A homecoming for playwright Trina Davies, at Concordia U, Walterdale and SkirtsAfire

Waxworks by Trina Davies, Concordia University of Edmonton. Photo by Tom Corcoran.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A couple of decades ago, an Edmonton kid found herself onstage, at a theatre festival where the plays were new, and specially designed for teen actors and their teen audiences.

It was at the Citadel Teen Fest, in plays written and directed by the pros — Conni Massing’s Terminus and Brad Fraser’s Prom Night of the Living Dead among them — that Trina Davies first heard the fateful question “so what are you writing?”

Davies remembers being bemused; after all, she didn’t consider herself “a writer.” She’d written poetry, and even gotten it published. But playwright? “In the ‘90s I didn’t feel I had something to write about,” laughs Davies. She remembers that it was director (then-Theatre Network artistic director) Ben Henderson, recently re-elected as an Edmonton city councillor, who pulled her into Nextfest as a director, dramaturg, and, yes, as a playwright.

Clearly they all sensed something about Davies, that she had yet to fully discover about herself. Her award-winning multi-media game play Multi-User Dungeon, which won the Alberta Playwrights Network’s “discovery” award” in 1998 should have been a tip-off.

Since that time, plays by Vancouver-based Davies have premiered across the country and gone international. And they’ve won major awards everywhere they’ve been, most recently both the National Uprising Award and the 2017 Woodward International Playwriting Award in the U.S. for The Bone Bridge

This weekend Davies is back in the city she considers “my theatrical home” for a production of a Davies play that is one of three opening on Edmonton stages this season.

Waxworks, opening Friday at Concordia University of Edmonton in an eight-actor  student workshop production directed by Glenda Stirling, explores the life and extraordinary career of an artist who started as a tabloid journalist and developed “the first worldwide brand in entertainment history,” as Davies says.

In the play, which won the Alberta Playwrights Network new play award in 2007 you’ll meet Madame Tussaud, the showbiz reinvention of Marie Grosholz), who, as Davies puts it, “learned how to tell her own story” in the course of creating wax figures on the eve of the French Revolution. It’s a moment in history when, as Davies puts it,  “the political dynamic shifted every day.” And the artist is under the gun to identify her subjects as “patriots” or “enemies,” a situation that resonates in a vivid way in the Now.

Waxworks, Concordia University of Edmonton. Photo by Tom Corcoran.

Waxworks, which  has had an earlier workshop production at Williams College, the prestigious Massachusetts liberal arts establishment. The Concordia University production, which reunites Davies with Stirling, a theatre colleague since their Nextfest days, will be much different, the playwright predicts. “That’s the magic of theatre…. It’s fantastic for young artists to work on new work. Edmonton has always been great for that!”

Edmonton theatre weaves its way through Davies’ busy itinerary this season. In December she’s back for Walterdale’s production of Shatter (directed by Josh Languedoc, Dec. 6 to 16). The play, which had a New York production in 2014 but hasn’t been seen here since The Maggie Tree’s 2011 production, probes the climate of fear and accusation unleashed by the catastrophic Halifax explosion of 1917. 

March 1 to 11, thanks to the SkirtsAfire Festival, it’s finally Edmonton’s turn to see Davies’ Governor General’s Award-nominated The Romeo Initiative, which premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects in 2011. “I still lived in Edmonton when I got the idea,” she says of a Cold War romantic comedy cum thriller cum drama inspired by “a spy week on the History Channel.”

Davies got her title from an real East German espionage program designed to exploit the romantic insecurities of underachieving women. 

“I research and read forever,” she says cheerfully of her playwright’s modus operandi. “Then I write the first draft in anywhere from 24 hours to seven days.” Shatter, for example, was born at ATP’s 24-hour playwriting competition.

In January Davies’ Silence, about the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, premieres at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. in a Peter Hinton production in which half the cast identified as hard of hearing or deaf. 

“I definitely feel my place in theatre is in the writing….” she says. “I get my charge from the collaborative nature of it; the dark part of the whole process is being by myself writing. The magic of it is seeing what happens in the rehearsal hall. I crave that!”



Theatre: Concordia University of EdmontonS

Written by: Trina Davies

Directed by: Glenda Stirling

Where: Al and Trish Huehn Theatre, 73 St. and 111 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday, and Nov. 10 through 12

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, or at the door). 


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Monday nite special: seductive looks, upward mobility in CAL-gry, as Die-Nasty soaps return

Jesse Gervais and Mark Meer, as estranged brothers bDax and Dr. Rex Rochefort in Die-Nasty, season #27. Photo by Janna Hove.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Welcome to the archive of lingering glances and lip-quivering gazes: troubled, dreamy, steamy, wistful, reflective, yearning, sultry, moody, sultry-moody crossover. Yes, the new season of Die-Nasty — “Die-Nasty does Dynasty,” makes Edmonton’s award-winning live improvised weekly soap opera a veritable adjective magnet.

Except, that is, when it comes time to say the word CAL-gry, a noun. And in season 27 of Die-Nasty it often comes time to say CAL-gry, the mythically alluring world-class city where oil byproducts rule, where beautiful people dream beautiful dreams, sleep with each other, slag Toronto, get rich, and stay that way. 

