Little Willy: the great marionettist Ronnie Burkett is back, with the raucous Daisy Theatre ensemble, and Shakespeare

Who will play Juliet? The battling divas of The Daisy Theatre, Little Willy, Dolly Wiggler and Esmé Massengill, in Little Willy. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Ronnie Burkett is back. 

Call it a reunion, or maybe a homecoming. The show that opens Wednesday at the Roxy for four performances marks the return to this theatre town, and to Theatre Network, of a Canadian artist like no other. A true original: marionettist/ playwright/ actor/ designer/ artisans aren’t exactly thick on the ground anywhere in the world.

With Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is back at the Edmonton theatre — which is to say a beautifully rebuilt version of that theatre — where six of Burkett’s multi-character plays, with their big casts of diminutive actors, have a history. And a devoted following.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

And this time, Shakespeare himself is hanging around backstage, angling for a part. In Little Willy, with its saucy Burkettian title, the Bard might be up against it. The raucous Daisy Theatre, a vaudevillian-type cabaret ensemble some 40 puppets strong, has their way with Romeo and Juliet, improvising as they go. And all the leading ladies of the company, including the aging diva Esmé Massengill, burlesque star Dolly Wiggler, and Lillian Lunkhead (half of the brother-sister duo of “Canada’s oldest and worst actors, who’ve been touring the provinces for 70 years”) are hot for the lovestruck ingenue role. 

Audience faves, like Mrs. Edna Rural, the plump matron from Turnip Corners AB, and the charming fairy child Schnitzel have supporting roles. The former plays the Nurse; she dispenses marital advice from the stronghold of her favourite armchair. Schnitzel dreams of playing either Juliet or Romeo, or both.

Why Romeo and Juliet you ask? “I wanted something most people might have some grasp on,” says Burkett,”Like A Christmas Carol, everyone thinks they know it: ‘miser, night of three ghosts, has to be redeemed, little boy with crutch, God bless us every one. End of story’.” 

“With Shakespeare I didn’t want to alienate the Saturday night date crowd, thinking they’re not smart enough…..” Thanks to high school, most of us get the gist. “Boy meets girl, opposing families, can’t be together, get together, both die. End of play’. 

Burkett laughs. “I had to know the plot points I was skipping over…. You’ve got to know the material in order to (a) ignore it or (b) fuck with it.”

The set-up, Burkett explains, is that the Daisy Theatre performers arrive at the theatre thinking they’re doing Esmé’s new musical. “But the theatre has advertised that they’re doing Shakespeare. So they’re thrown into mayhem. And the divas start fighting over who gets to play Juliet. It’s pretty loose (laughter)!” And since Shakespeare is there anyhow, he’s after the ingenue role, too, since, what the hell, the Elizabethan stage was a men-only proposition.  

“The company knows about as much about Shakespeare as the average audience member,” Burkett says. “Ah, except Esmé, who has superior knowledge. ‘I know Shakespeare! I dated him’.”   

Little Willy is not The Daisy Theatre’s first X-rated venture into the classics. Little Dickens, in which the ensemble assails A Christmas Carol — with Esmé as Scrooge, haunted by the ghost of her showbiz nemesis Rosemary Focaccia — sold out its most recent run at CanStage this past Christmas. “Are there no dinner theatres?” thunders Esmé at the two charitable people collecting on behalf of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. “Are there no touring children’s theatre productions?”

And now Shakespeare. Burkett had actually been thinking about doing “a straight-ahead Shakespeare play” until his long-time production manager Terry Gillis talked him out of it. Theatre presenters unanimously reinforced Gillis’s thought. “When things opened up and they started booking again, everybody said, ‘could we have a version of the Daisy? It’ll get bums in seats’.” 

And they were right. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve done,” says Burkett cheerfully. “And it’s been outrageously well received, an amazing reaction from theatres and audiences.… That’s the thing, first let’s get people back in the theatre having fun.”

Little Willy comes to Edmonton from a sold-out three-week world premiere run at the Cultch in Vancouver and a trio of sold-out weekend performances at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. After TN, the tour includes dates at Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre, Stanford University in California, Le Diamant in Quebec City and the Centaur in Montreal. It’s a tour Burkett didn’t see coming, given the pandemic givens. “No one was more surprised than me….”  

“Ha!, my first comeback tour!,” he says, as that unmistakeable laugh rumbles across the phone from Vancouver last week. 

Burkett spent last year building another show, “a hand puppet salon show” called The Loony Bin. “At the beginning of the pandemic I didn’t know when and how we’d go back to work…. So I figured I’d better have a small show that fits in a car, a show I can set up myself… like when I was a teenager touring in Alberta (the Medicine Hat-born puppeteer hit the road at 14).  So I built 18 hand puppet characters and a little stage that would fit in your living room. I control lights and sound.”

He has another “big scripted show” in the works, Wonderful Joe, about an old man and his dog. But the time, out of joint as it is, seemed more propitious for something lighter and giddier.  

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

In Daisy Theatre tradition, there’s lots of (masked) audience interaction. As always, Dolly Wiggler starts the show with a strip number, this one with Elizabethan top notes, cue the recorder and lute before it all goes brassy. It’s one of the the five new songs created for Little Willy by composer/ lyricist/ pianist/ musical arranger John Alcorn, Burkett’s real-life partner. And it mirrors the structure of Shakespeare’s opening prologue in the play, Burkett points out. Alcorn’s little song for Schnitzel at the end has the same structure as the final stanzas of the play, too. “Yup, Mr. ‘I know nothing about Shakespeare’ Alcorn got up to speed pretty quickly.” 

For a self-producing artist the pandemic that dragged on and on posed a couple of crucial and related questions. “(a) how do I re-boot? and (b) do I want to? A year off was nice; I’d never have taken a sabbatical otherwise. But almost three?” 

Ronnie Burkett

Burkett emerged from his Toronto studio in the most dramatically fraught way possible in COVID-ian times. He took his play Forget Me Not to Europe last May (it ran at the Fidena Festival in Bochum, Germany). It’s a show “for 100 people max” built on audience interaction: “everybody gets a hand puppet, as a sort of Greek chorus, and I’m right in the middle of them….” Disinfecting hand puppets after every use isn’t in any puppeteer manual. “So we had everyone pre-glove, a condom for the hand.” 

Right after that, he rented a car, drove to Montreal, and did The Loony Bin for a week at The MIAM, in a tiny and beautiful new international marionette centre there. “Such a nice way to meet the public again … a sort of hand-puppet Daisy Theatre in a way, totally improvised.” 

And now, as the only member of the company whose head isn’t made of wood and papier mâché, Burkett is on the road with the Daisy Theatre, named in honour of the subversive underground puppet shows in Prague during the Nazi Occupation. And come Wednesday, as the headliner at TN’s new contemporary adult ‘Another F!#@$G Festival’ (as yet to be officially named, by theatre-goers), Burkett is “really happy” to be back at a company that’s been, he says, seminal to his career, . When Awful Manors premiered at the Roxy in 1990, a gothic romance-thriller murder-mystery musical with 17 characters and 43 marionettes, Theatre Network was, as he has said, his first “legitimate” stage after the Fringe.

