Pinocchio: a new production of an Alberta Opera original opens the Roxy Performance Series

Pinocchio, Alberta Opera. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls,

Seven years ago, a musical-writing duo with a string of sassy re-angled fairy-tale musicals for kids to their credit got their mitts on a different sort of adventure. It was free-wheeling and fantastical, crazily episodic — a kooky (not to say bizarre) series of con men and animals, monsters, underwater encounters, oddball violence, diverse dismemberments. Dark, yes; Grimm, no.

The fairy tale was Carlo Collodi’s 36-chapter 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. And the hero was a wayward marionette whose dad was a poor woodcutter and whose dream was to become a real live boy.

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The Alberta Opera team of Farren Timoteo and the late composer Jeff Unger, who specialized in original re-angled musical versions of fairy tales, were irresistibly attracted to its oddities. “It was episodic, energetic, eccentric — and Italian!” says Timoteo, by way of explanation. Their award-winning Pinocchio is back this weekend in a new production at Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series before it hits the (very) long and winding road to Alberta schools, 298 performances till June. 

The Adventures of Pinocchio had been serialized in Italy’s first paper for children,” says Timoteo. “And, yes, there were several grim moments… Originally it had ended in a very grisly way; Pinocchio died by hanging.” There was so much outrage from fans that Collodi was persuaded to write another 18 episodes.

“The collection was enormous…. We knew we could do anything with it, and it was so much fun trying everything!” Timoteo says. “Jeff and I would be forever asking each other ‘is it too silly?’ And forever answering ‘nope! let’s try it!’ As long as we were laughing, and the actors in rehearsal were laughing, we felt we were on the right track.”

Playwright/ actor/ director Timoteo, whose family background is Italian, was attracted, too, to exploring his cultural roots. “It was the first time I’d done that,” he says, “before I’d ever even been to Italy.” And it has inspired other Timoteo creations; Made In Italy, his solo show returns to the Citadel Club this season, and runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre. 

Their Pinocchio is a high-speed theatrically ingenious musical for three actors who play 22 characters constantly moving from location to location, “eight settings in 60 minutes” says Timoteo, fresh from directing Alberta’s first pro production or Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the Fringe. He remembers that he and Unger were constantly egging each other on as they created the show: “let’s go further; let’s have more! It was in our DNA….”

Chariz Faulmino in Pinocchio, Alberta Opera. Photo by Mat Simpson.

And Unger, whose appealingly complex, sophisticated musical theatre writing lives way outside the mainstream for kids’ shows, stepped up with a lively journey of styles to parallel Pinocchio’s adventures — Italian tarantella opener, Gilbert and Sullivan number, American gospel number, says Timoteo. “Gepetto’s song One Wish is deeply inspired by Sweeney Todd,” Timoteo and Unger’s all-time favourite musical.

Timoteo and Unger’s joint debut with the venerable touring company in 2008 was a version of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolf was a school bully with an identity crisis in progress. They followed that up with a 12-character reinvention of Hansel and Gretel in which a cautious, logical sort of girl and her more impulsive little bro have to take a showbiz gamble; their evil step-mother is a sultry German chanteuse who delivers a torchy showstopper I Want It All

Pinocchio, our third full new work was the evolution of a (very theatrical) style we’d stumbled onto, and developed with Hansel and Gretel,” says Timoteo, who has himself toured in an Alberta Opera show (Jack and the Beanstalk, with Andrew MacDonald-Smith). 

“We wanted to do something original, something new …” something that decisively wasn’t the famous 1940 Disney animation. So they went back to the oddball Collodi source material, with its spectrum of whimsical and dark. And they lighted on the idea of focussing on a father-son story for their new musical. Gepetto’s human son Vincento has left home, and Pinocchio, who emerges from a trunk ready to sing and dance, undertakes to travel the world and bring him back to the grieving papa. “It’s an odyssey, a revolving door of characters!” says Timoteo. 

There’s a poignant aspect to reviving Pinocchio, of course; Unger passed away in 2015. But as a colourful new production, with a trio of fresh MacEwan musical theatre grads, prepares to set forth into the world, Timoteo says “it’s amazing to see how an artist lives on his work!” 



Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Alberta Opera

Created by: Farren Timoteo and Jeff Unger

Directed by: Farren Timoteo

Starring: Chariz Faulmino, Cameron Chapman, Josh Travnik

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Friday through Sunday

Tickets: 780-453-2440, 

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Unlacing Shakespeare’s women: the Bard goes burlesque at the Capitol Theatre

Shakespeare’s Sirens: A Burlesque Revue, Send in the Girls Burlesque. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls,

Think of them as the ultimate theatre buffs: reveals are their speciality.

Send In The Girls Burlesque comes to the stage of Fort Edmonton Park’s vintage Capitol Theatre Friday and Saturday, in honour of Alberta Culture Days. Their hit 2016 Shakespeare’s Sirens: A Burlesque Revue uncorsets the women characters of Shakespeare’s plays, and flings off gender cover-ups.

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Send in the Girls have directed their unusual historical bent, their satirical pizzaz, flamboyant performance style, and sassy sense of humour at such diverse and unexpected subjects as the multiple wives of Henry VIII (Tudor Queens: A Burlesque), the laced-up Victorian literati (A Bronte Burlesque), the women of the Wild West (Soiled Doves), even the unsung women of Canadian history (With Glowing Hearts). With Shakespeare’s Sirens, they unbutton the Bard’s women.

That gallery is a rich vein of burlesque inspiration, from resourceful take-charge types like Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, or Lady Macbeth to the more demure and put-upon end of the female gallery. 

Admit it, doesn’t it get your goat when the shrew gets “tamed” and makes a speech about the joy of being submissive to men at the end of that roistering Shakespeare comedy? Haven’t you secretly fantasized about giving Ophelia a good shake when her dad makes her plot against her screwed-up boyfriend and she says ‘OK, whatever you say’ (or words to that effect)? And naturally her boyfriend gets really pissed off at her and she just takes it? And let’s not even get into the seduction technique of Richard III with the widows of men he’s assassinated. 

Anyhow, that’s why Queen Elizabeth I (Morgan Smith), a woman in a man’s world and no shrinking violet as history has confirmed, has hauled Will Shakespeare (C.J. Rowein) into court … to account for his female characters. As Ellen Chorley, Send In The Girls’ resident playwright puts it, “she’s asking him ‘what have you got to say for yourself?’”

Chorley, who wrote the script with Smith and Rowein, argues that the female characters who change the course of the plays they’re in, reveal the most chutzpah when they’re in male disguise. In Shakespeare’s Sirens, there’s an all-star a number with Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines together onstage: Viola (from Twelfth Night), Portia (from The Merchant of Venice), Rosalind (from As You Like It), and Imogen (from Cymbeline).

There’s a number with Hermia, who has a knockdown brawl with Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The bad girls get down: the witches from Macbeth “really lend themselves to burlesque storytelling — sensual powerful, satirical,” says Chorley. There a duet between Beatrice and Hero, high-contrast cousins from Much Ado About Nothing.

Cordelia from King Lear and  Katerina the “shrew” are in the show. Juliet has her own number; so do the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chorley herself plays Ophelia, Hamlet’s squeeze. “What I tried to do with her is show show she does Hamlet’s emotional labour for him when he shuts everyone out.”