I caught episode #2 on Monday night. CAL-gry has just landed the Winter Olympics. Bold plans for a world-class hockey arena in the shape of a saddle, or maybe a cowboy boot, are getting argued about. Sulky Dax Rochefort (the very funny Jesse Gervais), the owner of the Calgary Flames, has deep pockets, shallow ideas, an an amusing glum assistant (Jason Hardwick).

Dax has enlisted top-drawer architect Jason Waterfalls (Matt Alden) , who comes loaded with a full lexicon of Frank Lloyd Wright aphorisms. In a moving scene, we see him so stressed by “creative differences” that he cries his moustache right off while watching Terms of Endearment. Naturally, this creates the right moment for an ‘80s number of eye-watering intensity. 

CAL-gry 1983: a perfectly sudsy place for a multi-talented improv crew like Die-Nasty’s that can flip into flashbacks, do musical production numbers, speak in poetry, have dance breaks, switch genres — as exhorted in excitable stage instructions provided by director Jeff Haslam in the inflammatory cadences of a sports announcer (it is CAL-gry, after all). It is perhaps no accident that the show finds itself on the Varscona stage on the starry and evocative set for Shadow Theatre’s Constellations, currently running every day other than Monday. CAL-gry, after all, is a cosmology of rocketing possibility and galactic self-reinvention.

In fact, Matilda Marble, a maid (Delia Barnett) employed by the Rocheforts, the richest family in CAL-gry, studies rocket science by correspondence. She stands dreamily on the balcony of the palatial Rochefort establishment, gazing at the sunset, and reflecting on her humble origins in Red Deer. Who would ever have thought…? she marvels, pondering the technicolour possibilities of a future in CAL-gry.

The Rocheforts — led by Tom Edward as a silver-topped Chaz and his glamorous (much younger) former EA  and now fiancée Jewell (Stephanie Wolfe) — have it all. The Camemberts, led by the embittered Beef (Peter Brown), his unravelling lush wife Gini (Sheri Somerville), and their disaffected but aspirational daughter Vermouth (Shannon Blanchet) — who has a complicated past, as we glimpse in flashback — want it all.

Die-Nasty has a nervous breakdown. Photo by Janna Hove.

The stakes are high. Desire, both illicit and licit, is starting to smoulder: was that a spark I saw between Dax Rochefort and his new young stepmother Jewell, as she tries on wedding dresses? 

Belinda Cornish and Stephanie Wolfe in Die-Nasty. Photo by Janna Hove.

Speaking of flames, embers, etc., they’re fanned by such seductive outsiders as Chester Gardner (Vincent Forcier), a perpetually shirtless gardener with bedroom eyes and, er, movement vocabulary to match.  Ah, yes, and high-contrast twin chauffeurs, Pony and Colt Maloney (Wayne Jones), the one prim and the other louche. 

It’s a promising context for a big-cast season of bosom-heaving, nouveau-riche class warfare, twinkly bits on the clothes, thrilling weeper music (Paul Morgan Donald), and ruthless ambition, as big as the hair. Go, indulge your guilty soapy side. Die-Nasty runs every Monday at the Varscona.   


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Another another side to the story: The Testament of Mary, a review

Holly Turner in The Testament of Mary, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the absorbing Northern Light Theatre season opener, a woman peers out at us warily through the twinkling strands of a light-up fence. We’re close enough for her to eyeball us; this is the tiny PCL Studio Theatre after all.

The barbed wire confinement of a history in the shadows? A star marquee? A prison masquerading as something else? In the course of The Testament of Mary, Colm Toíbín’s stage adaptation of his own provocative novella, we’ll be invited to wonder about all of the above. Mary does.

Trevor Schmidt’s cunning and beautiful set design for his production — with its looming, richly-hued panels and striking, meaningful lighting by Adam Tsuyoshi Turnbull — encloses a character from one of the world’s most influential stories. It’s one that’s given Mary a principle role she doesn’t want: mother of God. Mary’s a player all right, but she doesn’t want to play.

She’s a mother who has lost a son (she refuses to say his name). And filtering through endless grief, and the horror of his agonizing death by crucifixion, is a kind of simmering anger. Holly Turner’s multi-layered performance reveals all that, gradually — it doesn’t give up its secrets easily, without a struggle — in the course of this fascinating, and harrowing, extended monologue.

Holly Turner in The Testament of Mary, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Mary, as we meet her in Toíbín’s play is not the gentle beneficent  Piéta central to Catholic tradition, a departure which has certainly generated controversy amongst the faithful. Nor is Mary, as we meet her in Schmidt’s production, a natural firebrand radical. Turner has a quieter kind of intensity, acid-tinged around the edges of what seems to be natural reserve. She conjures a kind of human-scale resistance fighter, living with terrible memories. In a universal story of extraordinary, contagious belief Mary is a skeptic.

She regards the apostles who come to interview her — she’s a prize first-hand witness for the gospels they’re writing — as guards not guardians. They’re cultists, in her view; they’re creating stories, mythologies, a new religion, and they have an agenda. What they need from her is compliance.

