19 Weeks: “It’s not something anybody talks about.” Emily Steel’s story of a harrowing real-life decision, her own

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“One of the things that made it so hard was that you feel completely isolated — because it’s not something anyone talks about. I had no reference points. I had nobody to talk to, nobody who’d been through an experience like that…. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”

— Emily Steel

In 2016, the Welsh-born Australian playwright Emily Steel made a thorny (and inevitably controversial) decision. She had a late termination after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Just a year later, she made another hard decision: to tell the story of that real-life experience to people, honestly, in a play.

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19 Weeks, getting its Canadian premiere Friday in a Northern Light and Azimuth Theatre collaboration starring the latter’s co-artistic director Vanessa Sabourin, is that play. 

It’s a fall Tuesday morning in Adelaide, where Steel and her partner moved, from London, in 2010. And the playwright, a warm, thoughtful, cheerfully direct voice on the phone, has dropped her little boy off at kindergarten (he’s just started his first-ever term at school) and walked the dog. And she’s back home drinking tea, considering the harrowing, traumatizing experience of 2016, recorded so unflinchingly in 19 Weeks.

Playwright Emily Steel. Photo supplied.

“You just don’t know what the path might look like. You just don’t know,” says Steel. “Having no reference points and nobody to talk to about it just made the whole experience harder. Not only are you going through something difficult you feel completely alone….”

“It’s the point of writing the play,” she declares. “I feel like one of the things theatre can do is it can make people feel less alone, if they can relate to a story they hear told onstage, connect to it…. As a playwright I want to tell stories about women, stories that are complex and not necessarily the ones that are normally told. So when all of this happened, I had to look at myself and go ‘are you the writer that you think you are?’ Then this is the story you need to tell….”

And tell it she did. Which required more than a little bravery under the circumstances — the cautious gravitate to secrecy — though Steel wouldn’t put it that way. She does concede she anticipated disapproval, maybe even rejection. “When I made the decision to have the termination I thought ‘this might mean there are a lot of people in this town who won’t want to work with me any more’.”

“But I also thought I’m not going to be able to keep this a secret.. I think if something has happened to you, you carry the experience and if you can’t talk about it, that’s extra weight.… And I was also a bit angry about the carrying the weight of the secret. I thought ‘there is no way I’m also going to do that…”

“In all honesty, I thought ‘if I write this play I may never work again’. And I thought I’d just do it anyway.” Steel pauses, a smile in her voice:  I was feeling a bit bloody-minded at the time.”

“It was a difficult thing to write down,” she says. “But in the long run it’s probably been quite helpful; it means that the story is filed in a different place in my head now,” she says, “the ‘work region’ rather than the ‘difficult life experience region’.… For a lot of people the choice to not talk is the right one. For me, talking about it was the best one.”

And Steel discovered, through her play, she wasn’t alone. “It’s been extraordinary,” she says. People would come up after the show to talk about their own experiences, she says. “People are very emotional, in tears…. Quite often I get hugs. It’s quite beautiful. Very moving, very humbling to be trusted with stories they’ve never told anyone, for fear of being judged.”

“The feedback here from the Down Syndrome community is they think women are pressured into having abortions after that diagnosis. My experience was the opposite. I felt like the social pressure, unspoken, was the other way … to continue with the pregnancy even though I didn’t want to.”

Steel had tapped her own life in plays before, but there were, needless to say, particular risks attached to writing about her own late-term abortion. “I’m attracted to characters who don’t necessarily behave in the prescribed manner, who say things you’re not meant to say, do things you’re not meant to do,” says Steel cheerfully. “The idea of transgression and what that means….” 

“Society has huge expectations about women, and what it wants women to do,” as she puts it. “And if you choose a certain path, you’re a bad woman, or a bad mother, or you’re not fulfilling your role. That’s something we need to tackle, and will continue to need to tackle. Probably for a long time.

“You’re in a position where the choice you are making is completely legal. There are medical, ethical, and personal justifications for it. But it still feels like a transgression. What is it that makes you think and feel that? Is it from a lifetime of being told what it is to be a mother, what it is to love, what it is to be a good person?”

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light and Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“Some of what 19 Weeks is about is admitting to feelings you’re not supposed to feel but that everybody does.” Steel looks for an example. “In grief you might feel enormous rage but what you’re supposed to feel is (just) sad. Sad is O.K. Anger is ‘what’s wrong with you?’”

19 Weeks, which has sold out in every incarnation, is the third play Steel wrote in Australia and took first to the  giant Adelaide Fringe and then to Melbourne. “If you’re in a new country and you don’t know anyone, hey, you can put a play in the Fringe!” — an inspiration thought that should resonate with Edmonton artists and audiences.

It premiered in a pool (“my idea, but I wasn’t entirely serious!”) at the Adina Apartment complex: an audience of 30 took off their shoes and socks, sat around the edge, and dangled their feet in the water. The performer Tiffany Lyndal Knight, in a red bathing suit looking vulnerable and alone in the intimate setting, played Emily, conjuring all the characters, including Steel’s partner Chris and her then-two-year-old son Frank, in, on, and under the water. “It made initial rehearsal quite a challenge,” says Steel. “For the performer it was physically exhausting; there were days I was afraid she’d drown..”