“It’s a different way of exploring the Bard’s work,” laughs Chorley. “And it’s so much fun.” The musical choices for burlesque numbers are  always amusing in Send in the Girls shows. You’ll hear a wide range in Shakespeare’s Sirens: ’90s pop, 1940s ballads…. The cross-dressing heroines perform to the music of boy bands like the Back Street Boys. For Ophelia Chorley picked a song about going down to the river and praying.

“Whether you love Shakespeare or hate him from high school (encounters), there’s something for everybody!” says Chorley. And the Capitol Theatre, a beautifully restored n old restored old vaudeville house, is “a really good match” for the retro spirit of burlesque. 


Shakespeare’s Sirens: A Burlesque Revue

Theatre: Send in the Girls Burlesque

Written by: Ellen Chorley with Morgan Smith and C.J. Rowein

Starring: Delia Barnett, Ellen Chorley, Sarah Jackson, Sydney Parcey, C.J. Rowein, Morgan Smith

Running: Friday and Saturday


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The fine art of foolery: the return of Play The Fool, E-Town’s “festival of clown and physical comedy”

Chad Bryant and Chris Gamble in Shipwrecked. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Foolery, sir, doth walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”

Twelfth Night III, i.

Edmonton, we are about to have an outbreak — an eruption? an infiltration? invasion? effervescence? collision? conflagration? — of clowns.

With the return of Play The Fool for a third annual edition of foolery, Edmonton’s “festival of clown and physical comedy” sets about demonstrating once again the elasticity of that job description. At the four-day festivities — this year at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns Thursday through Sunday — you’ll meet up with clowns of every stripe, from the wide-eyed red-nosed innocent to the macabre Euro-fantasist, the existential contortionist to the social satirist.

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And here’s a first, says festival director Christine Lesiak, a clown of note herself who’s assembled the lineup from here and across the country: burlesque clowning. Yes, Fruitbowl, the joint work of Cabaret Calgary Productions and the comedy duo Valour and Tea, is billed as “produce-inspired burlesque.”

Fruitbowl. Photo supplied.

“I have not heard of it myself,” says Lesiak, the exclusive occupant in these parts (to my knowledge) of the space physicist-turned clown category of showbiz foolery, whose most recent show For Science! proved a Fringe hit in the summer. She is highly amused by the concept: “They’re fruit. So they peel.”

That show, four performers strong, is part of Play The Fool’s mainstage 18+ Triple Bill Saturday and Sunday. It’s joined by a new show from the team of Candace Berlinguette and Michael Kennard (the Mump half of “horror clowns” Mump and Smoot). In The Performance, a pianist and singer past their glory days attempt a comeback.

Lesiak herself, whose own clown alter-ego Sheshells has starred in such Small Matters productions as Fools For Love and Sofa So Good, directs the third of the 18+Triple Bill offerings, The Daily Deal With Lady. Created by veteran Regina improv and sketch comedy artist Lindsay Ruth Hunt, it stars a home shopping network celeb.

The Emerging Artist Triple Bill features three new pieces from U of A theatre school grads in experimental mode: Lady Be Good, Doll And Oats, Mona Lisa. And the stylistic range is wide, from traditional red-nose caper to black comedy to thriller.

In the festival’s high-contrast Double-Bill are a red-nosed Calgary duo, Chad Bryant and Chris Gamble, in Shipwrecked and Montreal artist Évelyne Lainel in At Home with Gisèle. The former is a clownly adventure in which Swill and Lavy, beached on a desert isle, discover a mysterious treasure map. The latter — “Québecois-style clowning as Lesiak describes “the heightened comedic character” — is a live TV advice-for-women show. Interestingly, Shipwrecked is directed by Jacqueline Russell, At Home With Gisèle by Jed Tomlinson, Russell’s partner in the clown duo Sizzle & Spark.

The All-Ages Spectacular! pairs a circus/comedy show from The Great Balanzo with magic from  Ron Pearson.

Candice Roberts in Larry. Photo supplied.

There’s a full-length show, too,  from Vancouver’s Candice Roberts. In the gender-bender Larry, she dons a frankly fake Old Testament-style beard to explore male identity, from the hoser beyond.

While the number of shows remains about the same as last year’s Play The Fool, Lesiak says “we’ve increased the number of artists involved by having a cabaret every night.” It starts with the (free) opening night cabaret, hosted by Lesiak, a sneak peek sampler of festival offerings.

Paul Bezaire, a veteran street performer-turned-clown curates and hosts Friday’s “vaudeville cabaret.” The Great Balanzo hosts  Saturday night’s “The Best of the Small Matters Physical Comedy Lab & Friends.” And Sunday, it’s the annual “Rookie Cabaret,” featuring emerging artists of widely varying stylistic proclivities. That’s where Bezaire’s own clown Pie makes his debut.

The Sunday matinee at Play The Fool is a chance to hear a panel of clown and physical comedy artists talk about “audience participation in an age of enthusiastic consent.” If you’ve ever sat in a show praying either “pick me pick me” or “don’t pick me don’t pick me,” you’ll need to be there.  

Play The Fool runs Thursday through Sunday at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Tickets: (780-420-1757) or Full lineup at 

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Once … upon a time: meet Ann Hodges, director of the cult film-turned-musical that launches the Citadel season

Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

Once … upon a time there was a winsomely offbeat 2007 indie Irish film, about the unlikely friendship between a Dublin street musician and a Czech immigrant. It was made for a dime (well, $150,000), shot in 17 days, full of folk-rock Celtic-flavoured songs written by its two stars (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová).

And Once … upon a time, an eccentric confluence of talents fashioned a heart-stealing irresistibly odd stage musical from this low-fi low-budget source. And it went to Broadway and won eight Tony Awards, a bona fide Broadway fairy tale.  

That’s the 2012 musical that launches the Citadel mainstage season Thursday. And Winnipeg-based director Ann Hodges, whose career has embraced a spectrum of plays, musicals, and operas across the country, is happy to talk about how far Once lives outside the musical theatre mainstream.

Ann Hodges, director of Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

She starts with the book, written for the stage, improbably enough, by the fierce Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom). An artist of the dark and gritty persuasion, Walsh is an unlikely match for the delicate love story at the centre of Once. He wryly conceded as much in a 2013 interview with the Guardian, that a friend of his was “particularly appalled…. He said it was like someone giving Charles Manson the rights to adapt It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Guy is on the point of giving up his dream when he meets Girl. He fixes her vacuum cleaner. She re-charges his creative engines, so to speak, by making music with him for a week. And they fall in love, tentatively, sort of.

“The scenes themselves are incredibly efficient, and also deep and dense,” says Hodges. “Within a line or two you know who these people are, what they desperately want, what’s underneath! This piece is incredibly well crafted…. What I get from Walsh’s writing is that he really understands people.”

The songs themselves don’t have the musical theatre vibe, or drive, or even function, Hodges thinks. “They’re often oblique; they’re poetic. They’re expressing what’s going on internally with the characters, whatever the characters’ moment is. They don’t necessarily propel the story forward….” With Once, it’s never a case of “stop, and sing.”

Or “stop and dance,” for that matter. The choreography (by Julie Tomaino) doesn’t aim for high-stepping Broadway razzle-dazzle. “What we’re trying for is illumination rather than fancy steps,” says Hodges,  whose cast of a dozen (led by Lawrence Libor as Guy and Emily Dallas as Girl) has gathered half from here, half from the rest of the country, Vancouver to Halifax. 

Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

“The whole cast is onstage the whole time, all involved in telling the story of Guy and Girl, witnessing it, underscoring it.” And the actors play all the instruments. In fact, a lot of the time they move while playing them. Which, as you know if you’ve danced with your cello recently, can be a challenge.

So, in a piece about “the transformative power of music, you actually see that happening onstage: each character transformed by the act of making music,” Hodges says. “You have the excitement of this live music-making, music created right in front of you! (Even) in the transitions and studio sessions, music explodes off the stage!”

Once isn’t the first time Hodges has directed a musical in which the actors are the musicians. At Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, she directed Dear Johnnie Deere, a jukebox musical inspired by the songs of Fred Eaglesmith. And the much-travelled director, who’s spent at least half the year already working away from her Winnipeg home base, arrives at the Citadel from directing Stories From The Red Dirt Road, an adaptation of P.E.I stories,” in Charlottetown. “It’s a good warm-up for this,” she says, “for figuring out how the instrument trade-offs should work, whether that guitar needs to be over there for the next scene….” 

Once is Hodges’ first time directing theatre in Edmonton. Opera has brought her here before. Not only does she direct operas (most recently, Tosca in Newfoundland for Opera on the Avalon), she is herself a librettist. Witness original Hodges adaptations of Cenerentola, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of SevilleHer 45-minute  adaptation of the latter, re-titled for every city where it plays (here, The Barber of Barrhead), was remounted across Canada.

The National Theatre School directing grad “fell in love with theatre in high school”; by age 15 Hodges knew she wanted to direct, not act. “In retrospect I enjoyed the competitive aspect of getting a part way more than having it and doing it onstage.”

Music has always figured prominently in her career. As a kid she studied piano and singing, and remembers borrowing scripts and songbooks from the Winnipeg Public Library to play and sing — Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Cole Porter. “It was my connections in the opera world that brought me back to musical theatre….”  With a play, you’re given the content, and it’s up to you to find the form. With music, you have a form and you need to find the content.”

Thoughts like these she applies to the songs of Once, unusually elliptical and poetic for a Broadway musical. “When our hearts are broken, we express ourselves in a way that’s not straightforward. Once gets to your heart in a way you don’t expect.”

Emily Dallas and Lawrence Libor in Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

“All the characters, including Guy and Girl, are stopped in life in some way. Music, and making music together, gets them unstuck. By the end all of them have moved forward.… It’s not your traditional musical. It’s a beautiful, tender love story about people who meet through music, transform through music, and learn so much about love from each other.”

The original Broadway production, and its touring spin-offs like the Broadway Across Canada production that played the Jube here in 2015, were physically set in a mirror-lined Irish pub — “a bold creative choice” as Hodges says of the original design by Bob Crowley. Only two of the 16 scenes, though, are actually set in a pub; the rest happen in a variety of locations including a music shop, a vacuum cleaner repair establishment, a bedroom, a bank, an Irish hilltop. “The original creators insisted that new productions come up with new ideas” for the stage setting. “Our production looks very different!” says Hodges, delighted with Cory Sincennes’ design.  

There’s still a rollicking pub party, though. Before every performance the lobby of the Shoctor Theatre is reborn as a Dublin street, with a bar and buskers. And you can take drinks into the theatre and onto the stage before the show starts, to hang out with the musicians. As Hodges says, “it’s a show about making music. And it’s an opportunity to witness music-making up close!”



Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Enda Walsh from the John Carney film, music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Directed by: Ann Hodges

Starring: Emily Dallas, Lawrence Libor, Ruth Alexander, Julien Arnold, Benjamin Camenzull, Christina Cuglietta, Oscar Derkx, Stephen Guy-McGrath, Richard Lam, Karen Lizotte, Larissa Pohoreski, John Ullyatt, Alex Zhang

Running: through Oct. 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, 

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The exhilaration of chaos: Teatro revives the screwball Skirts On Fire as their 2018 season finale

(clockwise) Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Paula Humby, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor in Skirts on Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls,

In a scene that might have been lifted direct from the Teatro La Quindicina archive, a playwright and a leading man were in a tiny Strathcona cocktail bar last week discussing the essence of screwball comedy.

“The actors and the characters and the audience are having the same amount of fun,” says the former. “But for different reasons,” says the latter. They smile.

It’s happy hour. And happiness is on the minds of Stewart Lemoine and Andrew MacDonald-Smith. So, not coincidentally, is Skirts on Fire, the fizzy Stewart Lemoine screwball comedy last seen by audiences in 2003. In this revival, opening Thursday on the Varscona stage. the finale of Teatro’s 2018 season, MacDonald-Smith inherits the role originated by Jeff Haslam; he plays Alton Doane, breezy instigator of a literary hoax in the magazine publishing world of ‘50s Manhattan.

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Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

It is a caper that, once set in motion on a larky impulse, will escalate in complication, camouflage, counterfeit, and outright lies, till a moment of champagne convergence in “the smallest hotel room in New York.” Which, if you’ve ever been to the Big Apple and tried to open the closet door in your hotel room without moving the bed, is an impressive thought in itself. 

Although he’d decided on the cast (a typically Teatro practice), Lemoine remembers that “I had only the vaguest notion of the play … a lot of lying women maybe?” when he picked out a title for a new Fringe screwball in the summer of 2000.  And as for the plot, with its literary scam, “I’d just read Catcher in the Rye,” by the notoriously mysterious and reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who refused either to be edited or have his photo on dust jackets.

And Lemoine remembers, too, the image of “someone walking into a cafe with no chairs” and thinking there’d be a reason for the surreal sight of people sitting on cushions on the floor, with subsequent exchanges on the subject. “It’s that kind of comedy!” grins MacDonald-Smith, the Teatro star whose real-life quick wit seems entirely suitable for Lemoinian comedy. 

And, after all, Lemoine has alluded to the notion of “falling into an adventure” in discussing other screwballs, like his 2001 On The Banks of the Nut. And that’s exactly what happens to Porter Lawrence (Ron Pederson), a prim and circumspect English teacher who writes “didactic anecdotes for people who are 12.”

As Skirts On Fire opens, he’s having a coffee at the Sweet ’N’ Low Diner, getting continuously outfaced by the sassy waitress (we can use the word ‘waitress’, it’s 1958) Shirley (Louise Lambert), waiting for someone. Suddenly, he’s meeting Hartwood Keane, the infamously cranky recluse who wrote St. Margaret’s Lap, “the most anthologized short story in the middle third of the 20th century.” Soon thereafter Porter Lawrence will find himself in costume. And, well, one deception leads to another…. 

Which brings us back to Lemoine’s attraction to the form (shared enthusiastically by MacDonald-Smith), which has given us such frothy enterprises as Hopscotch Holiday (later re-worked as Whiplash Weekend) and Vidalia, a spy caper set in motion by a simple lie about a name, and involving identical suitcases. In the summer of 2001, a year after Skirts On Fire’s debut at the Fringe, Lemoine had a new screwball in the works. But when when tragedy struck on September 11, he knew that it couldn’t be set in New York, or even mention that great city. So Lemoine went rural, with On The Banks Of The Nut, in which the eccentric proprietress of a rustic guest lodge in rural Wisconsin attends a symphony concert in Chicago and is unexpectedly transported by the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler’s Third.

Two years later, in Teatro’s season this time instead of at the Fringe, Skirts on Fire was back onstage. And Lemoine characters were back in New York, propelled through a ’50s screwball with an elaborate literary hoax, involving two authors and the Feminine Home Digest, a magazine “at the forefront of current thought.”

