“Reimagining” the Citadel: Daryl Cloran announces a new season

Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. Photo: Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Reimagine” is the rallying cry at Edmonton’s largest playhouse as it turns 53 next season.

Artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled the upcoming Citadel season, the second he’s fashioned for the company, in the Club cabaret Monday night. It includes two of the theatre world’s hot contemporary musicals and a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama — in addition to innovative partnerships that pair international collaborators with local artists and Canadian indie theatres, a diversity of cultural voices and lenses, and an experiment in live/digital theatrical storytelling.       

Reimagine, that much-frayed term, might fairly be applied to a season with two world premieres that are Canadian,  interconnected, and happen simultaneously on two adjacent Citadel stages — with the same cast: CanCon at its most frenetic. And this: of six mainstage productions five are directed by women.

Hot young Toronto playwright/director Kat Sandler whose resumé includes half a dozen hits (her most recent play Bang Bang premiered last week at Factory Theatre), is the author of The Candidate and The Party, premiering simultaneously on the Maclab stage and in the Club next season, the one a “subscription” show and the other an “add-on.”

“One of the things the Citadel has is spaces,” says Cloran, who will co-direct both shows with the playwright. The idea was his, an inspiration he credits to Alan Ayckbourn’s 1999 House and Garden in which two linked plays happen at the same time in two different theatres, with the cast running back and forth.

The link between the two new Canadian plays has contemporary political traction, says Cloran, who describes Sandler as a “smart, sassy, irreverent intelligent voice.” The Candidate is set on the eve of an election, a scandal erupts, the candidate is forced into damage control mode. The Party happens nine months earlier, at a fund-raising bash: “three nominees are going for the ticket, and the scandal is set in motion,” as Cloran explains. 

“The Maclab play is a bigger, door-slamming farce situation,” says Cloran. In the Club, “it’s an immersive experience; the audience are guests at the party.” 

“They’re stand-alone,” says Cloran of the sibling pieces. “But the big win is when you see both; the fun of it lives in that high-energy situation. It embraces the live quality of live theatre; the ‘we’re all in this together’…. I want to show us taking a leadership role in risk-taking.” Not least in death-defying backstage traffic: Cloran says the term “zany” does not go amiss, as demonstrated at Monday’s season launch by the extremely fit actor Farren Timoteo.

The season’s “big musical” is not without extreme complications, too. And it has a title character who’s a veritable poster-child for re-imagining. “Nobody but me is gonna change my story,” sings Matilda in the multi-award-winning musical of that name spun from the deliciously subversive Roald Dahl novel. Matilda stars a prodigious, much put-upon eight-year-old heroine who rises to resistance against terrible odds. “I cannot get through that show without crying,” beams Cloran. “It’s so funny and just so hopeful; she’s such a hero, just so willing to fight against everything to change her story….”

Cloran’s production is a collaboration between the Citadel, Vancouver’s Arts Club, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The cast of 20 includes 11 adults and nine kids; of the latter all except the Matilda will be re-cast locally in all three cities. Choreography is by actor/director Kimberley Rampersad, whose most recent credits are at the Shaw Festival.

Redpatch, created by Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver of Vancouver’s Hardline Theatre, changes the optic on a story we know. “We look at World War I through the eyes of an Indigenous storyteller,” says Cloran. In this hit production, a collaboration between Hardline, the Citadel and the Arts Club timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Great War (the last show is on Remembrance Day), “a cast of six Indigenous actors tell the story in “a really beautiful, heartfelt fusion of text and movement.” Cloran compares it to this season’s Ubuntu in its storytelling mode.

The season launches with a production of Once, the soulful little 2011 musical about the redemptive powers of music that playwright Enda Walsh and its two original stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova adapted from the award-winning 2007 indie film. “Great music and a great contemporary love story,” says Cloran of a musical which (like Hadestown) started small at New York Theatre Workshop. The actors, 12 in number, play their own instruments onstage, a knotty challenge in casting. Winnipeg-based Ann Hodges directs.

Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by the star American playwright Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), is set in a bar in dying Rust Belt factory town in Pennsylvania — with all the attendant economic, social, racial stress fractures. “But it’s easy to see the parallels here,” says Cloran of its “smart, strong, contemporary storytelling.”

“In a story about people who depend on an an industry; what do you do when it goes down?” Loyalty and friendship are tested; racial struggles ensue. Says Cloran, the success this season of Stephen Karam’s tense and escalating family drama The Humans, which “sold better than we’d hoped for,” indicates “an appetite for great drama here.” 

Directed by Calgary-based Valerie Planche, Sweat is a collaboration with the Vancouver Arts Club, whose new artistic director Ashlie Corcoran is currently at the Citadel rehearsing her production of Mamma Mia!.

Shakespeare, who started this current season with writer’s block (Shakespeare in Love) gets to be part of the 2018-2019 season at the Citadel — in reimagined form. The play is his late romance The Tempest, a strange tale full of magical interventions. And for the Citadel/ Banff Professional Program production, Cloran has enlisted the English director Josette Bushell-Mingo, who runs Tyst Teater, Sweden’s National Deaf Theatre.

Deaf and hearing actors, participants in the Citadel/Banff Professional Program, will mingle in a show that mixes spoken language and ASL sign language. (Prospero’s daughter Miranda will be deaf). Digital media is included, too, courtesy of Mammoth VR,  a Calgary company devoted to virtual and augmented reality experiments. “There’s lots of room for us to play,” says Cloran. “If we’re going to do a classic, I want to turn the classic on its head.”

The new director of the Citadel/Banff Program is Ravi Jain, whose Toronto company Why Not Theatre is exceptionally well connected internationally. And the project is partnering, as well, with Edmonton-based Sound Off, the country’s first national deaf festival founded by Chris Dodd (currently in preparation for this year’s upcoming Chinook Series).

The season contains not one but two seasonal offerings. One is the 19th annual reappearance of Tom Wood’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, a veritable civic institution by now. Overlapping, as a subscription offering, is Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a contemporary sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by the West Coast American team of Lauren Gunderson (“the most produced playwright in America,” says Cloran) and Margot Melcon.