She takes a dim view of the disciples. Her son has been co-opted, by “a group of misfits,” she says, men without fathers, the kind of men “who could not look a woman in the eye.” They “roam the countryside in search of want and affliction,” she says sardonically. And they’ve wrenched her shy, sweet-natured son from her and set him up for catastrophe — as a preacher, a messianic miracle-worker, the king of the Jews, and even the son of God. 

Mary is having none of it. “He could have done anything,” she says, tormented over the might-have-been. “He could even have been quiet.” The public voice she finds “all false … the tone all stilted.” 

Mary was there for the celebrated miracles, the wedding at Cana where water was transformed into wine, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And she regards these events warily. In the case of Lazarus, a friend of the family, though, there’s an undeniable tone of reluctant wonder in her account. It’s coloured with the lacerating knowledge that this disturbing power and fame comes with a fatal price tag in a world of power- and fame-seeking men.

Mary lives in her memory. The most terrible of all is the crucifixion. Turner’s performance gets quieter still, and gains dimensions as Mary revisits this “vast cruelty,” a drama played out on a deliberately public stage. From this memory, there is no escape; it’s Mary’s doom.

Turner roams the stage restlessly, in and out of shadows, like someone testing the perimeters of a very artful cage. And she replaces one shawl with another, a woman either trying out personas and rejecting them, or remaining in motion because she can’t bear to be still. 

 In the repertoire of “memory plays,” this one takes on a uniquely thorny (no pun intended) challenge. It stars a grief-stricken mother who’s been assigned a high profile, but silent, role in history, and doesn’t want it. She lives instead with anger and loss. 

In her watchful, quietly fierce performance Turner makes us see the human cost of great earth-changing events.


The Testament of Mary

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Colm Toíbín

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Holly Turner

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

Running: through Nov. 4



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The Boo! Revue: the new Varscona Theatre Ensemble says hello Sunday

The Boo! Revue, The Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Three of Edmonton’s most inventive little indie theatre companies are forming a trio — in a new umbrella ensemble that will produce a subscription season of shows at the Varscona Theatre.

Together, Plain Jane Theatre, Bright Young Things, and Atlas Theatre are the new Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Their artistic directors, Kate Ryan, Belinda Cornish, and Julien Arnold, along with producer Jeff Haslam, are long-time Teatro and Varscona faves and collaborators both on and behind the stage. They’re “a family of artists,” as Ryan puts it. “We know the theatre, and the audiences.”

Their connections are everywhere in the joint season they’ve planned. But first, they introduce the new Ensemble at The Boo! Revue, an original creation of the spooky persuasion Sunday night at the Varscona. Ryan and her Ensemble cohorts  have combed the repertoire for songs, scenes, and characters that speak to Halloween: witches, monsters, ghosts, villains of every stripe, miscellaneous creatures of the night, the neurotic, the misunderstood, the gleeful. 

Doubt not that you’ll be hearing that famous Phantom of the Opera arpeggio or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, my friends. The Great Pumpkin will not be absent. “Cats will be harmonizing and skeletons will be tapping,” Ryan promises.

The troubled witches of Wicked and Into The Woods will air their grievances. Naturally, there’s a big number from Sweeney Todd. More unexpected is an aria from the Benjamin Britten opera The Turn of the Screw, and Rossini’s Duetto Buffo Di Due Gatti (The Cats’ Duet), which consists entirely of the word “meow.” Louise Lambert sings Miss Hannigan’s snarly lament from Annie.  Singer-songwriter Andrea House is writing and performing a new song for the occasion.

Ryan has assembled a large cast of elite Edmonton musical theatre talents. And there are up-and-comers too: the cast of Victoria School’s upcoming production of Shrek the Musical.

There’s a silent auction with jewellery, entertainment tickets, and artwork by Jason Carter.

As for the Varscona Theatre Ensemble season ahead, it opens Nov. 23 through Dec. 2 with Bright Young Things’ production of Our Man In Havana, a stage adaptation of the zany Graham Greene spy thriller, set in ‘50s Havana, in which an English vacuum cleaner salesman pretends to be a spy as a money-raising venture. Kate Ryan of the Plain Janes directs the four-actor production starring Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, and Ian Leung.

The Plain Janes, who specialize in the neglected and/or undiscovered reaches of the musical theatre genre, were thwarted once before in their bid to mount Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. This time, it’s happening. Ryan directs the high-speed musical comedy by The Full Monty team of David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane musical comedy, spun from the Pedro Almodovar movie. Her production, starring Jocelyn Ahlf, Jason Hardwick and Madelaine Knight runs Feb. 15 to 24. Cornish will design the set.

Atlas Theatre revives Lee Blessing’s Going To St. Ives, in which a civilized encounter in an English country home escalates in surprising ways into an examination of global politics, moral responsibility, the legacy of colonialism. Arnold directs the production, running April 5 to 14, that stars Cornish and Patricia Darbasie.

The plays may be very different. But what the companies have in common is a theatrical sensibility, says Haslam, “the emphasis on the actor and the word…. They do plays where people actually talk (or sing) to each other!”

A series is “less ad hoc, easier to market and sell” than a single indie production, as Haslam says. And the new umbrella group will share resources. “It relieves the administrative burden of these artists, the blockade between them and their work.”

Tickets for The Boo! Revue: yeglive or at the door. $5 from each ticket goes to the Red Cross. 

