“Doing it and enjoying it”: Slut is opening at Northern Light

Michelle Todd in Slut, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’m just having fun being single. Is that a crime?”

In the, er, tart little solo comedy that opens Friday at Northern Light Theatre, we meet a middle-aged accountant whose zest for sex, and generous-mindedness about spreading the joy around, puts her up against her disapproving neighbours.

She gets accused of running a brothel — until she can prove she’s a slut. Which is the name of the play, by the Canadian-born American-based playwright Brenda McFarlane, that bookends Northern Light’s “Virgin, Whore, And Something In-Between” season that began with Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, followed by Cat Walsh’s Do This In Remembrance Of Me.

“It’s the pleasure she takes in sex, the enjoyment, that gets her into trouble,” sighs actor/playwright Michelle Todd, who stars as Matilda in a comedy she calls “sweet, funny, and poignant.”

“It’s so interesting; if you’re a woman who enjoys sex outside long-term commitment, you’re either a victim or a predator. That’s the perception….” Slut, she says of the play (which premiered at the 2000 Toronto Fringe), deals with hypocrisy, the double-standard and shame attached to women’s sexuality.

Well before #MeToo and its associated resistance and empowerment movement, Todd had read Slut at the invitation of NLT’s Trevor Schmidt. She’d been engaged by the puckish way it confronts slut-shaming, and she’d found herself in the role of the woman who’s surprised, and perplexed, to find herself in jail, as Slut opens, trying to explain her perspective on having sex, and lots of it. 

“Matilda’s kind of feminism isn’t a flag-carrying thing; it isn’t prescriptive,” says Todd of the heroine of Slut. “She doesn’t have an edge; there’s an innocence about her.” Thirty-something herself, and the mother of two mixed-race sons (her mom is Filipina, her dad Jamaican), Todd knows what it’s like to come up against racial attitudinizing. Her own solo memoir Deep Fried Curried Perogies, played Kitchener’s multi-cultural MT Space Theatre last May; she’s working on a sequel.

And the deck is stacked against female sexuality unhinged from commitment. She thinks about the double-standards she’d come up against in her own high school years. “It starts that young,” she sighs. “Guys can sleep around and they’re studs. Girls sleep around and they’re sluts…. If you’re ‘doing it’ you’re troubled. If you’re ‘doing it’ and enjoying it, you’re a slut.”

The enjoyment is a deal-breaker. “And what’s ‘a lot’ anyhow, when it comes to sex?” Todd poses the question and laughs. Social attitudes have a certain absurdly arbitrary mathematical equation to them, as she points out. “What duration does it have to be before it’s ‘a relationship’? How do you define ‘active’? Is there a quota? People attach to the numbers….”

Slut is a word with reverb, she says. And it’s the centrepiece of Schmidt’s design.“If there’s no word for ‘sexual and free’ when you’re a women, ‘slut’ I guess will have to do.” 



Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Brenda McFarlane

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Michelle Todd

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

Running: Friday through April 14

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com


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Big issues in small rooms: Atlas Theatre is back with Going To St. Ives

Patricia Darbasie and Belinda Cornish in Going To St. Ives, Atlas Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives.…”

The thorny  little two-hander that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, the finale of the inaugural Varscona Theatre Ensemble series, invokes that classic nursery rhyme puzzle — over tea.

And what starts out as a civilized encounter in an English country house between two women — an eminent English eye surgeon and her new patient, the English-educated mother of an African dictator — gradually expands into a bona-fide tug-of-war, a deal-making negotiation between cultures, between the personal and the political, between the First and Third Worlds.

Going To St. Ives, opening Thursday on the Varscona stage (the finale of the inaugural Varscona Theatre Ensemble series) marks a return to active duty of Julien Arnold’s Atlas Theatre company. With the cunning 2005 play, by the American writer Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods), actor/director Arnold, a Teatro La Quindicina fave in when he’s onstage himself, returns to a play he cracked in a 2011 production.

“It’s so sharp,” says Arnold happily. Blessing “explores wider political issues, moral conflicts, the dynamics of colonialism — but cleverly, in the context of personal exchange that gradually reveal secrets.” For veteran actors like Patricia Darbasie and Belinda Cornish, returning to the production in this Atlas revival, the fun is “the doubleness,” says Arnold. “A veneer of politeness and underneath, strong feelings.”

“That’s one of the main challenges in rehearsal,” he says. “Discovering what’s happening underneath; there’s a lot of passive-aggression going on.” It’s tricky as well, he reports, “to decides when to reveal the characters’ true motives…. What should be concealed? And for how long? Yes, there’s a thriller element to it. Just when you think you have it figured out, you haven’t!” Then, in Act II, Going To St. Ives moves to Africa. And the complexities mount. 

The son of English parents, Arnold spent his early childhood years in East Africa, Tanzania. His grandfather had been stationed there during World War II, and “was so drawn to it he took the family back there to live from 1949 to 1969.”  He worked as a head master and Arnold’s mom and dad were teachers. They left Africa when Arnold was five.

“My grandfather was very interesting to talk to,” Arnold recalls. “Not conservative at all, of fierce English socialist stock. But a very British stiff-upper-lip way about him….” A conversation with him was an education in the persistence of, and even a certain idealistic streak in, colonialism.

