kill Your Television Theatre) took on renewed relevance in the Kill Your Television Theatre revival, and felt more dangerous, more now

MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OF THE SEASON (a selection, in no particular order)

Jonathon Young, centre, in Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot/ Electric Company Theatre. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Betroffenheit: A harrowing, insightful, and breathtakingly theatrical  exploration of the title condition — shock, bewilderment, paralysis — that follows great trauma. The international dance/theatre touring hit, is a collaboration between the playwright (and star) Jonathon Young of the Electric Company and choreographer/director Crystal Pite. And the five powerhouse dancers from her Kidd Pivot company are astonishingly expressive in setting forth the emotional narrative. Riveting. Kudos to the Brian Webb Dance Company and the Citadel for joining forces to bring it here.

Onegin: Playful, theatrically witty, hot-blooded, the Canadian indie rock musical, a Vancouver Arts Club production brought here by Catalyst Theatre whose theatrical aesthetic is clearly in sync , told its 19th century tale in a thoroughly engaging contemporary fashion.

Hadestown. Photo by David Cooper.

Hadestown: At the Citadel, in collaboration with New York producers, a journey to the Underworld richly imagined in both visual imagery (director Rachel Chavkin) and the music and poetry of Anaïs Mitchell’s memorably lush, jagged, jazzy song cycle. They set forth a question for our time: what would we give up for security? 

Jabberwocky: O frabjous day! At Theatre Network, the premiere of a strange and soulful new  piece by Calgary’s highly original puppetry reinventors, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, whose work has always grappled with the largest of existential questions, like death or happiness, or art. This latest, spun from Lewis Carroll’s great nonsense poem, was a coming-of-age quest, with a hero off to confront our primal, inherited fears. Populated by human-scale rabbits, and storybook cut-outs, it was a strange and wonderful mash-up of pop-art and Victorian toy theatres. 

•The Humans: Stephen Karam’s unnervingly funny and melancholy Tony Award-winner, a group portrait of a family under duress in the fearful, stress-filled, uncertain post-9-11 landscape, got a top-drawer production (the Citadel and Canadian Stage) from director Jackie Maxwell.

Nathan Cuckow, Amber Borotsik in Poison, Wild Side Productions. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Poison: Jim Guedo’s Wild Side production was beautifully calibrated (and acted by  Amber Borotsik and Nathan Cuckow) to chart the course of a relationship irreparably damaged by the loss and grief. Though moving, it was, oddly enough, not a weeper — instead, a fascinating exploration of two reactions to loss. 

 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: an enlivening, colour-drenched, validating zaniness attaches to the David Yazbek/ Jeffrey Lane musical spun from the Pedro Almodóvar movie. The Plain Janes attacked with gusto in the Kate Ryan production. Hot band, big performances, inventive cheap-theatre staging were all enhancements to the sense of absurdity women need if they’re going to have relationships with men. 

Andrew Chown as Will and Bahareh Yaraghi as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photo by David Cooper.

 Shakespeare in Love: At the Citadel, Daryl Cloran’s lavish season-opening production was a love-letter to theatre, and its impossible, nerve-wracking, crazily labour-intensive magic.

Shocker’s Delight: Has there ever been a play that captured in a more eccentric and affectionate way the anticipation and the heartbreak of the disconcerting moment when you discover that you’ve stopped preparing for life in the great big world, and started living it? Stewart Lemoine’s odd and wistful “comedy” explores the tension between love and friendship. Ron Pederson’s production starred a younger generation of Teatro La Quindicina actors, who captured to a T the literate wit of the post-college characters.

•Métis Mutt: a harrowing true story of violence, drug abuse, systemic racism, bullying charted — and reclamation by theatre, by love, by the life force. This artfully framed solo show, from the formidably multi-talented Indigenous playwright/ actor Sheldon Elter, returned this season to Theatre Network, one of its early homes, in a beautiful, high-impact new version this season directed by Ron Jenkins. 

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

•Pretty Goblins: Workshop West premiered Beth Graham’s play about sisters, and a terrifying declension into tragedy triggered by the mysterious lure of addiction. Brian Dooley directed a production with powerhouse performances from Miranda Allen and Nadien Chu. And we watched, aghast, as the potent sisterly chemistry turns into its own kind of tragedy. 

•Terry and the Dog: Dave Horak’s Edmonton Actors Theatre premiered this new play by Collin Doyle. You could say it’s about the tragic fracturing of a family by alcohol addiction that makes people into unrecognizable versions of themselves. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s stranger than that as Horak’s production recognized: a haunted play about a haunted man and  and a strange blurring in memory of the frontier between life and death, dreams and reality — and second. third, fourth … chances. 

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

Infinity: In Hannah Moscovitch’s play about a family running out of time, the theoretical considerations of time gradually cede to a more emotional, accessible sense of it. Time is real, it’s finite, and it’s empty without love. Bradley Moss’s production sets up an abstract universe, and then sculpted it into human size in every scene.

•Bears: “There is no such thing as neutral in the bear world.” And there is nothing neutral about this highly topical, politically feisty, humorously poetic — about a pipeline. This time it’s the Kinder Morgan. Matthew MacKenzie’s play, which premiered in 2015 and returned this past season (under the joint Punctuate! and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts banner), is a chase through the wilderness, an Indigenous oil patch worker with the RCMP and oil company bigshots in hot pursuit. A rare example of a multi-media production that is wry about multi-media productions.


