2022: the year in Edmonton theatre, part 1

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

Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter in Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

2022: it was a year in theatre that started with a calendar dotted with  hopeful pencilled-in dates. 

After a complicated 2021 of cancellations and postponements (and a late-summer re-Pivot of The Pivot), audiences were, cautiously, ready to be pried away from their screens to venture forth to theatre experienced in 3-D, in person, with other people. We’d had enough of Zoom re-enactments, worthy and ingenious though they’d been; we were hungry to re-discover the excitement of the shared experience. 

It wasn’t a stampede to the theatre in 2022, as it’s turned out (another wrong prediction by yours truly). More of a trickle, then a gradual migration, a drift. And the first official theatre engagement of the new year, Northern Light Theatre’s production of The Hunchback Variations (fascinatingly weird), was postponed till the Fringe, a discouraging COVIDian setback. But still…. we were back in the house seats. 

A beautiful new $12 million theatre arose from the ashes of the old, and on its very footprint (Theatre Network’s Roxy on 124th St.). A venerable theatre acquired it own space (Workshop West moved to Strathcona, into the theatre vacated by Theatre Network in its post-fire exile, and renamed it the Gateway). And a crazily busy improv company, Rapid Fire Theatre, said Yes, as improvisers do, to building a new theatre of their own in the old Telephone Museum in Old Strathcona. It’s in progress. 

Despite the challenges and uncertainties of performance, week to week, whole seasons got announced. And in the spirit of “OK now, where were we?’, long-delayed shows — like the Citadel’s Jane Eyre, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and Network, Teatro Live’s Evelyn Strange, Shadow’s The Wrong People Have Money, Wild Side’s A Doll’s House Part 2 — finally got their opening nights. The festivals — the mighty Edmonton Fringe, SkirtsAfire, Nextfest among them — returned to live and, in a word, festive, albeit in somewhat carefully incremental dimensions. And the Almost-Fringe as it was dubbed sold more than 95,000 tickets to its 164 shows. 

In the particularly poignant case of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, a brave return to live on a scale, with two big full-cast productions (the perennially popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the difficult, rarely produced Measure For Measure), was accompanied by the cloud of the City’s impending closure of Hawrelak Park FOR THREE YEARS — a stunning, and destructive, lack of civic creativity. 

Behind the scenes, rehearsals got more intricate: the versatility of actors in big-cast  productions was tested further as they learned several parts — just in case. In small-cast shows, everyone crossed their fingers.

In the (interminable) late-pandemic of 2022, in show after show theatre artists, unsurprisingly, were drawn to wonder about their place in the world, how art gets created, and why, and whether the rules of engagement that underpin theatre have fundamentally changed forever. The Innocence of Trees, Dora Maar: the wicked one, I Don’t Even Miss You, The Hunchback Variations, The Margin of the Sky, Evandalism (the list goes on…) reflected on it. And at a moment when live human engagement is both longed for and feared, live theatre spoke to that complexity, too.  

It was a year that continued to test the adventurous spirit of  theatre artists and their uncanny ability to speak to the moment. Here’s a small selection, in no particular order, of theatre highlights, to kick-start your own memories.

Emma Ryan and Maralyn Ryan in The Innocence of Trees, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The Innocence of Trees: Theatre Network officially launched its first full mainstage season in the new Roxy with Eugene Stickland’s light-filled, and enlightening, fantasia on art, and the making of art, and the contradictions that drive the artist. What could be more à propos? The character at its centre is the Saskatchewan-born abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin, troubled in life, whose distinctive signature grid-work canvases hang in major galleries in New York. And she encounters her younger self, chafing at the constraints of her unlovely prairie childhood and the flat lines of her horizons. The play got a richly multi-disciplinary premiere production from Bradley Moss: superb performances from the grandmother/granddaughter pairing of Maralyn Ryan and Emma Ryan, a beautiful Briana Kolybaba design set in motion by Ian Jackson’s projections and Even Gilchrist’s lighting, and evocative live music from cellist Morag Northey. Read the full 12thnight review here.