The Miss Bennet in question is the one you never think of. Bookish, forgotten  Mary finally gets an awkward love story of her own, in a play that, says Cloran, references the period in costumes and setting, but with “a great, fun contemporary sensibility.” Edmonton’s Nancy McAlear directs a cast of eight. “That’s part of our job here, making opportunities for great Edmonton artists,” says Cloran.   

Full programming for the Beyond The Stage presentation series awaits. But Monday’s launch revealed two productions. Nassim, by the Iranian playwright Nassim, of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit fame, will be here in person for a show of uniquely impromptu stripe, “a duet about language and culture,” as Cloran puts it.

The actors, a different one every night, look up at a screen, and performs a script they’ve never seen. The pages are turned by a pair of hands; they belong to the playwright himself, backstage and then on-.

A year from now, Slight of Hand, an original ambulatory theatre piece by the site-specific Edmonton company Theatre Yes (Anxiety, The Elevator Project) takes audiences through the Citadel, “everywhere except the theatres,” says Cloran. “We wanted to get behind an excellent Edmonton company and let them animate our spaces.”

THE SEASON AT A GLANCE

Once the musical, directed by Ann Hodges (Sept. 22 to Oct. 14)

Redpatch (with Vancouver Arts Club and Hardline Theatre), directed by Sean Harris Oliver (Nov. 1 to 11))

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, directed by Nancy McAlear (Nov. 18 to Dec. 9)

A Christmas Carol, directed by Wayne Paquette (Nov. 30 to Dec. 23)

Sweat (with Vancouver Arts Club Theatre), directed by Valerie Planche (Jan. 12 to Feb. 2, 2019)

Matilda (with Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), directed by Daryl Cloran (Feb. 16 to March 17, 2019)

The Candidate, directed by Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler (March 30 to April 21, 2019)

The Party, directed by Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler (March 30 to April 21, 2019)

The Tempest, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo (April 20 to May 12, 2019)

 

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When you meet a grizzly…. Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears

Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (standing) and Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you run into a grizzly, keep the following in mind: They have an aversion to authority. They never back down. And there’s no use playing dead.

“There’s no such thing as neutral in the bear world,” the sassy eight-member chorus of Bears tells us near the outset about their muscular stand-up protagonist Floyd

In the theatre world, Matthew MacKenzie’s spirited, highly imaginative “dark multi-media comedy about the Kinder Morgan pipeline” — now, like Floyd, headed west on a journey to the Pacific — is a veritable bear of a play. You just can’t come up against Bears and play dead.

I saw Bears first in 2015, when the pipeline was the Northern Gateway.  Seeing it this weekend in a new version directed by the playwright (for Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts), I was struck again by its rarity. Bears is as non-neutral a sighting in these parts as a crocus popping out of the snow on Groundhog’s Day in Edmonton, to invoke a simile Floyd might have used (if his standard in similes dropped a few notches). 

MacKenzie’s play, which had a brief run this weekend before the westward tour continues, is about this place now, it’s politically feisty, it’s rhapsodic in its own weird way. And it’s got its own quirky sense of humour too, exercised both in the poetic text and the multi-media resources it brings to bear on setting it forth on the stage. It’s a strange and beguiling combo, especially since Bears is also a chase (exeunt pursued by police and oil industry hit-men). How often do see a multi-media production that is amused by multi-media theatre? Without losing the magic of it?

It starts by running with the Indigenous sense of a sacred harmony with Nature, a vision of man in the natural world. Floyd, a Métis oil patch worker who’s a prime suspect in a “workplace accident,” is in flight through the wilds of Alberta and B.C. As his journey through wilderness proceeds along the route of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through the Rockies, the Fraser Valley and on to the Pacific, hunted by the RCMP and armed company enforcers, he is becoming the natural creature with whom he most identifies: a grizzly.

It’s hard to see how this would work without the charismatic  Sheldon Elter as the fierce but pure-hearted Floyd. Both verbally and physically he’s big and compelling, chronicling his experience in the third person while he’s participating in it. Floyd’s cubhood memory bank is tied to images of his mother. And in the person of Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (artistic director of Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts), she’s a dream-like onstage witness (and occasional commentator) to every near-fatal collision with the Mounties, or whitewater, or tailings pond, or avalanche.

The shimmering scenic world created by T. Erin Gruber, an expert in video and projection technology, is glow-in-the-dar. It invokes mountains and glaciers, the Northern Lights, dappled alpine meadows, the starry firmament. It’s populated by the chorus of dancers, and the inventive and witty choreography of Monica Dottor. They’re flowers and trees; they’re bees and chickadees, herds of bison, prairie dogs, otters, killer whales, salmon, elk and butterflies: Floyd has friends in high and low places in the wilderness (and a minus quantity in the city).

The players, mostly Indigenous, are as lyrical in movement as they’re sassy in their verbal annotations. A grouse couple change their minds about getting it on: “Nothing kills a mood like a fucking clear-cut,” notes the chorus.

And there’s even an erotic pas de deux  — Dottor’s choreography is enchanting — when Floyd meets his first grizzly friend (Gianna Vacirca).

The play doesn’t sidle up to, or tiptoe around, the environmental argument. It gets mad and steps up boldly, crashing through oil company assumptions and rhetoric like Floyd through a cedar forest. 

The irreplaceable beauty and bounty of the land is what Bears conjures, in sight and sound, movement, music (Noor Dean Musani), and MacKenzie’s funny prose/poetry. Pipelines put Nature at risk. The stakes are high and Bears is about the stakes. 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering dad: Empire of the Son is an artful memoir of a tempestuous father-son relationship. A review

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by: Raymond Shum

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“For a long time I did not like my father,” says the puckish, elegantly moustached figure before us in Empire of the Son.

Like? Hmmm.… Who among us hasn’t felt the disconcerting ripple of a thought like that stirring up the grit in the memory pool?

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s funny, heartfelt, and artful solo memoir, arriving in a touring production from Vancouver Canadian Asian Theatre, conjures not one man, but two. They are from two generations separated not just by age but by culture — and the time-rubbed frictions between the old world and the new.

Empire of the Son former CBC public broadcaster Shigematsu has created a double portrait of a father and son who can each easily communicate to the world at large by radio, but resist being in the same frame up close in family life.

