The journey of the outsider: The Ugly Duchess, streaming finale of the Northern Light Theatre season

Lora Brovold in The Ugly Duchess, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“That night I dreamt of the faraway land where the ugly women are loved by the blind men, the men that were the pincushions of cupid’s arrows….” The Ugly Duchess by Janet Munsil

Direct to you from the 14th century, the character we meet in The Ugly Duchess, the solo play by Vancouver-based Janet Munsil that opens Friday streaming digitally as the Northern Light Theatre season finale, is a celebrity of a very particular sort. Margaret, the last Countess of Tyrol, has the peculiar distinction of being memorialized as the ugliest woman in history.

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Her nickname Maultasch means “bag mouth,” or “pocket mouth.” During outbreaks of the plague, her subjects had someone, a monster, to blame. The famously grotesque portrait of an extravagantly dressed old woman by Flemish artist Quentin Matsys (c. 1513) hanging in the National Gallery in London is thought to be a depiction of her. And that portrait was the model for the Duchess in the classic Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

The Look, produced by Northern Light earlier this season, explored beauty: the worship of it, the profession of it, the personal (and corporate) implications of it. In The Ugly Duchess, a 1993 multi-Fringe hit, the theatrical gaze turns about-face, on ugliness. We meet a woman who was, in view of her wealth and the Tyrol’s strategic location, one of Europe’s most eligible catches as a bride — except in appearance, that is, if the mythology attached to her has historical legs.   

Written originally for the playwright’s husband (actor Paul Terry), and widely produced, travelled, and awarded on both sides of the Atlantic, The Ugly Duchess gets its professional premiere in Trevor Schmidt’s NLT production. It marks the return to the company, after nearly a decade, of Lora Brovold, back to star as the beleaguered, vilified outsider Margaret. In a long and varied resumé of star performances  at Edmonton theatres of every size, the Citadel, Shadow, and Theatre Yes included, her history with Northern Light history is a trio of high-intensity plays that are nothing if not visceral.

Brovold’s last appearance with the company 10 years ago was Karen Bassett’s Heroine (sword in hand, as one of two formidable 18th century female pirates). Before that, the Toronto native who’d moved West to go to theatre school at the U of A, was in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig (as confrontational as you’d imagine) and Gary Henderson’s downright shocking Mo and Jess Kill Susie.

Now, a play about a famous misfit, recipient of a barrage of public loathing, including the charge she was a witch. The historical research, Brovold she says, has been full of fascinating questions. “So much is conjecture…. Was she demonized for her looks? Or for her (marital) behaviour? Or both?  Was morality the issue? Or her face?”

“At a certain point, I surrendered!,” Brovold laughs. She gave up the actor’s quest for historical certainties. “You know what? She was demonized, and that was the point!”

Lora Brovold in The Ugly Duchess, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

Visually re-creating the ugliest woman in history with a beautiful actor is a job would require contortionist ministrations from a make-up and prosthetic artist. “In the playing, Trevor chose not to go after visual replication,” says Brovold. What’s crucial to the story is that “people think of her this way, and she thinks of herself this way. She feels (the ugliness) herself, how she sees herself is based on how people see her.”

It’s “the psychology of being ostracized,” that drives the theatrical portraiture. “The slings and arrows that have become part of our psychology, and what we really believe about ourselves…. Hurt gives way to anger and anger gives way to rage. Does that make her a monster? Or does that make her human?”

The pandemic devastation has been a year to erode the resolve and confidence of any performing artist. As Brovold puts it, “when life throws you curveballs it upsets your centre of gravity. When I read the script I felt an affinity and compassion for the character…. Going through a period where your self-worth has taken a hit, how do you keep going? How do you push forward? I related to that!”

“There was something to this person that I wanted to understand; her strength really resonated with me,” says Brovold of Margaret, who survived broken marriages, betrayals public abuse, ugly intrigues in the gendered politics of the time, and finally exile from her homeland. “I was feeling a little bereft: personal things, then COVID…. You’re on the journey of life, but you feel like you’re ricocheting off events.” Then came Schmidt’s enthusiastic invitation to do The Ugly Duchess. “I thought ‘OK, I’m going to have a creative renaissance with myself, make something creative at a very creatively tamped-down time!”

“What makes human beings keep going? The questing spirit in me was intrigued by the question. What else can you do but keep trying? And that’s what this play is about!”

Thoughtful, funny and self-deprecating in conversation, Brovold says she was “coming from a place of ‘I don’t know if I know how to be an actor any more because it’s been so long’, living life in such an overwhelming time’.” And then came The Ugly Duchess.

COVID restrictions on theatre meant that filming happened at the photography studio of cinematographer Ian Jackson. And Margaret’s story arc  — stylized since Schmidt’s production is a filmed play and not a movie — happens in front of (and through) a vanity table mirror, from a variety of angles. “Trevor is really good at taking risks, trying new things in very imaginative, specific ways.”

Brovold laughs. If she was looking for a sign that, hiatus notwithstanding, she was still heart and soul an actor, “here’s the age-old actor question, arghh, that never goes away: where do I put my hands?”

Making a solo play into “a filmic piece” had its own particular challenges, Brovold found. The segments might not be shot chronologically, but “you still have to learn the whole arc of the play in order to have emotion continuity,” she says. “You really have to know who you are, what the moments are about.” And since there’s no moving about a stage physically, or projecting to the back row of a theatre, that knowledge has to be very particular, revealed in close-ups. “It’s a more intimate relationship, in a way. A breath, a flicker of a thought, and the camera is with you.…”

“We can’t know what we’re making yet! We creatively make choices, individually and as a team. But only the audience knows what we’ve made,” says Brovold, who’s looking forward to seeing how the contributions of director Schmidt, cinematographer/editor Ian Jackson, lighting designer Roy Jackson, sound designer Darrin Hagen, fit together, when the production starts streaming Friday.    

And there’s the story of a character who “goes out fighting.” Says Brovold, “it’s so great to work on a play that reminds us that we all suffer; the degree and the reasons are unique, but we all do. And we all deserve and need kindness. I’m so thankful to re-learn that.”

Stories, muses Brovold, are what the theatre is for. “I’m so hopeful that when we return to theatres (in person), communities will flood the halls, and give it a big welcome. People need stories to feel they’re not aliens! They need to sit together in the dark, and agree to hear a story together, witness something together, breathe together.”

PREVIEW

The Ugly Duchess

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Janet Munsil

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Lora Brovold

Where: online, from northernlighttheatre.com

Running: Friday through Sunday, and May 27 to 30, various times.

