By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, an infantry division of First World War fighting men, amidst the nightmare of unremitting horrors, are ordered to create light-hearted musical comedy They are a hit; they tour the Western Front.
The vivid new play, spun from a true Canadian story, is an homage to the power of comedy — a graphic manifesto of the link between comedy and tragedy. And some of its funniest scenes involved recruitment, auditions, brainstorming. “You have that showbiz je ne said quoi,” teases the casting director (Andrew MacDonald-Smith).
It’s been a desperately hard and crazy year, in a world of global warming and political chilling. And yet there’s something about the human connectedness of live theatre — in both the creation and the experiencing of it — that gives us a sense of renewable possibility. In A Lesson In Brio, Teatro La Quindicina, a company devoted to comedy, defined it as a contagious animation that attracts people, and thereby changes your life.
“You’re going to get out alive,” says the eerily amplified inner voice of a man who’s teetering on the threshold between a terrible past and a mysteriously unsquelchable sense of a future, in Betroffenheit, one of 2018’s most remarkable productions. And there’s wonder in that.
“You gotta live in the world to get to the truth,” as one of the stellar songs in 2b theatre’s Old Stock has it. Hold that thought as we look back on the year on E-town stages, where the supple creativity and ingenuity of our theatre artists, veterans and newcomers alike, continue to challenge and prevail.
MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OF 2018 (in no particular order)
What A Young Wife Ought To Know: Marianne Copithorne’s impeccably acted Theatre Network production (starring Merran Carr-Wiggin, Cole Humeny and Bobbi Goddard) made of this Hannah Moscovitch play — one of three by the playwright we saw this year — a funny, horrifying, and heart-wrenching love and coming-of-age story, and a cautionary tale from the feminist palette. What we have gained can be lost.
Terry and the Dog: This quietly powerful and mysterious new play by Collin Doyle — a playwright with a particular gift for marrying black comedy and tragedy — is a chronicle of a recovering alcoholic haunted by his sins. In a fascinating way, as Dave Horak’s subtle Edmonton Actors Theatre production revealed, it goes far beyond the cruder notion of flashbacks to suggest that reality is permeable, that the past is superimposed on the present, and ghosts live.
Pretty Goblins: Strikingly, two of the year’s best new plays concern themselves with the heartbreaking price tag on addiction. Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, inspired by the wild Christina Rossetti poem Goblin Market, explores that mysterious and tragic seduction — beyond heredity, environment and chemistry and tumbling into the eerier nightmare of destiny — in twin sisters. Brian Dooley’s Workshop West production, starring Miranda Allen and Nadine Chu, was an unnerving horror story of the lure of the monster world.
Betroffenheit: See above. A stunningly original dance/theatre probe into the very marrow of limitless grief and the bewilderment and paralysis that follow great trauma. Crystal Pite’s production, a collaboration between Vancouver’s Electric Company and her own Kidd Pivot that came to us a joint Brian Webb Dance Company/Citadel venture, was theatrically ingenious in every way. Utterly memorable.
Onegin: A playful, theatrically exhilarating, and hugely entertaining original rock musical fashioned by Vancouver’s Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hill from the Russian story of a bored aristocrat messing with people’s lives. The Arts Club production, starring the magnetic Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe, arrived here under the Catalyst Theatre flag. Operatic in its extravaganza of feeling, accessible, and a whole lot of fun in the multiple ways it engaged the audience and knew about itself.
The Comedy Company: This first full-length play by comedy veteran Neil Grahn found a fascinating story from the archive where Canadians rarely venture: Canadian history. It ventured boldly into the no-man’s-land between comedy and tragedy to reveal a special, even redemptive, relationship between the two (and it only faltered when it annotated). John Hudson’s Shadow Theatre premiere production starred a quintet of top Edmonton actors, and their chemistry in an improbable venture — front-line World War I soldiers creating light musical comedy for the troops — irresistible.
The Finest of Strangers: In Stewart Lemoine’s enigmatic new Teatro La Quindicina play, a coming-of-age story in reverse, is a comedy with a musing bent. A man (Jeff Haslam) finds himself unexpectedly exploring the mysteries, long buried, of his own past, and rediscovering the people who lived in it. When he revisits his boyhood house, he finds himself unable to leave it; we share his astonishment with him at every turn.
Métis Mutt: Sheldon Elter’s astonishing solo show was returned to us, rethought and rewritten, in a new Ron Jenkins production at Theatre Network. A horrifying story of domestic violence, turmoil, booze and drugs, racism, trauma, constant relocations — the raw materials of his own life — told in songs, comedy routines, dramatic scenes — told by a series of Sheldon Elters at different ages. The performer is charismatic, and his coming-of-age story of reinvention through theatre came of age in Jenkins’ stunning production.
