“I’m not the man I was….” A new Christmas Carol at the Citadel. A review

Ted Dykstra in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Phorography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

Front-rack anything in the colour red: “red at the primary point of visual contact increases sales by 5.4 per cent.” This retail wisdom comes courtesy of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, whose orders come with an OR ELSE attached.

In the Citadel’s big, music-filled new $1 million adaptation of A Christmas Carol, unveiled officially on the Maclab stage Thursday, it’s 1949. And Mr. Scrooge is now the wintry, steely-eyed owner/ boss of a department store, Marleys, where the profit margin is both cradle and manger, and firing offences are invariably the daily special. Even on Christmas Eve. 

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By the Edmonton playwright David van Belle and directed by Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran, this new adaptation of Dickens’ evergreen 1843 novella steps bravely forward as a successor to a best-seller: Tom Wood’s beloved Victorian version of 19 Yule seasons standing. And it’s witty about this re-location in space and time.

In the first scene, we see Mr. Scrooge (Ted Dykstra in withering good form), kicking out a cluster of carollers decked out in Victorian finery from the previous incarnation, and singing seasonal multi-part harmony: “Get away!” he snarls. “Dressed up like it’s Old-Timey London!…. You look ridiculous!” Yup, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, as another song puts it.

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You could, I think, imagine Dickens’ tale of a frozen soul rescued by ghostly intervention from solitary damnation — at the last possible moment on Christmas Eve — playing in any era. OK, with the possible exception of the medieval period, bad idea. But in the late ‘40s early ‘50s, of the 20th century not the 19th, Scrooge’s journey towards human interconnectedness comes with its own look, and very familiar secular songbook, its own sense of irony and its own aura of nostalgia. Ah, and with the bonus (as van Belle’s quick-witted adaptation smartly imagines) of Scrooge’s involvement in, and exasperation with, with post-war retail.

If you’ve spent any time at any mall lately, and who hasn’t?, you might even feel an unwelcome little twinge of sympathy at the outset for the stony-hearted man we meet, hardened by years of bean-counting and bustle at the shrine of consumption in the “hap-happiest season of all”  (responsible for 27 per cent of profits, fyi). The look Dykstra gives the obligatory in-store Santa would congeal eggnog at 100 paces.

Ted Dykstra as Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

This new version of the much-loved story has a stellar asset in the performance by Ted Dykstra. Scrooge is brisk, ruthless and impatient, located somewhere on the sliding spectrum between seething and furious. His acidic sarcasm and cynicism operate in a 20th century North American idiom, thanks to Dykstra and to van Belle’s savvy, often sassy, way of re-fashioning Dickens’ language in a way that sounds right for a different century on a different continent.

Scrooge unleashes his bitter ironies on a world of “foolish people at a foolish time of year,” as he notes, with adamantine brevity. When Scrooge, for example, mocks the two businessmen canvassing for a Christmas charity, he notes that they have “enough sincerity for a career in politics.” On opening night, that sneer got a big laugh: we recognize our own screwed-up world when we hear it.

“Everyone’s on the take,” declares a man who ought to know. “Why should I subsidize the lazy?” When a bewildered immigrant family wanders by, clutching a map and hoping for a hand, Scrooge’s hackles are on red-alert: “Learn. To. Speak. English!” Charity is an “excuse to be weak.”

Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Ted Dykstra, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In Cloran’s production we see the signs of early-onset ossification in the younger Scrooge, played with considerable impact in Braydon Dowler-Coltman’s fine performance. We meet him on the tour of his past led by the first Ghost (Lilla Solymos), who has an unnerving, hollow-eyed refugee look about her (with shoulder pads made of burning candles) and a ghostly way of singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

The damages of early abuse and neglect — the loss of Scrooge’s sister Fanny (Priya Narine) is actually dramatized, with props — go subterranean, under a presentable, almost genial, surface that gradually seems to rub off. The scene in which young Scrooge finally casts off his fiancée Belle (or vice versa, since she’s played with unusual feistiness by Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks) takes on the contours of the post-war world. And so does the fact that Bob Cratchit is nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Cratchit (Alison MacDonald) is the single-mother/ breadwinner who labours under the iron thumb of Mr. Scrooge. He calls her Cratchit and doesn’t even know her first name. And though the Cratchits don’t seem to be teetering on the verge of utter annihilation from poverty, they do all wear beige (costumes by Cory Sincennes).  