It’s set forth onstage in a fascinating jangle of sound and sound clips, ingenious theatrical devices, anecdotes, projected images and family photos, and video. In the process of conjuring his late father from beyond the grave, the son, agile and quick-witted, offers an insight into a culture where gender has a kind of formal stage presence  and age has a kind of authority that’s gotten pretty frayed in this part of the world.

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

The younger Shigematsu describes his father Akira (Mr. Shigematsu to you, if you please) as “a mountain, a force of nature, a waterfall.” Later in his show, when Shigematsu interviews his elderly dad, Shigematsu says “my questions were the Rockies” and his father’s answers were “long prairies of silence.”

As a boy growing up in Japan Shigematsu’s father had witnessed the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. His father’s reaction to his son’s question about that seminal end-of-the-world moment in history is revealing, the son tells us with the endearing wryness that, along with bemused exasperation, is one of the keynotes of the show. He hadn’t been feeling very well, the father had allowed; he attributed it to food poisoning. Now, that’s reserve.

The curious, but telling, parallels in the career paths of father and son are one of the striking signifiers in a show that’s about communicating across great divides of reticence and notions of what’s seemly for males. And there’s something a little breath-taking about actually seeing the real-life object that for a long time was the only link between father and son: a radio microphone.

The father, a die-hard anglophile, had left Japan for England, and a job with the BBC Foreign Service. Later, in Canada, his broadcaster’s job at CBC was the victim of cuts, and he ended his career in the mailroom, troubled by “the lack of silence” and blocking out chatter with a pair of big yellow headphones.

So, a microphone and noise-blocking headphones: they’re the show-and-tell axes of the show. In Richard Wolfe’s production Shigematsu stands at a long table, and uses a sliding camera, and miniatures that are projected on the screen behind him, counterpointed with photos from the family album. I loved the scene where he leans over, and blows on a straw to send an origami boat across water, an image of emigration into the great unknown. In a charmer of another scene, his own fingers stand in for father and son, in a replay of an old argument about skateboarding.

That kind of low-tech theatrical wit, in synch with the lovely Japanese-style screens of Pam Johnson’s design, is the right kind of playground for a performer like Shigematsu.

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

A veteran broadcaster who’s used to storytelling using only his voice, he sometimes overplays that skill in moments that seem a little “written and rehearsed.” But the man of radio gets to borrow, and rather effortlessly, the rationale lacking in many solo shows — i.e. why on earth is the person onstage spilling the contents of his memory to a bunch of strangers? Radio performers do that all the time. Empire of the Son scarcely needs the dramatic framework of a man working himself up to cry as a dress rehearsal for his father’s funeral.

What does work, wonderfully well, is the fragmentation of multiple stories between three generations. That texture has an impulsive, free-associative quality that’s very compelling. It’s the way memory works after all. And reflections about life, love, and death have a cumulative composition and impact: the more elliptical path is the surest one.

In the end Shigematsu lets the tears be ours. We laugh our way towards them. 

REVIEW

Empire of the Son

Theatre: Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre

Created and performed by: Tetsuro Shigematsu

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through Feb. 18

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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A wealth of choices on Edmonton stages this weekend (the groundhog needs to get out more)

HMS Pinafore, Edmonton Opera.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The existentialists were right. Our real problem, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t hypothermia. It’s choice. There’s a wealth of possibilities on Edmonton stages: consider the weekend possibilities. 

•“Now give three cheers and one cheer more for the well-bred captain of the Pinafore….” The class system in all its snobbery gets a razzing in the ineffable Gilbert and Sullivan musical satire HMS Pinafore. The jaunty 1878 operetta gets infiltrated by the Jazz Age in Edmonton Opera’s new production, opening Saturday on the Jube stage.

The idea of setting it on a ‘20s luxury liner (and jazzing up the score to match) belongs to EO general director Tim Yakimec who says “we could have used the Queen Mary, but instead we built our own!”

Glenn Nelson as Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore, Edmonton Opera.

Rob Herriot’s production pilfers favourite actors from Edmonton theatre. Actor/ director Glenn Nelson plays Sir Joseph Porter, the landlubber Admiral who arrives everywhere trailing a posse of “his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.” Actor/ playwright/ cabaret artist/ TV host  Bridget Ryan plays blowsy, warm-hearted Little Buttercup, possessor of a big voice and a deep dark secret essential to the plot.

You’ll also see Ryan Parker, a charismatic Teatro La Quindicina fave, as the Boatswain. The Plain Janes’ Jason Hardwick, who’s in that company’s upcoming musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, choreographs. And the assistant director is Teatro star Farren Timoteo, whose solo show Made In Italy ran in the Citadel Club last season.

HMS Pinafore runs Saturday, plus Feb. 6 and 9. Tickets: tickets.edmontonopera.com. 

Flying Canoë Volant at La Cité francophone. Photo supplied

 •The French Quarter knows how to throw a bash. For six years Flying Canoë Volant has been inviting Edmontonians by the thousands (over 35,000 at last count), to redeem winter, and celebrate our three founding cultures, First Nations, Métis, and French-Canadian.

You can follow the trail of light installations through the Mill Creek Ravine, stop in at the Trapper’s Cabin to hear tales; you can dance and drum at the Indigenous Base Camp. dancing and listening to stories. You can ascend to the hospitality of the elegant French cultural centre, La Cité francophone, listen to bands, explore an art and film installation, listen to music both traditional and contemporary, dance your boots off, visit an ice bar on the patio. You can party indoors and out-, in a mixture of languages, with a mixture of drinks.

It happens Friday and Saturday — 6 to 10 p.m. in the ravine, 6 to midnight at La Cité francophone, 6 to 10 p.m. at Rutherford School across the street. And it’s free.

Love and Information, MacEwan University theatre arts. Photo supplied

•MacEwan University launches its new 150-seat black box Theatre Lab in Allard Hall with a production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a witty and insightful barrage of some 57 fleeting staccato plays. Dave Horak, of Edmonton Actors Theatre, directs the student production which runs in the new space through Feb. 10. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).     

