Celebrating the Edmonton theatre season that returned to live, part one

Sheldon Elter and the Bears ensemble, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It began in some trepidation, cautiously, experimentally, with complicated logistics, under constant threat of delays and cancellations. But this was the season that live theatre actually returned to live and in-person. Yes, the pivot pivoted. We put on shoes and masks, and gradually came to really feel the pleasure of it again, of being with other people in the room where it happens.

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In the terrible devastation of The Great Pause theatre artists never stopped being adventurous in their quest to engage audiences and capture live-ness on digital platforms instead of stages. And, as a bonus, that connected us in a new way to theatres across a very big country and around the world. A new live-online theatre hybrid, labour-intensive and costly, gradually evolved. And streamed theatre hasn’t disappeared; it’s been added as option B. Fringe TV, the brainchild of the theatre company that produces Edmonton’s mightiest festival, was indispensable in that.

But this was the season we began again to ‘go out to the theatre’, which had started to sound like something Noel Coward might say. And it felt special (OK, a little weird at first to be with people, but special). The novelty of watching theatre in our bathrobes drinking our own wine had worn off. We knew what we’d been missing.

So let’s revisit a season that began in uncertainty — would opening night happen? would the people come? — but worked its way, after the cumulated pandemic postponements of the last two years, to a June that was full of nights out. Which is why I’m writing a theatre season piece in July, for heaven’s sake.

In between new indie troupes formed, a beautiful new theatre opened on the footprint of the old (Theatre Network’s Roxy on 124th St.), a venerable company got its own theatre (Workshop West at the renamed Gateway), Edmonton’s busy improv comedy company Rapid Fire Theatre turned 40, and got all grown up about getting a theatre of their own (the old Telephone Exchange in Strathcona).  

The Fringe awaits, but I don’t think I saw a single show this season about COVID (thankfully), or that even mentioned it by name. But the pandemic has changed us, of course; it’s coloured our vision. For one thing it’s heightened our sense of isolation, risk, mortality, not to mention our appreciation for connection and laughter. It’s re-angled our stories, and ways of telling (and receiving) them in the theatre.  And since The Great Pause offered time to un-man (using the word advisedly) the portals and re-think the power structures of theatre, it’s made a start on expanding the breadth of stories and storytellers.

Comedy, often undervalued by the high-art hoi poloi in this country, gained new appreciation. Even sheer escapism, the fun oft dismissed as “froth” by “serious” folk, has existential dimensions in a world of constraints and isolationism. 

With one striking exception, satire lost its grip this season, dimmed by the lurid light of … reality. Grindstone Theatre’s original musical Jason Kenny’s Hot Boy Summer, which sold out its holdovers in five “waves,” was a bona fide hit (and the season’s only sing-along). It wasn’t exactly scoriating satire, to be sure, more amiably goofball in tone. But it was of the here and now, spun from the infamous banner “the best summer ever” as proclaimed by the most unpopular premier in Alberta history and his compliant doctor sidekick. 

Farren Timoteo and Andrew MacDonald-Smith in A Grand Time in the Rapids, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Dark comedy got darker. More death-centric. Even clowns, whose specialty is to live in the present moment, felt it at the Play The Fool Festival. Farce, on the other hand, might well be the metaphor for our time with its undercurrent of panic and the escalating sense that the world is teetering precariously on the edge of chaos. Witness the Citadel’s season-opener The Fiancée, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and Teatro La Quindicina’s sparkling revival of A Grand Time in the Rapids.

It was a season with a generous share of surprises and delights, probing questions and troubling insights. Here’s a small sampling, in no particular order, of some of the season’s highlight experiences, part one. 

I Don’t Even Miss You: Elena Belyea’s play, a sort of dance musical for two played by one, spoke to the moment with eerie precision. In the Tiny Bear Jaws production Basil wakes up one morning to discover that the world has suddenly, overnight, gone contactless. Everything looks the same but they are utterly alone. The Tiny Bear Jaws production, starring the playwright (and a digital companion), captured, in a highly theatrical way, our collective sense of the familiar turned suddenly incomprehensible. What happens when you, like Basil, have to make your own fun, your own lists, your own memories? We’ve all just been there. Read the 12thnight review here.

Rebecca Sadowski and Kaeley Jade Wiebe in Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Two-Headed Half-Hearted: Both literally and metaphorically, Northern Light Theatre’s new musical — “a prairie gothic song cycle of mythology and mermaids for conjoined twins” as billed — created by Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music) is all about the the tension between the comfort of being connected to something, someone and the urge to find and be your individual self. Strange and wonderful, beautifully designed as a kind of prairie altar (by director Schmidt) in the tiny Studio Theatre. Read the 12thnight review here.

Bears: Witty, theatrically playful and imaginative, Matthew MacKenzie’s fantasia on Nature and the Indigenous vision of Man’s place in it got a beautiful homecoming to Edmonton, on the Citadel mainstage in this Punctuate! Theatre production. A stunning conjunction of poetic text, choreographed movement, light, sound, and a wonderful performance from Sheldon Elter as a Métis oil patch worker on a journey through the wilderness. Stunning.  Read the 12thnight review here

Cliff Cardinal, As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, Crow’s Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

As You Like It: A Radical Retelling. Radical indeed, and inviting controversy in every way. Theatre Network went bold and opened the new Roxy with this new play by the Indigenous provocateur Cliff Cardinal. The production from Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre flings theatre’s oft-repeated claim to be risk-embracing right back in its face. The gutsiest, most audacious, argument-starter experiment of the season. Read the 12thnight review here.

