‘A sort of musical at a sort of funeral’: ren & the wake lures alt-folk rocker Lindsey Walker back into musical theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“A sort of musical” set at “a sort of funeral”: that’s the intriguing double-billing of ren & the wake, premiering Thursday at the Backstage Theatre. 

The workshop production by the off-centre indie experimenters Catch The Keys marks the musical theatre debut of Lindsey Walker, an award-winning artist of the alt-folk/ rock/ singer-songwriter stripe.

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The starting point was her grandmother’s story, says Walker. An eastern European immigrant from the ever-shifting German/Czech border land who’d lived through the terrible, traumatic displacements of World War II, Granny had arrived in Canada in the early 1950s. Old age brought out the storyteller in her. “She was a very private person … but in her last few years, she began to tell stories no one in my family really knew,” Walker says. “And they were intense. I got in the habit of recording her.” 

There was something about the matter-of-fact way she told her story, “just another day for her, pretty astounding,” that especially struck Walker. And, long before COVID, she happened to tell it to the Catch The Keys sisters, Megan and Beth Dart, theatrical provocateurs who have a long, bright history of excavating real-life stories for theatre, as their annual Dead Centre of Town excursions into Edmonton’s past attest. “I’m a huge fan of those shows!” declares Walker. 

This should be theatre, thought the sisters Dart, as they are wont to do. The result is ren & the wake, an unusual five-actor many-character musical with a script written by Megan Dart, music by Walker, directed by Beth Dart.  

Ren & the wake, Catch The Keys Productions at Edmonton Fringe Theatre.

In the story that unspools onstage, Ren’s mother has passed away. In the midst of her grief, Ren discovers boxes of her mother’s stuff — books, journals, photos, assorted objects. And, magically, they are the keys to a whole world of shared stories and interconnected characters. And for Walker, the career musician, it has unlocked the world of musical theatre that returns her to her pre-Edmonton roots, at the University of Winnipeg, as an actor. 

By the time she arrived in Edmonton, for the jazz program at Grant MacEwan College, Walker had changed dreams — for the life of a musician who writes, records, performs. “I love musical theatre! I always have…. But I found my soul needed to be creating more directly from me, as myself, not through a character.” 

Lindsey Walker. Photo by Alex Vissia.

Jazz wasn’t a perfect fit, she thinks. “I’ wasn’t really a jazz singer, more a classic rocker…. In college I started with a rock band, and we started writing songs together. And gradually, my own solo projects took over.” (If they seem to have a lingering jazz flavour, Walker won’t argue with you). 

Ren isn’t her own stage alter-ego, Walker explains. “The character (played in the musical by Marguerite Lawler) “isn’t based on anyone in real life,” except that grief, the experience of losing a loved one, is universal. The other characters who inspire a story about storytelling and its connective power are rooted in history, “Canadian women from the past, badass but pretty much unknown, whose stories range from from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s.” And, as Walker and Dart discovered in their deep dive into the Alberta Archives, they were by no means household names. 

“So many women in history are overshadowed by who they were married to, or who their father was.” The new musical pulls them out of the shadows of time into the limelight. “It’s been a collaborative process,” says Walker, who does her composing at the piano. “I’d listen to the script or read it out loud, and let the energy of the scene dictate the music.” 

The sound isn’t “musical theatre” per se (hence “a sort of musical” in the subtitle). “More of a house concert,” Walker thinks. The styles “respond to the energy and emotion of scenes. But genre-wise they bounce around.” And the instrumentation taps the diverse talents in the cast. Larissa Pohoreski, for example, is a gifted violinist. “But the meat and potatoes of the score is folk, roots, blues even….”

Lawler as Ren is the sole member of the cast with one character to play. The others take on multiple characters,” explains Walker of a project that began with a bright idea in late 2018, was birthed in 2019, and then got thwarted by all the pandemical delays.  

Meanwhile, Walker has been innovating in other ways too. She’s working on the studio recording of an album that will have a visual release, too, “as a small film” instead of a music video. “Fall maybe? Next year maybe?” 

PREVIEW

ren & the wake

Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions in the Edmonton Fringe Theatre season

Composer and lyricist: Lindsey Walker

Playwright: Megan Dart

Directed by: Beth Dart

Performer collaborators: Helen Belay, Candace Berlinguette, Marguerite Lawler, Larissa Pohoreski, Laura Raboud

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn

Running: Thursday through May 7

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

   

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Revisiting your younger self: Bloomsday bends time at Shadow Theatre

Chris Pereira, John Sproule, Coralie Cairns, Alexandra Dawkins in Bloomsday, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

… “that girl there … and would you — would you please just for a minute — would you please see that girl there?”  — Robert in Bloomsday, by Steven Dietz 

“What would you say to your younger self if you had the chance?” says Coralie Cairns of the play that opens Thursday in the Shadow Theatre season.

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Bloomsday, a time-bending 2015 play by the American writer Steven Dietz, gives a middle-aged couple exactly that chance: it puts them onstage with the younger version of themselves, at the chance moment they first met 35 years before.  

“Missed opportunities, the what-if’s of our lives,” says director John Hudson of the cross-hatched love story that wraps itself around the past, present, and future in a particularly soulful Irish way. It’s named for the annual June celebration in Dublin in honour of the Irish writer James Joyce, and his famous (and famously unread) novel Ulysses. It follows, in 18 dauntingly unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness episodes, the perambulations of one Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. 

John Sproule and Chris Pereira in Bloomsday, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

In the play, an older couple, Robert (John Sproule), grouchy, professorial and in his ‘50s, returns to Dublin to seek out Cait (Cairns), the woman he’d fallen for three and a half decades before as she led a  Bloomsday walking tour. The older couple relive their 20-year-old selves, and the unplanned moment young Caithleen (Alexandra Dawkins) cajoles a young man, Robbie (Chris Pereira) passing by to join her tour. Can time loop backwards? Can the past be re-captured? Can the future be changed?

And speaking as we are of time as a loop and not a one-directional continuum, Hudson’s Shadow production reunites Cairns with long-time stage partner and old friend Sproule, a theatre couple with a Shadow history that goes back to the earliest days of the company in the ‘90s. They met in Shaun Johnston’s gritty Catching the Train,“the first Shadow production outside the Fringe,” as Hudson recalls, and a defining show for the fledgling company. 

Theirs is a wildly diverse history. Audience faves, Cairns and Sproule returned to Shadow audiences again and again together, in such productions as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Much Ado About Nothing, (Paula Vogel’s) Baltimore Waltz, revivals of David Belke’s The Reluctant Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes — and most recently as brother and sister in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov re-set Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. 