Hey Ladies! salutes Groundhog’s Day Friday night, in its usual unclassifiable swirl of music, chatter, home entertainment tips, and booze. Your only choice here isn’t whether there’s six more weeks of winter (not possible, surely) or early spring. Co-hosts Davina Stewart, Cathleen Rootsaert and Leona Brausen are joined by  special guests s Dr. Auntie Dote (aka Heather D. Swain), visual artist Dallas LaRose, and The Flashback Band (with 15-year-old Elvis, Jaedyn Pilon). 

•Saturday night, artiste extraordinaire Patricia Zentilli continues her series of themed cabarets,  PattyZee@TheRoxy, with A Joyful Evening Of Sad Songs. She culls from the best: the contemporary musical theatre repertoire, Leonard Cohen, Ben Folds, Dolly Parton, Billy Joel…. In this musical sampling she’s joined by fellow cast members from the upcoming Citadel production of Mamma Mia! (Jenni Burke, Tess Benger, and Melanie Piatocha).

And continuing:

Julien Arnold, Aimée Beaudoin, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

•At Shadow Theatre, Slumberland Motel, Collin Doyle’s funny and touching new comedy of middle-aged disappointment and terror (see 12thnight.ca review)

•At Citadel Theatre, Empire of the Son, a solo memoir of a tempestuous father/son relationship (see 12thnight.ca interview with creator/star Tetsuro Shigematsu).

•At Rubaboo Festival, the Punctuate!/ Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts production of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears (see 12thnight.ca interview with playwright MacKenzie) is at the Backstage Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns) through Saturday. The same forces present Christine Sokaymoh Frederick’s kids’ play Minosis Gathers Hope at the Backstage Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

   

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Her Mark: life on The Rock is harsh, beautiful, and poetic

Matthew Lindholm, Linda Grass, Astrid Sparks, Lora Brovold in Her Mark, Whizgiggling Productions. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Every word I have spoken the wind has taken, as it will take me. As it will take my grandchildren’s children, their heads full of fragments and my face not among those.”

In his poem Her Mark, the celebrated Newfoundland writer Michael Crummey conjured his mysterious great-grandmother who vanished into the shadows of the past leaving nary a trace — save an X on a 1934 deed of property.

It’s that poem (from Crummey’s 1998 volume Hard Light), a moving elegy to what’s lost, that gives its name to the play opening Friday at the Orange Hall in Strathcona.

Her Mark is the work of Whizgiggling Productions, an Edmonton indie theatre devoted to work from or about Newfoundland (Salt Water Moon, The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever), that atmospherically harsh and beautiful island stronghold in the north Atlantic. And the idea of fashioning a play, with characters and a storyline, from Crummey’s poems is the inspiration of Whizgiggling’s Cheryl Jameson and the playwright/ director/actor/designer Trevor Schmidt, artistic director of Northern Light Theatre.

Together they culled volumes of Crummey’s poems. And together they adapted his poems for the stage, in a play about Ellen Rose Crummey and her three daughters living a hard life on The Rock in the ’20s and ’30s. It was one of the sleeper hits of the 2014 Fringe.

“I liked the stories they told, and the strong character voices,” says Jameson of her attraction to Crummey’s poems as raw material for a piece of theatre with dimensional characters. The St. John’s theatre company Artistic Fraud, as she points out, has done three collaborations with Crummey’s poetry. “I like the way the poems reveal what it was to be a Newfoundlander back then, a living eulogy…. I like the way they’re not just monologues: they lend themselves to beautiful, dramatic storytelling.”

The course of history operates in a different time frame in Newfoundland. “My mother-in law’s family didn’t have electricity till she was 16,” says Jameson, a Westerner who lived in Newfoundland for four years, long enough to miss it when she left. “My father-in-law had to bring a stick of wood (his contribution to the heating) to school when he was a kid…. And these are people who’re just in their seventies.”

Her Mark has been re-imagined by Schmidt and Jameson for the revival in the moody, wood-lined confines of the historic Orange Hall. “I wanted it to feel like an old schoolhouse,” says Jameson.

And what was a chamber piece for four women and a violinist has been expanded. In the 2014 version, in which Jameson played the eldest of the sisters, “we talked about our brother.” This time we actually meet Hollis (Matthew Lindholm), via poems that reveal what Jameson calls “male narrative.” Gradually a Newfoundland family emerges, struggling to retain a precarious way of life.

Thanks to violinist Astrid Sparks, there’s flavourful music, “sometimes just four bars, sometimes whole songs,” as Jameson explains of a score that includes both accompanied and acapella numbers. In all, there are “probably 30 pieces or so, music and poems” in Her Mark, she thinks.

“Everyone gets at least three; sometimes a poem might be three lines (of speech), sometimes a whole page…. The language is so beautiful, they don’t have to be long.”

PREVIEW

Her Mark

Theatre: Whizgiggling Productions

Written by: Michael Crummey

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Linda Grass, Lora Brovold, Jayce McKenzie, Matthew Lindholm, Cheryl Jameson

Where: Orange Hall, 10335 84 Ave.

Running: Friday through Feb. 10

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

 

 

 

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Nature at risk: Bears, Matthew MacKenzie’s “dark comedy about pipelines” is back to provoke

Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Three years ago Edmonton audiences found themselves in the presence of the season’s (make that the decade’s) only “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Northern Gateway Pipeline.” And they watched, spellbound, as a man on a flight through the Canadian wilderness, from “the City of Former Champions” to the blue Pacific, was magically transformed by his journey.

That was Bears. In Matthew MacKenzie’s highly imaginative highly argumentative ode to Nature, Floyd, a Métis oil worker who’s the prime suspect in a workplace accident, is on the lam. The RCMP, enlisted by oil company enforcers, are in hot pursuit. And as Floyd bolts through cedar glade and icy stream, melting glacier and alpine meadow, into very heart of Nature, his senses are gradually tuned to a higher natural frequency. Is he, can he be?, turning into the creature with whom he feels the closest rapport? “If there was one thing Floyd loved, it was bears,” says Floyd of himself.

If there is one thing playwright MacKenzie loves, apparently, it’s a theatrical provocation with a political edge. He is, after all, the author of SIA, which casts a skeptical eye on Canuck naiveté in the big wide dangerous world. And Bust, which premiered in 2017 at Theatre Network, was set in the still-smouldering world of post-Boom post-fire Fort Mac.

