Women in their 50s get sitcom Botox: The Roommate opens the Shadow season. A review.

Coralie Cairns, Nadien Chu in The Roommate, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s impossible to know anything about the season-opening two-hander comedy at Shadow Theatre — including its title — without thinking of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (female version).

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The Roommate, by the young (and multi-award-winning) American playwright Jen Silverman, brings together two mismatched characters sharing a house in Iowa. The only thing this high-contrast pair have in common is that they’re both women and both in their ‘50s.

Sharon (Coralie Cairns) is the local, a recent divorcée in a place that is, as she says earnestly, “known for corn. And space.” She’s advertised for a roommate, and gets Robyn (Nadien Chu), an urbanite direct from the Bronx — ex-potter, ex-slam poet, ex- (and possibly not so ex-) a lot of edgier activities.

“What do you do?” Robyn asks in response to a persistent questioning from Sharon. “I’m retired,” says Sharon. “From what?” “My marriage.” Now, there’s a Simon-esque sitcom line if there ever was one. And The Roommate is peppered liberally with others.

So why is a gay vegan pot-smoking New Yorker in the Iowa boondocks anyhow? “I thought I’d raise bees,” Robyn says, citing the salutary benefits of “restorative manual labour.”

Sharon’s main activity is phoning her unresponsive son in New York. He’s a fashion designer, and according to Sharon, certainly not gay. Absolutely not; he has a girlfriend. Who happens to be a lesbian. Iowa must be the land where time has stopped, and everyone pronounces homosexual with all its syllables intact and equally weighted. Robyn’s main activity is evading questions, and smoking, cigs and also pot. 

Nadien Chu, Coralie Cairns in The Roommate. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

The real curiosity of The Roommate is that, although it’s of recent vintage and by a young playwright whose archive seems full of sassy titles (Collective Rage: A Play In Five Betties), it feels somehow dated. New Yorker shocked that Iowans don’t lock their doors: it doesn’t feel very fresh as comic material. What? They make milk out of almonds? There’s something they don’t sell at the gas station. Similarly a scene where someone prim smokes dope and gets high was past its best-before date some time ago (I’m sure there’s one in Shakespeare somewhere). It takes a certain fortitude to commit to a contemporary scene where one character says “drugs” and the other counters “medicinal herbs.” Bravo Cairns and Chu; they step up, in exemplary fashion.

The idea that it’s never too late to get a sense of adventure and make radical changes in your life is, however, evergreen in theatre: the leaves never fall off. This development, with its whiffs of Thelma and Louise and (as billed) Breaking Bad, happens in a way that’s so surprising it actually feels unbelievable here. I sure didn’t see it coming.

Anyhow, in short the stars of Nancy McAlear’s lively and handsome production are up against some pretty well-trod theatrical inspirations. And they devote themselves in a selfless way to making a thinnish play generate some heart from the age and gender of the characters. 

As the voluble Sharon, Cairns has a kind of tentative, daffy cordiality to her. Sharon is eager to please, forever trying to conceal that she’s shocked by what she’s managed to pry out from her new roommate. Her amusingly earnest way of processing new information in an effort to be non-judgmental will make you smile. So will her outfit (designer: Trevor Schmidt), in neutral colours and buttoned assiduously to the neck. 

As the worldly New Yorker with a secret-crammed past, Chu’s performance, never over-played, shows striking restraint and smart comic timing. Her answer to Sharon’s question “what do you write about?” is a look so nuanced — tinged with a grimace, superiority and a soupçon of amusement — that seasoned slam poets everywhere will feel the sympathetic vibe in their molars.    

McAlear’s production moves this pair expertly around an impressively bright, airy, antiseptically clean two-storey set designed by Daniel vanHeyst. The semi-lit choreographed scene changes are fun. And the music composed and assembled by Leif Ingebrigtsen is tied to character in witty ways.

There’s fun to be had, watching what the Shadow forces make of the play. It’s the play itself that makes you wonder.

REVIEW

The Roommate

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Jen Silverman

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Coralie Cairns, Nadien Chu

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 10

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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Writing for women of a certain age: meet Jen Silverman, the author of The Roommate

Coralie Cairns (front) and Nadien Chu in The Roommate, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

playwright Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman is the New York-based playwright/ screenwriter/ novelist who wrote the comedy The Roommate. Last produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2018, it’s the season-opener at Shadow Theatre. She made time in her schedule for some questions.

You write, have always written, in a startling variety of forms. Could you riff, as a multi-lingual world traveller, on your initial attraction to theatre? And your entry point into writing for the stage? 

I didn’t grow up going to the theatre – I stumbled into it by accident my freshman year of university and was absolutely electrified. I thought I’d discovered something secret and magical that was just for me. I thought that nobody else had ever felt the way I was feeling. When I’m making a play now, I think about plays as gifts or invitations to the audience. And that’s the feeling I try to write from: Let me tell you something that’s just for you.

Whom do you consider mentors in playwriting? I’ve read that Paula Vogel was an inspiration for you. 

I had an amazing first teacher, Emily O’Dell, who gave me an introduction to theatre that was full of powerhouse female playwrights: she introduced me to plays by Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Naomi Iizuka and Paula Vogel (who was Emily’s teacher, and later briefly mine). Other mentors of mine along the way included David Adjmi and Naomi Wallace, who I studied with in grad school. And I saw plays by playwrights such as Marcus Gardley, Young Jean Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Basil Kreimendahl, that really shaped my idea of what theatre could be.

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Could you take us back to the seed that germinated as The Roommate? 

It’s rare for us to see exciting, provocative, complicated, morally ambiguous portraits of older women onstage or on screen. There’s something so sanitized about the images we receive of women who are, say, over thirty-five – and that image doesn’t actually mesh with the 50 and 60 year old women I know, who are hilarious and complex and fascinating. I wanted to write a play that gave two female characters the same due that older male characters receive much more often.

The origin point of the play is that my partner’s mother was, briefly, living with a roommate her age. Hearing her stories, I was fascinated by what it means for two adult women to navigate living together, and my imagination took off from there.  (My mother-in-law is not running any kind of criminal endeavour, for the record.)

Many of your plays seem to feature women characters pushing for change in their lives, or chafing at the lack of it. Could you expand a little on that? 