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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Concrete Theatre’s Sprouts Festival grows new plays, online

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Edmonton’s Concrete Theatre, a company with a national profile in theatre-for-young-audiences, is into its mid-30s with a new pair of co-artistic directors — and in this strange pandemic time, the need to re-invent one of its prime raisons d’être.

Live theatre? Plus school touring? In a plague year? Now there’s a mind-expanding multiple suspension to wrap your imagination around.

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They have different ages (by a couple of decades), different theatrical specialties, connections, and cultural perspectives, as you might expect. But, as they take over the artistic directorship of a company named for its street-level savvy, what Tracy Carroll and Corben Kushneryk share is a zest for young audiences and the creation and showcasing of new plays to reflect kids’  experiences growing up in a complex, diverse Canada.

Both partners have roots in Concrete, so to speak. “I directed Lig and Bittle (by Elyne Quan and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull) 20 years ago!” says Carroll. Kushneryk’s Concrete debut was as an actor in The Bully Project five years ago (Carroll directed, and stage managed). 

As Carroll points out, a complementary co-artistic directorship is nothing new for a company that was born as a five-way collective in 1987. For much of its life since, it’s been run by partnerships of artists, and more recently, a pair of artistic directors, Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth.

And now, by a pair of theatre artists with a skill set of striking breadth. Carroll is a veteran dramaturge and director, with a formidable record in new play development. Kushneryk, a bona fide triple-threat, is an actor/ director/ designer and an up-and-coming producer with indie cred: he’s a co-founder of the indie company Impossible Mongoose (The Fall of the House of Atreus, Prophecy).

Corben Kushneryk

“It’s such an interesting time to join a (theatre) that’s primarily a touring company!” says Carroll, with a wry laugh. “It’s fun to come up against these barriers!” declares Kushneryk cheerfully. “I love controlled chaos; it can be a beautiful thing!”

On the eve of the annual Sprouts Festival, a Concrete spring-planting tradition of some two decades standing that happens (all online for the first time) next weekend. The Concrete partners were on Zoom together this week — a platform where they spend a lot of Concrete brainstorming time — to share their thinking.

“I love having a partner!” says Carroll. “We share a brain.” Says Kushneryk, “it’s such a helpful thing in a partnership to have different generations and perspectives…. I love having Tracy’s experience as a writer, a dramaturge, a director — and as a mother!”

As the name will hint, Sprouts plants theatrical seedlings: new and original playlets, 10-minutes or so in length, collected from unusual artistic, cultural, ethnic, and professional sources — designers, actors, novelists, journalists, improvisers, playwrights who’ve never before written for kids.… Some of the sprouts they create grow up, get fully produced (and re-produced), tour, “and join the canon,” as Carroll puts it. “Some live in that (10-minute) time.”

The trio of short plays we’ll see at this year’s edition (acted by a cast of three, directed by Kushneryk, dramaturged by Carroll) were inherited from Ouchi’s tenure as artistic director. They all started pre-pandemic, and have had an extra year of seasoning, thanks to the COVID hiatus of 2020.

With The Colour Keeper, Patricia Cerra, best known to Edmonton audiences as an actor (and currently in an artistic director internship at the Nepture Theatre in Halifax), tries her hand at playwriting. As Carroll describes, it’s a story about girl on a quest to bring the joy of colour back into a world where it’s missing.

The title character of Mika Laulainen’s Wag is a Dalmatian who had an epic adventure in company of a friend. The Enchantment is by the multi-tasking team of Dave Clarke (also in charge of Sprouts sound) and Marissa Kochanski, whose designs have been part of Sprouts for many years.   

“We rehearsed over Zoom,” says Kushneryk. “It’s been all about how to connect, and make (the experience) as live as we can.” And the cast of three — Chariz Faulmino, Andrés Moreno and Christine Nguyen — “jumped right into the characters; they’re so infused with joy.” Technical director Bobby Smale “drove bags of mics, and lights, and props (design by Heather Cornick) and costumes (by Betty Kolodziej) to the actors at their homes.

A pandemic year gives all three plays different layers, as Carroll and Kushneryk report. A play about a world without colour, for example, and a quest to restore it, has gained a heightened social reverb in a new alertness to diversity. A play about friendship and anxiety is bound to have a different force field, too, in these isolating times.

For live theatre, the times are a test of creativity. When the pandemic closed the theatres suddenly 14 months ago, Concrete’s Pia and Maria by Josh Dalledonne and Bianca Miranda, fully rehearsed and ready to go, got cancelled on the eve of opening. The intergenerational play about two elderly Italian sisters bonding with a young Filipina girl is back in June, adapted as a radio play (directed by Mieko Ouchi).

Acting Our Colours, a Concrete in-school residency designed to celebrate the richness of cultural diversity, is currently being adapted in a digital version. The plus side to the pandemic has been accessibility to new communities, new audiences, beyond the city and across the country.

“At heart Concrete is issue-based theatre,” says Carroll. We can expect to see new plays, yes, but it’s not as if the issues that kids confront vanish from the scene, as the perpetually timely repertoire of Concrete shows — The Bully Project, Consent (sexual coercion),  Routes (family violence), or Under Cover (cultural prejudice) — confirms. “Kids grow up; there’s a new audience every year.”

Last word to Kushneryk. “It’s such a gift to be working in theatre for young audiences…. From my experience there’s no audience like a TYA audience. They’re so with you, so alive!”

PREVIEW

Sprouts New Play Festival For Kids

Theatre: Concrete

Written by: Patricia Cerra, Mika Laulainen, Dave Clarke and Marissa Kochanski

Directed by: Corben Kushneryk

Dramaturged by: Tracy Carroll

Where: online, concretetheatre.ca

Running: May 22 and 23, 2 p.m.

Tickets: concretetheatre.ca

  

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To be or not to be: Hamlet served six ways, from Thou Art Here Theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The time is out of joint (I think we can all agree with Prince of Denmark on that).

Isolating, infuriating, anxiety-making, rippling with hints of mortality and “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” … does that ring a bell at this moment of history where we’ve found ourselves.

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Hamlet was on it, four centuries ago. And an experimental mini-series created by the adventurous Edmonton indie theatre Thou Art Here — a “site-sympathetic” company that takes Shakespeare on location to the people — will deliver six different Hamlets, one a week, direct to your place.

With Hamlet in Isolation, every Friday for six weeks starting May 21, we’ll get to see a different Albertan actor (one who’s never played Hamlet before) have at the most celebrated role in English theatre. And as befits the COVIDian regulations of the moment, the complex and compelling character that every actor dreams of making their own, won’t have to share “the stage” with anyone else.