Now, at a moment in history when the very word “pipeline” has a Molotov reverb, Bears is back in Alberta, fresh from a hit run in Toronto. Directed by the playwright and co-produced by Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, it happens as part of the latter’s annual Rubaboo Festival.

In this new iteration Floyd, again embodied definitively by the magnetic Métis artist Sheldon Elter (Métis Mutt), is on the run once more, pursued by the RCMP and a posse of Kinder Morgan hunters. This time out Floyd’s path to the sea takes him through Jasper National Park, and along the Fraser River, to Burnaby, B.C.

Yes, it’s the contentious Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline route, whose existence and expanding course through beautiful, high-risk Indigenous heritage land is the stuff of elections and electioneering, political manipulation, inflammatory rhetoric from provincial premiers.

MacKenzie, back in his home town, is bemused to consider the double-barrelled political surprise, post-2015, that continues to fuel the explosive topicality of his play. One: the unexpected NDP victory in Alberta. Two: the Alberta NDP as vociferous pipeline advocates with a particular stake in Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion.

He finds disingenuous and misleading oil company arguments that the pipeline is an established feature of the Canadian landscape that never elicited First Nations objections till recently. “When it was built in ‘50s protests were forbidden by the Indian Act,” notes MacKenzie, whose ethnicity includes Cree, Métis and Iroquois roots.

As MacKenzie has said, Bears was inspired partly by a passionate attachment to the multiple beauties of the Alberta wilds — fuelled by homesickness whenever he’s somewhere else (he’s a grad of Montreal’s National Theatre School). Partly, it was the urging of family heritage on his mother’s side, discovered by chance.

His mother Beth Wishart MacKenzie is a a film-maker whose doc Lana Gets Her Talk chronicles indigenous artist Lana Whiskeyjack as she creates a multi-media sculpture to capture the enduring trauma of residential schools (Losing My Talk). The Whiskeyjack/ Wishart MacKenzie collaboration is installed at La Cité francophone during Rubaboo (through Sunday).

Tracing My Great Grandmother’s Footsteps, a 2012 historical novel by Mackenzie’s father Vern Wishart, details the vivid moment in 1841 when his great great great-grandmother Kisikaciwan (Cree for “Saskatchewan”) passed through Edmonton en route to Oregon. As her party re-stocked, she sat on the banks of her namesake river for three days, and wept.

At the core the Indigenous inheritance “is about looking at the land as sacred,” says MacKenzie, Punctuate! Theatre’s new artistic producer, who repairs to nature at times of personal crisis. “It’s part of me.” At least half his cast of 10 are Indigenous performers.

Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (standing) and Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

Bears is set in motion by the visceral physicality of Elter; “Toronto was blown away by him; he’s such a powerful actor!” says MacKenzie. A sort of Greek chorus of dancers evokes the natural world, including the snow storms, the meadows, the animals and birds, the butterflies and the salmon, that Floyd encounters on his tumultuous journey.

An “environmental design” by projection technology expert T. Erin Gruber, who counterpoints projection and cut-outs, again chronicles Floyd’s progress. 

Ainsley Hillyard, the creative muse of Edmonton’s Good Women Dance Collective, choreographed the 2015 production in a playfully stylized way. This time the chorus, increased to a corps of eight from five, is choreographed by Monica Dotter. “It’s totally different,” thinks MacKenzie, “more comedic….”

Noor Dean Muslin’s electronic soundscape again conjures every part of Floyd’s journey to the sea. But the music has changed. Last time, a park ranger from the ‘20s (Bryce Kulak) delivered vintage cabaret songs at the keyboard from time to time. This time, the dancers sing: “they had no idea; it was a late add-on,” laughs MacKenzie. His brother Aaron MacKenzie has contributed a doo-wop song.

But the chief dramatic development is that Floyd’s mother, Mama Bear, talked about in the 2015 production, is physically present, an onstage witness to the action. She’s played by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, the artistic director of Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts. Her own play for kids, Minosis Gathers Hope — about the struggles of a young Métis girl — is touring theatres and First Nations reserves alongside Bears.

PREVIEW

Bears

Theatre: Punctuate! and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts

Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie

Starring: Sheldon Elter, with Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Zoe Glassman, Alida Kendell, Aimee Rushton, Rebecca Sadowski, Kendra Shorter, Gianna Vacirca

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

Running: Thursday through Saturday, with Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m. matinee performances of Minosis Gathers Hope

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

 

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The complex lives of fathers and sons: Empire of the Son comes to the Citadel Club

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the hit touring show that arrives Thursday in the Citadel Club, a son tells the story of a remote, unapproachable father: his own.  Countries get adopted, and left behind; continents get crossed — and so, too, do vast distances in a father-son relationship extenuated by congenital reserve, cultural tradition, the immigrant experience.

The son we meet in Empire of the Son is Tetsuro Shigematsu, actor, writer, and former CBC broadcaster. His late father Akira Shigematsu was a broadcaster, too, whose fascinating narrative took him from his native Japan first to England and then to Canada.

If Shigematsu the Younger had been, as he puts it, “OK with the status quo, i.e. to never have a conversation with my father beyond ‘pass the soy sauce’,” Empire of the Son would never have happened.

He’s on the phone from Vancouver, a charming and hyper-articulate conversationalist, to explain. “But I realized now that have two kids of my own, if they’re anything like me they’d soon be asking questions about cultural identity. Who am I? Where did I come from? Inevitably, I knew, they’d start asking questions about Grandpa.” His father’s health was failing. “It was now or never….”

Two years into researching and interviewing his father for a show that’s also his PhD thesis at UBC, there came a moment of truth when Shigematsu had to formally ask his father’s permission to share his story. “‘Have you ever wondered why I’ve been asking all these questions’,” the son put to the father. The flat answer: “no.”

“He looked so perplexed, as if I was suggesting is it OK if I take your toenail clippings and auction them off on eBay?….”

Twenty years before, in his mid-20s, Shigematsu had written an Empire of the Son prequel of sorts, Rising Son. “That was me, trying to understand the acrimonious nature of my relationship with my father … when he was at the height of his powers and more fearsome than ever,” he says genially. Just as the the show started to get some traction, Shigematsu’s mother took him aside. “Dad says you make fun of his accent for a living.” she said. Was Dad being sardonic? His mother didn’t know, which, translated from the classical Japanese, meant “stop.” So he did.