Since the early days of the artist-run troupe, a co-op before it became a company, Cairns started doing the books (a skill she’d picked up as one of the three co-owners of the High Level Diner). Then she became Shadow’s general manager, and retired from that post last year to return to the stage — “I missed performing!” Ah, but not before she’d shared an office with actor Dawkins, Shadow’s first “artistic director fellowship” candidate, who “plays the younger me” (as Cairns puts it) in Bloomsday.

Coralie Cairns and Alexandra Dawkins in Bloomsday, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Which brings us to the actorly challenge of pairing a younger and an older version of the same character onstage. “I’ve never done that before,” says Cairns. It’s an intricacy that’s enhanced by the way that the older couple aren’t just observers of their past selves. The  the older Cait and the younger Robbie also have scenes together, ditto the old Robert and the younger Caithleen. 

“It’s a dance,” laughs Cairns.“My first time reading the script, I was ‘what IS this?  Whose reality is it? Whose memory is it?’ And that’s true of every single character. Everybody in the cast has their own perspective.”

Both Hudson and Cairns hasten to assure us that, the play title notwithstanding, you don’t need to have read Ulysses to enjoy a play “full of heart and humour,” as the former says. After all, if theatre were limited to audiences who have actually read Ulysses, it might as well lock the stage door and turn out the lights.

The playwright has lifted lines right from Ulysses here and there, including from Molly Bloom’s lengthy, ultra-sensual, much celebrated soliloquy at the end of the novel. But Bloomsday “is not about James Joyce. He’s the MacGuffin,” a hefty one at that, as Hudson says. He points to the initial scenes of the play, in which Robert interrupts a Bloomsday tour with his objections to the Irish star writer, mocking that “doorstop of an opus” as literature’s most over-rated and under-read. 

The playwright has said in interviews that he’s become increasingly drawn to write fork-in -the-road plays. And that description certainly fits Bloomsday. Hudson, a long-time admirer of Dietz’s work, says of the play that it’s brimming with “might-have-beens.… Every choice has ramifications.” 

But this puzzle of a play “is not all about that,” says Hudson. “The play sparkles with hope.” Cairns echoes the thought: “the hope of maybe.” After all, the last word in Ulysses is Yes. “Yes I said yes I will Yes.”

PREVIEW

Bloomsday

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Steven Dietz

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Coralie Cairns, John Sproule, Alexandra Dawkins, Chris Pereira

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: April 27 to May 15

Tickets: shadowtheatre.org 

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Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted: the twinned urge to be joined and apart in Northern Light Theatre’s new musical. A review

Rebecca Sadowski and Kaeley Jade Wiebe in Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There they sit, motionless under a rosy moon, a two-headed prairie oracle atop a body wrapped in mystery. 

They’re the centrepiece of an eerie altar: a bank of ghostly corn stalks, a gothic farmhouse facade, an shadowy assortment of oddball vintage offerings — double-headed dolls, boots and old bicycle wheels, antlers and a seahorse, musical instruments.… 

It’s a stunning image that greets you in Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, when you enter the Studio Theatre: a human sculpture and a mysterious prairie shrine. In Northern Light Theatre’s wonderfully strange new “musical” created by Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music) — “a prairie gothic song cycle of mythology and mermaids for conjoined twins” as billed —  Venus and Juno Hollis (Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski) preside from the amazing shrine. And they never budge.  

In its unusual way, Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted is a kind of living art installation, designed by Schmidt and beautifully moon- and starlit by Roy Jackson. Conjoined twins, are a vivid demonstration (and a metaphor) of a tension we all know between the safe familiar and the risky unknown: the chafing constraints of being part of a family and tucked in to a history, and the urge to find and be your own individual self. The costume designed by Deanna Finnman which is both one dress and not one dress, speaks to that. 

In the course of the song cycle, the sisters will sing of the wind and the stars, of prairie dust and two-headed calves, of wide-open space and no space at all, in atmospherically conversational songs that give off the wistful scent of country blues. And from time to time in Schmidt’s production the sisters will accompany themselves jointly on one guitar, Which is, beyond everything else, an achievement in actorly collaboration. (Side note: theatre casts routinely declare themselves close-knit ensembles. On Venus and Juno’s behalf I say Ha!). 

Rebecca Sadowski and Kaeley Jade Wiebe, Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

In the cracks between sisterly duets, Venus and Juno will reveal the separate dreams, aspirations, personalities and temperaments of two people often mistaken for one. “Two peas in a pod”, yes. “But two very different peas.” Juno, as Sadowski creates her, is the take-charge twin, warier, more practical and skeptical. As Venus Wiebe is more naive, more impulsive, more hopeful, somehow younger. “It’s called context!” whispers Juno tetchily, in response to Venus’s impatience to  get on with the story.  

It’s the story of their odd family, led by godlike daddy, the late Jupiter Hollis. He fell in love with a mermaid, and plucked Ida May far from her natural habitat to live with him in his prairie farmhouse (alas, Square Lake has no lake, just a town). Being a lovestruck protector makes him a jailer of sorts,  as his conjoined daughters know, relegated frequently as they are to a place under the stairs, safe from the public gaze that’s very apt to see freaks instead of miracles. Under the circumstances, the showbiz debut that’s parentally approved is radio, the Red Rooster Music Hour. And the sisters achieve local fame as a singing duo in the “Square Lake, Black Falls and greater White Pine Region.”  

Freaks and miracles: that’s the cultural double-optic of famous conjoined twins in history joined by “the bond of flesh,” as reviewed by Juno and Venus. They include 19th century Siamese-American brothers Chang and Eng, and Amabie, a legendary Japanese mermaid of the Edo period with three tails. And what of the fate, tricky for the justice system, of conjoined twins, one guilty of murder one not? “Some bonds you can break/ by chance or by fate; others are sealed by the gods.” 

Rebecca Sadowski and Kaeley Jade Wiebe in Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The sisters have “two heads close together/ as if in deep thought/ three arms wrapped together/ as if in one knot.” They tally up two cheeks, two hats, “one and a half pair of hose,” three bracelets. But they have one heart. Can you split a heart without lasting, possibly fatal, damage? 

Now, there’s a question that interests Schmidt and Wiebe jointly. And heartbreak is put a lot more elegantly — albeit literally — in this musical than in mainstream country music, to be sure. Wiebe’s score has a kind of haunting directness and simplicity about it. Venus sings of the hunger “to have my own dreams … is it wrong to want more?” But in a song that’s reprised, they sing together “my heart shall break for the loss of yours….” 