Arnold maintains a dual actor/director life. Freewill Shakespeare Festival audiences have seen him onstage, in every size of role. For many years he was the quintessential Bob Cratchit in the Citadel’s production of A Christmas Carol, until he stepped up to Scrooge himself for the most recent edition. And his connections to the Varscona and its companies run deep. He’s best known to audiences there for his appearances with both Teatro La Quindicina and Shadow Theatre; he co-starred with Reed McColm in the latter’s premiere production of Slumberland Motel earlier this season.

Joining Plain Jane Theatre and Bright Young Things in the Varscona Ensemble is a welcome prospect for an indie like Atlas, which made its debut with Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West in 2008. “The opportunity to concentrate on the art? And share costs, marketing, box office? Wonderful! says Arnold.

And the invitation to join the series means, as well, that all three of Ensemble companies will get a Fringe slot at the Varscona, one of the festival’s leading BYOVs. From Atlas, audiences will be seeing Sirens. Arnold describes the four-actor 2011 comedy by the American Deborah Zoe Laufer as “funny, sweet, charming….”

Meanwhile, a tense, high-stakes battle of agendas for two women is happening on the Varscona stage. After Friday night’s performance of Going To St. Ives, the cast joins Edmonton journalist Innocent Madawo, who spent many years filing from Zimbabwe, in a discussion/ Q and A with the audience. 


Going To St. Ives

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Atlas

Written by: Lee Blessing

Directed by: Julien Arnold

Starring: Patricia Darbasie and Belinda Cornish

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through April 14

Tickets: yeglive.ca

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Undercover: spontaneous detective work with improv queen Rebecca Northan

Rebecca Northan in Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Emily Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls 12thnight.ca

“Everyone has the capacity to improvise,” declares Rebecca Northan decisively, looking for inspiration on a lunch menu last week. “We all improvise all the time!”

Not everyone, I think to myself, wincing visibly at a couple of incidents of mute stage paralysis that arise, unwelcome, from my own personal memory archive. Northan is undeterred. “I don’t know what the cashier at the grocery store is going to say,” she beams. “And we don’t know how our lives will unfold. So every day is an improvisation for everybody!”

Northan, who possesses the kind of laugh that would make any reasonable person want to buy her a martini and hear more, has the theatre company to prove it. Spontaneous Theatre recruits and casts an audience member in a lead role, impromptu, on the very night of the performance. Its latest,  Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation), an adventure in “improvisational crime” and the solving thereof —  opening at the Citadel Club this week — has its very genesis in impulse. 

Northan, Toronto-based, happens to be working in Calgary, her home town. She happens to be in a cafe line. Behind her happens to be Craig Hall, artistic director of Vertigo Theatre, devoted to the mystery repertoire.

And she turns, “spur of the moment improv!,” and says “hey, what would you think of a show where an audience member goes undercover as a rookie detective to solve a murder?”

Hall, who seems to follow the improv dictum about saying yes, says “Great! Let’s do it!” His only proviso is a producing partner to share the costs. That would be Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, where Undercover premiered in September, and in the process took improv over the drawbridge and into the country’s stronghold of  “new Canadian plays.”  

The last time we saw Northan in this town, it was 2014 and she was dressed to kill — red lipstick, long red sequinned gown, draped in diamonds — singing the title song of Make Mine Love into a vintage microphone at the Citadel.   

Before that, though, Edmonton audiences had already fallen in love with Northan, in another (shorter) red dress, as Mimi, a sexy, endearing (and enterprising) red-nosed clown who gets stood up in a Paris cafe, and immediately finds herself another guy in the audience to spend the evening with. That hit Spontaneous Theatre show Blind Date, which actually is one, with all the risks that implies, has travelled the country, the U.S. and abroad, with sold-out runs Off-Broadway and London’s West End.

These days, 700 blind dates later, “we have four Mimi’s, including a lesbian Mimi and a queer Mathieu…” says Northan. And meanwhile she has other Spontaneous Theatre creations to her credit, including Legend Has It, a fantasy adventure that premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Project, in which the hero is a member of the audience.

Undercover is the biggest Spontaneous creation yet: six improvisers plus the newly recruited rookie detective thrown into a criminal investigation of a murder and surrounded by suspects and clues. “There’s no ‘script’ but there’s a structure,” says Northan, whose Undercover co-creator is cast-mate (and ex-husband) Bruce Horak. They’re concocting (with Christian Goutsis) a Zorro extravaganza for the upcoming Alberta Theatre Projects season. 

“We wanted Undercover to be a really good game…. Yes, there is only one right answer. And it’s not a given, a pushover; only 30 per cent of people solve it,” grins Northan. There’s a certain authenticity built into that stat since, as per consultations with a real-life homicide detective, the police solve rate is about the same. This pleases Northan mightily.

Rebecca Northan in Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Emily Cooper.