Tinka’s New Dress, Street of Blood, Happy, and Provenance (which premiered here in 2003) all played the Roxy — plays that changed the course of Burkett’s career, and claimed for puppets something they hadn’t had in Canada, a rightful home in the adult theatre.

Much has changed since 2003, to be sure, not least that the Roxy burned to the ground in 2015 and has risen again on that very 124th St. footprint seven years later. Burkett brings with him vivid memories of seeing long queues outside the Roxy doors, and watching people rush into the theatre and down the aisles to throw their parkas down and claim a spot. Wait till Burkett and his company see the new Roxy bathrooms. 


Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Feb. 8 through 11



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Collecting souls: where’s the job satisfaction? After Faust, the opening show in RISER Edmonton’s 2023 series. A review

Hodan Youssouf in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

By Liz Nicholls,

It sounds like an OK gig. And you can argue that aspirational clients, like Dr. Faustus, get what they deserve when they sign away their souls for unlimited knowledge, power, worldly pleasure, and the 24/7 services of a devil valet.  

But in the end, collecting souls is a dead-end job, with a lot of red tape and fine print on every contract. Just ask Mephistopheles (Gaitre Killings), the troubled, stressed-out, aggrieved demon of Connor Yuzwenko-Martin’s remarkably ambitious, adventurous, and off-centre new play After Faust.

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The Invisible Practice production directed by Ebony R. Gooden at the Backstage Theatre, performed in ASL with English captioning, has an historic resonance to it. The playwright, a Deaf theatre artist himself, bills his new play — the first of RISER Edmonton’s four-show 2023 series of indie productions — as “the first Deaf-written, Deaf-directed, Deaf-acted and Deaf-produced stage play in recent Alberta history.” 

It will almost certainly be the only play you’ll see this season in which Thomas Aquinas and Elon Musk share a stage — for reasons I’ve struggled to fully grasp in truth. And as for the story of Faustus, the brilliant astronomer whose vaulting ambitions for knowledge lead him to make a deal with a demon, I can’t say I’ve ever given Mephistopheles’ work situation much thought. This intriguing “sequel” to the Christopher Marlowe play, which ranges freely through time and space, is all about that. 

The stage, designed by Madeline Blondal, is dominated by a blue distressed door. But that’s not how the characters arrive in a brick-lined chamber demarcated by Christen Long’s projections. Later, in one of the memorable visual images on which After Faustus is built, the mystery door seems to give on the entire galaxy, without ever opening.  

Gaitrie Killings (centre) as Mephistopheles in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

The long first scenes of the play, in which I scrambled a bit to figure out which side-stage captions went with which character (despite their colour coding), are dominated by Mephistopheles’ anger. This glamorous personage arrives writhing, reluctantly, armed with a selection of door knobs for the fatal door. None of them fit, understandably enraging since she’s spent the last 500 years in “a perfect cage,” an endless room, trapped between then and here and there and now,” searching for Faustus. 

Gaitrie Killings as Mephistopheles with Kayla Bradford Sinasac in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023. Photo by Brianne Jang

Anyhow, Mephistopheles is seriously put-out by having been summoned, and without the requisite rituals, by a man (Mustafa Alabssi as Cassio) who doesn’t even recognize her. His cherished cousin Peia (Kayla Bradford Sinasac, a vision in white) committed suicide two days before. Grief-stricken Cassio, an appealing human figure in Alabssi’s performance, professes himself baffled by his encounter with Mephistopheles, a feeling we can all share. But grief-stricken, he would give anything, he says, to be located in time even two days before her death, thus able to prevent it.  

Mustafa Alabssi, Gaitrie Killings, Jan McCarthy in After Faust, RISER Edmonton 2023, Photo by Brianne Jang

Suddenly, they find themselves in a monastery garden with Thomas Aquinas (Jan McCarthy). This is a play with its own quirky sense of humour: Is it an Airbnb perhaps? Cassio wonders. Aquinas is amused. He and Mephistopheles are apparently sparring partners of old: “Remember how I tried to exorcise you the first time we met?” 

Is Cassio a Faust-like figure? I take it that grief has made him vulnerable to the allure of restoring life, or undoing death. The play’s more Faustian figure, theoretically, is Elon Musk, brilliant and wayward, a swaggering monster of self-absorption who has sold his soul to a demon. “We have electrified the world,” Musk declares. “It’s now the age of mitigation.” 

Why, you will ask yourself, is Musk (played with droll cockiness by Hodan Youssouf), in a black, queer, Deaf body? Answer: “because I wanted to see what it was like.”

The play’s most striking image, realized in exceptional lighting (Rory Turner), sound (Dave Clarke), and movement (Ainsley Hillyard) has Musk leading a bicycle charge through the starry universe. True, Musk’s galactic venture has gone more a bit wrong; the moon and Mars have collided, oops, and humanity is done for, over. But, no worries, there are still fungi (Musk is known for his attachment to the idea of magic mushrooms) as a source of regeneration.

The consolingly lyrical scenes in which Cassio remembers his childhood idyll with Peia, playing, building sand castles at the beach, sharing secrets, are charmingly presented by both actors. 

I have to admit the finer points of contracting between man and demon (there is much talk of contracts), and the motivation of Mephistopheles’ intensely emotional quest to find Faustus, and ditch her job, did elude me. But the notion that grief and loss are powerful motivators did strike home. 

After Faust is the work of a highly original writer and thinker. And Gooden’s high theatrical production introduces us to the work of a whole new troupe of Deaf actors. That’s a provocative start to this year’s RISER productions. 


RISER Edmonton 2023

After Faust

Theatre: Invisible Practice

Written and produced by: Connor Yuzwenko-Martin 

Directed by: Ebony R. Gooden

Starring: Mustafa Alabssi, Gaitrie Killings, Jan McCarthy, Kayla Bradford Sinasac, Hodan Youssouf

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.  

Running: through Sunday



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Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, living portraits of the health care people who risked everything to keep us safe. A review

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls,

What just happened here?

That leading question is the raison d’être of the “performance installation” currently running at Workshop West. In the ongoing COVID pandemic,  frontline healthcare workers have risked everything to do their jobs keeping us safe, week after week, month after month — the soldiers of public health care, battered by their own provincial government, by ideology and political posturing, by public discord.

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Who are they? Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, a joint creation of Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen, is your chance to meet seven, to find out what they think and what motivates them, to hear their real-life stories in close encounters. They’re played by actors, delivering five-minute monologues transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews, all anonymous “living portraits.”  And if you think you know what you think, think again. 

On Sunday afternoon at the Gateway Theatre , wandering through the curtained enclosures of the hospital maze (seven inventive designs by Brian Bast, with that hospital heartbeat/machine hum soundscape by Hagen)), I met people I never get to meet. Like an ICU physician (played by Davina Stewart) who takes the long view of humanity’s place on the planet. “I don’t like our trajectory…. COVID, horrific as it is, is a distraction.” That stopped me in my tracks. 