Elena Belyea, I Don’t Even Miss You, Tiny Bear Jaws. Photo by Brianne Jang

I Don’t Even Miss You: No other play this year captured our predicament — the sense of the familiar gone strange, a world fundamentally and mysteriously changed — the way Elena Belyea’s multi-disciplinary solo “musical” did. Basil wakes up one morning to discover the world has fundamentally and mysteriously changed, overnight, and they are utterly alone. So Basil (the charismatic Belyea) has to create everything — friendships, family, romance, identity, gender  — from memory and the digital ether. They’re starring in their own life “production,” creating it live, moment to moment, with music, dance, video. Is it a solo? Basil shares the stage with the digital companion they’ve brought into being as a buttress against final aloneness. Funny, insightful, heart-wrenching. Read the 12thnight review here. 

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

Jane Eyre: Star Canadian playwright Erin Shields, an expert in re-imaging classics for the theatre through a feminist lens, re-created Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel for the contemporary stage — by shedding narration and imagining the world of its spirited strong-willed orphan heroine up against formidable odds as a haunting. Jane carries with her the vivid ghosts of her past. And the premiere production directed by the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran set that world in motion as a kind of movement piece (devised by choreographer Ainsley Hillyard), in which Jane is pursued by the abusers, confidantes, enforcers, interventionists of her past, as they whirl through scenes that frame Jane’s life scene by scene. Hailey Gillis’s captivating performance happened at the still centre of that motion-filled world. And, in a mysterious achievement, Shields’ language seemed both of the period and the now. Read the full 12thnight review here.

Two-Headed/Half-Hearted: This new musical fable by Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music) — “a prairie gothic song cycle of mythology and mermaids for conjoined twins” as billed —  speaks eloquently to the classic tension between the safety of belonging and the urge to break free and find your own individual self. In the beautifully designed Northern Light Theatre premiere, Venus and Juno (Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski) presided from an atmospheric prairie altar (I thought of them as a performance art installation). And, as the year’s special achievement in ensemble playing, the twins accompanied themselves jointly from time to time on one guitar. There’s a piquant sense of humour at work in this beguiling piece, and heartbreak, too.  Read the full 12thnight review here.

Maralyn Ryan and Kristi Hansen, A Doll’s House Part 2, Wild Side Productions. Photo by Jim Guedo.

A Doll’s House Part 2: One of the most intriguing questions in theatre gets answered in this powerful, suspenseful (and funny) 2017 play by the American playwright Lucas Hnath. Eighteen years after Nora Helmer slammed the door on her marriage, her husband, and her children at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1878 A Doll’s House — “the door slam heard around the world” — she’s back to face the people she left. Why? And what’s she been doing? In Jim Guedo’s Wild Side production, an expert cast of four, led by Kristi Hansen as Nora and Ian Leung as Torvald, made an absorbing evening of it by giving real gave weight and force to four opposing points of view. Read the full 12thnight review here. 

Celina Dean and Mathew Hulshof in The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina, Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

The Margin of the Sky: It’s fitting that Teatro Live’s last-ever appearance at the Fringe where the company was born should be a revival of this multi-hued 2003 ‘comedy’ about the mystery of inspiration and creation. Stewart Lemoine’s elusive play, that starts with the explosive mind-expansion of hearing a lush piece of orchestral music, follows its characters through a day of chance encounters and impulsive adventure in L.A. as a Canadian playwright (Mathew Hulshof in peak form) struggles to pen a screenplay for his soap star brother-in-law (Josh Dean). It’s an unusual combination of madcap caper and meditation on our horizons and the possibilities of expanding them. Larky and moving. Full 12thnight review here.

Weasel, U of A Studio Theatre. Photo supplied.