The complications of large-cast improv escalate exponentially. That’s the fun of it, says Northan. Four of the cast, including Northan, met as teenagers at Loose Moose Theatre, Calgary’s improv headquarters. From the world of Theatresports tournaments, Northan has known Mark Meer, who’s joined Undercover for the Edmonton run, just as long. Toronto-based actor/playwright Damien Atkins (The Gay Heritage Project), who’s been studying improv with Northan, returns to Edmonton to make his improv debut in the show.

“Good acting” is part of the deal, as Northan explains. “I’m always looking for a spontaneous balance between improvisation and great theatre: grounded characters, telling a good story.  And I always want performers to bring their own truth to the stage; I want them to be emotionally affected by what’s going on around them. It’s not always about being funny.”

“And there’s the added layer: our number one priority is taking care of the audience member, making sure they have a nice time….”

And that seems to prevail. In theory, for a non-actor non-performer who isn’t a psycho exhibitionist, the idea of getting up onstage and playing a leading role for an entire show might be downright terrifying. But Mimi’s blind dates seem to have a lovely time drinking wine with her, and being really listened to, by someone who’s empathetic and genuinely interested. (I’ve had a surprising number of email testimonials to that effect).

Northan agrees that the presence of an audience changes a ‘civilian’ perception of what is possible. She and her cast, who case the crowd in the lobby first, are experienced at sussing out the best choice, scanning body language and animation, trying to assess “how someone’s fear might change them.” They consult each other before making the fateful choice. They’re at pains never to pick an actor or a theatre pro; occasionally one slips through, and it invariably affects the dynamic in a negative way. “I like trying to figure out who people are,” says Northan. 

“People come offstage, and often say ‘I didn’t think I could do it. But I did!’,” Northan reports happily. “You arrive onstage nervous” (which synchs with the concept; hey, it’s  your first day on the job as a detective). And when you calm down and gain confidence, you start to look like a really good actor…. We’re human beings with a nervous system, so we’re programmed to adapt. It’s self-regulated.” 

“Some talk more, some are very good with physical action, some are more focussed,” says Northan of the newly born stars. “Whatever they do is right!” No matter what happens (or doesn’t), the cast always makes it work. “We’ve done 70 performances so far and no two are the same….”

Everybody knows the genre. It cuts through ever demographic, nine to 90,” says Northan, who made her showbiz debut in high school working for a murder mystery company alongside Horak.  The youngest rookie detective so far has been 15, the oldest 80, “and everything in between,” says Northan, remembering a 17-year-old the cast dubbed Nancy Drew for her acuity. “”We keep the clues coming. But from the moment she stepped onto the stage, she remembered things, noticed things….”

Northan the insurrectionist is plotting further incursions of spontaneity into theatre. This time, in a venture shared between the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. and the mighty Stratford Festival (premiering this fall), it’s the sacred canon itself. In An Undiscovered Shakespeare, Northan and co elicit a real-life love story from an audience member. And on the spot from that story, impossibly, they create the Shakespeare play Will never quite got around to writing. The next time we see Northan she may well be chatting in iambic pentameter.

Meanwhile, in a multi-room mansion “on a wealthy estate just outside Edmonton,” someone’s going to get killed. And someone up there onstage in the Citadel Club is guilty. 

Will the right person get arrested? You’ll have to be there on the night to find out. 


Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation)

Theatre: Spontaneous Theatre

Created by: Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak

Directed by: Rebecca Northan

Starring: Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak, Mark Meer, Damien Atkins, Christy Bruce, Terra Hazelton

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through April 29

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com   


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Surviving the unsurvivable: the astonishing creation that is Betroffenheit, a review

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What are you supposed to do with fathomless tragedy? The kind of limitless grief that consumes your mind and melts your bones? 

Betroffenheit is about that. In its harrowing and brilliantly executed way, this astonishing dance/theatre production is its own kind of living breathing original response to the above. Betroffenheit, is a human investigation, a testing of the mysterious dark and our ability to survive it. 

A collaboration between two of the country’s leading theatre artists, playwright/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite, the much-awarded international hit has  arrived this weekend for three performances.

And you should be there. I’m here to report that Betroffenheit is a breath-taking emotional experience, one that uses every theatrical resource in stunningly creative ways.

Betroffenheit has a daunting origin: the personal tragedy of Young, who stars, alongside a corps of five amazing dancers from Pite’s company Kidd Pivot. In 2009 on a family holiday Young lost his daughter, niece, and nephew in a fire.

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

The title is an untranslatable German word that gets at shock, the paralysis and numbing bewilderment that attend upon great trauma. And that’s the state that Pite’s production conjures in its eerie opening scenes. The mind is a deadening, smudgy white warehouse room empty save for fuse and switch boxes. Thick electrical cables take on a life of their own, mysteriously untangling and snaking across the floor and up the walls. Lights flicker and die. Industrial sounds turn to static. Suddenly we notice a prone figure, in a fetal curl. Was Young there all along?

Something terrible has happened, and the room is both haven and prison. In bursts of panic, the collapsed protagonist can unplug everything; he can’t escape his mind. It’s in amplified voice-over, a self-help mantra on an endless loop of fragments. “The system is failing…. You’re going to be called on, but do not respond.”