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

In a supply closet, I met an ER physician (Melissa Thingelstad), who takes off her mask to say that she doesn’t want to be a hero because heroes become villains soon enough. And, remarkably,  thinking about COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers who regularly end up in the ER as critical care patients, hurling abuse at the health care staff, she just shrugs.

It’s her job to provide care to everyone, anyone, no matter how much they’ve created their own crisis — drunks who kill people in car accidents, smokers who get lung cancer.… Arguing is not only futile, but beside the point. “I just want to do my fucking job.” Could I have been so dispassionately professional? I think not. 

I met a hospital administrator (Patricia Darbasie), put in an impossibly stressful position by the lack of masks and protective equipment, staff shortages, the never-ebbing deluge of the sick. It left her burnt out and suicidal. And an ICU nurse (Sheldon Stockdale) shaken to see young men, strapping and healthy, who could have been his own brothers, fighting for their lives. 

The single-minded dedication to helping people is a keynote of Unsung. I met a health care aide (Jade Robinson) who watched as the profit motive trounced true public health care in the case of her elderly patients with dementia. “They deserve better,” she says over and over. She paid a price. After every shift she isolated from her own family, never eating with her daughter … until the relief of the vaccine. 

What sort of lunacy is it for a government to pick a fight with healthcare workers during a pandemic, threatening lay-offs, trying to cut wages? A “recreational assistant” (Rebecca Merkley), faced with patients under lockdown, rolls her eyes and wonders. 

Trevor Duplessis in Unsung, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

A paramedic (Trevor Duplessis) is outraged that his line of work — going into people’s homes to rescue sick people, sticking with them in “a steel box” — wasn’t deemed ‘front line’ when it came to vaccines. Getting asked in the bar whether COVID was “real” gets his dander up too, understandably.  

Their stories do intersect with the political sphere, of course, and at varying angles. How could they not? Jason Kenney’s political spin about the “best summer ever”? Frontline workers noted that, along with the sequel, “the worst fall.”

You can visit the enclosures in any order, stay or move on, as you would in a gallery. Meeting all seven people took me about an hour.  The actors, directed by Inglis, are so intensely engaging, eyeball to eyeball you’ll find yourself nodding agreement, or wanting to answer back and ask a question. “My god!” muttered the lady standing next to me at one encounter, slapping her forehead. There is a compelling authenticity about real words, as you’ll know if you visited Inglis’s Theatre Yes performance installation Viscosity, about front line oil patch workers, in 2018,    

On the way out I stopped in the lobby to look at a wall covered in hand-written stickies. What did you lose in the pandemic? That’s the question awaiting your own input. “My faith in humanity,” said one sticky note. “My sense of smell,” said another. “Respect for my fellow citizens.” “Connection with people.” 

What did you gain? “Respect for human life,” said one note. “Respect for healthcare professionals,” said another. They’ve been up against it, these workers in a war where they’ve faced death and destruction, and been undermined by their own leaders. 

You need to hear from them. 


Unsung: Tales From The Front Line

Theatre: Workshop West, in partnership with Theatre Yes and Ground Zero Productions

Created by: Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Melissa Thingelstad, Jade Robinson, Rebecca Merkley, Trevor Duplessis, Sheldon Stockdale

Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd

Running: through Feb. 12


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The Citadel announces its upcoming season of nine shows: here’s the lineup

SIX: The Musical: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert. 2019 photo by Liz Lauren.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Opportunities for people to make theatre part of their lives again!” That’s the mantra under which Citadel Theatre artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled the upcoming $13 million 2023-2024 lineup Monday night at Edmonton’s largest playhouse. 

“Our goal is to get people back into the building … back into the habit and excitement of coming to the theatre,” says Cloran.

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The demographic appeal is deliberately broad, and so is the embrace of both local and international connections. Of the nine shows Cloran announced, all on the Citadel mainstages, four are musicals, of every size and shape, including one that the Citadel’s Canadian premiere in 2019 played a part in preparing for Broadway success. One’s an old-school big-cast Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster with undimmed relevance. One’s a long-running Off-Broadway hit with cult status. And one’s an original Métis song and story cycle.  

It all starts with the summer return to Edmonton of SIX: The Musical, the sassy Edinburgh Fringe project-turnedBroadway hit, in which the six fractious wives of Henry VIII catapult out of Tudor history as girl-power pop stars: “Divorced. Beheaded. Live in Concert.” As Cloran explains, “we’re working with the producers (both U.K. and U.S.) to rehearse a new cast and launch a tour that starts here before it moves elsewhere…. It speaks to the relationships we’ve built, the commercial partnerships, and (witness Hadestown, also developed at the Citadel pre-Broadway) “our reputation as a great place to launch.” 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

“By this spring three shows that have come through the Citadel and were developed here will be on Broadway,” says Cloran: Six, Hadestown, and now Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the work of London’s Mischief Theatre. The North American premiere of the latter happened at the Citadel last season. And now it’s Broadway bound; “the set and costumes we built here have been shipped to New York.” 

SIX: The Musical runs Aug. 12 to Sept. 10, a period that overlaps with the Edmonton Fringe. And Cloran hopes to capitalize on Six’s own origins in tandem with that festival; “after all, it’s the ultimate Fringe success story…. Could the queens do a Fringe cabaret?” The idea, he says, is “ if you like theatre, Edmonton is the place to be in the summer.” 

Little Shop of Horrors, Citadel Theatre. Graphic supplied.

Small-scale and retro in its ‘60s score by Alan Menken (lyrics and book by Howard Ashman), the 1982 horror-comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors hasn’t been done at the Citadel in 20 years. We’ll see Seymour and his disturbing relationship with a certain bloodthirsty plant in a Citadel co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre (Oct. 21 to Nov. 19),  directed by the Arts Club’s artistic director Ashlie Corcoran. 

Announced by the Citadel before the pandemic, The Sound of Music, the Tony winning last collaboration in 1959 of Rodgers and Hammerstein, finally comes to pass March 2 to 31 2024 , in a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre directed by Rachel Peake (The Garneau Block, 9 to 5). The adult cast of 16 or 18 will move between Winnipeg and Edmonton, joined by local kids in both cities. 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

Rubaboo (Feb. 10 to March 3, 2024) “continues our commitment to Indigenous programming,” says Cloran of the song and story cycle created and performed by Métis singer-songwriter/actor Andrea Menard (music by Menard and Edmonton’s Robert Walsh). Borrowing its title from the Métis word for a rich stew, Rubaboo is “a beautiful evening, something really welcoming, something really uplifting,” says Cloran of a piece that’s already played the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. and the Arts Club in Vancouver. Alanis King directs.