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

•Sheldon Elter: The charismatic star (and creator) of Métis Mutt tells his own story, and a heart-stopping one it is, in a visceral performance that channels his younger selves. He negotiates a complex weave of the personal and the cultural, the comic and the tragic. And what emerges, filtered through a mature self, is a hard-won sense of possibility and joy in the unlikeliest of circumstances. In combination with a compellingly physical performance as Floyd, the Indigenous oil worker who’s gradually merging with the natural world in Bears, Elter is the actor of the season.  

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

•Robert Benz In Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog: he’s a man haunted by the sins of his past and never entirely sure whether he’s dreaming, or whether his dog is dead or alive. It’s a performance remarkable for its restraint — the temptation to overplay the strange twilight of Terry’s life and make Terry into a “colourful character.” You believe him through the oddest ambiguities of Terry’s experience.   

•Amber Borotsik (along with Nathan Cuckow, equally fine) in Poison — these bravely emotional actors turn in compellingly quiet, edgy, tense performances in the Wild Side production. Has a couple’s reunion ever been more awkward than this one: two people together for the first time since the death of their son a decade ago.

Tiffany Tregarthen in Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

*Tiffany Tregarthen in Betoroffenheit — a fascinating, unnervingly boneless dancer, who takes on a variety of roles, including the lethal come-hither showbiz energy of addiction that lured the protagonist from his post-trauma comatose state.

•Braydon Dowler-Coltman in Kevin Sutley’s revival of Shakespeare’s R&J:  he played the Catholic school boy who rebels against that regime to take on the role the fiery smart-ass Mercurio in a forbidden enactment of Romeo and Juliet. A witty and ironic performance that really bit into the double-assignment.

Alana Hawley Purvis, Maralyn Ryan, Ric Reid, Laurie Paton, Sara Farb in The Humans, Citadel/ Canadian Stage. Photo by Epic Photography.

•Ric Reid in The Humans — his performance as dad and head of a working-class family up against disappointment in multiple ways was at the centre of the play’s mysterious, and mounting, sense of dread accumulating in a world increasingly unmoored from its traditional dreams and assumptions.

Bahareh Yaraghi and Patricia Darbasie in Shakespeare in Love, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

•Bahareh Yaraghi in Shakespeare in Love — what I loved about her performance as a stage-struck noblewoman in this dexterous play-within-a play is the way it captures seduction by words. It’s what fascinates Viola de Lesseps  about — and makes her fascinating to — a young up-and-coming purveyor of words named Will Shakespeare.

•Nadien Chu and Miranda Allen in Pretty Goblins: the two performances fit together so heartbreakingly well: the compliant sister who is a follower turns into an appalled observer (along with us) as her sibling ricochets through a terrible course of self-destruction that takes both of them down.


Chris W. Cook, Michael Vetsch, Evan Hall in The Aliens. Photo by db photographics.

•Chris W. Cook in The Aliens — In an excellent cast in Taylor Chadwick’s meticulous indie production of the Annie Baker play, a portrait, in hyper-real minutiae, of stalled underachievers,  Cook was terrific as KJ, the one who loses his footing when his two buddies (in two very different ways) move on. 

•Jocelyn Ahlf in Women on the Verge — As the woman at the centre of a chaotic emotional storm who doesn’t give up either her sense of absurdity or an irreducible sense of self, Ahlf was in fine comic form in the Plain Janes’ production.

Michelle Diaz and Jocelyn Ahlf in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

•Amber Gray in Hadestown — electrifying as Hades’ difficult party-girl wife, whose travel plans above and below ground determine the cycle of the seasons on earth.

Patrick Page in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

•Patrick Page in Hadestown: a commanding figure, vocally and dramatically, as the god of the underworld, where people have traded creative freedom for security and warmth.

•Alessandro Juliani in Onegin — in the title role Juliani turned in a riveting performance as the bored, self-centred roué who dallies with the affections of others for his own amusement. And as Tatyana, a prey, then a victim of Oregon’s heartlessness who rises to the occasion, Meg Roe was also wonderful.

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Rachel Bowron in Going, Going, Gone!, Teatro La Quindicina! Photo by Mat Busby.

•Rachel Bowron as a spirited screwball instigator of complications in Jana O’Connor’s Going, Going Gone! at Teatro La Quindicina

•Ryan Parker in Infinity: Strange how hard intellectual activity — thinking! — is to convey onstage. And the convincing intellectual energy Parker brought to his performance as a theoretical physicist in Hannah Moscovitch’s play made it not just plausible but vivid, and heartbreaking.

Garett Ross and Jenny McKillop in Outside Mullingar, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

•Garett Ross in Shakespeare in Love and Outside Mullingar: As the harried Elizabethan era producer Henslowe, Ross brought Stoppardian gallows humour to the former. The “natural condition” of theatre, as he says, “is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” In Patrick Shanley’s Irish comedy, Ross created a comic Irish character (opposite the charming Jenny McKillop) from the raw materials of a lugubrious, sad-eyed 42-year-old whose bleak Irish view has existential underpinnings.

•Jeff Haslam in Teatro La Quindicina’s The Exquisite Hour — a lovely understated performance as an ordinary guy, a “supervisor of  merchandise receiving” who endures, brought face to face with dwindling time and the possibilities it could contain.

•Belinda Cornish and Patricia Darbasie in Atlas Theatre’s Going To St. Ives — played two unexpectedly matched opponents, then odd friends, trading secrets and escalating favours in this morally complex Lee Blessing two-hander. 

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

•Kristi Hansen and Scott Farley in the Citadel’s The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood — spirited performances as a heroine who breaks out of her protected isolation as an outsider, and the eccentric blacksmith inventor who helps her do it, were at the heart of Mieko Ouchi’s adventure play, which premiered at the Citadel. 

