By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You were funny and weird, and you made me feel better. And I remembered people can do that,” says one of the characters in The Realistic Joneses, the sly, quirky Will Eno play that got its Canadian premiere in Edmonton this past year.
The world was a tumultuous, difficult, incoherent place in 2016, no question. The feeling of connectedness, of being part of something human, was hard to come by, something to cherish when you did: hey, it’s what live theatre is for.
Along with more cautionary tales about the state of the world, the wonderful oddity of people sitting together in the dark, engaged with real live people in the light, struck home in productions on Edmonton stages in 2016.
In For The Love Of Cynthia, Teatro La Quindicina’s celebratory new Stewart Lemoine comedy/ fable, for example, the Norwegian ambassador to the tiny independent kingdom of Cynthia, very near here, has been writing a play. A visitor is perplexed by this behaviour. So is the king: “plays are quite peculiar,” he notes.
But the impromptu performance of this hilariously bleak and earnest piece of Canadiana transforms an “international incident” into a festive “official state visit.”
The cosmic aliens getting an intergalactic fact-finding tour in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe are particularly struck by “the goosebump” experience of being in a live theatre audience, “laughing and crying together.” Ah, or in the case of Anxiety, getting claustrophobic together (see below).
Let’s cast our wits back, for a selected review of those 2016 goosebumps in Edmonton theatre.
This wooden O: Brood no more on bridges and that Toonerville Trolley en route to NAIT: Edmonton’s specialty is theatres. This was the year we got a handsome new one, reconstructed on the footprint — and using many of the bricks — of the old. The $7.5 million 205-seat Varscona, raised the (red velvet) curtain in June with Teatro La Quindicina’s For The Love Of Cynthia. A 12-year dream. Built on time. And the Varscona cluster of companies, including Shadow and indies like The Plain Janes, The Maggie Tree, and Trunk Theatre are back from a year’s exile across the street in the Backstage Theatre.
More theatre plans are in the air: Rapid Fire Theatre plans an improv theatre in The Quarters. Grindstone Theatre is fundraising for a second-storey comedy theatre above Block 1912 on Whyte Avenue. And Theatre Network is officially readying itself to build on the old 124th Street site where fire claimed its atmospheric ex-cinema home in the winter of 2015. First comes the fundraising.
Make me a drink, George: For its 50th anniversary season, the Citadel returned to its very first theatre-launching production, November 1965: Edward Albee 1962 ground-scorcher Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. James MacDonald’s production, starring Brenda Robins and Tom Rooney, did it proud — and impressed us all over again that a new theatre in the prairie hinterland half a century ago would have the guts to make a play by a controversial upstart the opening opening night.
Exits, entrances: This was the year, the first in 17, Edmonton’s flagship playhouse has a new artistic director. Actually, it was the first time ever that the mighty Citadel, one of the country’s largest (and certainly its most idiosyncratic) regional theatre has ever had an official search, with all the trimmings.
Bob Baker, the Citadel’s first homegrown artistic director, stepped down. Stepping up is Daryl Cloran, an artist with intriguingly diverse and original Toronto credits, most recently the artistic head of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops.
At Nextfest, at 21 an increasingly influential agent provocateur in Edmonton theatre, Steve Pirot exited his festival director post after 15 years. Enter Ellen Chorley, a theatre artist of remarkable versatility who acts, directs, writes plays and burlesques, mentors young artists and runs a theatre for young audiences (Promise Productions).
The festive spirit (rock on): Mysteriously, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death didn’t cause mass celebratory eruptions in the streets (or theatres) here — honourable exception to Grindstone Theatre and their production of The Complete Works of Wm Shkspr in 60 minutes. Fie!
But to another record-breaking Fringe (124,500 tickets changed hands at That Was Then This Fringe), Improvaganza, the Bonfire Festival, Nextfest, Kaleidoscope, Serca, Found, and the rest, Edmonton got a couple of new festivals: one for clowns (Edmonton Clown Festival) and one (Chinook) that combines under one roof — the ATB Financial Arts Barns — Expanse Movement Festival, the Canoe Festival, and winter returns of Fringe hits). Concept proposal: a Shakespeare clown festival, the Feste Fest.