The room is invaded by dancers. It’s a vision of addiction as a sort of demonic nightmare cabaret, a vaudeville led by by the protagonist’s grinning alter-ego (Jermaine Spivey) and a dazzlingly loose-jointed Tiffany Tregarthen, who propels herself in ways unknown to the rest of the human species.

Tiffany Tregarthen in Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Our protagonist is high, lured by the enforced high spirits of performance and the possibility of “epiphany.” In Pite’s choreography, the dancers are flamboyantly costumed figures, whose vocabulary of gestures and movement is extreme and unhinged. They seem to collapse and re-form in every kind of dance form. There’s a particularly sinister bowler-hatted troupe of tappers who drill patterns into the floor in a murderous way; our man, a frenzied vaudevillian, joins in. 

Everything about the production is theatrically striking. The apocalyptic soundscape that approaches music and retreats into industrial metallic buzz is by Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe (the two stars of Onegin) and Owen Belton. It’s indispensable to the emotional narrative of the piece, along with Tom Visser’s dramatic lighting, which creates an alternate alternate reality of shadows. Jay Gower Taylor’s design, which collapses the fateful sealed room in a startling way so that Act II can happen, takes Young from the room to a dark landscape dominated by a sort of power obelisk.

And in Act II, Pite’s powerful, expressive dancers erupt in an amazing array of gestures and still-motion captures and subside from them, in a rhythm that delivers the heartbreaking tension between surviving trauma and remembering what is lost. Is there anything these dancers can’t do? They’re mesmerizing. So is Young. 

“You’re going to get out alive,” the voice that’s an amplified version of his own tells the protagonist as he teeters on the threshhold of the terrible past to look around him — forward. There’s wonder in that gaze.



Theatre: Kidd Pivot, Electric Company Theatre

Created by: Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite

Choreographed and directed by: Crystal Pite

Starring: Jonathon Young, Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen

Co-presented by: Brian Webb Dance Company, Citadel Theatre

Where: Citadel Shoctor Theatre

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Brian Webb on Betroffenheit, and other matters theatrical for the weekend

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Thoughts from Brian Webb, artistic director of the dance company that’s teamed up with the Citadel to bring Betroffenheit our way this weekend:

“Crystal is the cream!,” says Webb of Crystal Pite, the star Kidd Pivot choreographer who collaborated on the international dance/theatre hit Betroffenheit with Electric Company Theatre playwright/performer Jonathon Young. “She’s unquestionably in the top five, no the top three, in the world.”

“She’s so well read, so into art. And .. she knows how to put on a a show. Her work is so highly entertaining! Hot stuff!”

“She was an amazing dancer herself. And with this is her imagination, her own sense of what dance can be. It’s a strong vision!” Webb refers to the tag line of his own Brian Webb Dance Company, “without the dancing there ain’t no dance!”

Webb is full of admiration for the team of Pite and Young. He looks for an Edmonton equivalent of this kind of creative relationship. “Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke at Catalyst?” he proposes, thinking of the playwright/director and designer/scenographer who brought us such Catalyst musicals as Frankenstein and Nevermore. “Or (playwright) Stewart Lemoine and the Teatro La Quindicina ensemble?”

These relationships are crucial…. When art comes from the democratic exchange of ideas to make something good, it has to be of equals. And what these two (Pite and Young) come up with is new, exciting, and provocative!”

“Two Canadian choreographers have shaken the world of theatrical dance,” Webb thinks. One is Edouard Lock of La La La Human Steps. The other is Crystal Pite.”

Tonight’s the night! Your chance to see Pite’s collaboration with Young happens tonight through Sunday, three performances only at the Citadel, on this the last tour of the 2015 hit that’s scooped up awards wherever it’s been. You’ll see Webb at all three performances. Check out my 12thnight.ca interview with the playwright Jonathon Young.

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Revue. Photo by db photographics.

•In other stage news, history-making epoque-changing Canadian women take to the stage, in a revival of With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Revue, tonight and Saturday at the vintage Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park. It’s the work of Edmonton’s intrepid, ever-inventive Send In The Girls troupe. And feminist stormtrooper Nellie McClung (aka Ellen Chorley) presides, in un-corseted fashion. Tickets: fortedmontonpark.ca.

•Just opened: Tiny Bear Jaws’ premiere production of Elena Belyea’s Cleave. Can an intersex hero make his way through the tangled world of pronouns and family dinners? It’s at Fringe Theatre Adventures headquarters, the ATB Financial Arts Barns, in the Backstage Theatre through April 11. 12thnight.ca review. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca.

City of Angels, MacEwan University. Photo supplied.

•Ending this weekend: City of Angels, the playfully noir Cy Coleman/ Larry Gelbart musical in which a writer is struggling to turn his detective novel into a movie — before our very eyes. Leigh Rivenbark’s production is onstage at MacEwan University’s Triffo Theatre through Saturday. Tickets: 780-497-4470, boxoffice@macewan.ca

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Cleave, a sense of possibility in contradiction: a review of Tiny Bear Jaws’ latest

Jordan Fowlie and Dave Horak in Cleave, Tiny Bear Jaws/ Fringe Theatre Adventures. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

No wonder we’re screwed up. We’re looking for definitive clarity and judgment in a language full of unruly verbs —  dust, sanction, screen, bolt, cleave — that contain their own opposites.