A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

If the word “change” is the keynote of Wood’s adaptation, “consequences” takes over in van Belle’s. It’s Scrooge’s mantra, his secret of success, the weapon he uses as a cudgel on the people around him. And the seminal irony of this new version is the way consequences turn back on Scrooge, in the storytelling, in annotations by the late (very late) Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold sporting chains and a grisly fresh head-wound), and the dialogue.

Ted Dykstra, Ruth Alexander in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

That story is still present and accounted for, in all its thrilling ghostly splendour, in this new version. It’s the framing that is different. Two of the three ghosts bear some resemblance to the spectres of the old adaptation. The Ghost of Christmas Present, though, is a bizarre and amusingly hyperactive 50s hep-cat  — the spirit of showbiz perhaps? — played with gusto by John Ullyatt in a tinsel-green suit that gives him some resemblance to an outsized leprechaun. And he changes costumes and hair styles with magical mystery that’s a kick. “Music,” this energetic ghost  tells Scrooge, “is part of the whole Christmas gig, baby.”

The traditional Christmas music that seemed to emerge from the spheres in the Wood adaptation is replaced for the most part by the dreamy or jaunty, much-covered repertoire of the early ‘50s. As in musicals, characters do break into song at dramatic moments. This aspect of the new Christmas Carol might need a tune-up, in truth — not least because those moments are only occasional, in a continuing period soundtrack. It feels just a little jarring, as it currently stands, that in a scene with one of her kids, Mrs. C breaks into Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

The live jazz quartet is welcome, but on opening night the sound mix was weighted rather obtrusively in favour of keyboards. And am I the only person who thinks that Holly Jolly Christmas as a grand finale to a major production should be reserved for parodies?

I’ll keep the details secret (for your own good!), but I wonder, too, if the ending doesn’t involve rather a lot of Scrooge improvising to explaining his conversion, under several circumstances where his mere presence speaks volumes. “It’s unbearable…. I see what misery I caused, how little I have to show for my life.” Luckily, Dykstra is such a charismatic performer you’ll never regret having him linger onstage.  

 Cavils aside, this is the first airing of a show that will invite future visits. And the period has inspired a handsome design by Sincennes, lit by Leigh Ann Vardy and dominated by a clock and a revolving department store door used cunningly by director Cloran to spill characters onto the stage. And Sincennes’s costumes, which achieve a kind of apotheosis at the Christmas party thrown by the Fezziwigs (Vance Avery, Belinda Cornish), are lovely, and fun to look at, set in motion by Laura Krewski’s allusive choreography. 

In short, this new Christmas Carol has a lot going for it. Is it the start of number-less Christmas Carols Yet To Come at the Citadel? This much I can tell you: It’s cleverly written and structured, and while it doesn’t exactly underscore a story of cruel, high-stakes inequity, this tale of  transformation and the visceral need for connection does speak to our time. “I didn’t know how to be part of a family,” says Scrooge. “Some families you’re born into; some you have to find….”

A holiday tradition is a way to discover yours.

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Ted Dykstra, Julien Arnold, Vance Avery, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lilla Solymos, Sasha Rybalko — 36 actors altogether

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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Do not ask for whom the Belles toil (a tale of two actors, two theatres, two cities, and a show): A Christmas Carol

Emma Houghton and Devin MacKinnon, A Christmas Carol, Theatre Calgary. Photo by Trudie Lee.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Ted Dykstra, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

They met 17 years ago as kids in the single-digit age bracket, in a show that would be a life-changer for both of them. They each landed a high-impact role in the two-year-old production, big and beautiful, of A Christmas Carol at the Citadel. And nothing was the same after that.