In the end Steel says “it was a crazy idea that turned out to be a good idea…. People read the water as a metaphor; there’s a lot of emotion in water. And they see different things in it: tears, amniotic fluid….” And it gave the production, despite its heavy subject matter, “a certain lightness.”

The Edmonton production directed by Trevor Schmidt at the Studio Theatre in the Arts Barns is the first production of 19 Weeks on dry land. And Steel would love to see it, she says.

Does she still recognize herself in the play? Steel, who rejected from the start the idea of starring in 19 Weeks herself, thinks for a moment. “The actor took on the role so fully that everybody, I and the audience, felt like it was her story….  even if they knew us.”

“I wanted it to be a piece of theatre, not a confessional,” Steel says. “I wanted the audience to be able to react in whatever way they want — to the story not to the person.”

“It’s not a story about making a decision,” she says, remembering the resolve of her slightly younger self. “I think in some ways the play wouldn’t be as confronting if it had been more about the difficulty of making a decision…. But it’s a story about how you go through a decision.”

PREVIEW

19 Weeks

Theatre: Northern Light and Azimuth

Written by: Emily Steel

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Vanessa Sabourin

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

Running: Friday through April 13

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door

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Say Yes to flight: Slight of Mind takes us through the secret caverns of the Citadel

 

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What goes up must come down. In the multi-pronged flight of fancy that opens Friday at the Citadel, you’ll do a little of both as Slight of Mind takes you on a journey into the wild blue yonder: the secret nooks and crannies of the cavernous glass-and-brick playhouse downtown.

The roving production, part of the Citadel’s new-play Collider initiative, is the latest from Theatre Yes , the adventurous indie company that doesn’t say No to experiments in immersive theatre in unexpected places. 

In The Elevator Project, Theatre Yes explored the dynamics of storytelling in nine downtown elevators, spaces so intimate we were cast as voyeurs and eavesdroppers (or participants), elbow to rib with actors in 16 short plays. Anxiety led us through tense encounters in a secret industrial warehouse. In the Theatre Yes installation Viscosity, we came face to face with real-life stories of oil workers.

And now, in the new adventure fashioned by the award-winning actor/playwright Beth Graham (Pretty Goblins, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble), we’ll fly the friendly skies of Icarus Air. As a nine-member corps of Icarus flight attendants leads us through the non- theatre spaces in the labyrinthine Citadel complex, we’ll be on a flight path designed to take us into the heart of myth, explains Theatre Yes artistic director/ producer Heather Inglis. 

The invitation to “explore the architecture” came from the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, says Inglis. “We started with the gaze.… What could be seen outside through the glass? What could be seen looking in? We worked to find a way of highlighting the building.”

Inglis’s cast improvised up on their feet: “we’ve never created that way before!” And Graham devised three interlocking stories of flight, linked by a nine-year-old girl (Ivy DeGagné) who dreams of becoming a pilot,  All three stories have a mythic reverb, starting with Icarus (Philip Geller), the boy who flew too close to the sun with his custom-made wax and feather wings, and paid a big price. And, says Inglis, all three storylines are imbued with paradox: “the contradiction between aspiration, and the inevitability that if we fly we must come down….”

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

In one of aviation history’s most celebrated mysteries, we meet the pilot Amelia Earhart (Melissa Thingelstad) who vanished into thin air in 1937 during an aerial circumnavigation of the globe. In 1958 Valentina Tereshkova (Lora Brovold), factory worker-turned-cosmonaut, risked “a close call” for the distinction of being the first woman in space: 48 orbits in a Vostok 6.

Slight of Mind, says Inglis, “is partly about the trade-offs we make to get the most out of life…. Love and the way it’s undermined by the human will to achieve.”

In an age when truth has lost its lustre, its value and its contours to counterfeits, myth retains its special impact. “There’s a truth in myth. Fiction reveals truth…. And myths are by their nature timeless; they speak to now, in a society with oppressive regimes that manipulate truth and constrict freedom,” says Inglis. 

Playwright Graham, who usually works in more traditional dramatic structures with an audience that sits still, rose to the challenge of setting a play in motion “as a physical journey to different spaces,” as Inglis puts it.

Graham’s intertwined story arcs take the production along two pathways. The audience (maximum 60) meets at the Citadel box office, the departure lounge so to speak. And we get divided into two groups that journey to sites in a different order. The play “embraces the reality that people are walking,” says Inglis. Slight of Mind parallels the disorienting experience of being in an airport: “it’s illogical; you’re always in motion and you don’t know why or where. Each experience has a gate number, and that scene becomes a flight of the imagination….”

Contributions from the innovative composer/sound designer Gary James Joynes and video designer Ian Jackson make Slight of Mind “seem less like a traditional play and more like a poem,” says Inglis. “It’s a love-letter to risk-takers.”

PREVIEW
Slight Of Mind

Theatre: Theatre Yes in collaboration with the Citadel Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed and produced by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Lora Brovold, Ivy DeGagné, Philip Geller, Cole Humeny, Ian Leung, Byron Martin, Silverius Materi, Rebecca Merkley, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Meet at Citadel box office

Running: March 27 to April 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Lungfuls of anxiety: Lungs at Shadow Theatre. A review

Jake Tkaczyk and Elena Porter in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Times being what they are, are you still “good people” if you decide to become parents? To bring another being into a world that’s already over-crammed with beings? A kid leaves a carbon footprint that’s bigger than “flying from London to New York and back every day for seven years.”