In partnership with three directors and an original (eight-page) script fashioned from Hamlet’s seven signature soliloquies, the six actors, one a week, perform from their homes, solo and live-streamed on a variety of digital platforms, including YouTube and Twitch. Thou Art Here co-founder (and now artistic associate) Andrew Ritchie says the instruction to director-actor partnerships was alluringly open-ended. “Here you go! Run with this and see where you take it.”

Shrouded in mystery Hamlet may be, as four hundred years of wildly divergent interpretations attest, but the guy is voluble, no question. He has more lines to speak, by a ratio of nearly two to one, than any other character in the Shakespeare canon. And he talks to himself. In his pinnacle soliloquies — “to be or not to be,” “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” “how all occasions do inform against me” and the other heavy-hitter monologues — Hamlet thinks aloud; he shares his thoughts with the audience; he meditates; he assesses and reassesses what it means to be human.

The play he stars in is Shakespeare’s longest — so long it’s almost never performed un-cut. Hamlet in Isolation takes that trimming further (into bite-sized pieces of half an hour or so), directly into Hamlet’s consciousness. Ritchie cites a scene in the very funny Canadian series Slings and Arrows, set at a Stratford-like Shakespeare festival, in which an actor freaking out as he prepares to be Hamlet gets sage advice: “just nail those monologues, and everyone will go home happy.”

Via the soliloquies we venture into the minds and sensibilities of six different Hamlets, chosen, says Ritchie, “from a public audition call that got a big response. So many artists looking for work….” And there’s a striking variety in their backgrounds, in experience, in aesthetic, in gender. “We’ve never collaborated with any of them before,” says Ritchie, one of the three Hamlet in Isolation directors, of the artists assembled for the project. “And that’s very exciting.”

Director Sydney Campbell, for example, is an improv and sketch comedy star, half of the queer sketch duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Desirée Leverenz, who also directs, is the artistic director of the experimental performance ensemble The Orange Girls. Marguerite Lawler (Lavinia in Theatre Network’s The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius), one of the Hamlets, is an actor with starry improv cred.

The original Thou Art Here idea, he says, was to “take Hamlet to five different sites.” Act III, in which the court gathers to watch a play, was to be in a theatre; Act V, when the bodies really pile up, in a graveyard.…

The current pandemic restrictions in Alberta made that unworkable. Instead, you get a one-on-one with Hamlet. Scenographer Elise Jason has extrapolated for their design from the soliloquies and the enforced intimacy, in the six at-home settings where we find the performers.

“When you watch several (episodes), the pieces will be in conversation with each other,” Ritchie hopes, “an interesting exploration of the text” affected by who the actors are since they’re filmed in their own personal habitat.

PREVIEW

Hamlet in Isolation

Theatre: Thou Art Here

Directed by: Sydney Campbell, Desirée Leverenz, Andrew Ritchie

Starring as Hamlet: Philip (Lin Hackborn), Dayna Lea Hoffmann, Deedra Salange LaDouceur, Marguerite Lawler, Andrés Moreno, Kiana Woo

Where: performed and streamed live online

Running: May 21 through June 25, Fridays at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: fringe theatre.ca, pay-what-you-will

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‘Questions that make the house shake with silence’: Something Unspoken streamed at Northern Light. A review

Davina Stewart and Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Northern Light Theatre’s exquisite little streamed version of Something Unspoken, a rarely produced Tennessee Williams’ one-act from the ‘50s, is a bit like a whisper in a bubble. Breathe too hard and it will vanish.

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In Trevor Schmidt’s production, beautifully filmed by Ian Peter Jackson and running a swift 45 minutes, we arrive by air, floating down from above onto a stage (the Varscona) that seems to be a theatrical capture of a fleeting moment in the mind’s eye. An artful dream, perhaps? A clock is ticking.

We touch down in a rosy perfumed world of pale pinks and mauves, right down to the juice on the table and the jam on the toast (the design is by director Schmidt). There’s a romantic glow to the lighting (by Adam Tsuyoshi Turnbull); a chandelier seems to have broken through a paper ceiling. The windows and walls give on cascades of suspended pink-hued fantasy blossoms. In short … a rarefied world, cocooned in a sense of unreality.

Davina Stewart in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

That’s our introduction to Cornelia (Davina Stewart), a wealthy grande dame of the Southern belle stripe, and Grace (Patricia Darbasie), her secretary — or is it companion? — of 15 years. And their relationship in the South of the ‘50s is the play’s mystery, approached with delicate ambiguity in the script, the performances, and the assortment of closeups — eyes, mouths, hands — in Schmidt’s production.

It’s election day for the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, a stronghold of white privilege and authority in an antebellum world that is gradually disappearing. And Cornelia, who has an intense relationship with the telephone, her golden hot line to the world beyond her garden, is anxiously awaiting the affirmation that things have gone her way. “I will accept no office except the highest,” she declares, with bravado, to her social spy on location at election HQ. And it has to be by acclamation; voting is for the riff-raff.  Stewart captures a rarefied combination of imperial entitlement, neediness, and the fear, unspoken like so many things in the play, that she is somehow losing ground.

Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

Grace’s attempts to mollify her employer are airily dismissed; Cornelia even rejects that ‘m’ word. “I have never been mollified by conciliatory replies.” In her alert, watchful performance Darbasie conveys the kind of wary calm that has hidden reserves, including a soupçon of skepticism and occasional flickers of cautious amusement that rise to one eyebrow and quickly subside.

The relationship is nuanced. And it’s fuelled by the chemistry between the actors, Edmonton stars both. What adds to the mystery, in Schmidt’s production, is race. Cornelia, who aspires to head an organization devoted to white supremacy, isn’t just run-of-the-mill white. Stewart, in a white Victorian peignoir, long white-blond hair, is ultra-white, bleached out to ghostly whiteness by the lighting. She looks chalky; even her lips are pale.

The woman Cornelia is exhorting to speak the unspoken is not just her employee, with the social and class tensions that implies. She’s black. And, as Darbasie’s complex performance conveys between the lines of a text that never mentions it, that fact ups the ante on Grace’s caution and evasiveness, her resistance to the “outspokenness” Cornelia demands.

“You mustn’t expect me to give bold answers to questions that make the house shake with silence,” she says of the hidden 15-year infrastructure of a relationship that has apparently always lived in the subtext. Moved at last to words, Grace has a lyrical moment in which she proposes that they’ve aged differently: Cornelia’s hair is the gray of iron, Grace says; her own is the gray of cobwebs. The balance of power lives in that thought.