The official subscription season of six shows opens (Sept. 23 to October 15) with English language theatre’s most perfectly formed, and funniest, comedy, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The Citadel production is directed by Jackie Maxwell (The Humans), the former director of the Shaw Festival, who’s “perfect for this, for her understanding of this kind of wit, and the period,” as Cloran puts it.

“In Jackie’s very first season at Shaw she programmed Earnest,” says Cloran, and then had former festival artistic director Christopher Newton do the directing honours. “It’s a play she’s always wanted to do, and never had the chance.” No word yet on casting for this comedy sparkler.

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied.

The subscription season grand finale is a stage adaptation, by the American playwright Catherine Bush, of The Three Musketeers. “Big ensemble, big costumes, big swashbuckling, big adventure, big romance…. And it’s also super funny,” says Cloran, who directs the Citadel-Arts Club co-production April 20 to May 4, 2024. “Really lively, really fun.” Casting awaits, but Jonathan Purvis has been enlisted for the swordplay.   

The lineup announced by Cloran also includes a Citadel production of The Mountaintop, a 2009 reimagining by young American playwright Katori Hall of the events in Memphis the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. The production (March 30 to April 21, 2024) returns director Patricia Darbasie to the very piece she directed a year ago at Shadow Theatre. “This is us amplifying the work of local artists,” Cloran explains. The play “has been on our list for a long time, and it gives Pat the opportunity to imagine it for a large space and share it with a large audience, with more production resources.” 

Citadel Theatre, graphic supplied

Along with SIX and A Christmas Carol, outside the mainstage subscription series, is the return of Farren Timoteo’s hit solo show Made In Italy (Jan. 6 to 28, 2024). Directed by Cloran, it chronicles in go-for-the-gusto fashion the Italian immigrant experience. “It’s a pure Edmonton success story,” says Cloran. “A great Edmonton artist.”

Made In Italy premiered in 2016 in Cloran’s last year as artistic director at Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre. “The day after it opened I got in the car and drove to Edmonton” for a new Citadel job.

“We started as a tiny little studio show in Kamloops. We brought it here to the (Citadel’s) Rice Theatre for a weekend, and people liked it, so we brought it back again….” Since those modest origins, Made In Italy has had an unusually lively mainstage life for a solo show  — at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, the Thousand Islands Playhouse, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and return engagements by popular demand at the Arts Club.” With more to come. “It’s running all next season,” says Cloran of its multiple engagements across the country, including the Citadel.  

If there are fewer productions at the Citadel next season, 12 down to nine, it’s because the Highwire Series — collaborations with local indie companies (this season The Wolves, Deafy and First Métis Man of Odesa) — is “on temporary pause next season,” says Cloran. “It’s partially because of our focus on the mainstage.” And it’s partly budgetary factors, and time. “Partnerships enable us to do shows we couldn’t afford by ourselves and (indie companies) couldn’t afford by themselves…. But it takes time for indie companies to get grants and do fund-raising, and no one had confirmed funding yet.”

Cloran acknowledges that after two years of cancellations and ingenious pandemical pivoting the much anticipated return of live theatre in the current season hasn’t been without its challenges — “a slower return than we’d thought.” The big regional theatres across the country, the Citadel among them, have reported a drop of 30 per cent or so in audiences in the fall. But there’s been a warming return to sold-out houses for holiday shows. “A Christmas Carol made us very hopeful,” he says of the full houses in December for David van Belle’s adaptation “back in its full glory,” with a fulsome 35-actor including a dozen kids. 

That production returns for the fifth season Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 (making a quarter-century of Christmas Carols at the Citadel), with John Ullyatt back as Scrooge. 

2023/24 season packages go on sale Jan. 30. Casual tickets for SIX: The Musical go on sale on April 6, with the rest of the season on sale by July 12.

The 2023-2024 Citadel lineup at a glance:  

Mainstage subscription series: The Importance of Being Earnest (Sept. 23 – Oct. 15, 2023; Little Shop of Horrors (Oct. 21 – Nov. 19, 2023); Rubaboo (Feb. 10 – March 2, 2024); The Sound of Music (March 2 – 31, 2024); The Mountaintop (March 30 – April 21, 2024); The Three Musketeers (April 20 – May 12, 2024)

Summer musicalSIX: The Musical (Aug. 12 – Sept. 10, 2023)

Holiday production: A Christmas Carol (Nov. 25 – Dec. 23, 2023)

Special presentation: Made in Italy (Jan. 6 – 28, 2024)




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Deaf, and an expert in the absurdities of the world: Chris Dodd’s Deafy at the Citadel, a review

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls,

In Deafy, currently running in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre, we meet a man with a fine-tuned sense of the absurdities of the world. In his wry way he’s an expert in negotiating obstacles both large and niggling, rolling with the punches, deflecting them, exercising his eye-rolls on them.

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He’s had lots of practice. Nathan Jesper is Deaf. And life is complicated when you’re Deaf. At the start of this hit tragi-comedy by and starring Chris Dodd (the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the influential national festival of Deaf arts), he gets flung onto the stage barefoot, by some sort of blast, forces beyond his control. Dave Clarke’s terrific sound design has a heartbeat to it, the kind of pulse you feel in your ribcage, with top notes of industrial buzz. 

“O shit, where are the interpreters?” Nathan is played by the playwright, who’s an exceptionally physical, expressive, rubber-faced actor (armed with a vivid movement score by choreographer Ainsley Hillyard). Nathan has a job to do and he’s running way late (“Listen, I’m sorry, I got bumped”). He’s picked up a gig as a Deaf public speaker and Deaf educator, who negotiates the world in three languages, spoken English, ASL, and captioning. As for the latter Nathan’s adversarial relationship with his captions (and a laugh track gone askew) is one of the comic motifs of a show that’s very funny, and also insightful and moving.  

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

Who Are You? demands the caption. Good question, and we don’t know if it’s for Nathan or for us.  

I saw Ashley Wright’s appealing production, as rhythmic as a dance, at the 2021 Fringe and loved it. And I enjoyed it again in this revival for the Citadel’s Highwire Series, the first play by a Deaf playwright ever on a Citadel stage in the company’s 58-season history.  

Chris Dodd, creator and star of Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

It struck me again that what breaks your heart about Deafy is also what gives the show its eye-watering comic edge. Nathan’s asks aren’t big. His dreams are modest: hang out with friends, go to the bar and have a few beers while the hockey game’s on TV, get his driver’s licence, take the train. What could be less demanding?  

Things have a way of going off the rails for Nathan in his tricky negotiations with the hearing world. The bartender claims he can’t turn on the TV captions for the hockey game. Nathan’s friend Len is outraged. Then the Motor Vehicles clerk says Deaf people aren’t allowed to get drivers’ licences. Wrong. Then, it transpires that no interpreters are allowed for drivers’ tests, which makes no sense at all. So Len comes up with a lunatic work-around involving a blanket and a garden gnome (my lips are sealed). This episode has the kind of cracked deadpan hilarity, in the telling, that will remind you of Bob Newhart’s celebrated driving lesson sketch. 