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In the first scene of Lungs, a crackling and edgy two-hander by the Brit playwright Duncan MacMillan, we meet a couple having this volatile “conversation” — in the lineup at IKEA. “I’m not freaking out!” declares Woman, freaking out in a veritable torrent of free-associative freak-out to Man’s thought that maybe they should have a baby. “It’s like you punched me in the face and then asked me a math question.”

The actors, Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk, have valiantly stepped in, on short notice (a week ago) to the production now directed by John Hudson and Emma Houghton when the original cast departed.

Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Theirs is not an inconsiderable achievement in a scant week’s rehearsal. Lungs doesn’t have a set or props or costume changes, true. But at 90 continuous minutes, it takes a daunting amount of lung power: it’s full to overflowing with words, edgy shards and cross-hatched fragments. And there are no breaks or even pauses between scenes. Understandably, Porter and Tkaczyk had scripts in hand on the re-scheduled opening night even if they weren’t tied to using them.

The script by Macmillan (whose Every Brilliant Thing is part of the upcoming Citadel season), is a window into an anxious generation, one that operates routinely at red alert — vis-à-vis the planet, the environment, and the all-absorbing self. And it charts the rocky course of a relationship that’s relentlessly, neurotically, self-questioning in its assessments of the political as it rubs up against the personal. How do you know if you’re doing the right thing about the planet and the fate of humanity? Is it more moral to refuse to procreate and bring a new lost person into the environmental disaster of the world — if thereby you’re leaving procreation exclusively to the kind of people who don’t even read much less recycle and just aren’t as thoughtful as you? 

The most volatile (and voluble) of the pair is W, a smart, confrontational, and unstoppably wired PhD student in something worthy like environmental studies. And Porter, a magnetic actor, is riveting and funny in her breathlessly one-sided self-torturing, ranting “conversations,” continually readjusted with second thoughts about the world, the doomed environment, sex, climate change, parenting and parents, feelings over logic…. W wants her emotional needs anticipated and met without having to ask, but she doesn’t know what they are.

As M, a musician without a regular (sorry I mean, corporate sell-out) job, Tkaczyk captures the way M, conciliatory by nature, is always stranded a beat or two behind W’s ricocheting train of thought. He veers between bewildered and exasperated; his hair is always a little bit standing on end, which may be a sartorial representation of his footing in the relationship. 

The actors are already into the crazy pellmell rhythms of an impatient piece that can’t be bothered with creating fictional spaces on the bare stage. And they’ll be more confident as the run continues.

Time can’t be stopped, or separated out into manageable bits. It’s night-time it’s morning then it’s night again it’s months later, or years. And in the last quarter of the play, where an actual plot kicks into the love story, events over the course of a lifetime are telescoped in a rush.

Are we actually good people? Is it enough to “support smaller coffee shops instead of chains — even when it tastes like dirt?” Lungs, which has a kind of twitchy, itchy brilliance about it, wonders about wondering about that. There’s an originality in that.

REVIEW

Lungs

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Duncan MacMillan

Starring: Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 31

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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Improvised Star Wars on the planet YEG, at the Grindstone

Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Spring seat sale: I visited the planet YEG last night, a gritty post-apocalyptic landscape (and cantina) “far from everything that’s really happening.”

Kanuck, cantina proprietor and aspirational Bounty Hunter in training, had evidently screwed up his first assassination assignment in last night’s edition of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Guilt-plagued, Kanuck (Tristan Ham) was visiting his gruesomely wounded victim (and party-hearty bro) PartyBot (Jesse Gervais) in hospital — and revisiting his career goals. “I don’t have the killer instinct,” he wailed. “You’re in pieces, a shell of what you were….” Which only goes to show that being a BH isn’t all fun and games and cheery acts of murderous violence, my friends.

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We’re ensconced in a tiny, lively comedy club just off Whyte on happening 81st Ave. The bar is dotted with improv stars having a snack and a beer after a performance of Wagon Load, a recurring improvised entertainment (directed by Dana Andersen) in which a major television network is vetting scripts for a new Western series.

At the 9 p.m. performance of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga, happening at the Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro twice a month, a deluxe (and rotating) cast of improvisers, many of them Die-Nasty regulars, has assembled to unleash their low-budget ingenuity and comic chops on one of the most high-budget high-profile other-galaxy scenarios the entertainment world has ever seen.

A repressive imperialist regime is in progress. The military, led by General Nova Toxin (Tom Edwards), is in charge, in a dithery, slightly needy way. Captain Jane Phasma (Chantal Perron) is the formidable, quite possibly out-and-out evil head of enforcement and torture. “We need to extract information,” says the one. “And an organ or two,” says the other.

Naturally, there are rebel forces. One of them, with particularly fetching wind-swept hair, is being tortured. The prisoner, Frank O’Phoné (Vince Forcier) is looking quite a lot worse for wear. He bravely proposes that “it’s the accent, right? That’s ethnic profiling….”