•Luc Tellier in Cleave — In Elena Belyea’s Tiny Bear Jaws exploration of the youthful tension between belonging and finding a sense of individual identity, the actor nailed a comic performance, the play’s funniest, as the nerdy innocent who’s an outsider in his own life.

*Holly Turner in The Last Testament of Mary — as the wary, skeptical and grief-stricken mother of a high-profile controversial leader who resists the role that religion organizers are determined to assign her.

Melanie Piatocha and Ben Stevens in Shocker’s Delight!. Photo by Mat Busby.

*Ben Stevens in Shocker’s Delight — as the breezy, amusingly affectionate, confident post-collegiate whose life is changed forever by a stray golf ball (and by Biedermeier design, of all things), in Stewart Lemoine’s Teatro La Quindicina comedy.

*Melanie Piatocha in All Shook Up at the Mayfield — as a bright, smart Shakespearean heroine in the middle of an Elvis jukebox musical.   


•Along with Jacqueline Firkin’s costumes, Drew Facey’s design for Onegin, circumscribed by books and hung with velvet drapes, cut to the heart of a playful, ironic and passionate toast to lyubov! (love!), in a rock musical which attaches a modern sensibility to a 19th century tale. And  John Webber’s beautiful lighting changed the seasons, and took the characters from dawn to dusk, and candlelit parties after that. 

Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

•Monica Dotter’s witty choreography for Bears, transformed a sassy chorus of dancers, and populated Floyd’s flight through the wilderness along the route of a pipeline.

•Tracey Power’s compulsive choreography for Onegin gave Russian impulses to the dangerous, sexy impulses of the tango.

 •Tessa Stamp’s lovely, evocative design traced the cosmos for the romance between a physicist and a beekeeper in Shadow Theatre’s Constellations.

Hadestown. Stunning design all round. One beautiful tree dominated Rachel Hauck’s design, and as lighted by Bradley King, charted the above-ground cycle of the seasons in Rachel Chavkin’s strikingly theatrical production of the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera/musical.

•T. Erin Gruber’s projections (which played across Tessa Stamp’s design, a translucent drum) for Métis Mutt to chronicle a life lived hard in small towns at the edge of the wilderness, and then in the city.  

*Ian Jackson’s projections for Infinity were a cosmos in motion in which the creative minds of a composer/musician, a mathematician, and a theoretical physicist, characters who live in their thoughts, played out. 

Vincent Fortier in Dead Centre of Town. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

•The Johnny J. Jones Midway at Fort Edmonton Park was the setting, and design, for Dead Centre of Town X, Catch the Keys’ 10th annual night-time excursion into the morbid history of this place.

•The apocalyptic soundscape, industrial buzz approaching music and retreating from it, by Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani, for Betroffenheit.

•Chris Wynters’ eerie and atmospheric sound design for Constellations, which took its characters through universes of alternate possibilities for every seminal moment.

*Cory Sincennes’ Shakespearean theatre for the playful romantic comedy of a play-with-a-play that is also a love letter to theatre: Shakespeare in Love.

Holly Turner in The Testament of Mary, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, EPIC Photography.

*Trevor Schmidt’s reinvention of the Fringe’s Studio Theatre created a kind of twinkly red boudoir/prison for The Last Testament of Mary.

•Thomas Geddes’ soundscape for Cardiac Theatre’s The Listening Room starred in a post-apocalyptic play where the characters are connected to a desolate universe, and the past, only by what they can hear in archaic equipment.

•Designed by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Jabberwocky had life-sized rabbit headdresses (perched on puppeteers whose faces were visible) in a mysterious world of Victorian cut-outs. Unforgettable. 


Newcomers to watch: Michael Vetsch (The Aliens), designer Lisa Xenzova (Cleave), Gabriel Gagnon (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)

Family-dinner-gone-wrong of the year: In this ever-nerve-wracking category, The Humans ups the ante by being set at Thanksgiving, when the stress is already stratospheric. Cleave, a new play by Tiny Bear Jaws’ Elena Belyea, brought family secrets and dreams into a collision course over dinner,  too, in another recipe for indigestion. 

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

Prop of the season: The light-up SLUT sign for the play of that name, in conversation with the protagonist in Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light Theatre production. Honourable mention: the paper bag Emma Houghton’s character wears over her head for considerable stretches of Cleave. 

Stage effect of the season: In Betroffenheit, thick electric cables suddenly come to life in the opening moments, and start snaking across the floor and up the wall. In Jay Gower Taylor’s design, the stark sealed warehouse chamber in which the protagonist finds himself in Act I collapses, and he’s propelled into Act II and a dark landscape dominated by a power obelisk.

Bizarre stage presence of the season: The decapitated head of St. Pancras (with a moving mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy) who makes many return engagements via projection in Do This In Memory of Me/ En Mémoire de moi, a journey through the Catholic imagination in Cat Walsh’s coming-of-age play (jointly premiered, in two languages, by Northern Light and L’UniThéâtre. 

Production number of the year (ingenuity division): the season’s best — OK, only — example of knee dancing  atop a piano in Onegin.

Quick-changer of the year: His tally of characters of the season is unexcelled: Mark Meer as a staggering assortment of characters, naive to lethal, in Bright Young Things’ Our Man In Havana and Teatro La Quindicina’s Going, Going Gone!

Carmen Aguirre in Broken Tailbone, Nightswimming Theatre. Photo supplied

If someone had told me I’d be.… OK, Mamma Mia! has its well-known physical side effects. But the season’s award for getting (and keeping) an entire audience on its feet and moving goes to Carmen Aguirre’s Broken Tailbone (at Workshop West’s Canoe Festival). It’s a play (a tumultuous personal memoir, a history of Latin American dance, a history of Latinx clubs) AND a Latinx dance lesson.