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Higher physics into rom-com: a review of Constellations at Shadow Theatre

Mat Busby and Lianna Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You’ve had this feeling, I know you have. You instinctively review your life to date (and maybe throw in your future prospects). And, like the heat-seeker you are, you can’t help thinking of the moments it all could have been different.

Constellations, the intricate and simple two-hander by the brainy English playwright Nick Payne, is built on the sand of those tiny moments when a word, a tone of voice, an inflection on an ordinary word, a minute adjustment of body language, can change the course of human history — yours. Ditto a chance encounter or a casual impulse that didn’t even seem like a bona fide choice at the time.

There’s a rarified science for this, as you’ll discover in Shadow Theatre’s affecting but maddening season opener, directed by Amy DeFelice . But you don’t have to be able wrap your brain around quantum physics — luckily, in my case —  to get the sense of parallel universes in which the love story of Roland and Marianne persists, until they join.

The elegant design by Tessa Stamp is a kind of star chart for the universe, a black box inscribed with abstract parabolas and orbits — and human footsteps. And Chris Wynters’ original soundscape, a beauty, conjures cosmological dimensions, with a kind of human pulse and rhythm to it.

Marianne and Roland are an improbable couple, which speaks, I guess, to a multiverse of colliding particles where randomness becomes inevitability (you can see why I wasn’t a science major). In fact, this field of higher physics is Marianne’s specialty. At a barbecue, she doesn’t meet another physicist, she meets a beekeeper, Roland, who’s either married or not, or has a girlfriend, or an -ex. And they are attracted to each other. Or sort of. Or not.  And start something. Or not.

This romantic comedy starting point, amusingly, unspools differently in a speedy sequence of possible scenes that sometimes end abruptly — the lighting shifts, the music whirs to a standstill — and sometimes seem more open-ended. They have affairs and separate. Or not…. Or meet up later. Or not.

Mat Busby, Liana Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

The characters are a couple of contrasting nerds. Mat Busby’s Roland is an appealingly shy, slightly tentative, non-verbal type, with a built-in hunch, and an awkward hands-in-pockets stance. The physicist Marianne, played by Liana Shannon, is awkward, too, but in a louder, heartier way, with a lot of cheerful “fucks!” to show she’s not the ivory tower type. She seems to be a lecturer by habit; there’s a slightly studied quality to her delivery, both verbally and physically.

And while she explains to Roland that we’re “just particles … being knocked the fuck around all over the place,” she sometimes resists her own quantum physics theory.  “I have to have a choice,” she says later in Constellations, when choices are getting pretty meagre.

This is where, in a love story, physics has to cede to chemistry. And romantic chemistry isn’t the strong suit of this production in truth; it requires a certain leap of faith in the theoretical, as set forth here. 

The scenes that follow the entertaining volley of opening gambits — and there aren’t many scenes in this 75-minute play — are replayed over and over, with adjustments that start vivid and get smaller and disappear. It’s a sort of funnel effect as the infinite array of choices and possibilities becomes increasingly circumscribed in the face of a big hard inevitable life question/crisis which I must not reveal. And I found the repetitions got, well, repetitive and gradually indistinguishable in the course of the production. You have the impression that Constellations was designed to be, in its own way, hopeful; this production charts its own course into bleak.  

OK, but maybe that’s the human condition, I hear you argue. And you could be right. In any case, it’s an intriguing challenge for theatre, its actors and its audiences to grasp a sense of forward momentum that is founded on both free will and destiny. And there’s an odd elegance to a play, like this one, that launches itself into the cosmos to take that on. And that’s something to think about, even if the production isn’t quite nuanced enough, finally, to avoid the sense of petering out into rom-com sentiment and convention, played out again and again. In the end, chemistry trumps physics every time. 



Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Nick Payne

Directed by: Amy DeFelice

Starring: Mat Busby, Liana Shannon

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 12

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org 


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All for love: thoughts on Les Feluettes, Edmonton Opera’s season opener

Zachary Read, Jean-Michel Richer in Les Feluettes, Edmonton Opera. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Love and death, jealousy and revenge, crime and punishment, repression and liberation, visions of fiery hell and fantastical apparitions who float down into the New World from the Old … there is nothing tentative, nothing cautious or small about Les Feluettes.

It was maybe only a matter of time till Michel Marc Bouchard’s strange and wonderful 1987 play, Lilies in English, became an opera. After all, it’s invited the word “operatic” virtually since birth — for the extravagant hothouse poetry of Bouchard’s language, the grand passions of its gay characters, the florid tragedy of its Romeo and Romeo love story.

The only thing Les Feluettes was missing? Music. 

Well, as it happens….

No longer. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Bouchard’s play, which boldly presses its theatrical luck in every way, has been reborn as an opera. It’s more that in opera Les Feluettes has at last found a form big and crazy enough to contain it.

Years in the making, Les Feluettes premiered in a 2016 production shared by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria. And in this new Canadian opera, by Bouchard and the composer Kevin March, Edmonton Opera has stepped up and out of its usual comfort zone, and found a gutsy and compelling contemporary opener for its season. Really, you should try and catch its remaining performance Friday at the Jube. 