Like the story, the poetry of Schmidt’s text, with music to match by Wiebe, veers between jigging rhythms that are a bit Robert W. Service-like, and more unruly verse. The twins’ memory of their mermaid mother, gradually expiring in an unhospitable element, is set forth in a sad waltz. The show’s most lyrical song is animated by thoughts of waves and water. The landlocked mermaid dies of it; the twins nearly drown in it. 

Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted kind of sneaks up on you at this threshhold moment in our history, when we miss human connection and long for it and fear it. It’s theatrically sly and piquant, and it breaks your own heart a little too. 

REVIEW

Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Created by: Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music)

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kaeley Jade Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski

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

Running: through May 7

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

 

 

 

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As You Like It, A Radical Retelling: lots of secrets about the first play to take the stage at Theatre Network’s new Roxy

Cliff Cardinal, As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, Crow’s Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“We know that the best, the truest, experience of Cliff Cardinal’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling is to know as little as possible about it,” says Chris Abraham of the production that will be the first to grace the Nancy Power mainstage in Theatre Network’s stunning new Roxy on 124th St.

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The Crow’s Theatre show that lands on the new stage there Thursday arrives from Toronto trailing startled full-house audiences and instant holdovers, strong reactions, spoiler warnings … and a lot of secrets.    

The less you know the better: now there’s an arts writer’s challenge. Let’s start with what you can know. It’s the original creation of the award-winning Indigenous playwright/ theatre-maker/ actor/ cultural provocateur Cardinal, best known to Edmonton audiences for his (very) black and funny gut-wrencher of a solo comedy, Huff. And Cardinal’s collaborator is Shakespeare, who brings to the table his glowing mid-period romantic comedy with the breezy title.  

“We try to withhold as much information about the content of the experience as we can … including who’s acting in it,” Abraham, Crow’s Theatre artistic director, says of the secrecy surrounding the play the company commissioned. “We only reveal who’s in it on the night of the performance.” The creative team? Don’t ask. The director? Not Abraham, he says. “This’ll become clear when you see the show…. We wanted to give Cliff a true blank slate, total control over his vision, top to bottom.” 

“It was our first show back,” says Abraham of Crow’s renegade return to live production in the fall — the only Toronto not-for-profit theatre to take the plunge at the time — under the company banner “surprising, unpredictable, urgent.” 

As You Like It, A Radical Retelling would seem to qualify, amply, on all three counts. “When we were planning to relaunch our season, we wanted to do it with something that really stepped into some big questions … about the theatre and our theatre-going practice and our habits, the relationship between a theatre and its audience.” 

No surprise that Shakespeare’s name came up. “I have a long experience of directing Shakespeare,” says Abraham, who hasn’t been in Edmonton, theatrically speaking, since his productions of I, Claudia and (Bryony Lavery’s) Frozen at the Citadel a decade and a half ago. “I really was interested in Cliff’s approach to that canonical work in a radical way. So we opened the door for him to freely adapt As You Like It. And he’s done that!”

Cliff Cardinal, As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, Crow’s Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“What we wanted to invite our audience into was (a new)  experience of this writer who’s shaped so much of our discourse around theatre in this country…. I’m a huge admirer of Shakespeare’s humanist scope, his technical virtuosity; he’s one of the great playwriting loves of my life. But he takes up a lot of space on our stages.”

The idea, says Abraham, was “to invite Cliff to challenge the centrality of Shakespeare in our conversation about what theatre actually is.”

Why As You Like It, of all the plays in the canon? For one thing, it’s a comedy, and “Cliff is cut from the cloth of the Fool, the trickster tradition,” he says of Cardinal, the son of the distinguished Canadian actor Tantoo Cardinal. And since As You Like It has “a couple of those wise and natural Fools in it,” this rich Shakespeare comedy seems particularly suited to Cardinal’s muse. 

Cardinal, who was born on Pine Ridge Reservation across the border, is drawn to black humour to grapple with big, dark, raw subjects — witness Huff, Stitch, Too Good To Be True (with its family of desperate people). 

 Shakespeare’s play begins with characters fleeing the court to rejoin others who’ve found a new way to live in the Forest of Arden. “A court in exile: it speaks to a society that’s re-examining the way it functions,” as Abraham says, “so, a lot of thematic threads we felt Cliff would be the right person to draw out in his own lived experience….”

“As You Like It invites the world to reconsider itself in relation to the land, after something has been broken in the city. I think that was the powerful starting point for Cliff.” 

Last year’s discoveries of mass unmarked graves on residential school sites — “another layer of awakening of our national consciousness around the legacy of residential schools” — upped the ante too. “It deeply informs how Cliff grapples with Shakespeare’s proposition,” says Abraham. The show, he thinks, is a deep dive into Now. 

As a re-opening choice for Crow’s Theatre, the production landed with considerable reverb, Abraham reports. “We immediately extended, twice…. It generated a tremendous amount of conversation in the community … around all the rituals and traditions that have become part of contemporary theatre-going, and the relation to the plays we put in front of an audience. That was our goal: to stimulate a conversation between audience and practitioners about how we do what we do, why we do what we do.” 

“Cliff hit the mark in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. And we’re excited for the Roxy to begin a new chapter with (the show), too, and for all the provocations and complications that will be unearthed as a result of it.” The run at the new Roxy is part of a two-year national tour for the production that has already included the high-profile PuSh Festival in Vancouver, (in June it will be at Carrefour in Quebec City, with more dates in the wings). 

Says Abraham, this is “an intersection of my interests and the desire to re-open the theatre with something radical,” a provocation about “our cultural addiction to Shakespeare and its complicated reasons, both positive and negative.” A must-see, he thinks, for lovers of Shakespeare, because of “how deftly it grapples with big themes, and how it challenges them as well.” 

“We couldn’t have hoped for a more important event for our relaunch,” says Abraham. “We’re so grateful for everything that happened as a result, the conversations we’ve had…. So much fun! The wildest re-opening! We hope that for the Roxy as well.” 

PREVIEW

As You Like It, A Radical Retelling 

Theatre: Crow’s Theatre

Written by: Cliff Cardinal

Starring: Cast will be announced at each performance.

Where: Theatre Network in the new Roxy Theatre

Running: April 26 to May 15

Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca, 780-453-2440

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Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted: sisterly bonding in a unique new musical at Northern Light Theatre

Two-Headed/ Half- Hearted, Northern Light Theatre. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Sisters. You can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em. 

In the uniquely demanding new musical that premieres Friday, the finale of Northern Light Theatre’s 46th season, you will meet a pair of sisters who redefine family togetherness in an unusually graphic way.

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Venus and Juno Hollis are conjoined twins, three arms between them. And in the course of the Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, by NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music), they will sing, tell stories about other conjoined twins in history, talk about their family mythology. And they’ll play the guitar — the same guitar — together.