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The year onstage in Sterling Award nominations

Amber Gray in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre, the season’s most Sterling-nominated show. Photo by David Cooper 2017.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

An original folk opera/ musical that took us to hell and back was the top choice of jurors as the 31st annual Sterling Award nominations were announced Monday at Fringe Theatre Adventures headquarters.

The awards, to be presented June 25 at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, celebrate the season just past in Edmonton theatre. 

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s song cycle spun from the myth of musician poet Orpheus and his fateful trip to the Underworld, arrived in its New York Off-Broadway incarnation for a pre-Broadway make-over at the Citadel. Rachel Chavkin’s imaginative production, a rare collaboration between New York producers and a theatre company a continent away, scooped up nominations in eight of the 24 Sterling categories, including top musical and director.

In addition to the supporting actress nod for Amber Gray’s sensational performance as Hade’s wife Persephone, there were Sterling nominations for the scenic design (Rachel Hauck), costumes (Michael Krass), lighting (Bradley King), choreography (David Neumann), and Liam Robinson’s musical direction. Curiously, Mitchell’s lush and jazzy score itself, Hadestown’s starting point and raison d’être, wasn’t recognized by the jurors.

Actor April Banigan hosted Monday’s announcement, the official preamble to the Sterling Awards gala. And the nominations were read by actor/ dancer Richard Lee Hsi and playwright/ director/ producer Megan Dart of Catch The Keys Productions.

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

If Hadestown ponders the accommodations we make to survive in a world that’s “hard and getting harder all the time,” the second most nominated production of the season, up for seven Sterling awards, has an activist streak. It’s the Citadel premiere of The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, which gathered nods for outstanding production, for playwright Mieko Ouchi, for Drew Facey’s set and costumes, for its array of visceral fight choreography by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. And for Scott Farley’s charming supporting performance as a steampunk inventor and romantic.

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

The other top Sterling nomination draws, with six nods each, embrace a striking diversity of small and large-scale theatre. Two are premieres that explore, in very different ways, family dysfunction fuelled by alcohol: Brian Dooley’s Workshop West production of Beth Graham’s gut-wrenching Pretty Goblins and Edmonton Actors Theatre’s production of the haunting new Collin Doyle, Terry and the Dog. 

Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

From Vancouver’s Arts Club, the strikingly original Canadian indie-rock musical hit Onegin, directed by Amiel Gladstone and brought to us by Catalyst Theatre gathered six  nominations. And so did Daryl Cloran’s lavish Citadel production of the theatre-soaked romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love. 

Andrew Chown and Bahareh Yaraghi in Shakespeare in Love, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The directors of all four of the above, along with Hadestown’s Rachel Chavkin, have outstanding director Sterling nominations.

Along with Pretty Goblins, Terry and the Dog, and The Silver Arrow in the Outstanding New Play category are Jana O’Connor’s larky and dexterous screwball Going, Going, Gone!, which premiered at Teatro La Quindicina. Lianna Makuch’s Blood of Our Soil, which drew from the diary belonging to real-life stories, memories, and a fateful diary to explore Ukrainian heritage, premiered in a Pyretics Production.

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

Three of the five outstanding production nominations went to Citadel shows, Shakespeare in Love, The Silver Arrow, and Stephen Karam’s mysterious and moving The Humans (a co-production with Canadian Stage). The other two are Pretty Goblins at Workshop West and Métis Mutt, directed by Ron Jenkins at Theatre Network. 

In the diverse array of acting nominations, from indie companies like Tiny Bear Jaws to established big-budget producers like the Citadel, are represented the entire casts of Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre), Going to St. Ives (Atlas Theatre), and Pretty Goblins (Workshop West). Ah yes, and Sheldon Elter, creator, star, and sole stage occupant of the remarkable one-person memoir Métis Mutt.

In all, the Citadel comes away with 30 Sterling nominations, the most of any theatre company by a long shot; half of them are for  Hadestown and The Silver Arrow. Workshop West received seven nominations, all but one for Pretty Goblins. And Edmonton Actors Theatre (Terry and the Dog)  and Theatre Network each received six. In the case of the latter, four are for Métis Mutt (a One Little Indian production) and two for Bradley Moss’s production of the Hannah Moscovitch fascinating time puzzler Infinity.

A first-time company in the Sterling nomination list is Tiny Bear Jaws (Elena Belyea’s Cleave).  In the theatre for young audiences categories, the Capitol Theatre’s panto Sleeping Beauty, Concrete Theatre’s Consent and Alberta Opera’s Jack and the Beanstalk are the contenders. 

Gala night, hosted by the team of Hunter Cardinal and Rachel Bowron (herself a nominee for the Fringe production of Legoland), will see Rapid Fire Theatre’s indefatigable producer Karen Brown Fournell get the Margaret Mooney Award for achievement in administration. The Ross Hill Award for career achievement in production will go to Sheila Cleasby, indispensible at the Citadel. And the Sterling for most valuable contribution to Edmonton theatre will be going home with clowning and mask specialist Jan Henderson, who has mentored generations of artists.