Kevin March’s lyrical, compulsively dramatic score, which samples styles from a variety of sources, wraps itself around and through the love story that explodes onstage. Singing not only doesn’t seem at all out of place in the world of Les Feluettes, it’s a natural outcome, judging by Serge Denancourt’s production (directed for this revival by Jacques Lemay). The orchestra, conducted by Guiseppe Pietraroia, is a fully committed partner.

The lethal confrontation between its doomed, but transcendent, gay lovers and an oppressive church authority is framed as a play within a play. In 1952 Quebec, prison inmates have ambushed a bishop who arrives to hear the last confession of an old classmate of his, who’s been a prisoner for 40 years. The outraged cleric is forced to watch the prisoners’ re-enactment of the events of 1912, in which he is the deeply complicit holder of a guilty secret. They’re set in motion at rehearsals for a church college production of Gabriel D’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. That saint, you may recall, was fatally pierced by arrows from his own archers, an erotically charged demise if ever there was one.  

Desire surges into a fateful kiss; art surges into life: Simon, who plays Sebastian, falls deeply in love with Vallier, who plays the chief archer. And this same-sex love fuels the  persecuting fury (and duplicity) of church and society.

Jean-Michel Richer, Zachary Read in Les Feluettes, Edmonton Opera. Photo by Nanc PriceAll

The chemistry between Zachary Read’s young Simon and Jean-Michel Richer as Count Vallier is ardent, deeply committed, beautiful to watch and bravely set forth onstage. Intimate nude scenes aren’t exactly common currency on opera stages. There have been “gay operas” before now, versions of Brokeback Mountain and Angels in America among them. But “gay opera” just seems a little reductive as a descriptive here: it’s a big, emotional up-against-it love story, and its characters have a terrible price to pay for love.

The prisoners, all male, take on every part, including the Parisienne (Daniel Cabena) who arrives by hot-air balloon in Roberval in 1912 — a woman for Simon to marry — and Villier’s aristocratic mama (Dominque Côté), dreaming of her absent husband and the restoration of the old order across the sea. Both singers deliver captivating performances in their double roles.

To me, the singing in some of the smaller parts seemed variable. And onlookers, like the captured bishop, weren’t always attentive in the acting. But what didn’t falter was the stagecraft, in which even the most intimate events have witnesses and voyeurs. It is dangerous to love under conditions of surveillance.

Guillaume Lord’s design is dominated by a prison grill that cages both the body and the spirit. Julie Basse’s lighting (derived from Martin Labrecque’s original design), with projections by Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, is eerie and dramatic. The effects orchestrated by these collaborators are effected by human agency, simple and striking: May I single out a violent, and tender, scene on a frozen Quebec lake? Ice turns to fire. There’s an elemental Canadian feel to the piece that grabs your heart. 

It’s a highly unusual piece for an opera company that has relied on more familiar terrain. It’s of the theatre, a good and accessible thing. And the music makes it expandable, able to fill the most outsized, heightened, melodramatic turns of Bouchard’s story. Don’t miss.

Les Feluettes runs Friday at the Jubilee Auditorium. Tickets: edmontonopera.com



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It’s Jesus’s mom’s turn to speak: The Testament of Mary at Northern Light Theatre

Holly Turner in The Testament of Mary, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, EPIC Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The star of the famous story gets top billing and a lot of press. And he always has, being the Son of God and starting a world-wide religion and all. But you don’t hear from his mom in any of the usual “impeccable sources.”   

Mary was there, after all, as her son Jesus acquired divinity, became The Son, and suffered an agonizing death. In the play opening  Northern Light Theatre’s 42nd season Friday — adapted for stage by the Irish author Colm Toíbín from his own Booker Prize-nominated novella — we’ll meet a mother with a point of view and a grievance. And we’ll hear Mary’s own spirited and highly skeptical version of the events that led to the crucifixion and the resurrection. 

“I’m attracted to it,” says Holly Turner, who stars in The Testament of Mary, “because of the idea that there is this story in the world that everybody accepts as true…. Here is another perspective!”

“And in this world of fake news …”  Turner pauses and smiles. “I don’t want to offend anyone,” she says, “but Mary is saying to the followers, ‘guys, you created this story!’”

It was Turner who approached Northern Light’s Trevor Schmidt with the idea of doing the play. After all, it was Schmidt who cast the thoughtful, quick-witted Turner in a play a decade ago, at the very moment she was retiring her career as a federal tax lawyer and returning to her original love, theatre.

In fact, Turner, now 70, appeared with him onstage in The Busy World Is Hushed, which explored religion, faith, suffering, and love, all subjects under the gun in The Testament of Mary, albeit in very different ways. Turner played a biblical scholar with a secret sorrow, who hired Schmidt’s character, a young man adrift, to ghost-write a book about a newly discovered gospel.

Turner, a Philadelphia native who grew up in Pittsburgh, had originally arrived here from New York in the late ‘60s — and by a route no one could reasonably have predicted.

As she explains, the summer she’d graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse she’d had “an amazing break.” She landed on Broadway as Henry Fonda’s daughter in “something eminently forgettable” called (she has to think for a moment) Generations. “A sitcom, maybe a little ahead of its time,” Turner grins. “The guy who played my husband wore beads….”

