‘That piano arrived in my life for a reason’: Metronome, a new Darrin Hagen solo show premieres at Workshop West

Darrin Hagen at the keyboard, Metronome, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Have you ever tried something new, and instantly thought ‘O! I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life?’”

That’s how Darrin Hagen remembers the exact day when everything changed for the small-town Alberta trailer park kid that he was, at seven. “Grandma had a little chord organ in her dining room” is his once-upon-a-time. And from that all else follows — Hagen the composer, the sound designer, the author, the playwright, the actor, the director, the drag queen — as we find out in Metronome, the new Hagen solo memoir  that launches the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season Nov. 12.

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“I was always fascinated by piano keys,” declares the ebullient Hagen, “the way they’re laid out, the way they play.” While Grandma was cooking on the fateful day, the junior Hagen, completely untrained in matters musical, sat down at the keyboard and “figured it out…. I’d never had a lesson, but somehow it made perfect sense to me.”

That day ended with “a little concert” for Grandma and her three sisters, featuring On Top of Old Smokey, to general amazement. And the capper was that Great Aunt Ruby, a music teacher, said “you need to get that kid some music lessons….”

“Everything else comes from that moment, the moment you suddenly realize O, this is something I’m good at. And everyone around you goes, O, this is something he’s good at.”

Darrin Hagen at seven. Photo supplied.

His mom and dad found him a teacher and a $50 used entry-level accordion with 12 bass buttons “to see what would happen when I’d played it for a year.” And Hagen’s progress was exponential as he cut a swath through the Palmer Hughes accordion course. A particular fave was Two Guitars, mainly because “it had that middle-European sound, it got faster and faster, it was in a minor key, and it had a big loud finish.”

After three months Hagen advanced to a 48-bass accordion, then within a year a 120-bass instrument. After three years, he’d surpassed the skills of his teacher Mrs. Bonde, who suggested a change in instrument: the piano. And so it came to pass that Hagen’s parents raced to Sylvan Lake to trade an old lady $700 for her “big old upright mahogany grand,” an Ennis & Sons his mom had heard about on CKRD’s Swap Shop.

“It took four or five men, including my dad, to move it into the trailer,” says Hagen. His mom and her friends were the inspiration for his solo show Tornado Magnet. Metronome is his dad’s first appearance in a Hagen play: he does the heavy lifting throughout. The first big question on moving day: “will this fall through the floor?”

“It was the biggest piece of furniture we owned; it occupied as much space as the couch. And there was only one place it could go. In the front room against an interior wall so the weather wouldn’t throw the tuning off.”

The piano was a life-changer for a kid growing up gay in Rocky Mountain House. “It was my soul-mate; this was a love affair,” declares Hagen, who was teaching piano by age 12 (“before my job at the IGA, before the Dairy Queen”). And he ascribes magical powers to its 88-key allure. “It’s a character with huge significance in my life; it’s the reason I’m in the arts…. Without music lessons I’d like to think I’d have ended up somehow in theatre, but I’m not sure I would ever have figured out how.”

Darrin Hagen in Tornado Magnet. Photo by Ian Jackson.

For some people, the route to their inner creativity is  dance, for others painting. Hagen’s way in was music. “I’m a big believer that once you tap into your creative reserve, that river that’s inside you, it’s a matter of learning different skills. Music taught me to access it. And once I did I felt like I could do anything … write, act, do drag.”

Metronome didn’t start out to be a play. What Hagen had in mind was “a little anthology of piano-themed stories,” including one he’d written 30 years ago about him and his Grandma, and another from 2009. “I still think there’s a book down the road.” Hagen’s The Edmonton Queen, he points out, was like that too, finding its form as a solo play and a book.

It was Workshop West artist director Heather Inglis who’d called him on a hunch: “I have a feeling you might be working on something.” When she read the stories, she was sure they could be a play. “A solo show! It terrifies me, are you kidding!” he declares. “After the last one (Tornado Magnet at Theatre Network in 2014) I vowed I’d never do another one!”

“We talked long and hard about whether there should be a piano onstage, and if it was there whether I should play it — and if I didn’t, would that just piss people off?” In the end, Hagen won’t be sharing the stage. “It’s not a show about me playing the piano. It’s about how the piano changed my life….”

Darrin Hagen at the piano, Metronome, Workshop West. Photo by Ian Jackson

And there’s this: he doesn’t actually have the magical piano any more. He still has nine accordions, of various sizes and showbiz embellishments. But for 22 years he’s been piano-less. In 1999 he gave his piano away, “to my cousin’s blind daughter. Because it had another life to save. And I’ve never regretted it. It changed her life; the magic went to her. It was the right thing to do.”

With music, says Hagen, “you learn to access the truth inside you.”  Somehow, he thinks, “music has a magical effect on us emotionally,” an effect beyond language, beyond cultures and borders. Why do minor chords make you feel sad? “It’s a great mystery…. You let your emotions pour through the piano and into the air. And after you learn how to do that, all other art forms follow.”

“Mom never had to tell me to practice. Never. Not once! I loved every second, I’d have practised 12 hours a day if I could’ve,” says Hagen. “The only reason I ever stopped playing was that the piano was in the same room as the TV,” he laughs. “My mom loved to hear me play; she loved the World Series even more.”

Hagen “started to play weddings, trade fairs, old folks’ homes, contests; I was the go-to kid for school assemblies.” He wrote the song for his high school graduation ceremony (he remembers being too afraid to go to the party). He and his friend Shanann (“we were the Rocky version of Buckingham-Nicks”) won an ACT Search For Talent competition.

Growing up gay in small-town Alberta is no picnic. “You want to be invisible, but you’ve chosen a path that makes you SO visible…. When the bullying started, it was music that saved me,” Hagen says. “The piano is the reason I’m alive; I say that without hesitation…. My piano was my rock.”

Darrin Hagen the mermaid at City Hall. Photo supplied

For a kid “who was gay, had bad glasses and played the accordion,” the piano was also “a step toward non-nerdism,” Hagen laughs. When he left Rocky and moved to Edmonton and his new drag queen life, “it went from being covered with trophies to being covered with crowns, ashtrays, feather boas. It has a story to tell….”

In Metronome, Hagen “skips over the drag years,” as he says. “They’re a hiccup in a much longer plan. And I’ve told that story in many ways before…. This is about the stuff that got me to Edmonton. It really is an origin story, about my piano and me. It’s a miracle it happened at all; something, music I think, was looking out for me!”

There’s always a sound track playing in Hagen’s head, he says. “Millions of tunes in my head always, at the same time. Ready to pulled forward.” The piano, he says, is “a conduit to songs that are attached to memories.” Donna Summer figures prominently (her 17-minute disco version of MacArthur Park “was my go-to piece for competitions).” Heart, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell … they tap into moments in Hagen’s story. Workshop West’s outreach coordinator Liam Salmon, a playwright himself, has compiled a Spotify playlist of references.

It’s all got Hagen thinking about having a piano again after two decades. “It’s time.” He’s been eying kijiji. “It’s sad,” he says. “The piano used to be the most valuable thing in any room; now they’re giving them away.” He’s auditioned a few, but hasn’t found his perfect mate yet. “It’s got to be love at first sight….” He doesn’t want “too bright, too brassy. I need something a little darker, smokier, fuller. The keys have to fight back a bit.”

“Music arrived in my life for a reason,” he says. “That’s what Metronome is about.”

PREVIEW

Metronome

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written and performed by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Heather Inglis

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

Running: Nov. 12 to 21

Tickets and mask/vaccination requirements: workshop west.org

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A spiral into comic chaos, through 7 doors: The Fiancée, a new farce by Holly Lewis, premieres at the Citadel

The Fiancée by Holly Lewis, premiering at the Citadel Theatre. Poster image.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Theatre is a serious work, my friends. It requires commitment, bold attack, research, tough backstage choices approached face-on.