“Kaeley’s left hand does the chording; my right hand does the strumming,” says Wiebe’s co-star Rebecca Sadowski. “And the audience will wonder whose arm is whose … and try to figure us out.”

But that’s not the only challenge for the two engaging multi-faceted Métis artists twinned and bonded for the whole show in Schmidt’s production. Dancer/ choreographer Sadowski, “a dancer first” and hence a movement specialist by definition, has found herself “in a show where I’m bound and stationary,” bonded to another body, denied independent physical agency. “A totally new challenge, an interesting show to be in!” 

Rebecca Sadowski

An associate artist with Good Women Dance and recently in the Indigenous dance ensemble of Teneil Whiskeyjack’s Ayita at SkirtsAfire, she says “I haven’t done this much singing in a show for years!” And as for playing the guitar (even partially), “over the years, like any performer, I’ve learned small chords on guitar or piano or ukelele to accompany myself,” Sadowski says modestly. Music is crucial to a dancer and choreographer, of course. But in musical theatre, “I’ve been trying to really listen to the qualities Kaeley is trying to get across in the music….” 

Wiebe, a young singer-songwriter who’s rapidly gaining star power in the indie music scene, is also an actor (a recent grad of the U of A’s BFA acting program) and a visual artist. “I write folky-pop music,” she says of her house style in song-writing. And a lot of the music she created for Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted, some of it played live and some of it pre-recorded, skews that way: “folk-based, plus country gospel…. There’s a bunch of other influences I’ve pulled in from vaudeville and music hall. But mostly, bluegrass/ folk/ country gospel anchors the whole piece.”

Kaeley Jade Wiebe

Which is exactly the retro blend a prairie tale set vaguely in the past, the dustbowl 1930s, would seem to invite. As applied to musical theatre, though, “it’s something new for me to try,” says Wiebe. “In (theatre) school you’re aiming for the classic musical theatre sound. This doesn’t have that heightened quality…. It’s a lot more colloquial. Super-intimate in the way an acoustic concert might feel.”

The story of Venus and Juno, the twin daughters of Jupiter Hollis and a mermaid, is the creation of Schmidt, who’s written small, unconventional, off-centre musicals before now (Klondykes with Darrin Hagen and Water’s Daughter with Ryan Sigurdson). 

“A lot of pieces of the twins’ lives are woven together and layered, memories of formative moments in their lives that have led them to where they are now,” says Wiebe. “And their perspectives are different,” says Sadowski of monologues “where one twin turns away, in darkness and tells their particular point of view … how we perceive our mother and father, our relationship with our parents and each other.” 

Jupiter Hollis is “god-like, a high intelligent being and presence in our lives,” says Wiebe. “We look up to him so thoroughly…. And our relationship to him and our views of him change as we grow up,” says Sadowski of a father figure whose strict policy of protecting his  daughters from the gawking world has a downside.  

Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted takes sibling rapport/friction to a whole new level. Both performers have sisters of their own for inspiration. “I am so annoyed with you and I just want to get away from you. But at the same I love you so much. Whatever!” as Sadowski puts it. “In the end what we hope for most, to get away from each other and separate, is our downfall.” 

The story is propelled forward by music, says Wiebe, “especially as we get caught up in our memories.” The crux is that “our whole lives we’re seen as one. How do we find our own identity as individuals when we can’t go anywhere by ourselves?” Says Sadowski, “every decision is a joint decision.”

Sometimes the twins sing together. Sometimes they have their own songs — “our thoughts, our deepest secrets and fears, to share with the audience.” Wiebe fashioned the lyrics mostly from Schmidt’s prose and poetry text: “Trevor tasked me with jigsawing it into songs, and I’ve changed, tweaked, cut, even added a bit where necessary.” 

For Wiebe, who was born in Fort McMurray and grew up on an acreage outside Edmonton, the new musical marries twin careers, theatre and music, which have so far remained separate. “A really cool project for me at this time in my life…. It pulls together all my skills, my experience.” 

She still has to figure out how the conflicting logistics of theatre, with its weeks of rehearsals and performances, and music, with its single-night bookings, can be made to jibe. Her first full-length album, slated for a fall release and tour, “is still in the planning stages.” 

Sadowski, who’s spent much of the pandemic doing film and has well-formed thoughts about showcasing dance in that medium, is the dance curator for Nextfest in June. Which means she’ll soon be planting dance shows in every nook and cranny of the beautiful new Roxy Theatre. Good Women Dance’s fall edition of Convergence is coming up. And she’s been in workshops for another new musical, Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of the Guy Vanderhaeghe novel The Englishman’s Boy.

“I’m very interested to see how the theatre audience reacts to this,” she says of Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted. In the world of musical theatre “It just feels different. Sometimes it feels like you’re sitting at a folk concert. Sometimes it’s singing for the beauty of singing. Refreshing. Simple. A beautiful set to look at. We’re not moving around; we’re here to enjoy some music….”

With the Hollis twins costume designer Deanna Finnman, best known here for her work with Edmonton Opera, has had an intriguing challenge. “Honestly, it’s stunning,” says Sadowski of the costume she shares with Wiebe. “It gives the illusion we are one body,” a body with three arms and three legs. “I was fearful we’d feel very tight inside. It’s a bit more roomy than I’d thought.”

PREVIEW

Two-Headed/ Half-Hearted

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Created by: Trevor Schmidt (book) and Kaeley Jade Wiebe (music)

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kaeley Jade Wiebe and Rebecca Sadowski

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

Running: Friday through May 7

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com

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Nostalgia in gold lamé: Mamma Mia! at the Mayfield, a review

Pamela Gordon in Mamma Mia!, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Mamma Mia! Effect, in a nutshell. Read the title, and a whole archive of hits instantly catapults into the centre of your mind as if they’d never left. And they lodge there for at least 72 straight hours (after that they’re flexing in the wings, ready to be summoned up at a moment’s notice). Self-help: none available at this time. 

“And here we go again, we know the start, we know the end…. We’ve done it all before and now we’re back to get some more.” Currently exuding the magic of nostalgia from the Greek island taverna conjured on the Mayfield stage, Mamma Mia! is back among us once more, in Kate Ryan’s big, shiny, full-bodied production. And the wisdom of ABBA, the Swedish pop confection that’s remained a universal guilty pleasure for half a century, prevails. As it always does. “Without a song or dance what are we?” 

No need to test the answer. There’s a show for you, and it’s running now. 

Which only goes to tell you that you should never under-estimate the power of nostalgia. Mamma Mia! is a world-traveller of an entertainment designed to conjure our younger, livelier, dancier selves at particular moments in our pasts. Especially true in fraught times like ours, when we sense those fun-loving younger selves “slipping through our fingers all the time,” as the lyric goes. 