“Anyhow, the result was I got a good agent,” and landed a touring production of Barefoot in the Park that went to Buffalo, and caught the eye of the Citadel artistic director for the production of that Neil Simon comedy that opened the ’67-’68 season. “I came here because they offered me a small part in Hedda Gabler, too, and I didn’t have anything like that on my resumé,” says Turner, with a cheerful shrug. “Then I met my first husband and stayed in Edmonton.”

The Turner story is full of bold turns like that. “I worked in theatre, off and on for a while,” she says. By the mid-70s, she decided to go to law school (she has a master’s in tax law from the U of A). “I think maybe I wanted to something more predictable. … As it happens I think I got out of theatre just when it was really taking off here.”

“I kept thinking I’d get back to theatre, but I just didn’t have the time to do the auditions.”

It was just after she’d retired from federal justice department that Northern Light suddenly appeared on her resumé. After that she did a season with the Freewill Shakespeare Festival; she’s appeared at L’UniThéâtre, the Citadel, Wishbone. She’s done Fringe productions of Love Letters and The Year of Magical Thinking, a solo spun from Joan Didion’s memoir.  She’s written plays, too; The Accident was workshopped at SkirtsAfire in 2015.   

When Turner discovered Toíbín’s novella, and got fascinated, she tracked down his agent, and acquired two quite different versions of a script that had premiered in Dublin before it was remounted in London and then New York — a highly unusual production, incidentally, in which the Irish star Fiona Shaw appeared completely nude at the end, and shared the stage with a live vulture.

No birds are involved in the Northern Light production, Turner assures. But Schmidt’s set is “unusual,” she says mysteriously.

Holly Turner in The Testament of Mary, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, EPIC Photography

The Testament of Mary finds Mary post-crucifixion, being kept in a safe place under the pretext, as Turner puts it, that “they’re looking after her in her aging years.” But now there’s an orthodoxy to fortify. The apostles who visit and interview her for the gospels they plan to write “don’t want her going around telling people her version of events, speaking to “what I did and what I saw.” After all, her version of events has more to do with the earth than the divine. 

In the play “Mary knows she has an audience,” says Turner. “And there’s (both) a conspiracy aspect and a confessional aspect…. She has a need to confess to her own part in what transpired.”

As you might expect The Testament of Mary is a challenge to the Catholic tradition that  reserves a specially anointed place for Mary as the Mother Of God. “This is not the party line,” as Turner puts it. And the play has provoked protests in both London and New York.  Turner seems a little disappointed that a proposed protest here by a Catholic outfit, has been withdrawn.

But “this is not religious play,” she says. “It’s not religious in a passion-play kind of way. Or religious in a conventionally biblical sort of way either.”

Solo shows can make for lonely cast parties. Turner laughs. “In The Year of Magical Thinking, I sat in a chair for 80 minutes, and the play was circular…. Whereas this one is linear, it’s based on a famous story, there’s blocking (stage movement). And there’s some comfort in that.”

Besides, Turner finds Mary “a very appealing woman” to inhabit. “She’s smart, she’s a player. She’s forced to make some hard choices. I like her….”


The Testament of Mary

Theatre: Northern Light

Written by: Colm Toíbín

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Holly Turner

Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Friday through Nov. 4 

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Music, stories, cabaret, ‘infotainment’, opera, and plays: a weekend of trick and treat on Edmonton stages

Noah Walker, Khari Wendell McClelland, Tanika Charles in Freedom Singer, Project: Humanity. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s a musical journey that cuts to the soul of a turbulent history. In Freedom Singer, which arrives at the Citadel Club starting tonight as part of a cross-country tour, the Detroit-born Canadian musician Khari Wendell McClelland retraces, in music, a journey towards freedom.

The show, which he co-created with Project: Humanity’s Andrew Kushnir, charts the journey of his great-great-great grandmother Kizzy and her African-African contemporaries in the 1880s as they escaped slavery in America en route to freedom in Canada — on the Underground Railroad.

The production, which opened in Toronto last February, weds storytelling to music — music that reimagines the period in contemporary hip hop, rock, rock, and soul. McClelland, who commands a dizzying array of instruments himself, appears onstage with Toronto soul singer Tanika Charles and the Vancouver guitarist Noah Walker. The show runs Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

•At this time of ghostly mysteries and spooky interventions, Theatre Network hosts an alluring duo of seasonal shows this weekend. Friday night, it’s the Halloween edition of Hey Ladies! the unclassifiably sprightly work of Leona Brausen, Cathleen Rootsaert, and Davina Stewart. Entertainment advice, music (the acclaimed Ben Sures), booze (assorted thematic concoctions), games, interviews, prizes…. The Ladies use the word “infotainment” for this; hell, they own the word in this town.

Saturday night, the wonderful actor/singer Patricia Zentilli is back, with the next in her series of themed cabarets, PattyZee@TheRoxy.  For Face Your Fears, she’s enlisted the deluxe pianist/ musician/ arranger Don Horsburgh, a frequent collaborator — and songs from Jason Robert Brown, the reigning monarch of urban angst Stephen Sondheim, Ben Folds, and others. Her guests for this Fear edition are singer/ songwriter/ actor/ playwright Andrea House, and up-and-comer Jessica Andrews.