Bears: Matthew MacKenzie’s spirited, bold, and ingenious dark comedy about pipelines — which already puts it in a category all its own before you even consider its self-deprecating sense of humour — couldn’t be more NOW, of course. It returned to Edmonton briefly this year in a touring production (newly choreographed, in witty fashion, by Monica Dotter) that chronicles a wild chase across the mountains to the sea. Sheldon Elter again starred as a Métis oil worker on the lam who finds himself being assimilated into the bounty and beauty of nature.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: In a #MeToo year, Kate Ryan’s dizzying low-budget Plain Jane production — saturated in colour, energy, temper, crazy accents, mad plot collisions — of the kooky David Yazbek/Jeffrey Lane musical screwball (inspired by the Almodóvar movie), hit a resonant note. If women are going to have relationships with men, they’d better not lose their senses of either absurdity or self.
Hamlet: At the centre of the fresh, vigorous Freewill Shakespeare Company production directed by Marianne Copthorne was a stunning performance by Hunter Cardinal, a young actor of exciting skill, intelligibility, and smarts (see below). .
MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR, a small selection of the riches
Ric Reid — In The Humans, Jackie Maxwell’s Citadel/Canadian Stage co-production of a contemporary family drama of real menace, Reid captured the escalating tension of a patriarch tattered by his efforts to suppress a dark secret and keep fear at bay. A superb performance matched by Laurie Paton as his prickly and maddening wife.
Lawrence Libor — a newcomer to the Edmonton scene, he shone in the Citadel production of the musical fairy tale Once as a moody Irish street musician spinning songs from disappointment and regret, until he nearly succumbs.
Ryan Parker — In Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity at Theatre Network, a play that attempted to domesticate the idea of time, he negotiated the difficult task of conveying intellectual foment and excitement onstage, as a theoretical physicist, torn between his study of time and his lack of it in his own domestic life. A moving leading performance from an actor we’re more accustomed to seeing in character roles.
Jocelyn Ahlf — As the rueful, wounded, then exasperated Pepa in the Plain Janes’ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the musical. She hit all the right notes as an actress who’s just been dumped by her lover, by voicemail. And speaking of right notes, there’s evidently nothing that Ahlf can’t sing.
Robert Benz — In Terry and the Dog the actor delivered a wonderfully restrained performance as a man haunted by the effects of his behaviour as an alcoholic, doomed to live and re-live the past. .
Sheldon Elter – in two performances this year, in his own Métis Mutt and as Floyd, turning imperceptibly into a grizzly in Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, he confirmed, vividly, that not only is he a magnetic presence onstage, but he’s an actor of real force and physical eloquence.
Mikaela Davies — as the neglected middle sister in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, she conjured, with exquisite comic timing, a bookish misfit who comes defiantly into her own in the course of this romantic comedy sequel to Pride and Prejudice.
Patricia Zentilli — her riotous comic performance as a “corporate narrative consultant” and “fund-raising facilitator” in Conni Massing’s Matara, which premiered at Workshop West, wickedly tapped into the intonation and cadence of spin doctors everywhere. Arts companies know that sound.
Braydon Dowler-Coltman — a witty, furiously ironic Mercutio, who could flay you with a phrase, in the Romeo and Juliet undertaken by the actors doing an illicit staged reading in Shakespeare’s R&J, remounted (and still powerful) in 2018 by Kill Your Television.
Alessandro Juliani — as the bored, louche, self-infatuated title aristocrat of Onegin, matched by Meg Roe as the quiet bookworm who discovers passion only to be cruelly rebuffed by him.
Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie — as the twins whose unnerving bond goes beyond biology into thought, breath, and body rhythm in Blood: A Scientific Experiment.
Kristi Hansen and Belinda Cornish — as the pair of twin masters, the Antipholi, in Dave Horak’s neon Freewill Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors, set during a vintage B-Hollywood shoot.They unleash exponential new dimensions of mystification in every encounter and transaction when they end up in the same town.
Merran Carr-Wiggin — a sense of dawning realization was the slow burn of the title character in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, a girl who comes of age as a woman, a wife, and a mother, and discovers the heartbreaking price tag on passion. It gave Marianne Copthorne’s production a terrible urgency.
Holly Turner — as the eccentric, shrewd but genial archaeologist in Origin of the Species at Northern Light Theatre. She brings the four-million-year-old woman she’s excavated back home, and starts lessons in contemporary life.
Hunter Cardinal — took on the most celebrated role in the English theatre and created his own kind of Hamlet — an impulsive, passionate, funny young man, tuned to every frequency of hyporisy, grief-stricken, and battered by betrayals and losses.
Amber Borotsik — in Poison, this remarkable actor created an indelible portrait of a woman frozen on the spot by life-filling grief and loss, unable to move forward and knowing it.