Judging by the number of kids in the audience the night I saw the show, kids who weren’t born when Mamma Mia! premiered in 1999, you have to consider the possibility that there’s such a thing as acquired (aspirational? inter-generational?) nostalgia. 

Anyhow, the globe-trotting jukebox musical which just celebrated its 23rd anniversary in London’s West End, cannily hangs 22 ridiculously catchy ABBA hits on a story (by Brit Fringe playwright Catherine Johnson) so judiciously flimsy, bendable and multi-purpose that the immortal lyrics don’t even have to be changed to fit. 

Jill Agopsowicz and Pamela Gordon in Mamma Mia!, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

There’s feisty single mom Donna (Pamela Gordon) who used to sing in a girl group Donna and the Dynamos and be a light-hearted party girl, and now runs a Greek island taverna. There’s her wide-eyed 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Jill Agopsowicz), who for some reason feels a compelling need to know who her dad is (I Have A Dream). So she secretly invites three possibles, names lifted from her mom’s diary, to her wedding. That’s it: the story. Mother/daughter, fathers/daughter, former lovers, the past, the future, the zeitgeist, fun beachwear…. 

It’s in a pleasurable setting: Greece is good for looking good. And somehow — with the material assistance of Ivan Brozic’s warm-hued set and flamboyant costumes, glowing lighting (by Daniela Masellis) and dreamy sea- and moonscape video/projections (by Matt Schuurman) — Ryan’s production finds a way to put Greece and a singing/dancing cast of 20 super-troupers in motion (choreography: Robin Calvert) on a stage that is challengingly small. This is a complicated achievement. I’ve never seen a show that occupies the Mayfield stage the way this production does. 

Musical director Van Wilmott’s expert five-member live band is up there too, invisible behind inside a taverna wall. From their hideaway they capture the (I’ve had to nix the adjective “contagious,” times being what they are) ABBA thing unerringly in his arrangements. They’re great and stylish players. And in Ryan’s production the singers, led by Gordon, can really sing, by no means a given in the world-wide jukebox musical phenom launched by Mamma Mia!. 

On opening night the sound at the outset seemed over-amplified and a bit tinny (an odd event at the Mayfield, where it’s usually impeccable). But hey, if the odd lyric gets buried at sea in Act I, it’s not exactly fatal since everyone knows all the words anyhow. In any case, it’s not a problem as the show goes on. 

The production starts at a pitch of frenzy and giddiness — the arrival of Sophie’s pals, Donna’s erstwhile girl group friends, the three dads — that you suspect (and kind of hope) might be unsustainable. And that’s before the ouzo. 

Ryan’s production applies itself vigorously to the intensity-of-the-moment that gives memorable pop songs their lift. As Donna, who rediscovers her buried romantic past and her playful showbiz roots simultaneously in Mamma Mia!, Gordon negotiates the pull between gain and loss (not to mention the demands of the hospitality industry) with harried ferocity. She really unwraps her big voice to knock The Winner Takes It All out of the park in a scene with Sam (Kevin Aichele), one of her ex’s, as if it’s the mainstage finale of a rock concert.  

Andrea House, Pamela Gordon, Vanessa Cobham in Mamma Mia!, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

The scene where Donna and the Dynamos have an impromptu reunion, re-costume their former selves with bits from a memorabilia trunk, and find themselves suddenly singing Dancing Queen, is a highlight. And it’s not least because of the comic charm of Andrea House as Rosie, who’s tickled, self-mocking, and regretful at the same time. Later she gets my favourite line of the evening: “take a pew and button it.” 

The three ex’s are an amusing contrast, which is their main function (it’s on their passports): Aichele as Sam the wary, divorced architect, Vance Avery as Brit banker Harry, Brad Wiebe as travel writer Bill. Donna’s taste in guys is eclectic but no mimes or hockey players show up.

For me (a personal taste no doubt), the most successful moments of Mamma Mia! always seem to be the playful ones where the characters are performing for each other or us. The soul-wracking ballads can seem, executed in dramatic terms, preposterous; it’s smart of Ryan, I think, to just give them over to the singer and the song. The winner does take it all at such moments, and ABBA is the winner. 

But having said that, I must point to the exceptional Slipping Through My Fingers scene in which Donna takes down the volume and muses on time, solitude, and the impending loss of her daughter to the white-wedding scenario. Both Gordon and Agopsowicz, who has a smile about as bright as the Greek sun at midday (and a voice to match), do touch your heart. 

Calvert’s choreography, always inventive and fun, is hip to the way Mamma Mia! is woven from performance moments, and more dramatic encounters between characters. You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life, ABBA tells the characters, and us. And this is the show to prove it. You get the fun of remembering yourself at light-hearted moments — in good lighting with a great band. Haven’t you missed that?

REVIEW

Mamma Mia!

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.

Written by: Catherine Johnson, originally conceived by Judy Craymer

Music and lyrics by: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Pamela Gordon, Jill Agopsowicz, Matthew Joseph, Kevin Aichele, Vance Avery, Brad Wiebe, Andrea House, Vanessa Cobham

Running: through June 12

Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051

 

 

 

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The doors open, Edmonton has a stunning new theatre … and Theatre Network is home: The Roxy

Photo by Theatre Network

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

When Theatre Network opens the doors of the new Roxy on 124th St. this weekend, Edmonton will have a beautiful new $12 million theatre.

Theatre Network has returned to the ‘hood after six years renting in Old Strathcona. It’s in a new theatre built on the ashes of the old. And they’ve gone through fire to get here. The new Roxy has risen from the ground up on the footprint of the old Roxy, seven years after a devastating fire destroyed Theatre Network’s vintage deco 1938 ex-cinema home. 

For all of us who spent many nights a year at the old Roxy, cramped and fun as it was (I’m definitely not referring to the ladies’ bathroom) — or squished out of the lobby at intermission into the crack between buildings — the sheer spatial improbability of it all is mind-blowing. 

A new Roxy has arisen on that very same narrow street-front lot of the old one. And somehow, magically, it houses not one but two performance spaces each with a lobby, an art gallery, an above-ground light-filled rehearsal hall, two bars (one a street-level will-call), offices that include a day-time box office, a carpentry shop and wardrobe, green room, rooftop deck. More on the theatre-goers’ deluxe bathroom later.

I was lucky to get a peek early this past week at the building, the work of Group2 Architecture and Interior Design and Chandos Construction. You can see it for yourself at Theatre Network’s house-warming Friday or Saturday (free tickets at theatrenetwork.ca). Later this month (April 26 to May 15), a production of Cliff Cardinal’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling from Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre will happen on the 200-seat Nancy Power mainstage theatre (tickets at theatrenetwork.ca). 