I think we all reach moments in our lives where we feel trapped by the accumulated decisions we’ve made, by the things we’ve become accustomed to. We may not even be aware that we’re unhappy – we’re just mired in the status quo. Sharon’s status quo is her loneliness and her feeling of being invisible; similarly, Robyn has been moving through the world as a lone wolf of sorts, although in much different circumstances. The two of them create a combustible energy together – they can imagine themselves differently, because they create a new space of imagining together. Once you can see a new life for yourself, the natural next step is to reach for it.

A lot of my plays are about people seeking or finding transformation – people who are either succeeding or failing at pursuing a different vision of themselves or their lives. In this way The Roommate is in direct conversation with plays that are stylistically very different, like the absurdist comedy Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth, MCC), or the gothic-absurdist The Moors (Yale Rep, Playwrights Realm).

Do politics, and the current “populist” regressive craziness of the world, impinge with any directness, on your work?  

As a queer woman raised in a number of different countries, I bring a specific lens to my work. I am fascinated by power dynamics, and the many kinds of power and disempowerment that can exist simultaneously within a relationship – or a culture. When it comes to theatre, I’m interested in a political vocabulary that is complex, contradictory, and built on questions instead of answers. That said, to ask burning questions — especially now — is inherently political.

The Roommate by Jen Silverman, currently onstage at the Varscona Theatre, runs through Nov. 10. Nancy McAlear’s production stars Coralie Cairns and Nadien Chu. Tickets: 780-434-5564,  shadowtheatre.org  

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Do shebangs come in partials? Simone et le whole shebang opens the L’UniThéâtre season

Nicole St. Martin and Crystal Plamondon in Simone et le whole shebang. Photo by db photographics.

Gaetan Benoit and André Roy in Simone et le whole shebang. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a certain heat-seeking rom-com engine driving Simone et le whole shebang, the raucous, tart-tongued season-opener at L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre. At the centre is an unexpected encounter between two hostile, elderly characters, who are up against the ravages of time and place.

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Jessy is an old New Brunswick Acadian, a singer/songwriter who’s spent 35 body-breaking years working the Alberta oil patch, and paid the price in mobility. Simone is a Montreal actor whose star has faded, dimmed by the encroachments of  Alzheimer’s. And they’re battling on foreign soil, so to speak — in Fort McMurray, in a care facility. 

The play, by Quebec’s Eugénie Beaudry, isn’t kidding about “le whole shebang.” The mind-body duality is just the start of it, in a play that embraces dreams, aging, memory, choice vs. compromise, east vs. west, free will, assisted death, jobs and the economic downturn, the generation gap.… It’s possible that a partial shebang might be more workable and feel less scrambly, in truth; Simone et le whole shebang spreads itself widely (and thin). 

It relies on vivid performances for impact, and it gets them in Vincent Forcier’s entertaining production, which fluidly moves through the intricacies — and Brianna Kolybaba’s atmospherically rustic design, lit by Larissa Pohoreski — in a strikingly artful way. In many ways, the play is about the opening and shutting of doors. And the design and Forcier’s stagecraft are as punctuated by that as any door-slamming farce.   

Jessy (André Roy) is haunted by his party-hearty younger self (Gaetan Benoit), a singing cowboy who delivers a melancholy song about aging, poverty, and underachievement at the top of the show. He’s come to the West, age 35, to make some quick money. And “quick” turns out to be measured in decades. He surveys the wreckage of his older self with a mixture of pity and exasperation, and annotates accordingly.

Simone (Crystal Plamondon) is haunted too — by past glories and the actor’s nightmare of not remembering her lines. Her memory works in fits and starts, a process of fleeting confusion captured beautifully in this smart performance. Which is why her daughter (Nicole St. Martin), a brisk transplanted Montrealer working in Fort McMurray and struggling with a failing marriage, has re-located her mother to the wild west.

The daughter is haunted by her neglectful husband, a presence via his voice on the phone, and the absence of children in their marriage. And the play drifts towards her resolution, gathering steam and invective.   

Simone et le whole shebang is playful about stereotypes, and deals in them. And the performances in Forcier’s production flesh them out in 3-D. As Jessy the elder — prickly, raspy-voiced and vigorously foul-mouthed in a ripe conglomeration of both of our official languages — Roy is a charismatic presence. “That’s how I roll, bitch,” he says to Simone, bragging about his prodigious archive of lovers. “Chicks are like jobs; I’ve done them all.” 

The latter, whose grip on reality is variable (ditto her feelings about the facility), is remarkably unassailed by the assault of Jessy’s cockiness and language. “Eat shit,” she says with surprising calmness. “I’m not lost; I’m jet-lagged.” Plamondon’s comic timing is impeccable; it invariably includes a thoughtful pause before she volleys back.

Gradually, the two old characters come to appreciate each other — for their waywardness, for their losses, for their morbid humour. “You’re a flower growing in a field of shit,” Jessy says to Simone. Surprising developments, and laughter, ensue, to be deliberately vague. And the actors commit to a variety of comical moments.

In young Jessy, Benoit creates a character fuelled by sardonic humour and disappointment. St. Martin is forceful as the daughter, harried by her mother’s resistance, by anxiety turning into panic, by the knowledge that her domestic future is gradually eluding her grasp.

The invasion of French by English phrases, in a land where francophones are the minority, has a bright startling colour palette. “Ils sont gone,” says the young Simone later in the play. “Un monumental fuck you.” There’s something irresistibly western Canadian about that. And this is the week to appreciate L’UniThéâtre’s bold, gutsy, cross-country choice.

REVIEW

Simone et le whole shebang

Theatre: L’UniThéâtre

Written by: Eugénie Beaudry

Directed by: Vincent Forcier

Starring: André Roy, Crystal Plamondon, Gaetan Benoit, Nicole St. Martin

Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 Street

Running: through Oct. 26. In French, most performances with English subtitles

Tickets: lunitheatre.ca

 

    

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Type A fabulous: Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs at Northern Light. A review.

Kristin Johnston, Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The chandeliers give off a lurid red glow. The bandstand will make you smile; a sparkly set of outsized teeth with pointy incisors, the inspiration of director/ set and costume designer Trevor Schmidt. The stage accoutrements? One accordion, one intravenous pole with cheery red hanging blood bags.

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“Velcome to ze Addiction Room!,” cries the exotic cabaret artist who appears between the upper and lower choppers in a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder (lighting by Elise Jason, soundscape by Darrin Hagen). Some people just have a knack for making an entrance.

Kristin Johnston, the star, and sole occupant, of Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs by the Australian songwriter/playwright Joanna Weinberg, is a vision of old-school sultry. Which is to say red-lipsticked, born to wear sequins, statuesque in her sexy form-fitting black and silver gown. Her hair is a platinum sculpture, film noir in the front, mid-period Mozart in the back.

The fabulous Baroness has got killer charisma, and she knows it, in Johnston’s cordial, funny, delish performance, with its winking air of ‘I know what you’re thinking’ about it. She’s here to tell her story, “for the wery first time.” It’s a confessional with musical theatre songs and a predilection for rhyme, starting with the catchy opening number “Everybody has got a leetle addiction.” It’s an extended list (spanking, banking, planking…) that ends with a crucial question. “How far will you go … until you’re caught and conwicted?.”

Kristin Johnston in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The blueblood Baroness is addicted to red blood. She’s addicted to the look of it, the feel of it, the heady metallic bouquet of a nice A (or B, or AB, or, as she says, her favourite A Rhesus Negative). She wouldn’t kick an O out of bed, though it’s pretty common (her own type, with clotting factor 3.5), the mere merlot of blood types. She sniffs the audience like the connoisseur she is, and susses out possibilities at each table. 

“Blood excites me ewer since I vuss leetle girl,” she tells us, recounting her tale of escalating immersion from childhood (she was “blood sisters with whole neighbourhood”) to the thrill of menstruation — and a career choice that was a natural. Nursing.

Guess what’s in the Baroness’s fridge? After a stressful day on the job, nothing beats a relaxing bloodbath. As addictions go, blood (unlike smoking or pork rinds or meth) connects you arterially with the “source of life itself.” A brief period of Biblical research confirms it, with all that inspirational talk of being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”

I’ll leave the Baroness to tell you the tale and the backstory. As she learns, the family genealogy is revealing. You’ve heard perhaps of Elisabeth Bathóry, a Hungarian aristocrat and serial killer, with a prodigious resumé in the slaughter of children for cosmetic reasons.   

Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“Blood madness” can get you in a lot of trouble, and is greedy with the blood supply. And self-help has its limits for curing addictions, our star finds. Showbiz confession is helpful. And so, here we are, together in the Addiction Room, contemplating the season’s only rhyming (so far) of “illusion” and “transfusion.”

Weinberg’s songs, eight originals and two on loan from Tom Lehrer and Queen, are variable in quality, in truth (unlike Hagen’s musical arrangements, which are invariably high-quality). But when Weinberg nails it, in jaunty patter songs or plaintive ballads with a twist, the results have a comical breeziness or oddball wistfulness.

Johnston throws herself with zest into the fun of this stylish little show. Sometimes the Baroness accompanies herself with a tambourine, Gypsy-style. Sometimes she straps on the accordion — Johnston was tutored, from scratch, by musical director Hagen, a mean hand at the instrument himself. His arrangements include judicious applications of sepulchral chimes, a nice Transylvanian touch.

Never has Lehrer’s The Masochism Tango had more literal relevance. When the Baroness tells us she has blood on her hands, she’s not kidding. Our inspirational quadruple threat — singing, dancing, acting, bloodletting — may be starring in an allegory, but she’s not dancing in metaphors. 

So grab yourself a Bloody Mary at the bar, find yourself a table at the cabaret, old chum, and feel the life force coursing through your veins.

REVIEW

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Joanna Weinberg

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kristin Johnston

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

Running: Friday through Nov. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

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A rare backstage pass: E Day takes you behind the scenes of an election. A review of Jason Chinn’s new political comedy

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo by Dave DeGagné

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Welcome! Thanks for volunteering your time,” says a bright young woman with a smile and a clipboard as you enter the theatre.

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You’ve wandered into a cluttered makeshift office (designer: Beyala Hackborn, lighting by Scott Peters), the kind of temporary operation thats rent space in anonymous strip malls: cheap-o coffee maker and supplies (with sign that says MAKE SURE COFFEE POT IS TURNED OFF AT THE END OF THE DAY), jars of pencils, laptops, water dispenser, fold-up tables, a notice board with clippings, maps, calendars with tear-off pages: “E minus 24.” You feel you might have to answer one of the phones; they’re within reach and everyone else is busy.

Suddenly, you’ve arrived in 2015 — at a political pop-up. And you have a backstage pass to grassroots democracy at work.

Despite the fluorescent tube lighting (the unforgivingly prosaic kind that makes everyone look just a bit pale green), there’s an eerie, almost mythic, glow coming off E Day, an absorbing new political comedy by Jason Chinn premiering in Theatre Network’s Performance Series.

Chinn’s play goes behind the scenes at an event of historical reverb in the history of Alberta: the election that, against all odds (and media prophecies), swept the NDP into office in a landslide. As the brisk office manager Amena (the amusing Amena Shehab) puts it, in a rare moment of wistfulness , “just once I would like to feel what it’s like to win.” 

And what is behind the scenes in politics, anyhow? Dave Horak’s captivating Serial Collective production — with its configuration in the round and its unusually ample acting ensemble of 12 — immerses you, in detail, in a perpetual motion machine. Welcome to an NDP constituency office in north Edmonton, on the countdown to the big day.

“Immerse” is the right word, both for the play and the production. We surround the action, up close. And, like the new volunteers we are, we meet many people we don’t know, all at once. The characters, whose names are the actor’s names, are in the middle of something and they never stop moving — busy on the office phone, ending cellphone calls from the private lives they’ve put on hold, writing things down on little bits of paper they give to someone else to write on bigger bits of paper, re-organizing assignments on the fly, making coffee, drinking coffee, picking up snacks, arguing about snacks, bickering about the staff hierarchy and division of work, leaving to canvass, arriving from canvassing….

They seem to be short of time, and they certainly don’t stop to explain who exactly they are. They have a script for this play within a play. “I’m so glad we can count on your support. Can we drop off a sign for your lawn?”

Gradually, a full-bodied human comedy emerges in E Day, peopled by individuals who, like “voter contact organizer” Sheldon (Sheldon Elter),  the harried guy in charge and the candidate’s best friend, have life partners they never see. Or union jobs at Safeway, like volunteers Lora (Lora Brovold) and Sue (Sue Goberdhan). Or jobs they used to have, like the candidate herself, Candace (Candace Berlinguette), a kindergarten teacher who saw kids in need of “just a little bit of help to get that leg up,” as she says when she has a moment later to remember her original motivation for unleashing chaos into multiple lives (including her own) by running for office.

Rachel Notley is, needless to say, a big player in this world of non-stop movement. She makes a brief appearance as a character (Beth Graham in a blond wig). And at Friday’s performance the former Premier was there in person in the audience, roaring with the laughter of recognition or grimacing sympathetically.  Actually, it seemed to be a little bit of both simultaneously as the show opens in an argument ignited about a Tupperware of spaghetti missing from the group fridge. You’re close enough to hear Sheldon grinding his molars, or was that my imagination?

It’s a community of veterans (“this ain’t our first rodeo”) and newcomers thrown together by a common goal, an extended family of sorts that actually includes a mother and daughter, as it turns out. 

In a world where the big things, like NDP victories, seem unlikely, aggravations get momentous. When the improbable starts to get less and less unlikely, suspense builds. And with suspense, tension, as Horak’s production chronicles in a sneaky, sweaty, incremental way. You may know (or think you know) the outcome of it all, but you find you care about the characters, like the novice phone canvassers David (Singai David Madawo) and his prickly table-mate Asia (Asia Bowman). Or Sheldon’s ever-smiling assistant Kiana (Kiana Woo).

In the texture of workplace relationships created so compelling in the production, there are setbacks. And they add up to a plot. NDP lawn signs keep mysteriously getting knocked down. The candidate’s restaurateur spouse Beth (Beth Graham) is volatile, a loose cannon who panics under pressure and will probably need therapy after the election. It makes you wonder about her restaurant.

The arrival of the first outsider, an election day organizer who arrives from Vancouver by bicycle with talk of chakras and a list of food allergies (Linda Grass), is funny. The arrival of the second, an arrogant Toronto campaign manager (Ian Leung) with a past and an agenda, is more threatening, a bona fide crisis.

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo by Dave DeGagné

Berlinguette, an actor of huge emotional openness, turns in a  revelatory performance as the candidate, in a luminous state beyond fatigue. Candace seems to have washed up on an unfamiliar shore, struck by a sense of the unreality of a roomful of people working their butts off on her behalf, clinging to familiar bits and pieces (her mom’s vintage crockpot for one). She watches herself teeter precariously between panic and despair.

As the practised hand at motivating campaign volunteers, Elter is droll and affecting as Sheldon. He sees his organizational task as part logistical (the reshuffling of never-quite-enough volunteers), part encouragement, part turning setback and incipient chaos into a workable challenge. Ah, except when it comes to his stalled relationship with April (April Banigan), the director of the leader’s tour and his life partner.

The ensemble is strong, convincingly natural in its dynamic and rhythms. May I single out Shehab as Amena, a Canadian of recent vintage and the only character who shows up for work in high heels? Shehab, who breaks into Arabic from time to time — you’re convinced you’re learning the Arabic for “you have got to be friggin’ kidding me” — is propelled around the office on a jet stream of exasperation.     

It’s a fascinating group portrait, painted at a startling moment in the history of a province (in)famous for its resistance to political change. On the eve of a federal election of shameful vulgarity, consider this. In a country where topical political theatre has been in short supply, a playwright known for his specialty in absurdist black comedy has put his heart on his sleeve, with this ode to the little guy, citizens who work their butts off in unseen stop-gap offices to get democracy up on its feet and moving.

To the theatre (and the polling booths), my friends. 

PREVIEW

E Day

Theatre Network Performance Series

Theatre: Serial Collective

Written by: Jason Chinn

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: April Banigan Candace Berlinguette, Lora Brovold, Asia Bowman, Sheldon Elter, Sue Goberdhan, Beth Graham, Linda Grass, Ian Leung, Shingai David Madawo, Amena Shehab, Kiana Woo.

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

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Fight Night gets the vote out, in a fun and disconcerting way

Fight Night, Ontroerend Goed. Photo by Sara Eechaut.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Uncanny. It’s all about us.

Sorry to be self-centred, but it’s hard to believe that Fight Night, a fascinating five-year-old show from the innovative Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed, wasn’t custom-made for us, right now.

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So here we are, Canadians in the final days of a vicious Canadian election campaign, who talk big about democracy, but signally fail to show up and vote. And here’s a show that arrives at the Citadel in its international travels with questions about why we vote the way we do.

Fight Night doesn’t just wonder vaguely or abstractly about that, as it alights in countries around the world. The fun of this playful, smartly entertaining experiment is that it launches questions at us, and tallies the result percentages, on the spot. It hands you a clicker (your own private hand-held voting booth) as you enter the theatre. It presents you with five candidates — two women and three men — strangers about whom you know nothing, and asks you to make a choice, and vote. So, who do you like? In each round of questions, one candidate gets eliminated, and has to leave the ring — until there’s a winner.

First, though, the moderator — the amusingly calm, deadpan Angelo Tijssens, in a jaunty plaid suit — grabs the dangling microphone in fight night fashion and launches a demographic survey of us, the audience. Of the 229 people present on opening night  63.3 per cent are women; 60 per cent of those present are in a relationship or married. 

Our host, who has a dry under-the-radar wit about him, moves on to age, and finds, via the show’s sophisticated instant polling technology, that “we’re waiting for 17 people.” If you’re hesitating to commit on your age, he advises, just press the button for “60-plus.”

Five candidates in hooded robes à la boxing enter the “ring.” Ding. The bell goes, and we’re asked to choose our favourite candidate, based on nothing but … appearance? a hunch? random chance? Each steps forward and speaks.“This is my voice, the voice that comes with my face,” says the winner of the first round. “I hope I’m not ruining anything.” The loser says “please like me more. I will be your underdog.”

No issues are invoked, which is part of the provocative, and disconcerting, liveliness of the whole enterprise. Who will vote for you? the moderator asks a black candidate. “White people,” he responds instantly.”Go Oilers,” says another.

Before the loser leaves the stage, strategy and coalitions start happening (does that ring a bell, fellow Canadians?). As one candidate puts it, if you notice strategy then it isn’t working. The questions, to both the audience and the candidates, get more broadly socio-cultural, all about who you trust, what qualities you admire, what qualities you identify in yourself. “Are you a bit racist? a bit sexist? a bit violent? none of the above?”

The result of the latter, like all the results of this lively and surprising evening, might take you aback; in a Canadian theatre crowd, that bastion of left-leaners, an unexpectedly hefty 40.8 per cent admit to being a bit racist. Director Alexander Devriendt told me last week that of the show’s world-wide stops before now, the results almost invariably skew to “none of the above,” except in Australia.f

In a list of tabu pejoratives, which is the most offensive to you? the moderator asks the candidates and us. And then we vote again. I don’t want to reveal too much about the questions themselves; you’ll be engaged and startled by what you see. I heard discussions (hey, I was in one of those) continuing on the way out of the theatre and down the stairs to the parking lot.

Fight Night. Photo supplied.

There’s a certain sly and plausible escalation at work in the course of the show. Can the rules of engagement change? Fight Night asks that, too, in its interactive, increasingly confrontational, way. Can a show be both sneaky and forthright? The results will be different every performance: on opening night, the loser of round 1 turned out to be the ultimate winner. How did that happen? Why didn’t I notice as it was happening? 

The music (sound designer David Heinrich) has a subtle electronic buzz and pulse to it. At the busy intersection between real life and theatre, where you don’t quite know where to look before crossing, Ontroerend Goed seems to have eliminated acting altogether. It’s a powerful and persuasive illusion, one that leaves the pretences of social media — and the idea that somehow those platforms capture the zeitgeist — in the junk file.  Instead it cuts to the chase in sharp satirical fashion, a prickly thought for an election eve.

Does voting matter? How on earth can democracy work if it needs voting to mean something? Fight Night is cynical enough to wonder, and game enough to bring it on.    

REVIEW

Fight Night

Theatre: Ontroerend Goed

Written by: Ontroerend Goed

Directed by: Alexander Devriendt

Starring: Julia Ghysels, Aaron Gordon, Aurélie Lannoy, Bastiaan Vandendriessche, Max Wind, Angelo Tijssens

Where: Citadel Macab Theatre

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs: a bloodthirsty cabaret to launch the season at Northern Light

Kristin Johnston in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Everyone’s grandmother has an accordian in the basement,” says Kristin Johnston, pointing at a battered case with judicious applications of duct tape.

This venerable objet is not some sign of random self-improvement on Johnston’s part. She’s learned to play the accordion especially for Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, the black — no, blood-soaked — cabaret comedy that launches the Northern Light Theatre season Friday. It references lurid tales of Elizabeth Bathóry, the infamous Transylvanian countess thought to have killed hundreds of children and bathed in their blood. 

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As director Trevor Schmidt has described the piece, by the South Africa-born Australian playwright/songwriter Joanna Weinberg, “it is a one-woman accordion musical; I’m not kidding. It is bizarre. It is crazy.” The ‘one woman’ at the heart of this enterprise has a passion, an obsession, an escalating fetish … for blood. The nursing profession has never had a more enthusiastic recruit. Yes, the Baroness is an addict, we are her fellow addicts, and she’s in confessional mode.

Johnston is more diplomatic. “She is unusually interested in blood, shall we say. And there is a reason for that,” she says of the vaguely eastern European protagonist she plays.

In acquiring an instrument and a new skill, Johnston has been tutored by accordionist extraordinaire (not to mention composer, arranger, musical director) Darrin Hagen. His statuesque drag alter-egos, including a pulchritudinous mermaid, have been known to strap on the accordian and have at it. And he has warned before now of the dangers of getting a pneumatic boob caught in the squeezebox. Johnston has learned her lesson the hard way: “always wear a bra when playing the accordion.”

He started her “on a baby beginner’s accordian,” as she puts it. And she’s graduated. At a recent dinner party at Johnston’s place, people passed the accordion as well as the salt. Everyone had a turn.

If you saw the tall, willowy Johnston playing older and then some as Victoria, a four million-year-old skeleton come to life (and learning to walk upright and wear a cardigan) in Origin of the Species at Northern Light Theatre last fall, you already know something about comic fearlessness.

Just before a stint with the Citadel/Banff professional program — she played a grotesque arriviste in Sense and Sensibility — she injured her knee. Squatting as Victoria required a certain trouper’s fortitude. “I was so grateful for the team we had,” she smiles. “I was more worried about the nude body suit; I was thinking ‘I’m not sure anybody needs to see that’…”

The Stettler gymnast-turned-theatre kid who went to Red Deer College and then to the Canadian College of Performing Arts on the West Coast, has a theatre resumé that’s a veritable gallery of oddball characters. In Rebecca Merkley’s appealing 2016 musical comedy The Unsyncables — about an underdog synchronized swim team beset by slick mean girls — there she was, in a bathing cap throughout, hilarious as a glum eastern European who can’t float and needs water wings.

The skeptical look on Olga’s face as the concept of synchronized swimming is explained to her is something I still remember. “Playing 12 when you’re not, well…” Johnston smiles benignly.

“I feel comedy; I’m comfortable with comedy,” says the actor, who’s funny and very self-deprecating in person. “I do have a strong sense of comedic timing; that I do admit.”

Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Her initial attraction to Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, she says, was to the comedy of the title character. “She’s fun. Ridiculous but fun,” says Johnston, who has three kids and teaches music theory when she’s not in a show. “The way (the Baroness) speaks has infiltrated my life.” Especially when the word “vampire” (that would be “wampire”) comes up in conversation.

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs is set forth as a cabaret, not a play, “a beverage, a microphone stand, an accordian. And that’s a relief,” says Johnston, who added to her theatrical arsenal of skills last summer by stage managing Guys in Disguise’s Flora and Fawna sequel. Of the 10 songs, eight are originals and two — one by Queen, one by Tom Lehrer — are not. Stage manager Liz Allison says “they’re real ear-worms.”

Everyone has an addiction of some sort, Johnston muses. Hers is chocolate (her husband challenged her to go without for a month). Director Schmidt, she says, admits to an addiction to terrible TV. She smiles. “You have one, too.” 

PREVIEW

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Joanna Weinberg

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kristin Johnston

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

Running: Friday through Nov. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

    

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Simone et le whole shebang: the season opens at L’UniThéâtre

Crystal Plamondon, Nicole St. Martin, Gaetan Benoit, André Roy in Simone et le whole shebang. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the intricate dark comedy that launches the L’UniThéâtre season Friday, a couple of 60-something-plus strangers from elsewhere, sporting symmetrically opposed damages, meet  — in a nursing home in Fort McMurray, the unofficial Canadian home of improbable encounters.

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They’re both haunted by their younger selves. Jessy (André Roy), an erstwhile Acadian, is a musician who turned oil field worker a couple of decades ago, and paid the price in physical mobility. Simone (Crystal Plamondon) is a Quebec actress suffering from the mind- and memory-erosion of Alzheimer’s.     

In Simone et le whole shebang, by the young up-and-coming Quebec actor-turned-playwright Eugénie Beaudry, they are joined onstage by two 35-year-olds — the young-man version of Jessy (Gaetan Benoit) and Simone’s daughter (Nicole St. Martin), a Quebecer working in the oil patch.

And speaking as we are of the whole shebang, consider the director. The perfectly bilingual actor/ dancer/ improviser Vince Forcier, who recently directed some 30 of the 50-hours of the annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon — and is slated to direct Die-Nasty’s upcoming vaudeville seasonmakes his professional directing debut with this asymmetrical quartet. He calls it “a three-person play with one ghost.”  

The whole shebang includes the nuances and pluralities of the Canadian francophonie, Forcier has found. It’s something he knows about first-hand. The Montreal-born theatre artist who’s been here “as long as I have memory” learned to speak French from his Québec parents. He calls himself a franco-albertain, though his accent eludes easy categorization. “In Quebec they think I’m from somewhere else, from Alberta. In Alberta people think I’m from Quebec. “The class structure of French,” as Forcier puts it, is part of Simone et le whole shebang. The two versions of Jessy are Acadian, but the older man’s accent has been smoothed out by decades of living in Fort McMurray. Simone’s daughter is a transplanted Québecoise, of more recent vintage, but that accent is getting subtly altered by Alberta.

The title is revealing. “There’s a lot of franglais in the play,” says Forcier of the characters. “They throw English words into French sentences. And I do it too…. If I’m saying a sentence in French but think of the English word first, I just throw it in, then continue in French.” Most of the performances, incidentally, include English surtitles.

Forcier has a long history of directing indie productions. For a time he was a founding partner in Surreal SoReal Theatre — the resident director role in a collective that has since moved on to Québec. And now, his directing career takes a step forward with a four-person production that includes two actors “who are celebrities within the French community,” as he says, “both playing older than themselves.”

Nicole St. Martin and Crystal Plamondon in Simone et le whole shebang. Photo by db photographics.

The 35-year-olds “are at the age where they’re worried about turning 40…. What should I have accomplished by this age? Is this age my last chance to change my life? Am I doing what I want to be doing? And am I doing enough of it? What’s my next chapter?” These are questions, that resonate with him, too. Forcier grins and shrugs. “It’s close to my own situation.” 

“In this whole process, I’m realizing with the older characters that you don’t stop asking those questions.” For him, the answer that threads its way through the thicket of questions is … directing.

Gaetan Benoit and André Roy in Simone et le whole shebang. Photo by dbphotographics.

The old man is exhorted by his younger self to “do something with your life. You’re not done with it. Don’t let all the hard work I’ve put into your body go to waste.” as Forcier describes. “He’s haunted, by himself.” Simone “feels betrayed” by the daughter who’s re-located her to Fort McMurray. But then, “she can’t stay mad very long at a daughter she keeps forgetting exists.”

If the playwright comes to the see the show, and she might, it will be her first time in Alberta, says Forcier. “She wrote a play set in Fort McMurray and she has never been there, but gets a lot of aspects of it, of Alberta, right.” The play has attracted attention (and award-nominations) in Quebec. “It’s interesting to produce it in Alberta where it actually takes place.…”

Forcier himself was in Fort McMurray recently when Grindstone Comedy Theatre took their hit show The 11 O’Clock Number, a wholly improvised musical, there for a late-night performance. “Hey, good research!”

“I think we’ve done a good job of focussing on the heart of the play, keeping the story and the people alive, not caricatures,” says Forcier of Simone et le whole shebang. “It talks about intense, dark things … in a way that makes you laugh.”

PREVIEW

Simone et le whole shebang

Theatre: L’UniThéâtre

Written by: Eugenie Beaudry

Directed by: Vincent Forcier

Starring: André Roy, Crystal Plamondon, Gaetan Benoit, Nicole St. Martin

Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 Street

Running: Friday through Oct. 26. In French, most performances with English subtitles

Tickets: lunitheatre.ca

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E Day: Jason Chinn’s new political comedy inspired by the 2015 election sweep

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo by Dave DeGagné

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“How did we get here?” Playwright Jason Chinn remembers a night four years ago, a night like no other in Alberta.

And since he was volunteering with the campaign that swept Rachel Notley’s NDP into office, in a province where political change is generally measured by the half-century, it was the backstage view of a dramatic landscape no one really expected to see. Except perhaps in the mind’s eye.

“The stakes of waiting for those phones to ring, for results to come in,” muses Chinn. “Your heart stopped beating … until you started to see how it was going. Tense. The most tense environment. Every vote mattered. We didn’t know how it would turn out till the very end.”

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E Day, the new large-cast Chinn play premiering Thursday in Theatre Network’s Roxy Series — in a Serial Collective production directed by Dave Horak — can trace its lineage back to the inspiration of that spring night in 2015 when Alberta surprised itself mightily. “I worked backwards from that,” says Chinn, who stopped for a pre-rehearsal coffee with Horak last week en route to the theatre. Back to the campaign. Back to campaign workers who invested their time and juggled their lives, anything but confident of victory.

“I never thought a change of government would happen in my lifetime,” muses Horak. “We were so used to being the underdog. Jason’s play captures an intensity I remember in 2015. It was building. More and more orange signs. More people talking about it. They were cautious, but they felt a momentum. A feeling of possibility?” 

“I thought about all the people who came together, a community of people who volunteered their time, and worked on it,” Chinn remembers. “It was my first campaign. And every campaign I worked on after that was a losing one….”

“For me, it took days to sink in…. Even after the victory party I’d hear ‘Premier Rachel Notley’ on the radio and it seemed surreal,” says Chinn, a soft-spoken, wry sort.