Intriguingly, Schmidt’s production leads the subtextual path of Something Unspoken from sexual ambiguity and homoerotic repression into other more contemporary contradictions. And they’re based on race. Cornelia’s domestic desires, however enforceable by class (“a request from an employer is hard to tell from an order,” says Grace), seem to be at loggerheads with her aggressive campaign for upward mobility in a racist outfit devoted to maintaining white privilege. Is this tension between love and power the toxic residue of white privilege and colonialism as it plays out in the modern world?

“Some things are better left unspoken,” Grace concludes. The balance of power, weighted as it is in every way, is maintained by silence. And you’ll find yourself thinking about that when the roses have faded from view.

REVIEW

Something Unspoken

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Tennessee Williams

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart

Where: streamed on Vimeo, northernlighttheatre.com

Running: through Sunday, and May 13 to 16

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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New plays for big stages: Collider, the Citadel’s debut play development festival

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Line most often heard from Canadian theatre producers by playwrights labouring on new scripts. “Great, but could you make it smaller? How about three actors, better yet two, instead of five?”

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If ‘think small’ is the working mantra of new play development in this country, where do playwrights and theatre-makers get experience (and exposure) telling their stories in a bigger way, for Size L and XL performance spaces in Canada and beyond? Spaces like the Citadel, for example.

There’s a new festival for that. The Citadel’s Collider Festival, originally scheduled for a March 2020 debut edition, collided … with COVID. Now it’s launching, in entirely digital form, May 12 to 16.

Collider, a collision of artists and forms, is devoted to new play development. In its play readings, workshops, and keynote address, it’s  all about theatre creation on that larger scale. In the local theatre ecology, “there are already many new-play companies in Edmonton. I’ve kept looking at what the Citadel can provide,” says artistic director Daryl Cloran. “The great thing, and the challenge, at the Citadel,” as he puts it, “is that both its mainstage performance spaces are 700-seat houses.”

“What does that large-scale mean?” that’s the question for artists. “It doesn’t mean super-populist or a cast of 20 every time,” says Cloran. “But there has to be something about the work that resonates on a larger scale…. It could be thematically; it could be in production value; it could be an adaptation of something that captures people’s attention.” The question for him is “what do we need to provide (creators) in order to have them thrive, to dream, on that larger stage.”

Amongst the six new pieces, in various stages of development, getting full readings at Collider,  the assortment of forms is wide — among them a period literary adaptation, a black comedy thriller, a door-slamming farce, a musical. The casts are gathered from here and across the country (and in one case across the border),

Jane Eyre, which brings to life the Charlotte Brontë masterwork of 1847, is a Citadel commission. Originally slated for a 2020 premiere, audiences here will see it, says Cloran, as soon as the theatre can return to big, live onstage performances. The adaptor is acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields.

“She, more than any playwright I know, has such a gift for adaptation,” Cloran says, citing such plays as Shields’ versions of Paradise Lost for Stratford and (Ibsen’s) The Lady From The Sea for the Shaw Festival. “Erin really gets it, how to take a classic story, look at it from her contemporary viewpoint, make it resonate for a contemporary audience.”

Cloran was responding to the demonstrable fan-dom of Citadel audiences for full-scale costumed period shows (the Jane Austen adaptations are perennial hits). The new Jane Eyre, he says, “is very much a period piece. But she’s given it a contemporary feminist viewpoint. And it’s real ensemble storytelling; everybody plays a whole bunch of different parts, a kind of low-tech theatricality I really love….”   

The most complicated to assemble for an online reading is Almost A Full Moon, a musical by the team of composer/lyricist Hawksley Workman and playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (the latter a finalist for this year’s Governor-General’s Literary Award for Guarded Girls). It’s based on Workman’s original Christmas album of 20 years ago, a Cloran seasonal fave (“for me and my generation and peer group, it’s integral”). It’s not a song cycle per se. But the songs, are “thematically related.”

Last fall, directed by Cloran, the new musical got a six-week workshop with students at Sheridan College’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project (where Come From Away was originally developed).

As Cloran points out, Workman is a rock star with a distinctly theatrical bent; the new holiday musical is by no means his first foray into theatre (he composed music for The Silver Arrow at the Citadel, his one-man cabaret The God That Comes premiered at the High Performance Rodeo). Workman said he imagined the intertwined multi-generational stories evoked by the songs in a Love Actually sort of way.

Playwright Corbeil-Coleman, says Cloran, “wrote a beautiful script that takes place in three different timeliness, World War II, the ’80s, that intertwine and overlap.”

Ten actors and a six-piece band that includes violin and cello: a lot of editing intricacy is involved in putting it together on Zoom “for a true experience in what it sounds like,” says Cloran. We’ll see its full stage premiere at the Citadel, “as soon as we can do big musicals!”

He laughs. “We’re trying to fully corner the market on the holidays!”

A new farce, a classic six-actor door-slammer called The Fiancée, is the work of actor/playwright Holly Lewis. “Secretly, if Holly could be anyone she’d be Lucille Ball,” laughs Cloran who’s married to Lewis. “She loves to be funny; she loves the mechanics of farce….” And those mechanics are dauntingly intricate, as Lewis knows from starring in a Theatre Found production of Steve Martin’s farce The Underpants in Toronto.

“I’m wildly biased, but I think her idea here is really good,” Cloran says. The premise riffs on Boeing, Boeing, a farce in which a guy juggles a romantic schedule involving three flight attendant girlfriends who work for different airlines, and are unexpected grounded during a storm. Lewis’s thought, says Cloran, was “how to create a great farce with women at the heart of it.”

As Cloran describes The Fiancée, during World War II, a young woman accepts proposals from three men, expecting they won’t all make it back from the war.” But they do, “and all arrive back on the same day.” Which sets in motion an escalating chaos of “shoving people in closets, slamming doors, putting on wigs to be someone else.” And then the formidable landlord shows up; eviction looms.

Mieko Ouchi’s Burning Mom chronicles her newly-widowed mom’s journey, in a Winnebago, down to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. And it imagines large scale in a different way. It may be a solo show (starring Nicola Lipman) with an intimate story, “but Mieko’s vision for the show is huge,” says Cloran. He reports that the playwright/director has been collaborating with a Montreal projection designer with Cirque cred. Yes, the Winnebago opens up.

A Distinct Society by the Canadian-born New York- based Kareen Fahmy, had a reading in Chicago last fall. “We wanted to introduce it to Canadian audiences,” Cloran says of the strikingly topical cross-border play that, quite literally, straddles the Canada-U.S. border — in a library with a line down the middle. That’s where a Muslim family meets, to circumvent the “Muslim ban.”