Nextfest, the multi-disciplinary festival of emerging artists, explodes in every performance space, nook and cranny in the building in June. Theatre Network is planning a summer theatre school there. Then, in August, the Roxy is a Fringe BYOV. Artistic director Bradley Moss himself will direct a Fringe show, his first in the new Roxy, in the adaptable black box theatre named in honour of theatre artist Lorne Cardinal, star of many a Theatre Network production.   

The Nancy Power Theatre in the new Roxy, from the stage during construction, Theatre Network.

Tuesday morning the crew, led by production manager Scott Peters, had just taken the plastic off the seats in “the Nancy,” as the staff affectionately call the elegant proscenium theatre, named for the late board member and sometime president who donated the building to the theatre in 1989. “It hearkens back to the old space,” says Moss of the colour scheme in the “totally gorgeous” proscenium house, with its modern purple seating (with cup-holders!) and mustard-coloured, scalloped acoustic panels. “In a new way we wanted to capture all that history.” 

The 27-foot height to the lighting grid — the old Roxy height was 14 feet — expands the artistic possibilities upward on the stage, and downward too (it now includes a trap door). Look up and there’s a mezzanine gallery, for overflow or theatre-goers with disabilities who can choose placement either there or the moveable front row on the floor. Yes, there’s an elevator.   

The blacks, the light-absorbing drapery surrounding the stage, had just arrived on the morning I was there. The top-drawer lighting board was in the booth. But the dimmers and other technical connectors have been held up by the same global supply chain issues with chips that have affected the car and computer industries. So there are temporary loans for the moment. 

The Lorne Cardinal Theatre, under construction in the new Roxy, photo by Theatre Network.

The Lorne Cardinal Theatre on the lower level is the flexible black box theatre, “a room made to do whatever you want,” as Moss puts it. The capacity depends on the configuration — a variable that includes a gallery with removable panels — but he guess-timates it at 80 or 90. 

There’s a heavy retractable wall (Scott Peters’ idea) that opens the space, for cabarets and art installations, to a bar and lobby. “I imagine it closed at night, opening up for party mode,” says Moss, with Nextfest’s signature “performance nite clubs” on his mind. And the space includes a compellingly abstracted portrait of Cardinal by Jason Carter, a special occasion departure for an artist who almost never works in portraiture.   

The artists’ quarters are on the lower level. The green room has a kitchen named after the late great chef and theatre-lover Gail Hall. The production office is named after the beloved late stage manager Cheryl Millikin. And the two handsome dressing rooms include bathrooms, one with a shower (Moss was its debut user). 

The all-gender Roxy theatre-goers’ bathroom, photo by Theatre Network.

Which brings me to two features without which the live theatre cannot flourish. One is the public bathroom. The new Roxy’s primary bathroom is, unlike its predecessors, an attractive destination venue: spacious, airy, all-gender, with a double-bank of multi-coloured cubicles, retro tiles, deco oval mirrors. “We wanted to give some love to the old building,” says Moss. If you ever visited a Theatre Network bathroom, either at the Roxy or (worse) the theatre’s pre-1989 crumbling ex-Kingdom Hall dive near the Coliseum, you will understand the major socio-cultural impact of this reveal. 

The other notable feature, pointed out proudly by Peters and Moss, is the walk-in beer fridge (the liquor license, finalized Tuesday afternoon, “is the last piece of the puzzle,” as Moss puts it).    

Managing director Harley Morison points out the rarity of a new theatre anywhere built with a store-front facade on a standard commercial lot between buildings on a busy street in a bona fide neighbourhood. And since the facade is basically glass, the theatre looks outward in the world. “A miracle building,” Morison says. “The basic concept is connection to the street.”

Dancing Bears by Jason Carter, photo by Theatre Network.

When you open the street-level door at the Roxy, you’re in an art-filled space. The box office/will-call is at one end of a curved bar (with glass glasses). And you’re in the Miller Art Gallery, currently featuring an exhibit of Carter’s strikingly colourful animal paintings.

Upstairs, outside the glass-walled administrative office, there are more Carters, a series called The Wild Party, which starts at one end with a single bear in a canoe. In each painting the bear picks up an extra guest for the ride, starting with a moose and ending with a rabbit all crowded together in the canoe for the festive grand finale painting. It’s hung permanently in the office, and it’s impossible to see the appealing series and not think of theatre gathering its friends.  

Roxy rehearsal hall, under construction, photo by Theatre Network.

The office is accessible to the rehearsal hall, full of light, that gives on the street. And it’s a beaut. “My whole career has been in shitty rehearsal basements with no light,” sighs Moss. “Our whole (theatre) generation grew up in the dark.” A cabaret artist visiting the theatre last week burst into tears when she saw it, he reports.

The double-sided blinds are also screens,  so they can be used for digital art pieces.  Or in rehearsal “we can actually see video and play with it while we’re practising,” says Moss. 

At Morison’s suggestion the Roxy Performance Series, indie productions curated and supported by Theatre Network, is now the Phoenix Series, an allusion to the 1997 union of the company with Phoenix Theatre in 1997. The mantra “live at the Roxy”? Gone. “Everything’s live at the Roxy,” says Moss. 

You can’t just rent Theatre Network. The rental system diminishes a theatre’s brand, and happens “on the backs of artists,” Moss argues. Instead, he favours a more-collaborative model, a box-office split with smaller companies whose shows are curated for the Phoenix series.

Moss, Peters, Morison and the rest of the Network crew still can’t quite believe the new Roxy has happened. “Our hearts were broken,” says artistic director Bradley Moss of the terrible night of Jan. 13, 2015. From a vantage point across the street he and the staff watched in horror as the theatre burned. Wouldn’t it have crossed their minds to just stay put in rental digs across the river in the Gateway Blvd. theatre once occupied by Catalyst? “Nope,” says Moss. “Nope,” says Morison. “We had a board meeting the night of the fire. And all of us wanted to rebuild here.”

Years of strategizing, fund-raising, grant applications, followed — and more recently meetings with consultants, fire inspectors (the new fire curtain is a wall of water, as per code), electrical companies, theatrical suppliers…. In the last two years they’ve heard the terms “industry standard” and “code” more times than you’ve had hot dinners. And yet the original vision has remained undimmed.    

“Thrilled? Yes! And relieved,” says Moss. “It’s so nice to put the Roxy back. Edmonton gets to keep this — and Edmonton deserves it!” 