And here’s the list: the 2018 Sterling Award nominations:

Outstanding Production of a Play: Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/ One Little Indian Productions); Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); The Humans (Citadel Theatre/ Canadian Stage); Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Les Feluettes (Edmonton Opera); Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre); Children of God (Urban Ink Production at Citadel Theatre); Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Plain Jane Theatre Company)

Outstanding New Play (award to playwright): Blood of Our Soil by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions); Pretty Goblins by Beth Graham (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood by Mieko Ouchi (Citadel Theatre); Terry and the Dog by Collin Doyle (Edmonton Actors Theatre); Going, Going, Gone! by Jana O’Connor (Teatro La Quindicina)

Outstanding Director: Dave Horak for Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre); Daryl Cloran for Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Amiel Gladstone for Onegin (Arts Club Theatre at Catalyst Theatre); Rachel Chavkin for Hadestown (Citadel); Brian Dooley for Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Ric Reid, The Humans (Citadel Theatre/ Canadian Stage); John Wright, The Merchant of Venice (Freewill Shakespeare Festival); Andrew Chown, Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Robert Benz, Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre); Sheldon Elter, Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/ One Little Indian Productions)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Holly Turner, The Testament of Mary (Northern Light Theatre); Nadien Chu, Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); Patricia Darbasie, Going to St. Ives (Atlas Theatre); Miranda Allen, Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); Belinda Cornish, Going to St. Ives (Atlas Theatre)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Ryan Parker, Infinity (Theatre Network); Scott Farley, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre); Glenn Nelson, Outside Mullingar (Shadow Theatre); Cole Humeny, Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre); Luc Tellier, Cleave (Tiny Bear Jaws

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Alana Hawley Purvis, The Humans (Citadel Theatre/ Canadian Stage); Andrea House, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Amber Gray, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Jameela McNeil, John Ware Reimagined (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); Maralyn Ryan, Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: Cleave (Tiny Bear Jaws); Shakespeare’s R&J (Kill Your Television Theatre); Blood of Our Soil (Pyretic Productions); Terry and the Dog (Edmonton Actors Theatre); Going To St. Ives (Atlas Theatre)

Outstanding Set Design: Cory Sincennes, Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Rachel Hauck, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Megan Koshka, Pretty Goblins (Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre); Daniel vanHeyst, Outside Mullingar (Shadow Theatre); Drew Facey, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Jacqueline Firkins, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre); Michael Krass, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Drew Facey, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre); Cory Sincennes, Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Leona Brausen, Going, Going, Gone! (Teatro La Quindicina)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Martin Labrecque and Julie Basse, Les Feluettes (Edmonton Opera); John Webber, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre); Scott Henderson, Shakespeare in Love (Citadel Theatre/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); Adam Tsuyoshi Turnbull, The Testament of Mary (Northern Light Theatre); Bradley King, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Nicholas Mayne, Blood of Our Soil (Pyretic Productions); Ian Jackson, Infinity (Theatre Network); Matt Schuurman, Do This In Memory Of Me (Northern Light Theatre/ L’UniThéâtre); t. Erin Gruber, Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/ One Little Indian Productions); Rennet Siu, Empire of the Son (Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre at the Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Hawksley Workman, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood (Citadel Theatre); Aaron Macri, Métis Mutt (Theatre Network/ One Little Indian Productions); Matthew Skopyk, Shakespeare’s R&J (Kill Your Television Theatre); Erik Mortimer, Sleeping Beauty (Capitol Theatre); Larissa Pohoreski, Blood of Our Soil (Pyretic Productions)

Outstanding Musical Director: Liam Robinson, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Veda Hill, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre); Erik Mortimer, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Allen Cole, Children of God (Urban Ink Productions at the Citadel Theatre); Don Horsburgh, Mamma Mia! (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction: Jonathan Hawley Purvis, The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood; Laura Krewski, Mamma Mia! (Citadel Theatre); David Neumann, Hadestown (Citadel Theatre); Cindy Kerr, All Shook Up (Mayfield Dinner Theatre), Tracey Power, Onegin (Arts Club Theatre Company at Catalyst Theatre)

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Sleeping Beauty (Capitol Theatre); Consent (Concrete Theatre); Jack and the Beanstalk (Alberta Opera)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre For Young Audiences: Santee Smith, choreography, Minosis Gathers Hope (Punctuate! Theatre/ Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts); Megan Koshka, production design, Munch-O-Rama (Kompany Family Theatre); Jocelyn Ahlf, performance/playwright, Sleeping Beauty (Capitol Theatre); Richard Lee His, performance, Consent (Concrete Theatre); Mieko Ouchi, direction/playwright, Consent (Concrete Theatre)

Individual Achievement in Production: Gin May, technical director; Brad Fischer, technician; Chris Cavanaugh, production manager; Peter Locock, scenic carpenter, Patsy Thomas, head of wardrobe, Erin Birkenbergs, technician

Outstanding Fringe Production: No Exit (Bright Young Things); Evil Dead: The Musical (Straight Edge Theatre); Legoland (Blarney Productions); Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Uniform Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): Gemini by Louise Casemore (Defiance Theatre); Slack Tide by Bevin Dooley (Blarney Productions); Prophecy by Jessy Arden (Impossible Mongoose); Puck Bunnies by Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt (Guys in Disguise); Rivercity: The Musical by Rebecca Merkley (Dammitammy Productions); With Glowing Hearts by Ellen Chorley (Send in the Girls Burlesque)

Outstanding Fringe Director: Stewart Lemoine, The Exquisite Hour (Teatro La Quindicina); Kevin Sutley, No Exit (Bright Young Things); Luc Tellier, Legoland (Blarney Productions); Corben Kushneryk, Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose); Perry Gratton, A Beautiful View (Precipice Productions)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actor: Matthew Lindholm, Evil Dead: The Musical (Straight Edge Theatre); Ron Pederson, No Exit (Bright Young Things); Jeff Haslam, The Exquisite Hour (Teatro La Quindicina); Chris W. Cook, Slack Tide (Blarney Productions); Vern Thiessen, Gemini (Defiance Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Performance by an Actress: Louise Lambert, No Exit (Bright Young Things); Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Prophecy (Impossible Mongoose); Nikki Hulowski, A Beautiful View (Precipice Productions);l Rachel Bowron, Legoland (Blarney Productions); Belinda Cornish, No Exit (Bright Young Things)

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

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

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

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The hunger to know and the mystery of the past: a compelling new play by Stewart Lemoine premieres at Teatro La Quindicina

The cast of The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A man, a well-known TV investigative reporter, returns to the small-town house where he spent a year as a six-year-old boy. He’s having coffee with the affable current owner, a stranger to him, when he discovers that he’s rooted to the spot, entirely unable to move. 