Curtain time for both shows is 8 p.m. at the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd). And tickets are available at 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca, and TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare). a 

•ALSO: Friday is your last chance to see the wonderfully operatic storytelling of Quebec star playwright Marc Michel Bouchard: Les Feluettes at Edmonton Opera. Friday is your first chance to see The Testament of Mary, Colm Toíbín’s provocative solo show about Jesus’s mom, opening the Northern Light season. And Thursday, launching the Shadow Theatre season, is a love story of rarified structure it borrows from quantum physics: Constellations. Meet the stars, in preview, at 12thnight.ca. And, spookiest of all, Catch The Keys’ 10th annual edition of Dead Centre of Town, an exhuming of our long-buried past in a ghostly midway at Fort Edmonton.

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Quantum physics and the infinite possibilities of love: Constellations opens the Shadow Theatre season

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By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.

— Marianne in Constellations

Mat Busby, Liana Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

In the mind-bending love story that launches the Shadow Theatre season Thursday, a quantum cosmologist and a beekeeper meet by chance at a barbecue. And in the course of Constellations, the same scenes of their relationship play themselves out again and again in parallel universes — with a word or two changed, or an an inflection, or a tiny fragment of information withheld or revealed. Endless possibilities, very different arcs.

You know that feeling that there must have been a moment when everything could have turned out very different? In the great multiverse of “could-have-been” alternatives  (including the one where I didn’t pre-emptively drop out of high school physics to avoid flunkage) here’s one I didn’t see coming.

An actor sees a show in London that she “absolutely loves.” She returns to Canada, has coffee with a favourite director, and says “I saw this great play!” Whereupon the director says, unprompted, “Is it Constellations?” Which brings us — through either a demonstration of ‘ quantum entanglement’  or a cluster of odds-against possibilities — to the Shadow production of the 2011 two-hander by the young English playwright Nick Payne. The play, which has attracted admiration on both sides of the Atlantic, is directed by Amy DeFelice; it stars Liana Shannon, the actor who’d gone to London (and chosen to see Constellations instead of any number of other shows), and Mat Busby, the actor who didn’t.

And now, weeks into rehearsal, there’s this: I’m in the Varscona Theatre in the morning (improbable enough, in truth) with two actors. And Shannon and Busby are talking about quantum physics and free will vs. destiny (more improbable still) instead of, you know, motivation and sight lines.  And, as it turns out, the smart, genial stage manager Chris Nelson happens to be a physics buff, with things to say about the intersection of higher physics and the arc of the love story.

Enter the set and lighting designer, Tessa Stamp, in her painting duds. She says, cheerfully, “I was going to be a physicist before I found theatre…. I carried around Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (I looked it up: a seminal volume by a star English mathematical physicist) in my backpack all the time. I thought about string theory, algorithms, cosmology….”

She’s happy to shed light on the exotic idea of ‘quantum entanglement’ (and how it might be joined to romantic entanglement in a play). “It’s the science behind teleportation,” Stamp she explains, quoting Heisenberg, of the “uncertainty principle” fame. “It sort of feels like the physics of the soul…. By the time you finish trying to prove the soul doesn’t exist, the quantum mechanics of it will prove that it does….”

“That’s romantic,” says Shannon, appreciatively. I’m wishing I’d had a science teacher like Stamp in school. Things might have turned out very differently.

She, Busby, and Stamp talk about the way relativity and quantum mechanics are “opposite answers” to the big questions. They muse on the conflicting behaviour of matter and particles vis-a-vis principles like gravity. “We experience time sequentially,” says Busby. “But at a molecular level…. well, all our decisions we will make and never make happen at the same time; that’s what the play says.” He grins. “That’s one of the great things about acting; you learn about so many things.”

Mat Busby and Lianna Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

As you will glean, it’s an unusual conjunction of talents — free will? fate? — at work on Constellations, itself an unusual conjunction of quantum physics and love story. “At heart it’s a fairly straightforward love story,” says Busby. “The trajectory of the relationship in different universes depend on what (the two people) are bringing at a certain point in time. One’s in a relationship, one’s single. Or the other one’s single. Or both are single. Or both aren’t…. Sometimes the changes are very small. A conversation ends; do Marianne or Roland have the bravery to take the extra step?”

“Very human,” says Shannon. “So much depends on timing, and the timing changes in each universe. What if I’d taken this road instead of that? We’ve all thought about it. In this play we see it played out. Sequentially.”

In a parallel universe Busby and his actor wife Jenna Dykes-Busby, for example, might not have an adorable 16-month-old baby named Violet who’s busy acquiring molars. They might never have met. And Busby might not have spent the summer working at the Varscona (he’s an artistic associate at Teatro La Quindicina), appearing in Andrea House’s Chasing Willie Nelson at the Fringe, and getting virtually no sleep.

The idea of infinite possibilities played out makes Constellations a rather daunting script to read, as Busby agrees. When you do one scene over and over again, with minute changes, a word can make a big difference. “The big fear,” he laughs, “is that we leap ahead and the play ends way too soon. Or we’re stuck in the same loop, and we’re all here for a year.”

