Toodle-oo to high school: Rivercity, a new musical premiering at the Fringe. A review.

Rivercity the Musical. Photo by BB Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

Rivercity The Musical (Stage 26, L’UniThéâtre)

“You’re like the sister I never had,” says a certain familiar freckle-faced carrot-top to a certain familiar pony-tailed blonde in Rivercity The Musical. Geez Louise, guys can be such blockheads.

B’s hopeful smile fades a little from chipper, and her ponytail droops. Those are downer words for a true-blue girl who’s smitten with a callow guy (I know, like THAT’s never happened, right?).

We’re at Rivercity High right here in River City, on the last day of school. And the characters we’ve known for decades in the Archie comics — who never seem to graduate — have been reborn onstage (with slight adjustments in nomenclature) in this new and appealing, fully-formed little 75-minute original musical by Rebecca Merkley.

They’ve been given goals, and Merkley’s bona fide musical theatre songs (with witty lyrics) to sing about them. They’ve been given amusing choreography (Cleo Halls) — cartoon meets 42nd St, and even a tap number — and an excellent band (Scott Shpeley and Chris Weibe).

They’ve been give four fresh, inventive comic actor/singers — how lucky is that? Ah yes, and a lot of wigs, since four actors are playing 10 characters, students and teachers. 

The crux is a classic triangle. There’s our multi-talented heroine, the love-struck B (Vanessa Wilson). Her rival is the snooty rich girl Ronnie (John Travnik), she of the raven hair: “everyone knows I’m the hot one.” And there’s the unworthy redheaded doofus (Molly MacKinnon) who’s surfed a wave of entitlement through high school and somehow attracted the attentions of both.

There’s a copious assortment of the requisite lame jokes (with the spoken laugh track. Chortle chortle). But there are serious high school issues in this musical, by golly. For example, who is Andrews bringing to Reginald’s party? Reginald, I must tell you, is played by the downright hilarious Kristin Johnston with unhinged limbs and a slouchy swagger so amazing his legs seem to precede his head by a couple of long steps.

Another serious issue: Will Andrews finish the essay he never started and graduate? Or will he be sentenced, gasp! gasp!, to summer school. “The problems of the middle-class white kid, ya know what I mean. Yuk yuk,” he says cheerfully. But Mr. Beatherwee (Johnston) is adamant.

Poor good-hearted B. Her self-respect takes blow after blow from that Andrews cad, who’s always asking for favours (she’s his Plan B for everything) so he can run after Ronnie. Betty, come to your senses, pretty please. McKinnon nails a song about being the girl-next-door, and one about empowerment. Jonesy (Travnik), that sweet boy with the crown, is there to assist. 

Crazy, but you find yourself kinda invested in their romantic fortunes. And there’s a plot to resolve before last period.

An unexpected delight all round. Be the first in your class to see it.

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Ruination: see three dark secrets become one Alberta story. A Fringe review

Marc Ludwig in Ruination: 3 short stories. Photo by Nathaniel Hehir.

By Liz Nicholls,

Ruination: 3 short stories (Stage 3, Walterdale Theatre)

This triptych of monologues by Michele Vance Hehir takes us to the world of Depression era small-town Alberta. And the beauty of it is the subtle, unobtrusive way a dramatic story — from three different perspectives — gradually emerges, bit by bit, from the threads of its dropped hints, and asides, and little shards of memory.

It’s a story of immigration, of money to be made, of rigid proprieties, casual racism, good ol’ prairie thuggery. And it’s built in ways that spell doom for outsiders.

Central to Ruination is a fire: Mr. Wong’s laundromat has burned to the ground. First, in Lydia, Lydia, we meet a prim milliner (Julie Goloski), in a state of high agitation.  “I have to pull myself together,” she declares, taking a sip of whiskey from a flask. Her son, she tells us, has told her “I think I’m in trouble.”

In the course of telling how she acquired this adoptive son, en route from her native England to the prairies, she lets slip a remark about a young girl.

We meet that vulnerable, now slightly unhinged, person in the second monologue, Ruination. And Glory (Alyson Dicey) is in a state of red-alert crisis too, for other but related reasons. It’s a little story of religion, revenge, and reputation. And it has links to Lydia’s monologue.