In collaboration with Script Salon, Kenneth T. Williams’ new play Paris, SK, gets a reading directed by Keith Barker of Toronto’s Native Earth Theatre. “A crime thriller/ noir kind of feeling, very cool,” says Cloran. “And the playwright as “smart, political, and funny.”

Collider opens with an address by Sherry J Yoon, the artistic director of the experimental Vancouver indie Boca del Lupo, specialists in grand-scale theatre spectacle. She was the  National Arts Centre’s Jillian Keiley’s collaborator on the Grand Acts of Theatre series. The lineup includes an afternoon of 10-minute readings from new plays developing as part of the Punctuate! Theatre’s Playwrights Unit.

And there are two workshops for who’d rather go big than go home: one from Shields on the subject of adaptations, the other from Michael Rubinoff, the head of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan, on developing new Canadian musicals.

 Says Cloran, “we already have the largest Fringe on the continent…. My dream is putting Edmonton on the map as a place where great new work is being created. What Austin with SXSW is to music, we can be for theatre.”

Registration and attendance are free, but space is limited. Check out the full Collider schedule and register at citadel theatre.

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A theatre to-do list for the week, including a bread and circus combo, kid stuff, costume and video installations, shows to stream

Bread and Circus, Firefly Theatre and Circus. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In week ten thousand of the pandemic, before you actually melt into Netflix and disappear, clicker in hand, put a couple of suggestions on your theatre to-do list. The word ‘fun’ does not go amiss, I assure you.

•Aerialists rise. They’re like bread that way.

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For sheer originality in “pivoting,” and a kind of witty inevitability given the times, it’s hard to top the ever-inventive Firefly Theatre & Circus. Bread and Circus, coming your way live-streamed Friday evening, is named for a Roman phrase, meaning public diversionary tactics used by savvy politicians during times of unrest, confinement, and general malaise. “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt” (Juvenal). Side notre: Marie Antoinette obviously had not read Juvenal, or she never would have mentioned cake and thereby caused the French Revolution.

The Firefly evening combines two anti-gravity sensations, bread-making and top-flight circus artists from around the world. While your fougasse-in-progress is levitating (under instruction from of chefs at Get Cooking) you’ll be watching the latter do the same.

They’re an international brigade of some 24 artists who sent Firefly eight videos from three continents, six countries, two provinces, and Calgary, including four circus artists from here: Lyne Gosselin, Maria Albiston, Normand Boulé, and Stephanie Gruson. All but the artist from Australia (Kristi Wade) — ironic since Australian theatres have re-opened, are performing for real audiences. And audiences are the yeast of live theatre.

Meanwhile, the online entertainment is further enhanced by live-streamed performances from the Edmonton band Le Fuzz and taiko drumming specialists Rabbits Three.

Firefly co-founders Annie Dugan and John Ullyatt host. Bread & Circus happens Friday, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are at Firefly Theatre.

•The Kids Fest turns 40 this year. In honour of this auspicious birthday of festivities devoted to unlocking the kid imagination, the International Children’s Festival of the Arts has launched 40 Days of Play this week. Every day, on the St. Albert website, you’ll find a new creative challenge, visual art activity, outdoor exploration (I suspect strongly that sourdough will not be involved). Photos posted on Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #40DaysofPlay are eligible for prizes.

The grand finale, June 4 to 6, is an online version of the festivities headquartered up the road on the banks of the mighty Sturgeon: “three days of virtual, interactive and international entertainment programming.” The lineup is announced May 7.

•I know you’ll be yearning to emerge from your domestic stronghold and the mesmeric power grab of your screen and have a theatre visit. Here are two possibilities:

On the Citadel’s south-facing windows catch a video installation that will give you a thrill and leave you hungry for more.

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Windows To New Works, Citadel Theatre.

The video installation Window To New Works is a loop of projected scenes and songs from theatre projects in development at the downtown playhouse or elsewhere in town. Among them are Erin Shields’ Jane Eyre (starring Gianna Vacirca), Almost A Full Moon by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Hawksley Workman, Tai Amy Grauman’s You Used To Call Me Marie, Mieko Ouchi’s new play Burning Mom (starring Maralyn Ryan). The other night I saw glimpses of The Garneau Block, Heaven, and Chris Dodd’s Deafy. 

Check them out till May 31, and give your theatre bio-clock a crank.

In the Varscona windows, designer Leona Brausen’s original costume installation Hero Material, continues with the Canadian artist Emily Carr. Amazingly, in one of the panels, Brausen has re-created Carr’s celebrated painting Red Cedar, using 1940s dressing gowns. No kidding. Who would do that? To get the full effect, with theatrical lighting, catch it after dark.

•Continuing: A Brimful of Asha and Mary’s Wedding are both available to stream from the Citadel. (Check out the 12thnight reviews for the former here and the latter here. The U of A’s Studio Theatre season continues with an online production of Mary Zimmerman’s strange and playful fairy tale mash-up The Secret in the Wings, directed by Fringe associate director Elizabeth Hobbs. Read the 12thnight interview with that multi-faceted artist here.  And get tickets here.

•And since it takes a creative people to change the world, check out the three inspiring short videos fashioned by artists commissioned by Catalyst Theatre for the National Transformation Project. Kristi Hansen, Rebecca Sadowski, and Chris Dodd, aka The Transformers, all thought about how the world could be made better. Find them at catalysttheatre.ca or on the National Arts Centre website.

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Follow the ‘once upon a time’ through the fairy tale world: The Secret in the Wings at Studio Theatre

The Secret in the Wings, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Don’t let the ‘happily-ever-after’s fool you. Fairy tales are not, contrary to popular belief, a Disney invention, the have-a-great-life tag to rom-coms on a roll.

The production that opens today online, in the Studio Theatre season,  follows ‘once upon a time’ into the obscure reaches of the Grimm catalogue and colour palette, and beyond. Into the dark tangled playground of the subconscious, childhood fears, adult taboos, strange transformations where fairy tales live.

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 The Secret in the Wings, by the star American playwright Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), is “particularly bizarre,” declares director Elizabeth Hobbs with delight (adding “theatrical,” “weird” and “quirky” for good measure). “When I read it I laughed out loud. I didn’t understand it but I was so intrigued!” That’s why she chose the 30-year-old play for her thesis production (she emerges from the U of A with a master’s degree in directing).

“It offered a lot of freedom, creatively, for devising,” says Hobbs, an associate director of the Fringe (where she’s been in charge of the street performers and of the Kids’ Fringe). “I’m really interested in marrying script to devised (theatre).” And this is a play that invites the performers to participate, to improvise whole sections. She quotes the playwright: “text is only one instrument in the orchestra.”