Mark Meer and Ron Pederson — as Jack and Algernon in Teatro La Quindicina’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, they calibrated between them a sense, subtly differentiated, of the absurdity of English manners, the one hitting more notes of suave, the other breezier, daffier. Highly amusing.
AND IN OTHER HIGHLIGHTS…
Prop of the year: the red banner, used in a startling number of ways in Kevin Sutley’s production of Shakespeare’s R&J.
Improv concept of the year: Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart play Gertrude Lawrence and Alice B. Toklas in a sitcom setting with Jackie Gleason overtones. “Hey Alice, what’s for dinner?” is a line you might well hear in Gertie and Alice. It happens monthly at the Grindstone Comedy Theatre.
Retirement of the year: After 19 seasons, Tom Wood’s superlative adaptation of A Christmas Carol will give way in 2019 to a new adaptation of the Dickens’ classic at the Citadel.
The 2018 award for theatrical compression: In Macbeth Muet, which came to the Fringe from Montreal’s Fille du Laitier, two actors created the characters and the brutal action of the story from an assortment of household objects. And it dispensed with Shakespeare’s words altogether. Violent, sexy, playful, and high-impact.
The stage movement award for 2018: the sheer dramatic and theatrical force of Crystal Pite’s choreography for Betroffenheit made it inseparable from the story of a man imprisoned by trauma, struggling to break free. The dancers from her Kidd Pivot company can do anything; they collapse, they re-form, and in the person of Tiffany Tregarthan, they propel themselves across the stage in ways the rest of the species hasn’t discovered.
Audience participation redefined: In Stewart Lemoine’s A Lesson in Brio, an actor (Patricia Cerra) plays an enthusiastic audience volunteer, thus proving (if we needed proof) that actors “do” real life better than anyone else.
The 2018 award for urgent topicality in theatre: a tie between Theatre Yes’s Viscosity, and the Punctuate!/ Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts production of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears. The former fashioned fascinating one-on-on encounters (based on real-life interviews) with people working in the oil industry. The latter: I give you one word, PIPELINES. Runner-up: Unexpectedly, Hannah Moscovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know had the unnerving effect of reminding us in the new world of conservative backslide that while the world has evolved in its attitudes towards female sexuality, the gains are always precarious.
Casting innovation of the year: In Jezebel, At The Still Point, a production which made the theatre term “two-hander” impossible to use, Ainsley Hillyard co-starred with her French bulldog in an exploration of time.
Production number of the year: Nadeem Phillip as a French entertainer in Onegin, who provided the Edmonton theatre season with its only example of knee choreography atop a grand piano. Tied with the movement score by which six actors, armed with expert lighting on a mostly bare stage, created the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Hardline Productions’ Redpatch.
Experiment of the year: In Children of God, which came to the Citadel, the brilliant Corey Payette domesticated a story about the lingering trauma of residential schools by marrying it to a musical theatre-type score, with pop power ballads and the rest. Did it work? Not quite. But it bravely brought a terrible long-hidden Canadian story the kind of unavoidable accessibility that it needs.
Ensemble chemistry of the year: A tie between The Comedy Company company, an ensemble of Edmonton’s top actors and Andrew Ritchie’s Thou Art Here production of Shakespeare’s Will, with a quintet of actors playing Anne Hathaway.
Bright idea of 2018: There were many. The award goes to the Emerging Company Showcase devised jointly by Edmonton’s Azimuth and Calgary’s Downstage Theatre, which dismisses the long-held but arbitrary boundary between the two cities like so much lint. Their production: Cardiac Theatre’s production of Michaela Jefferey’s The Listening Room, a sharp-eared dystopian exploration of youthful anger and disillusionment about the fate of revolutions.
The big-impact-in-small-role department: (a)Louise Lambert in the scene-stealing role of the diner waitress in Stewart Lemoine’s screwball Skirts On Fire, revived in 2018 at Teatro La Quindicina, and as the Greek temptress (who can’t stop looking at her cellphone) in the otherwise undistinguished “relationship comedy” Sirens, which played the Fringe in an Atlas Theatre production. (b) Jesse Gervais was out-and-out hilarious as the furiously unsmiling and unamused career soldier who is enlisted — in a quintessential theatre joke — as the director of light musical comedy for the troops in The Comedy Company.
Dubious idea of 2018: At the exciting moment in theatre history when barriers — in gender, ethnic identity, age, discipline — are being shaken down by theatre artists, Edmonton’s Sterling Awards have opted to separate comedy and drama in award categories. I predict this will be problematic. Since, as The Comedy Company set about proving and most of Shakespeare’s “comedies” testify so eloquently, the distinction is a way of marginalizing comedy. And much of the most important stage work is about crossing boundaries.