“Farce is all about finding comedy in someone’s struggle,” proposes MacDonald-Smith, an in-demand triple-threat leading man (and Teatro associate) who’s been in wide spectrum of farces, screwballs, romantic comedies, musical comedies, romantic musical comedies of all bents. 

Did I say busy? MacDonald-Smith’s past season began with a very funny turn as the boatman in the Citadel’s Shakespeare in Love here and in Winnipeg, followed by three months in the Sherlockian spoof Baskerville at Stage West in Calgary, a couple of months singing close harmony in Forever Plaid at the Mayfield, a trip to Italy and England with his mom, time in Toronto and Stratford.

“I’ve slept in 20 beds so far this year! And no, not in that way!” he amends cheerfully of a life plot that sounds a bit careening comedy in itself. And it doesn’t stop. Next up is Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, premiering next month in the Shadow Theatre season, followed by the Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Matilda here and in Winnipeg. And meanwhile, there’s debonair Alton Doane, for whom the romantic and literary are inextricably linked. 

Andrea House, Ron Pederson, Kendra Connor, Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

Like farces, screwballs are built on teeter-y architecture of deceptions and misapprehensions that threaten chaos at every moment, yes. But in farces, as Lemoine has said, “people are having the worst day of their life.” And in screwballs, “people never stop having fun along the way,” as MacDonald-Smith puts it. He calls it “smooth fun, ‘fake it till you make it’.”

Says  Lemoine, “everyone’s smart and articulate. And while the stakes might be high for everyone, somebody’s really enjoying it.” Alton Doane, the suave “gadabout” who sets the Skirts On Fire plot in motion in order to make life more, well, interesting, is one of those. He’s no brooder on the consequences. “He’s unwilling to think about that,” laughs MacDonald-Smith. “Diligence is not his forte.”

“Everyone is lying to someone about something. The crux is figuring out who knows the most….” says Lemoine. “There is a character who know everything that’s going on. But people are lying to people who know more than they do,” says MacDonald-Smith.

Canadian playwrights who create original screwballs aren’t a dime a dozen, to say the least; for one thing, the form is dauntingly intricate. Lemoine has his favourites in the classic screwball canon. There are the Kaufman and Hart stage comedies (You Can’t Take It With You), of course. But perhaps the apotheosis of the screwball is to be found on the big screen in the Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Like MacDonald-Smith, Lemoine loves Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 Howard Hawks screwball involving a palaeontologist (Cary Grant), a kook (Katherine Hepburn), a dinosaur bone and a pet leopard. And The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942), which ricochets between New York and Florida, is another fave. “It’s almost ridiculously plot-less…. The stakes are high, but I’d never say the characters understood exactly what they are!”

Words to live by, in a screwball comedy. Complications escalate. And Lemoine and MacDonald-Smith are delighted by the thought.


Skirts On Fire

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor, Andrea House, Paula Humby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Oct. 13



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Thou Art Where? A roving production of Shakespeare’s Will in a cemetery, a review

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

By Liz Nicholls,

Thou Art Here!, a company that does Shakespeare meet-and-greets in unexpected locations, takes us to a graveyard. It’s dusk. Five ghostly women appear through the trees in the distance and come towards us.

As the daylight fades, they’ll hoist black umbrellas and lead us through the cemetery — a haunted place by very definition and the natural home of the flashback.

What an imaginative location for an encounter with the mystery woman who stars in Shakespeare’s Will — a play that finds its insights (and its rich easeful poetry) in blending past and present, an imagined time and our own, speculation and fact.

Meet Mrs. Shakespeare. Not for her the “power couple” designation. Not for her the credit when interviewers ask her hubby “so where do you get your ideas anyhow?” Nope In the meagre catalogue of what we know about Anne Hathaway — six years older than her teenage husband, pregnant when they married, had three children, stayed in Stratford when Shakespeare went off to London to become … Shakespeare — one item shimmers with mysterious humiliation. It’s Will’s will, in which he left her his “second-best bed, with all the furniture.”

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What does it mean? Is it a hint about their relationship? Is it a code? Is it meaningful? Shakespeare’s Will wonders about that, and spins backwards to their first meeting.       

The first time I saw Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will in 2005, as a solo creation for one virtuoso actor, it seemed to me something of a limitation that it  was so obviously fuelled by our fascination with every rare and tantalizing detail about someone not in the play — Anne’s famous absentee husband. And unlike, say, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with its baffled worm’s-eye view of a celebrated (and familiar) play, it seemed to leave us with homey household details about an everywoman, most of them speculative, when we secretly wanted something else.

I have to say I feel differently now. In Andrew Ritchie’s artful roving Thou Art Here! production in Edmonton Cemetery — which takes to heart Anne’s mantra about always “moving on” — five vivid, lively actors share the role of Anne. And they do it up close, looking you in the eye, engaging your responses. And the multiple presence seems somehow to give the character more heft, more dimensionality, more ownership of a play about an essentially contemporary woman in a familiar bind — in love with a man who’s in love with the way she enables him to be fully in love with his career.

Poor Anne. Give her the gears for being an enabler, if you will. But she’s in a tough spot, historically speaking, since the career she enabled gave the world Hamlet and As You Like It. In Shakespeare’s Will Bill (as she calls him, in determinedly unliterary fashion) saves his words for theatre. You’ll appreciate the irony of Anne’s first encounter with Bill : she finds him “a man of few words.” Later, as his career takes off in London, his letters home are amusingly short on wordsmith magic: “Dearest Anne: Hope to be home next month. Much love, Bill.” Her bemusement shades into exasperation, but Anne knows how to divert herself. Like her husband, as she tells us, she likes boys. “Lots and lots of men….”

Interestingly, Ritchie’s production doesn’t assign specific facets of Anne’s story — the older and more experienced lover, the daughter of a disapproving father, the mother of three, the neglected wife, the head of the Stratford household — to individual actors. Shakespeare’s Will, in this Thou Art Here! incarnation, is a collective experience, moment to moment, scene to scene, shared amongst Kristi Hansen, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski, Maddy Knight and Ainsley Hillyard, all excellent.

This will sound confusing, I realize, and a little in love with artifice, in theory. But in practice, from the swirl of music, dance, text, and even shadow-play, the portrait of a likeable, resilient, rather shrewd, earthy woman emerges — one who doesn’t give a hoot about her husband’s plays, apparently and who isn’t prepared to take a night course in iambic pentameter. 

The only unconventional thing about Anne in Shakespeare’s Will is their marriage pre-nup, “to allow each other the other’s life.” It gives Bill the theatre (and vice versa). It gives  Anne the life of a small-town single mother with a perpetually absent husband and three kids. Ah yes, and in the end, his “second-best bed.” Shakespeare’s Will has a theory about that mystery indignity, and builds, rather ingeniously, towards it. 

Ritchie’s direction, and Gianna Vacirca’s choreography, are admirably inventive in finding graceful ways to share the storytelling, sometimes individually, sometimes chorally, sometimes a bit of both. Vacirca’s movement and dance design and the a cappella score devised by Erik Mortimer allude atmospherically to the period. The folded-up unread will (passed back and forth between actors and audience members) and the funereal black umbrellas (lit from beneath as darkness falls) are the crucial visual devices in Sarah Karpyshin’s design.