Helen Belay, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter in The Fiancée, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Fiancée: In an amusingly feminist reversal, the instigators and running crew (so to speak) of Holly Lewis’s deftly intricate and funny farce, set here in the World War II era, are women, two sisters who fling a series of men whirling through seven doors. One (Helen Belay) has gotten herself engaged to three men.The other (Patricia Cerra) improvises ever more wildly to save the day. It premiered at the Citadel, in Daryl Cloran’s crack production. Read the 12thnight review here.

Gianna Vacirca, Oscar Derkx in Evelyn Strange, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Evelyn Strange: Stewart Lemoine’s high-style 1995 comedy thriller, set in the New York publishing world of the 1950s, does something deliciously improbable with panache. It marries a noir-ish mystery of the Hitchcock persuasion to Wagner’s Siegfried. The Brunnhilde that a reluctant Siegfried rescues is a beautiful amnesiac with a ticket to the Met in her pocket. Shannon Blanchet, a former Evelyn Strange herself, made her directing debut with the Teatro La Quindicina revival. Read the 12thnight review here.

(Rear) Jesse Gervais, Gavin Dyer; (front) Christina Nguyen, Thomas Tunski, Amber Borotsik, in Michael Mysterious, Pyretic Productions. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Michael Mysterious: The 35 numbered, named scenes of Geoffrey Simon Brown’s dark comedy explore in a compelling, funny way what it means to be in a family, to find one if yours is missing, to make one from the human raw materials at hand, or to escape from one to take ownership of your own dreams. Terrific performances from all generations of characters in Patrick Lundeen’s fulsome Pyretic production. Read the 12thnight review here.

Tell Us What Happened: This tense, strikingly fearless play by newcomer Michelle Robb, which premiered at Workshop West (directed by Heather Inglis), explores the consequences of sexual assault, and wonders about the pursuit of justice and emotional reckoning in the world of the internet where emoji language rules and the only mode is escalation. Read the 12thnight review here.

Christina Nguyen in Alina, Pyretic Productions. Photo by Brianne Jang, bb collective.

Alina: Based on real-life on-location interviews, Lianna Makuch’s gripper of a play tells the story of a university kid who volunteers for the front-line war effort during the Russian invasion of 2014. It’s a vivid first-person evocation of the multi-sense barrage of war and the nightmare of PTSD, recounted in the present tense by actor Christina Nguyen, perpetually in motion in a virtuoso physical performance. A highly theatrical barrage of sound, light, and choreography  assembled for a difficult mode of storytelling in a Pyretic production (directed by Patrick Lundeen), and the question: when you go to war, can you ever come back to yourself? Read the 12thnight review here.

The Garneau Block: After a year and a half of pandemical delays, Belinda Cornish’s adaptation of the 2006 Todd Babiak novel finally premiered at the Citadel in Rachel Peake’s production. And with it, a funny, cheering story for us, now, of what it means to be here, to live in a community, pulling together to make something happen. It’s built on secrets kept and revealed, and fully of this place, loaded with heartwarming in-references to locales we know.  Read the 12thnight review here.

Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam in Re:Construct, RISER 2022. Photo by Brianne Jang

Re:Construct: Even Gilchrist’s playful, jaunty theatrical de:construction of gender as a coming-out party for the trans Self. A two-person chorus (Geoffrey Simon Brown, Émanuel Dubbeldam) reviews, with the audience’s help, the setbacks and doubts, the oppression of perfectibility, that the world of gender orthodoxies throws at trans people. It’s touching (“I am possible? I could carve myself anew?”) and, here’s the surprise, it’s fun. Read the 12thnight review here.

Metronome: If there was a piece that spoke directly to the salutary effects of the arts on a life, it’s Darrin Hagen’s lovely solo memoir of growing up as a gay kid in small-town Alberta and having his life changed by music. It premiered at Workshop West (directed by Heather Inglis). And Hagen, a multi-faceted artist — drag queen/ actor/ composer/ playwright/ sound designer — was his own best proof, image, and prop. Read the 12thnight review here.  

ren and the wake: a new Catch The Keys musical by Megan Dart and Lindsey Walker (directed by Beth Dart) is a kind of song cycle framed by the idea of memory, and identity as a sort of cumulated inheritance. Alt folk-rocker Walker makes an auspicious musical theatre debut with songs that are both light and eloquent. Read the 12thnight review here.

Hailey Gillis and Ivy DeGagné in Jane Eyre, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Jane Eyre: Playwright Erin Shield cleverly focuses her new stage adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, which premiered at the Citadel, as a sort of haunting, an artful theatre of memory in the mind of the much-abused orphan heroine who stubbornly retains a sense of self against all odds. She lives with a ghostly pageant of a Dickensian past en route to a tumultuous present, a haunted house, and romance. Read the 12thnight review here.

Part two, revisiting the theatre season, is here.

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