In 2002 Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks was the eerie Ghost of Christmas Past, a fairy with a woman’s voice and a child’s body, who unlocks the kaleidoscopic world of memory and lost love in a man with a frozen soul. Her new friend Emma Houghton, who’d played Tiny Tim (the Cratchit with the crutch and the showstopper rejoinder to Bah! Humbug!) the year before, had graduated to play Jenny Cratchit.

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks and Emma Houghton in 2002, backstage at A Christmas Carol. Photo supplied.

Both are professional actors now, theatre school grads in their mid-20s with burgeoning stage careers. By the kind of magical coincidence in which theatre specializes, the two friends find themselves playing the same role, Belle (the young Scrooge’s first love), in two new productions of A Christmas Carol, in the two largest theatres in Alberta.

Do not ask for whom the Belles toil. (Hey, it’s theatre; they toil for thee, fair audiences).

Jimenez-Hicks is Belle in David van Belle’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, set in 1949 and premiering tonight on the Citadel’s Maclab stage. Houghton is Belle in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s Victorian period adaptation for Theatre Calgary, which premiered last week.

“Except for a Christmas concert skit at school, it was only my second role,” says Houghton of Tiny Tim. “My dad drove me to the audition.” She’d landed the role of Jenny Cratchit and fallen in love with the costume, and the wig with the red ringlets. So her eight-year-old self was “crushed,” initially when director Bob Baker re-assigned her to Tiny Tim: “O no! A boy!”

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“It was my first real theatre experience!” And Houghton was hooked. “Getting to be around adult actors who treat you like them, like a little adult….” The whole experience was “like being at camp.”

She loved her “child-minder” Nancy. And she remembers the fun of the Maclab green room, “a total (kid) hang-out room … playing cards, board games,  games, reading, kid things, snacks, lunch….” She was on- and backstage with some of the country’s most impressive theatre artists, “actors I’ve always admired” — Julien Arnold, Kate Ryan, Ashley Wright, Patrick Howarth, Beth Graham, Kevin Corey among them. “We all had a ‘secret Santa’ and Kevin Corey was mine!”

And the U of A theatre school grad remembers thinking “this is my dream…. By 11 I was, like, this is what I want to do.”

Jimenez-Hicks, who went to the National Theatre School in Montreal and is Toronto-based these days, echoes the thought. “Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of childhood came from that show.…” Not least because her two sisters, neither an actor now, spent time in A Christmas Carol, too — one as the Ghost of Christmas Past, one as half a pair of rich privileged twins who are a visual reminder of the gap between the have’s and the have-nots. “My parents got very used to driving us to the Citadel and picking us up,” 

“Such a rare opportunity,” muses Jimenez-Hicks. Like Houghton she remembers thinking “these are my people!”

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks

“Pure joy and excitement!” Jimenez-Hicks says declares emphatically of the fun of being in a big, lavish, professional production of A Christmas Carol. “An appreciation for the craft and history of theatre” came out of that, later. “We grew up with the show!” she says. On closing night “I was devastated…. My mom gave me a talking-to. If you’re going to be that upset every time a show ends, maybe you shouldn’t be doing theatre.” Just as if there was any choice by then.

Jimenez-Hicks is bemused to find herself in a new Christmas Carol, onstage once more amongst old friends, like Ben Stevens (Fred) and Braydon Dowler-Coltman (Young Scrooge), that she met 17 years ago when they were all kids together in the Citadel’s Tom Wood adaptation. “I took a 15-year break,” she laughs.