“I was daunted by how precise it is,” says Shannon, who appears frequently with DeFelice’s Trunk Theatre. When she teaches adult theatre and film classes at the Citadel school, she often uses the analogy of jazz and improv. “But this is really more like classical music…. And it’s beautiful.”

Roland and Marianne may separate or not, their romance may sputter or not, but the connection mysteriously seems to remain, says the actors of the love story. “It’s a human tendency to ask ‘why?’ questions,” grins Shannon. “I’m a free will person. But there are those destiny moments….”

Busby laughs. You like to think to think it doesn’t really matter if you order a cappuccino or a latte, but maybe…. Anyhow, it reminds you to be attentive, mindful.”



Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Nick Payne

Directed by: Amy DeFelice

Starring: Liana Shannon, Mat Busby

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 12

Tickets: shadowtheatre.org, 780-434-5564

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Oil money, glamour, seduction, betrayal … the new season of Die-Nasty starts Monday

Davina Stewart, Vincent Forcier, Stephanie Wolfe in Die-Nasty, the live improvised soap opera, season 27. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s 1983. And world-class cities don’t come any world-classier than the one down the road.

Yes, it’s in the gleaming cloud-capp’d towers of Calgary, that fabled Shangri-La of wealth and power and world classiness, oiled by, er, oil, that Die-Nasty finds the setting for its 27th annual season of weekly improvised soap opera.

Die-Nasty meets Dynasty,” as billed, in this homage by  Edmonton’s Canadian Comedy Award-winning improv company to the steamy suds of prime-time TV soaps. As you read this, a new re-boot of Dynasty, the iconic ‘80s series set amongst the oil aristocracy of Denver, has started to air. And the ensemble of deluxe improvisers has taken note, says Die-Nasty’s Jeff Haslam, who directs Monday’s season launch at the Varscona.

Which brings us to the pneumatic attractions of ‘80s Calgary (say it breathless and awestruck, CALgary!, the way Haslam does). With its delusions of grandeur — ladies and gentlemen, I give you such Calgary ‘hoods as The East Village and Tuscany — it’s prime for “funny acting,” laughs Calgary-born Haslam, who remembers taking the bus downtown as a kid just so he could ride the skyscraper elevators up and down. 

“What struck me was that in a lot of TV series, the average length of a scene is three minutes; with Die-Nasty, Falconcrest,The Colbys, Dallas, Knot’s Landing and the rest, the average length is six minutes! And that’s a lot more dialogue! A lot more slow burns, close-ups, smouldering glances, threatening looks, fights….”

Die-Nasty has parodied TV soap opera before now, but of the daytime variety. The stakes are bigger at night, Haslam points out. And their casts are peppered with already movie stars just a bit past their best-before date, like John Forsythe, Jane Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck. “And they bring a sort of grandeur to the acting that\e made their shows hits….”

After all, “big ‘40s-style movie acting on a small screen looks even bigger,” he says happily of a style as large as the shoulder pads. “We all remember the women more than the men…. There’s a certain pluminess of the vowels. It’s just not naturalistic acting by any stretch…. These are people who have been in Wuthering Heights. Now they bring the same kind of intensity to ‘meet me for a glass of white wine, in (breathless pause) Kensington, across the bridge (breathless pause) from Memorial Drive’.

For their epic struggles of bedroom and boardroom, there’s a wealth of ‘80s reference points at the disposal of the Die-Nasty crew: “‘clubs with names like Scandals, the Husky Tower, the awarding of the Winter Olympics to Calgary, the Saddledome….” In fact, as of last Monday’s brainstorming meeting, Matt Alden has thoughts of playing an architect, the one who designed that iconic Calgary hockey palace.  

The basic infrastructure on which the company will hang Monday night episodes through May 28 is two families in lethal competition, in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the glorious oil-rich city. Meet Calgary’s richest family the Rocheforts, with their fortune in oil by productions, and their deadly rival clan the Camemberts, money and influence grubbers scrambling for a foot up.

Plans so far include Tom Edwards as Rochefort grand fromage Chaz, who has certain unmistakeable John Forsythe vibe, with Stephanie Wolfe as his former secretary (and new wife) Jewel, and Belinda Cornish as his new secretary Amber Stilton. Let images of Linda Evans waft over your memory. Davina Stewart is thinking of playing Chaz’s ex-wife Alexis Rochefort-Velveeta, à la Joan Collins. 

One Rochefort son, Dax (Jesse Gervais) runs the entire Rochefort operation, and also owns the Calgary Flames — with personal assistant Clay Manchego (Jason Hardwick). The other son, estranged from his dad, is Dr Rex Rochefort (Mark Meer), who runs a charity offering plastic surgery to the homeless.

Everything could change in the playing, of course. But the Camemberts include Sheri Somerville and Peter Brown.  Wayne Jones plays twins, chauffeurs to both families.  

Nobody knows how the cheese will melt. It’s all improvised, after all. It’s all improvised. But as the series suds up, expect to see ruthless treachery, intrigue, mullets, wheeling and dealing, seductions, betrayals, viral greed. All good unwholesome fun!


Die-Nasty, the live improvised soap opera

Director: Jeff Haslam and members of the company

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Monday Oct. 23 through May 28, except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1

Tickets: at the door


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