The third monologue, The Pee Pee Boy, belongs to Lydia’s son Ambrose (Marc Ludwig), who’s been talked about in the first two, and is now trapped.  

You can tell I’m being evasive with the plot, which is yours to discover when you go to see it. But I can tell you that the story is fused to characters with fatal secrets. 

So, three people, connected to each other and up against it: a little mystery that, as it gets revealed, sheds a harsh light on a harsh time and place. It’s an intriguing little piece, artfully constructed, and acted with commitment. 

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , ,

Gruesome Playground Incidents: the blood bond between friends is a many-splendoured thing. A Fringe review.

Evan Hall and Merran Carr-Wiggin in Gruesome Playground Incident. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Gruesome Playground Injuries (Stage 8, Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

“Does it hurt?”

Ah, there’s the question that haunts the couple in this morbidly funny, sweetly gore-spattered little play by Rajiv Joseph.

And the answer, in one way or another, is invariably yes. In the course of eight out-of-order encounters over 30 years Kayleen (Merran Carr-Wiggin) and Doug (Evan Hall) are always assessing the damages. They have to. From age , at intervals till age 38, they meet in  nurse’s offices, emergency wards, hospital wards, ICUs, mental institutions, funeral parlours.

“Age 8: Face Split Open.” “Age 23: “Eye Blown Out.” “Age 18: Pink Eye.”

It’s a friendship — and always maybe something more — sworn in blood. And stitches, bruises, bandages, crutches. Pain and scars that are not just physical. Ron Jenkins’s beautifully acted production finds the delicate chemistry in this. 

It’s wincingly funny, and it’s just the right amount of intense for a push-pull advance-retreat relationship that’s nearly a romantic comedy, but never quite and sometimes in reverse. And it’s too rueful for tragedy. Like Doug’s record with roofs, handlebars, telephone poles, it’s a matter of risks and near-misses, long gaps. And rehab. 

Doug is the impulsive, accident-prone one, if you use a definition that could include riding his bike off the school roof, or climbing telephone poles in the rain. The empty eye socket is, he concedes cheerfully, a drag. But it wasn’t his good eye anyhow, it was the one “that girl skated over.” Hall captures this quality in an appealingly eager way.

The troubled Kayleen isn’t optimistic like that; she’s prickly, resistant, guarded. Her disturbances are more psychological, and involve cutting and throwing up. Carr-Wigging unerringly captures her reluctant curiosity and sullen retreats. 

Carr-Wiggin and Hall are returning to roles they first played five years ago, age 23, in a series of vignettes that wonders, serially, about the might-be’s and the might-have-been’s. Jenkins’s production segues between vignettes with music, the angles of a single hospital bed, and the addition of costume pieces from a series of onstage bins.

And “does it hurt?” floats through it all. The Achilles tendon is a tricky repair. The heart is more problematic still.

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , ,

Ciara: can high culture save you when the chips are down? A Fringe review.

Linda Grass in Ciara, Trunk Theatre. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls,

Ciara (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

Ciara’s favourite painting, she tells us at the outset, is of a giant woman, asleep on her side atop the cityscape of Glasgow. What will happen when she wakes up? That’s what the elegant woman before us wonders at the outset.

It’s a question that gets answered, in person, in this fascinating, expanding monologue by the Scottish playwright David Harrower. Ciara, who owns a successful commercial art gallery, is the daughter of a Glasgow crime boss, now deceased, and she’s married to his successor.

Ciara has escaped, or retreated, or barricaded herself in a world of classy culture that has “clients” not “customers.” And in the story she tells, conjuring an increasingly ruthless network of cousins and bodyguards and family friends and hit men, the Glasgow underworld is refusing to stay under. In a way that will remind you a bit of The Sopranos or The Godfather, petty crime and its elaborate, if dubious, family values system are ceding to higher stakes.

In a performance where calm bemusement gradually escalates into turbulence, Grass draws us in. And, like the clear-eyed, smiling Ciara, who “expects no sympathy,” we find ourselves in a dangerous world ruled by unscrupulous and ruthless men.

