Getting excited about Edmonton theatre in 2022, a how-to guide

Two Headed/ Half Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

I sometimes have to wonder if my annual ‘what to look forward to in theatre’ piece in January has become speculative fiction in our pandemical world. A universal disclaimer seems to hang over everything like ice fog.

Last January I even declared fearlessly that among all the upcoming unknowns and uncertainties, at least we could be sure of one thing: 2021 was bound to be a better year than the devastating shitstorm of 2020.

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Yeah, well…. Don’t hold that over me. But Edmonton theatre did return to live this past year, to surprise, excite, and delight us. And its hold-your-breath/ cross-your-fingers pencilled-in calendar of postponements and cancellations, plans, re-plans, un-plans, backups to backup plans, online experiments was a validation of the sheer persistence, the force of will, at work in theatre as the parameters of live engagement — on and offstage and in the audience — changed, and changed.

So here it is, in the spirit of positivity: a sampling in no particular order of theatre to look forward to, and be excited about, in 2022. The exact “when” might change. So might the “how,” as we’ve seen from ever-more ingenious ways of making stages from platforms. But theatre artists, those amazing acrobats of creativity, will make it happen. It’s what they do.

And, my fellow theatre-lovers, this is just a selection, to whet your appetite. Expect other productions, already in the wings or dreaming their way into existence, or as yet unforeseen.

•Northern Light Theatre premieres Two Headed/Half Hearted, an original small-scale musical by artistic director Trevor Schmidt and actor/composer Kaeley Jade Wiebe, a young Métis up-and-comer artist. As billed, it’s “a gothic prairie song cycle” with particular (and extreme) demands on its co-stars since it’s jointly narrated and sung by conjoined twins Venus (Wiebe) and Juno (Rebecca Sadowski). It chronicles their life and death, along with stories from history and mythology. Speaking as we were of artistic acrobatics, we will see them jointly play the guitar. Two Headed/Half Hearted runs April 22 to May 7 at Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn.

•Cottagers and Indians is the latest from by the notably quick-witted playwright/ storyteller, satirist/ journalist Drew Hayden Taylor, a member of the Anishinaabe First Nation. It’s inspired by a real-life dispute over water between Ontario cottagers and the Indigenous locals who are trying to revive old traditions by planting wild rice on a lake shore. The Shadow Theatre production, running March 9 to 27 at the Varscona, stars Trevor Duplessis and Davina Stewart.

Jane Eyre, Citadel Theatre, Photo supplied.

•One of literature’s most compelling heroines has bided her time. And now: Jane Eyre, originally slated for last March, will finally premiere at the Citadel, the theatre that commissioned it (March 19 to April 10). The 10-actor adaptation of the 1847 Charlotte Brontë masterpiece is the work of star Canadian playwright Erin Shields (Paradise Lost, The Lady From The Sea), who’s demonstrated a particular gift for adaptations, as director Daryl Cloran has pointed out. Jane Eyre, he says, both embraces the period and has contemporary feminist resonances for audiences. The production stars Hayley Gillis and John Ullyatt.

•The Freewill Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 35th summer season with a double-bill: one of Will’s most perennially popular comedies, alternating with a rarely staged one. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Dave Horak, runs in rep on the Heritage Amphitheatre  stage opposite Nancy McAlear’s production of Measure For Measure, framed through a #MeToo lens. It’s Freewill’s first foray into Shakespeare’s dark, unsettling mid-period comedy.

The shows alternate June 16 to July 10 (auditions happen Jan. 14 through 17). And unless the city re-thinks its radical decision to close the entire park for three YEARS (seriously?) for renos, this coming summer may be Freewill’s grand finale at that location.

•Teatro La Quindicina’s live four-production 2022 season of comedies (opening at the Varscona in April with Caribbean Muskrat), includes Evelyn Strange, an elegant noir-ish 1995 Stewart Lemoine mystery/ thriller of the Hitchock-ian persuasion, originally slated for a 2020 revival.  Shannon Blanchet, the original Evelyn Strange, directs the Teatro production in which Gianna Vacirca stars as a beautiful amnesiac on the loose in ‘50s New York, along with Oscar Derkx and Belinda Cornish. And there’s a Wagner joke. (The season, incidentally, includes the first-ever revival of Lemoine’s 2003 Margin of the Sky, which hinges on a piece of music by Stockhausen).  

•Ayita by Teneil Whiskeyjack is the mainstage production at this year’s 10th annual SkirtsAfire, an ever-expanding theatre and multi-disciplinary arts festival dedicated to showcasing the stories, voices, and talents of women and non-binary artists. Billed as “a fusion of theatre and Indigenous contemporary dance,” Ayita follows three generations of Cree women. And with its cast of three actors (the playwright, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Janira Moncayo) and a chorus of four dancers, it unfolds in a fusion of text and movement.  Co-directed by Lebogang Disele and choreographer Sandra Lamouche, the SkirtsAfire production runs March 3 to 13 at the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn.

In May Workshop West Playwrights Theatre and Theatre Yes premiere a new play that ventures boldly into the messy tangled contemporary terrain where public and private space intersect. Tell Us What Happened, by actor/playwright Michelle Robb, tackles sexual assault, friendship, and the internet: the premise could hardly be more challenging. Heather Inglis directs a cast of five in a production that runs Mary 12 to 22 (location TBA), two years after this 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate winner was announced.

RISER participants (clockwise) Cuban Movements Dance Academy, NASRA, Even Gilchrist, Tai Amy Grauman. Photo supplied.

Thanks to RISER Edmonton, one of the brightest ideas of 2021 (the E-town branch of a national initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre to support independent theatre), we’ll see the premieres of four indie projects next month at the Backstage Theatre. The artists couldn’t be more different: the Cuban Movements Dance Academy, Even Gilchrist, NASRA, and Tai Amy Grauman. They’ve been supported by the technical and creative resources of the theatre community, and a year of mentorship from the Edmonton Fringe, the Citadel, Azimuth, and Catalyst. The first two run in rep for two weeks starting Feb. 4, the other two after that.

•AND IN THE SPIRIT OF ANTICIPATION, here’s an exciting morale-booster, in two parts:

The new Roxy Theatre, in progress on 124th St.

(a) Times may be dauntingly tough for theatre, but Theatre Network is getting ready to open the new Roxy, on the footprint of its old ex-cinema home on 124 Street, felled by fire in 2015. And Edmonton will have not one, but two new theatre spaces, a 200-seat MainStage house named after Nancy Power and a 100-seat studio/rehearsal black box named in honour of actor Lorne Cardinal.

(b) Rapid Fire Theatre, Edmonton’s deluxe 42-year-old improv company, is leaving its headquarters at the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall and moving into new digs. Catch their plethora of weekly shows at the ex-Catalyst Theatre ex-Theatre Network space in Strathcona (8529 Gateway Blvd., next to the Yardbird Suite). Opening night is Jan. 14.

Hunter Cardinal in Lake of the Strangers, Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Wishful thinking: a very large — well, boundless — department for all of us, but start with this. One of the most haunting productions of the season so far, Lake of the Strangers, a collaboration between Edmonton Fringe Theatre and Naheyawin of the play by the brother-sister team of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal directed by Murray Utas, ran for only one night, Dec. 11. It should have a full run.

•So, you see, intermission is nearly over. Grab your vaccine proofs, theatre-goers. Northern Light’s production of The Hunchback Variations, starring Ian Leung and Dave Clarke, is up and running starting Jan. 14 at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn. And Shadow Theatre’s The Mountaintop, with Ray Strachan and Patricia Cerra opens at the Varscona Jan. 20. More about them anon.

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