Hobbs’ cast of nine “are great movers and singers,” Hobbs says. One of the actors, for example, is a ballet dancer, and offered to do a scene en pointe. It’s in the show. A lot of what we’ll see “comes from the cast coming up with cool stuff, shaped by me…. All theatre is that, I guess. But this one is wildly so!”

The Secret in the Wings, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

Hobbs and co have been let loose on an intricate mash-up of six existing but very obscure fairy tales, a couple from the Brothers Grimm and all very different stylistically. As she describes, “they’re told individually inside a larger frame-work of Beauty and the Beast” — cut off right at their half-way point of maximum suspense, and separated by interludes. In the second act, “the characters step outside their own individual stories and into the larger frame.”

She hasn’t seen the film version of The Secret in the Wings yet (available today through Friday) but her production has had six live performances for a very limited audience of nine (plus her) in there 300-seat Timms Theatre. Rehearsing in COVIDian times has been a creative challenge: nine actors, 115 props, 75 costumes. Consider: “the actors, all masked, two metres apart, no physical contact, entrances and exits” — in a show where a boy carries a dead body offstage, partners dance, and marriages are consummated with a kiss. “In some ways it’s been a blessing, not a curse,” says Hobbs of the restrictions. “We’ve had to devise creative solutions…. And it’s hyper-theatrical, nowhere near realism in the first place. So we’ve leaned into that.”

Meanwhile Hobbs has been in Calgary workshopping a new version of a play, Fish At The Bottom Of The Sea by Edmonton’s Nicole Schafenacker, that she first directed at the 2008 Nextfest. Slated to be part of Firefly Theatre’s circus arts festival in late June, it’s a one-person show (starring theatre/circus artist Leda Davies) with “a big aerial component, bungee loops…” It taps Hobbs’ own training (in Australia) as first a stilt walker and aerialist. “I’ve always  been inclined to the physical,” she says with a certain comical understatement.

“A celebration of the theatrical and the childish imagination,” The Secret in the Wings may be complicated but “ultimately the message is so simple,” says Hobbs. Simple, perhaps, but eerily à propos at our moment in history. “Ultimately, kindness and generosity will get us through this short time we have together on this earth.”

Not quite the full ‘happily ever after’, maybe, but a restorative nonetheless in an isolating year.

Tickets for the online production, streamed through Friday, are available at uastudio@ualberta.ca or 780-492-2495.

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Happy 4-5-7 Will! With news from the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Graphic supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

But soft! We bring you birthday news. The playwright-in-residence at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival celebrates his big 4-5-7 today with with alternate plans for a second pandemic summer. Where there’s a Will there’s a way.

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“So, from that spring whence comfort seem’d to come/ Discomfort swells,”as a sergeant tells the king in Act I scene i of Macbeth,  Alas, as COVID continues to ravage the land, Shakespeare’s much-tried resilience, which regularly shrugs off the wind and the rain (not to mention the gull and the mosquito, and every size and shape of director’s concept and budgetary fluctuation), is being tested again.

After the heartbreaking cancellation of the 31st annual Freewill Shakespeare Festival last year — just after artistic director Dave Horak landed the job — the 2021 edition of Edmonton’s much-loved outdoor summer festival will happen, yes. And with the same pair of plays. But we’ll be seeing Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing in a radically different way, in unexpected locales. The current and ever-changing landscape of COVID escalation, safety restrictions and protocols has seen to that.

Outdoors in parks near you in July and August, you’ll see runs of Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing: The Pandemic Variations — small-cast hour-long moveable versions of “the plays we’ve been planning for, and dreaming out forever!” as Horak puts it. “That’s the plan. I am determined to do live outdoor performances.” Small, fun, outdoors, that’s the mantra.

The alternating large-cast full-length productions of the tragedy and the comedy on the Heritage Amphitheatre stage in Hawrelak Park, a Freewill tradition slated to run this year from June 15 to July 11, won’t be possible. “We left the decision as long as we possibly could, trying to be hopeful, looking at alternatives,” says Horak, permitting himself a sigh. “My entire tenure has been as a pandemic artistic director.”

Dave Horak, the new artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival.

“But we’d be in the middle of building the set now, and rehearsals were due to start in the middle of May. And we just had to make the decision,” he says. “It was really hard, after the devastation of the year, and everyone out of work.”

Postponing the Hawrelak Park dates till mid-summer, if the pandemic was on the wane, wasn’t possible in the heavily booked city-owned venue, Horak points out. “We looked at other spaces, but that wasn’t financially feasible.” Keeping the audience reduced to 15 or 20 percent and safely distanced in the 1100-seat Heritage Amphitheatre might have been possible, theoretically, though financially precarious depending on the restrictions of the moment. “It’s big, it’s familiar, and it has fixed seats,” and there’s safety in that.

But rehearsing a cast of 15 or 16 actors, with a big design and production team? That would be risky beyond repair. The festival was born three decades ago in the determination of a bunch of theatre school friends to do summer Shakespeare. One of Edmonton theatre’s bona fide success stories, it has evolved into a venerable civic institution with a $650,000 budget; more than 40 people are involved in a Freewill production.

“We looked at reduced casts; we looked at bubbled casts,” says Horak, a veteran of small theatre where ingenuity and resourcefulness count big-time over budget. I kept thinking ‘I produce indie theatre; maybe I can do it with five people, and go to Value Village for the costumes’….”

“We couldn’t make it happen…. There were tears around the (Zoom) board room table.”

The hour-long Freewill Shakespeares will travel to different parks this summer with casts of four or five actors apiece, safely bubbled. “Costumes, props, a little set…. The great thing about Shakespeare is he’s so malleable,” says Horak, who has a four-actor rap version of The Comedy of Errors (The Bomb-Itty Of Errors) in his resumé.

Small-cast versions of the tragedies are easier to come by than the comedies, Horak has found. Is it because characters gradually get killed or die off in the tragedies, but gather in big harmonious groups in the comedies? “The tragedies tend to have a strong through-line following a few characters,” he thinks, pointing to the one-actor Hamlets that dot Fringe history. “Whereas the comedies have multiple strands, so it’s trickier….”

“I do think we can figure out a way to make this happen,” says Horak. By the end of July, fingers crossed and vaccinations on the upswing, there’s real hope small gatherings outdoors will be possible. “Maybe we can go back to passing the hat,” as happened in Freewill’s early days.

“These shows will be super-fun, family-friendly. accessible…. And who knows? We might even capture an audience that wouldn’t go to the park for a two-hour play.”

Stay tuned, at freewillshakespeare.com.