Holly Lewis walked into a rehearsal room at the Citadel after lunch one day a couple of weeks ago. “The production team had been having a meeting,” she says of preparations for The Fiancée, her new comedy.“They’d set up different six different kinds of cake, with icing…. One of the actors would have to stick their face into all six, to see how each one sticks.” The rehearsal in question was listed on the call sheet for Friday as “a run with the cakes.” Lewis couldn’t stop laughing.

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A “six-actor farce with six actors, seven characters, and seven doors,” and cake, The Fiancée, winner of the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Award,  starts previews Saturday in a production directed by Daryl Cloran. And its stage logistics are exponentially intricate, quintessentially farcical one might say.

In Lewis’s farce, set in ‘40s Edmonton during World War II, we meet Lucy, a generous-minded young woman who accepts proposals from three men,— “no one should have to go overseas without someone to come home to” — expecting that they won’t all make it back. But they do. All three. On the same day.

Lucy’s world teeters precariously on the precipice of chaos. Doors are slammed, wigs are donned and doffed. Formerly sane people find themselves reduced to ducking behind things, or vaulting over couches, or getting shoved into closets.

Playwright Holly Lewis, whose farce The Fiancée is premiering at the Citadel. Photo supplied.

Then you have to set a clock!” says Lewis, a remarkably funny, effervescent conversationalist much prone to laughter. Eviction hangs over Lucy (Helen Belay) and her sister (Patricia Cerra). “They’ve just got a new landlady, they don’t have the money to pay the rent, and they have to come up with it! By 6 o’clock!.” AND there are proprieties to be dodged: it’s a ‘family building’: visitations by a surplus of fiancés is a no-no.

This flirtation with cosmic chaos is only enhanced by having six actors play seven characters. Sheldon Elter (the star of Bears, recently closed) plays two; late in the play they appear in the same scene, says Lewis with unmistakeable glee. “And I like that! I love those moments that make theatre feel like a sport, and you’re not sure if the goal is going to happen…. It’s exciting for the audience; it’s exciting and terrifying for the actor!”

Elter had a hair-raising 30 seconds to make the costume change.“That was the day I needed to be in rehearsal hall and ask ‘how do we buy him another five seconds’?” He got them. Other re-writes happened, Lewis reports, because of the sheer comic inventiveness of the actors. “Actors are so brilliant…. In some places what the actor is doing with their body is funnier than what I’ve written so I can pull some things out.” The script, she says, “is three pages shorter than when we went into rehearsal.”

The Fiancée isn’t Lewis’s playwriting debut. She was a co-creator of two high-profile international collaborations undertaken by Theatrefront, the Toronto indie company founded in 1999 by an ensemble including Cloran and Lewis, who are married. One was Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project (Citadel audiences saw it in 2017). The other, Return: The Sarajevo Project, produced in Bosnia and Toronto in 2006, “is still the production I’m most proud of,” she says. The whole experience was so full…. I actually ended up going back to university after that, in Peace and Conflict studies.”

And there’s Lewis’s 15-minute kids’ play, Sisters, for Concrete Theatre’s 2018 Sprouts Festival. But The Fiancé, fully seven years in the making, is “my first full-length complete play written solo, by me alone,” she says. Why start with farce, the most intricate,  dauntingly complicated of theatrical forms? “What I was going to be when I grew up was an engineer,” she says. “Math, physics, that’s my jam.…”

Lewis is in an undoubtedly exclusive subset of Queen’s University transfers from engineering to theatre school. That’s where she met Cloran (and “we’ve been collaborators ever since”). “I’d finished my first year of university,” says the Scarborough native. “I went to Toronto to a play and the lights went down and I just started to cry. I cried for the first two scenes. And it was a comedy! It was then I realized I’d made a wrong choice….”

The precarious architecture of farces is a magnet to a mind like Lewis’s. “The thing about farces, there’s so much structure and math to them, speaks to my other passion,” she says “You take a play and reverse-engineer it, see how it works, rebuild. Math and laughter: how can you do better than that?”

How on earth does the playwright keep track of who’s behind which door when? Lewis hauls around a cork board that only an engineer manqué could love, with an elaborate system of cue cards colour-coded to reveal who’s in a room and who’s not. “And it’s quite beautiful!” Lewis says. “In an attempt to understand structure,” she’s even written a modern adaptation of The Three Sisters set in Edmonton (the three sisters used to be in a band). “It sounds crazy to choose Chekhov,” she says. “But within each of his beats, the structure is really clear….”

Cloran has said “secretly, if Holly could be anyone, she’d be Lucille Ball.” Lewis loves comedy. “Early in my acting career I did tragedy after tragedy. And I was, like, what if tripped on the stairs? No!” she laughs. In a Toronto production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Hermia, one of her cast-mates was a Cirque du Soleil clown. “I begged him to teach me to do a stair fall.” He did; a farceur was born in that lesson.

The first draft of The Fiancée took five years. “I finished it just before the pandemic.” Lewis gathered friends and they read it aloud “to see it if was funny…. We laughed and laughed.”

“Proof of concept! It was funny; it had funny things in it. But it was missing its middle. The gears didn’t drive you forward to the end,” she says. “ So that was the work of the pandemic for me…. I knew what was going to happen in the end. But how to make that inevitable?”

The ‘40s look and performance style is “very delightful,” as Lewis says. “A lot of eye candy, fantastic costumes. and there’s something about the actors from that time period too, the Katherine Hepburns of the world, letting you see a different way of being being a woman and making choices.”

The starting point for Lewis was a question: “What would be a situation where it could happen that a woman would juggle three men?” a reversal of the more usual farce situation, where the escalating panic of a man is at the centre. In Boeing Boeing, for example, a man’s complicated romantic predicament is the result of having three flight attendant girlfriends, grounded on the same night due to global bad weather.

And Lewis had another condition. She didn’t want her protagonist “to be manipulative in the situation; I wanted to make a kinder protagonist; I wanted her to stay the hero.” Lucy’s motivation for letting herself get engaged to three guys is kindly, generous.

“Her challenge is my challenge,” says Lewis, laughing. “I do have have a hard time saying no and setting boundaries…. I’m a people-pleaser and I want people to feel good. And that can get you into a lot of trouble…. And (that womanly predicament) is still happening. Making it funny is a way of questioning it without judging it.”

“At the end of the day it’s not wrong to say Yes to things. It’s just you have to say Yes to the things you want, and No to the things you don’t want!”

Says Lewis “I tried to create a comedy where everyone in the audience is going to have an amazing time … because nobody is the butt of the joke.” She points to the first season of Ted Lasso, “laugh out loud  funny but no one is ever targeted in a mean way…. It’s a challenge because so much of comedy is about making fun of people.”

The farce archive is dotted liberally with examples that are pretty much unplayable in the modern world, “plays where making fun of people with different cultural backgrounds or physical differences is part of the engine of the farce,” as Lewis puts it. Humour tends to be time-sensitive. But there are classics that are perennially hysterical. The ne plus ultra farce in the contemporary repertoire? Noises Off,  says Lewis without hesitation. One Man Two Guvnors is a contender, too.

She thinks “you can learn a lot about the mechanics of a farce” from the 19th century master farceur Georges Feydeau. A Flea in Her Ear is often compared in its initial structural impulse to Othello. In Shakespeare, a misplaced handkerchief precipitates the declension into tragedy; in Feydeau a pair of suspenders gone AWOL leads to “outlandish comedy.”