When the chips are down, as they apparently are quite often on the mean streets of Glasgow, where do moral responsibility and moral accommodation get compatible? The story escalates, and in a horrifying way as you might expect from a Harrower (Blackbird, Good With People). And the woman who tells us this is not a confession, explanation, or an excuse at the outset, opens her eyes to a new Glasgow, and makes adjustments. That the trigger is an artist, and a painting, and Ciara’s relationship with both, is an irony that isn’t lost on her.

There are pauses in odd places in Amy DeFelice’s production. But in Grass’s performance, we meet a watchful woman who’s her father’s daughter. A woman who discovers something, but has always known more than she even knew she knew. 

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , , ,

Mad Fantastic Maid of God: Joan was set up for the bonfire. A Fringe review

Ellie Heath and Melissa Blackwood in Mad Fantastic Maid of God: Joan of Arc. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls,

Mad Fantastic Maid Of God: Joan of Arc (Stage 36, L’UniThéâtre)

This is a two-actor play that sets itself a theatrical double task.

Mad Fantastic Maid, by the veteran playwright Kenneth Brown, chronicles the life and times, and strange career of history’s most unlikely military leader. But that’s not all. It frames that 15th century history of La Pucelle and the Hundred Years War with a skeptical modern perspective that takes familiar shots at the political/ religious calculations and treachery of the powerful, who doomed the girl to a fiery death.

After all, you don’t get to be a martyr without extremely unpleasant things happening to you.   

Jeanne, the unlettered French farm girl who led armies at 17, speaks for herself, in a spirited performance from Melissa Blackwood. She’s shiningly sincere. But then, hey, haven’t we heard rallying cries along the lines of “I am God’s instrument, God’s weapon, etc.” from a variety of much less appealing leaders through the ages?

The play wants us to believe in her belief in herself. If that were ever in any doubt,   Blackwood’s luminous performance certainly makes that belief convincing.      

Her charismatic cast-mate Ellie Heath, who appears in flowing white above the stage like a smart-ass angel, narrates and populates the story. She steps in and out of it playfully, in a variety of incarnations, helmets and accents, squinting at history sardonically through our own modern lens. 

Look what these people got up to, she points out, assisted by audience participation. Wasn’t her trial a setup, a bad joke? I think we can all agree on that. Isn’t it terrible and ridiculous to condemn a girl to death for wearing men’s clothes when she’s leading an army? Absolutely.

At one point I got the idea that this theatrical device, with its various incarnations, was, a sort of collective embodiment of the “voices” La Pucelle famously heard. But by the end I wasn’t so sure.

Anyhow, the play doesn’t attempt to “explain” Jeanne’s charisma, or her startling military acumen. The charisma of self-confidence? The magnetic force field of conviction? Mad Fantastic Maid doesn’t get into it.

Instead it’s a theatrical way, lively if somewhat artificial, to review the history of a mysteriously successful insurrectionist, battle to battle — and at the same time to comment from the 21st century that the political and religious status quo of the 15th was corrupt and misogynistic. 

This double-optic isn’t provocative or combative. But it’s engaging just the same.

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , , ,

Romance in the Regency: One Man Pride and Prejudice, a guest Fringe review by Marc Horton

Charles Ross, One Man Pride and Prejudice. Photo supplied.

One Man Pride and Prejudice (Stage 19, Sugar Swing Ballroom)

By Marc Horton

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single actor in possession of a good story must not mess it up.

Victoria actor Charles Ross has a good story in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and, yes, he does mess it up.

Perhaps not fatally so, but there are challenges aplenty in this production, despite Ross’s evident charm as a performer and his obvious affection for the source material.

Indeed, it is also a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice might be one of the best and most ironic rom-coms ever written, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this one-man show.

There are some one-liners that work, but for my taste too many of them were of the anachronistic variety. For example, using phrases like WTF, most certainly unknown in Regency England, is jarring rather than comic. The laugh when it comes — and it did at the performance I attended — is cheap.

And the audience that laughed at that line was prepared to laugh at just about anything. These were people who, for the most part, loved Jane Austen, and knew Jane Austen.