That show, says Shigematsu, had proven an entry card into Canadian broadcasting, though. He started writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Opportunities multiplied. When he replaced Bill Richardson on The Roundup, he became the first person of colour to host a daily national radio show. 

Two decades later, the paternal No had turned to an unhesitating Yes. Why? “Because at the end of my life, if you tell my story, then it will have had some meaning,” Shigematsu heard. “I was so struck by that…. I still felt like a kid, in a state of protracted adolescence in my ’mid-‘40s when, by all measures I should have been a man. I was still looking to my father to not die until he could give me some glimpse of meaning that would make it all hang together. It never occurred to me that in doing this show I’d switched positions…. It was a big surprise to me.”

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

The month before his multi-media solo show premiered in 2015 at the Cultch in Vancouver, Shigematsu’s father passed away. “So that created a kind of meta-story, a story behind the story: people found it quite moving that I was performing the show at all,” Shigematsu reports. “It moves a piece of theatre into the realm of performance art, I guess, which could be uncomfortably real. But because the show is funny, people find it a largely enjoyable experience.”

There was a moment during the 2015 premiere run at the Cultch in Vancouver that demonstrated to Shigematsu the blurred frontier between art and life along which his show plays. “My son is the butt of some of my jokes in the show,” he says, “the kind of intimate details that really embarrass kids, like cleaning him up after he went to the bathroom.” Or pointing out that an inability to shed tears — one of the emotional motifs of a show that taps the no-cry zone of reserve between father and son — wasn’t an inhibition shared by his own kid.

“He was eight years old at the time. And I really prepped him, probably over-prepared him, before the show. ‘I’m going to say this line and the audience is going to laugh, not at you but with you’…. When the time came, I noticed his seat in the third row was empty. I could see his hand reaching up: he was under the seat.”

Shigematsu laughs. “I stopped the show and said to the audience ‘excuse me ladies and gentlemen; I just have to take a moment with my son…. He’d started yelling ‘He’s lying! I don’t do that any more!”

“I explained ‘you’re the hero of this show! You’re the first Shigematsu to break this chain of emotional frigidity’” The kid’s spontaneous rejoinder was so perfectly timed the audience probably assumed it was scripted: “Yeah, if I’m the hero of the show, then how come I’m not on the poster?”

“I thought I was a writing a culturally specific story,” muses Shigematsu, thinking of his Japanese-Canadian immigrant family, knit together by habits of reserve and the tear-less constraints of masculinity. “But after interacting with audiences I realized that many people, Germans, British, Italian extraction, had similar stories about their own fathers.”

The anglophile thread in his father’s story makes a certain cultural sense, as Shigematsu explains. A copy of Somerset Maugham novel donated by a travelling book salesman “sparked a love affair with English literature.” So, from post-war Japan to England: “both are island nations with long naval histories and imperial pasts; both prize emotional reserve.”

“We all have our fantasy cities,” says Shigematsu. “If we ever get to Paris or New York we’ll be complete.” For his father it was London. And in his dream city he landed his dream gig, with the BBC Foreign Service.

But when Shigematsu and his twin sister were born, “he decided that England in the early 70s wasn’t a place to raise kids.” The family emigrated to Canada when Shigematsu was two. “My father thought of Surrey, British Columbia as a cultural wasteland; he felt very much in exile, not from Japan but from England.” His father’s broadcaster’s career in Montreal (he hosted a radio show) was a victim of CBC cuts; he ended up working in the mailroom.  

For Shigematsu himself, telling the story of his father was both his calling card in broadcasting and then, as the live experience with audiences drew him back, his exit visa. His latest show One Hour Photo, a companion piece of sorts to Empire at the Son that involved interviewing elderly Japanese men about the internment, premiered at the Cultch last fall.“My siblings were mystified when I walked away from CBC,” he says cheerfully. “A high-paying job, security, a measure of profile, low-level Canadian fame … these are for many, the recipe for happiness.”

Shigematsu takes the occasional gig in “other people’s shows,” time permitting. But identifies primarily as a writer not an actor, he says.

“As a person of colour who belongs to a marginalized community who don’t often see ourselves represented on stage or screen, I can address that as a writer…. It’s the realization that rather than complain about the dearth of Canadian-Asian representation, I have to go ahead and do something about it.” 

PREVIEW

Empire of the Son

Theatre: Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre

Created by and starring: Tetsuro Shigematsu

Directed by: Richard Wolfe

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through Feb. 18

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Where did the time go? Nighty-night at the Slumberland Motel: a review of Collin Doyle’s comedy, premiering at Shadow Theatre

Julien Arnold, Aimée Beaudoin, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What is a salesman but a teller of stories and a purveyor of dreams?

Willie Loman knew it. And so does Edward, the more optimistic half of the pair of travelling vacuum cleaner salesmen who find themselves sharing a sad motel room on a snowy Christmas Eve, 1972.

For 20 years Ed and Edward, the odd couple of Collin Doyle’s very funny, very wistful Slumberland Motel — the 2006 Alberta Playwriting Award winner premiering at Shadow Theatre — have been on the road, selling not just suction but convenience, liberation, the possibility of happiness. And it’s come to this: a curiously large motel room that’s the very landscape of disappointment. Wallpaper the colour of vomit, brown curtains that don’t fit, a mattress with a sag, bad lino, jaundiced lighting (designer: Matt Currie), pictures of clowns (designer: C.M. Zuby).

“Clowns are nice,” says Edward (Julien Arnold) who has retained a certain bounce through three and possibly four marriages. “Not in the middle of the night,” says Ed (Reed McColm), his phlegmatic partner, grimly.

If there’s any justice — and I’m not saying there is, gawd knows, times being what they are — Ed and Edward as definitively embodied by Arnold and McColm in John Hudson’s production would be to Canadian theatre roughly what Burns & Allen are to American vaudeville and Felix and Oscar are to American comedy. Quintessential. 