“The hero of comedy doesn’t have time to think; they have to act immediately. And it leads them to ridiculous decisions and, of course, to happy endings. But the stakes are equally high…. As Daryl always says of farce, what the characters want they want so badly they’re willing to climb over a couch to get it!”

“Coming out of the pandemic, ha, there’s an optimistic phrase, I want to really laugh and enjoy myself,” says Lewis happily. “For me, sitting in my house imagining little pieces that will make people laugh is so good for my mental health. It’s driven me through to this point!”

“A writer writes for seven years in silence in their room…. And this is what we do it for. This is like a dessert buffet for me.” And there will be cake.

PREVIEW

The Fiancée

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Holly Lewis

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Helen Belay, Lora Brovold, Patricia Cerra, Sheldon Elter, Farren Timoteo, Tenaj Williams

Running: Saturday through Nov. 28

Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

 

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What’s up in Edmonton theatre this weekend? Have a peek

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What’s up in Edmonton theatre this weekend? Oh, you know, the usual…. A new theatre is glowing from the inside out. Shows are ending their runs, a live season of Die-Nasty is about to begin, Opera Nuova is back, live. Walterdale Theatre goes live this week, RISER Edmonton has chosen its four indie projects to support. And, hey, the Fringe has excellent news for us.

•The glowing yellow Roxy is a ray of sunshine direct to the heart, as work continues on the new home of Theatre Network, getting built on the footprint of the old. Now have a boo at the projections in the big glass front window giving on 124th St. They’re testing their new equipment, with cool imagery in honour of the spooky season (till the end of Halloween night). Soon, theatre-goers, soon, you’ll be there. The new Theatre Network welcomes audiences in January.

•This week Fringe Theatre had good news for us. Megan Dart, an unstoppably creative and multi-faceted theatre artist/ arts producer/ event planner, officially brings that formidable skill set to the Fringe, as the company’s Executive Director. She’s been in that uniquely demanding job on an interim basis since the departure of Adam Mitchell last March.

Fringe Theatre Executive Director Megan Dart

Fringe 2021 had to be the craziest, most challenging audition in history, surely. Our Fringe, the oldest and biggest of its kind in North America, turned 40 this past summer under circumstances that were, to say the least, a test of inventiveness and flexibility for a festival . Along with fellow artist Fringe director Murray Utas, Dart, the co-founder and co-artistic producer of Catch the Key Productions (an indie specializing in original, immersive theatre), devised a route through the intricacies of the moment. And they were daunting: how to respond to the ever-changing pandemical restrictions, how to make the Fringe, against the odds, happen live, and also have an online presence, how to retain a breath of its signature festive spirit and identity in a smaller version of something gigantic.   

Organizing anarchy has a certain paradoxical delicacy. It requires smarts, a deft touch, an instinctive inclination to say Yes, a collaborative temperament, rapport with fractious artists, audiences, and administrators.… Dart is ready, impressively, for all of it.

RISER participants (clockwise) Cuban Movements Dance Academy, NASRA, Even Gilchrist, Tai Amy Grauman. Photo supplied.

•RISER, the innovative project initiated by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre in 2014, was envisioned to initiative  designed to address the daunting challenges in producing indie theatre. Its first national expansion was announced for Edmonton last March. A jury has selected four participants: Tai Amy Grauman, Even Gilchrist, NASRA, and Cuban Movements Dance Academy. We’ll get to see their projects at the Backstage Theatre in February.

•Walterdale Theatre, Edmonton’s venerable community playhouse, launches their live season Wednesday with Colleen Murphy’s gut-wrenching Governor-General’s Award-winning The December Man (L’Homme de décembre). Its eight scenes unspool backwards from an egregious act of public violence, the murder of 14 women students in Room 303 of Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. It’s not about the act itself, it’s about the fallout on one survivor, a young man and his parents. Alex Hawkins’ production runs Nov. 3 through 13. Tickets: tixonthesquare.ca.

Sheldon Elter in Bears, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

It’s the last weekend for:

Bears, Matthew MacKenzie’s imaginative, gorgeously theatrical fantasia on Nature, a man’s transformation as he journeys into it, in flight, and what we stand to lose if we screw it up. The Punctuate! Production is back here where it started, and this time it’s on the big stage. At the Citadel through Sunday. Don’t miss. Tickets: citadel theatre.com, 780-425-1820.

Hiraeth, a mysterious dark comedy by Belinda Cornish premiering in a Bright Young Things production at the Varscona through Saturday. An audaciously unsettling combination of heartbreaking and funny, and what to do if you can’t get what you really really want. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com.

Mathew Hulshof and Kristen Padayas in A Fit, Happy Life, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd.

Lost Lemoine Part 1, A Second Round of Seconds: Lost Lemoine Part 2, and A Fit, Happy Life, the three streamed productions that launched Teatro La Quindicina’s 2021 season (the fourth production, Fever Land, ran live). All are by Teatro’s resident playwright Stewart Lemoine, unearthed from the impressively huge original Lemoine comedy archive.  And all were filmed on the stage of Teatro’s home, the Varscona Theatre, behind the red velvet curtain. Ingenious, quixotic, and fun. Streaming passes: teatroq.com.

We Had A Girl Before You, a solo gothic thriller (yes, amazing!) by Northern Light Theatre’s Trevor Schmidt, starring Kristin Johnston, remains available for streaming through Halloween night. It’s a corker. Passes: northernlighttheatre.com.

Little Women, Opera Nuova. Photo by Nanc Price.

It’s the only weekend for: 

… Little Women, the Broadway musical spun from the evergreen Civil War era Louisa May Alcott novel about the four March sisters and their mama.  Opera Nuova makes a welcome return to live, in four performances through Sunday at the Maclab Theatre in Leduc, with streaming possibilities too. Kim Mattice Wanat directs (and plays Marmee). And her cast includes Hannah Wigglesworth, Elizabeth Chamberlain, Julia van Dam, Errin Pettifor, Ruth Alexander, Kaden Forsberg, Rob Herriot, Jackson Card, and Kael Wynn.  Tickets: Ticketpro.ca, 1-800-655-9090, or 780-487-4844.

  

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Noodling with The Stroganoffs: Die-Nasty returns with the first of three mini-seasons

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca   

A weekday morning in the life of an improviser:

Wayne Jones is hanging with Chekhov. He’s spent the a.m. watching The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Who does that?

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The producer/artistic director of the 30th annual edition of Die-Nasty, Edmonton’s venerable live weekly improvised soap opera (returning Monday to the Varscona stage), is in research mode.

The Stroganoffs, the first of Die-Nasty’s three “mini-seasons” this year, will take us to pre-Revolutionary Russia c. 1900. And Jones, a veteran improviser who cheerfully admits that theatre history isn’t his jam (“I don’t have a big background in plays”), is soaking up the flavour, the atmosphere, the character types, the cadence of the era, via Chekhov. “I’m immersing myself in the time,” he says. “Detail, specificity is one of the secrets of doing good improv…. It helps you commit to the character!”

And there’s this: “If you paint the picture of something the audience recognizes, in detail,” laughter ensues, says Jones, who has an impressive archive of comedy stage gigs on both sides of the border to prove it. He remembers improv classes at 2nd City in Toronto: “you’d have to make a sandwich in front of the class, and describe every single item, every colour, that went into it….”

The Stroganoff era is rich in suds potential: inflammatory passions, treachery, betrayals, agendas both romantic and political. The core cast of deluxe improvisers, including Jones, has spent the week mulling over character possibilities for the mini-season that Stewart Lemoine and Jana O’Connor will jointly direct.