Why? How? What kind of ghostly gravitational pull is this? It’s the first mystery of the many that will unfold, to reveal others, that reveal others, in The Finest of Strangers.

The compellingly strange, moving, and ever-darkening new play by Stewart Lemoine that  launches the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season (with an all-star cast of Teatro veterans) is a veritable architecture of mystification and secrets. And it opens layer by layer, like applications of wallpaper peeled from an old house. 

Naturally, Mavis Craig (Patricia Darbasie), a high school English teacher of equable temperament, is jolted into perplexity by the bizarre emergency her drop-in visitor Bruce Faraday (Jeff Haslam) is having at the outset. So is he. So is the chatty, star-struck neighbour Allison (Davina Stewart), who has followed the scent of celebrity to Mavis’s place.

The house in High Level, AB. where little boy Bruce and his mother moved after his father died is the built environment of memory (an ingenious Chantel Fortin design). Middle-aged Bruce is working on a story about houses people once lived in, and he’s starting with his own.

There are many arrivals in The Finest of Strangers (it’s a large-cast production, at eight actors). Among them, intriguingly, is one person Bruce knows from his past, and one person Mavis knows from hers (who shows up with flowers). And these two parties, strangers to each other, are the biggest mysteries of all to the house-owner and her accidental guest.

Unwrapping secrets is discovering connections to the past. And in one of the moving insights in a play with many, one character will acknowledge our dual hunger to know more, and also to know less, about the past, lost loves, people who are important to us.   

There is a un-hinged free-floating dream-like quality to this gathering of strangers who say “have we met before?” pleasantly to each other just as if they weren’t apparitions. As the practical Mavis says, “I’m this close to believing that this is all really happening.”

The Lemoine canon is dotted with disconcerting interventions from other worlds: the Erl King in Fever-Land and the god of love in Eros and the Itchy Ant spring to mind. The Finest of Strangers is very different in tone from any of them. But as in so many of Lemoine’s plays, music is transporting, a life-changer: the secret lives of ghosts seems to demand it. Music floats along the surfaces of The Finest of Strangers; it seeps like smoke into the crevices of the present from the past.

Cathy Derkach, Julien Arnold, Michelle Diaz, Mark Bellamy, Leona Brausen in The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Music isn’t caused or motivated, in Lemoine. It happens naturally, and it’s meaningful. Mark Bellamy’s character Billy, a soulful Scottish tenor (a quintessentially Lemoine joke), sings a traditional ballad, hands clasped in classic tenor posture. Leland (Julien Arnold) finds a guitar and accompanies Clio (Michelle Diaz, whose hair is as vertiginous as her brio) in a Portuguese art song. Cathy Derkach (Victoria, in an elegant concert gown) is at the piano. The interpretation of an orchestral piece, the questions it raises and the emotional analysis it proposes, is profoundly influential in the story.

There is so little I can fairly tell you about what happens, and even who everyone turns out to be. The Finest of Strangers is, after all, a mystery that’s all about discovery and re-discovery for both the characters and the audience — along a time continuum where the past doesn’t happen chronologically but is a simultaneous sort of mingling.

I can tell you, though, about the performances from an excellent cast in which long-time Teatro stars figure prominently. At the centre is Haslam, in a beautifully understated performance as a man whose professional surface geniality and reserve is increasingly troubled by the unexpected threads he’s following towards the sorrows and painful secrets of his past. Can a man haunt himself? This could be a test case. And Haslam’s incredulity and dawning realization, moment to moment, are charted gracefully, un-histrionically.

Patricia Darbasie, Jeff Haslam, Davina Stewart in The Finest of Strangers, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby Photography.

As Mavis, who’s playing game host to the most unexpected of house parties, Darbasie in her Teatro debut brings a wry skepticism — the pragmatist disconcerted by the unlikely — to the proceedings. She delivers, in an amusingly unforced way, Lemoinian observations like “the novelty of the day has yet to wear off.” And Stewart as the sharp-tonged energetic neighbour with a streak of malice is a perfect chaser, along with Leona Brausen as a droll every-auntie character. 

Derkach has, I think, never been better than she is here, in a performance that will break your heart with its charm, and its deep reservoir of feeling.    

The initial set-up does requires duration to be plausible before it unravels; still, the first scenes seem a little long. But after that, the odd and original route a comic premise takes into tragedy and then a kind of peace is compulsive. And the wit of the writing has a dry Lemoine crackle to it. “You’re not my husband,” says one character to another. Response: “Was that meant reproachfully?”

Some mysteries just can’t be unravelled by the mind; they have to be felt, The Finest of Strangers tells us. “We’re unable to find the answer by thinking,” says one character. “Just like everything really,” says another. 

So I’ll leave you with this: late in the play a particularly animated character, will offer unsolicited advice to Bruce who turns down a proffered tart. “When offered a snack in what is, for all intents and purposes, an enchanted kingdom,” don’t say no. Words to live by. And The Finest of Strangers is so much more than a snack. 