An exuberant and very funny pair of Keystone rebels, played by Jesse Gervais and Donovan Workun, are brainstorming an expedition into the heart of the enemy establishment. The smaller and rounder of the two is complaining about “the paper work” involved in the hatching of rebellion. Soon they will set forth to infiltrate and sabotage, etc. As soon as they find the keys to the space ship.

Matt Alden Dykes directs — a wry, amused introducer and annotator of scenes. “In this scene Vincent Forcier will be making acting look very very hard….”

The costume pieces, props, masks, fun to see, are selected for their cheap-theatre hilarity. And a variety of sound effects is supplemented by improvised music (the invaluable Paul Morgan Donald), full of portentous Star Wars references, and nods to the gummier end of musical theatre balladry. Yes, to anticipate your question, there are improvised musical numbers.

The Grindstone, after all, is the home of The 11 O’Clock Number, led by Byron Martin (the founder and artistic director of the Grindstone), in which entire musicals get improvised, an amazing weekly feat of musical theatre dexterity.

Also amazing is this: The cast of Kanuck’s Cantina, supplemented by guest stars, is obviously tuned to the classical frequency. They do Shakespeare once a month — the plays that somehow Will never quite got around to writing.

I can tell you this, but keep it to yourself: A Jedi in disguise has been detected on planet YEG. What will happen next? No one knows; there’s no one to ask. The only thing to do is show up at the Grindstone, grab a drink, and find out for yourself.

Check out the full schedule of performances, six nights a week till late — sketch comedy, standup, cabaret, improv of every size, shape, and style — at grindstonetheatre.ca.

  

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Dear Evan Hansen arrives in the upcoming Broadway Across Canada season

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

An innovative award-winner of a Broadway musical with every kind of contemporary traction is the finale of the upcoming three-show Broadway Across Canada season.

Dear Evan Hansen, arriving at the Jube Feb. 11 to 16 2020, has been  sold out in New York ever since it opened on Broadway in late 2016. It chronicles a declension into deception by a solitary and awkward high school kid caught up in an escalating social media frenzy set in motion by his own failure to correct a misunderstanding about a teen suicide.  The musical — book by Steven Levenson and music by the wunderkind team of Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) — gets to the very heart of the experience of being young and feeling desperately alone.

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Among its competitors for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2017 (which it took home, along with five other Tonys) was Come From Away, currently stopping down in Canadian ports of call on its North American tour.

The new three-show Broadway Across Canada season opens in September (3 to 8) with another landmark Tony winner: Jonathan Larson’s Rent returns as part of a 20th anniversary tour. The 1996 rock musical updates the scenario of the Puccini opera La Bohème and takes its scenes of imperilled youthful exuberance to New York’s East Village.

The heroine of Waitress, the heartwarming 2016 musical based on the Adrienne Shelly movie (with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles), is a woman trapped in a bad marriage — and finally empowered to do something about it. It runs Nov. 26 to Dec. 1. The add-on option is the much-travelled Wicked, the untold backstory of the witches in the Oz story (Aug. 12 to 22, 2020). 

There’s a big bonus attached to subscribing: when they renew, subscribers from the 2019-2020 season get first crack at tickets to Hamilton, coming in the 2020-2021 season.

Meanwhile, subscriptions are available at 1-866-540-7469 or BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca.

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Small Mouth Sounds: the human comedy gets the silent treatment at the Roxy. A review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There aren’t many words in it, but Small Mouth Sounds isn’t what you’d call quiet. The silent treatment is loud in the ingenious, funny, and mysteriously affecting play that the indie company Wild Side has brought us in a superb Canadian premiere production at the Roxy. It’s not to be missed.

In the play, by the young American writer Bess Wohl, six strangers, a mismatched assortment of urbanites who would ordinarily never meet much less spend time together, have showed up at a bucolic five-day silent retreat led by a famous spiritual guru. Each is steeped in private miseries, fears, rage, pain. And as Jim Guedo’s perfectly calibrated production reveals, in a world with minimal verbiage, throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising are major incidents.

Every sigh, cough and grimace, every snort and munch, gasp and giggle, count. Big time. And Nature, as captured and amplified by Guedo’s sound design, is a veritable sound fest: rain, wind, birdsongs, the rustle that could be a bear, the roar that is a bear.  The guru himself (Nathan Cuckow), a disembodied, miked voice with an exotic sing-song to it, is a veritable windbag under the circumstances. You can hear his spit rattling around; the spiritual leader has a cold. He also has a cellphone — which he actually answers but hastens to assure is not his own — and issues that are his own.

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No cellphones, no booze, no smoking, and no talking (clothing is optional): these are his rules. It’s all a test case for human communication. And there’s comedy in the misunderstandings that arise as the participants, evidently in various states of unease and distress, arrive, and notice each other, or not. Guedo choreographs an all-star cast (all-star but truly ensemble) in the intricately timed and detailed theatricality of this enterprise.

Least anxious is Rodney (Richard Lee Hsi), a perfectly toned yoga instructor with an impenetrable Zen serenity about him, clothes on or off (witness some very funny encounters with other characters). Most anxious — and therefore by the cosmic law of perversity Rodney’s assigned roommate — is furrow-browed Ned (Garett Ross), with a perpetual wince about him. He’s earnestly trying to take notes with a pen that won’t work.