Like the best of the Die-Nasty season concepts — which have launched from such settings as Ancient Rome, 19th century Brontë world, the Golden Age of Hollywood, the early days of vaudeville, Lord of Thrones, Westerns —the gallery of pre-Revolution Russians is gloriously expansive. Aristocrats both entitled and faded, land-owners, peasants, climbers, arrivistes, plutocrats, political insurgents and infiltrators, artistes, bon vivants, émigrés….

Jones, who grew up in Edmonton — “it’s my home base but I have a hard time sitting still”— has spent much of his showbiz comedy career living and working in Toronto and L.A. He wasn’t a theatre kid per se, he says. He was the kid who “was always trying to make people laugh, being silly all the time….”

“I was in a band, I was pretty serious about hockey.… All through my 20s I was planning events, parties, hosting them. I’d rent night clubs and invite a couple hundred people, and I’d get onstage with a mic and hire a DJ, tell jokes, roast people.…”

Jones worked construction; he got a degree in criminology (he mentions this as an afterthought). He even considered going to law school, attracted mainly by the idea of performing in court, he says. “The one thing I seemed to be best at was bringing people together for a good time, making them laugh.”

So Jones’ inner career-planner stepped up with a question: “what kind of comedy can I do where I can just sort of wing it?”

Bingo. He left Edmonton for Toronto: “I needed to start new; in a new place I could reinvent myself…. I’m so happy that I was able to do what I love to do, and figure out how to make it into a job! When you’re surrounded by people who love what they do, Wow! It’s not just me trying to figure it out. There’s a whole community  here!”

It was in Toronto, where he’s a key player in the improv troupe White Rhino Comedy, that he got his start in improv in 2010. A man of engaging enthusiasm and modesty, he re-creates his thinking at the time. “The scene was so vibrant and strong out there…. I thought ‘holy cow, people are so talented! I figured I was good at bringing people out and promoting shows.  So if I could get those people to do a show with me, I’d get a lot better a lot faster. I’d have to do everything I could to keep up’….”

A few years later it was in Toronto that Jones made his Edmonton connections, among them Die-Nasty’s Dana Andersen and Amy Shostak, the artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre at the time. His Edmonton improv family expanded when Die-Nasty played Toronto, at Soulpepper Theatre. A world-record 55-hour Soap-A-Thon at Soulpepper Theatre attracted a stage guest list of Toronto’s best (including re-located Edmontonians Ron Pederson and Matt Baram and their National Theatre of the World) and some high skilled imports from across the pond (among them Adam Meggido, who will direct Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel later this season).

“It was a festival of the best improv from around the world. I barely squeaked in the door,” laughs Jones, whose improv history has included training in such hotspots as Chicago, New York, and L.A. .

Jones, who’s toured with Colin Mochrie (“a dream come true!”) and done Edmonton improv gigs with Pederson, has been a Die-Nasty guest ever since 2014. In that Downtown Abbey season, one of his faves, he guested as “a steel salesman from Pittsburgh, in England to seal a deal with the family…. And I was blown away: packed houses, such talent. Edmonton really has something Toronto doesn’t have.”

“When you get called into a scene with people so talented, who know how to commit, and you know they’re gonna give it their all because they’re trained stage actors, it’s such a treat.”

He played the Norse demi-god Cannabis The Chosen One (“powerful, but a stoner too, always forgetting where he put his weapons”) in the Viking year. He was “an Italian business magnate,” with a particularly snazzy costume, in the Medici year. At last summer’s Fringe edition of Die-Nasty, he was a celebrity realtor, whose face was on every bus stop bench in Strathcona.

“I was very lucky,” Jones muses, “to be from here, and be sort of an out-of-town guest in my own home town.”

Although he’s constantly out of town for gigs, Jones has lived in Edmonton since 2017. He moved back from Toronto when his dad became very ill. One of his “biggest joys” was that his dad in his final years was in the front row when he and Mochrie played big theatres like the Citadel’s Shoctor and the Martha Cohen in Calgary.

This year’s experiment in dividing the Die-Nasty season into three series, each with its own genre and characters, is a response to the long-term uncertainties built into these pandemical times. “The cast can commit to shorter periods. And it keeps things really fresh.”

What kind of Stroganoff will he be (and what kind of hat will he wear, to ask a crucial question)? As his Chekhov binge continues, Jones is considering a character inspired by Konstantin, the high-anxiety playwright in The Seagull. “He wants to be somebody. He doesn’t know much about the world, but he wants to change the world.”

“I purposely leave myself in the dark until a day or two before,” Jones says, “The adrenalin kicks in; the danger and risk get stronger. That’s the energy that’s so exciting to me about improv…. I’m a thrill-seeker.”

PREVIEW

Die-Nasty Presents: The Stroganoffs

Directed by: Stewart Lemoine and Jana O’Connor

Starring: Tyra Banda, Delia Barnett, Hunter Cardinal, Belinda Cornish, Tom Edwards, Jesse Gervais, Kristi Hansen, Nikki Hulowski, Wayne Jones, Mark Meer, Matt Schuurman, Stephanie Wolfe, and special guests

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: every Monday through late December. A second Die-Nasty mini-series (to be announced) begins in January, and a third will run through May.

Tickets: $15 at the door, or varsconatheatre.com.

Safety protocols and proof of vaccine requirements: varsconatheatre.com/covid19 

 

 

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The comedy of excavation: Hiraeth at the Varscona in a Bright Young Things production. A review.

Rochelle Laplante (top) and Kristi Hansen in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a visceral way, there’s nothing more gut-wrenching than hope. It puts your dreams into a never-ending spin cycle. You can’t get a grip on grief, or heartbreak. You can’t even grab onto sadness properly, much less arrive at a catharsis.

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There’s a new comedy about this. Belinda Cornish’s Hiraeth, which gets its name from an elusive, untranslatable Welsh word — “the longing for a home you never had, or to which you can never return” — is premiering at the Varscona in a Bright Young Things production. The two-hander is the latest from the prodigiously multi-talented actor/playwright Belinda Cornish, whose full-bodied comedy The Garneau Block, after many pandemical delays, has recently finished its premiere run at the Citadel. The director of both plays is Rachel Peake, on loan from the Vancouver Arts Club.

The theatre repertoire is full of aspirational pep-talk dreamer comedies and their conceptual opposite, the slacker fixer-upper comedy. Hiraeth isn’t like either. There’s also an ample complement of odd-couple comedies, where the utterly mismatched learn something about getting along, and there’s a comic resolution. With its two characters, in close quarters, who couldn’t be more different, Hiraeth tilts unexpectedly toward that, but in ways that will intrigue and surprise you.

The crux of the matter is in vitro fertilization (IVF). It’s a subject that’s a lot edgier in odd-couple comedy than discovering, say, that a flamenco troupe has moved in upstairs, and your building has hardwood. Which goes to show how elastic “comedy” can be.

One of its two characters, Sidi (Kristi Hansen), is an accomplished, 40-ish woman who works at home, an environmental economy consultant with her own business. She has an absentee husband, some sort of outdoor guide who seems to be successful, too. “Go show tourists the wonders of the wilderness!” she says affectionately in one of the series of phone calls which constitute his presence in Sidi’s daily life, and the play.

Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

Which brings us to the matter of the baby. Sidi doesn’t have one, but she’s trying. She’s in the midst of a third round of complicated IVF treatments, appointments, blood work. Her life is work phone calls interspersed with calls from the doctor’s office, with news that’s a matter of three-day waits, probabilities and percentages, temporary jubilation, tempered follow-ups, sucked-up disappointments.