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

“Let me tell you about the last time I rode the train.” The episode involving Nathan and a persistent accordion player busking in a train car will make you wince-laugh, too. Dodd is an ace storyteller, a master of those wry eyebrow lifts and rueful shrugs that, along with precision comic timing, set the old-school comedians apart.

Nathan’s stories get darker, sadder, more fraught as his hard-won hegemony between the Deaf and hearing worlds begins to fall apart, and leaves him adrift, increasingly isolated from both. Who are you? asks the caption again. And there’s no answer forthcoming for the outsider perpetually looking in. A silent encounter with a homeless man in an airport — “no destination, no passport, a man without a country, a man like me who doesn’t belong” — will twist your heart. 

What is it like to be Deaf? This is a personal invitation into that experience: artfully constructed and enlightening.

See 12thnight’s PREVIEW with Chris Dodd here.



Theatre: Citadel Highwire Series

Written by and starring: Chris Dodd

Directed by: Ashley Wright

Running: through Feb. 12

Tickets:, 780-425-1820



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Enough, the aerial view of a mysterious dread, at Northern Light. A review

Kristin Johnston and Linda Grass in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

“I am the image of escape,” says one of the two globe-trotting flight attendant characters in Enough, getting its Canadian premiere in the Northern Light Theatre season. There they are, trim and calm and smiling, 30,000 feet above their lives on the ground. “Glamour and grace … a symbol of sex appeal and sightseeing.”

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And yet breaking the bonds of earth is exactly what Toni (Kristin Johnston) and Jane (Linda Grass) cannot do in this strangely poetic, genuinely disturbing play by the Scottish playwright Stef Smith, a prize-winner at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a captivating piece of theatre in the Trevor Schmidt production, unsettling in the way it captures, from the aerial view, the indefinable but palpable anxiety that it’s the end times … of something. 

But what? The ripple of knowledge that their lives, the ground below, perhaps the planet itself are crumbling and cracking five miles below them?  

As the playwright herself notes, being a flight attendant is is a kind of theatrical performance in itself, fake cordiality dancing brightly on the lethal knowledge that it takes exactly three minutes for an airliner to fall through the air from 30,000 feet to the ground. 

And at the outset, you’ll be amused to see Grass and Johnston, all lipsticked-up, tripping onto the stage in their high heels and  their nicely tight blue suits, pulling those perfectly neat little carry-ons. They pause to pose in silhouette to paste on a perfect smile for their public, as they carry on their own private conversation. They move and stop in sync (the witty work of choreographer Ainsley Hillyard), automatically adopting that angle thing models do with their hips. 

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

They share a recurring chorus (and endless streams of chardonnay). “When I walk into a room, in my uniform,” says one. “There’s a look that gets thrown my way,” says the other.

It’s an incantation in a world designed with elegant aptness by director Schmidt. Roy Jackson’s lighting captures the strangeness of being in a bubble, everywhere and nowhere, and the quick flips between “onstage” at work and “backstage” at home and in indistinguishable hotel rooms. And Dave Clarke’s sound design, too, conjures that world of  air travel, with its anxieties, fake good cheer, phoney consolations.

The production’s theatrical accoutrements are fun and witty, full of allusions. The play has been called a tone poem, and I get that — the rhythms of its choral repetitions, the continuity between introspection (one character ‘narrating’ the thoughts of the other) and dialogue — and the imagery of a mysterious sort of dread. This sounds elusive and hard to follow, but it’s not. Both actors slide into this poetic complexity expertly, and their chemistry underpins the evening.  

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Toni and Jane return from the sky temporarily, day after day, into the great cities of the world — which is to say its hotel rooms. Sometimes they get to go home. Ah, and what emerges, gradually, in a text that shares the narration and shifts  effortlessly between first and third person, is that their lives and their sense of home, and what it means to be there, are very different. 

Jane is married with kids, flailing herself, as we see in Grass’s performance, with the notion of perfectibility: the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect colour for the bathroom. Toni is single, and as Johnston conveys expressively (there’s stress behind that breezy demeanour), the freedom of that single life is an illusion. She’s trapped in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend she’s ashamed to reveal to her friend (“his face is gasoline and I’m the match”).  

Linda Grass and Kristin Johnston in Enough, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

What’s infiltrating their consciousness from their aerial perch, as they fill the drinks trolley and demonstrate the use of the seatbelts, is an eerie thunder below them, the frisson of fear that the centre will not hold. They feel “the low rumble of something deep and dark, something working its way to the surface.” Is the ground cracking? they wonder. “Is the world disappearing?” Have offences to the environment finally turned the earth into sand?

It’s the unexplained link — I really liked that it’s unexplained — between the planet itself and the lives of women, gazed upon and never seen, that gives Enough its mysterious resonance. That, and the potential power of female friendship to be, as the title suggests, enough. Enough to withstand the gathering tremors and turbulence in a scary uncharted universe. 

It’s a weird and cool play. And Northern Light does it proud. 

Check out the 12thnight PREVIEW, an interview with director/designer Trevor Schmidt here.



Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Stef Smith

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Linda Grass, Kristin Johnston

Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: to Feb. 4



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Judy Unwin: curious, feisty, fun, and tirelessly passionate about theatre. A big loss for Edmonton theatre

Judy post-meeting at the old Varscona, 2003

By Liz Nicholls,

“Hi. It’s me, Judy. Listen, I’m at the theatre; I’ll meet you there….” 

She was outspoken, opinionated, generous, and funny — an artist herself who stood up fiercely and in all kinds of ways for live theatre, its creators, its practitioners. A sense of disbelief still hangs over the sad news this month that Judy Unwin is gone, at 77. It’s unreasonable; it just doesn’t compute;  And I bet many people in the Edmonton theatre community share that feeling. 

Judy Unwin

In one energetic, energizing person, this theatre town has lost an actor, a director, an artistic director, a board member, a fund (and fun-) raiser and donor, an advocate and volunteer, a theatre lover extraordinaire. In the old-fashioned sense Judy was a patron, an enabler if you like, of live theatre, and infinitely creative and practical about how to do that. Her loss is a terrible blow.  

I’ve lost a friend, the kind who takes you out for a Christmas martini, or calls you up late night to discuss the 11 o’clock number in a musical or a surprising performance, or whether there should have been an intermission. We first met, 35 years ago, in the mid-‘80s when Judy was directing the premiere Edmonton production of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God at Walterdale, Edmonton’s extraordinarily ambitious community theatre. Judy learned ASL, found interpreters, drummed up sponsors, and retained connections to the Deaf community throughout her life — at a time when accessibility was rarely discussed.

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At Walterdale Judy was a force to be reckoned with. She’d grown up in a prominent Edmonton arts family; her father Jack Unwin was a notable director, and the founder of the Walterdale tradition of the annual Klondike melodrama. At 19 Judy was the wide-eyed dimpled ingenue in the first of these, in 1965: Nellie Lovelace (“as true as she is tender”) in Tempted Tried and True or Dirty Work at the Crossroads. And after many appearances as the ingenue she graduated to directing the melodramas.    