Cleave: to hold together. Cleave: to separate. The latest from Tiny Bear Jaws and its agile resident muse Elena Belyea, plays with this thought, so full of potential for comedy and its darker dramatic brethren, in a piece that frames the ancient dual quest for identity and connection in a contemporary way. 

The protagonist, for starters, is an intersex kid; talk about upping the ante on teen angst. Seventeen-year-old Aaron has moved from rural Alberta to the big city, in search of high school anonymity, and the official go-ahead for the surgery that will propel his (his choice of pronoun) transitioning to male. And one of the intriguing surprises of Cleave is that, as set forth in Jordan Fowlie’s watchful, compellingly understated performance, Aaron is the most calmly self-knowing character in the play.

This grave outsider, the stranger in town, will have a profound effect on a family: a couple of parents with secrets of their own (one a lot less comprehensible than the other) and two teenage kids. As the Tiny Bear Jaws canon confirms, Belyea is a deft hand at funny, staccato, overlapping dialogue. And Cleave hereby joins the crammed world archive of family dinners gone off the rails when strangers are present, in a chaotic, gruesomely comic scene of crossed wires, unwelcome recognition, unanswered questions, and flying salad.

Awkwardness reigns supreme, including over-heartiness from Paul the dad (Dave Horak) and the mom Carol (Elena Porter). The catalyst for this exercise in group indigestion is a mysterious photo, and an explosive burst of hostility from Pina (Emma Houghton) who has achieved a life goal of being on the cheerleading team. She spends quite some time wearing a paper bag over her head. She has her reasons (you won’t hear them from me). Suffice to say that they aren’t persuasive to her brother Mark, in Luc Tellier’s endearingly nerdy performance the funniest character in the play, but are unqueried by Mark’s new classmate Aaron. The latter, after all, has an outsider’s wide tolerance for differences.

The performances from Sabourin’s cast, including Horak and Porter, have believable real-life weight and dimension to them. Where Cleave founders a bit, I think, is in the gender therapist character Rachel, gamely played by Natasha Napoleao. Her meetings with Aaron — she asks questions; he answers in well-organized long-form —  are rather self-evidently the device the play uses to dole out a quantity of (useful) information about what “intersex” means, the physiological implications, the process of transitioning, how gender questions don’t resolve sexuality issues, etc.

She asks questions, in a smiley therapist way, that the play often addresses in a more elliptical and dramatically satisfying way elsewhere. So there’s a patina of artificiality; the meetings seem to halt proceedings rather than legitimately propel or counterpoint them. OK, Rachel isn’t the first therapist to be a lot less well-adjusted (or -informed) than her client. But by the time, late in the play, she asks Aaron why he wants surgery, she’s demonstrating an out-and-out lack of confidence in the play in which she’s embedded.

Tellier captures in a beautiful, alert way the bruised precocity and innocence of Mark, a science geek bullied at school by gangs of marauding youth who pelt him with luncheon meat. An outcast amongst his peers, he spends his time online, applying to be a volunteer for Mars missions; “you have to die somewhere,” he shrugs cheerfully.

He has a beautifully written, heartbreakingly inconclusive late-play scene with Horak that lingers in the air, a whole coming-of-age in a moment.

Liza Xenzova’s lovely bi-level design, which includes a transformable table or two, is dominated by a screens that, like the contronym verb “cleave” itself, sometimes seem rock-hard opaque and other times revealingly translucent. 

Which brings us back to the sense of possibility in contradiction that Cleave is all about galvanizing. Along with sexuality, gender isn’t necessarily an either-or prescription, the play proposes. You’re in motion on a moveable spectrum, ready to cleave to connections. You find your family (though probably not at dinner); you find love. It’s not a play with pre-ordained answers; it’s hopeful that way. 



Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws presented by Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Elena Belyea

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Starring: Jordan Fowlie, Dave Horak, Emma Houghton, Elena Porter, Luc Tellier, Natasha Napoleao

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 104 St.

Running: through April 7

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Gender, sexuality, identity: Elena Belyea’s Cleave asks questions

Cleave, Tiny Bear Jaws/ Fringe Theatre Adventures. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Elena Belyea thinks about the punchy title of her new play with a certain unmistakeable satisfaction. Cleave, after all, has two completely opposite meanings: to pull together and to wrench apart.

Families, those repositories of contradictory impulses, spring to mind, right? And yes, Belyea’s new “comedic drama,” premiering Thursday in a Tiny Bear Jaws production that cleaves to the Fringe Theatre Adventures season, takes us into the cleft heart of a family — and the fortunes of Aaron, who’s 17 and intersex.

Belyea is the fiercely energetic playwright/actor/creator who co-founded a festival, Found, devoted to letting audiences discover theatre in non-conventional, surprising places. Her muse naturally gravitates to theatre outside formal settings. For Belyea’s solo show Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, slated to tour Alberta and B.C. in May, the theatre is a classroom and we are her cowed and earnest class.  Everyone We Know Will Be Therewhich premiered at Nextfest 2017, invited us to a teen party, in honour of a 17th birthday, at a big suburban house (and back yard) in Westridge. 