The Finest of Strangers

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Jeff Haslam, Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Cathy Derkach, Leona Brausen, Julien Arnold, Mark Bellamy, Michelle Diaz

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through June 16

Tickets: teatroq.com

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A marriage and a dinner party: The Gooseberry at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse and unusual inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Juniper Wisniewski, creator of The Gooseberry, a black comedy in which a dinner party is the battleground for a marriage.

The Gooseberry. Photo by Mat Simpson.


By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A dinner party that goes south: that’s the time-honoured recipe for marital tension that is at the heart of The Gooseberry, the black comedy by Juniper Wisniewski that opens on the Nextfest mainstage Saturday.

“The idea,” says the genial playwright, “is to bring people to their extremity….. Relationship are funny and difficult and beautiful.” 

The production directed by Skye Hyndman is the work of Moplip Theatre, an off-centre indie company that brought Nextfest and Fringe audiences such unconventional offerings as Pinniped And Other Poems (in which a man turned into a walrus) and Prue & Ambrose (in which a girl throws the contents of her apartment out the window until she’s left with a single egg).

Wisniewski, a U of A linguistics major, has written a couple of Fringe shows, The Milky Way Express and Winky and Rex. His muse tends to the comic; his theatre cohorts say his buzzsaw comic energy reminds them of a Christopher Durang. The host couple in this latest Wisniewski is two wives, “one more upbeat and one more morose” as the playwright says. “They are losing interest and propriety in their relationship….”

The dynamic of the six-actor play directed by Moplip’s Hyndman, is “the married couple picking at each other, making each other miserable,” as Wisniewski puts it. And, as guests arrive — an English professor “and his awful mother” and an English grad student and guest from Neptune, everything conspires against “the wife who want to throw a perfect dinner party.”

“It’s not a Moplip play,” says Wisniewski. “But it has a Moplip spirit…. I’m a guest in Moplip-Land.”

The Gooseberry runs Friday, Sunday, June 9 and 10 at the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd.). Check nextfest.ca for times and tickets.

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A convergence of paths en route to healing: Where do we Begin? at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse and unusual inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Lady Vanessa Cardona, Joanna Simon, and Roya Yazdanmehr, creators (and stars) of Where do we Begin?, a theatrical/ musical confluence of stories of displacement and unexpected solidarity. 

Joanna Simon and Lady Vanessa Cardona, Where do we Begin?. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a Nextfest production that embraced the multicultural cross-disciplinary spirit of Nextfest, it must be Where do we Begin? created by (and starring) Lady Vanessa Cardona and Joanna Simon.

In the show, the pair find unexpected below-the-surface parallels in their stories of displacement and their journeys toward healing and solidarity. 

Cardona, an award-winning performance poet (the Canadian individual slam champion of 2018), is a Colombian civil war refugee who left her home country at age nine. Simon, a Cree artist from the Samson Band, “a wandering spirit” who’s lived everywhere in Alberta from Peace River to Calgary, grew up in the child welfare system.

“My story,” Simon says, “is about strength and resilience…. I’m super-excited to do a show that give me a creative way and a safe place to express parts of my story.”

Their sound designer singer-songwriter Roya Yazdanmehr has intertwined cultural roots. Her Iranian father came to Canada as a religious refugee in the ‘80s; her mom is an Albertan Ukrainian. “I grew up hearing my father sing prayers in his native tongue,” she says.

Joanna Simon and Lady Vanessa Cardona. Photo supplied.

Cardona and Simon met at the Indigenous Centre at Edmonton’s Norquest College (where Simon is studying physical therapy). “We started hanging out,” says Cardona. “I got interested in sharing stories with Joanna … and a lot of our childhood stories, even though they look very different, resonated together.”

The result, she says, embraces “monologues, poetry, theme piece…. It’s a very poetic play.”

And there’s music, courtesy of contributions from Yazdanmehr, who explores “the cultural intersections,” she says. “It’s not traditional Persian singing, but those sounds bleed into my music.” The vocals “pull from  Eastern melodies”; the  instrumentation includes the mbira (a musical instrument from Zimbabwe) and the West African djembe (a drum) along with her voice.

Yazdanmehr “writes songs in many different styles,” as she says. Filtering through them are “the sounds of eastern world music contemporary pop, jazz. She and Cardona have worked together before — “mostly improvised, always different, created on the spot.”

The production is a collaboration across cultural divides, and there’s something quintessentially Nextfest about that. Says Cardona, “the script started two months ago. But we’ve been working on this for our whole lives….”

Where do we Begin? runs Friday, Sunday, June 9 and 10 at the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd.). Check nextfest.ca for times and tickets.

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A jazzy new musical with a bank robber folk hero: Pretty Boy The Musical at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Mark Vetsch, creator and director of Pretty Boy: The Musical, a jazzy new musical with a Depression Era bank-robbing hero. 

Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering at Nextfest 2018. Rehearsal photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He was charming, sexy, generous, nattily turned out, downright likeable. Women found him irresistible. Name: Charles Floyd. Occupation: bank robber. Rank: America’s Public Enemy No. 1.

And now, he’s the hero of a jazzy new musical by Mark Vetsch and Stephanie Urquhart. How Pretty Boy Floyd became a Depression Era folk hero, ladies’ man, and media darling — not mention possessor of a nickname he hated — is what you’ll find out in Pretty Boy: The Musical, premiering on the Nextfest MainStage today. 

Vetsch had immersed himself in the 1920s, and was on his way to creating “a barbershop musical” destined for a Fringe BYOV when he got diverted by an intriguing discovery. It was “the pretty crazy story” of Pretty Boy Floyd’s improbable real-life career, which came to an abrupt end when the FBI gunned him down in 1934. Vetch was hooked: “This sounds like a musical to me!” He instantly imagined the moments, like ‘stick ‘em up!’, that would become musical numbers.