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‘It makes us vibrate, makes us feel’: The Power of the Drum from the Cuban Movements Dance Academy. A review

Raydel Martinez Portuondo, Ingrid Díaz Céspedes, Nathan Ouellette in The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s no coincidence that Afro-Cuban drumming doesn’t involve drumsticks. It’s hands-on, literally and metaphorically. The power of the drum, as the show of that name onstage at the Westbury Theatre tells us, is that it shares a heartbeat, a pulse, with us. 

It’s “a connection with the divine,” as one Cuban drummer puts it, in the fascinating set of on-location Havana interviews that Cuban Movements Dance Academy present onscreen at the outset. “The hands reach into the divine.” With the drum, says another, “we tap into vitality, health, energy….” Another says “it makes us vibrate, makes us feel.” 

With a testimonial intro like that, the drums, and the drummer, have a lot to live up to. And they do.

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Nathan Ouellette, at a raised dais of diverse instruments, some free-standing, some in a bank, is a sensational performer. In the show that follows, three Cuban dancers invoke in movement the Orichas, Yoruban gods and goddesses of the rich Afro-Cuban culture that arrived in Cuba with slaves. “They brought with them the power of the drum,” says the narrator (writer/director Cecilia Ferreya), who is “the soul of the drum.” 

She tells us that theirs is “a story of hope over despair, of fierce determination, cultural identity and traditional values” that enabled them to survive terrible conditions.

The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

The Power of the Drum, is the first of RISER Edmonton’s 2022 series, the debut national offshoot of an initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre to support indie artists. And on a bleak windy winter-coat spring weekend in Edmonton, there’s something startlingly warming about the production: hot colours, hot expressive movement (choreographed by Cuban Movements Dance Academy’s artistic director Leo Gonzales), hot vibrations in your ribcage that make your feet move.

It’s not a play per se (it’s more an illustrated documentary imagined in motion). But it’s highly theatrical. Gonzales’s choreography for the cast (which includes himself), conjures five deities in sequence, with powers, specialities, and distinctive personalities. One of them, Eleguá, a trickster god, a figure of benevolent, quicksilver mischief, who breaks through the fourth wall and places his sparkly red hat on a member of the audience. And there’s an escalating, whirling, full-body energy about all of them, as framed by annotations from the narrator. 

Leo Gonzales, founder and artistic director, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

There are powerful warriors, including machete-wielding Oggún and Changó, a splendidly regal figure in red and gold who commands thunder and lightning. There’s Yemaya, the life-giving goddess of the sea, who moves in waves. The costumes are intensely colourful; the music invites physicality, and the movement is, to say the least, visceral. 

The desire to communicate and connect is everywhere in this hour-long show, which takes us into the culture of the African diaspora in Cuba and its life-affirming sense of community. We’ve been a couch-bound bunch: give yourself a jolt of energy. 

Check out the 12thnight preview interview with Cecilia Ferreya and Leo Gonzales here.

REVIEW

The Power of the Drum

RISER Edmonton 2022

Theatre: Cuban Movements Dance Academy

Written, directed, produced by: Cecilia Ferreya

Choreographed by: Leo Gonzales

Starring: Leo Gonzales, Raydel Martinez Portuondo, Ingrid Díaz Céspedes, Nathan Ouellette, Cecilia Ferreya

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

Running: through April 17

Tickets:  tickets.fringetheatre.ca

 

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Reading the signs: The Herd premieres at the Citadel. A review.

Dylan Thomas-Bouchier, Cheyenne Scott, Tai Amy Grauman, Shyanne Duquette, Todd Houseman in The Herd, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The stage is dominated by a stunning screen — glowing, translucent,  undulating like the prairies, with a graceful open-work lattice (Indigenous Tiffany?). In The Herd the boundary between the present and the past, this world and other dimensions, is porous, as conjured by designer Andy Moro in Tara Beagan’s production.

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A buffalo skull has pride of place, front and centre. And The Herd opens with the thunder of a bison herd, doomed by history, raising dust behind the screen. “It begins with the apocalypse. Every buffalo gone,” a destruction with an infinite reverb for Indigenous people.

“We will return,” say the collective ‘buffalo people’ onstage. Kenneth T. Williams’s new play, a Tarragon Theatre partnership finally getting its premiere at the Citadel after two years of COVIDian stops and starts, is all about that return. And it comes at a complicated, high-traffic intersection of cultural, social, political, economic issues for the young chief (Dylan Thomas-Bouchier) of the Buffalo Pound Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

The extraordinary event at the centre of the action is the birth of twin white buffalo calves on the reserve. Is this the fulfilment — the double-fulfilment — of a sacred Indigenous prophecy about hope and spiritual renewal? Is it the result of genetic manipulation by the veterinarian/geneticist Dr. Brokenhorn (Tai Amy Grauman) who has returned to her home reserve to minister to the purity of the herd and filter out domestic cattle genes? 

Prophecies, like miracles, are a tricky call. If they’re created by human calculation — science, for example — are they still prophetic or miraculous? That question is up for grabs amongst the fractious characters of The Herd, and it will be fascinating to learn the reactions of Indigenous commentators. 

Tai Amy Grauman and Todd Houseman, The Herd, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

“You want to know if I made them on purpose,” says brusk Dr. Brokenhorn to persistent Indigenous blogger Coyote Jackson of Red Warrior Media (Todd Houseman), who instantly shows up gathering followers, clicks, and publicity.  

Not only is the twin birth an instant tourist attraction, the situation is further knotted by the First Nation’s business contract with the EU, to supply Euro markets with ‘authentic’ Wild West meat. To Aislinn (Cheyenne Scott), the glossy EU business rep who arrives to protect the investment, talking the win-win talk, the twins are a non-pareil marketing opportunity. “Bisonstock,” she brainstorms with herself. “No, Bisonfest, that’s better.”

And heaven knows, the community could use a prosperity boost. As “Baby Pete” Brokenhorn, the band chief and the good doctor’s brother, points out, the reserve has a perennial housing shortage. And they’ve been boiling water for 20 years since they’ve never had the resources  to tap the aquifer. 

The other character, Sheila (Shyanne Duquette), the aunt of the brother/sister pair and an Elder, is an artist, more measured in her responses. Her creative inspiration apparently comes more directly from the spirit world. If Sheila’s role in The Herd seems more theoretical and less impactful, it’s partly because her encounters with other characters are way less audible (I was in row D).  

Tai Amy Grauman, Cheyenne Scott, Dylan Thomas-Bouchier in The Herd, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

The birth, whether sign from the spirit world or scientific achievement, creates a frenzy of excitement and stresses. “We don’t need more attention,” snaps Dr. Brokenhorn as the crowd of on-lookers escalates alarmingly into a festive camp-out (we see their campfires flicker through the screen and hear their party din). The chief, in Thomas-Bouchier’s appealing performance, is up against it, trying to untangle the knot of contradictory factors.  

