2022: the year in Edmonton theatre, part 2

Peter Fernandes and Kendrick Mitchell in Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Here’s a small sampling, in no particular order, of assorted highlights from a year when live theatre on Edmonton stages rose to the occasion, and did what theatre can do best, conjure worlds through other eyes, argue in a show-not-tell way for other perspectives and alternative possibilities — and maybe kick chronology and probability in the butt.

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And then they sing about soup: 2022 was the year the Citadel premiered a highly unusual new holiday musical, Almost A Full Moon, that dips into the off-centre songbook of indie rocker/singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman for its score. Playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman re-creates the strange, unexpected, possibly magical (and certainly hopeful) way strangers connect and form themselves into families over time, in a haunted season where the past and present are shape-shifters. Tiny moments, tangential thoughts, humble objects are the fabric of Workman’s winter songs. And Corbeil-Coleman constructs Almost A Full Moon that way, allowing them to gather meaning, happy and sad, in a weave of three generations that we, the audience, have the enjoyment of figuring out for ourselves. A different kind of musical theatre. See the 12thnight review

Christina Nguyen in Alina by Lianna Makuch. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

Performing a war: Alina. The Pyretic premiere production (directed by Patrick Lundeen) of Lianna Makuch’s gripping new play, inspired by on-location research, does something apparently impossible. It brings the multi-sense assault of a war, the horrifying one in which Ukraine is fighting for a future, to a tiny stage in a rib-rattling barrage of sound aggression (electronic composer Noor Dean Musani and sound designer Aaron Macri), light (Stephanie Bahniuk), and movement (choreographer Amber Borotsik) — and a remarkable solo achievement in first-person storytelling from actor Christina Nguyen. And in its story, inspired by a real person, it conjures the nightmare strangeness of the world transformed unrecognizably by PTSD. An extreme theatrical challenge. See the 12thnight review.

Only in Edmonton you say …

Seth Gilfillan and Josh Travnik in Conjoined: A New Musical. Photo supplied

•2022 was the year that Edmonton theatre hatched not one but TWO new coming-of-age musicals about conjoined twins, no kidding. Two-Headed/Half-Hearted, by Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley-Jade Wiebe (music) at Northern Light Theatre, a coming-of-age prairie saga about sisters (see The Year in Edmonton theatre, part 1) with separate dreams and separation anxiety. The other? Conjoined, a clever, darkly funny rock musical by Stephen Allred and Seth Gilfillan, premiered in a Straight Edge at the Fringe. It explored the implications of sibling rivalry and self-discovery under the problematic conditions when “I” is “we.” The tale of two conjoined brothers, one a dominating over-achiever and the other seething with resentment that might even be murderous, was macabre and fun, ingeniously staged by Allred. Both shows should have a future, if there’s any justice. Read the 12thnight review.

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

• A Hitchcockian mystery/comedy with a bona fide multi-disciplinary arts joke, in which a seminal scene happens in a grand tier box at the Met during a production of Wagner’s five-hour Siegfried. The amnesiac title heroine (Gianna Vacirca) of Stewart Lemoine’s Evelyn Strange, revived at Teatro Live in a production directed by Shannon Blanchet, has a ticket in her pocket. And as in the case of many of the Lemoinian protagonists Edmonton audiences have come to know, music figures prominently in Evelyn Strange’s quest for self-knowledge. She needs time; Wagner provides, amply. Read the 12thnight review.

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

A soft opening with a hard centre: No one in the audience in Theatre Network’s new Roxy expected what happened when As You Like It: A Radical Retelling by the Indigenous actor/playwright/provocateur Cliff Cardinal hit the Nancy Power mainstage in May. It came with strict instructions not to reveal the secret of the Crow’s Theatre production, the first show ever in the new 124th St. theatre. Audience response was very divided. Well, theatre goes on frequently about being risky, and you’d have to concede this was a genuinely provocative theatre experiment. Since then (with the prospect of a Toronto run in March), it’s gained a fuller, more revealing title: The Land Acknowledgement, Or As You Like It. All I can say is that I’ll never hear a show-opening land acknowledgment in quite the same way. A ballsy way to start a new era; people left the theatre saying “what the hell just happened in there?”.  Read the short (very short) 12thnight review here.

Technology is our friend, really. Well, maybe not… Geez. bots can actually write plays. Did we want to know that? Plays By Bots, written by a bot named Dramatron and presented at the Fringe, was by no means a flame-out (we’ve all seen much worse), only a bit flat. Which gave the comic improvisers of Rapid Fire Theatre a deadpan playground to climb all over. The 12thnight review is here.