For that site-specific bash, the parents (thank god) weren’t home. In Cleave, though, the parents are present, and they’ve got secrets of their own. In the six-character play, happening (in a departure from usual Tiny Bear Jaws practice) in a bona fide theatre, the Fringe’s Backstage venue, Belyea takes us into family life in all its  layers of secrecy and complications of gender and identity. 

Its origins lie in Belyea’s time in the playwriting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and the 2015 New Words Festival there. “The inspiration was a curious news article about a husband in China who’d sued his wife for having plastic surgery without telling him, and then producing ‘ugly children’,” says Belyea. “The play has moved away from that, and the article turned out to be a hoax. But the family in the play came out of that.”

Meanwhile, Aaron, the “side character orbiting the family,” increasingly got dramatic traction and “moved to the forefront” of a play the author calls “an ensemble piece.”

“Our hero,” as Belyea describes him, is an intersex kid from rural Alberta who’s moved to Edmonton to continue transitioning to male. “He collides with this family (the parents and a couple of siblings) in ways he did not expect at all!”

Belyea describes Cleave, which won the 2015 Wildfire National Playwriting Competition (and was shortlisted for the 50th anniversary Alberta Playwriting Competition), as an exploration of identity, self-actualization, how we create alter-egos, versions of ourselves — for work, for self-preservation..… Who are we actually?

Aaron has had to consider the question explicitly, viscerally. But all the characters, including Aaron’s “gender therapist,” are up against it, too, in a variety of ways.  

And so is the playwright. Questions like “how do I challenge myself and grow as an artist?” and “who has the right to tell what stories, and portray what characters?” are crucial to Belyea, who identifies as queer. She hired a consultant to assist in verifying the transitioning particulars; she submitted the script to Interact, an American intersex advocacy group that scrutinizes scripts for stage and screen. And she set about casting a trans actor, Jordan Fowlie. “I’m very interested in having a variety of experiences in my work,” she says. 

“What does it mean to feel like you’re on the outside? I feel like all the characters are going through a version of that….”



Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws and Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Elena Belyea

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Starring: Jordan Fowlie, Dave Horak, Emma Houghton, Natasha Napoleon, Elena Porter, Luc Tellier

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

Running: Thursday through April 7

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Out of trauma and into artistic creation: Jonathon Young talks about the acclaimed dance/theatre fusion Betroffenheit

Jonathon Young, centre, in Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot/ Electric Company Theatre. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The intersection of real life and artistic creation can seldom have been so high-stakes as it is in the acclaimed dance/theatre production that arrives at the Citadel Friday for three performances.

Betroffenheit, which has gathered awards world-wide since its 2015 premiere, is a collaboration between two of this country’s most innovative theatrical experimenters, both with Vancouver roots: the choreographer Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot and the playwright/performer Jonathon Young of the Electric Company Theatre. The breath-taking thing is that Betroffenheit, which borrows the not-quite-translatable German word for paralyzing post-traumatic shock, was born in real-life trauma. 

In 2009, the life of Young was overtaken by unthinkable tragedy and loss.  His teenage daughter and her two cousins died in a cabin fire on a family holiday at Shuswap Lake.

In time, Young set about making art — that’s what theatre artists do. Art not about the horrific tragedy itself, but about the mind-freezing aftermath to trauma.

On the phone from Seattle, where Betroffenheit played last weekend, Young is musing on the creative impulse that led him straight to Pite — and an artistic partnership with his long-time friend and one of the world’s hottest choreographers.

“I’d been working on my own for quite a while before I reached out to Crystal,” he says in his thoughtful way. “There’s always something I’m consumed by, or can’t stop thinking about…. I’d come up with a series of images, a series of problems I was attempting to solve artistically. And I didn’t know how to do it. Which always piques my curiosity.”

“I didn’t know how to stage it, how to say it,” Young says of the theatrical challenge of Betroffenheit. “How the elements of theatre, the design, lighting, language, the body, space, time could come together and approach some of sort of authentic expression. To approach gigantic, universal themes — tragedy and loss and addiction — without being pat or providing easy solutions.”

Young had moved to Toronto by then, and returned to Vancouver in 2014 to take the helm of the Electric Company, the indie theatre he’d co-founded there with Studio 58 theatre school cohorts Kim Collier, Kevin Kerr, and David Hudgins. 

He’d worked with Pite before, on such Electric Company projects as Studies in Motion,  a fascinating conjuring of the eccentric Victorian stop-motion photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (which came to the Citadel in 2010) and a CBC film The Score. But Betroffenheit was their first collaboration from scratch, as co-creators.

Why Pite? Young says, without hesitation, “she’s an image-maker of rare distinction! She writes using the body in space and time…. I’d be creating with someone who essentially writes using a different language. With this subject matter, I always felt I couldn’t approach it in my capacity as a writer without diminishing or reducing it. I needed someone of Crystal’s calibre to co-create with me!”

Young wondered if it should be a one-person show that Pite would direct. “I knew she was interested in theatre, acting, and all it takes to create a work of theatre” — which sets her distinctively apart from other stars of the dance world. But the piece, and Young, acquired the inventive physicality of Pite’s choreography, and a five-member cast of dancers from her own company Kidd Pivot. 

