By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Social media, video games, pop culture, the 2-D screen world … “all worthless, and we don’t even watch the same worthless things together,” rages Vanya, letting loose an elegiac full-blooded rant on the modern devaluation of bona fide human connection.
In its array of Chekhov winks, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Christopher Durang comedy produced by Shadow Theatre this year, lands a zinger on behalf of live theatre. In a year of desperate viciousness and lies, globally and locally, that liveness has never been more welcome, nay, necessary.
And the embrace of live theatre in this theatre town has extended, bit by bit, in the diversity and inclusiveness of performers, directors, creators, characters. And of audiences? That’s a crucial question, with economic reverb, still unanswered.
We’ve seen coming-of-age stories through Indigenous eyes (Lake of the Strangers), and the ears of a hearing kid with a deaf mother (Songs My Mother Never Sung Me). We’ve seen momentous self-discovery by a poor black abused girl who survives horrors in the rural South of the early 20th century (The Color Purple). We’ve seen what happens to friendship when oppression directs rage towards an easy target, like race (Sweat). In an original Stewart Lemoine comedy (A Likely Story), strangers discover themselves and each other by creating their own story when they decide to collaborate. In Darrin Hagen’s The Empress and the Prime Minister, an outsider bravely insists on inclusion in the collective culture, and a politician steps up to change.
And then there’s the little matter of the end of the world: On E-town stages this year, we’ve seen not one but two three-act epics and a hit musical that explore, in memorably distinctive ways, surviving the apocalypse. In Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play (You Are Here, Blarney Productions) it’s through the collective act of storytelling, from pop- to high-culture. In The Skin of Our Teeth (Bright Young Things) it’s the cyclical continuity of the family propelled through space and time. In Come From Away (Broadway Across Canada), it’s a surge of cross-border human kindness; in Nassim (hosted by the Citadel) an overture of inclusion that crosses languages.
It’s all in the connection of real people. And that’s what live theatre is for. On that note, let’s look back at the year on E-town stages, and remember some of its highlights.
MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OF 2019 (a selection, in random order)
Fun Home – The Plain Jane production of this genuinely original musical, directed by Dave Horak, was one of those experiences that sticks with you. Based on a best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, it unravels the great mystery that haunts all of us: our families. Grown-up Alison, age 43 (Jocelyn Ahlf), with her sketchpad, conjures and reassesses her younger selves — Alison the feisty little kid (Jillian Eisenstat), and Alison the college student (Bella King) who discovers she’s gay at the same moment she realizes her dad is, too. Horak’s production, heart-breaking and lively, was beautifully tuned to the tangled feelings of this coming-of-age coming-out story. Read the full review HERE.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: So, in a world that’s melting down, what do we do now? Anne Washburn’s strange 2013 play proposes that we survive by re-telling stories coughed up by pop culture, specifically our favourite Simpsons episodes. A strange play that dances along an arc from shared pop-culture to high-culture ritual in its three acts, Mr. Burns was imagined in a highly theatrical way by Andrew Ritchie’s production (You Are Here/ Blarney Productions) that created three intimate theatres — one immersive surround, one thrust, one proscenium — from the chilly expanses of the Westbury. Read the full review HERE.
Matilda the musical: In this wickedly clever musical (based on the deliciously dark Roald Dahl novel), a brilliant little subversive (Lilla Solymos) not only resists adult stupidity but triumphs over it. Daryl Cloran’s snazzy, vivid Citadel production found the perfect mix of cartoon excess and something more heartfelt. In every age group his cast bit in, with riotous conviction. And the bold, choreography, by Canadian star Kimberley Rampersad, really nailed the dynamic. Read the full review HERE.
Lake of the Strangers: In this haunting tale by the brother-sister team of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal, a young Indigenous boy and his little brother set forth on a secret night-time adventure, the last of the summer, to catch a big fish and thus instigate a family celebration. In Ron Jenkins’ exquisite production, starring Hunter Cardinal, the coming-of-age story emerges, with luminous simplicity and imagination, from an onstage pool, conceived by designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll. Read the full review HERE.
Six: A true Fringe success story, this musical (by the young English team of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss) began as an Edinburgh hit, vaulted across the Atlantic, first to Chicago, then the Citadel here, and soon (with other stops in between) on to Broadway. A bright idea (a rock concert by the much put-upon wives of Henry VIII, with a pop-diva style for each) executed with zest and theatrical savvy by a kick-ass cast. It married a catchy original pop score to wicked lyrics, plus a lightly weighted message about female empowerment. Fun fun fun. Read the full review HERE.