Stepping bravely forward … 

Michelle Diaz, Matt Dejanovic, Bonnie Ings, Gabby Bernard (above), Jameela McNeil in Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West. Photo supplied.

a. A play that contains a sexual assault that treats the traumatized victim seriously, but is not in the end about the victim: Tell Us What Happened by Michelle Robb, which premiered in Heather Inglis’s Workshop West Playwrights Theatre production, wonders about justice, and what justice might mean in a world lived largely in the anti-nuance, Like/Not Like world of social media. Is the internet, where every impulsive reaction and emoji creates uncontainable ripples, a safe place for social discourse? A brave investigation by a young playwright (Robb was 20 when she wrote it). Read the 12thnight review.

Jade Robinson, Hayley Moorhouse in Smoke, the second cast in the Tiny Bear Jaws production. Photo by Brianne Jang

b. A play built on reactions to sexual assault (and consent) that’s not actually about sexual assault. Elena Belyea’s very challenging Smoke resists definitive answers about the cause of the assault, the blame, and even the “truth,” since the parties have unresolvable, opposing perceptions of what happened. Instead of weighting the smoky ‘he said/she said’ scenario, it seeks clarity about post-fire trauma, and what it will take to satisfy the traumatized person. Because gender and audience assumptions about gender, are factors, Jenna Rodgers’ Tiny Bear Jaws production ran with two alternating casts, one heterosexual one queer.  Read the 12thnight review.  

Davina Stewart and Trevor Duplessis in Cottagers and Indians, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Resisting classification: As the cheeky title hints, Cottagers and Indians, a two-hander by the Ojibwa playwright and humorist Drew Hayden Taylor, is surprisingly genial in tone given the stakes of the culture collision it chronicles. Heck, it might even be called a land-claim comedy, a theatrical category of which it might well be the sole occupant. Inspired by a real-life conflict in Ontario cottage country, the play is  set in motion when an enterprising Anishinaabe man revives an Indigenous tradition by seeding lakes with manoomin (wild rice) and thereby meets resistance from well-heeled white settlers who’ve claimed lake-front property for generations. Beautifully designed by Daniel vanHeyst, who figured out how to grow things on the Varscona stage John Hudson’s Shadow production starred Davina Stewart and Trevor Duplessis. Read the 12thnight review.

The Wolves, The Maggie Tree in the Citadel Theatre Highwire Series. Photo by Nanc Price for the Citadel.

OK, let’s hustle:  Vanessa Sabourin’s Maggie Tree production of The Wolves (an absorbingly insightful Sarah Lappe play that took us directly into the world of teenage girls) re-created the Citadel’s smallest house, the Rice, as a soccer field (designer: Whittyn Jason) with the spectators on either side, close enough to see the stitching on the ball. Sabourin’s warmingly diverse cast was constantly in motion. Read the 12thnight review.

Newcomer of the year: Alt-folk rocker Lindsey Walker made a striking debut in musical theatre with her score for a haunting new Catch the Keys Productions musical, ren & the wake. In the book created by playwright Megan Dart, we’re at a wake as a daughter tries to conjure their mother from the shards of memory. And each character is equipped with a signature song, lyrical and catchy, by Walker, who’s a find for musicals. Read the 12thnight review.

Evandalism by Henry ‘MC RedCloud’ Andrade

Memoir theatre: Evandalism was one of the surprises of the year, which premiered in Fringe Theatre’s season (Murray Utas directed). It was a funny, suspenseful, and unexpectedly moving account by and starring Henry Andrade aka MC ReCloud (Bear Grease), of growing up in the lethally tough L.A. street gang scene, and replacing one sort of foster family for another, more dangerous, family. It’s a dramatic, odds-against story:  again and again RedCloud, a Guinness Book record-holder in non-stop rapping, rejects the sentimental, the ideological, the conventional wisdom en route to the discovery of a new family — in the arts. A highly original testimonial. Read the 12thnight review.

Bone-headed move of the year: trophy goes to the City of Edmonton, determined to close Hawrelak Park for three YEARS, in effect evicting the Freewill Shakespeare Festival at a moment when they’ve finally returned to a real and equipped stage from their peripatetic pandemic life on the move.

Expressions we never want to hear in theatre ever again: I’m trying to sever all ties with “the new normal,” “unprecedented,” “supply chain issues,” “deep dive.” Theatre artists, by definition, are already sworn enemies of “it is what it is,” a passive acceptance of the status quo. 

Most useful take-away expression from theatre in 2022:  “Take a pew and button it” from Mamma Mia!. Andrea House delivered it definitely in the Mayfield production. The 12thnight review is here.

We’ve lost part of our history: with the passing of Tom Peacocke,  actor/ director/teacher/ mentor/ administrator/ advocate, we have lost a giant. See the 12thnight tribute to a great man here. 

Did you see The year in Edmonton theatre part 1? You can read it here.

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