By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the resolutely cheery world of holiday entertainments, where the halls (and not your relatives) get decked and grinches see the errors of their ways, there is nothing quite like the macabre, strangely joyful circus/vaudeville that returns to the Roxy Thursday for the third season.
Yes indeed, Jay Torrence’s Burning Bluebeard has all the trappings of the Christmas panto: the jaunty harlequin, the star comic with the topical jokes, the fairy godmother, the fairy aerialist, the fairy tale plundered for its plot and its hissable villain. There’s lip-synching, mime, asides to the audience….
But there’s this: six clowns emerge, tattered and singed, with that chin-up show-must-go-on spirit for which showbiz folk are famous. They’re determined to finish the panto that ended prematurely in 1903 at Chicago’s brand new Iroquois Theatre.
They’re after the happy ending that eluded them the first time around, and they’re up against it. The house was packed for the December 30 matinee of Mr. Bluebeard, a panto of dubious quality that had gotten fairly scathing reviews across the pond. When a spark from the prop moon in Act II caught the scenery on fire, 600 members of the audience were killed.
Funny — funny uncanny that is — the way theatre is tuned to the same frequency as the world. We knew something of fire in 2015 when the multiple Sterling Award-winning Edmonton Actors Theatre production debuted; it was the year of the devastating blaze that destroyed the Roxy, Theatre Network’s vintage ex-cinema home on 124th St.
“Last year was pre-Trump,” says director Dave Horak of the period before the unthinkable really unspooled. “And it feels much different this time out…. We’re desperately looking for hope; we desperately want things to go better than they have been…. How we deal with tragedy, how we find a happy ending: the show just speaks in a different way in 2017.”
A holiday tradition in Chicago since its debut in 2011, Burning Bluebeard is the work of The Neo-Futurists. Horak discovered the off-centre company when he was living in New York in the mid-90s, helping to start the NYC Fringe. “They brought something called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 plays in 60 minutes), and after the Fringe they had a company that stayed in New York.”
“A year before the Roxy burned down, I’d tagged Burning Bluebeard,” he says. Since he was fresh from directing a production of another “clown-y” show, Fatboy, he held off. The Roxy fire sealed the deal. Poignantly, Scott Peters included salvaged bits of the theatre — the singed wall of Nextfest murals that hung in the lobby — for his design. As Horak points out, the doors of the set will remind you of the Roxy back wall.
The Horaks, Calgary of origin, are a family who gravitate arts-ward. Of Horak’s three younger brothers, one, Bruce (This Is Cancer), is currently in A Christmas Carol at the National Arts Centre; he’ll be in town for Rebecca Northan’s new improv venture Undercover at the Citadel Club later in the season. There’s a musician brother in Victoria, and a graphic designer.
The young Horak, who “always wanted to be a director,” had a built-in cast for his original entertainments. “I got them to dress up, put on make-up, and told them what to do.” He was trained as an actor, at Mount Royal and the University of Calgary, then the U of A. And it’s as an actor that Horak enters his own production of Burning Bluebeard for the second week of the run — as the troubled stage manager when John Ullyatt, the usual occupant of that role, leaves. “I’m realizing how big a role it is,” he sighs, with a laugh.
The other newcomer to the cast is Brooke Leifso, in the silent role of the Fairy Godmother who dispenses magic and starlight (formerly occupied by Richelle Thoreson). Thoreson is a dancer; Leifso, who’s worked with such companies as Workshop West and Cripsie, is an activist/ community outreach specialist. “She’s got a little edge to her,” says Horak approvingly. “Because Jay (playwright Torrence) wrote the piece for his friends, all the characters were created to suit his own pals.” So Horak feels at liberty to make changes to fit his own cast. “The actors have to put their own spin on it.”
The history of Edmonton Actors Theatre is a record of unusual, theatrically playful and adventurous projects. With The Bomb-itty of Errors, for example, the company’s 2013 show, Horak assembled a cast of hip-hop artists for the re-telling of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. “It adds a different authenticity,” says Horak of his decision to cast non-actors. “It challenges how you work; we can get a little too comfortable….”
There was nothing comfortable about 70 Scenes of Halloween, a wildly experimental Jeffrey M. Jones relationship comedy (written for The Neo-Futurists) that Horak’s company brought to the Fringe in 2016. Or Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s contemporary spin on Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Later this season (May 10 to 20), the company surprises again, with the premiere of play that’s unusual naturalistic for their archive: Collin Doyle’s new play Too Late To Stop Now, which joins the playwright’s Mill Woods Trilogy and restores John Wright to the role of the vicious, boos-soaked dad from Doyle’s The Mighty Carlins. “It’s a little more dream-like than usual,” says Horak. “But it’s still pretty routed in reality.”
Meanwhile, step up to see Edmonton theatre’s most unusual seasonal tradition.
Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: Stephanie Wolfe, Vincent Forcier, John Ullyatt, Amber Lewis, Brooke Leifso, Braydon Dowler-Coltman
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca