Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: an opera for a hearing son and a deaf mom

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, Concrete Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I learned to sign before I could speak,” says Dave Clarke, who’s highly articulate, to say the least, in his second language. 

There’s an intriguing contradiction built right into the architecture of Clarke’s multi-angled theatre career (as he concedes amiably). As an award-winning musician, composer, sound designer (not to mention playwright/ actor), one of E-town’s busiest, his work is based on sound. His parents are deaf, from birth. 

Clarke’s unusual childhood in south London — a hearing kid with a deaf mom and dad, and a startling bent for music — is the wellspring of his new memoir, a through-sung bilingual “opera” in English and ASL (American Sign Language). Songs My Mother Never Sung Me premieres Feb. 13 at Sound Off, the ground-breaking deaf theatre festival that’s part of the 2019 Chinook Series.

“People ask, first, why I can speak, since my parents were not verbal,” says Clarke, who re-located across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1987 (why? “I met a woman, of course!”) and then to Edmonton in the early ‘90s. The answer: his grandparents were hearing people. “A piano showed up one day in the house, with no announcement. My dad’s mom had it delivered to our little council house…. It took up an enormous amount of room,” he laughs. His grandparents bought him a record player, too, and there was no stopping a musical kid. 

“The house must have been very quiet, people say,” continues Clarke. Actually, no. “My parents don’t know how loud things are.” Naturally when Clarke started playing in rock bands, the practices were always at his place. Only the neighbours complained. 

“I didn’t know it was unusual,” says Clarke of his pre-school years in  both the deaf and hearing worlds. Once he started school, though, a sense of difference was bound to happen. And seminal moments, borrowed from real life, find their way into his opera. “When the boy hits five, he and his mom are outside, and the boy notices some hearing people making fun of them….” And, in a way that parallels the tension of immigrants’ children, the boy becomes “his mom’s translator on expeditions to the doctor or the grocery store, or when someone knocks at the door.”  

But it wasn’t traumatic, he says. Au contraire, “it made me feel responsible and independent and grown-up.” And the challenges have a lighter side, like the puzzle of the produce section in a grocery story: if there’s no sign in British Sign Language for zucchini, how can you finger-spell the word when you’re too young to know how to spell?

The opening line of Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, after all, is “this is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice.” The boy, says Clarke, “is the main character. I don’t speak for the deaf…. Really, no one can.”

In the cast of the Concrete Theatre production, directed jointly by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth, are three hearing actors who sing, and a deaf actor. The boy, Clarke’s proxy in his opera, is played by Luc Tellier, with Kieran Martin Murphy as the Narrator. The role of Mom is occupied jointly by one of the country’s premier deaf, signing actors, Elizabeth Morris, and musical theatre/cabaret star Susan Gilmour, who sings the signs. Erik Mortimer is at the piano, “onstage as a character.”

The show stars with an empty stage, and elements are added,” says Clarke of the piece commissioned by Concrete Theatre. Its first life was as a 15-minute “sprout” at the company’s new-plays-for-kids festival of that name a decade ago. 

The music starts simple, and grows more sophisticated, more emotionally complex, along with the libretto, Clarke explains. The song Baby Signs, for example, consists of English words for basic-need signs: eat, drink, pee, potty….”  As Clarke describes his score, it embraces a wide mix of forms and musical allusions: “comic opera spoof, tango, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, simple ballads.

The hearing actors have learned to sign as they sing. Kieran Martin Murphy compared signing to learning choreography for a musical, Clarke reports. There is an eloquence to sign language in the way it marries the conceptual to the physical. “A lot of signs are more expressive than their English equivalent.” And sign languages are local, with their own “accents, dialects, idioms …” he explains. In ASL, for example, the sign for playing a trick on someone and having it work, so you’re calling them gullible, is that they ‘swallowed a fish’. If you want to indicate ‘you missed the boat’, the sign is ‘the train is gone’.”

And since there are no pronouns or conjunctions, “no I or You,” facial expressions are crucial to communication. Distances in both space and time are “gestural, a relationship between the hand and the body,” says Clarke. A year ago is farther away than yesterday.

The show deliberately doesn’t have ASL interpreters. The idea, says Clarke, is to level the playing field, and put the hearing audience in the position familiar to deaf people. “There are good jokes that are only signed!” says Clarke. “So the majority hearing audience can experience being the minority.”

In one way, crafting songs to combine lyrics and visual language complicates composing, Clarke agrees. But in another, he’s found it it liberating, too. “The lyrics scan, but they don’t rely on rhyme very much.… The sung English is very direct and simple, and there’s a fair bit of repetition.” Additionally, the piano score is amplified acoustically in the lower registers (by sound designer Bobby Smale). “It’s a vibration experience when the piano gets below middle C,” says Clarke.

“For many born-deaf people, music isn’t part of their lives…. I’m proud of this,” says Clarke, of reactions of deaf people to earlier workshop incarnations of the piece. Some reported “it’s the first time I’ve understood what music is.…”

Clarke has a strong aversion to the sentimentality that often accompanies the hearing reaction to deafness. He’s thinking of the dated play Children of a Lesser God, or the deaf glee club on Glee. Songs My Mother Never Sung Me isn’t like that. “It isn’t heavy; it’s fun, very funny. A very accessible simple story, actually, with common parent/kid benchmark experiences.”

Kids, bring your parents. Parents, bring your kids.


Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete

Written and composed by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi, Caroline Howarth

Starring: Elizabeth Morris, Luc Tellier, Kieran Martin Murphy, Susan Gilmour, Erik Mortimer

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Feb. 13 to 17

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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How to feel the breeze at Chinook

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls,

If there ever was a town that needed a chinook … an E-town story.

And yes, we’re having one. The Chinook Series, which opens tonight, is a resource-pooling experience between arts groups  with a view to expanding our experience of live performance and theatre creation. Maybe you’ll even find out what “multi-disciplinary” really means. In practice, where it counts. 

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The best way to do Chinook, I think, is to give yourself over to the breeze: wrap yourself in the  “festival” mantle, show up for the evening, and let yourself be blown here and there to whatever is going on. If you get there early enough, you might hear artists talk about their work in the lobby, and ask a question or two, even one that starts “what on earth.?” … Between shows you can (whilst clutching a glass of wine) watch a troupe of “Lobbyists” create movement pieces that are a kind of inspiration for those of us who are intimated by the idea of dance. By happenstance and just hanging out I’ve seen “plays,” dance-theatre fantasias, personal memoirs, unclassifiable fusions of music and text, wordless movement pieces, and, generally, theatrical experiences I might never have chosen for myself. Hey, I even took salsa lessons last year in a show (my skills have atrophied since then). 

So it’s against my own advice, I know, but here’s a little selection of shows that did catch my eye. I’ll be seeking them out….  

Gemini (part of Workshop West’s Canoe Festival): I saw the first incarnation of Louise Casemore’s award-winning two-hander  at the 2017 Fringe, and in a bar (the catacombs of El Cortez Bar and Restaurant, which is where the characters meet each other.  Julia (Casemore) is the server; Ben, a failed poet and underachieving consultant (Vern Thiessen), is a regular. And in a bar culture that palms itself off as intimate, their relationship ets explored in nuanced ways you’ll recognize.

The production at the Almanac bar on Whyte is new. It’s directed by Mitchell Cushman, the wunderkind of Toronto site-specific theatre — returning to the town where he got a degree in directing at the U of A. And in addition to Casemore, who’s an alert and dexterous performer, you’ll have the rare sight of Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen onstage.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival): This new show by the multi-threat Dave Clarke, one of E-town’s busiest sound designers and composers, was commissioned by Concrete Theatre. An opera of sort, through-sung, it’s spun from Clarke’s own experience of growing up with deaf parents. And Mieko Ouchi’s cast includes both hearing and deaf performers. Keep an eye out for’s interview with Clarke.

Ins Choi: Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words (Fringe Theatre). The charismatic creator of Kim’s Convenience is here onstage himself in a performance swirl that’s part concert, part storytelling, part cabaret (kind of)… had the fun of talking to him. Look for that interview soon.

Makambe K. Simamba in A Chitenge Story. Photo supplied.

A Chitenge Story (Black Arts Matter!): Calgary theatre artist Makambe K. Simamba tells her story of returning to her birthplace, Zambia, to confront the man who abused her as a child.

NIUBOI in Tip Off!. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Tip Off! (Expanse Movement Arts Festival) and Glass Washrooms (Fringe Theatre): Both are the work of one of our most adventurous theatre artists, NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson). The first, which developed under the mentorship (and new work award) of Good Women Dance, has NIUBOI joined onstage by three actors (plus the voices of sports commentators). It’s inspired by the lexicon of basketball. The second, which happens in the Westbury Theatre washroom, explores the artist’s own background growing up and into the trans-non-binary quester they are now. It was developed in NIUBOI’s term as the first recipient of the Nordic and Cloutier Family Innovation Award. Beth Dart directs.

Mni wiconi/ water is life (Expanse Movement Arts Festival): It’s by Nicole Schafenacker, whose work at Nextfest has always been off-centre and original; the Schafenacker pieces I’ve seen have involved intriguing juxtapositions of text and movement, with an activist edge. As billed, this one is inspired by her 2016 experience time as a ‘water protector” at Standing Rock, N.D.  

That’s just a quick sample. There are alluring possibilities everywhere at the festival, including in a new Chinook partnership called Sinergia. Check out the program, and the full schedule, at      

The festival runs through Feb. 17 in various venues in the ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

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The body in motion: Expanse is back in the Chinook Series

Room 2048, Hong Kong Exile. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

It starts with the body.

As its name suggests, Expanse sets the body in motion in space — and celebrates what happens next.

In the ever-expansive movement arts festival curated by Azimuth Theatre and returning to the fourth annual Chinook Series, the body is elastic, light on its feet and international in its vision. So are “physical theatre” and “dance” (language optional).

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The 14-year-old festival inherited by Azimuth’s co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin is one of the five performance streams that pool creative resources and connections for Chinook, the two-week showcase of innovative multi-disciplinary art that, er, breezes into the ATB Financial Arts Barns Thursday, and runs through Feb. 17.

As Sabourin points out, “the body as lens, work that stems from ‘body’: it’s a big basket to access.” Which suits the Azimuth personality to a T, since that experiment-minded company gravitates to unusual partnerships. For this 2019 edition Expanse teams up with Good Women Dance Collective, Mile Zero Dance, the Rubaboo Arts Festival, and Dreamspeakers.

It’s Good Women Dance, the curator of movement arts for Nextfest, who have mentored Edmonton artist Kiruthika Rathanaswami. At Expanse Thursday and Friday she performs a quartet of stories executed in variations of the intricate Indian classical dance form bharata natyam.

You can try it out on your own body: Rathanaswami leads a bharata natyam workshop for beginners Friday afternoon. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Sabourin, who’s taken one before. “I highly recommend it!”

In Local(e), which runs Feb. 12 and 13, three Edmonton artists perform original pieces of very different inspirations and styles. Tip Off!, created by NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson) with a trio of collaborators (Ryan Jackson, Jameela McNeill, and Abbie Cogger), is inspired by basketball and its lexicon of dribble, dunk, dance, slam. The cast includes Cliff Kelly and Taylor Chadwick as sports announcers. “Fast and fun,” says Hansen.

The second of the Local(e) offerings, The Music Crept By Us, inspired by the Leonard Cohen poem of that name, is the work of the dance/trained actor/choreographer Rebecca Sadowski. She’s joined onstage by sound designer Dean Musani, whom Edmonton theatre audiences know for his collaborations with playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bears).

Mni wiconi/ water is life is inspired by creator/performer Nicole Schafenacker’s 2016 experience as a “water protector” in Standing Rock, North Dakota. “It’s not dance as dance,” says Sabourin. “It’s about experience, physical performance….” Cole Humeny joins Schafenacker onstage.

Expanse’s contribution to your Valentine’s night is a surprise — to Hansen and Sabourin as well as the audience. Raconteurs invites three artists of very different aesthetic stripe, perspective, and practice to experience Chinook, then “come together for a cabaret of responses, reflections, and questions” Sissy Thiessen, a Jingle Dress dancer and spoken word poet; visual artist Yazmin Juarez, and singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor (who was Calgary’s first poet laureate, much involved in the Treaty 7 program there). Hansen calls Raconteurs “a total experiment; what will they respond to?.”

Room 2014, Honk Kong Exile. PHoto by Juan Contreras.

In Expanse’s partnership with Mile Zero Dance, the Vancouver-based dance troupe Hong Kong Exile brings Room 2048 (Feb. 15 and 16), a multi-media dance theatre work billed as “a dream machine for the Cantonese diaspora.” Says Hansen, “it’s dance with bells and whistles, crazy lights, (electronic) music, fog, projections, high-level training” brought to bear on “the Cantonese experience in Canada.”

The Lobbyists, this year a collaboration between Expanse and the Rubaboo Arts Festival, create a series of performance pieces for the Westbury Theatre lobby between Chinook shows, Thursday to Saturday each Chinook weekend. The cast, mentored by Amber Borotsik, includes Barry Bilinsky, Ayla Modeste, and Tarene Thomas. 

The Expanse line-up also includes master-classes. In a two-day intensive, New York’s Third Rail Project arrives to explore with participants immersive theatre and community-building, their specialty (Feb. 9 and 10). The Anitafrika Method, led by Dub poet D’bi Young Anitafrika is an Azimuth Performance Lab offering (Feb. 16 and 17). Stafford Perry of Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality leads a workshop “Creating a Culture of Consent: Community Bystander Interventions” Feb. 12 (a follow-up to last year’s “intimacy for the stage” workshop).

Two of Chinook’s “salon” series — panelists and public discussion — are Expanse initiatives. One (Feb. 8), curated by Good Women Dance, explores “safe spaces in dance.” The other (Feb. 12), led by Azimuth and questions from Sabourin and Hansen, is designed to generation conversation about “decolonizing process and practice.” Says Sabourin, “it’s all about finding others ways of thinking about inclusivity….”  

Chinook is no mild-mannered zephyr; it’s more gale-force than that, a series of cutting-edge performances curated by arts festivals of different sensibilities: Azimuth’s Expanse Festival, Workshop West’s Canoe Festival, Fringe Theatre Adventures, along with BAM! (Black Arts Matter), Sound Off (the deaf theatre festival), and Sinergia (a new multi-disciplinary multi-cultural Indigenous roots lineup). See the full program of offerings and a colour-coded performance schedule — and buy tickets — at


Expanse Movement Arts Festival

Chinook Series

Theatre: Azimuth

Where: Westbury Theatre and lobby, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Feb. 17

Tickets (and full schedule): or at the door

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Lake of the Strangers: a magical mystery tour of a vast universe. A review

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Last night I had a haunting experience. It was the summer of 1973. And a young Indigenous boy and his little brother, on a fishing expedition together, were sitting in a pool of water up among the stars. They were looking down at the world, trading memories, laughing.   

Lake of the Strangers is mysterious and magical that way. It’s a  story of an adventure in the woods en route to a great lake — an adventure full of fun and games, action and danger. And it’s a story of loss and recovery, grief and healing, and the connections that weave past, present and future into a timeless web that holds the constellations (and human stories) in place in the vast firmament.

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Welcome to a new solo play about brothers, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins… by a brother and sister team (Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal). And it’s brought to life — conjured, you might say — by one of the country’s most charismatic and resourceful young actors, Hunter Cardinal.

The production directed by Ron Jenkins, a collaboration between Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre Adventures, happens on a stage that’s a shallow pool of water in Tessa Stamp’s beautiful design: a familiar element made foreign with hidden depths and reflections, lighted stunningly by Narda McCarroll. The water shimmers in the dappled glow of projections (designed by Brianna Kolybaba) on a series of hanging, swaying strips. There’s a “splash zone” in the front row of seats.

Henry and his little bro Thomas, ages 10 and seven, who’ve snuck out of their Sucker Creek Reserve house in the middle of the night, splash through the water in high-tops and jeans. They’re en route to Lesser Slave Lake. Their goal: to catch a big fish and thereby instigate a family celebration. Cardinal singlehandedly creates the brotherly dynamic in all its giddiness, friction, playful joy: proprietorial big bro coaxing, wheedling, jollying his exasperating little bro along, improvising as he goes. Remember when we played “cowboys and us guys”? Or Manhunt, when the object is “not to be caught by the law or the dogs”?

Nature glints with life, danger, beauty. What if there were a giant bear? The world is evoked in light, flickering imagery, Aaron Macri’s sound design — and an inventive, deeply committed performance. And gradually, a multi-character story about how to find your co-ordinates, your past and future selves, in a fathomless universe accumulates. It happens in wisps of memories, Cree words with a big embrace, fragments of wisdom and advice from dad, lullaby riffs from mom, lessons learned from Nehiyaw mythology, Indigenous skills improvised for crisis moments. And it easily transposes itself from underwater to the sky and back again to earth, where two little brothers are going fishing.

The effect is riveting. The theatrical pizzaz of Jenkins’ production enhances insights that are (I return to the word) haunting, without being solemn. Somehow a crazy sense of absurdity is there too, along with awe. If ever there was a show where laughter and tears are simultaneous, this is it.

You still have a couple of chances to see Lake of the Strangers. It runs through Saturday at the Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Don’t let it get away. Tickets:  780-409-1910,  

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Miss Teen premieres at Shadow Theatre: game actors, tired script. A review

Emily Howard, Kristi Hansen, Emma Houghton in Miss Teen, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

In Miss Teen a strapped, single mother enters her awkward, bookish daughter in a local teen pageant. “It’ll be good practice … for life,” argues Coco brightly, undeterred by Margaret’s reaction, a mixture of appalled and incredulous.

Well, true enough — if life includes a chance to survive humiliation, learn a lesson about teen pageants (and high school) you already knew, and gain a (temporary) platform to announce your new-found wisdom about what’s really important. 

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The latest Michele Riml sitcom currently premiering at Shadow Theatre, is one of those plays that reference the culture and play around with its clichés, but don’t actually dig into anything. And, as Edmonton audiences know, the Riml canon contains a few of those.

In Sexy Laundry, for example, a hit for Shadow a decade ago, a middle-aged couple has a dirty weekend in a posh hotel in order to put the spark back into their 25-year marriage. Its sequel Henry and Alice: Into The Wild, which played the Mayfield a couple of seasons ago, involved a non-stop series of aged sight gags that got gender clichés into Eddie Bauer gear, putting up a tent. The ad exec of Poster Boys, which was at Theatre Network, discovers that, lo and behold, the industry she works in is shallow and its re-branding motives suspect. 

What all of the above, and Miss Teen, have in common is their reliance on the charms and comic chops of game actors, stepping bravely up to thin material. And John Hudson’s production has four of those.

Coco’s life has a daunting column of negatives: a shitty childhood, low income, debt, a crap job, an ex-husband dying of cancer in her apartment, two teenage daughters to support. Both are smart: Margaret (Emily Howard), the elder sister, is shy and unpopular; Nicole (Emma Houghton), an 11-year-old mouthpiece for unfiltered observations, is phobic about social contact. Both performances amusingly and convincingly set forth characters:  Howard as the skeptical Margaret, whose essay on “the economic effect of automation on the women of the Third World” is her calling card; Houghton as the eerily watchful, wary little truth-sayer who’s stony-faced about the social niceties. 

As played by the engaging Kristi Hansen, Coco, though, has somehow armed herself with a plucky positivity fuelled by family mythology and parental aspirations. She is a veritable repository of aspirational slogans designed to implant dreams in others: “shy sometimes comes off as aloof” or “you need to get your feet wet if you’re gonna go swimming” or “it’s the startling line that counts.” Or this one: “luck changes,” short for the hope that the Miss Teen title will bring with it an alteration in family circumstances, including a university scholarship for Margaret.

Emily Howard, Patricia Cerra in Miss Teen, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Which brings us back to the teen pageant — and Coco’s brisk and glossy corporate-speak counterpart in sloganeering. With Dusty, the pageant’s improbable coach and polisher, Cerra has the play’s most thankless role, a parody of  clichés well past their prime for fighting back with any vigour.

“Choices about your outside reflect your inside,” she tells the glum Margaret, advising 15 minutes of smile exercise, “working up to half and hour.” Or “you have cheekbones. Use them.” As Dusty tells Coco, “”training to be a Miss Teen takes discipline…. She needs to bring her A-game to this.” Cerra, a skilled comic actor, steps up and attacks with gusto on pink stilettos (costume designer: Leona Brausen) and the kind of carnivorous smile that should terrify the rabbity.

Beauty pageants — even the more modern kind that claim to be about rewarding global vision, heart, soul, smarts, “being fresh” etc. instead of anything superficial like “beauty” — are a pretty tired target in truth. Miss Teen has a go anyway (you could call it bravely old-fashioned in a way), with its sample judges’ questions and its “correct” prescribed responses. When a candidate is asked “what makes you happy?” you should avoid saying Netflix. The only possible answer is “being there for other people.”

Dusty’s climactic advice, “just be yourself,” is of course the play’s most deliberate irony, and somehow it fails to fire at the crucial moment.

The story here, and the lessons therein, hinge on Margaret’s being cajoled, or bribed, or perhaps badgered by the persistence of her mama, into signing on to the teen pageant — and then, for reasons that are less clear, to say the least, being actively gung-ho herself,  The love of retro? The seductiveness of celebrity? The erosion of will? The desire to please trumping inherent smarts? Your guess is as good as mine. Darrin Hagen’s scene-separating score hints amusingly at conventional fairy tale fantasies.

Anyhow, when Margaret unexpectedly wins the first round, Coco steps up her tactics in ill-advised ways. Poor Margaret. Poor Coco. It is the determination of Miss Teen, rather self-evidently, that comedy and poignance should co-exist, and that lessons should be learned, and “issues” resolved before the end. 

The production, and Hansen’s performance, emphasize that the character is an empathetic, well-meaning stage mother who figures out that handing dreams to your kids instead of letting them devise their own can backfire. Hey, it’s called self-esteem for a reason. Coco doesn’t go down screaming or in a straitjacket; she gives up her plan in a graceful and good-natured way that seems less dramatically demanding but more touching.

The script is not without its comic inspirations. And you’ll have the fun of seeing what skilled actors can do in lack-lustre circumstances. There’s something theatrical in that. 


Miss Teen

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Michele Riml

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Patricia Cerra, Emily Howard, Emma Houghton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 10

Tickets: 780-434-5564,

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The Citadel’s upcoming 54th season: local stars in an international galaxy

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel

By Liz Nicholls,

The new logo is just the tip-off.

Monday afternoon at Edmonton’s largest playhouse artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled an ambitious upcoming Citadel season —  its 54th and his third as the architect of the company lineup.

Not unexpectedly at a big regional theatre, the lineup includes a blockbuster Broadway musical and a Pulitzer Prize winner; both come with unusual casting challenges en route to showcasing greater diversity onstage. There are new, less expected international partnerships — with a Brit rock musical en route to New York and an off-centre London-based comedy theatre company.

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New? There’s an alternative series for “the theatrically adventurous” and a new-script festival. After 19 Yule seasons the Citadel is retiring Tom Wood’s hit adaptation of A Christmas Carol for a new version, by Edmonton playwright David van Belle, directed by Cloran (Nov. 30 to Dec. 23). The company even ventures into the summer for the first time with a July musical (Ring of Fire, a Johnny Cash extravaganza), tucked between the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and the mighty Fringe (July 20 to Aug. 11). Notable director/choreographer Tracey Flye, a former Edmontonian, brings it to the stage.  

And as for wearing its Edmonton heart on its sleeve, at the centre of the new season there’s the mainstage premiere of a new play that, in every way, is recognizably of, by, and about this place. The Garneau Block is a stage adaptation, by Edmonton actor/playwright Belinda Cornish, of Todd Babiak’s hit 2006 novel The Garneau Block.

Belinda Cornish

It takes us to an Edmonton neighbourhood we all know, and introduces us, with subtle satirical zest, whimsical humour, and affection, to its idiosyncratic denizens — in a story where they come together to save something: the ‘hood. Says Cloran,  “A great Edmonton novelist, a terrific Edmonton playwright, an Edmonton story, premiering here in Edmonton … it’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing.”

Directed by the Citadel’s associate artistic director Rachel Peake, The Garneau Block runs March 14 to April 5. It anchors the new Collider Festival, the Citadel’s answer to Alberta Theatre Projects’ late-lamented new play festival PlayRites in Calgary, Cloran hopes. He says, “it’s our attempt to make the Citadel and Edmonton a destination for new work,” in something of the way Austin’s South By Southwest is a destination for new music. 

The Color Purple

The season opens with The Color Purple, the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the ensuing film, that chronicles the struggles of an African-American woman from the South in the early half of the previous century. Kimberley Rampersad (who’s choreographed Cloran’s upcoming production of Matilda), directs a cast of 16 African-Canadian performers, to be assembled from across the country (Sept. 21 to Oct. 13).

In a study of musical theatre contrasts, the Citadel’s other mainstage musical is a first Citadel collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (it plays here after its North American premiere in Chicago), Six springboarded from last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe into a hit run in the West End. 

As Cloran describes, Six is a sassy rock musical/ concert à la Spice Girls — “original pop music, very catchy; great sense of female empowerment!” — in which the much-abused wives of Henry VIII get together “to reclaim their identities” and generally rock out.The subtitle sheds light: “Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert.”

“I watched it at the Arts Theatre in London, surrounded by 20-somethings,” says Cloran. “It’s a lot of fun, a coup for us…. Soon it will be everywhere. But we got it first!”

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living gets its Canadian premiere in a Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club Theatre Company co-production directed by the latter’s Ashlie Corcoran (January 11 to Feb 2). In the play by Polish-born American writer Martyna Majok, we meet two couples: a young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver, and a woman who’s a quadriplegic and her ex-husband. Says Cloran, “it challenges our stereotypes — about disability, about care-giving. It’s about fragile human relationships.”

Cost of Living

“We’re always looking for ways to feature artists of different abilities onstage,” says Cloran. “And our audience, as we discovered from The Humans and Disgraced, is really up for great contemporary challenging stories.”

Two seasons ago, the biggest big shot in theatre history had writer’s block (Shakespeare in Love) at the Citadel. This season in April his magical late-period romance The Tempest is reimagined for a cast of deaf and hearing actors. Next season Shakespeare grooves to 25 Beatles songs, in the hit production of As You Like It created by Cloran for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach last summer.

Set in ‘60s Vancouver this high-spirited version of Shakespeare’s celebration of love proved the best-selling show in the history of the company, “literally off the chart,” Cloran laughs. “Joyous” was the word most often used by critics, right after “I never would have thought that….”

Cloran, who’d previously directed a 1920s version of Love’s Labours Lost for Bard on the Beach, says he “cut half Shakespeare’s text” for the songs (negotiations with seven different Beatles rights holders starting with Sony is a story in itself). Amazingly, he found that they “really tell the story,” in the arc of the celebrated catalogue “from the innocence and first blush of love” in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, say, through “the more philosophical offerings” of the later albums. 

What we’ll see Feb. 15 to March 15 is a new production, with an Edmonton cast. And Cloran revisits his challenge of building “a full-on wrestling ring” onstage; the show opens with a real-live wrestling match.

The season finale comes about through an unexpected small-world-isn’t-it? intersection of the international and the local. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the work of the British comedy outfit Mischief Theatre, creators of the giddy Broadway hit The Play That Goes Wrong, which recently closed a two-year Broadways run (it’s currently onstage in Toronto).

The Citadel/ Arts Club co-production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong (April 11 to May 3) will feature a Canadian cast of 12, directed by Londoner Adam Meggido, whom Edmonton audiences and actors already know for his improv virtuosity in Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thons.   

To even say the title Peter Pan Goes Wrong is to wince and laugh.  Cloran does both. “An (earnest) community theatre is trying their best to put on a production of Peter Pan and … well, yes there are mid-air collisions.”

The J.M. Barrie classic is up against it: falling stage lights, collapsing set, cues awry, and (try to not think about this) those flying wires . “It’s very technically complex,” says Cloran of the chaotic hilarity that attends the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s efforts. “I’ve never seen a revolve go that fast! And there’s a surprising amount of heart.”

Speaking of wires, Highwire is the Citadel’s new alternative series of three innovative, challenging productions — “risky theatre, theatre without a net,” as Cloran puts it. It will mostly happen in the Rice (the Citadel returns to this original name of its smallest 150- to 200—seat black box theatre, aka “The Club”).  “It’s a great opportunity for partnerships.  We can bring the work of exciting small companies to our audiences.”

The series opens in October ( 17 to 27) on the Maclab stage with a “truly interactive five-performer production” from the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. In Fight Night, as Cloran describes it, each actor steps forward to “make a pitch and plea, and the audience votes” which one to send off — until there’s a winner. “It celebrates the live nature of theatre,” he says of a show that will, by definition, be different every night. “I’m always drawn to work that can’t be a movie.” And in a ripple of synchronicity, this show about how we make choices happens during the federal election.

John Ullyatt

Every Brilliant Thing, by the Brit team of Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donahoe, “is one of the best scripts I’ve read in the last 10 years,” says Cloran of a play in which a young man struggles, for the benefit of his mother, to come up with a list of things that make life worth living. The Citadel production, directed by Dave Horak and starring John Ullyatt, runs in the Rice Feb. 1 to 23.

The third Highwire act (April 18 to May 10) in the Rice is Matthew MacKenzie’s After The Fire, which has just  finished a Toronto run. The dark comedy re-envisions, through an Indigenous lens, its earlier incarnation as Bust, which explored the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire while the ashes were still smouldering. Collaborating with After The Fire producers Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Arts is a way, says Cloran, of giving those smaller companies access to a wider audience. The aim is a tour. “We’ll launch it here, and send it out into the world.”

What isn’t in the new Citadel season? The Citadel/Banff Professional Program; this season’s The Tempest is the last of it. The cancellation, says Cloran, represents a “shift in priority to the development and showcasing of large-scale new work.”

“We’re increasing the amount of resources we’re putting into developing work and our spring new-work festival, Collider, will showcase the work nationally.”


Ring of Fire, July 20 to Aug. 22

The Color Purple, Sept. 21 to Oct. 13

Six, Nov. 2 to 24

A Christmas Carol (a new adaptation by David van Belle), Nov. 30 to Dec. 23

Cost of Living, Jan. 11 to Feb 2, 2020

As You Like It, Feb. 15 to March 15

The Garneau Block, March 14 to April 5

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, April 11 to May 3

Highwire: Fight Night (Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed),  Oct. 17 to 27; Every Brilliant Thing, Feb. 1 to 23;  After The Fire (Punctuate! Theatre, Alberta Aboriginal Arts), April to May 10.





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From story to myth: Lake of the Strangers asks “how do we heal?”

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

In Lake of the Strangers, the solo play that premieres this week at the Backstage Theatre, you’ll meet two Indigenous brothers, 10 and seven, on a mission out in the natural world.

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“It’s their last summer adventure together, just before summer ends,” says Hunter Cardinal. “And their goal is to catch a really big fish….” And if it takes sneaking out of the house at 2 a.m. and trekking through the woods to get to the lake, well….

He laughs. “Conflict ensues. You knew it would….”

Cardinal, one of the country’s young generation of accomplished and versatile Indigenous actors, stars in Lake of the Strangers. And he shares the playwriting credit with his big sister Jacquelyn Cardinal for this, his first one-man show.

“It starts in 1973 in Sucker Creek, the First Nations reserve on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake,” where the Cardinal family is from. “There’s an old house there my dad’s dad built.” And that’s the starting point for the brothers on their journey.

“1973 was a really powerful time for our people — and also for my dad and his brother growing up,” says Cardinal, a U of A theatre grad. “We’ve used a lot of our own family history….” It’s a family with deep roots and “a long line of sibling partnerships.”

Cardinal’s dad Lewis Cardinal is a well-known human rights activist, Indigenous educator, and sometime political candidate. His uncle Lorne Cardinal is a stage, film and TV star (Theatre Network plans to name the studio space in their rebuilt Roxy Theatre after him). And Cardinal traces his lineage back through his grandfather ,Cree Elder Don Cardinal, and Don’s writer/ activist brother Harold, back to the signing of Treaty 8 at the turn of the last century.

Now there’s a theatrical sibling collaboration in the family. Cardinal and his sister have been working on Lake of the Strangers for a year. Hunter follows the impetus back to a conversation with “Cree astronomer, Elder and knowledge keeper” Wilfred Buck., “He knows a lot about the myths that have been woven into the stars,”  says Cardinal, who took on English theatre’s most storied role when he played Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s Festival hit production of last summer.

“Their purpose is not only to guide us on the long journey, but keep us on course morally as well.” The Cree concept for this starry tapestry of myths is “misewa,” and it’s been a mantra and a method for the young artist. “It’s our connection to all that was, all that is, and all that will be. And it reminds us that those stories exist in a sea of other stories that have yet to be created and shared.. I took that as a call to action!” 

Myth-making fascinates him, says Cardinal, heir to a whole tradition of Nehiyaw myths. The idea is “to begin with the seed of a truth, and drive that truth upward through all levels of interconnectedness: your family, your community, your nation, through the natural world to the spiritual world.” The spiral he describes “ends with a story placed in the stars as part of a new constellation.”

The story of Lake of the Strangers began, he says, with a question: “how do we heal?” And “in typical Edmonton fashion a great team has joined us,” distinguished veteran artists like director Ron Jenkins (who’s known Hunter and Jacquelyn since they were little kids), designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll, singer-songwriter Sarah Pocklington, sound designer Aaron Macri. Cardinal plays multiple characters, a challenge in focus and clarity. “Hamlet was great preparation!” he laughs.

Cardinal is “Director of Story” at Naheyawin, an Indigenous communication agency designed to build community, to help clients find ways of embracing diversity, to invite them to look at the world “through an Indigenous lens,” as he puts it. “Building community to reinvigorate the spirit of peace and friendship that’s at the core of our identity as Canadian Indigenous and treaty people…. I’ve been using all of that within my artistic practice as well. Naheyawin has been a lifeline for me as an Indigenous artist”

As Hamlet, I based my performance heavily on my unique experience as a young indigenous male in exploring Western concepts of masculinity. I used it to frame the deep anger, rage, sadness that Hamlet is going through, his feeling of not being able to live up to certain expectations.”

The spirit of inclusiveness is a theme that Hunter returns to repeatedly. “It’s another way of looking at language,” he says, “to think of it as a way of taking part, singing the song of the world.”

He singles out the Cree word “tatawaw” (which Naheyawin uses to title its workshops). “It translates as “welcome’. But what it really means is ‘there is room’.”  


Lake of the Strangers

Theatre: Naheyawin, in collaboration with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Jacquelyn Hunter and Hunter Cardinal

Starring: Hunter Cardinal

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

Running: Tuesday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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The Cardiac Shadow: where the soul goes under extreme duress. A review.

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

In the theatre, the dim light glints off the barbed wire that separates us from the stage.

At the back we can just make out a kind of altar, draped in bulbs. It turns out to be a dismembered upright piano from the back, its keys hanging from the sides, along with a selection of violins and cellos, and wooden spoons. The pianist sitting beside me is disturbed by the image.

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Actually everything about the prospect of The Cardiac Shadow, premiering at Northern Light Theatre, is disturbing. It is, after all, imagined from a chilling footnote in the real-life book of Holocaust horrors: a Nazi extreme-temperature experiment that used the prisoners of Ravensbruck concentration camp to ascertain whether body heat and proximity can re-warm near-frozen human flesh. Jewish male prisoners were immersed in ice-water tanks to the point of death; women prisoners were made to lie naked with the survivors to assess whether life can be restored on this terrible threshhold between survival and extinction.

Grim, to say the least (and theatre that takes on the immensity of the Holocaust often seems to be saying the least). 

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

But The Cardiac Shadow, which began as a series of monologues by the American writer Clay McLeod Chapman, isn’t a re-enactment of torture, or an invitation to be appalled, or even a cautionary tale. Not exactly. In the conception of Northern Light director Trevor Schmidt, it’s an elegantly artful little chamber piece. And the chamber in question is the mind, or more precisely the memory vault where the human mind can travel and warm itself when the present is too terrible to bear.

Where is that place? The Cardiac Shadow finds it for each of the four women, used as bodies, human thermometers, by the Nazi Dr. Rascher.   

In extremity, the body and the soul are able to go their separate ways. The director’s performance concept is to separate the women’s voices, a vocal track of monologues from four actors, from their bodies, a quartet of accomplished dancers from The Good Women Dance Collective.

There’s a certain paradox, to be sure, built into the conception of  survival as a matter of the soul breaking free of the body, to imagine instead this liberation as … bodies in motion. But the imagery of remembering, as created by dancers who express themselves physically, makes for haunting theatrical visuals. The dancers step out of sculptural-looking group tableaux, bathed in painterly golden light (designed by Beth Dart), to present their monologue in physical form, against the sound of an actor’s voice and Dave Clarke’s music. And then they return to the group.

The production begins with the voice of Dr. Rascher, the scientist who presided over the so-called “Cold Conference” experiment. You hear the voice of actor Vance Avery against an eerie, vintage-looking 12-minute black-and-white film.

It’s a strangely uninflected delivery. It’s As Dr. Rascher, apparently a devoted and indulgent father, talks about his gold-haired little daughter, you see a beautiful little girl in the snow, happily unpacking an old suitcase of props and costume pieces, playing dress-up. Amongst the articles she removes from the case to play with are a tiny menorah and a Hebrew prayer shaw. Your heart stops when you see them. And then they’re gone.

In the monologue the playwright gives him, Dr. Rascher talks imperturbably on about his precious little girl in one breath, and in the next the Ravensbruck women on whom he’s experimenting — as if they were on a continuum, with no acknowledgment of moral contradiction. “Seeing how peaceful they looked, how serene they seemed, huddled together on that bed — I swear, I never wanted to wake them.” If there’s anything the 20th century has taught us it’s that the human mind is capable of any kind of acrobatic contortion.

The dancers have risen to the challenge of expressing the voice-over monologues in different ways. And the writing is different in each. To a score dominated by cello, Mary, danced by Alida Kendell (with the voice of Nadien Chu), in the most erotic of the segments, reflects on an unbearable present: “our bodies are our blankets now…. It’s difficult to say whose shivers are whose. We shiver for each other.” From this she returns again and again to the bed where she explores, in close-up, a mole on the body of her lover. 

The Cardiac Shadow, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

In a lovely balletic fantasy fuelled by the spirit of classical music, Kate Stashko, with the voice of Rachel Bowron, is Anna. She’s a musician herself who finds her escape in music, especially Mozart. Her image about playing the body of a first lover like a cello is memorably realized.

Ainsley Hillyard (with the voice of Megan Dart) remembers a young and vibrant self,  conjuring a trip to the beach, “basking in the sun, warming ourselves.” It happens onstage in Hillyard’s invention, in strange, almost playful, body angles and collapses, to the sound of waves. And she’s joined in her memory by the other dancers, a ghostly corps of smiling friends.

One of McLeod Chapman’s monologues stands defiantly apart from the others. Jarringly so, I think. Sarah, danced with muscular force and eloquence by Alison Kause to the edgy, angled voice of Elisa Benzer, is firmly rooted in the bleak present — and the decision to  survive, not by finding a secret place of spiritual sustenance but by taking food from the mouths of the dying in the camp. It’s a confession of sorts (“thank God I’ve gotten hell out of the way”), accompanied by Edvard Munch-ian  facial contortions and aggressive Beethoven riffs (Clarke’s musical choices are always expressive). 

Is it a (possibly unnecessary) reminder that survival is only a fantasy under the circumstances (though it certainly explains the wooden spoons hanging from the “altar”)? The ending, a startling theatrical effect in lighting that evokes thoughts of religious miracles, returns us to the mind of Dr. Fascher, and his discovery about the heart. In hypothermic shutdowns, it is the last to give up the ghost, .

“Multi-disciplinary” is an oft-tortured term in the arts. Here’s a production that experiments with using dance, theatre, music, and film in an original amalgam — as an homage to imagination under unthinkable circumstances.


The Cardiac Shadow

Theatre: Northern Light/ The Good Women Dance Collective

Written by: Clay McLeod Chapman

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: The Good Women Dance Collective (Alida Kendell, Alison Kause, Kate Stashko, Ainsley Hillyard, and (voice-overs) Nadien Chu, Elisa Benzer, Rachel Bowron, Megan Dart, Vance Avery

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

Running: Friday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-471-1586,


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Sweat, a blue-collar tragedy of work and race, at the Citadel: A review

Nicole St. Martin and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

If you’ve ever wondered why disenfranchised workers seem to vote, time and again, against their own economic self-interest — and it’s a moment in history to be awestruck by that — the play currently onstage at the Citadel speaks powerfully to that. 

In a world where ruthless capitalism has leached not just the future but the soul from blue-collar labour, simmering disappointment, betrayal, and bewilderment turn into rage. And rage looks for an easy target, like race. Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s prophetic Pulitzer Prize winner, which dates from 2015, pre-Trump, is about that. It’s ugly, it’s compassionate, and its violence has the inevitability of Greek tragedy. 

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Sweat arrives on the mainstage in a gritty and intense Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production directed by Valerie Planche, that bristles with fully committed performances. The focal point of Nottage’s big, crammed canvas of an industrial America going down down down, is the neighbourhood bar that’s a second home for factory workers to gather post-shift to chill, share news, and/or get wasted. In Shizuka Kai’s atmospheric design, it’s one of those cluttered havens, where the bartender has a jar for the car keys of the blotto, in the shadow of an eerie skeletal town. 

It’s where three old working-class friends, who’ve sweated on the line for decades (like their parents and grandparents before them), always celebrate their birthdays together: Tracey (Nicole St. Martin), Cynthia (Marci T. House), and Jessie (Lora Brovold), along with an empathetic bartender (Ashley Wright) who worked the line himself till a leg injury at work intervened.

Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We’re in the the dying rustbelt town of Reading, Penn.(where the  playwright did extensive first-hand research), sustained for generations by its steel tubing factory factory and by blue-collar loyalty. What happens to a haven that turns into a dangerous tinderbox, and what happens to friendship that operates easily across racial lines, is a complex story of disintegration — of friendships, marriages, dreams, hopes. Lay-offs, lock-outs as a negotiating tool, salary rollbacks, the corporate crushing of unions, picket lines and the temps who cross them … they all take their toll on the old bonds. And as Planche’s production chronicles, tensions escalate, fuelled by white racist venom and lubricated by booze and drugs. The past, and all its sweat equity, is under siege; the future may not exist.

“Tell me what I did wrong,” says Cynthia’s sometime husband Brucie (Anthony Santiago), sliding into druggy despair. He stood with the union, that’s what he did. And he got locked out for years, for his loyalty.

The immediate trigger is a promotion to low-level management of the African-American Cynthia over the head of Tracey, her white co-worker. And nothing is the same after that. As the former, House, compellingly authentic, conveys the conflicted drive of a woman torn between loyalty and the only opportunity for advancement she’s ever had, as a black person in a oppressive racist culture. The moment will turn to ashes. As she breaks the news of a 60 per cent pay cut and lay-offs she wonders if the promotion wasn’t a set-up so that that the African-American will be the message-bearer.

Marci T. House and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

St. Martin is just superb as the fiery Tracey, incinerating her own better, more cordial instincts in a conflagration of resentment, anti-immigrant and racist fury, and irrational blame. It’s a performance that really bites into the character, and virtually ricochets across the stage on a jet stream of anger. Brovold as Jessie, gradually dissolving in booze, is excellent too.

In fact, the ensemble takes the overlapping rhythms, the ebbs and surges of bar encounters, into its collective bones. As Stan the bartender, Wright, who is a terrific actor, presides over the scene as a the calming, humane father figure and seer whose resignation occasionally splinters. Did the company reward the loyalty of a worker of 28 years standing when he got injured? “I was nothing!” he says.

In an ensemble that’s convincing through and through, Oscar, the ignorable Colombian-American bar busboy, is mostly silent and altogether invisible to the clientele — until he isn’t. Alen Dominguez is excellent: watchful, patient, wary, shut out by both the corporate and the social culture. A little scene, furious and somehow a bit poignant, between Oscar and the hostile Tracey as he tries to bum a cigarette lingers in the mind. 

Chris W. Cook and Anthony Santiago, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The play, which unfolds in scenes separated by an ominous industrial heartbeat in Mishelle Cuttler’s score, opens in 2008 (the year not coincidentally that America’s banks pleaded crisis and got a bail-out). It opens with Tracey’s and Cynthia’s sons, Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Chris (Andrew Creightney) respectively, getting out of prison for an unspecified crime that will be revealed at the end.

They are struggling with disappointment and failure, in different ways. Jason, still rippling with fury, has turned into some sort of white supremacist. Chris tries his luck with religion. Their lives have been tainted forever, and they know it. And Sweat returns to them at the end. They are, after all, the human cost going forward of a terrible failure to read the writing on the wall, and understand that the world has left them behind. 



Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club and Citadel

Written by: Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Valerie Planche

Starring: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez

Running: Thursday through Feb. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs: the fascination of escape, an unlikely radical. A review

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

The international stage repertoire has no shortage of shows about the entertainment world and its fractious backstage — where dreamers and achievers, stars and wannabes, artsy bright-idea types and antsy bottom-line producers, collide.

Still, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs is, I strongly suspect, the only show of the season in which new play development, and rehearsals, involve a handcuffed performer sticking her head in a bucket of water, and emerging with a gasp, triumphantly dangling the cuffs.

The fascinating new play, by magician/ illusionist/ playwright Ron Pearson — starring a stunning performer with an equally improbable collection of those qualifier slashes, actor/ escape artist Miranda Allen — premieres in the Roxy Performance Series in a production directed by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

It opens in the dark, to the sound of water and a ticking clock. Together, they equal suspense. In the show that follows, we meet an entertainer who finds her place in showbiz and her true self in life holding her breath underwater, breaking free of chains and ropes and locks of every kind, and counting down to deadlines. It makes me nervous even thinking about it. 

Uniquely qualified for the role, Allen plays the real-life Edwardian escape artist Minerva Vano, whose prowess (and radical novelty as a woman showing it off) made her a sensation — and a rival of Harry Houdini. And Pearson’s script, which springboards from the gallery of characters provided by history, all of them male except her, has an organic feminist momentum to it.

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

It’s framed by flashbacks to performances and backstage encounters conjured under hypnosis, a new turn-of-the-century fad. Plagued by crippling mid-career panic and anxiety — in that line of work, who wouldn’t be? —  Minerva consults a hypnotist (the chameleonic Richard Lee Hsi, in one of his multiple roles). And under his prompting, her memory coughs up flashbacks from a career built on an extraordinary talent for escaping shackles, of one kind or another.

What is it you do? wonders the hypnotist. “I escape from things,” says Minerva. And then, onstage and with audience participation to tie the ropes, tighten the straps, and lock the locks, she does. 

Allen and Lee Hsi deftly create a performance style that nods to the period and the vintage escapes that are its source material. Allen’s Minerva doesn’t have a contemporary street hustle and edge about her as she deals with her audience volunteers: there’s a whiff of risqué about her bustling cheerfulness, but only a whiff. Radicalism still wears button shoes, a high-topped dress, and a pleasant smile in 1905.

Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As all the men in Minerva’s world, including the suave and threatening Houdini, a villain in a tux, Lee Hsi creates a variety of 19th century showbiz men, from the patronizing to the sinister. They don’t realize that the era is changing, right under their well-shod feet. 

Minerva’s signature act and greatest hit was escaping from a water-filled barrel while chained (while it’s not re-enacted, it’s evoked). For run-of-the-mill claustrophobes such as myself, this is of course the ultimate nightmare, followed closely by jumping off bridges while chained. But for Minerva, who’s addicted to the adrenalin rush from escaping as the clock ticks, panic is a horrifying new development.

We see Minerva with her first husband Willie, a n’er-do-well touring magician with a certain chipper, wheedling, ever-hopeful charm and the financial acumen of a gnat, as Lee Hsi plays him. And Minerva’s first escapes are from flea-bag hotels in the middle of the night, to avoid paying. “We’re gonna hit the big time,” Willie is fond of saying. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, it’s Willie who suggests an “escape act” involving water and a locked barrel. He needs, he says, “something no one else is doing.” Minerva is game, but wonders “so how exactly do you escape?” And he cries “details!” Idea guys are like that. He reads the racing form while Minerva hits the (rehearsal) bucket.

Tessa Stamp’s design for Moss’s production, lit by Scott Peters, is responsive to the conjuring that goes into magic-making and escape. The fore-stage has an alluring simplicity: a trunk, a chair, hanging bulbs. They’re the props of a magic that has to start from nothing to be persuasive, and transcends predictable human possibility. The backstage, shrouded behind a black veil, is lit by a dim chandelier. The combination of preternatural skill and mystery, what is lit and what is in darkness, is at the heart of the show.

And by the time Allen is escaping from a triple-knotted noose or an impossibly tightened straitjacket in three minutes — will she? won’t she? is this the one performance where the straitjacket wins? — you feel you’re holding your breath. Artfully framed as a story, the play relies on that escalation of tension and sense of wonder.

For all that, and the big reveal of a mystery at the end — it’s a wowsa! — there’s a certain heart-on-sleeve innocence about Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Bonds and escapes, it points out, come in many challenges, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a man’s world, after all.

It invites you to cheer when Minerva unlocks thumb cuffs “used by Scotland Yard.” And, equally, you’re invited to cheer when Minerva declares her intention to have a solo escapist career, or resists sexist advances from a thuggish manager in an expensive coat. It wants to be inspiring in the time-honoured, applause-magnet way that escape acts work. And it is.


Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Written by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440,


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