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Transformations: what would it take to change the world? Catalyst Theatre enlisted three artists to ask the question

Kristi Hansen, Are You Inspired?, Catalyst Theatre, The National Transformations Project. Photo by Amanda Gallant.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“When you sign ‘new’ it means ‘to grow’.” — Chris Dodd, The Transformers: Regrowth

Can something positive, something transforming emerge from a year of devastation? To imagine a better future for the world, who better to consult than its resourceful brigade of artists? Assessing, imagining, and re-imagining is what they do.

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Early last summer Toronto’s Volcano Theatre reached out to fellow live performance companies, large and small, across the country, with a big, provocative, open-ended question. “What would it take to transform our society for the betterment of all?”

The National Transformations Project was born in the thoughts, of more than 50 artists who created short videos from their own perspectives. Some are as low-tech as talks, some are cellphone walk-throughs, some are more elaborately filmed. The National Arts Centre gathered them up, and has hosted the results.    

“Everyone was feeling pretty grim,” as Catalyst Theatre artistic director Jonathan Christenson puts it. “Envisioning something better” was an invitation that had “a real grassroots momentum.” Catalyst signed on, and commissioned three Edmonton-based artists, who “brought their own ideas, and aesthetic…. I loved it; it was such a cool thing, it was Christmas, to see how different artists found their way into the question.”

The Catalyst trio, “The Transformers” as they called themselves, worked with one cinematographer Tamarra Lessard and lent a hand with each other’s very distinct and personal pieces.

Chris Dodd, Are You Inspired?, Catalyst Theatre, The National Transformations Project.

In her sardonic, edgy, highly theatrical Are You Inspired?, Kristi Hansen, a disabled artist, wonders about our clichéd, and limiting, “liberal” responses to disability onstage. We meet a character in a princess ballgown who straps on a prosthetic leg with a great dramatic flourish, in a burst of light to the sounds of applause. A grinning and silent vaudevillian sideman (Chris Dodd) annotates with a cane and sign language. Counterpointed behind the scenes of bright artifice are images of the artist hard at work.

“Inspiration porn,” says Hansen, a multi-faceted Edmonton theatre star (actor, dancer, playwright, producer, activist, out-going co-artistic director of Azimuth Theatre). “‘O! Look at you! You’re walking!’”

Is it the responsibility of disabled artists to be “inspiring” to the rest of us, instead of just living their lives? Hansen asks, citing the hashtag #NotYourInspiration. “Society creates inaccessibility. And it’s my right as a human to have access,” she says, of membership in life’s rich pageant — and, in particular, in the professional arts industry, where disabled people are rare.

“Representation matters,” Hansen says, noting the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra. “Stories do affect political governance…. What we do (about inclusivity) makes a difference; so many folks are under-represented.”

Hansen, an athlete as a kid with dreams of being a para-Olympian cross-country skier, had originally imagined herself in a medical career, an orthopaedic surgeon maybe. Theatre grabbed her at 13, and she arrived in Edmonton from Saskatchewan to go to MacEwan’s musical theatre program. “I loved dance as a kid; I’m not naturally talented in that (many here would beg to differ) but I worked at it.”

Edmonton audiences have seen her in everything from big Broadway musicals (On Your Toes, for one) to innovative musical-plays (Catalyst’s The Invisible), dramas, screwball comedies, physical adventure tales like Mieko Ouchi’s The Silver Arrow at the Citadel, in which Hansen as the Robin Hood protagonist flew by trapeze.

“To be a theatre artist, you need a big ol’ heart, and want to tell stories…. The hardest thing is just getting the part, convincing people I should be there,” Hansen says of an industry reality that, like society, “other-s” the disabled. “More disabled people in creative roles as writers and producers” would make a dramatic difference.

Breaking Baptist, the most mysterious of the Catalyst trio, explores religious ritual, rebirth, personal autonomy, in the quest to move forward. It’s the work of Métis actor/dancer/choreographer Rebecca Sadowski, the latest member of the Good Women Dance Collective and the curator of Nextfest’s dance program.  Edmonton audiences have seen her onstage with innovative indies like Punctuate! Theatre (Bears, Minosis Gathers Hope), Thou Art Here, Catch The Keys. Christenson had seen, and loved, her film The Sash Maker, a lyrical fusion of Métis and contemporary dance, Cree and English, commissioned by Toronto’s Native Earth Theatre and available on Mile Zero Dance Vimeo.

In an atmospheric semi-glow we meet Sadowski’s character immersed in a long copper bathtub of water, emerging over and over to light a candle that goes out and must be re-lit again and again. The burnt matches are visible in the water. “It took me quite a while to figure out what ‘transformation’ would mean,” she says.

She found her inspiration in “my own experience of baptism and religious ritual.” Somehow, it doesn’t take. “I’m left with doubts. I’m off the spiritual track,” she says of a Baptist upbringing. The film “reflects my own turmoil and spiritual unrest. There are still questions.”

At a crucial moment, “I put out the (candle flame) myself … to leave and find my own way,” says Sadowski, a fine arts grad of the Ryerson dance program.” The dance movement seems to reference emergence, the questing spirit, the struggle to break free and discover a self.

“The bridges between theatre and dance are getting smaller and smaller,” she thinks. Dance on film particularly interests her. “As theatre comes back, it’s another form we can collaborate with!”

Chris Dodd, Regrowth, The National Transformations Project. Photo by Amanda Gallant

In Regrowth, a lyrical performance poem in ASL (with subtitles), Dodd, a deaf playwright/ actor/ producer/ activist (and the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, the country’s only deaf theatre festival), muses on the idea of our moment in history, fire-bombed by loss as it is, and its limitless possibilities in renewal, rebirth. “For myself as an artist I see the shifts to digital as positive, having a greater connectivity with a broad spectrum of artists across Canada and internationally,” as the 2021 SOUND OFF lineup tangibly reflects.

“Becoming digital has forced us to address the limitations of being a live theatre company that only caters to a local audience,” says Dodd. For Regrowth, he was inspired for his prevailing metaphor by his memory of an artist likening COVID to “a raging fire consuming everything, our loves, hopes, plans, leaving only ashes in its wake. And from the ashes, something new was growing.”

Dodd used that idea “to explore what we have lost along the way and what we hope to gain.” Deaf artists, it hardly need be said, can only gain by a transforming spirit of inclusivity.

“Nothing new can exist without the destruction of the old,” Dodd the Transformer says in Regrowth. “We are ready for change. Ready for new stories…. But this time better.”

You can see Regrowth, Are You Inspired?, and Breaking Baptist via Catalyst Theatre or on the National Arts Centre website.   