They are the poster boys for middle-age disappointment, for a sense of waning hope and shrinking time. The spectrum that goes from possibility to failure has tipped. Arnold’s perky Edward, who has the most amusingly buoyant hair of the season (designer: Leona Brausen), keeps it at bay. McColm’s Ed is a repository of deadpan wit, literal-minded asides, and mordant double-takes. Where Ed sees strangers, Edward sees “potential customers.” Reality, like optimism, he argues, is a deliberate choice. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but alas, it has proven merely indifferent, through over-exposure, to vacuum cleaners.

Julien Arnold, Aimée Beaudoin, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Marc J Chalifoux Photography

There will come a time in Slumberland Motel, a time with impeccable narrative credentials (really!), when you see a memorably comical double-portrait: lugubrious Ed in his slippers and primly buttoned flannelette pyjamas; Edward barefoot and beaming in an improvised toga.

I’d tell you to hold that thought, but having planted it I know perfectly well you won’t be able to shake it. The “comic nudity” as per the theatre warning, I leave you to discover for yourself. My own favourite image is the balletic pas de deux for man and vacuum cleaner, set to Darrin Hagen’s fanciful original score.

As Edmonton audiences know from The Mighty Carlins, Nighthawk Rules among other Doyles, the playwright is a dab hand at comic dialogue with unexpected edges. To the repartee of Act I, beautifully timed by Arnold and McColm in Hudson’s production, is added a vaudevillian assortment of sight gags.

Julien Arnold, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

Why is Edward under one of the beds? Checking out the motel room for dead bodies. “In a hotel I never check for dead bodies?” he says brightly. “What do you look for in a hotel?” Ed can’t resist asking after a well-timed pause. “I check window ledges for jumpers,” beams his sales partner.

The connecting door, locked, is Slumberland Motel’s presiding symbol. It fascinates Edward. He can’t stay away from it. What’s on the other side? Ed is content with the not knowing. Not Edward. “What do you imagine is on the other side?” 

In Act II, a mysterious woman (Aimée Beaudoin) arrives from behind that door. Are they dreaming? Has Edward conjured her? Is she the horizon of the might-have-been?

Thoughts about time, hope, the fear of loneliness, filter through the second act like smoke. Beaudoin’s tricky acting assignment is is to not shut down the possibilities. Dreams are elusive; their best-before date is smudgy. We tell bedtime stories to keep them alive.

REVIEW

Slumberland Motel

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Collin Doyle

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Julien Arnold, Reed McColm, Aimée Beaudoin

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 82 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 4

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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What light through yonder window breaks? Shakespeare’s R & J is back, a 12thnight review

Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier in Shakespeare’s R&J, Kill Your Television Theatre. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Directors with concept envy have always been hot to get their mitts on Romeo and Juliet. And you can see why. The defiance, the crazy courage, the valiance of hot-blooded young lovers up against generational hostilities in a fractious world have invited every kind of contemporary context: New York street gangs, Irish Catholic vs. Protestant, Bosnian vs. Serb, Canuck anglophone vs. francophone, Muslim vs. Christian, the Middle East, the American South….

In Shakespeare’s play there’s a high price tag on a first kiss across the Montague/Capulet divide in fair Verona, the more visceral the setting, the more striking.  

Shakespeare’s R&J, a 1997 adaptation/ condensation by the New York actor/screenwriter Joe Calarco, offers a different proposition: that first kiss happens across the frontier of sexual orthodoxy.

Sixteen years ago a fiery new indie theatre called Kill Your Television tackled this love story for four young adolescent guys rebelling against the rigidity of a strict Catholic boys school. And they revisit it in a vivid new Kevin Sutley production in the Roxy Performance Series, starring four of Edmonton’s most exciting young actors and not to be missed.

The result is a compelling male version of Romeo and Juliet — one that demonstrates, among other things, that committed actors can’t be contained by a concept. And these four pretty much explode out of it, and take hold of Shakespeare’s great story of love and death and sexual awakening — Calarco be gone.   

The “actors” startle, and sometimes appall, each other, and themselves,  with their discoveries. But the framework — oppressed schoolboy amateurs entering a hot-blooded Shakespearean vortex of fear and ecstacy and rising to the occasion— seems less necessary this time out. Sutley’s revival, which happens under a projected scarlet crucifix on a vertical banner (designer: April Viczko), seems to take into account that two young Catholic students kissing as they play a couple in a love story is less inflammatory in 2018 than it was a couple of decades ago.

What the Catholic boys who play the characters of Romeo and Juliet are up against in Shakespeare’s R&J is … themselves: their own repressed selves, across the prescribed gender divide. They enter at the outset in their school uniforms, white shirts and ties, marching in military formation, clutching notebooks which they they snap open and close like ultimatums. “Forgive me father for I have sinned.” Buzzers go. Prayers get chanted. A list of of “thou shalt not’s” gets repeated. The students know a lot more about conjugating the Latin verb “to love” than they do about the experience of love. 

(Front) Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier, (back) Corben Kushneryk and Braydon Dowler-Coltman. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

The four meet after hours to gratify an adolescent rebellious streak by passing around a secret copy of Romeo and Juliet, and play-acting all the parts. And gradually, what starts as prankish, tentative, embarrassed horseplay that ferrets out all Shakespeare’s dirty jokes (and savours the fighting) is subverted by the sheer seductive power of the 400-plus- year-old play.

Matthew Skopyk’s score abandons the solemn church organ idiom (which seems a little heavy-handed in truth), and goes dramatic, in all kinds of tense, escalating ways.

What happens is an artful bare-stage Shakespeare production: four boxes, banners, and the bolt of red cloth that the “actors” use like the powerhouse young theatre pros they actually are (as weapons, vials of poison, bed sheets, cloaks). No “student” production, this. Or maybe it’s a Catholic school with a theatre department.

The image of authority as a multi-headed creature, an installation wrapped in red cloth, is very inventive — as are the fights, which take tug-of-war in unexpected and thrilling directions. The way the fabric is yanked out of sight to convey the sense of bloodletting and fatal wounds is smart and beautifully executed. 

(From top) Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk, Luc Teller, Oscar Derkx. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

As Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier are an intense, heartbreaking couple, with chemistry. The pulse of the ecstatic verse is something they both command, in different ways, Derkx as a passionate kind of propulsive (and compulsive) rhythm and Tellier in a more conversational way. When Romeo says “the time and my intent are savage wild,” you believe it.