But if you don’t know her, you will be confused by the welter of characters that Ross attempts to bring to life on the stage. I’ve read the book a half-dozen times and struggled to figure out which one of the Bennet sisters was delivering the lines.

I pretty much had Elizabeth down pat, but couldn’t tell my Janes from my Marys, my Kittys from my Lydias.

And if the girls were confusing, don’t get me started on the fog created on stage by the George Wickhams, William Collinses,  Edward Gardiners and Charles Bingleys. I never did get them straight. Mr. Darcy, for the most part anyway, is clear.

Ross’s cause might be aided if he slowed down his delivery. When he starts in on these characters, it’s more than simply rapid-fire; it’s rat-a-tat-tat with Ross taking no prisoners. Too often it is incomprehensible. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in bafflement.

Marc Horton is the former books editor at the Edmonton Journal. Of all the Jane Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice is his favourite.

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Receptionist: oh god, another day at the office. But wait… A Fringe review

Julien Arnold, Kristi Hansen, and (front) Davina Stewart in The Receptionist. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

The Receptionist (Stage 14, Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

“Good morning, North East Office,” trills Beverly the receptionist in the Adam Bock comedy of that name.  “Can I put you through to voice mail?”

The sing-song — no! operatic! — inflections that Davina Stewart give this banal chorus in The Receptionist are worth the price of admission. And then comes the dexterity with which she transfers an endless series of corporate calls to her boss Mr. Raymond (Reed McColm) and his assistant Lorraine (Kristi Hansen). So she can get back to phone gossiping with her friend Cheryl Lynne. Or listening to Lorraine complain about her ex, and airing her own complaints about her husband’s spending habits. Or making coffee. Or, at moments of high drama, arranging for an office birthday cake. Chocolate. No, really! 

Yes we’re in the mundane landscape of boring anonymous corporate office workplaces, where you’ve got to take your satisfactions where you can, and nothing really happens. No wonder Lorraine flirts with the friendly Mr. Dart (Julien Arnold) who’s arrived from Central Office to meet with Mr. Raymond. No wonder Beverly is happy to chat away about her teacup collection with Mr. Dart and give him parenting advice.

But this is a sneaky spring-loaded comedy, a comedy with a long, inconsequential setup. The way this flat humdrum surface, spooling out convincingly in McColm’s production, turns into something else entirely — something  sinister and malign— will take you by surprise.

I can’t say more; it’s for your own good. But I can tell you, there’s a special chill coming off the world these days. And The Receptionist doesn’t transfer it to voice mail. 

Go, and find out for yourself. 

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , ,

Gordon’s Big Bald Head unleashed on any play: a review of improv comedy at its most deluxe

Jacob Banigan, Chris Craddock, Mark Meer in Jacob Banigan, Chris Craddock, Mark Meer in Gordon’s Big Bald Head: The Play’s The Thing. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Gordon’s Big Bald Head: The Play’s The Thing (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

There is a trio of performers at this Fringe who do something insanely difficult better than anyone else anywhere.

Armed only with a Fringe program, and each other,  three elite improvisers will, on the spot, invent an entire 60-minute Fringe show. And it will be smart, unfaltering, and very funny.

It will contain breezy topical references, jokes about the fourth wall and pop culture, witty lines. It will pursue a multi-pronged story, maybe juxtapose incompatible genres to see what happens. They’ll negotiate absurd turns in the narrative with a masterful ease and enjoyment that never wavers. It’s an astonishing achievement. 

They are Gordon’s Big Bald Head, Jacob Banigan, Chris Craddock and Mark Meer. The premise is that they “assimilate” an existing show, a different one every show, and “alter its DNA on the molecular level.” For Monday’s near full-house matinee, it was Disenchanted, picked at random by a woman in the audience. It’s an Off-Broadway musical about the real story behind the happily-ever-afters of fairy tale princesses.

And what GBBH collectively made of it was an intricate weave of narration and action periodically returned to the studio where the Brothers Grimm were doing re-writes, with a view to selling rights to Disney. And so it became a story with a line of funny commentary about adaptations, and commercialization, and movies, and ….

There are ironies attached to this enterprise. For one,these long-time collaborators are so commanding, sharp, and unfaltering that you might actually wonder if the show was improvised at all. It is.