Small Mouth Sounds: Intriguingly perverse though it is, the premise of Beth Wohl’s play — six strangers at a silence retreat led by a famous guru — really doesn’t account for either its comedy or its mysterious haunting effect. The characters get to know each other as we do — mostly without words. Jim Guedo’s Wild Side production, with its superb ensemble, was perfectly judged to calibrate the way the tiniest gestures and flickers can become momentous in the larger human struggle. Read the full review HERE.
The Color Purple: Kimberley Rampersad’s beautiful Citadel/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production (the first on stage or screen to be directed by a black woman) captures the four-decade spaciousness and the intimacy of the heart-breaking life-affirming story, as Celie (stunningly played by Tara Jackson), poor, black, and endlessly oppressed, emerges from survival mode into the self-discovery of creation. Read the full review HERE.
A Likely Story: The title is double-sided, skeptical or affirmative. And so was this playful, strangely moving new experiment in comedy by Teatro La Quindicina’s Stewart Lemoine. It wonders about the might-be’s that go into the making of stories. Anonymous strangers discover, together, who they are at the same time we do. Lemoine’s first-rate five-member ensemble perfectly judges the delicacy (and very funny literal-mindedness) of this “journey,” with Mathew Hulshof as everyone the travellers meet en route. Read the full review HERE.
The Party/ The Candidate: There wasn’t a more crazily ambitious experiment in theatricality in 2019 than this pair of Kat Sandler political comedies, putting a satirical boot into the unholy intersection of politics, celebrity, and the media. The two shows ran simultaneously in the Citadel’s Maclab and Rice Theatres — with the same 10-member cast dashing pellmell from one to the other, scene by scene. The Party, all free-floating asides, smart-ass stage whispers and small talk, cast us as the fat-cat potential donors at a political bash. On the theory that spin-doctoring and damage control are naturals for farce, The Candidate was one — a full-out old-fashioned door-slammer on an election eve nine months later. Not everything worked in the double-productions directed by Daryl Cloran and the playwright. But the entertainment value was vast, especially in an election year. Read the full review HERE.
Slight of Mind: Beth Graham’s lyrical play about risk, ambition, and breaking the bonds of earth — an ode to dreamers — extrapolated theatrically on the myth of Icarus, the flight-obsessed kid who flew too close to the sun and melted his wax wings. Heather Inglis’s Theatre Yes production took us through every nook and cranny of the Citadel (except its theatres). Read the full review HERE.
We Are Not Alone: In his solo creation, which arrived in the Theatre Network season, ex-Edmontonian actor/playwright Damien Atkins tells the story of his fascination with UFOs, and the perennially related questions of belief and ‘are we alone in the universe?’. And in the course of expertly conjuring a spectrum of research and a gallery of individual characters (some kookier than others), he makes a compelling case for rattling the cages where belief and doubt normally reside in solitary splendour. A captivating production directed by Chris Abraham and Christian Barry. Read the full review HERE.
The Skin of Our Teeth: With this Thornton Wilder epic, Bright Young Things set before us the strangest play of the year, still playfully experimental and unnervingly on point after 77 years. It chronicles the fortunes of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey through one epochal apocalypse after another, from the Ice Age to devastating climate changes, wars, the migration of refugees, assorted extinctions…. With a starry cast (led by Jeff Haslam, Stephanie Wolfe, Vincent Forcier, Lauren Hughes) director Dave Horak figured out how to bring this unwieldy story, mythical and meta-, funny and oddly hopeful, onto the stage. A riveting evening that seemed strikingly of this moment. Read the full review HERE.
The Cardiac Shadow: In this clever multi-disciplinary experiment in dance, theatre, music and film, Northern Light Theatre’s Trevor Schmidt reimagines a play (by the American Clay McLeod Chapman) that extrapolates from a horrifying experiment that’s a Holocaust footnote. Under extreme duress, the body and the soul separate. Schmidt had dancers (Good Women Dance) animating the monologues, and the words delivered by actors in voice-over. The concept may sound aridly conceptual, but the effect — bathed in golden light by Beth Dart with music by Dave Clarke — was stunning. Read the full review HERE.