Emma Houghton

Houghton, who like Jimenez-Hicks has been part of Citadel Young Companies, has been working in Calgary since late September, venturing into directing the old-school way, by assisting the director of Alberta Theatre Projects’ Disgraced. “I’m trying to expand my (theatre) skill set,” she says. After the holidays she’ll be back in Edmonton assisting director John Hudson with Nick Green’s new comedy Happy Birthday Baby J at Shadow Theatre, then back to Calgary, to act in Anna Ziegler’s Actually at ATP.

As adapted by playwright Brown of the indie collective Major Matt Mason, Theatre Calgary’s new Christmas Carol keeps the story in 1843. But Houghton thinks it’s “a lot more socio-political” than the version in which she played various members of the Cratchit family at the Citadel. The playwright “has done a really wonderful job of bringing the story and the characters to life.… He’s given Belle a life outside Scrooge. She has a back story, her work to support those who have less.”

In this new version Scrooge (Stephen Hair, in his 25th year of playing the frosty Ebenezer) “is an everyman, not an anomaly.” The playwright, thinks Houghton, “has played up his fear — of being vulnerable, of being hurt, of poverty.”

At the Citadel, where van Belle’s new version of A Christmas Carol opens after 19 seasons of the Tom Wood adaptation, “it’s the same story we know and love. But you’re in a different world,” says Jimenez-Hicks, who will star as Wendy in the Stratford Festival’s Wendy and Peter Pan (rehearsals start in February). “It’s post-World War II and the feminist movement has influenced the world,” which sheds light on Belle’s sense of independence. And “there’s a little bit more of the beginning of their relationship,”  she says of Belle’s history with young Scrooge.

And speaking of beginnings, here’s a Dickensian story: two kids land in the world of mainstage theatre, age eight, in A Christmas Carol. They grow up, in love with theatre. And look what happens. Both make their “adult” Citadel debuts last season, Jimenez-Hicks in an intersecting pair of Kat Sandler plays, The Party and The Candidate, and Houghton in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. And now they’re back, in brand new versions of the show where it all began.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Citadel through Dec. 23 (tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com). A Christmas Carol runs at Theatre Calgary through Dec. 28 (403-294-7440, theatrecalgary.com).

 

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After two decades, the Citadel has a new Christmas Carol. A preview

A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Wait.… Do you hear that?” whispers David van Belle, stopping himself mid-sentence, his fork mid-air. “Someone’s whistling Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Sure enough, there it is, a faint sound. A ghostly wisp that floats through the Citadel lobby like a haunting.

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Van Belle beams. “It’s everywhere!” he laughs. “It’s in our show!” If his ears are tuned to the Christmas frequency, it’s hardly surprising. The production, large of cast and lavish of scale, that premieres Thursday on the Citadel’s Maclab stage is the playwright’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of redemption against the odds on Christmas Eve. And it lifts the story of the flinty Ebenezer Scrooge Esq. out of the Victorian period and into 1949. In a department store. With a live jazz quartet.

For the first time in two decades, the Citadel has a new version of A Christmas Carol, to replace the Tom Wood adaptation that has been a bona fide Citadel hit (and civic holiday institution) for the last 19 Yule seasons. The new Christmas Carol, a $1 million affair with a cast of 36 including 13 kids and starring actor/ playwright/ director Ted Dykstra (originally from St. Albert) as Scrooge, has been fully two years in the creating. 

Playwright David van Belle. Photo supplied.

Yes, for two years Edmonton playwright van Belle has taken a deep dive into everything Christmas, its traditions, its music, its stories, its ghosts, its particular magic. “And that includes two summers, in my shorts and sandals singing Christmas songs,” much to the amusement of his daughters (Wren and Zadie, six and three respectively).