Her fingers are permanently crossed, so to speak. Sidi, as Hansen’s performance conveys so unerringly, is absolutely functional at landing “tier 3 contracts” but emotionally harried, perpetually hopeful on the brink of conception.

And it’s on that edge that it happens: thunderous sound effects from the basement. Then a mysteriously kooky young woman bursts into Sidi’s kitchen, announcing she’s moved in.

Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

Bean (Rochelle Laplante), whose profession at the moment is making sock monkeys, immediately starts rummaging through the kitchen drawers — “wow, are you, like apocalypse-hoarding?” — and “borrowing” stuff from Sidi’s fridge. No one has ever arrived in adulthood without enduring a neighbour or roommate who plays music you hate really really loud. And Daniela Fernandez has the fun of making her sound designer debut with a score that includes a barrage of sound effects, echoing flushing, party-hearty thumping, undefinable noise, and high-volume Duran Duran.

Bean is everything Sidi is not. She’s in her 20s, for one thing. She’s impulsive, scattered, invasive, cavalier about other people’s personal privacy (and their food supply). Her non-stop free-associative chatter, which seems to unerringly press on Sidi’s bruises about conceiving a baby (“what if your baby had a heart defect … it’s more likely since you’re old”) is a volley of contradictory sound bytes and bubbles.

Doors, much less the concept of knocking first, mean nothing to Bean, in an oddly sparse house designed by Madi Blondai to seem not quite lived in. “It’s like no one even lives here!”, Bean declares. And that has a stabbing truth to it: Sidi has never really moved in; she lives on the phone.

Laplante, so impressive in last summer’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival production of a three-actor Macbeth, has a great speaking voice. She captures the maddening youthful charisma and good cheer of a character who takes charge of both tone and space.

And gradually, Sidi, who’s appalled at first with this infuriating neighbour, finds herself confessing to private medical details, then the heartache and frustration of trying to conceive. And in the pinball machine of Bean’s roll-out of observations about feral camels in Australia or “a massive societal breakdown” or plans to be a tree surgeon “or maybe a chef,” little insights do randomly land, hard. Life, Beans notes in passing, “isn’t fair or kind.” And the “silver wheel” just rolls ahead.

Peake’s production charts the odd topsy-turvy growth of a relationship that starts in comic irritation. In Hansen’s intelligent and moving performance, we can actually feel layers of reserve — carefully and hopefully constructed — getting gradually peeled off formidable emotional fortifications. Change is painful and it’s slow work.

The secret of the ending, and the part Bean plays in it, is safe with me. But I can tell you this: Hiraeth is a dimensional comedy, an excavation of sorts: it’s funny on the surface, and underneath it’s not. And it’s got two fine performances to take you there.

REVIEW

Hiraeth

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Belinda Cornish

Directed by: Rachel Peake

Starring: Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Oct. 30

Tickets and proof of vaccine requirements: varsconatheatre.com

 

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An ode to bountiful Nature on the big stage: Bears at the Citadel. A review.

Sheldon Elter (centre) and the Bears ensemble. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If there was one thing Floyd loved, it was bears,” says Floyd of himself near the outset of Matthew MacKenzie’s boldly weird and wonderful play.

In the course of Bears, Floyd, a Métis oil patch worker (the tremendous Métis actor Sheldon Elter), who’s the prime suspect in a “workplace accident,” will have to get out of town. He’s on a flight from authority that takes him into the glorious wilderness, from “the city of yesterday’s champions” west through the mountains to the sea. In the course of his trip — not coincidentally along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline, with big-oil enforcers, the RCMP and bounty-hunters in hot pursuit — he will find himself becoming what he loves.

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Since it’s a chase, there’s suspense. And it comes with a visceral environmental drive, so you’ll find yourself desperate for the burly protagonist to resist capture, and for Nature, beautiful and fragile, to triumph.

To journey into the heart of Nature (this is the kind of play that makes you want to use the capital-N) is to be transformed, re-born so to speak, by the continuity between man and the natural world, a harmony sacred to the Indigenous vision. And it’s conjured in the strangest, most entertainingly quirky and ingenious juxtaposition of poetic text, humorous asides, choreographed movement, light, and sound, as you’ll see in the Punctuate! Theatre production that puts the multi- back into the much-battered term multi-disciplinary. Directed by MacKenzie, it’s at the Citadel through Oct. 31.

I’ve seen Bears twice before, in very different incarnations in tiny spaces (its Pyretic Productions premiere in 2015, its Punctuate! touring version in 2018). This time, seeing how imaginatively it occupies the big thrust stage in this theatre town’s biggest playhouse (at the preview I was kindly allowed to attend), I was struck by the magical way MacKenzie’s fantasia on nature, a world in perpetual motion, is linked to the human resourcefulness on which theatre is built.

Christine Sokaymoh Frederick and Sheldon Elter in Bears, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

There’s Floyd himself, who has a magnetic presence in the agile person of Elter. He’s big and compelling as both narrator of memory and immediate experience, and active participant. His memories, like dreams linked to images and crises, gravitate to his mother, played onstage by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick; she’s an earthy kind of haunt-er, in jeans and boots. And Floyd’s breathless journey through Nature — through cedar forests and receding glaciers, alpine meadows, rivers, bridges, white water canyons, whirlpools, and a toxic tailings pool — is populated by the seven-member chorus of dancers, choreographed with witty, often humorously self-aware, invention by Monica Dottor.

Bears by Matthew MacKenzie, starring Sheldon Elter.Photo by Alexis Keown

The dancers, most of them Indigenous artists, are prairie gophers, chickadees or bees, otters, circles of bison, salmon, lake trout, grouse, wild strawberries, bighorn mountain sheep.… This is storytelling at its cheekiest; animals, birds, insects are Floyd’s allies and save his bacon again and again. But its choreographed playfulness takes hold.

Erotic pas de deux for bears aren’t a dime a dozen on theatrical stages. You just have to be pretty much wonderstruck when it happens: a comic novelty becomes something quite beautiful as Floyd meets his first “grizzly friend” (Gianna Vacirca).

Bountiful Nature puts on quite a show in Bears. Designer T. Erin Gruber, an expert in video and projection design, gives it a glow-in-the dark playground of cutouts: mountains, clouds, the firmament, the outline of water or sense of trees. And lighting and projections continually transform it. Sometimes it’s the glow of sunlight hitting rock or dappling onto water, sometimes the aurora borealis, the starry sky or the flickering invasion of light onto ice or into the tangle of cedar branches.

Full of industrial buzz, hums, pulses, heartbeats, the soundscape created by Noon Dean Musani (aka dj Phatcat), an electronic music specialist, moves Floyd through time and space too. I appreciated the sound even more in the large theatre, where the bare stage is bigger and barer.

MacKenzie, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, is a funny writer. The script is built on unexpected juxtapositions, similes mostly and mostly from the human world. The silt of the Athabasca River “accepts his weight like an enormous Posturepedic mattress.” Insects stir up the riverbed “like the mother of all protein shakes.” Chickadees, says Floyd, “were something a guy could count on, like caffeine and momentum.”

The Chorus, that corps of lyrical movers, occasionally joins in, with amusingly starchy annotations. As Floyd considers the romantic fortunes of an importuning grouse, they note “nothing kills the mood like a fuckin’ clear-cut.” Floyd’s inner grizzly, gradually getting unleashed in the wild, reflects on the declining population of prairie songbirds, and they add “fuck progress!.”

Bears doesn’t step back from spirited activism. But it comes at things as a rear-guard action, from the perspective of conjuring natural wonder and setting forth theatrically the high price of risking it. Pipelines are risky. We have a lot to lose.

