By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It was a long time coming.
After 18 dark traumatic isolating months and the most terrible summer ever, a play about community, about what it means to live together in a neighbourhood and pull together — and do those things here — finally opened on the Citadel mainstage Thursday night. The audience cheered, and laughed. And it felt like validation.
Why do we live here? You can’t plant yourself in Edmonton and not get asked the question — or put it to yourself — on a regular basis. It threads its way, sometimes spoken sometimes not, through Belinda Cornish’s The Garneau Block, adapted cleverly from the 2006 Todd Babiak best-seller.
“ One rarely visits one’s own back yard,” says the mysterious millionaire who lives behind closed blinds at #13 in the fictional Garneau cul-de-sac. That is so true, fellow hinterland city dwellers — and it applies to theatre. What Babiak did in the Edmonton of 15 years ago, Cornish has done in 2021. Her new play is something rare: a comedy, funny, satirical, and full of heart, that is, in a fulsomely detailed way, of this place, now.
The Garneau Block starts with a gunshot and an act of violence that has left a dark and tragic cloud over the ‘hood — and will galvanize it towards collective action. Curiously, though, I think it’s comedy rather than tragedy that makes us feel we’re in a real city. And there’s lots of it in the play.
The fun of the evening is a heart-lightener. For one thing we don’t often hear onstage the sound of our own weird traditions, our quirky special places, our perpetual aggravations, our ambivalence about Edmonton “celebrity,” (see, I’ve put that in quotations marks). In The Garneau Block we laugh the laugh of recognition when Rajinder (Shelly Antony) chooses Continental Treat for a special dinner, or Professor Raymond Terletsky (Julien Arnold) takes his Death in Philosophy class on a field trip to the water park at West Edmonton Mall. “I think Remedy actually trains (their baristas) to be that slow,” says Abby (Stephanie Wolfe), a self-styled progressive with no principles you could count on. References to BioWare or Fleisch, the Accidental Beach or brunch at Pip, or the way “half of 109th is closed For No Reason” give us a little frisson of delight.
And as we know from her other multi-hued comedies (Little Elephants, Diamond Dog and the satire Category E among them) Cornish is a funny writer, with a deft touch in witty character-driven dialogue.
Narda McCarroll’s lovely design, glowingly lighted, conjures a neighbourhood from its moving parts: three open-sided peaked frames and three interchangeable interiors, set against a city skyline of stylized lights and towers. And on this set, Rachel Peake’s production sets the characters in perpetual motion, in and out of each other’s places, waving bottles, coffees, or grievances. Or pieces of paper with an enigmatic message: Let’s Fix It. The “it” will have something to do with the house, now abandoned, in which the fateful gunshot occurred four months earlier.
Judging by the opening scenes, it’s a caffeinated ’hood: even the slackers and underachievers and wallowers move fast. And they change the scenes at a lively clip (possibly the play’s inspiration in a novel serialized in quick bites for a newspaper has something to do with that).
Anyhow, the 11 characters meet the way neighbours do, in fleeting encounters, on a spectrum that turns the casual to heated on a moment’s notice. And Matthew Skopyk’s terrific score captures those rich possibilities: suspenseful rhythm and melodies fluting on top.
You’ll recognize the people of The Garneau Block from the novel. And though it unfolds, and reveals them in much different ways (as you should expect in a two-hour stage play with theatrical requirements), the story is built on secrets, too — the keeping of them, the spilling of them, the escalation of hostility that ensues.
At the still centre of the jostle of frictions, idiosyncrasies, mysteries and secret sorrows, is Madison (the excellent Rachel Bowron), pushing 30 but still living in a stop-gap way: stalled, trained as a journalist but working as a travel agent, living in her parents’ basement, and secretly pregnant. Her gay best friend in this theatre town of ours is an actor, a local “star” (those damning quotation marks again).
In a highly entertaining performance, Jonas is played by Andrew Kushnir as a genuinely funny self-dramatizing motor-mouth who has turned anxiety and resentment into a comic art form. He feels under-appreciated, perpetually exasperated by the “why Edmonton?” question he attracts from theatre-goers. “It’s important for us magic theatre people to have Muggle friends,” he assures his pal.
Maddie’s parents, Abby and David, are a study in contrasts, both self-deluded in comical ways. The former, played with flighty vivacity by Stephanie Wolfe, is convinced she’s the most forward-thinking person in any room, off to a rally to raise awareness for clear-cutting but relying on creaky stereotypes in the local sphere. David, pitched to perfection by George Szilagyi, is a small-c conservative (in the novel he’s big-C Conservative) with a secret of his own (and a small dog named Garith, played by Koko). “What? … I read White Fragility; I took that university course with Dan Levy…” he tells Barry, the Indigenous character in the ‘hood he assumes is homeless. Barry rolls his eyes.
Raymond, the pompous self-justifying phil prof played to the hilt by Arnold, has some tawdry secrets of his own. Which drives Raymond’s wife Shirley Wong from conciliatory to explosive, and gives Nadien Chu the opportunity to deliver a memorable rant, one of the greats, that will singe your eyelashes. She is riveting.
Alana Hawley Purvis, too rarely seen on our stages, has the fun of playing three characters, including the crisp chair of the U of A philosophy department, the memorably awful Tammy who owns the travel agency, and Helen, a homespun chin-up philosopher whose life wisdom kicks Wittgenstein’s butt.
In the novel the fractious people of the ‘hood have a common enemy: the university is bent on property appropriation. The play welcomes us back into the theatre with a narrative built, instead, on the way neighbours are flung together, needing change or equilibrium in their own lives, creating a community of hopeful interlocking questers. The late-play review of might-have-beens all involve sharing.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. Don’t miss it.
The Garneau Block
Theatre: Citadel Theatre
Written by: Belinda Cornish, adapted from the Todd Babiak novel
Directed by: Rachel Peake
Starring: Shelly Antony, Julien Arnold, Rachel Bowron, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Alana Hawley Purvis, Andrew Kushnir, George Szilagyi, Stephanie Wolfe, Koko
Running: through Oct. 10
Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: citadeltheatre.com