The Citadel’s upcoming 54th season: local stars in an international galaxy

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel

By Liz Nicholls,

The new logo is just the tip-off.

Monday afternoon at Edmonton’s largest playhouse artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled an ambitious upcoming Citadel season —  its 54th and his third as the architect of the company lineup.

Not unexpectedly at a big regional theatre, the lineup includes a blockbuster Broadway musical and a Pulitzer Prize winner; both come with unusual casting challenges en route to showcasing greater diversity onstage. There are new, less expected international partnerships — with a Brit rock musical en route to New York and an off-centre London-based comedy theatre company.

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New? There’s an alternative series for “the theatrically adventurous” and a new-script festival. After 19 Yule seasons the Citadel is retiring Tom Wood’s hit adaptation of A Christmas Carol for a new version, by Edmonton playwright David van Belle, directed by Cloran (Nov. 30 to Dec. 23). The company even ventures into the summer for the first time with a July musical (Ring of Fire, a Johnny Cash extravaganza), tucked between the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and the mighty Fringe (July 20 to Aug. 11). Notable director/choreographer Tracey Flye, a former Edmontonian, brings it to the stage.  

And as for wearing its Edmonton heart on its sleeve, at the centre of the new season there’s the mainstage premiere of a new play that, in every way, is recognizably of, by, and about this place. The Garneau Block is a stage adaptation, by Edmonton actor/playwright Belinda Cornish, of Todd Babiak’s hit 2006 novel The Garneau Block.

Belinda Cornish

It takes us to an Edmonton neighbourhood we all know, and introduces us, with subtle satirical zest, whimsical humour, and affection, to its idiosyncratic denizens — in a story where they come together to save something: the ‘hood. Says Cloran,  “A great Edmonton novelist, a terrific Edmonton playwright, an Edmonton story, premiering here in Edmonton … it’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing.”

Directed by the Citadel’s associate artistic director Rachel Peake, The Garneau Block runs March 14 to April 5. It anchors the new Collider Festival, the Citadel’s answer to Alberta Theatre Projects’ late-lamented new play festival PlayRites in Calgary, Cloran hopes. He says, “it’s our attempt to make the Citadel and Edmonton a destination for new work,” in something of the way Austin’s South By Southwest is a destination for new music. 

The Color Purple

The season opens with The Color Purple, the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the ensuing film, that chronicles the struggles of an African-American woman from the South in the early half of the previous century. Kimberley Rampersad (who’s choreographed Cloran’s upcoming production of Matilda), directs a cast of 16 African-Canadian performers, to be assembled from across the country (Sept. 21 to Oct. 13).

In a study of musical theatre contrasts, the Citadel’s other mainstage musical is a first Citadel collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (it plays here after its North American premiere in Chicago), Six springboarded from last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe into a hit run in the West End. 

As Cloran describes, Six is a sassy rock musical/ concert à la Spice Girls — “original pop music, very catchy; great sense of female empowerment!” — in which the much-abused wives of Henry VIII get together “to reclaim their identities” and generally rock out.The subtitle sheds light: “Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert.”

“I watched it at the Arts Theatre in London, surrounded by 20-somethings,” says Cloran. “It’s a lot of fun, a coup for us…. Soon it will be everywhere. But we got it first!”

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living gets its Canadian premiere in a Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club Theatre Company co-production directed by the latter’s Ashlie Corcoran (January 11 to Feb 2). In the play by Polish-born American writer Martyna Majok, we meet two couples: a young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver, and a woman who’s a quadriplegic and her ex-husband. Says Cloran, “it challenges our stereotypes — about disability, about care-giving. It’s about fragile human relationships.”

Cost of Living

“We’re always looking for ways to feature artists of different abilities onstage,” says Cloran. “And our audience, as we discovered from The Humans and Disgraced, is really up for great contemporary challenging stories.”

Two seasons ago, the biggest big shot in theatre history had writer’s block (Shakespeare in Love) at the Citadel. This season in April his magical late-period romance The Tempest is reimagined for a cast of deaf and hearing actors. Next season Shakespeare grooves to 25 Beatles songs, in the hit production of As You Like It created by Cloran for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach last summer.

Set in ‘60s Vancouver this high-spirited version of Shakespeare’s celebration of love proved the best-selling show in the history of the company, “literally off the chart,” Cloran laughs. “Joyous” was the word most often used by critics, right after “I never would have thought that….”