REVIEW

Bears

Theatre: Punctuate! and Dreamspeakers at the Citadel

Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie

Choreography by: Monica Dottor

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Gianna Vacirca, Rebecca Sadowski, Zoë Glassman, Skye Demas, Karina Cox, Shammy Belmore, Alida Kendell

Running: through Oct. 31

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

         

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It’s the theatre season, and you have options this weekend

Thomas Tunski, Christina Nguyen, Gavin Dyer, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais in Michael Mysterious. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hey, there’s a Theatre Season (now, there’s a term that’s gotten a little rusty) going on in this town. There’s live theatre in your weekend — two openings Friday night alone — and you have options.

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•We’ve had glimpses, in unexpected places (like Rundle Park at twilight). But finally, Edmonton audiences get to see a full-bodied play by Geoffrey Simon Brown — in a theatre. Pyretic Theatre premieres Michael Mysterious at La Cité francophone. Fierce and funny, it takes us into the fractious and fracturing heart of a family, and makes you wonder about what it means to have one and be home — all seen through the eyes of a mystery teenager. Is family something you make? Inherit? Spend a lifetime trying to shake off? Riveting. Patrick Lundeen’s kinetic Pyretic production runs through Oct. 24 at La Cité francophone. Have a peek at the 12thnight REVIEW here, and an interview with the director and playwright Brown here. Tickets: tixonthesquare.ca.

A “dark, multi-disciplinary comedy about a pipeline”? Really? Bears, Matthew MacKenzie’s bold, imaginative theatre-dance fantasia on our relationship with Nature and, really, the Trans Mountain pipeline, opens Friday in the city where it began. And this time it’s on the big stage, the Citadel’s Maclab. Check out 12thnight’s PREVIEW interview with the playwright here. MacKenzie’s Punctuate! production, starring the charismatic Métis actor Sheldon Elter, runs through Oct. 31. Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820

Rochelle Laplante and Kristi Hansen in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo supplied.

•At the Varscona, starting Friday, another new play from Belinda Cornish, the actor/playwright/director who’s both the co-artistic producer at Teatro La Quindicina and the artistic director of the indie Bright Young Things.

Hiraeth is named for an untranslatable Welsh word that has to do with undefinable longing — for something the eludes your grasp or that might not exist. The premiere production, under the Bright Young Things banner, is directed by the Vancouver Arts Club’s Rachel Peake. Playwright Cornish and director Peake are fresh from The Garneau Block, which finally opened on the Citadel’s Maclab stage after an 18-month Covidian delay. 12thnight had a chance to talk to them for this PREVIEW. Tickets: varsconatheatre.com.

Lost Lemoine Part 1, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd.

•If you’re not quite ready to venture forth, theatre will invade your home, and come to you online. There are three filmed Teatro comedies available for streaming through Oct. 31.

Lost Lemoine Part 1 is a sextet of little comic gems by resident playwright Stewart Lemoine, some dating back as far as the ’90s. A Second Round of Seconds: Lost Lemoine Part 2, and A Fit, Happy Life. The eight-actor ensemble  of first-rate comic actors for the Lost Lemoines is directed by the evidently indefatigable Cornish. A Fit, Happy Life directed by Cornish with playwright Stewart Lemoine, stars Mathew Hulshof as a very busy department store bed salesman, with Kristen Padayas as all his customers. Streaming passes: teatroq.com.

•The Citadel production of Mary’s Wedding, Tai Amy Grauman’s Métis adaptation of the classic Stephen Massicotte play, continues online through Nov. 30. Read the 12thnight REVIEW, and a PREVIEW interview with the actor/playwright. Streaming passes: citadeltheatre.com.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

•And in honour of the spooky season, sharpen your appetite for terror and dread by catching the digital version of Trevor Schmidt’s unease-making gothic thriller We Had A Girl Before You, which premiered live last November. Schmidt’s shivery production, beautifully lighted with sound to match, stars Kristin Johnston. It’s available for streaming at northernlighttheatre.com through Oct. 31. See the 12thnight REVIEW if you dare.

  

  

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Finding comedy in deep places: Hiraeth premieres in a Bright Young Things production

Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The play that premieres Friday on the Varscona stage in a Bright Young Things production, is a test case of sorts for the uncanny way comedy gets a special access pass to the deepest, most serious of subjects.

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Even its title has an elusive smoke to it. Hiraeth, explains playwright Belinda Cornish, Bright Young Things’ artistic director, gets its name from a Welsh word that’s untranslatable into English. “The closest,” she says, “is a longing for a home you never had, or to which you can never return, a longing for something that is out of reach. An exquisite longing.” You feel it; you know it; you cannot define it.

Belinda Cornish. Photo supplied

Hiraeth is a collaboration between Cornish and Rachel Peake, written by the former, directed by the latter. And it came out of comedy — to wit, their work together as playwright/director on The Garneau Block, Cornish’s stage adaptation of the satirical Todd Babiak novel, which closed not long ago.

Two premieres, and three opening nights, in a month: there’s a crazy no-intermission intensity, screwball energy perhaps?, to the theatrical pacing of Cornish’s life during a global pandemic. Since June she’s directed four productions — three on film and the fourth (Fever Land) live — for Teatro La Quindicina, where she’s co-artistic producer.

When The Garneau Block got postponed yet again at the Citadel last March, on the very eve of its first preview, “we refused to be defeated by lockdown,” says Cornish of her friendship and artistic rapport with Peake. “We immediately started working on a new piece together…. To be able to come back 18 or 19 months later at the Citadel was amazing. We didn’t really intend to do two shows back-to-back.”

“It was all about the director/playwright relationship,” says Peake, the exuberant associate artistic director at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre (she had a similar position at the Citadel for three seasons till 2020). “I wanted it to continue!” She asked Cornish “so what else are you writing?”

“Rachel and I had a very long coffee and ventured into some pretty deep subjects,” says Cornish. They bonded over “a common experience of hiraeth,” for one thing, and for another, a shared affection for dark comedy, says Peake. Post-Hiraeth she returns to Vancouver to launch an Arts Club season that opens with the Dolly Parton musical Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, and she’ll be back to direct 9 to 5 at the Citadel later this season (“I’m nerding out on all things Dolly”).

The experience Cornish and Peake shared (one that the playwright had been keeping for theatre “in a back pocket-y sort of way”) was in vitro fertilization, in all its emotional turbulence, longing, frustrations that tilt toward tragedy, the gift and curse of hope. “We found we’d walked the same path in slightly different shoes,” as Cornish puts it delicately. “It’s an odd thing to write a comedy about.” That was the challenge.   

Rochelle Laplante and Kristi Hansen in Hiraeth, Bright Young Things. Photo supplied.

The result is “an odd-couple comedy about a tiny tragedy,” as it’s billed. One of the two characters is a successful 40-year-old business woman (Kristi Hansen) whose career is in top running order, with everything in place — except a baby. Sidi is undergoing IVF treatment to adjust that part of her life plan. “At the apex of stress in her life, a young woman (Rochelle Laplante) moves into the basement.” Says Peake, “she’s charming, she’s joyful, she’s funny, but she turns out to be the quirky neighbour from hell….”

“What makes her tick?” That is to be discovered in the course of Hiraeth. Cornish laughs. “There are a lot of discoveries in this play!”

“I love the idea of the friction, the wrapping something serious around a comedy … finding a way to put something rich, deep, and painful into the basket of comedy,” she says. As Edmonton audiences have discovered, that particular dexterity with the darker hues of comedy has found its way before into such Cornish comic “baskets” as Category E, a Kafka-esque comedy set in an animal testing lab. Or Little Elephants, that takes sparkling family dysfunction comedy into prickly territory. “With comedy you can plumb the (emotional) depths even more, find an even deeper bass note.”