Judy is a multi-talented presence in the Walterdale archive. She acted in Walterdale shows; her memorial last week (beautifully arranged by her sons Scott and Steve Tilley) was a veritable reunion of the cast of Exit Who? of 1986. It was Linda Karenko’s theatre debut, she says. “Judy taught me everything…. I said ‘what’s upstaging?’ And she said ‘you’re doing it!’” ” Judy directed Walterdale shows. She sold tickets; she ran the box office; she raised money. She was on the board, she was the artistic director. 

Tempted, Tried and True or Dirty Work at the Crossroads, Judy Unwin’s debut in a Walterdale Theatre Klondike Melodrama 1965. Photo from Walterdale archive.

Actor/broadcaster Chris Allen remembers Judy asking him one day “how much do you love Walterdale?.” Thinking she was after him to purchase a seat as part of the theatre’s renovation campaign, he said “’a lot!’ And Judy said ‘Good! you’re directing the melodrama!’” He was terrified, but she was a very hard person to say No to. “She was a very clear, motivated and productive member of Walterdale and by example gave me lessons in how a working theatre should function.” 

Judy was feisty about supporting artists. In 1980, as playwright Brad Fraser remembers with undimmed appreciation, it was Judy who stood up for his early play Mutants at an emergency Walterdale board meeting called to discuss cancelling the production as too risky. “‘We can’t censor this boy. He’s been working with us for years; we asked him to do this, and he did what we asked. We cannot be censors’…. She was an amazing person.” 

Chef Judy, cooking for Varscona silent auction winners, 2017

By 1996, Judy was on the board of the Varscona Theatre, across the avenue from Walterdale. And later she was deeply involved in the renovations that resulted in an old-new Varscona in 2016, with opinions on every brick and staircase. The most popular item on the Varscona’s silent fund-raising auctions was invariably the multi-course dinner prepared by Judy, a great cook, in the home of the purchaser, and served by an elite team of chatty Edmonton actors.  

“She had a lot of drive and a lot of connections; she did know everyone in town,” says Jeff Haslam, a longtime Judy friend, Teatro Live leading man and sometime Teatro artistic director, who was on the Varscona board for a time. The thought is echoed by the Varscona’s current executive director Kendra Connor. “She was such a good connector; she knew everybody,” and was fearless about using her manifold connections on behalf of theatre. “She could get (the Citadel’s late founder) Joe Shoctor on the phone,” says Connor. And on the phone to some VIP (or potential sponsor) Judy, as we all knew her, became “Judge Tilley’s wife.”

Trying out seat in the new theatre, 2016

In Judy’s veins flowed a kind of old-school volunteerism, public service that asks “what do you need?” and then just steps up and makes it happen. “She never thought twice,” as Haslam says. “She saw things through.”

And so it was with the Sterling Awards, an annual celebration of excellence on Edmonton stages. Nobody realized how many jobs she did to keep it going until she stepped away in 2017. 

I remember being at Judy’s table at the Mayfield Theatre on many Sterling nights, as she snuck off her party shoes and put on her bedroom slippers. She’d already been part of arranging the jurors, and the elaborately anonymous voting system. She’d hired the venue; she’d argued about the menu (insisting that you can’t have a proper buffet without the prime rib). She arranged the ticketing. And the sponsors. She’d supervised the building of the Sterling trophies, at $250 apiece, along with the winners’ plaques. 

Judy Unwin and actor/choreographer Jason Hardwick. Photo by Jana Hove.

During the day she’d brought sandwiches to the backstage crew, the director, the stage managers. On the night, she was overseeing the 50-50 tickets, fretting about the trophies and the no-shows, paying the band, fielding complaints…. 

It was an endless list. And as a theatre celebration it was “barely break-even,” as Connor says, “always a struggle.” When it didn’t add up, Judy would put the outstanding Mayfield tab on her VISA. “And by the next year’s Sterlings, we’d paid her back.” 

There’s a showbiz gene in Judy’s makeup. In her ‘60s she took up tap-dancing, along with her friend Betty Grudnizki; they tried Taiko drumming. For multiple summers Judy was even a fellow Fringe reviewer, for Global. I’d see her in the Fringe press room, or previewing shows with Betty at the Saskatoon Fringe. They’d make a road trip of it, and brought a startling array of fancy snacks and booze, laid out like a buffet in their hotel room. Back in Edmonton, before each TV hit Judy would change — upgrade only her top since they only shot from the waist up. Which made her, I guess, an early precursor of the Zoom meet-up.

Judy adored her granddaughters; we all knew that. And there were many strands to her life beyond theatre, as I keep discovering. In the swinging ’60s she was a Wardair flight attendant on the London route in the halcyon days when air travel was still exciting. She was accepted to the National Theatre School, but didn’t go when she fell in love with someone in Edmonton. She loved Hawaii… .There are many secret (to me) chapters folded into the Judy life origami. “She loved it, she really loved it, and she had a passion for keeping it going,” says Haslam of Judy’s attachment to the theatre. “She was fun. She was curious.”

Judy was passionately devoted to the principle that “the arts should be celebrated, upheld whatever it takes,” says Connor. “She had a deep love of artists. She was committed to that.” 

Hold that thought, and pay it forward.  

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Negotiating a route through the Deaf and hearing worlds: Chris Dodd’s Deafy, at the Citadel

Chris Dodd, creator and star of Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls,

The production that opens tonight at the Citadel is in its own special way a groundbreaker. For the first time in its 58-season history a play by a Deaf playwright will occupy a stage at the glass-and-brick playhouse downtown.

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That play is Chris Dodd’s Deafy. And in his funny, moving solo tragi-comedy, the playwright himself stars as Nathan Jesper, a Deaf public speaker who lives in three languages (spoken English, sign language, and captioning), in a world fraught with absurdities, and obstacles large and small. Deafy invites us into that world, and Nathan’s quest to belong. 

12thnight last connected with Dodd and his longtime director Ashley Wright about Deafy on the eve of its run at the 2021 Fringe. Have a peek at that piece here.

There are many firsts in Dodd’s career. He was the first Deaf student at Vic, Edmonton’s arts high school; he was the U of A’s first Deaf drama grad in 1998. He’s the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the immensely influential seven-year-old national festival dedicated to the Deaf performing arts. Deafy, which made waves nationally at the 2019 edition of Toronto’s curated SummerWorks Festival, was the first play by a Deaf playwright to be pubished by Playwright Canada Press. The list goes on.  

And now, Deafy is at the Citadel, in the Highwire Series designed to enhance the profile and fortunes of indie artists and companies. We caught up with the exuberant theatre artist this past week to get an update on his work, and on Deafy. 