Insane concept of the year: What could be more impossible than improvising a Ted Talk on the spot, using slides you haven’t seen, on a topic you don’t know in advance? That’s what crazy brainiacs Julian Faid and Kory Mathewson do in TEDxRFT. Universities are snapping them up.
Perverse concept of the year: Anne Washburn’s mesmerizing 10 out of 12, brought to us by Wildside Productions, is a backstage pass to the world of the “technical rehearsal,” in all its aggravating boredom. What you see is the niggling, mundane, interminable, minutely detailed cue-by-cue choice-by-choice work that goes into making theatre magic. And the play they’re rehearsing is by no means a masterpiece. You leave wonderstruck by the improbability of theatre.
- The name Trump comes up, disparagingly, in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe — it wouldn’t be one of the signs — Jane Wagner’s 1985 multi-character solo play taken on by Stephanie Wolfe in an Edmonton Actors Theatre production in the Teatro La Quindicina season.
- “Mr. Burton, are you a homosexual?” The hostage tension in The Conversion, Kill Your Television’s new Nathan Cuckow/Kevin Sutley thriller, ripples with the persecuting impulse masked as conversion therapy. A Pence for your thoughts.
- Hair, a touchy subject in this election year, is 50 years old. But in Ron Jenkins’ Mayfield surprisingly immediate production its dark roots were showing — in both the anti-war scenes and the very queasy racism held up for scrutiny in the black Abraham Lincoln scene. Face it, the social “conversation” has taken a horrifying downturn lately.
The Actor’s Bravery Award for 2016: The indie spirit lives at Northern Light. I wince every time I remember Wish, a stage adaptation of the Peter Goldsworthy novel, about the romance turned full-blown love affair, sex included, between a loner teacher of sign language and a gorilla. The story, which detours into animal rights activism, ends in tears. The theatrical experience, disconcerting in the extreme, makes you reel in admiration for Christopher Schulz and Ainsley Hillyard, intrepid and compelling in Trevor Schmidt’s production.
The experimental spirit:
- The environmental: Theatre Yes, the enterprising indie that redefined “small theatre” with their Elevator Project, called us once again on all the theatre clichés about intimacy, sharing, and the rules of engagement. Anxiety gathered the original work of six of the country’s most experimental indies in claustrophobic rooms in an anonymous warehouse in an anonymous suburb, at which we arrived in an anonymous bus. The “guides” were anxious, the performers were anxious, the audience was anxious. As a character says in The Realistic Joneses, “well that was fun. I mean not fun but some other word….”
- Theatre one on one: In an age when theatre world-wide struggles to expand its audience, the Citadel director of new play development, Brian Dooley, experimented with shrinking the audience … to one. Encounters pitted one actor with one spectator, 12 people a night max.
- The soft-seater: The “bold staging choice of the year” award goes to Bob Baker, who launched his production of West Side Story on the Citadel’s thrust stage, the Maclab, instead of the theatre’s framed proscenium stage, the Shoctor. The Jets and the Sharks hurled themselves into the heart of the audience, and the 60-year-old groundbreaker musical felt dangerous again.
- The agility of musical theatre:
(a) Kudos to the intriguing playfulness of Jill Connell’s The Supine Cobbler, premiered by The Maggie Tree: a contemporary abortion daringly framed as a western musical, with a live band. The performances were lively and fun, Vanessa Sabourin’s production was inventive in its use of the Backstage Theatre. Alas, Connell’s most accessible piece didn’t find the audience it deserved.
(b) Follow the dancing condom: At Studio, the strange story of entrepreneur A.R. Kaufman, the unlikely founding father of the Canadian birth control movement, was conceived (so to speak) by star playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who has an experimental streak, as a ’30s-style Weimar cabaret. The Kaufman Cabaret was commissioned by the U of A’s Studio Theatre for its graduating class.
A sampling of 2016’s memorable productions. The order is random; they linger in the mind for different reasons.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The sheer visceral strength of performances from Tom Rooney and Brenda Robins, and the savage humour they mined in the landmark Edward Albee play itself, in James MacDonald’s Citadel production made for a dangerous, riveting evening in the theatre.
- Witness to a Conga – Stewart Lemoine’s 2010 coming-of-age play, claimed a territory for comedy painfully close to the bone.