It wasn’t a left-field pairing of companies by any means. The Electric Company, as Young points out, “has always used physicality and imagery to convey aspects of our narrative — without always resorting to dialogue.”

As one example, Brilliant!, The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla, the show the company brought to the Magnetic North Festival in Edmonton in 2004, imagined the turn-of-the-century rivalry between the immigrant inventor and the homegrown Thomas Edison as a tap-dancing contest. Beyond its biographical revelations, Studies in Motion, poised on the frontier of art and science, was a celebration of the physical being, the human body moving through space.

“For many years Crystal has been using text and character and narrative in her contemporary dance work,” Young says. “She skirts the edge of narrative more than more choreographers…. and it’s so powerful, so beguiling and mysterious. She has a way of deconstructing ideas of plot and character, and translating them into the body….”

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

It seems remarkable, incredible, that someone in Young’s circumstances could galvanize the creative energy for an exploration on the Betroffenheit scale. Young considers. “I would never have undertaken it in a state of acute shock myself,” he says. “Many years had passed. And there was something in my core that needed to be expressed and investigated….

“One of the false ideas one gets when one is affected by trauma, sadness, depression, tragedy of any kind is that it’s somehow so unique and precious that one has to be laid to waste, paralyzed by it. There’s a chapter when you have to give over to it. In another chapter you can’t afford inaction due to despair….”

By 2013, Young had discovered the term “betroffenheit” (in a book by an American theatre director). And he was applying it to Hamlet in interviews as he rehearsed the role of theatre’s great procrastinator for a Collier production at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. “Anyone who plays Hamlet has to bring all of himself to the part — and then realize at some point that all of himself isn’t enough. Which is Hamlet’s predicament.”

Hamlet as a warm-up for Betroffenheit? Now, there’s an epic challenge. “Hamlet is grieving. he’s alone, he’s traumatized, he’s facing his greatest moral dilemma. It’s a similar self-exploration,” says Young of the tragic character he plays in Betroffenheit. “The difference with Hamlet is the words are there for you. You just have to find the fortitude to live up to them….”

In Betroffenheit, what you won’t see onstage is the terrible event of 2009 itself. Says Young, who is a notably articulate person in every way, “it was never our intention to create something to create something deliberately or overtly autobiographical. Or personally therapeutic. We worked against that: we didn’t want it to feel confessional….

“Crystal and I were determined to explore experiences shared by all, to investigate the power, the absurdity, the courage it takes to contend with them. The darkness and the light, I guess.”

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Pite, who has string of  commissions from the major dance companies of Europe, takes the lure of addiction, and the haunted protagonist, into the realm of the physical with a dark phantasmagorical cabaret of dancers who reinvent every sort of dance, even tap, with the logic of nightmare. 

Young describes the creation of Betroffenheit as organic. But when Young and Pite sat down in 2013-2014 — long before their exploratory workshops at the Banff Centre — they had no idea what it would be. “None!” declares Young. “We had to find a language…. We were friends. But there’s nothing like sitting together in a studio and beginning to share ideas. So vulnerable and intimate.”

Like him, Young says, Pite feels “activated and alive when we’re pulled into challenges….” Since Betroffenheit, Young has worked with Pite on two commissions from the Nederlands Dans Theater, Parade and The Statement. They’re currently collaborating on a new collaboration, Revisor (he agrees the title has a sinister ring), which expands some of the themes and ideas of Betroffenheit. It’s a year away from opening night.   

If Young and Pite had ever wondered whether Betroffenheit would find a larger audience beyond Canadian borders, those days are long gone. The show has played around the world, with subtitles for the voice-over text translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. Amongst its many accolades is the 2017 Olivier Award, Britain’s highest stage honour.

The current international tour — “the last one” as Young says — that brings Betroffenheit to Edmonton (as a joint presentation of the Brian Webb Dance Company and the Citadel, has taken the show to Europe, Down Under, and Taiwan. In June, the grand finale at the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal brings to a last curtain call a journey that began in the unknown, and found its first audience in Toronto in 2015. 

Young, who splits his time between Toronto and Vancouver these days, is a questing spirit. “It’s a complex discussion, to put a fine point on what art is for,” he muses. In the end, he thinks, art is “about communication, communicating the shared experience of being alive — so we can see each other and be fascinated. By life. “

That, he proposes is “the strange potential bound up in terrible experiences, that one gains deeper insight, and hopefully some strength. And compassion for those who struggle more often, and suffer more easily.”



Theatre: Kidd Pivot/ The Electric Company Theatre

Presented by: Brian Webb Dance Company, Citadel Theatre

Written by: Jonathon Young

Directed and choreographed by: Crystal Pite

Where: Citadel Theatre

Running: Friday through Sunday

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com





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Onstage: a weekend theatre update

City of Angels, MacEwan University. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Your weekend could include a musical. There’s a couple to choose from, and though both are a challenge (for very different reasons) for the form, they’re at opposite ends of the musical spectrum

•One of the funniest musical comedies in the repertoire is onstage in MacEwan University’s new Triffo Theatre. City of Angels, a 1989 collaboration between a couple of real pros, tunesmith Cy Coleman and that wittiest of writers Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame), takes us into the storied land of ‘40s Hollywood — jaded screenwriters, hard-boiled film noir private eyes and long-legged dames, terrifying studio bosses, a lot of ulterior motives.