An accomplished-seeming couple (Belinda Cornish and Kristi Hansen) arrive showing some strains in what is evidently a long-time relationship under pressure. They’re already mid-squabble over the directions to the place. 

There’s the smiling, slightly dazed Jan (Dave Horak) who nods amiably and keeps dozing off — when he’s not fending off hordes of mosquitoes and scratching his bites. And there’s a late arrival (Amber Borotsik), who crashes in breathlessly, clutching too many bags, muttering “sorry sorry,” Rules notwithstanding, Alicia and her cellphone cannot be separated; she texts frantically, and seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Who are these people and what sorrows, dissatisfactions, miseries and pressures have brought them to this retreat? It’s for us to piece that together, the same way the characters discover each other. And that’s a highly entertaining kind of audience participation, especially since the actors, all of them, are so skilled at making the minutest adjustments eloquent.

Without the carapace of small-talk to fortify (and conceal) themselves, the characters scramble to make themselves understood. Only Ned gets an extended monologue — he’s asking the teacher a question — and it’s delivered with a fragmenting hilarity by Ross.

Ned’s life is a veritable catalogue of tragedies, and the accumulation of them shows just how close human suffering is to a cosmic sense of, if not comedy, absurdity. The world is disintegrating into apocalyptic chaos, and we’re looking for … peace? Ned is wondering if that makes any kind of sense.

But the guru, whose elliptical ways, flights of fancy and declensions into jargon are captured beautifully by Cuckow’s cadences, isn’t about answering questions. Nor is the play. 

Instead, there’s a kind of compassionate embrace of the human struggle in all its mysterious dimensions. Do the retreat-ers leave cured of their spiritual malaise? The guru has rejected the idea of exorcism; he’s told his students that the five days are the best kind of vacation since “you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.” There are a lot of variables in that, of course. The only thing that’s certain, though, in Small Mouth Sounds is that there’s a consolation to be had, an affirmation of sorts, that whatever bad things you’re up against, however isolated in sadness and pain you feel, you are not, in the end, alone in this. There’s a human embrace.

It sounds like a morbid and weighty thought. But it doesn’t feel that way, oddly enough. It feels like taking a deep breath and then exhaling.

REVIEW

Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee Hsi, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

  

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Small Mouth Sounds and the silent scream: a unique challenge comes to the Roxy

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“When you see the ocean, you may not be able to return. To the well.”

Small Mouth Sounds

The play that gets its Canadian premiere tonight in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series is a theatrical puzzle of sorts, in every way — for the director, for the actors, and for the audience.

Small Mouth Sounds is mostly silent — in premise, conception and execution. The play, by the American actor-turned-playwright Bess Wohl, is set at a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York. Six strangers, troubled and lonely in various ways, have repaired there in search of solace, or answers, or release. On this journey they are led by a guru, present only as a disembodied voice.

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So … how to stage it? “The actors are silent for 90 per cent of their time onstage,” says Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions, who’s been trying for a couple of years to get the rights for the 2015 play. He was fascinated by the challenge, and refers to the American director Peter Sellars who has famously said of a play he’d read that “I didn’t know how to do it. So I had to do it….”

The playwright herself had the experience of a silent retreat, says director/ designer Guedo. The setup in the play is authentic, “including the packet that tells (the participants) what’s optional, what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re not supposed to do…. The ultimate challenge for the characters is the need to put away everything in your life that made you want to come to the retreat in the first place.”

There are hints of Waiting For Guffman, and (Annie Baker’s) Circle Mirror Transformation, with its needy community theatre participants,  in the scenario, Guedo agrees. But ultimately Small Mouth Sounds isn’t like either. “Depending on how you’re feeling when you see it, it’ll be either incredibly funny or incredibly sad. Every character is looking for … something. A fix. That’s the human comedy.”

Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions. Photo supplied.

“It’s a very different kind of storytelling,” Guedo says of his attraction to the script. Silent, yes, “but not silent movie.,” he laughs.  “(The characters) are not world-class mimes.…”  The “perversity of it is appealing,” he says. “In theatre we take words, dialogue, for granted….”

In one way, the experience for his all-star cast has been “liberation: no lines to learn,” he reports. Wohl’s stage directions, which are basically back stories for the characters, have many more words than the script.

How then do we discover who the characters are? “It calls for a different kind of specificity,” says Guedo. Like the characters trying to connect with each other, “the audience is looking for non-verbal cues.”

“You reveal character not just by what you do but how you do it,” says Guedo. “I feel like I’m the midwife, and (the actors) are doing all the pushing….”

Intriguingly, the guru/teacher is on a mic, “so the disembodied voice is not quite human.” That voice might conceivably be taped. But that approach doesn’t breathe in the same nuanced way as having an actor (Nathan Cuckow) present to interact, though invisible. “There’s a lot of verbal jazz in people’s breath, in the noises we make, the small mouth sounds, when we’re not speaking.” In rehearsal, Cuckow sat across from his cast-mates at first, facing them. “Gradually we weaned him off being physically present….”

To read the script is to wonder if the teacher, as a new-age-y sort of guru, is an object of mockery. “But the playwright does not want to take easy pot shots….” Guedo thinks of it as “gently satirical.”

“All the characters have a private pain, a weight on them. And they’re trying to dislodge it…. This is a very human play, very compassionate.”