It got revived in a Teatro La Quindicina production where wry literate humour served to amplify the emotional palette of the piece. Heartbreaking and funny.
- The Supine Cobbler – Jill Connell’s original “musical,” premiered in its current form by The Maggie Tree, pilfers the iconography of the classic Western for a solitary female protagonist, by way of framing an abortion as the ultimate stand-off at noon. This sounds heavily freighted; instead it was strangely, even touchingly light in its combination of angst and absurdity.
- Gordon – In the opening moment of Morris Panych’s riotously gritty black comedy of family dysfunction, a son fresh from the slammer, with career aspirations in criminality, breaks into his father’s house.
The crack ensemble of Bradley Moss’s Theatre Network production interlocked father-son performances from Brian Dooley and Joe Perry, with Ben Stevens as the hapless side-kick and Patricia Cerra as the sullen girlfriend. Horrifying things happen in this family reunion gone haywire. We laughed, we winced.
The Realistic Joneses – Will Eno’s eccentric comedy takes the “relationship comedy” and everyday banalities of small talk at their word(s), to strange, disconcerting effect. In this oddball intersection of two couples, both named Jones, you somehow get the sense of an immense and unknowable universe that surrounds the little mystery of our mortality. It’s captured beautifully by Jim Guedo’s quartet of actors: Robert Benz, Belinda Cornish, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais.
- The Other – Matthew MacKenzie’s fanciful and lively study of alienation, the third of his “third-person narrative” trilogy, came to life in Patrick Lundeen’s Pyretic production, and a stage-commanding performance by the charismatic Amber Borotsik as a woman outside her own life observing and annotating.
Her invisibility is conjured, paradoxically, by five dancers.
- Or The Whale – In this fleet, original Wishbone Theatre creation, directed by Chris Bullough for Studio Theatre, Herman Melville’s 700-page doorstopper Moby Dick is reimagined as a theatrical fantasia on memory, and the universal quest for meaning. The production isn’t decorated by its multi-media arsenal of contributions; the “wonder-world” lived in them.
- For The Love Of Cynthia – The new Stewart Lemoine comedy that launched the reconstructed Varscona was not only a ruritanian fable set in Alberta, but a comedy about how we tell our own stories and who owns them when we do.
As usual Teatro La Quindicina assembled a stellar ensemble of veterans, including Ron Pederson as the manically energized King of Cynthia, and newcomers, including Paula Humby and Ben Stevens.
Klondykes, a new Darrin Hagen/Trevor Schmidt musical, lit out from the Guys in Disguise territory, where playful satirical impulses rock, and into a darker, more personal territory. Hagen’s rich and dissonant score is a departure: with Schmidt’s lyrics the songs, which have a Weill flavour, tap a sense of place, of nature’s cycles in the Canadian north. A Gold Rush story where the nuggets to be found are in a sense of sexual identity.
Alice Through The Looking-Glass – The Citadel/ National Arts Centre production found a playful physical reality for the agile verbal gymnastics of Lewis Carroll’s great 1871 fantasy. brainy verbal absurdities. True, it never quite knew quite when to say when, but this kind of big-budget pinball creativity was fun fun fun, not least because the cast included an all-star team of Edmonton’s funniest actors.
The designers: a sampling of the year’s memorable designs on Edmonton stages:
- Bretta Gerecke was unstoppably imaginative in conjuring the logically illogical mirror-image world in Alice Through The Looking-Glass.
- Aaron Macri’s flavourful sound design for The Kaufman Cabaret had soupçons of the darker current in which the story of the improbable birth control turns nasty.
- Matt Schuurman, best known as a projection and video designer (not to mention his improv expertise at Rapid Fire Theatre), conjured a fairy tale world of starlit romance, lingering dusks and medical twilights, all part of the storytelling in Catch The Keys’ Ursa Major.
- T. Erin Gruber’s design for Witch Hunt at the Strand wrapped its wits around both the bright lights of showbiz and the dark corners of the demimonde where homosexuals feared for persecution, in this dramatization of a brutal chapter in our history.
- Trevor Schmidt’s astro-turf tube of a set for Sisters Sisters was the witty embodiment of a life lived in a dysfunctional household.
- Chantel Fortin’s assortment of outsized picture frames for Teatro’s Witness to a Conga was an ingenious way for an intricate series of coming-of-age flashbacks to happen.