Weasel: The most disturbing play of the fall season didn’t have anything to do with serial killers or the ghostly undead. It was Beth Graham’s fascinating, unforgettable and, yes, horrifying exploration of the traumatizing world of theatre itself from the inside out, allegedly collaborative and in reality rigidly hierarchical. Commissioned from the notable Canadian playwright, the U of A’s Clifford E Lee playwright-in-residence, for the actors of this year’s graduating class, Weasel (both noun and verb) unravels the mysterious breakdown into panic and stage fright of an actor. It follows Charlie through theatre school, through auditions, encounters with other student actors and pros. It  takes us into rehearsals with pretentious and abusive directors, and on field trips to see other brutes in operation, including artistic directors of several sizes of company.  

The play itself could use a trim and maybe fewer subplots; it wants to flesh out every aspect of theatre for its cast of 14 (including four actors who play Charlie in a clever sort of interlocking past-present portrait). But it has a powerful reverb of lived-in  authenticity about it in Kevin Sutley’s production.

Sweeney Todd: The production by Plain Jane Theatre of Stephen Sondheim’s innovative and grisly 1979 masterwork did something experimental and bold (as is their wont). In a tiny 60-seat place (CO*LAB) they gave us a vivid small-cast (eight actors, one piano player) close-up of the musical/melodrama/operetta, set in the lunch-room of a meat packing plant. Close? We could almost smell blood. And we could feel the heat from the murderously vengeful barber in Sheldon Elter’s seething performance, with his resourceful accomplice Mrs. Lovell played zestfully by Kristi Hansen. A win for low-budget theatrical ingenuity. Read the 12thnight review here.  

Lianna Makuch in Barvinok, Toronto 2018, Pyretic Productions. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Barvinok: In the Pyretic production directed by Patrick Lundeen, Lianna Makuch’s play, set in motion by the inheritance of war-ravaged Ukrainian history — across generations, across oceans — takes on the suspenseful configurations of a mystery, a ghost story of sorts, a dream quest. A young Canadian (Makuch) travels to war-torn Ukraine on the trail of her grandmother’s secret, embedded in another time and another war. The story she traces is gathered from real-life interviews by Pyretic’s Makuch, Lundeen and Matt MacKenzie on location with “regular” Ukrainians. And its theatrical storytelling works the way memory works — across translucent windows, in bursts of action, in fragments of dialogue and images, in haunting musical riffs played by a ghostly chorus on vintage Ukrainian instruments (scored by Larissa Polo). Read the 12thnight review here. 

Dora Maar: the wicked one, Workshop West. graphic by db photographics

Dora Maar: the wicked one: In this riveting solo play, elegantly directed by Blake Brooker (it opened the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season), Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic (The Drowning Girls, Comrades, Mules) explore the high price tag on artistic creation, and the dangerous magnetism of fame, power, and ego. And they do it at multi-planar angles, taking their cue from  Picasso’s Dora Maar portraits. In a performance of charismatic brio, Daniela Vlaskalic is the innovative French photographer, best known as Picasso’s lover, model, and muse, whose attraction to the seductive energy of creation proves her undoing. The actor charts Dora’s fall into darkness, in extended loops that parallel the fate of Icarus who flew too near the sun till his wax and feather wings melted. Read the full 12thnight review here.     

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

Re:Construct: This insightful, cleverly theatrical little play by Even Gilchrist (hitherto better known to Edmonton audiences as a designer) was one of the surprises of the year. It’s an insight, a de:construction, of gender and the notions of perfectibility that underpin it — a diary of self-discovery. Which makes it sound much heavier, and less funny, than it is. Re:Construct unfolds in a playful origami way as we’re welcomed to a celebration of Self (complete with cake and candles) thrown by a trans man and his idealized cis alter-ego (Émanuel Dubbeldam and Geoffrey Simon Brown, both delightful). What would it take to reinvent ourselves, and become the voice in our head? Re:Construct tells us it’s possible. And that feels so hopeful. It premiered in a production directed by Sarah J Culkin and assisted by the RISER Edmonton program. (If you missed it, you have another chance: Re:Construct will be at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo in January). Read the full 12thnight review here

And there’s more. Stay tuned for The Year In Edmonton Theatre, part 2, coming up soon.  

This entry was posted in Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.