Braydon-Dowler Coltman’s Mercurio is so striking — incisively witty and ironic, as dexterous with the verse as he is with the physicality of the role — you long to see him at work in a production of Romeo and Juliet without Calarco trimmings. His Lady Capulet, a steely hysteric if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, channels Mercutio in a fascinating way. And you can feel the anxiety of his Friar Laurence as he thinks, fast, on his feet. As the Nurse Corben Kushneryk turns Student 4’s initial mockery of the character into a compelling character.

And when the actors playing student actors are observers, watching each other as the script advises, alert acting doesn’t stop in Sutley’s well-staged production.

The framework may seem flimsier in 2018. But when the doom-laden love story ignites, Shakespeare’s forever-young play is born again.

REVIEW

Shakespeare’s R&J

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Kill Your Television

Directed by: Kevin Sutley

Starring: Oscar Derkx, Luc Tellier, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk

Where: Theatre at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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The sounds of revolution: The Listening Room, a review

The Listening Room, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a piece of theatre that owed star billing to the sound designer, it’s Cardiac Theatre’s premiere production of The Listening Room, by Calgary-based Michaela Jefferey.

Everything about the premise depends on sound: Thomas Geddes’ ominous post-apocalyptic soundscape, weirdly amplified by a bank of archaic pre-apocalyptic equipment in Elise Jason’s set design. Time and space in a dark universe, or what’s left of it, are defined by sound channelled through earphones. With the exception of a newcomer, who relies entirely on hearing because she’s sightless, the characters seem to come fully to fractious life when they’re putting on the earphones or taking them off.

Even between sound effects — boat horns, birdsong fragments, the tick-tock of clocks, a fragmentary baby’s cry, the clang of colliding metal — there isn’t silence. The soundtrack of The Earie, a remnant desert society whose name isn’t coincidental, is a kind of echoing industrial rumble; it surges into a roar and subsides without ever disappearing.

In Michaela Jefferey’s futurist speculation — produced by Cardiac, co-presented by Edmonton’s Azimuth and Calgary’s Downstage in the first of their Alberta Emerging Company Showcase initiative — a cell of teenage dissidents in the “Third Era” listen to to the fragmentary sounds of the past, scavenging for signs of connection. Existentialists in palmier days would call it “meaning.” These kids have to settle for the small consolation of sounds from long ago. They’re only disconnected sound fragments till they’re listened to; then they become the track of the past.

There is an authority, the Council, the ultimate arbiter of interpreting the sounds collected by the Listeners. And there are rules about how to behave, or pretend to behave, vis-à-vis the Council. As we glean in the loud, prickly hostility of the listeners’ room, there’s considerable disagreement about whether acquiescence, subversion, active resistance, or radical reinvention is the way forward. 

This dissension is captured in harshly committed performances from Harley Morison’s cast and ricochets off the comfortless industrial bleakness of Jason’s design — bare lightbulbs, an ugly big soundboard, loops of cross-hatched wires, corrugated metal walls with holes cut for bunk beds. 

In conjuring dystopian worlds, the problem is, of course, how elaborate to make the set-up without losing the sense, the stakes, and the momentum of human interaction. The Listening Room may be admirably spare with exposition, but the complications of The Earie, interesting as they are, seem to multiply by the minute. And despite the intense, focussed energy that Morison’s actors bring to the characters — angry, dissatisfied, and disaffected in various ways — the intricacies might actually topple your engagement with the story. Patience, my friends.

A newcomer (Ashleigh Hicks) arrives in the secret (from whom? from the Council?) listeners’ room on spec with the goal of joining the listeners’ brigade, only to be told by Fayette (Colin Dingwall) that “there are no more new listeners.” That’s the rule. 

The Listeners, most of whom are illiterate, are appointed, then name themselves to demonstrate a break with the past. One among them, Lanolin (Carmen Nieuwenhuis), records the raw data in concentric circles on round paper to match the old-fashioned discs that are sent to the Council for interpretation.

Lanolin, who works the soundboard like a sort of tattered post-apocalyptic teen Horowitz, suspects that this process of “interpretation” is corrupted. She tells the newcomer that’s it’s an excuse, political window-dressing for the Council to validate its own agenda, an escalation in its own power. The Council, she says, wields the Trumpian argument of security whenever challenged about the steady erosion of freedoms. What started in liberation  has become its own kind of authoritarian regime.  

The characters, who arrive in the listening room successively, have dramatically differing views of their situation and their resident idealist/trouble-maker Marcus, the last to show up. They’re all on a short fuse; wildly physical brawls break out, in which gender, incidentally, gets no concessions and Lanolin gives as good as she gets.

With the arrival of the storied Marcus (Philip Geller), a charismatic, passionate firebrand of a guy who has no time for the Council (and vice versa), the play seems to shake off the weight of its complications, and clarify itself. Suddenly The Listening Room leaves its elaborately futurist set-up behind, and becomes what it probably was designed to be all along: a speculation, and a knowing one at that, about the inevitable nature of government, of revolution and revolutionaries, of youthful radicalism and radicals.

The Listening Room, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

Is Marcus a self-promoting grandstander? A legitimate firebrand? Should he be jettisoned since he’ll probably get them all in trouble? Or is he their salvation? Or is he a guy with anger issues vis-a-vis the status quo but no real vision of what to replace it with? Discuss.

“The world is broken and unbalanced and unfair,” he cries. “But we are descended from stars.” He’s that kind of guy, intense, irresistible and maddening. Geller’s performance leaves all the options open.

At the preview I was kindly allowed to attend, I found the set-up more intriguing than the arguments that followed, in truth. But there’s no doubting the heat of the Cardiac production. It listens intently for sounds of youthful anger in the world, and connects to a revolutionary cycle that rolls on through time.

REVIEW

The Listening Room

Theatre: Cardiac, in The Alberta Emerging Company Showcase presented by Azimuth and Downstage Theatres

Written by: Michaela Jefferey

Directed by: Harley Morison

Starring: Ashleigh Hicks, Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Colin Dingwall, Jay Northcott, Philip Geller

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

Running: through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca

   

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