Betrayal: Harold Pinter’s infinitely clever, intricate 1978 masterwork is the three-sided story of an affair — told in reverse chronology. Broken Toys Theatre’s welcome revival, directed by Clinton Carew, was so alert to the nuances of Pinter’s language, including the tense pauses, that you could just about hear the characters listening and reassessing what they think they know. A cast (Elena Porter, Chris W. Cook, Cody Porter) in prime form. Read the full review HERE.
The Ballad of Peachtree Rose: Nicole Moeller did something rare in her new play, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. She crafted a bona fide thriller (set in Edmonton), with intriguing mysteries, withheld information, alternate possibilities, mounting suspense. Brenley Charkow’s production, starring Alexandra Dawkins, Laura Raboud, and Shannon Blanchet, knew what to spill, what to hint, what to unravel and re-ravel. Read the full review HERE.
MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR (a small selection, in random order)
Tara Jackson – As the abused heroine Celie in Kimberley Rampersad’s Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Color Purple, the actor, a powerhouse singer, captured the stirring emergence of an oppressed soul into a world of wonder and joy in this story of empowerment against all odds. A knock-out performance.
Nicola Elbro — In The Bad Seed, Teatro La Quindicina’s revival of the Maxwell Anderson thriller of the ‘50s, she calibrated to an exquisite degree a mother’s incremental escalation of apprehension, suspicion, and then suspense attached to an apparently perfect ‘50s daughter.
Ted Dykstra – The centrepiece of the Citadel’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol by David van Belle — which replaces the 19-year Victorian version by Tom Wood — is Dykstra’s performance as the furiously brisk, acidic Mr. Scrooge. It’s 1949, and this toxic party, a test-case for redemption, runs a department store with a steely-eyed glare and an iron fist that scatters termination notices as if there were no tomorrows. A stakes-raising performance.
Sheldon Elter – As a king who explodes into unmotivated, self-destructive jealousy in Dave Horak’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter’s Tale, Elter’s Leontes seems as baffled as his courtiers that his natural cordiality has curdled into murderous rage. A portrait of a man trapped behind a smile that suddenly feels foreign to him.
Simon Bracken – In Matthew MacKenzie’s black comedy The Particulars, he was riveting as a man suffering the invasion of his life by noxious pests. Surrounded by six dancers, it was a performance of expert comic physicality.
Alexandra Dawkins – As the wary new recruit to an organized crime network in Nicole Moeller’s thriller The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, which premiered at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, this newcomer conveyed the harsh contours of a hard-scrabble life, and the seductive lure of family, the sense of belonging, of being valued.
Colleen Wheeler – A sensational comic performance as the foul-mouthed campaign manager cum fixer who’s in constant motion between crises (and theatres) in The Party and The Candidate. She leans into a stomp like she’s exterminating ants while she talks.
John Ullyatt – How can you ever un-see Ullyatt, riotous as the dread tyrannical head-mistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, vaulting over the pommel-horse in gym class? Or flinging a kid like a hammer. A comic show-stopper of a performance.
Luc Tellier – Unfailing droll as the earnestly naive political intern Dill Pickerel in The Party and The Candidate. A performance that timed every reaction half a beat behind the action.
Vanessa Sabourin – As a woman who’s stepped up to a shattering decision that came with the potential for the world’s disapproval, the charismatic star of 19 Weeks, produced by Northern Light Theatre, turned in a performance of confidential honesty. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.
Jocelyn Ahlf – As the middle-aged version of Alison, a graphic artist trying to sketch her family in the Plain Janes’ production of Fun Home, the actor created a memorably alert, wry character who comes to understand something heartbreaking about the maddening, mercurial, and finally tragic man who was her father.
Jeff Haslam (see above) – As the closeted father, he turned in a fascinating, heart-breaking portrait of the terrible cost of a double life in Fun Home.
Hunter Cardinal – In Lake of the Strangers, this magnetic actor/playwright played a pair of young brothers on an adventure, conveying effortlessly the dynamic of the older bro in charge of an exasperating, wayward younger sibling.
Lilla Solymos – This remarkable 12-year-old triple-threat commanded the stage as the plucky, gravely focussed heroine of Matilda the Musical, who takes charge of her own story, and refuses to ingratiate herself with either authority or sentimental clichés. And she followed that up with an expert comic turn as the terrifying little girl who plays all those clichés for all they’re worth in The Bad Seed at Teatro.
Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira – In Bed and Breakfast, a deceptively mild-mannered Canadian comedy by Mark Crawford (Theatre Network), this pair gave us the fun of watching two actors populate the stage at top speed with two dozen characters, of every age, gender, sexual persuasion, biker to real estate agent. And sometimes, in scenes of maximum virtuosity — a committee meeting, a dinner party, the b&b opening weekend — there was a crowd.
Nicole St. Martin — In a bravely harsh performance she was explosive as a woman whose resentment turns to fury when the going gets tough for blue-collar workers in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat (Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club).
Oscar Derkx – In Two Gentlemen of Verona (Freewill Shakespeare Festival), an early Shakespeare romantic comedy with unappetizing developments in male behaviour (and a downright sour ending), this resourceful actor brought to the role of Proteus a sense of wonder at his own unexpected capacity for terrible behaviour. It didn’t explain the play, but made it so much more palatable.
AND IN OTHER HIGHLIGHTS …
Image of the year: A tie. In Heather Inglis’s production of Slight of Mind, we gasped from inside a Citadel lobby as Icarus fell back to earth from the roof of an adjoining building. Dave Horak’s production of The Winter’s Tale embraced the oddities of this strange late-period romance, and brought an unexpected sense of humour you’d have to call goofy. Witness a bucolic Act II dance especially choreographed for sheep (no kidding), later to be seen strolling through the park.
Experiment of the year: Fight Night, by the Belgian avant-gardism company Ontroerend Goed, investigated why we vote the way we do, in a fun, Survivor-type entertainment that handed us five candidates about whom we know nothing — and a clicker. And then it tallied the results on the spot.
Ensemble of the year — A tie. (a) Dave Horak’s compelling in-the-round 12-actor production of E Day, Jason Chinn’s political comedy, took us behind the scene to a constituency office during the countdown to the historic provincial NDP victory of 2015. The largest-scale indie production of the year, it was a study in perpetual motion, and the translation of the small to the momentous. (b) In Jim Guedo’s six-actor Wild Side production of Small Mouth Sounds, a gallery of characters, from least anxious to most, emerged from the situation — and mostly without the benefit of words since they’re at a silent retreat.
Chutzpah Award for 2018: The Winter’s Tale/ Two Gentlemen of Verona — With Dave Horak’s al fresco production, Freewill Shakespeare Festival audiences saw a version of The Winter’s Tale that actually embraced (instead of camouflaged) the weirdness of Shakespeare’s strange and magical late period romance. Its companion piece, Kevin Sutley’s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, bravely took on (instead of detouring around) the bitter aftertaste of a “romantic comedy” in which a guy comes on, with cringe-making aggression, to his best friend’s beloved.
Changes at the top: With the departure of playwright/mentor/teacher Vern Thiessen and manager Marian Brant, Workshop West found a new artistic director in Heather Inglis of Theatre Yes an interim operations manager in L’UniThéâtre’s Milane Pridmore-Franz. The artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, Marianne Copithorne, left last February, after a decade at the helm and an association with the company that dates back her Freewill acting debut as Lady Macbeth in 1999. Not only has she not been replaced, the company hasn’t even announced her departure yet.
Most impossible casting triumph of the year: (a) If you can find an actor who’s also an accomplished escape artist you have to consider yourself a lottery winner. Enter Miranda Allen, multi-talented star of Ron Pearson’s fascinating new play Minerva — Queen of the Handcuffs, which premiered in the Roxy Performance series. (b) Ditto, if you can find an actor who’s convincing in sight and sound as a young justice minister named Pierre Trudeau. Enter Joey Lespérance in The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network.
Small-space design ingenuity and wit award for 2019: Two of Trevor Schmidt’s designs for Northern Light productions in the ATB Financial Arts Barn’s intimate Studio Theatre are up for this award. So, a tie between the bandstand in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs (an outsized set of sparkly teeth, with pointy incisors) and the “altar” that’s a backdrop for The Cardiac Shadow (a dismembered upright piano, with its keys hanging at the side).
Improv bright idea of the year: Rapid Fire Theatre’s current production of The Blank Who Stole Christmas, partly scripted partly improvised. A guest improviser in a costume of their choice shows up in the production, an homage to Dr. Seuss’s Grinchian classic, to play the villain of the piece. Sheer lunacy, like so many of RFT’s most impressive inspirations.