Cloran, who’d previously directed a 1920s version of Love’s Labours Lost for Bard on the Beach, says he “cut half Shakespeare’s text” for the songs (negotiations with seven different Beatles rights holders starting with Sony is a story in itself). Amazingly, he found that they “really tell the story,” in the arc of the celebrated catalogue “from the innocence and first blush of love” in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, say, through “the more philosophical offerings” of the later albums. 

What we’ll see Feb. 15 to March 15 is a new production, with an Edmonton cast. And Cloran revisits his challenge of building “a full-on wrestling ring” onstage; the show opens with a real-live wrestling match.

The season finale comes about through an unexpected small-world-isn’t-it? intersection of the international and the local. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the work of the British comedy outfit Mischief Theatre, creators of the giddy Broadway hit The Play That Goes Wrong, which recently closed a two-year Broadways run (it’s currently onstage in Toronto).

The Citadel/ Arts Club co-production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong (April 11 to May 3) will feature a Canadian cast of 12, directed by Londoner Adam Meggido, whom Edmonton audiences and actors already know for his improv virtuosity in Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thons.   

To even say the title Peter Pan Goes Wrong is to wince and laugh.  Cloran does both. “An (earnest) community theatre is trying their best to put on a production of Peter Pan and … well, yes there are mid-air collisions.”

The J.M. Barrie classic is up against it: falling stage lights, collapsing set, cues awry, and (try to not think about this) those flying wires . “It’s very technically complex,” says Cloran of the chaotic hilarity that attends the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s efforts. “I’ve never seen a revolve go that fast! And there’s a surprising amount of heart.”

Speaking of wires, Highwire is the Citadel’s new alternative series of three innovative, challenging productions — “risky theatre, theatre without a net,” as Cloran puts it. It will mostly happen in the Rice (the Citadel returns to this original name of its smallest 150- to 200—seat black box theatre, aka “The Club”).  “It’s a great opportunity for partnerships.  We can bring the work of exciting small companies to our audiences.”

The series opens in October ( 17 to 27) on the Maclab stage with a “truly interactive five-performer production” from the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. In Fight Night, as Cloran describes it, each actor steps forward to “make a pitch and plea, and the audience votes” which one to send off — until there’s a winner. “It celebrates the live nature of theatre,” he says of a show that will, by definition, be different every night. “I’m always drawn to work that can’t be a movie.” And in a ripple of synchronicity, this show about how we make choices happens during the federal election.

John Ullyatt

Every Brilliant Thing, by the Brit team of Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donahoe, “is one of the best scripts I’ve read in the last 10 years,” says Cloran of a play in which a young man struggles, for the benefit of his mother, to come up with a list of things that make life worth living. The Citadel production, directed by Dave Horak and starring John Ullyatt, runs in the Rice Feb. 1 to 23.

The third Highwire act (April 18 to May 10) in the Rice is Matthew MacKenzie’s After The Fire, which has just  finished a Toronto run. The dark comedy re-envisions, through an Indigenous lens, its earlier incarnation as Bust, which explored the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire while the ashes were still smouldering. Collaborating with After The Fire producers Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Arts is a way, says Cloran, of giving those smaller companies access to a wider audience. The aim is a tour. “We’ll launch it here, and send it out into the world.”

What isn’t in the new Citadel season? The Citadel/Banff Professional Program; this season’s The Tempest is the last of it. The cancellation, says Cloran, represents a “shift in priority to the development and showcasing of large-scale new work.”

“We’re increasing the amount of resources we’re putting into developing work and our spring new-work festival, Collider, will showcase the work nationally.”


Ring of Fire, July 20 to Aug. 22

The Color Purple, Sept. 21 to Oct. 13

Six, Nov. 2 to 24

A Christmas Carol (a new adaptation by David van Belle), Nov. 30 to Dec. 23

Cost of Living, Jan. 11 to Feb 2, 2020

As You Like It, Feb. 15 to March 15

The Garneau Block, March 14 to April 5

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, April 11 to May 3

Highwire: Fight Night (Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed),  Oct. 17 to 27; Every Brilliant Thing, Feb. 1 to 23;  After The Fire (Punctuate! Theatre, Alberta Aboriginal Arts), April to May 10.





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