And that’s simply amazing.    

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , ,

With Glowing Hearts: uncorseting Canadian feminist history. A guest Fringe review by Todd Babiak

With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Revue. Photo supplied.

With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Revue (Stage 22, Garneau Theatre)

by Todd Babiak

Nellie McClung, played by Ellen Chorley, is a hyper-aware woman. Yes, she helped change the lives of millions of women in Canada and around the world. But too many were excluded. The “persons case” was only about certain kinds of persons. Indeed, looking back from 2017, our eloquent hostess has regrets.

And, at times, way too many clothes on.

With Glowing Hearts is an unusual look at Canadian feminist icons, far from the Heritage Minutes of our collective childhood.

It’s a smart, funny, sexy riot. We learn a lot about the Famous Five, Laura Secord, two Klondike Kates and the Edmonton Grads. And by the end of the show we wonder if maybe we’re all dopes by not taking up burlesque in our spare time.

Sarah Jackson, whose burlesque stage name is Violette Coquette, is a strange and hilarious Roberta Bondar — Canada’s first female astronaut. Maddy Knight (Sweet Lady Night) performs a beautiful song as novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery before getting down to saucy business.

Send in the Girls Burlesque has torn up Fringes in the past, and they have educated their audience in the merry ways of burlesque. Happily, Nellie tells us what to do at the beginning, to make the show more fun: scream and clap a lot.

The choreography is marvellous, the outfits are astounding, and all five of the Famous Five (plus the beaver, Kiki Queen) beam with joy on-stage.

If you know and love burlesque, you already have tickets and you have done the right thing in buying them. If you haven’t been initiated into the naughty cleverness of Edmonton’s burlesque scene, let this be your first. You will leave the theatre a bit more knowledgeable and a lot happier.



Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Breakneck Julius: a guest Fringe review by Marc Horton

Timothy Mooney in Breakneck Julius Caesar. Photo supplied.

Breakneck Julius Caesar (Stage 8, Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

By Marc Horton

It takes only a flip of his toga for actor Timothy Mooney to transform himself into Calpurnia, Caesar’s nervous wife. Another flip and the toga sleeve becomes a headscarf and Mooney becomes the devoted Mrs. Brutus.

Another flip and he’s Cassius. Another and he’s Mark Antony. Head back and just a little haughty, he becomes Caesar himself. Another flip and he’s Brutus.

It’s all amazing stuff, and surprisingly unhurried given that Mooney has whacked Shakespeare’s three-hour historical play down to a brisk and brilliant 60 minutes. We know, in fact, just how much time has elapsed – and how much is left – because a digital clock on stage is relentlessly counting down the seconds.

Mooney, who just might be the most affable performer at this year’s Fringe, is a welcoming sort of guy. Before the show begins, he moves among his audience handing out Caesar stickers, trading quips, swapping a few jokes, and setting the tone for what’s to come. And, yes, the audience will be asked to become involved, mostly as the mob shouting “huzzah” or demanding justice for the conspirators who stabbed Caesar on that fateful ides of March.

Mooney’s seamlessly editing of the Bard means that he’s kept all the good stuff – Antony’s funeral oration, Cassius’s Colossus spiel, Brutus’s “tides in the affairs of men” speech.

But this is not exactly Shakespeare-lite, played for laughs and little else. There is fun to be had here to be sure, but there’s also serious intent at work even if it’s leavened with a yuk or two.

Mooney often breaks the fourth wall to annotate the story and a slide show not only provides prompts for audience participation, but also gives handy explanatory notes and maps.

Breakneck also manages to provide a fresh interpretation of Brutus, who is presented as a very stubborn, somewhat pompous ass. What if Antony’s final speech, the “here lies the noblest Roman of them all” number, was delivered with the same irony as his “lend me your ears” bit?

What then? That changes the whole texture of the play methinks.

Hey, I’m convinced. Huzzah!

–  Marc Horton is the former film reviewer and books editor for the Edmonton Journal. He saw his first Shakespeare play at age 12 – o, in fact – in the Capitol Theatre in Yellowknife. It starred James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius and Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. He loved it.

Posted in Fringe 2017 | Tagged , , , , ,