PREVIEW

Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Poly Queer Love Ballad at SkirtsAfire: negotiating romance in a complicated world

Sara Vickruck and Anais West in Poly Queer Love Ballad. Photo by Emily Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Last night at SkirtsAfire, I caught a charming and  intricate new two-hander musical that explores, in an original way, how to tell a contemporary, perpetually-in-progress love story.

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The eighth and (at 10 days) biggest-ever edition of E-town’s annual celebration of women artists, has acquired a hit from  last summer’s Vancouver Fringe and beyond. Slam poetry hooks up with folk-pop songwriting in unexpected and playful ways in Poly Queer Love Ballad by Sara Vickruck and Anais West. Love, like theatrical storytelling, is complicated, right?

Gaby and Nina meet at an open-mic night; their mutual attraction is instant and powerful. But in the classic rom-com infrastructure of relationship obstacles, here’s a challenging one: Gaby (Vickruck) is a monogamous lesbian singer-songwriter, an old-school romantic and “the straightest gay you’ll ever know.” Nina (West) is a polyamorous bisexual poet of the experimental stripe, a quester whose mantra is “no gender or genre unread.”

It’s “I’m in it for the long haul” from the songwriter versus “wanna be my primary partner?” from the poet. It’s “I need something that’s just ours” vs. “jealousy is a learned behavior.”

In Vickruck’s cleverly cheeky, rhymed songs and West’s unsettling erotic poetry, as well as funny jagged conversational fragments and juxtapositions, Poly Queer Love Ballad chronicles their fortunes in love and their search for a viable elasticized relationship. “You’re so genuine you startle my metaphors,” says the self-possessed Nina, rattled out of her composure.

Which might sound like heavy going, I realize. It isn’t, though. A puckish self-deprecating sense of humour is woven into the fabric of the piece. And performances by the creators, two likeable actors, are so appealing and self-aware you’ll fall a little in love with both of them.

As Gaby, the charismatic Vickruck plays guitar and sings, and uses loop pedals and the mic in amusingly inventive ways (her sly Tinder cellphone sound effect song is a hoot). West’s Nina, kitted out in a nerdy denim skirt and fanny pack, trots across the stage to deliver her poems — like “Is My Love Doomed?” complete with histrionic gestures. 

It’s fun, wistful, and genuinely experimental, in ways that are never pretentious.

As a bonus I got to see the last performance of Statue, a silent show in which a nude torso comes to life, in music and an expert kind of full-body puppetry by Quebec’s Kristina Troske and Céline Chévrier. A neutral vessel tests out male and female incarnations, in body language (and footwear), and rises above. Enchanting.

Poly Queer Love Ballad continues at SkirtsAfire Saturday and Sunday at the festival’s cabaret theatre, Alberta Avenue Community League (9210 118 Ave.). Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).  The full schedule of festival events is at skirtsafire.com.   

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On the edge of the world: Come From Away. A review.

    Becky Gulsvig and Emily Watson (front) in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Welcome to the Rock. “You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world,” sings the ensemble in the opening number of Come From Away, the irresistibly warm-hearted Broadway hit that’s arrived on the Jube stage this week — in an American touring production that’s brought a story of Canadian-ness back to its country of origin.

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And with this modest declaration in song, the story of what else happened on Sept. 11, 2001 finds its geographical coordinates, its true-life source, and its groove. In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. And a hospitable little town, population 9,000, “on an island in between there and here,” welcomed, housed, and fed nearly 7,000 stranded passengers in a newsworthy demo of generosity and kindness in a blasted world.

Becky Gulsvig centre) in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The unusual musical, by the Toronto husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is culled from real-life interviews with the townsfolk and the passengers. And there’s another Canadian story in its improbable route from a Sheridan College student workshop incarnation in honour of the 10-year 9-11 anniversary to premieres at Seattle Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse and on to massive successes in New York and now London. Come From Away has landed at its rapturous reception here on a jet stream of raves, major awards (including Dora Awards, a Tony for director Christopher Ashley, and now multiple Olivier nominations across the pond), and sold-out runs. The Mirvish Toronto production is now booking through September.

In this improbable and massive success  — in New York, it’s among a handful of shows that regularly gross more than a million dollars a week — it was materially assisted by timing. Its celebration of hospitality and generosity arrived on the big-stage international  theatre scene at the moment when America seemed particularly mean, stingy, xenophobic, closed to come-from-aways, and unusually receptive to an antidote, and from a country they’d barely noticed before.  

Yes, it’s not as if there’s no reason to be cynical in theory about Come From Away. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong, way wrong. A musical about 9-11? A musical about the upside of 9-11? Think about it. A musical without a star, about people being nice?

And, in truth, there are occasionally moments in Come From Away when you can’t help resisting the irresistible that’s coming at you: the perplexed and unnerved passengers have landed, albeit as a byproduct of a horrifying disaster they don’t know about yet, in a place where there are quirky individuals but nary an unkind jerk, or racist, or homophobe, much less an out-and-out villain. Friction is for the passengers, not the exemplary locals. As one of a splintering gay American couple both named Kevin notes near the outset, Newfoundland is “like going back in time.” 