Bank-robbing sprees are good for that. And they’re good as well for the Robin Hood reverb.

That was a year-and-a-half ago. “I bought one biography, then two more,” says Vetsch, who teaches theatre at Scona, a high school known for its musical theatre expertise. Intriguingly, “history was full of contradictions.”

“I guess it was the epic-ness of the journey” that spoke musical theatre to Vetsch. “The story was so compelling,” event-filled, the stuff of legends. “En route to prison, Pretty Boy Floyd jumped out of the window of a moving train — and survived…. In a shoot-out he got shot in the head — and survived.” In short, says Vetsch, “the story felt big enough to support a musical.”

Vetsch and Nextfest have a history together, starting when the former was just out of high school. He’s been part of collective creations unveiled there. He’s been a stage manager, an actor, a director. “My first-ever paycheque was for a monologue I did at one of the (Nextfest) niteclubs!”

Edmonton audiences know Vetsch best, perhaps, for hanging out with Shakespeare, via multiple collaborations with Thou Art Here, the site-sympathetic company that finds unconventional destinations for their resident playwright in bars, in backyards, in puppet theatres, in haunted houses or vintage mansions. “This is my first big show alone,” he says of Pretty Boy.

And big it is: two acts, six actors and a four-piece jazz band to deliver Urquhart’s ‘20s/‘30s-style score. Damon Pitcher plays Pretty Boy Floyd, and the five other actors take on a variety of roles, including joint narration.

Vetsch, who directs the show, also wrote the lyrics for the 13 songs. It might have been a daunting prospect, in theory, till he realized that “making up songs” is exactly what he’s been doing for the six years he’s been part of Grindstone Theatre’s The 11 O’Clock Number, a weekly show in which entire musicals improvised on the spot.

“Put up your hands and we’ll get along just fine.” The lyrics came “a lot more naturally than I’d ever thought.” 

Pretty Boy: The Musical runs today, Saturday, June 7 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Performance schedule and tickets available at nextfest.ca. 

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Moonshine at Nextfest: a journey for identity in stories and music

Larissa Pohoreski in Moonshine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles.  12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. First, meet Larissa Pohoreski, creator and star of Moonshine. 

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s a celebration of my roots,” says Larissa Pohoreski of Moonshine. “And searching for things I don’t know about them, for things I will never know.”

Like the title beverage, Moonshine, premiering Friday on the Nextfest mainstage, is an original — a fusion of true stories in two languages with folk music into an unclassifiable multidisciplinary performance theatre piece. And Pohoreski brings a remarkably expansive skill set — as an actor, a dancer, a singer, a multiple instrumentalist — to the perpetual quest for identity. “You struggle with your identity…. What if you can’t find it?”

Pohoreski’s roots grow deep into Ukrainian soil. In fact, “English is my second language,” she says of an upbringing here with second-generation Canadian parents steeped in the Ukrainian culture. “I didn’t speak English till kindergarten.”

It was Pohoreski’s mother who pointed out the curiosity that in Edmonton, a theatre town where 10 per cent, at least, of the population is of Ukrainian descent, there is no Ukrainian theatre company. Dance, yes (Vinok, Shumka, Viter Ukrainian Dancers and Folk Choir spring to mind). Theatre, no.

Actor/improviser/director Ben Gorodetsky, inspired by his own Russian Jewish heritage, encouraged Pohoreski to make something for the experimental Dirt Buffet series he curates at Mile Zero Dance. And there was Nextfest standing by: Pohoreski’s 15-minute piece for the festival grew into a workshop production (with trimmings) last year, and became Moonshine. “People came up to tell me afterwards how the piece had really touched them,” she says.

“It’s timing, right?” says Pohoreski, now in her mid-20s, whose first trip to Ukraine, at 16, was a Viter dance tour of the Old Country. “Sometimes life just happens…. My Baba passed a couple of years ago, severe dementia. And at the end she told stories none of us had heard before.”

Some of those secrets have found their way into Moonshine along with Pohoreski’s own experiences. And the storytelling is framed by shots of moonshine — trays of vodka and exuberant toasts, what she calls “the Ukrainian culture of alcohol.”

Most recently Edmonton audiences saw Pohoreski, violin in hand, as a composer in Infinity at Theatre Network. Before that, she was part of Lianna Makuch’s own Ukrainian roots exploration, Blood of Our Soil. Naturally adventurous, Pohoreski was “the inaugural fresh air artist” at Common Ground’s 2017 Found Festival. Before The River, “an immersive outdoor play using Ukrainian folk stories,” took half the audience on a journey forward through the narrative and half backward.

Larissa Pohoreski. Photo by Ryan Parker

Extreme versatility creates its own challenges, she thinks. A dancer first, who took up the violin — and also plays the piano and accordian, the guitar, the dulcimer, the bandura (a Ukrainian plucked stringed folk instrument) — Pohoreski describes herself as “one of those kids who are never quite able to decide what to focus on….”

She went to MacEwan University in theatre arts, then the U of A in theatre design. “When I came to create something, I wanted storytelling to happen in the most visual way possible.”

Growing up “I had a feeling of not really fitting in, an outsider living between worlds, Ukrainian and Canadian, without enough of one or the other,” she muses. That’s why the show happens in “a mix of languages; I slip in and out of the two worlds…. Everything I talk about in the show is true. It’s me putting the puzzle pieces together.”

Moonshine runs Friday, Sunday, June 6 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Check nextfest.ca for times and tickets.


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