By the terms of Ritchie’s production it’s the actors themselves, appealing performers all, who nudge the audience to follow them through the graveyard, sometimes with a hand on your shoulder, a come-hither wave, or a meaningful look. And along with the motif of Anne’s fascination with the sea and water, their charm propels the story backwards and forwards, and smooths the seams between narration and the dramatic encounters into which the actors slide.

Against the backdrop of our fascination with unaccountable genius, we meet a woman of unexceptional modern configurations, with modest dreams and frustrations we can recognize. “What is it about men, eh?” Anne asks us. Ponder and empathize. It’s an entertaining, and intriguing, evening.

Thou Art Here! is back this week in action after untimely interventions by the wintry elements which cancelled performances Friday and Saturday. Proper autumn is back. Bundle up, wear gloves; the actors do. And have a peek at’s preview interview with director Andrew Ritchie and choreographer Gianna Vacirca.  


Shakespeare’s Will

TheatreThou Art Here!

Written by: Vern Thiessen

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie, with choreography by Gianna Vacirca and music by Erik Mortimer

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Ainsley Hillyard, Maddie Knight, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Edmonton Cemetery 11820 107 Ave.

Running: through Sept. 30 or at the Cemetery on the night of performance. Booking advisable (audience max, 40). Parking details are at

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Mrs. Shakespeare gets her voice back, in a graveyard: Shakespeare’s Will with Thou Art Here!

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

By Liz Nicholls,

“A woman dancing on a grave.”

That’s the image that inspired the roving outdoor production of Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will opening Thursday in a cemetery near you, says director Andrew Ritchie.

So decisively did that image haunt him that Ritchie, co-artistic director (with Neil Kuefler) of the “site-sympathetic Shakespeare company” Thou Art Here!, went on a tour of every graveyard in town — in the middle of winter, to boot — before he settled on the 1886 Edmonton Cemetery on 107th Ave. The old trees, and the sense of age, clinched the deal. 

The woman is a mysterious (stay-at-home) wife with a mysterious (absent) husband. He’s an artsy type with an earring who, in a rather sensational example of upstaging, turned out to be the greatest playwright of all time. And the grave is his.

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Shakespeare’s Will, which was commissioned by the Free Will Players and premiered at the Citadel in 2005, aims to give Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, a play of her own. History hasn’t been generous with Mrs. Shakespeare, in truth. And neither, it seems, was her hubby. Shakespeare’s will, dated March 25, 1616,  infamously left her his “second-best bed with the furniture.” 

Not that our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life — apart from bills of sale and other legal accounting details — is exactly fulsome (it’s alluringly elusive for a famous man). But our knowledge of Anne is even scantier, to say the least. At 26, the farmer’s daughter from outside Stratford was six years older that her teenage husband, and pregnant, when they got married in 1582. We know about the birth of Susanna in 1583 and the twins Hamlet and Judith two years later. We know that by the late 1580s Shakespeare was living the celeb theatre life in London, his career rocketing, while his wife stayed in Stratford with the kids. And that’s about it. 

The rest is up for grabs by theatre artists — like the playwright (Thiessen is the artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre). “This is not us trying to tell an historically accurate tale,” says actor/ choreographer Gianna Vacirca of Thiessen’s speculative play. “This is about a wife trying to find herself, to find the definition of herself outside a man…. Shakespeare couldn’t have lived the life he lived without her; she gave him a normal life so he could go off and have romance, success, art, elaborate relationships with patrons….” 

Anne is interested in the husband, not what the husband writes for a living. “She doesn’t know the plays, and doesn’t care to know them. In fact no Shakespeare play is mentioned” in Shakespeare’s Will, says Ritchie. The only writing that’s included, as he points  out, is Sonnet 145, that includes wordplay on Anne’s maiden name.  Says Ritchie, “Anne actively, independently chooses to be with him. And she still ends up being screwed over by the whole thing….” Shakespeare’s Will, he thinks, “talks about the role of women in society; with every choice and freedom, a woman still gets fucked over.”

As the play opens Anne is returning from the great man’s funeral, clutching the unopened will. She remembers everything in flashbacks; “she’s constantly re-living the past as a loop, images and words that constantly return her to the will,” as Ritchie puts it. 

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

Thou Art Here! aims for close-up encounters between audiences and Shakespeare. Ritchie and Kuefler have taken productions to such unexpected locations as the late lamented ARTery bar club; we bellied up to the bar next to Falstaff himself in The Falstaff Project, a Thou Art Here! version of Henry IV Part One. They’ve taken Shakespeare drinking scenes to tables in Whyte Avenue bars. At historic Rutherford House the characters of Much Ado About Nothing had the run of the place, balconies included, and we trailed along. And now a cemetery: for Shakespeare’s Will, the graveyard site itself conjures memory, says Ritchie. It’s “a reverent place” where the irreverence of the play — “with its talk of sex, lovers, infidelity, secrets,” as Vacirca puts it — can shine.

The premiere production, directed by Geoffrey Brumlik, starred Jan Alexandra Smith alone onstage. In Ritchie’s revival, five actors play Anne — and all the people we meet through Anne’s eyes, including Shakespeare, his sister Joan (Anne can’t stand her), her disapproving father, her daughters and son….

“She’s an ideal partner for an artist,” grins Vacirca. “Every artist would want an Anne! They can go out, do their art, come back, feel special, not feel threatened…. She’s not resentful he’s an artist; Anne just wants him to be more present in her life.”

Vacirca, an actor/dancer who made her Thou Art Here! debut as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, has collaborated with Ritchie in choreographing a production full of physical movement. Erik Mortimer has created music (Dave Clarke’s original score was destroyed in a fire).

The idea of having multiple actors play Anne and share the storytelling isn’t new, explain Ritchie and Vacirca. There have been productions of Thiessen’s widely travelled play with four actors. Five, though, is a Thou Art Here! innovation. “Since it’s a play about giving voice to a woman, I think we can give more universality and more colour to that voice if there are more people playing her,” says Ritchie. “More people can see more people in her…. And more more opportunity for women in our community.”

Ritchie was attracted to the “imbalance and “asymmetry” of five instead of four performers. And he had an abundance of talent to choose from, he says of auditions “All the actors could dance, all could act, all could sing!” 

As Ritchie and Vacirca mused over drinks last week, in an era of small casts there are hints of change, not least because theatre artists are getting more ingenious about production design — and in the case of Thou Art Here!, venue. “More bodies onstage! The way to have magic is through people!” says Vacirca. 

“It’s insane!” says Ritchie happily of the five-actor production. “We have NO money. And this is the smallest-cast show we’ve ever done….”


Shakespeare’s Will

Theatre: Thou Art Here!

Written by: Vern Thiessen

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie, with choreography by Gianna Vacirca and music by Erik Mortimer

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Ainsley Hillyard, Maddie Knight, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Edmonton Cemetery 11820 107 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Sept. 30

Tickets: or at the Cemetery on the night of performance. Booking advisable (audience max, 40).

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And so it begins, the new theatre season. Edmonton has play dates, and here’s a teaser!

Matilda, Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

“If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out … sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty….” Matilda.

In Matilda, the joyously subversive musical spun from Roald Dahl’s novel, our activist eight-year-old heroine wonders (in song) why Jack and Jill and that other doomed pair Romeo and Juliet didn’t grab hold of their own story, and change it.

She favours resistance and revolution over taking it on the chin, in the award-studded musical that spreads mischief on the Citadel mainstage in a three-way co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (directed by Daryl Cloran, Feb. 16 to March 17). That spirit seems to filter provocatively through the season about to happen on Edmonton stages.