But Come From Away is so smartly put together, musically and theatrically, and the piece so imbued with a self-deprecating and distinctive sense of humour, that it would take a rocky soul indeed not to be warmed by its unwavering celebration of human connectedness. 

The stage, as designed by Beowulf Boritt, is simply appointed. It’s dominated by a few bare trees, some wooden chairs, and a back wall of wood that turns out, at crucial moments, to be slatted (lighting designer: Howell Binkley). In one corner, a really excellent eight-piece band, including pennywhistle, fiddle, and bodhran, stands ready to deliver the Celtic-flavoured folk-rock of the score. And their rocking curtain-call number is celebratory, in all the right ways: it’s a kick-ass finale. 

The characters are winsomely individualized and quirky — an effect amplified by the reverb  that they’re based on real people. The dexterous 12-member ensemble in this fine touring production play the passengers and the Gander-ites interchangeably.

The fateful day in which 7,000 people from everywhere will spend that night and the next four, begins with Gander’s small-town daily morning rituals. “Everything starts and ends at Tim Horton’s,” declares the crusty Gander mayor, played outstandingly played by Kevin Carolan. True, there’s something you might want to call labour friction pertaining the school bus drivers. But, hey, that whole business stops for coffee too.

Other standouts include Julie Johnson as Beulah the teacher who bonds with another mother (Danielle K. Thomas), traumatized by the lack of information about her New York firefighter son. As Bob, a wary New Yorker who can’t quite believe his wallet is safe on the Rock, James Earl Jones II is genuinely amusing in his incredulity. And Becky Gulsvig as a groundbreaking pilot delivers, in compelling fashion, the show’s only bona fide solo, Me And The Sky. The nature of flying, her true passion in life, changes forever on 9-11. And in the course of the song she realizes it.

Nick Duckart, Kevin Carolan, Andrew Samonsky in Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Of the two couples in the piece, one comes together and one falls apart in the “who knows where” of the outer edge of Canada. Christine Toy Johnson as a middle-aged Texas divorcée, finds herself drawn to an awkward Englishman (Chamblee Ferguson, whose accent pushes its luck) who works for an oil company. In the least convincing scene, designed to show off comically the natural open-mindedness of the locals — some of their relatives are gay! — the couple of Kevins (Andrew Samonsky and Nick Duckart), who are used to being cautious about revealing their relationship, are caught off-guard by the progressive attitude of Gander. 

It’s at moments like that Come From Away pushes a wee bit too hard at its sentimental thought that on the periphery of tragedy, no one is untouched by Canuck worthiness. Much better is the way Come From Away astutely lays off co-opting an epic tragedy. It offers fleeting glimpses, in the mother’s vigil by the phone, and the harsh excluding treatment of the passenger from the Middle East (Nick Duckart), whose fortunes in the post-9-11 world will, as you know, be rocky.

Mostly it confines itself to odd, and endearing stories on the edge of that terrible main event: the rookie reporter on her first day, who lands the story of her career; the SPCA rep who gets a career high, too, when she saves a rare chimpanzee from the hold of the plane. 

The sharp inventiveness of the stagecraft is fun to see. An unobtrusive re-arrangement of the chairs, and voilà, we’re inside the plane, or the air traffic control tower, or the school. And the performances, as 12 actors of every size and shape reinvent themselves as 40-plus characters, is a match. 

The rollicking production number, a highlight bash in the Legion Hall, is riotously contagious. It feels like a party. If they’d been passing the Screech and the cod around, I’m sure we’d all have had a slug and a smooch. It’s a world afflicted by a deep mistrust of The Other, where, on the other hand, everyone has come from away, it’s the right moment for a musical like this.  

REVIEW

Come From Away

Broadway Across Canada

Created by: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Directed by: Christopher Ashley

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: ticketmaster.ca

 

 

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“You have to put it right!” Matilda the Musical, at the Citadel. A review.

John Ullyatt as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Wicked, I tell you.

Wicked fun, that is, the smart, joyful musical that’s currently promoting anti-authoritarian resistance, empowerment, and self-determination  — for children! — from the Citadel’s Shoctor stage.

Based on Roald Dahl’s delightfully dark 1988 kids’ novel, Matilda follows the fortunes of a brilliant little girl, neglected and oppressed by fantastically dreadful parents, who finds her defence and refuge in … books, not TV. What a crushing disappointment to mom and dad (not to mention the culture at large).

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When the other kids are apostrophizing their fawning parents in an early number (“my mummy says I’m a miracle”), Matilda, unperturbed, is singing “my mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/ my daddy says I’m a bore….”

Lilla Solymos as Matilda in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

Yes, Matilda Wormwood, bright and brave and bookish, is a born subversive, I’m afraid. As you find out in the musical ingeniously fashioned as stories within stories by playwright Dennis Kelly and the Australian composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, she’s a natural rally-er of forces against injustice, unfair punishments, tyranny, illiteracy, and general stupidity. At school, Crunchem Hall, where the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull presides with an iron, er, hammer (she’s a British champion hammer thrower of yore), things are just as bad, maybe worse. 

The musical, which had its origins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 (before West End and Broadway incarnations), comes at us in a lavish, gothically high-style Daryl Cloran production courtesy of the combined forces of the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. And, as I can attest, it’s that rarest of showbiz commodities: clever and bracing for the ruling class (i.e. grownups who were once kids) as well as their offspring, who know full well what it’s like to be up against it in a crazy, mean-spirited world. 

Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan (centre) in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

If ever there was an anthem to the prodigious possibilities built into children, it’s the musical itself. Matilda is a veritable singing/dancing testimonial. For the nearly three hours of Cloran’s production, you’ll see child performers right alongside their taller, older cast-mates, not indulged for cuteness, but bona fide working members of the excellent ensemble.

Locally recruited for the Edmonton run of a production that ran first in Winnipeg with Winnipeg kids, they sing confidently; they execute the intricacies of Kimberley Rampersad’s bold, crisply jagged, fist-first choreography with dazzling conviction. And under Cloran’s direction they know that being funny onstage is a matter of seriousness and stakes.    

At the centre, Dostoyevski and Dickens defiantly in hand, is Matilda, played by Edmonton’s Lilla Solymos (who alternates with Winnipegger Anna Anderson-Epp). And she’s wonderful in her grave solemnity, her plucky refusal to ingratiate or indulge pathos (she prefers revenge), and her general air of determination — not to mention her singing voice.

Julio Fuentes, Alison MacDonald and Lauren Bowler in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Her parents are a repository of brassy lunacy and hysterical self-centredness. Sleazy Mr. Wormwood, a used-car salesman whose attempts to sell old beaters to the Russian mafia (rarely a good idea), is played to cartoon comic excess by spaghetti-legged Ben Elliott. Lauren Bowler is very funny too as Mrs. Wormwood, obsessed with ballroom dance, her partner Rudolpho (Julio Fuentes)  and blonde highlights, in interchangeable order.

As Matilda’s older brother Michael, Corben Kushneryk takes sullen listlessness to a level of virtuosity rarely seen in a sentient being. I laughed every time I saw him onstage.

The epicentre of tyranny is the formidably scary Miss Trunchbull. Her reign of terror — introduced before we ever meet her in a set-up song by the students — is set forth in a showstopping performance of comic villainy from John Ullyatt. His delivery, which sharpens its edges on an English accent designed to amputate limbs, veers between a sinister faux silkiness (accompanied by a faux-pitying smirk), and bosom-levitating rage. Given the epic nature of that bosom, the world trembles.

Miss Trunchbull simmers ominously, like a volcano just before red-hot lava delivery, and can sniff out “the odour of rebellion, the whiff of insurgence, the stench of intent” before it even forms. Being sent to the principal’s office, under the circumstances, has something in common with getting sent to the guillotine in 1789.  

John Ullyatt (right) as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The sight of Ullyatt’s Miss Trunchbull in full gym garb vaulting over the pommel horse in that most dreaded of all punishments (well, second-most), phys-ed, is unforgettable. Equally, the sight of Miss Trunchbull winding up to fling a pupil by the pigtails, like a hammer, is something you’ll have for life. Ullyatt is, in all senses of the word, riotous. 

With foes like that, a kid needs friends. Matilda has two: the excitable librarian(Sharon Crandall) who’s addicted to her stories, and her teacher Miss Honey (sweet-voiced Alison MacDonald), torn between fear and conscience. The moment when Matilda by example mobilizes her quavering classmates into out-and-out rebellion is savoury indeed.

Lilla Solymos (centre) with Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Becky Frohlinger in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

After all, as the insurrectionist Matilda has pointed out, in one of Minchin’s clever, witty, multi-syllabic songs, Jack and Jill, whose tumble is widely regarded as inevitable, should really have sucked it up and re-written their narrative. “Nobody’s gonna change my story but me….” In fact, as an imaginative child, she is tuned to stories — and storytelling, and the criss-crossing of narratives and life. Which explains why there’s an acrobat team in the show,  one of the many delights of Matilda.

A cavil: Speaking of the songs, Minchin’s incisively funny lyrics sometimes get lost in a bright, forward sound mix (Brad Danyluk) that’s otherwise fine. Perhaps it’s inevitable given the timbre of kid voices, but it’s still a loss.

The West End and Broadway productions were framed by a teetering proscenium of books that looked ready to fall. Cloran sets his large cast in motion on an amusing design by  Cory Sincennes that’s dominated by a wall of stylized bendy bookcases; they’re full of gray untitled volumes punctuated by intermittently by glowing TV screens, and have a wonky outsized frame that shines in the dark. Sincennes’ costumes, in flamboyant acid hues, are fun to look at. The show is luridly lit, in cartoon fashion, by Gerald King.

There’s a dark sense of humour at work in Matilda, which approaches loneliness and rejection in an appealingly oblique way. Matilda earns its sentiment (and, yes, your eyes will water, sometimes while you’re laughing!) and its heartbreak: it takes its cue from a heroine who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She keeps it tucked away, under the armour that activists wear, and saves it for her stories.

Wicked, as I say. Be a little naughty: step up to the revolution and get a ticket. Nobody’s gonna change your story but you.

REVIEW

Matilda the Musical

Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Arts Club Theatre

Written by: Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, from the Roald Dahl novel

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Lilla Solymos, Anna Anderson-Epp, Ben Elliott, Lauren Bowler, Alison MacDonald, John Ullyatt, Alison MacDonald

Running: through March 17

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

 

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