“Three million people in the City of Angels in the last census, easily half of them up to something they don’t want the other half to know.”

The double-optic story is a private-eye thriller framed as a Hollywood story. Our beleaguered hero Stine is labouring to fashion his detective novel as a screenplay for a megalomaniac producer. Meanwhile he’s harried by his ex-wife, the Hollywood machine (where “the envy is so thick you can cut it with a knife lodged in every other back”)— and fictional characters from his work-in-progress, including his Philip Marlowe-esque alter-ego, detective Stone. The jazzy, tuneful 40s-vintage score by expert stylist Coleman includes a great duet for Stine and Stone, You’re Nothing Without Me.

Leigh Rivenbark’s MacEwan production runs through March 31.

Children of God, by Corey Payette, Urban Ink Productions at the Citadel. Photo by David Cooper

• Corey Payette’s Children of God tells the epic tragedy of Canada’s shameful residential school program by focussing on one forcibly-fractured family: a mother and two siblings. In an unusual choice, it pairs this saddest of stories with a pop score. Payette wrote Children of God, composed the music and lyrics, and directed the Urban Ink production — the first Indigenous production ever on the Citadel mainstage, an historic event — running through March 24. Have a look at the 12thnight.ca Children of God review. 

Your last chance this weekend for …

Poison, a much-awarded Dutch drama (by Lot Vekemans) about the long-terra effects of grief, Jim Guedo directs two of Edmonton theatre’s finest actors Nathan Cuckow and Amber Borotsik in this Wild Side production, part of Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series. See the 12thnight.ca Poison review. 

Garett Ross and Jenny McKillop in Outside Mullingar, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Outside Mullingar, a charming rom-com compendium of Oy-rishness by Patrick Shanley at Shadow Theatre, directed by John Hudson. Check out the 12thnight.ca Outside Mullingar review

Do This In Memory Of Me/ En mémoire de moi, a collaboration between Northern Light Theatre and L’UniThéâtre and available either in English or français in alternative performances. Attention: God. In 1963 Montreal, 12-year-old Geneviève prays for an exception to the inexplicable rule that girls can’t be altar servers. Watch a Catholic mind free-associating wildly in Cat Walsh’s new dark comedy, premiering in a Trevor Schmidt production at La Cité francophone.  Here’s the 12night. ca review.  

Continuing through April 1 at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre is The Ladies Foursome, an 18-hole bonding comedy set on the links. It’s by Norm Foster, this country’s most-produced playwright. Jim Guedo directs. 12thnight.ca review.   


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Come From Away is featured in the upcoming 20th anniversary Broadway Across Canada season

Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Next season on the Jubilee Auditorium stage, you’ll be seeing a homegrown Canadian musical that celebrates the generous and inclusive spirit of this country at its best.

The grand finale of the upcoming 20th anniversary season of Broadway Across Canada is Come From Away. The hit musical, by the Canuck husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is the heartwarming story of the small Newfoundland town (Gander) that welcomed 7,000 stranded passengers from diverted flights in the week following the terrorist attacks of 9-11 — the terrible day that the world seemed to end. 

It started modestly, in a workshop production at Sheridan College in Ontario. And about a year ago, Come From Away came from away and stormed Broadway, accumulating rave reviews in that tough-minded theatre stronghold, and defying odds in the process (it’s still hard to get a ticket there). Since then, it’s accumulated awards, including the best director Tony for director Christopher Ashley.

The touring production arrives here March 12 to 17, 2019.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Before that, you can feel the earth move under your feet with the season-opener, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The 2013 jukebox musical, which arrived on Broadway the following year (and won two Tony Awards and a Grammy), tells the story of the rise to stardom of the prolific creator of a dazzling array of indelible songs — You’ve Got A Friend and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman among them. King’s Tapestry remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. Beautiful runs Nov. 6 to 11.

The Illusionists. Photo supplied

Arriving here New Year’s Day, 2019 (and running through Jan. 6) is The Illusionists, a high-tech Broadway magic show featuring five top-drawer illusionists.

The optional season additions include two returning hits: the re-thought re-staged version of Les Misérables (July 3 to 8, 2018) and The Book of Mormon, the much-awarded musical comedy/satire that continues to be a hot ticket in New York and London. It’s been here twice before, in sold-out runs in 2014 and 2016, and enthusiasm shows no signs of abating any time soon.

And here’s a sneak reveal of Broadway Across Canada’s 2019-2020 season: it includes the highly original 2017 Tony Award winner Dear Evan Hansen by the hip young team of Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (of La La Land and The Greatest Showman fame).  Subscribers to the upcoming anniversary season get first crack at Dear Evan Hansen tickets.

Starting today, new subscribers to the 2018-2019 season can acquire season packages at 1-866-542-7469 or broadwayacrosscanada.ca


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