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).
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)
•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: 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.
•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.
•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.
•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.
•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.
MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OF THE SEASON, a small selection.
•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 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 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.
•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 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 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.
•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: 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.
•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 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.
•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.
*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.
MEMORABLE DESIGN ON EDMONTON STAGES THIS PAST SEASON, a selection in no particular order
•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.
•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.
•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.
*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.
AND IN OTHER HIGHLIGHTS…
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.
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!
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.