Williams’ work, as you’ll see in The Herd, is infused with a sense of humour, however dark the subject matter. Excellent as the increasingly harried and exasperated doctor, Grauman brings her strong, edgy speaking voice to bear as she stomps through her world, not answering calls, cutting through chatter abruptly —   “what are you doing here?” — when self-serving interests camouflage themselves in jargon.  

The play’s most comic character, never without his blogger’s tripod and a selection of warrior poses, is Coyote Jackson, the self-styled “Indigenizer of the net.” Houseman is amusing as the social media star and activist whose Indigenous cred comes under scrutiny in the play. “Very Oka 1990s,” notes the formidable Dr. Brokenhorn eyeing his get-up. Is Colin Jackson of Etobicoke a Pretendian? He’s desperate to make his case. “I’m totally legit!”

Thorny questions of cultural and spiritual identity, both animal and human, are everywhere in The Herd. There is perhaps a surfeit of entrances and exits in the production (and the Shoctor is a big stage). But once onstage the people we meet there argue those questions, weigh the spiritual and cultural price of them, justify their responses, air their doubts. And that leaves them, and us, with a lot to think about.

Meet playwright Kenneth T. Williams in the 12thnight PREVIEW here.

REVIEW

The Herd

Theatre: Citadel Theatre in association with Tarragon Theatre and National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre

Written by: Kenneth T. Williams

Directed by: Tara Beagan

Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman, Cheyenne Scott, Shyanne Duquette, Dylan Thomas-Boucher

Running: through April 24

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820

 

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The Power of the Drum, a dance theatre adventure into the spiritual heart of the Afro-Cuban experience

The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The show that opens Saturday on the Westbury stage takes us on a dance theatre adventure deep into the spiritual heart and traditions of the Afro-Cuban experience. 

The Power of the Drum, a creation of the nine-year-old Cuban Movements Dance Academy, is the story of the rich culture brought to Cuba by West African slaves. “You go to Cuba, with its amazing dance and music and drumming, and you ask ‘where is this coming from?’” says Cecilia Ferreya, the writer, director, producer, and narrator of the piece, choreographed by the Academy’s artistic director Leo Gonzales.

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The Power of the Drum, an expansion of the original 15-minute presentation audiences saw at the 2021 Expanse Festival, is all about answering that question. “We’re telling the story of those roots; we’re connecting people with a tradition and a history” that shed light on “how the ancestors could survive the harshest conditions and thrive, and continue to keep a rich culture that was a source of strength and resilience. … We are reclaiming that narrative.” 

Cuban Movements Dance Academy treated Fringe audiences last summer (me included) to a remarkably flavourful dance musical survey of Cuban culture, a veritable explosion of colour and rhythm. The Power of the Drum, an inspiration nurtured by RISER Edmonton — the first iteration of a national program designed to boost indie producers — is different, as Ferreya explains. “It’s a more serious subject matter,” performed by professionals. 

In the course of this homage to spirituality we will see, in full costume, sacred dances of five Orichas, Yoruban gods and goddesses who connect the human to the divine, linked as they are to Nature, the sea, storms, wind…. 

Leo Gonzales, founder and artistic director, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

The three dancers of the cast — Gonzales himself, with Raydel Martinez Portuondo and Ingrid Díaz Céspedes — are professionals, all from Cuba. And they’re joined by drummer Nathan Ouellette, a Canadian musician who has “learned from the best, in Cuba” and devoted himself to absorbing the spiritual traditions built into Afro-Cuban drumming. “You have to have permission to use the drums,” as Ferreya explains. “It’s very special.” 

The production is designed to be “an immersive experience,” she says. In the lobby beforehand, “to set the tone,” you’ll hear a drumming sound score. And you’ll see an an altar of consecrated drums, and a photography/projection exhibition of Orichas conveyed by dancers and drummers, shot in Havana in December, Ferreya and Gonzales had hoped to bring a contingent of those artists to Canada for the show; COVID intervened.  

Gonzales, a Havana-born professional dancer (“I was dancing in my crib!”), founded the Cuban Movements Dance Academy in 2013. “When I first moved here, I was very interested to see people from many different countries,” he says. “A lot of multi-cultures — I really liked that. I didn’t feel like the only one (from another culture)…. I was very happy to share mine.”

In Cuba, where he was a student at the national dance school in Havana, Gonzales began to choreograph, at first informally. He spent his time in the military (Cuba has mandatory conscription) choreographing a company of soldier dancers. 

Cecilia Ferreyra, writer, director, producer, narrator of The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

The Argentine-born Ferreya, the manager of the Academy, was drawn to Afro-Cuban dance when she started classes with Gonzales. “It’s a feeling of tapping into something that has been done for hundreds of years. Vibrations, sources of energy, whatever you call it, with Leo you feel it in your heart, your body…. “

“It’s a shared experience. Which is perfect for now. In the pandemic we’ve been locked apart. This is the feeling of connectivity! A celebration of community is a beautiful thing.”  

“Leo is channelling memory, body memory, something more than the movement itself,” says Ferreya of a dance tradition set apart from ballet. “Ballet is something that can be mastered. Afro-Cuban dance is not something to be mastered…. The body becomes another drum, if you like.”  

“Leo isn’t dancing alone; he’s dancing with his ancestors.” 

Gonzales puts it this way: “with ballet you have to execute the (prescribed) positions exactly. An arm goes here; a leg goes there….This comes from your body; it’s reaching inside the body, getting to the spirit.” Afro-Cuban dance performances build, and they’re never exactly the same. In the classes he teaches at the Academy, and in guest gigs at MacEwan University, Gonzales’s goal, he says, is that “the students connect with the music. You feel like the music is moving your body. When the people in the class engage, my energy explodes!” 

Gonzales’s two little daughters, ages five and eight, are the beneficiaries of private dance tutoring, he laughs. Sometimes they come to his dance classes. His other students tell them “you’re so lucky; you go to your daddy’s work and have fun!”

PREVIEW

The Power of the Drum

RISER Edmonton 2022

Theatre: Cuban Movements Dance Academy

Written, directed, produced by: Cecilia Ferreya

Choreographed by: Leo Gonzales

Starring: Leo Gonzales, Raydel Martinez Portuondo, Ingrid Diaz Céspedes, Nathan Ouellette, Cecilia Ferreya

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

Running: Saturday through April 17

Tickets:  tickets.fringetheatre.ca 

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