With Hiraeth, it’s “the longing for something you can’t have … and that’s universal,” as Peake puts it. And “a comedy for two women is quite rare.” And so is a production team that except for stage manager Steven Sobolewski is all women.

Premiering a new play is a first for Bright Young Things, an indie christened for the London tabloid nickname for the artsy boho crowd of the 1920s. They’re specialists in the the vintage mid-century repertoire, rarely staged, of the last mid-century — Terrence Rattigan, Graham Green, Ionesco, Noel Coward, among them. “We’re expanding,” Cornish laughs.

But wait, actually there is a roommate from hell — OK, a roommate in hell —  “comedy” in the Bright Young Things archive:  Sartre’s No Exit. With Hiraeth, “a comedy with serious notes,” as Cornish describes, there is an exit, from one vision of the future to another.  But you’ll have to see the show to discover what that is.

PREVIEW

Hiraeth

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Belinda Cornish

Directed by: Rachel Peake

Starring: Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through Oct. 30

Tickets and proof of vaccine requirements: varsconatheatre.com

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A journey of transformation into the heart of nature: Bears hits the big stage

Sheldon Elter and the Bears ensemble, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Six years ago, in a tiny theatre space deep inside the Arts Barn, we watched a man set forth on a journey from the city into the heart of Nature — through mountains to the sea — transforming magically as he went.

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That was our first sighting of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears. And it arrived onstage in 2015 assisted by a chorus of dancers, a park ranger who accompanied himself in original cabaret songs … and controversy. Then, as now, multi-disciplinary dark comedies about pipelines, as Bears was boldly billed, weren’t exactly Alberta ground cover.

The contentious Northern Gateway pipeline invoked in 2015 became the contentious Kinder Morgan in the significantly reworked 2018 iteration of Bears at the Backstage Theatre. And now, starting Thursday, having toured the country on big stages and small, urban theatres and Indigenous community halls, trailing some of the country’s most prestigious theatre honours (including multiple Dora Awards and the Carol Bolt playwriting prize), Bears returns to Edmonton where it started.

And this time, the Punctuate! Theatre production is in the big house, on the Citadel’s Maclab mainstage, as part of the season. As MacKenzie says, 7,000 people saw Bears at the Belfry in Victoria, more at the Cultch in Vancouver. In Edmonton, where it all began in tiny venues, audiences for two separate incarnations of Bears amounted to 1,200. “This  isn’t the Edmonton premiere,” says MacKenzie. “But for a lot of the team it really feels that way.”   

The names may change. This time, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, purchased by the feds, is the Trans Mountain. But pipelines and the provocations offered by Bears remain as flammable as ever, maybe more. Never let it be said that Punctuate! Theatre doesn’t earn its exclamation mark.

The route of the pipeline, and the play, is still through the beautiful wilds of Jasper National Park, through high-risk heritage Indigenous land, through the Fraser Valley to Burnaby. And Floyd (Sheldon Elter), a Métis oil patch worker who’s a suspect in a “workplace accident,” is still on the lam along that route, with the RCMP and oil company enforcers in hot pursuit. And the story unfolds in an unusual, imaginative fusion of theatre and dance, a MacKenzie signature.

playwright Matthew MacKenzie. Photo supplied

“When we premiered in Toronto, it was wild,” says the Punctuate! artistic director who crosses the country between West and East with exhausting frequency. “Articles every single day about the Kinder Morgan. And the issue (three years later) is very much a hot one still.” He sighs, and laughs. “I kinda wish it wasn’t, but….”

First Nations land rights, “our spiritual contract with the natural world,” the fragility of the environment … “the stuff Bears is about gets people talking,” as MacKenzie puts it. And “it’s led to a lot of conversations, on a lot of different levels, across the country.” It invokes a specific pipeline, the Trans Mountain. “But it speaks to larger debates and fights that show no sign of going away.”

To wit: Tofino, site of a memorable blunder. “After getting re-elected, on the day he’s created to respect Indigenous folk, the prime minister goes surfing? Really? I still can’t believe it…. Clearly, there’s a long way to go,” says MacKenzie, who’s a wry, politically engaged sort of artist, with a nose for absurdity.

MacKenzie, who’s a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, has talked before of the buried family story that inspired Bears. His grandfather, writer Vern Wishart, included it, as a small and striking annotation, in his 2012 book Tracing My Great Grandmother’s Footsteps. And MacKenzie has spoken, too, of living in Toronto, feeling waves of homesickness for the beauties of the Alberta wilderness, where he regularly repairs to recharge his artistic batteries. He wrote Bears in Canmore (it’s played twice there), where the movements of animals and the appearance of specific wildflowers are the stuff of local top stories, he says.

Can it be that the culture at large is beginning is absorb something of “the Indigenous way of looking at the natural world”? MacKenzie muses. “We’re starting to change our thinking…. The way we’ve commodified everything — dig it up and ship it off — is just leading us down a road that is not tenable….”

MacKenzie’s theatre life, as a kid who went to Vic (the Victoria School of the Arts) and then the National Theatre School, has always had cross-country reverb and network of connections to it. “Punctuate!’s last three productions  have premiered in Toronto and Edmonton back to back…. So we’re already in essence touring.”

Indigenous theatre is arriving on mainstages everywhere in the country, “as it should. And that’s inspiring,” as MacKenzie says. But do Indigenous audiences come? Not always, for a variety of social, cultural and economic reasons. Punctuate! has built a network of Indigenous communities, Saddle Lake and Maskawacis among them, and takes theatre to the people. And “top of our priority list,” MacKenzie says, is “including more communities that might not get a lot of theatre.”

Sheldon Elter and the ensemble of Bears, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

With its relevance, its impressive cast of top-drawer Indigenous artists led by “superstar Sheldon Elter,” who scores off the chart in the likability quotient, and its humour, Bears has been a hit with Indigenous audiences. It’s theatre as event. “Every time we’ve gone into an Indigenous community they always have a lunch or dinner for everyone in the audience and the whole team. Always. It’s never not happened; it’s seen as the normal thing to do….”

Advice on engaging with Indigenous audiences from Dreamspeakers’ Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, who’s in the Bears cast, has been invaluable, says MacKenzie. As one example, “if you have a ‘no latecomers’ policy, there’s a good chance you won’t have anyone in the house when the show starts.” Since child care options aren’t generally available, a ‘no kids’ policy is equally unproductive. “It’s a good reminder that theatre has become more uptight than church.”

Meanwhile, MacKenzie, working mostly remotely from here, has a residency at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre (he’s the Baillie Artistic Fellow), working with artistic director Weyni Mengesha to create a new play development department. The goal, devoting 50 per cent of programming to new Canadian work, is a major departure for Soulpepper, whose reputation is built on re-discovering and producing classics. And MacKenzie, a natural (and indefatigable) collaborator — he’s a kind of cross-country theatre pipeline in himself — is busy hooking up emerging playwrights from across the country with fellow artists and new opportunities.

“I try,” he says cheerfully. “Why else would I be straddling the country like this; it’s so damn exhausting.”

The potential for Punctuate! partnerships is expanding. Ah, and so is MacKenzie’s bi-city life. In the What I Did During COVID chapter of the book of life we’re all writing, MacKenzie’s contribution is a real-life high-speed romantic comedy that’s a race against time and closing borders, set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

It’s all recounted in First Métis Man of Odessa, commissioned as part of Factory Theatre’s You Can’t Get There From Here audio series of podcasts — and in progress to be a stage play with dates in Toronto, Edmonton, and Ukraine. At heart, it’s this: MacKenzie went to Ukraine on a Pyretic theatre research trip two years ago and fell in love with star Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova. When she got pregnant. things got vastly more complicated for a couple in the world. But (spoiler alert) there’s a happy ending: they got married, and Khomutova arrived in Canada just in time for the birth of their son Ivan.