“I didn’t think I’d like going door to door; I’m a pretty shy person. But it just felt good to talk to people about politics. OK, sometimes the reception was ‘get off my f—ing step!’ But sometimes you’d have a really great conversation.”

Both playwright and director find politics a compelling subject for theatre. Horak, who grew up in Calgary, says his parents were “pretty political, both Conservative for a long time until they switched when I was in high school and started working on Liberal campaigns,” motivated by Ralph Klein’s cutbacks to education. “We always talked about politics around the table.” The years he spent living and working in New York honed a fascination with American politics, in all its gruesome reaches.. 

Chinn, born in Newfoundland, grew up here when the family relocated in search of work. “When my mom took me to Edmonton we had two Safeway bags with all of our belongings…. She worked in child care for many years. And it wasn’t financially supported.” He has views on the correlation between political engagement and financial stability. Chinn is “not one of those people who live and breathe politics,” as he says of himself. “I’m a theatre person on the periphery. But it’s not good enough to just vote. You need to participate, donate time, and money if you have any: that’s how things get accomplished….” 

Nearly everything about E Day represents a departure for Chinn. One of the country’s true originals, his signature is very black comedies in which placidly familiar surfaces peel back or crack open to reveal abysses of lurking violence, madness, chaos, maybe even the apocalypse. Bitches, set in an office typing pool, introduced us to the Serial Collective, an indie company that exists to produce Chinn’s plays in something of the way Teatro La Quindicina’s raison d’être is to produce Stewart Lemoine’s.

Happy Kitchen took us into the cheerful domesticity of the ‘50s, where a housewife goes completely bonkers. In Lavender Lady, the life of an listless slacker is shaken up irrevocably with the arrival of a servant who turns into a dog. In The Ladies Who Lynch, the end of the world happens while Judith and her chic well-heeled girlfriends are having lunch in their favourite bistro. Murderers Confess At Christmastime turns seasonal festivity on its head (it premiered in May of 2014) in a triptych where someone dies in each scenario.

E Day doesn’t sound much like any of the above — except that the campaign office setting, the petty irritations about the office coffee or the snacks or the work load, will ring a bell. “I’ve always liked the absurdity and the banality of workplace environments,” Chinn says, “the contrast between bickering with a co-worker about office supplies and huge high-stakes problems that jeopardize the campaign.…”

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo by Dave DeGagné

As Chinn describes it, E Day is a play in which a disparate community comes together. “I do think it’s unexpected in this environment that’s so divisive and so angry, to present a friendly, community-based play that’s grassroots, not top-down. It’s so going against the grain.” 

“The majority of theatre about politics is about the top-down. And I want audiences to see the positive, inclusive elements of this process, not just the scandals of people high up…. This is the kind of legwork that needs to happen for change to happen.”

The grassroots gathering of a community that fuels the political campaign in E Day is Horak’s rationale for staging the play in the round. The cast of 12 — veteran stars like Sheldon Elter, Beth Graham, Lora Brovold, Candace Berlinguette (who’s been in all of Chinn’s plays) alongside newcomers — “keep moving and keep talking, just as it would happen in an office.” And they’re “surrounded by an audience that sees each other as well as the characters. It feels a little interactive since they’re so close. It feels right.”

And, inspired by a real-life event that ended in celebration, there might even be a happy ending, though Chinn and Horak refuse to confirm that. “There were some unhappy endings in drafts,” says Chinn. “It’s been a challenge for me to balance the excitement of (potential) victory vs. the reality of how much people put into efforts that don’t always end up in stability or a job.” Or a win.

“When you write a play hooked into an historical event, people have expectations,” says Horak, who was in the cast when E Day was workshopped as part of the Citadel’s erstwhile Playwrights Circle.“Should I leave it a secret whether or not we subvert those expectations?” grins Chinn, currently doing a master’s degree in theatre practice at the U of A. “Will it end in a musical number?” Horak teases.

Never before has Chinn written for so many actors. And he adjusted his script to fit them, draft by draft. “I wanted to make sure the text isn’t one-person’s voice but everyone’s voice.” His most recent draft has them using their real names. Horak thinks “it gives the actors real ownership when they’re playing versions of themselves.… We’re watching people working, overhearing snippets of conversation, and then a play emerges every so often. I’m still figuring out what the tone is; people still have to follow a story.”

“All the characters have a history, and lives outside the office that they bring in,” says Horak. “Actually, it’s a lot like putting on a play. You know you have an opening night. You form bonds quickly and in some cases deeply. You become friends even though you know it’s sort of ephemeral and will disappear or become different once election day happens.”   

PREVIEW

E Day

Theatre Network Performance Series

Theatre: Serial Collective

Written by: Jason Chinn

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: April Banigan Candace Berlinguette, Lora Brovold, Asia Bowman, Sheldon Elter, Sue Goberdhan, Beth Graham, Linda Grass, Ian Leung, Shingai David Madawo, Amena Shehab, Kiana Woo.

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Why do we vote the way we do? Fight Night is on it

Fight Night, Ontroerend Goed. Photo by Sara Eechaut.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

No doubt about it: the star avant-garde Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed has an exquisite sense of timing. This week they bring to the Citadel’s new alternative Highwire series a show that throws this question at you, a paid-up member of a democracy: Why do you vote the way you do?

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Fight Night, opening Thursday, hands you a clicker that gives you the power to eliminate one candidate after another as they appeal for your attention, your support, your love. How do you wield the power that democracy gives you? How do you make the choices you do? Fight Night is intrigued by that; the audience decides how it will end.

The last time Ontroerend Goed’s much-travelled interactive hit came to Canada — the Cultch in Vancouver and Mirvish Productions in Toronto — was in October of 2016. Yes, just before the fateful U.S. election that would defy the pollsters and reinforce the obsessive media-fuelled attraction to celebrity, no matter how grotesque.

The provocative company, two decades (and a lot of mispronunciations) old by now, gravitates to unsettling experiments in what theatre means to an audience and/or what an audience means to theatre. The Ontroerend Goed archive includes a controversial trio of one-on-one shows, including one in which one audience member at a time is blindfolded and carried around in a wheelchair (The Smile Off Your Face ) or seduced into a revealing a secret that is broadcast to the group later on (Internal). The third, A Game Of You, continues to tour.