Chris Dodd, creator and star of Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Nathan is so funny, so acerbic about the obstacles put in the way of a sense of belonging, to either the Deaf or hearing worlds. Can theatre embrace both? “Deafy is very much a play for both hearing and Deaf people. Everyone can equally participate … as it incorporates the spoken word, ASL, and captions. We’ve carefully crafted it in a way that ensures both groups can appreciate it equally. This aligns with the struggles of the play’s protagonist Nathan Jesper as he navigates his intricate existence between the hearing and Deaf worlds. Deaf audiences will identify with Nathan and his journey and hearing audiences will come away with a new appreciation of what it is like to be Deaf.”

Did you become a playwright because you didn’t find plays that reflected your experience? “I love writing plays that are accessible for all audiences. I really want my own work, along with the work of other Deaf artists, to reach wider audiences, one of the catalysts of founding SOUND OFF. Really, Deaf writers need to be the authors of their own stories. It is rather unfortunate that many tales that make it to mainstream theatre featuring Deaf themes or Deaf characters, such as Tribes or Children of a Lesser God, are written by hearing writers. So when we write our own stories, we are taking control of our own narrative….” 

What are you working on at the moment? “I have a commission from a local company, as well as an ongoing project to help write a collective work featuring Deaf youth, a new version of a Young Audiences play Alicia and the Machine, with support from Roseneath Theatre. Plus I was selected by the Citadel to be one of four local writers for their Playwrights Lab.   

Now that live theatre has resumed, will it jettison online platforms? “We’re still living in the age of digital performance and I don’t see that changing any time soon. The pandemic has really shaped howe we interact with the theatre we’ve usually gone to see live…. Even with most basic accessibility through automatic captioning over Zoom, this has opened a whole range of ways to participate that weren’t previous available for individuals like myself.”

Chris Dodd, creator and star of Deafy, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

COVID cancelled exciting destinations for Deafy (including the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe, an Ontario tour and Toronto dates). Are there new plans for Deafy going forward? “After the Citadel we have an invitation to the IMPACT Festival at MT Space in Kitchener in the fall, then possibly a festival in Australia. We aim to be touring this show in the next few years in different cities across Canada, and we’re already in discussions with a number of companies.”

What’s happening with SOUND OFF this year? “Our seventh annual festival returns to the Arts Barns this year, March 28 to April 2. We’re continuing with our hybrid format … both live and online shows and events. We have a huge line-up for this year, which will feature two new dance performances in separate venues (La Cité francophone and the new Good Women Dance studio). We’ll also continue our partnership with Rapid Fire Theatre, and will bring back our popular Theatresports show adapted to both Deaf and hearing improvisers. All this plus staged readings, workshops, panels, talk-backs, and more!” 

Deafy runs at the Citadel the Citadel through Feb. 12. Tickets:, 780-425-1820.



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Fresh Hell: in Conni Massing’s new play an unusual case of female bonding. A review.

Sydney Williams and Kate Newby in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

You’ll never guess who Dorothy Parker ran into the other day. On a stage. In Edmonton.  

Of all the historical figures that you might reasonably expect the New York wit, poet, satirist to conjure at a moment of extremity, Joan of Arc is pretty much off the chart of official possibilities. But in the particular limbo imagined by Conni Massing’s new play Fresh Hell, premiering at Shadow Theatre, Dorothy somehow summons Joan, the inspirational heroine of the Hundred Years War, to Manhattan 1923 from a battlefield in 1429.

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Both are in that hitherto unexplored liminal space where 20th century Central Park and the 15th century French countryside meet. And for Tracy Carroll’s production, designer Daniel vanHeyst has figured out how to create a shimmering timeless moonlit space with a glinting silvery New York skyline cutout and the kind of ethereal foliage you might dream if you dreamed in pewter hues and were constructing a mental tapestry.  

Both women are hovering between life and death, on a time-out in their respective bios. Joan arrives onstage, dramatically, with a banner and an enemy arrow in one shoulder. Dorothy has just slit her wrists. Which makes them blood sisters, I guess. “I admit you were on my mind,” says Dorothy. “Stop praying; you’re making me nervous.”

Even in the world of unlikely encounters of which theatre is inordinately fond — where nuns and gangsters get stuck in elevators together, tykes and octogenarians meet on park benches, and Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare hang out — Fresh Hell is boldly out there. And Massing, a witty writer with an ear tuned to Parker-type wisecracks, has to work, possibly a bit too hard, to be playful about an improbability that’s so obvious, a contrast set forth in such primary strokes.  

In the terms of Fresh Hell (a title spun from Parker’s famously all-purpose “what fresh hell is this?”), why on earth would Joan of Arc be a muse for Dorothy Parker? Joan is on a short break from her divinely appointed job freeing France from the English. Dorothy is suicidal because she’s up against a deadline for a magazine piece on saints and martyrs. Even in New York publishing circles this seems an extreme reaction to deadline pressure, but hey, we don’t judge. Or she’s wearied by her own “obligation to be facetious”? Or “I can’t think of a reason not to”?

Joan, needless to say, is not impressed. “You are taking your own life?” she says, shocked at this egregious violation of the Church party line on mortal sin. “Who better?” is Dorothy’s rejoinder. 

Fresh Hell aims to be both funny and touching about this exotic and wildly unexpected case of female bonding. And it often is. But I do wonder if Carroll’s production might have been better off to give itself over more fully to the comic possibilities of the mis-match. The play belongs, after all, to Dorothy Parker and her case of “the glums”; and the show might unspool that fun a bit more en route to its ending.

Kate Newby as Dorothy Parker in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

In a performance that captures the sense of a quick wit getting frayed at the edges, Kate Newby has a Dorothy voice with a patina of Upper West Side cocktails and smoke. She nails a world-weariness that is a combination of existential ennui, puzzlement, and a certain self-mockery (in 1923, after all, she has experience as a reviewer). And one of the delights of Newby’s performance is the way Dorothy, even in melancholy self-lacerating mode, seems to be unstudiedly quick-witted.   

Sydney Williams, a newcomer to keep watching, is Joan, resilient, girded with certitudes, and surprised, but not that surprised,to find herself in a world she doesn’t understand. That’s 15th century France for you, incomprehensible even to its inhabitants. In Williams’ performance, Joan is always looking upwards towards her heavenly guides and employers, just like Tevye 500 years later (this is the first and only time Joan and Tevye will ever be mentioned in one sentence, and I’m already regretting it). 

Dorothy turns out sparkling short stories, memorable free-floating witticisms, poems that actually rhyme, but she dismisses them all. She has writer’s block where, in her mind, it really counts: the creation of a great American novel à la Hemingway or Fitzgerald has eluded her. She feels sure at some visceral level that the novel is her mission (and Joan is sympathetic at least to that; Joan is big on missions). “The fear of writing badly” is paralyzing.  

Sydney Williams and Kate Newby in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The idea of a woman caught in the cogs of the male machine is there, of course, in both stories, though it seems a little too obvious to be really play-able. For Dorothy the attraction of such a hard-core muse is at least partially Joan’s certainty about her career choice, and her Voices. Dorothy could use a few of those. “My Voice has abandoned me,” she declares of her failure as a novelist. “I’m stuck, empty-handed.” And in the play’s other two scenes, one set in 1932 and in Act II 1964, that sense of failure weighs down on her. “I feel stupid and sad and washed up.” Newby seems to have physically aged at intermission.