And MacKenzie is the happy, if sleepless, dad of an “incredibly cheery, joyful” 10-month-old. “Having a little being grinning at you every morning is a great way to wake up, even when the world is going to shit.” He expects the family will end up living in Toronto. “There’s just more opportunities….”

And now, finally, Bears is back in the place where its story begins, “the city of former champions.” On the Citadel’s big beautiful thrust stage in the Maclab Theatre.  “I performed on that stage! As the young Macduff!” says MacKenzie of the Robin Phillips’ production of Macbeth of long ago.

“It’s a pretty frickin’ big thrill!”

PREVIEW

Bears

Theatre: Punctuate! and Dreamspeakers at the Citadel

Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie

Choreography by: Monica Dottor

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Gianna Vacirca, Rebecca Sadowski, Zoë Glassman, Skye Demas, Karina Cox, Shammy Belmore, Alida Kendell

Running: Thursday through Oct. 31

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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In the house of mismatched dreams: Michael Mysterious. A review.

Christina Nguyen and Gavin Dyer in Michael Mysterious, Pyretic Productions. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’m just a piece of scenery,’ says the 15-year-old title character in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s Michael Mysterious.

In another kind of play by another kind of playwright, there would be a weight of tragic grievance or cynicism or heartbreak attached to a thought like that. But the elliptical insight of the character (and the steady, uninflected gaze in Gavin Dyer’s terrific performance) find a direct route into existential comedy in the play getting its world premiere from Edmonton’s Pyretic Productions.

Michael Mysterious, and Patrick Lundeen’s beautifully cast, crafted, and paced production, capture in an explosive, compelling, and funny way what it means to have a home, to be in a “family,” and to wonder how — and if — to accommodate. Brown, one of the country’s most intriguing theatrical experimenters, explores the interplay of teenagers and adults at close quarters, through the optic of a solitary young teen outsider who’s a mystery to everyone in the play, including himself.

When Michael’s grandmother dies, he’s unhinged in the world, utterly on his own. There’s the kid, sitting immobile under a single lamp, in a room we glimpse at the back of the stage, through the bones of another house. Then Arlene (Amber Borotsik), the mom of Michael’s erstwhile best friend Jeremy (Thomas Tunski) arrives to take him into the family home she’s struggling to create with her new boyfriend Paul (Jesse Gervais) and his teenage daughter July (Christina Nguyen).

Stephanie Bahniuk’s design, dramatically meaningful, conceives of the family house as a skeletal framework with flimsy translucent walls, perpetually unfinished: like so many things about living together, an imperfect, adjustable compromise between the individual and the collective.

Its short scenes, 35 of them numbered and named in projections like the chapters of a 19th century novel (“scene 9: the part where no one plays the piano”), cumulate into a texture of scratchy cross-hatched absurdities, hostilities, mismatched temperaments, conflicting takes on the “anything could happen” of the future. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the idealized reverb of home and family everywhere in the modern entertainment industry. The dynamic is particularly inflammatory over the dinner table, where any remark no matter how innocuous — “so, how was everyone’s day?” — is fire starter. Which makes you wonder how on earth anyone ever digests anything en famille.

Thomas Tunski, Christina Nguyen, Gavin Dyer, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais in Michael Mysterious. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Anyhow, the characters are a sort of group portrait of “family,” in which the individual participants won’t stay put. They keep exiting the frame, chafing to break free, bursting back in resentfully. The scene in which Arlene badgers everyone into posing together wearing the decorative hats she makes, for a website photo, is a hilarious still capture of collective bleakness.

Michael, who’s a kind of opaque non-reactive surface, a mirror to reflect the needs, hopes and disappointments of everyone else, has an answer for everything he’s asked: “I don’t know.” What’s his favourite band? Does he like smoking weed? Is he an artist? Would he like a guitar? What’s his favourite song? Or “Are you, like, adopted now?”

Gavin Dyer and Amber Borotsik in Michael Mysterious, Pyretic Productions. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Has the animation been sucked out of him by loss? As Dyer’s performance conveys so compellingly, he’s waiting “for something to happen,” in the weird time-freeze way anticipation feels when you count backwards down to the big blast-off and … nothing. His stories, when he’s exhorted to tell one, are inconclusive, meandering, unshaped by any sense of a climax much less an ending.

His introduction to family life (Scene 3: where Michael comes to the house”) has a kind of stringent hilarity all its own. “Michael needs a good place to be for now,” says Arlene who hasn’t warned her cohorts. “What’s up, guys?” says Paul warily, followed closely by “what’s your favourite band?” Jeremy, played to scowl-y perfection by Tunsk, objects to the loss of the spare room. “I was going to put my drums in there…. I’m sorry about your Grandma, but …. fuck!”  From July it’s the welcoming “what the fuck are you doing here?”

What’s compelling about the play is the easeful way that the playwright individualizes the characters, teens and grown-ups both — in fleeting exchanges, eruptions of friction, throwaway remarks, the transparently ingratiating ways adults try to create rapport with the teenagers around them, the more straightforward darts from the teens. Arlene’s twitchy boyfriend Paul, for example, in Gervais’s very funny and astute performance, nervously struggles to negotiate between asserting himself and a frantic desire to not seem assertive. It’s a kind of dance (one step forward, two back, with apology). And he knows, at some level, he looks ridiculous,  the two-step comi-tragedy of trying too hard.

Borotsik, who is a luminous presence onstage, turns in a lovely, nuanced performance as a woman who makes things at the mall, and has challenged herself to “make” a family out of the human assortment at her disposal, including the mysterious Michael.

A house full of mismatched dreams is a tumultuous place to be, as Michael Mysterious reveals, in its dark sense of humour and its anxieties. Their dreams aren’t sized quite right for any of the characters in the play; they’re either too large, like Jeremy’s, or too small, as in Arlene’s “tiny hats.”

Gavin Dyer, Christine Nguyen, Thomas Tunski in Michael Mysterious, Pyretic Productions. Photo by BB Collective Photography.

Jeremy, amusingly, has decided to be a basketball star undeterred by the fact he doesn’t play basketball. The scene in which he earnestly reveals his capitalist plans via pre-emptive bulk buys on Amazon (“I’m never going to have to buy condiments again”) to prepare for adulthood is a comic gem, beautifully played by Tunski and Dyer.

In Nguyen’s agile performance, the quicksilver temperature changes of July (the month of summer storms, after all) come to life with convincing force. She wants to be somewhere else so she can be someone else.

For Brown’s non-generic trio of teenage characters, revelations come only when no one’s listening, or everyone’s talking about themselves, or passed out. And serious conversations happen only when they’re drunk, or high. Under those circumstances Michael even allows himself a modest dream of his own, as he wonders if he’s real. “I wish I was better at something.”

To call attention to the subtleties of a play as raucous as Michael Mysterious will seem counter-intuitive, I know. And it does make you wonder about the amazing human capacity to be a teenager and survive. But this new play is an impressively subtle look at the continuity between people looking forward and people looking back — people poised on the brink of tragedy, where possibility lives and it’s better to hold hands and not look down. It’s an exciting place to be.

REVIEW

Michael Mysterious

Theatre: Pyretic Productions

Written by: Geoffrey Simon Brown

Directed by: Patrick Lundeen

Starring: Gavin Dyer, Christina Nguyen, Thomas Tunski, Amber Borotsik, Jesse Gervais

Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury

Running:  through Oct. 24

Tickets: tixonthesquare.ca

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