Theatre artists and companies of every scale, esthetic, proclivity, and personality (not to mention budget) are returning to action after another record-breaking Fringe. And with them — the beauty of live theatre! — come in-person encounters with questions of change, perspective, surprising mind bends that alter the optic and give you double-vision.

Hold that thought, and have a peek, highly selective, at possibilities for your nights out in the upcoming season.

The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.


(a) The Comedy Company, by playwright/ sketch comedy star Neil Grahn — premiering at Shadow Theatre Oct. 24 to Nov. 11 — is a comedy that tests the limits of comedy: laughter in the face of death.

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Based on a true and remarkable Canadian story (and timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I), it tells of the members of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Division asked by their commander to devise musical comedy revues to entertain the troops and boost morale amidst the terrible destruction. Against the odds  they’re wildly popular. John Hudson directs a starry seven-actor cast — Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Julien Arnold, Sheldon Elter, Nathan Cuckow, Steven Greenfield, Jesse Gervais, Nick Samoil.

(b) In Redpatch, the creation of Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver of Vancouver’s Hardline Theatre (who also direct), it’s World War I through the eyes of a young Métis recruit. The production, six Indigenous actors strong, arrives at the Citadel Nov. 1 to 11.

The Empress and the Prime Minister, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

(c) Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & The Prime Minister (premiering at Theatre Network April 16 to May 5), revisits the time, half a century ago, when a drag queen activist and a young federal minister of justice, ted northe and Pierre Trudeau respectively, together changed the course of Canadian history. By decriminalizing homosexuality.


(a) The six troubled, questing characters of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, getting its Canadian premiere from Wild Side Productions (Roxy Performance Series, March 12 to 24) are seeking human connection — without words. They are not mimes (you may be relieved to know); they’re participants in a silence retreat.

(b) Origin of  the Species: There are more than a few time-displacement premises in the world-wide comedy archive — you know the kind,  demure Victorian finds herself at a rave, Sleeping Beauty wakes up in a Motel 6, that sort of thing. But the Northern Light Theatre season-opener (Oct. 12 to 27) takes it to a playful extreme. This early play by Bryony Lavery (Frozen, The Believers), is an encounter between a four million-old woman and the archaeologist who digs her up. Have women’s lives progressed? Maybe not. Up for grabs. Holly Hunter and Kristin Johnston star in Trevor Schmidt’s production.

(c) A Man Draws A Bird, premiering in the Fringe Spotlight Series, is the work of Booming Tree, the first recipient of the Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award. Gregory Shimizu and Twilla MacLeod make theatrical use of Taiko drumming in telling a post-catastrophe hero’s journey story. It premieres in the Fringe Spotlight Series April 30 to May 12.


Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

(a) Not Americans. Come From Away is a rare and stellar example of a Canadian musical that garnered rapturous reviews as it hit the big time on Broadway (where it continues to play to sold-out houses). In the week following 9-11, plane-loads bound for America were diverted, and got a spirited, distinctively warm embrace (with Screech) from the tiny Nfld. community of Gander. Broadway Across Canada brings it our way March 12 to 17 (at the Jube). 

(b) Ins Choi is the charismatic second-generation Korean-Canadian playwright who provided Canadian theatre with one of its biggest hits (Kim’s Convenience). He’s re-working, and amplifying his remarkable solo show Subway Stations of the Cross —  which channels mind of a gifted homeless man, a free-wheeling free-associating slam-poet prophet — for a new cabaret show, Ins Choi: Songs, Stories and Spoken Words, premiering at the Chinook Festival in January, under the Fringe Theatre Adventures flag.

Deep Fried Curried Perogies. Photo supplied.

(c) Michelle Todd takes us on a personal one-woman tour of the Canadian cultural mosaic in her genial and touching comic memoir Deep Fried Curried Perogies. Todd’s father is Jamaican, her mother is Filipino, and she has a baby with her white boyfriend whose folks are Ukrainian-Brits. It’s the mainstage presentation at the 2019 SkirtsAfire Festival in March (final dates await).


Arise now, and get your butt out of that seat … 

and into a graveyard. Thou Art Here, who have a “site-sympathetic” rapport with the Bard, take us to the 1886 Edmonton cemetery (11820 107 Ave.) with a roving production of Vern Thiessen’s 2005 Shakespeare’s Will. And in this multi-disciplinary revival, five actors play Anne Hathaway, the wife of the great man, who suffered the ignominy of getting bequeathed his “second best bed” in his will.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes at the Citadel. Photo supplied.

and into the most obscure nooks and crannies of a big theatre. Slight of Mind, an original promenade production by Theatre Yes (The Elevator Project, Anxiety) propels us everywhere in the Citadel that isn’t actually a theatre— for a series of encounters with performers that, as fashioned by playwright Beth Graham, allow us to discover a story. “A theatrical event,” as Theatre Yes’s Heather Inglis puts it. “A starting place for the work has been the myth of Icarus with themes of escape, flying and falling.”

and into a bar, The Almanac on Whyte. Cardiac Theatre — the enterprising indie co. that brought us the challengingly off-centre Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, The Listening Room, Pompeii L.A. — wants you to have a drink in hand to experience Harley Morison’s KaldrSaga: A Queer Tavern Drama for A Midwinter’s Night.  Separated by mountains Kaldr and Saga meet once a year in their favourite pub to tell tales inspired by “Norse mythology and queer storytelling,” a natural fit with beer. Nasra Adem and Mathew Hulshof star.


That’s what the Plain Janes are all about. This season, in a coup, it’s Fun Home, a musical like no other. In the beautiful and adventurous 2013 Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesoro musical based on a graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a girl discovers her own sexuality, and the mysteries of her dad’s life. Dave Horak’s cast includes Jeff Haslam as dad and the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan as mom; three actors play Alison at different ages. It’s in the Varscona Theatre Ensemble lineup, slated for April.


(a) Two new Conni Massing plays premiere this season:  Massing #1: What if the elephant in the room … is an elephant? In Matara, premiering in the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season (Nov. 28 to Dec. 9), we’re at a zoo in crisis. Ring a bell? A tragedy has happened, and we’re at an inquiry, where an elephant keeper, a security guard, and a marketing consultant have to justify their actions. Tracy Carroll directs.

Oh Christmas Tree!, Blunt Productions, Roxy Performance Series. Photo supplied.

Massing #2: What if a man takes a stand, against enforced seasonal jollity and sentiment? Oh Christmas Tree! (Roxy Performance Series, Dec. 11 to 23) takes us into the heart of the ever-fraught fa-la-la-la-la season — and the stress fractures in a couple with radically opposed views. Brian Deedrick returns from opera to theatre to direct. A casting coup: Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle, real-life husband and wife, star.

(b) In an apotheosis of madcap logistics, two new comedies by Kat Sandler premiere at the Citadel simultaneously — on two stages with the same cast dashing back and forth between them (March 30 to April 21). In the Maclab, The Candidate is a scramble for damage control by a candidate with prospects; in the Club at The Party, we’re actually at the political fundraising party nine months before, where the seeds for scandal are planted.

Gianna Vacirca and Jayce McKenzie in Blood: A Scientific Romance, The Maggie Tree. Photo by BB Collective.