Director Alexander Devriendt. Photo supplied.

“We chosen the worst name for an international touring company, I think,” laughs Alexander Devriendt, the amiable co-founder and the artistic director of Ontroerend Goed, on the phone from home base in Ghent. “It’s unpronounceable in any other language than Dutch. Even the Germans and the French can’t do it. And now it’s too late to change!” It won’t help you to toss off the name in conversation, but as Devriendt explains, Ontroerend Goed is a pun on “real estate” that gives it the nuance of “emotionally moving.” Just so you know the “t” in Ontroerend is the decisive factor.   

“It doesn’t always feel like experimenting to me,” says Devriendt of a history of shows that have galvanized strong reactions on four continents. “It just feels like using what the black box of theatre makes possible.”

In the hands of Devriendt and his collaborators, Fight Night, like other shows in the company repertoire, seems to take on the colours of the zeitgeist, the Now, wherever it goes. Even though “I never change anything in the show, and avoid talking about specific social issues.…”

Fight Night, Ontroerend Goed. Photo by Yvon Poncelet

“Devriendt traces Fight Night, a 2014 collaboration with the Adelaide Festival, back to the time when “Belgium was without a government for 329 days” due to “the weird outcome of an election, and the difficulty of finding a new coalition….”

“I realized I was not very interested in democracy — left, right, they’re all the same I thought — and I suddenly thought how painful that is, considering it’s something so hugely important, something so many people fought for. So I wanted to make a show that questions why do I vote? what do I believe in?”

“For me, I’m more of a green socialist liberal on the political spectrum, I guess ”  he says. “I lean toward that … no matter what (the candidates) really said…. But what if there was no specific politics?” He pauses to come up with a Canadian example. “What if Trudeau wasn’t left or right, would you still vote for him, for instance?”

“The polarizing nature of politics,” especially in America, means that a voter’s identity as Republican or Democrat seldom changes, even if conditions change. “A lot of people realize by now they don’t want to defend Trump, but they keep saying they’re Republican.”

Fight Night. Photo supplied.

Fight Night is like that. If I take that (label) away, what do I believe in?”

“The Greens won in my city. But only rich people voted for them,” he says of Ghent. “That’s completely wrong, I think. I don’t want Green to be a privilege.…” He laughs and sighs, thinking of his own voting habits. “I always voted for this guy. Until Fight Night I never looked into what his program really was. Do I really believe what he was defending? I mean, he was completely opposite of me; he was even a bit Catholic and I was, like, an atheist. Wow, my vote was just a feeling, detached from reality.”

From the start Ontroerend Goed seemed to have a natural aptitude for rattling their audiences. Devriendt and his cohorts weren’t so-called ‘theatre people’; “I never wanted to be an actor,” he says. And the only directing schools around were “really text-based and classical. And I always found that wasn’t my trade.… We were at university studying Dutch and English literature. And we started a poetry performance group…. We experimented with that and kinda of rolled into theatre.”

Their first show — “well, the first one where people came to us afterward and said ‘whoa, that was interesting!” — was Porror, an amalgam of “poetry, porn, and horror” that played night clubs and jazz bars. “Outrageous!” declares Devriendt. “A really weird onstage performance….” They didn’t realize they were theatre “until they got invited to a theatre festival and won a prize.”

“It gives you freedom to ride,” says Devriendt of his younger self and this oblique entry point into theatre. “We never had to position ourselves to an older generation. We just did what we wanted without looking forward or backward, just looking at Now. And it helped us redefine theatre a little bit…”

“When photography (came along) painting had to redefine itself. When film and TV came, theatre should have done that. But, of course, there will always be nostalgia from the people who like portraits and painting.”

“The question for me,” says Devriendt, is “what does theatre have that no other medium can do better?” His view, a left hook to acting school truisms, is that belief in the real-ness of characters onstage “isn’t theatre’s strength.” Why? “You always realize there’s an actor there.”

“If you watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, he will pretend to be a prince from Denmark with suicidal tendencies. And the best compliment will always be ‘look how good he did that!’.” Devriendt finds that reaction unsatisfying, “a part of theatre I don’t want to go for….”

While Fight Night is getting Citadel audiences to ask themselves questions about democracy and voting, Devriendt will be in Adelaide with an Ontroerend Goed show called Lies, spelled £¥€$. “We invite you to sit around a table and play the 1 per cent,” says DeVriendt, who was motivated by the realization that “I didn’t understand anything about the financial world; I didn’t have a clue!” The idea is to create, on the spot, a financial system: seven people around a ‘croupier’ who’s an actor. Though the latter is following a rigorously structured script, “people don’t realize this person is acting.” 

The company’s current repertoire is five shows strong. “We stop touring a show when it doesn’t feel relevant any more, or when another show is stronger in that ballpark,” says Devriendt. They were at this past summer’s Edinburgh Fringe with a show about climate change, its title a long palindrome: Are We Not Drawn Onward To A New Era?. The company is working on a new show in which “we try to defend the right.” He laughs, “we try to dive into the enemy mind,” as he puts it, “of Trump and Brexit people.”  

With Fight Night, which has been touring internationally for four years, “we will never know which candidate will make it to the end; we don’t control that.” But the overall structure, which leads to a referendum, is constant.

Devriendt was struck at first by “the differences between countries,” then for the last couple of years “by the things that feel the same, bigger than the differences.”

At one point, the audience will be asked “are you a little bit racist? a little bit sexist? a little bit violent? Or are you none of the above?” Overwhelmingly world-wide, “none of the above” prevails. “I tend to not believe this,” says Devriendt drily. The exception is Australia. “A little bit racist” is invariably the answer of choice.

Fight Night has an uncanny knack for adapting perfectly to local conditions. The show uses a snippet of text from an old Ronald Reagan ad about a bear in the woods. “If there’s a bear wouldn’t it be smart to be as strong as the bear?” Says Devriendt, “the funny thing is that everywhere we play the bear means something different…. In Hong Kong, it’s China. In Russia, Putin. In France, terrorism….”

Devriendt often gets asked ‘how did you do it, being so in tune?” He says “I didn’t really do anything. I just keep it open.”

PREVIEW

Citadel Highwire Series

Fight Night

Theatre: Ontroerend Goed

Written by: Ontroerend Goed

Directed by: Alexander Devriendt

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: Thursday through Oct. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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