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A relationship between the lines: Something Unspoken, streamed by Northern Light Theatre

Davina Stewart and Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s just that I feel that there’s something unspoken between us that ought to be spoken….” — Something Unspoken, Tennessee Williams        

The 1950s Tennessee Williams one-act play that opens online Friday — the delayed third production in Northern Light Theatre’s 45th anniversary season — is about that mysterious, closeted, silent “something.”

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Something Unspoken is the shorter, rarely produced (and earlier written) half of a Williams double-bill (Garden District), that includes Suddenly Last Summer. According to Donald Spoto’s Williams biography The Kindness of Strangers, the playwright grew more and more uneasy — “absolutely terrified” said his leading lady Anne Meacham — as rehearsals began for its premiere in an Off-Broadway theatre in 1958.

What was up? Cannibalism, violence, homosexual pursuit and seduction, enforced lobotomy: Suddenly Last Summer was, Williams suspected, a veritable checklist of trigger warnings in ‘50s American. Something Unspoken, though, has subtler currents; it’s a two-hander that lives in homoerotic subtext, repression, and ambiguity.

In the South of the ‘50s we meet wealthy spinster Cornelia (Davina Stewart) and Grace (Patricia Darbasie), her “secretary” of 15 years on a fraught day. Cornelia is fretfully awaiting the results of an election for the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, a bastion of antebellum nostalgia and privilege she feels entitled to head.

Cornelia and Grace’s relationship seems more complex, more uneasy and unresolved, than class hierarchy or the boss-employee dynamic alone can account for. As Schmidt himself has said in his director’s notes, a contemporary audience is instantly tuned to the homoerotic desire and tension between two women. “It feels so obvious now,” agrees Stewart. And since Grace is played by Darbasie, an actor of colour, the dynamic of race enters life in the subtext.

The complexities give Something Unspoken, picked by Schmidt 18 months ago for a season of productions devoted to women of a certain age, a prophetic spatial suitability for the pandemic restrictions of the moment.   

Davina Stewart in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

“Perfect for COVIDian times,” says Darbasie. “We rehearsed in person, six feet apart, masked most of the time … just another COVID rehearsal, you know!” she laughs. “We moved rehearsal to a bigger space downtown,” says her co-star Stewart. “Two characters who are ‘socially distanced’ in the play (itself), and trying to find ways to connect…. They get close and touch only once.” One scripted touch, as Darbasie says: “It’s not like we’re wrapped around each other. It’s all subtlety and subtext.”

Like The Look, its immediate predecessor in the NLT season, the production exists not as a movie but a filmed version of a play. “Yes, the world is the ‘50s, but it’s not frozen there,” says Stewart. “ Trevor didn’t want it to be a period piece, a museum piece. We’re not trying to re-create the ‘50s…. It happens very clearly on a stage, in a theatre.” That theatre is the Varscona, and the filming (by Ian Jackson) happened there when that was possible weeks ago.

As Darbasie describes Schmidt’s design, the characters are in a dining room, at a large (COVID-approved) table. And since Cornelia talks about her award-winning garden and Grace gets roses as an anniversary gift, flowers and gardens are part of the visuals. “Not a literal world, but the essence of the beauty, colour and joy that gardens bring,” says Stewart of the stylization that finds its natural home in the theatre, not the cinema.

Patricia Darbasie in Something Unspoken, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

Casting Stewart and Darbasie was Schmidt’s idea from the start. And having an actor of colour as Grace is a departure in the scanty production history of the play. “That was the experiment,” says Darbasie, a playwright and director herself. “Trevor asked me if I’d be interested in exploring that….” In the Williams oeuvre, where Black characters are decidedly rare, and peripheral if they appear at all, it ups the ante on the unspoken. “There have always been inter-racial relationships,” she says, noting Thomas Jefferson’s ‘family’ of Black slaves. “But they were underground, really till after the Civil Rights Movement.”

“You can’t help who you’re attracted to…. Cornelia is in a position of power; she gets to make her own rules. She has the ability to hire Grace, and she gets to define the relationship. And for Grace as a person of colour there are great advantages, a lifestyle (that includes) an access to money, music … things she couldn’t otherwise obtain. It’s a trade-off. And most relationships are.”

So many of Williams’ plays “start with a secret, something unspoken, something so big and so heavy it can’t be spoken about,” says Stewart. “Who knows about it? Who doesn’t?” says Darbasie.

The pair have an easy and genial rapport in Zoom conversation. Schmidt’s production is an onstage reunion for them: they were in theatre school at the U of A together in the ‘90s and have only been onstage together a couple of times since (most recently in Teatro La Quindicina’s 2018 The Finest of Strangers). “We were sisters in (Chekhov’s) The Three Sisters,” says Stewart, of a first-year university production. Sisterhood is natural: “We laugh at the same things.”

And Tennessee Williams figures in both their resumés. Darbasie was Eunice, the upstairs neighbour, in A Streetcar Named Desire in Regina. Stewart was in the 1997 Citadel production of Suddenly Last Summer, notorious in Edmonton theatre history for the bizarre choice to have the playwright watching the action from up in a tree. “I’ve always loved Tennessee Williams,” says Darbasie. “He was my audition piece for the BFA (program at the U of A):  Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When I started teaching I’ve often used Streetcar; it’s just so well-written.

Stewart echoes the thought. “The language is so juicy, so thrilling.” She laughs. “And those three syllable back-pocket words! Where have they been hiding all these years? How can I use them every day?” In Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, it’s ‘mendacity’, she says. For Something Unspoken, it’s ‘conciliatory’. “Both characters use it. And ‘mollified’, as in
“I have never been mollified by conciliatory replies,” as Cornelia says.

Darbasie laughs. “With a Southern accent you get more mileage in your mouth.”

Along with dramaturge Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki, the actors have been immersing themselves in research, about the colonial past of Dixie and the Confederacy, the significance of names. And as Stewart and Darbasie point out, you don’t exactly have to hunt for currency, in the open resurgence of white supremacy organizations, ideology and rhetoric. Try the news. “It’s a contemporary play with contemporary reactions,” as Stewart puts it.

And speaking as we are of the unspoken, “racism,” muses Darbasie, “is a world view. It’s systemic…. We’re all on a spectrum in terms of our awareness. Some of us are in Grade 6; some of us are in Grade 1. How do you help the person learn, that’s the challenge, about what privilege buys you… Mostly we just bash.”

PREVIEW

Something Unspoken

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Tennessee Williams

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart

Where: streamed on Vimeo, northernlighttheatre.com

Running: Friday through Sunday, and May 13 to 16

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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