Blood: A Scientific Romance, a Maggie Tree production (Fringe Spotlight series, Oct. 16 to 27), is Edmonton’s introduction to the work of Meg Braem, currently the U of A playwright-in-residence. A scientist investigates the mysterious bond of biology and shared tragedy between orphaned twin sisters. Jayce MacKenzie and Gianna Vacirca star in Brenley Charkow’s production, along with Liana Shannon and Jenna Dykes-Busby.

Lake of the Strangers, inspired by Nehiyaw mythology, is a tale of two brothers on a summer adventure, premiering in the Fringe Spotlight Series Jan. 22 to Feb. 2. It’s by Hunter Cardinal, an exciting young Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s summer season in the park.  

SEE WHAT WE’VE BEEN MISSING (catch up with hot plays by starry playwrights)

Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner by American star Lynn Nottage, is set in a working-class bar in a dying Rust Belt factory town. And it speaks to the contemporary landscape where job erosion is beginning to reveal ugly social and racial fractures. Valerie Planche directs the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production Jan. 12 to Feb. 3.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2012 Tony Award winner by the American farceur Christopher Durang, makes this possible: the words “Chekhovian” and “zany” will finally appear together in one descriptive. The ennui of three middle-aged siblings, named for self-deluding Chekhov characters from an assortment of his plays, is interrupted by the arrival of Masha’s young and studly lover. John Hudson’s Shadow Theatre production runs May 1 to 19 at the Varscona.

Middletown, by the enigmatic, oddly nuanced American playwright Will Eno (The Realistic Joneses, Tragedy: A Tragedy), takes us to an ordinary small town where the unexceptional, set forth in minute detail, is underlaid by weird glints of existential anxiety and despair. Sandra Nicholls directs the Studio Theatre production at the Timms Centre March 28 to April 6.

POLITICAL EDGE and the rise of fake news

It Began With Watching, Melanie Kloetzl and Co. Photo supplied.

Democracy as “alternative facts,” surveillance by shadowy puppet-meisters … It Began With Watching by Calgary-based choreographer/creator Melanie Kloetzel has an ominously sinister resonance. In Prairie Dance Circuit (launching Brian Webb Dance Company’s 40th anniversary season Sept. 21 and 22 at the Timm’s Centre), it’s paired with Gerry Morita’s Second Hand Dances For The Crude, Crude City (inspired by her collaboration with Chi Pig of the punk band SNFU). What does it mean to be alternative in the contemporary world? 

GO RISKY OR GO HOME (redefining the old “every performance is different” theatre adage). Part 1, spontaneity

Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel in Jezebel at the Still Point, Bumble Bear Productions.

The unpredictability factor, ramped up to a terrifying degree, is built into Jezebel, At The Still Point. Created by Ainsley Hillyard, consistently one of our most adventurous dance/ theatre artists,  it’s a movement/text exploration of time travelling in which she co-stars with her  (untrained) French bulldog Jezebel. In performances in Winnipeg, Jezebel, who has a mind of her own, occasionally wandered off the stage, and mingled with the audience. There’s just no telling. It’s in the Roxy Performance Series Oct 9 to 21.

Nassim. Photo supplied.

In Nassim, by the audacious Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour of White Rabbit Red Rabbit fame, the playwright shares the Citadel Club stage (April 30 to May 5) every night with an actor who has never before seen the script. A vivid, and much-travelled, experiment in exploring the elusiveness of language and meaning.

GO RISKY OR GO HOME. Part 2, embracing controversy

To be discussed: 19 Weeks, a Canadian premiere collaboration between Azimuth and Northern Light theatres, originally performed in and beside a Melbourne hotel swimming pool. In 2016 Australian playwright Emily Steel had an abortion after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Azimuth co-director Vanessa Sabourin stars (March 28 to April 13, Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns). 


Skirts On Fire, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo supplied.

The grand finale of the 2018 Teatro La Quindicina season is an original screwball (where else in the country do you find them?) Stewart Lemoine’s 2003 Skirts On Fire (Sept. 27 to Oct. 13 at the Varscona), is an effervescent tale of a literary hoax in ‘50s Manhattan.  


One of the great modern farces comes to the  Mayfield Dinner Theatre stage Feb. 5 to March 31. Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor is a crazily teetering architecture of mounting complications in a ‘30s opera company, on the opening night of Verdi’s Otello. Dave Horak directs.

WHAT’S IS NEWLY CONTROVERSIAL AGAIN (or is the world spinning backwards?)

What A Young Wife Ought To Know, by the star Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, finds its drama, and its tragedy, in the early 20th century history of women’s reproductive rights. Who thought birth control would get contentious again in these “enlightened” times? At Theatre Network Marianne Copithorne directs  Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard and Cole Humeny.


(a) Ron Pearson’s Minerva: Queen of the Handcuffs (Roxy Performance Series, Jan. 15 to 27) captures the true story of a famous female escape artist, regarded by Houdini as an upstart rival. Miranda Allen whose skill set, actor/escape artist makes her uniquely qualified for the role, stars.

(b) Everything about their lives, from daycare to their fellow workies, enrages the three connected characters of Billy (Les Jours de hurlement)  — in English Days of Howling — by Quebec City playwright Fabien Cloutier. It opens the L’UniThéâtre season, the first under new artistic director Joëlle Préfontaine Oct. 10 to 13, 17 to 20.


Beth Graham and Chris Bullough in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Jon Lachlan Stewart, who brought the Fringe a sexy, violent, and wordless!, version of Macbeth (Macbeth Muet), is back in his home town to direct Lungs, by the Brit playwright Duncan MacMillan (Shadow Theatre, March 13 to 31). His cast? A pair of premier playwrights Chris Bullough and Beth Graham.

MYSTERIES YET TO BE DISCOVERED: Edmonton Actors Theatre’s Dave Horak is working on a “devised piece blending new technology and puppets” to be unveiled in May at the Fringe’s Studio Theatre at the Arts Barns. Impossible Mongoose (The Fall of the House of Atreus, The Alien Baby, Prophecy) is hatching “a new play with music about a media sensation from the 1930s inspired by the haunting of Cashen’s Gap. Working title: Gef,” says Corben Kushneryk. We’ll catch a workshop in the spring.

Just a sample of what’s to come. There’s more. Much more. I haven’t even mentioned the Bright Young Things’ production of Noel Coward’s delicious Fallen Angels, directed by Marianne Copithorne. Or Doug Curtis’s Mesa at Atlas Theatre. Or the Play The Fool Festival…. Or a Citadel/Banff production of The Tempest with a cast that includes deaf actors….

Time to dim the lights, and play.




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Sudsing up for an improv marathon: a family reunion at Die-Nasty’s 26th annual Soap-A-Thon

26th annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Festive, but ominous. That’s the buzz today: You, my friends, are going to a family reunion this weekend.   

Starting tonight at 7 p.m. the far-flung members of the Bun-Bun family, owners and operators of a successful dinosaur theme park, are gathering there for a big bash in honour of an auspicious birthday. Great Grandma Cookie Bun-Bun is turning 117. Which makes her officially the world’s oldest living person. 

It’s the 26th annual edition of a venerable Edmonton improv comedy institution, Die-Nasty’s marathon 50-hour Soap-A-Thon fund-raiser. Lured by the magnetic force field of Edmonton improv, performers of every stripe from across the wide world — Adam Meggido from London, Patti Stiles from Australia among others — join the award-winning Die-Nasty ensemble for this journey into the not-yet-known and made-up-on-the-spot.