The performances that linger in the mind:
- Tom Rooney redefined George, in every particular, in a performance that escalated in dry, fierce humour, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
- As the haunted hero, Andrew MacDonald-Smith handled the intricacies of Stewart Lemoine’s Witness to a Conga with every nuance of humour and pain. A beautiful performance, matched by Jeff Haslam as the remote, harsh father who has to discover how to connect.
- Sheldon Elter was absurd, and touching, as the preposterous Don Armado in Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s entertaining ’60s-style production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
- Jesse Gervais had a fine 2016, among his roles two exceptional performances in Love’s Labour’s Lost as the witty cynic Berowne and in The Realistic Joneses as the younger of the Mr. Joneses, the funniest and most quirkily playful of the characters.
- Jason Chinn as the weirder, more conflicted of a pair of kidnappers in The Conversion.
- Pamela Gordon as the fiery Anita in the Citadel’s West Side Story, returned to the role after 11 years with a bigger voice and even more stage electricity.
- Kristi Hansen was so unflashy and authentic as the stage manager in 10 out of 12, with that fake-hushed voice that stage managers have — “please show me group 60, 27 at full, house sound at sound two. Go.” — that it would never occur to you she was acting.
- John Ullyatt’s gravely imperious Humpty Dumpty, grandly unaware of his impending egg scramble, in Jillian Kelley’s Alice Through The Looking-Glass. The perfect cameo of an aristocrat before the revolution.
- Amber Borotsik in The Other (see above), and as Pony, a ditzy airhead who’s skimming over dark knowledge in The Realistic Joneses.
- Josée Boudreau’s committed performance in the title role of the Citadel musical Evangeline, looking for her man for 60 years!, defined star quality the old-fashioned way.
- Tom Wood, who transcended every old curmudgeon cliché built into Christmas Carols world-wide with his detailed and dimensional performance as the old skinflint in the Citadel’s still wonderful version.
Memorable moments in 2016. You’ll have your own; please share. Meantime, do you remember…?
- Jesse Gervais as Tweedledum in Alice Through The Looking-Glass delivering what might well be the most memorable all-body tantrum ever seen on a Citadel stage.
- In Witness for a Conga, our wry protagonist, haunted by scenes from his past, conjuring the gut-wrencher of being sat down by his warring parents for “an important talk” — only to discover that the family will be no more and he’s moving to Vancouver. “The one in Canada?” he blurts, absurdly, overcome by the way his world has spun out of his control.
- the argument in Gordon between young Gordon and his more tentative criminal sidekick, which happens as the latter is casually whipping up another batch of crystal meth in the kitchen.
- True, the Yuletide season has a lot to answer for, in terrible social events full of people who should never be within 100 yards of each other. It’s a natural for family dysfunction “comedy,” witness the nerve-wracking countdown to disaster in Other Desert Cities (daughter returns home to spill beans about her new tell-all family memoir). The Christmas party scene in David Belke’s The Red King’s Dream, presided over by Mathew Hulshof as the awkward nerd protagonist, is a contender in the gruesomely hilarious category.
- the look on Garett Ross’s face in Belke’s Ten Times Two — where two characters return in different time periods in a serial recurring courtship saga — when he looks up to discover he’s sitting beside a nun.
- the scene in which five dancers manage conjure Russia, Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, as it rushes by a train window in The Other? A model of labour-intensive cheap-theatre wit brought to us by choreographer Ainsley Hillyard.
- Paul Dunn, conjuring an entire Celtic band, The Pansy Rovers, with its own jaunty Riverdance-er, in The Gay Heritage Project.
- two friends comparing scars competing fiercely over who’s suffered the most, in The Supine Cobbler. “See this trachea? I stabbed it with a pencil….”
Promising newcomers: Braydon Dowler-Coltman’s directing work this year on Subway Circus and Scaramouche Jones signals a big career in the making. Actor Luc Tellier directed a crack production of Daniel MacIvor’s portrait of male friendship Never Swim Alone. Leif Ingebrigtsen’s Dungeons and Dragons musical Echoes of a Lost King, which premiered at Nextfest, revealed an instinctive feel for where songs — his are contagious — should be located in a musical, and what part of the story they should move.