In the last scene of the play, Dorothy is at Broadway and 76th in 1964, and Joan is in a Burgundian prison in 1431, faced with a no-win choice: renounce her beliefs and spend the rest of her life there, or refuse to recant and get burned at the stake. She’s bereft to find that her sustaining Voices have abandoned her, and she’s suddenly confronted by the vision of all she will miss if she goes up in flames at 19, having failed, she thinks, to achieve her divine purpose of freeing France. 

As a modern person Dorothy can offer the historical long view; France will soon be its own country anyhow (now “it’s almost unbearably French” ). And Joan will have a legacy: “you have no idea how many lives you will touch.” Though unpractised at consolation, Dorothy tries to offer some personal solace too. Sex? Well, there’s no denying that’s exciting (Joan responds with a blank look). But love? marriage” Over-rated, says Dot, you might not have liked them. It’s Joan’s moment to say hey Dot, lighten up; novels aren’t everything, short stories are worthy too. Not gonna happen.

There’s fun to be had in Fresh Hell‘s cross-century juxtaposition of certainty and skepticism, the unequal weight of inspiration and job satisfaction, and the behind-the-scenes look at the frustrations of a famous writer’s life. But there’s a more vivid comedy waiting to bust out of this one.


Fresh Hell

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Kate Newby and Sydney Williams

Where: Varscona Theatre

Running: through Feb. 5



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Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, real-life stories from health care workers in a new ‘performance installation’

Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ben Franchuk, supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

There are dramatic schisms in history that divide our lives into the Before and the After. 9-11 was one. The pandemic is another, says Heather Inglis. “It’s the defining moment of our lifetime.”

“Something significant happened and it changed our lives forever. And of us have been touched by it.”

That, says the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre artistic producer, is the inspiration of Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, the ‘performance installation’ created by Inglis and actor/ playwright/ memoirist/ queer historian Darrin Hagen. It opens Friday at the Gateway Theatre.

“Last spring, in this political climate,” says Inglis, it felt like the contributions of health care workers hadn’t been honoured — people who had risked their lives for months and months, the incredible trauma of that.… Many people had died, and there’d been no moment to mark what had happened: no AIDS Quilt, no Vietnam war memorial.” 

There are reasons to sidle around the subject of COVID in theatre, of course, not least because of the familiar weight of existential dread and anxiety we’ve pocketed. “‘O gawd, please gawd, don’t let it be about COVID’ … both of us had heard that mantra over and over,” says Hagen. And yet, “we kept coming back to the idea of COVID as our defining moment…. How do you not make art about that? WTF are we supposed to be doing as artists if we’re not making art about that?” 

“Our goal,” says Inglis , “was to create a space to process what people had given and what they’d lost.” And for this, Workshop West’s new Gateway was ideal for brokering interaction between people beyond the stage — an Inglis specialty, witness such immersive theatre experiences as The Elevator Project, Flight,  Anxiety, all in unconventional spaces.

In interviews of anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours Inglis and Hagen gathered the stories of seven health care workers, from a variety of professions, demographics, genders, socio-cultural backgrounds. And Hagen created monologues using their words. For the safety (of jobs and patient information) their stories are all anonymous. In Unsung, which you visit like a gallery, moving around, choosing the order of your five-minute connections, you’ll meet them up close, telling their stories in their own words — as performed by seven actors. An ER doctor, an ICU nurse and an ICU doctor, a hospital manager, a paramedic, a health aide worker in a seniors complex among them: “they were in the jaws of the beast, and their experiences were radically different.”  

“It’s the difference between politicians talking about a war, and actually hearing from someone in the trenches,” as Inglis describes verbatim theatre, a form in which she and Hagen are experienced practitioners. By using their real words, verbatim theatre “allows people to speak the way they speak,” without the intermediary of characters and dialogue. 

In structure Unsung echoes Viscosity, a 2018 Theatre Yes initiative in which Inglis and her team gathered the first-hand stories of oil patch workers, and created monologues using their own words, performed by actors. I arrived at the show figuring I knew about oil workers and how they would think. And my preconceptions were pretty much exploded by the variety in what I encountered.   

“That’s one of the things theatre offers us,” says Inglis, “the opportunity to explore nuance and complexity in a way that can’t (exist) on social media platforms … to contemplate things from different perspectives and to offer voices to people that see things in a way most of us don’t.” 

Curating verbatim text is something of a Hagen specialty, too (“I am a writer created by the AIDS epidemic”), not only in The Queer History Project, but in his plays too. Witch Hunt at the Strand, for example, is built on real court transcripts in its exploration of a sorry chapter in Edmonton queer history. The Empress and the Prime Minister uses Trudeau speeches and the real words of gay activist ted northe to imagine a 1969  encounter that changed Canadian law. Even in a roistering Guys in Disguise entertainment like BitchSlap! Hagen was at pains to use real words from Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. “There’s something about that kind of authenticity,” he says.

“My mind has been blown,” he says of interviewing people for Unsung. “We’ve heard things that are so much deeper, darker, more intimate, more personal than anything the media has portrayed…. I don’t like the way the media dumbs everything down.” Not only is it repetitive and lazy, it hands the human narrative over to politicians. Inglis adds, “it’s a  cautionary tale, warning us against considering that all blocks of people all think the same.” 

“I felt so lucky,” says Hagen of his experience listening to real-life stories from people. “While doctors were out there saving lives I spent the pandemic in my pjs composing music and writing a play, and learning to use Garage Band. I was so insulated.”

As health care professionals began to understand, and see first-hand, what was happening, “some of them said they re-wrote their wills…. They left for work knowing they might not come back. That’s war!” Or they lived in isolation from their families, in the basement. Many spoke to the emotional moment of The Vaccine, says Hagen, “the relief of it, of knowing they could be around their families again.”

The interviews happened this past October and November, and reflect the world events of that time, too. “It’s really current,!” says Inglis. “Theatre in this (verbatim) form lends itself to that; documentary theatre can be very immediate.” There was a lots to work with. The biggest challenge was parting with “brilliant dramatic material” in the interests of fashioning a workable, performable theatre experience. Will Unsung have a future as a series? a podcast? a book? Inglis and Hagen are considering. “It’s tempting and maybe unavoidable,” says the latter.

“I’m terrified for a world where we don’t have universal health care,” says Inglis. “It’s being undermined in Alberta now…. I’m angered that people who have chosen radical compassion have been derided, punished, their waged and conditions degraded, people who wanted to help people.…”

The idea of Unsung  is “to bring people into a world the aren’t familiar with,” as Inglis puts it, “and let them move around in it.” Arrive any time between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., and choose your own path through the human gallery.


Unsung: Tales From The Front Line

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Created by: Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Friday through Feb. 12


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