As Soap-A-Thon history confirms, the suds potential of families is virtually unlimited: joy, angst, tension, dark secrets, boozy recriminations and recollections, warped desires, libidinous frissons, sibling rivalries, acrimonious in-laws, freaky cousins twice-removed, inter-generational feuds, a lot of ex’s.… Who knows what might happen in this tangle of relationships? Absolutely no one.

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And that’s before you add in the dinosaur factor. In fact, one of the “special shifts,” Sunday 3 to 5 a.m., is the Gratuitous Rampaging Dinosaur Hour.

As Die-Nasty star Stephanie Wolfe says, “families are a great hook. People can choose where to hook their hat on the family tree…. With families the stakes are immediately high; there’s a past, a history. The tiniest detail can be momentous; love, hate, everything is magnified.”

We’ve met the Bun-Buns before, in their less exalted nouveau-riche days when the family name didn’t have a hyphen. In 2002, the Bun-Buns converged at the Fairmont Ritz-Capitano for a reunion at the 10th anniversary Soap-A-Thon. And four years later, they gathered again, for a family wedding; the nuptials joined “the London Grimbushes and the Mill Woods Bun-Buns.”

Wolfe remembers she played “Old Lady Bun-Bun, a generic grandma.” On that fractious occasion, Belinda Cornish was Skippy Bun-Bun, goth poet extraordinaire. Mark Meer was Sedgwick Bun-Bun, owner of the fateful hotel where the festivities took place, and doubled as the Lava Monster living in the wine cellar, .

No one knows exactly who’s who at the dinosaur theme park until curtain time tonight. But Wolfe is thinking of playing “Dr. Bun-Bun, the cousin of one of grandma’s daughters, once removed from the family. On call a lot,” and ready to minister to spontaneous maladies. “I’m bringing a bag of wigs…. I used to bring many garment bags of costumes, just in case. I’ve weeded it down to scarves, and hats.”

Characters are often born “by sheer need” backstage, Wolfe laughs. “We need a policeman! Onstage! Now!”

This year’s edition is the first time a life-size puppet has taken on a leading role. Birthday girl Great Grandma Cookie Bun-Bun, at 117, is the creation of company members Jesse Gervais and Mat Hulshof. The voice-over possibilities are legion, as Wolfe points out. Soliloquies? “I’m counting on it.” 

Company members like Mark Meer invariably go the full 50-hour distance. “He has special blood,” says Wolfe. “Thirty hours is enough for me.” Plans for leaving get constantly altered, though. “Just one more shift! I’ve got to find out what happens to me next!”

Wolfe loves the way novices and veterans mingle onstage at the Soap-A-Thon. Her advice to new soap-sters? “Bring lots of water and make sure you have breath mints.”


26th Annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon

Theatre: Die-Nasty

Directed by: various company members

Starring: Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Jesse Gervais, Matt Alden, Jason Hardwick, Vincent Forcier, Delia Barnett, Kristi Hansen, Paul Morgan Donald. With special guests Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Mat Busby, John Ullyatt, Adam Meggido, Patti Stiles, and others

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: tonight 7 p.m. through Sunday 9 p.m.

Tickets: weekend passes; daily tickets at the door all weekend

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Oh, what a knight: Two Good Knights at the Mayfield. A review

Kieran Martiin Murphy in Two Good Knights, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls,

You know the songs. Heck, you can’t NOT know the songs.

By now they’re in the collective DNA, and that much-abused term iconic doesn’t go amiss. Which is both a magnetic draw and a challenge for creators of revues and jukebox extravaganzas.   

The hit catalogues of pop superstars Tom Jones and Elton John are the soundtrack for Two Good Knights, the season-opener at the Mayfield, purveyors of deluxe musical entertainments. Will Marks, the company’s mysterious resident musical hunter/gatherer, has fashioned an annotated two-act celebration of the  the oeuvre of the two legendary Brits.

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And in the production staged by Dave Horak and directed musically by Van Wilmott, two excellent performers, backed by a top-notch seven-piece band (and back-up singer/dancers), invoke their spirit and personality, sound and signature stage styles. And they do it without resorting to the dread impersonation mode. 

Keith Retson-Spalding in Two Good Knights, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

True, Sir Thomas John Woodward (Kieran Martin Murphy), pride of Pontypridd, and Sir Elton Hercules John (Keith Retson-Spalding), late of Yorkshire, are very different artists. Well, OK, they have the Queen in common (hold that thought). They both changed their names; they both made a lot of money. And both their impressively-long careers have had dips and re-births.

But Two Good Knights doesn’t concern itself unduly with these biographical matters. They’re flimsy framing material for Will Marks. Mainly, they’re fodder for the sprite-ly comic ministrations of Chris Bullough. He puckishly leaps in and out of guises, accents, and costumes as the awestruck (occasionally rueful) narrator/chronicler, a stream of managers and agents, members of defunct bands, the odd relative, diverse musicians like Neil Diamond, who appears and vanishes long before the ice in your Tiny Dancer cocktail can melt. Ah yes, and Queenie herself in full regalia, a party girl manquée, who thanks the newly appointed Sir Elton for his stellar contributions to British culture, “especially the retail sector.”    

What saves the narration from the portentous biographical intervention style that’s more usual in revues is its (a) scarcity and (b) its wry tone. Bullough gives all his moments in this incarnation a certain satirical edge, established in the opening moments of Two Good Knights. We find Tim Jones in full Murphy throttle delivering Oh, What A Night and discover, thanks to our narrator, that it’s the ‘80s and he’s in in mid-career slump, reduced to performing ladies’ night in small-town Massachusetts. 

The star, who’s played with charm and a kind of appealing self-awareness by the lustrous-voiced Murphy, is somewhat aggrieved by the narrator’s dramatic scenario: “an agonizing 15-year drought with no hits” and the “sheer determination to climb out of this horrendous hole.”

That’s how the “story” is introduced: a sexy Welsh guy with great pipes and a history of working in a leather glove-making factory and selling Electro-Luxes door-to-door until … the classic moment of discovery. And the tone, endemic to Horak’s production, gives such standard revue segues as “everything he touched turned to gold” a tweak.

Murphy, captures the signature extravagant physicality of the Welsh star in his magnetic performance (choreography by Christine Bandelow, who’s also a back-up singer and dancer, along with Jennifer McMillan).

In Act II, very different in theatrical style, the narrator cedes his role to Elton John’s early music-writing partner Bernie Taupin. And Retson-Spalding, new to the Mayfield stage, takes over at the grand piano as the energetically flamboyant pop star with the neo-Liberace taste in evening wear. He evokes the mannerisms, and the vocal/keyboard pizzaz of Elton John with gusto and humour.

As always at the Mayfield under Van Wilmott the musical values are startlingly high, the local performers are substantial talents, and the song list is nothing if not generous. What gives the show its theatrical bounce is a terrific videoscope by the endlessly inventive designer Matt Schuurman. Two Good Knights is unexpectedly fun to watch, as well as to listen to.

His projections, which play on a variety of screens and even the piano, are clever and witty, an unhinged free-association of images that release the show from the bonds of song catalogue.

I leave you to discover what Schuurman does with Rocket Man, The Lion King, Crocodile Rock , and Benny and the Jets. It reimagines the musical revue format.


Two Good Knights

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Directed by: Dave Horak, Van Wilmott

Starring: Kieran Martin Murphy, Keith Retson-Spalding, Chris Bullough, Christine Bandelow, Jennifer McMillan

Running: through Oct. 28

Tickets: 780-483-4051,

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