In Edmonton, A Christmas Carol, “is more than just a play,” as Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran (the director of the new version) puts it. “It’s more like a community event, a celebration of the spirit of generosity…. People come back every year. It’s part of their own holiday tradition.” And the same applies to actors. Cloran’s cast includes two former Scrooges (Glenn Nelson and Julien Arnold, the original Bob Cratchit), a former Fred (John Ullyatt, now the Ghost of Christmas Present), a score of former Cratchits who grew up (like Braydon Dowler-Coltman, back as Young Scrooge). Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, a former Ghost of Christmas Past, is Scrooge’s lost love Belle in the new Christmas Carol. Lilla Solymos, a former Tiny Tim, is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Last year’s Tim, Sasha Rybalko, is back too, to say “God bless us, every one” under new circumstances.

Other big theatres in other Canadian cities do A Christmas Carol, sure, on rotation every few years between “holiday shows” like Mary Poppins at the Grand in London, Ont., or Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Vancouver’s Arts Club, or Peter Pan at the Neptune in Halifax. In Edmonton and Calgary, no way. The inviolable tradition of a full-bodied Christmas Carol every year, is “an Albertan phenomenon,” proposes Cloran, a relative newcomer to the province as he points out.

Theatre Calgary has been doing A Christmas Carol, in different versions, for 35 years. In Edmonton, where generations of actors have played in Wood’s adaptation in the course of two decades, it’s not like that. A new version is a landmark event. “So how do we celebrate the 20th anniversary of presenting A Christmas Carol here at the Citadel?” says Cloran. “Our Christmas gift to Edmonton is a new production, one that’s loyal to the story, but allows us to have brand new costumes, brand new set — and a new take.”

Ted Dykstra as Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

“What’s at the heart of the story that resonates? What is the experience an audience comes to A Christmas Carol wanting?” 

“I pitched Daryl a spectrum of five different possible versions,” says van Belle of brainstorming at the Banff Playwrights Colony. “At one end, the 1840s: top hats and holly and hooped skirts, a straight-up traditional version. At the other end, a version with 12 people in an Edmonton transit shelter on the coldest night of the year who decide for some reason to do A Christmas Carol…. I’m really glad we didn’t go with that one,” he laughs.

As Cloran says, “there are two periods that are Christmas for us.” Van Belle echoes the thought. “Dickens is so associated with Christmas, Victorian Christmas ornaments, gingerbread houses, people in bonnets singing. What other period also has that resonance?” He and Cloran lighted on the late ‘40s early ‘50s.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Ted Dykstra, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“There’s a whole wealth of Christmas movies we love — It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, Holiday Inn — from that time.” And there’s the music: “the body of Christmas music written during the Second World War or shortly afterward, with their sense of longing, of wanting to be home, yearning for peace,” as van Belle says. “If you listen to Christmas radio right now, most of the songs are from that period….”

“The music was part of the pitch!” says van Belle. There are 12 songs in the show. And, unlike traditional Christmas carols in the public domain, the Citadel had to acquire rights. “Some of the rights holders are mega-corporations, like Sony. Some are not,” says the playwright. In the course of his researches, he found an old party song he was convinced hadn’t been heard in decades. The rights for Pinky Tomlin’s I Told Santa Claus To Bring Me You were held by the family of the composer. “They were super-excited we wanted to use it!”

After a two-year Christmas immersion (which started during a January, after the seasonal sentiment had worn off), van Belle can talk about the two versions of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, one more melancholy than the other. “There’s the Judy Garland version from Meet Me In St. Louis (“until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”) , that other more festive (‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough’). “We use both,” he says.

Ted Dykstra, Ruth Alexander in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“It’s not a musical,” van Belle says. But in the course of “letting the lyrics and the script talk to each other,” he’s discovered that “in a way the music does move the action forward,” as it does in musicals. “Some of the more emotional moments are conveyed through song,” says Cloran, who, in a happy collaboration, directed the premiere of van Belle’s Liberation Days at Theatre Calgary. 

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t do something gimmicky. Or take the piss,” says van Belle. “A Christmas Carol lives in it heart. We don’t need someone to make fun of it for us. There are lots of beautiful things in there.”

The visual possibilities were nothing if not inspiring for designer Cory Sincennes. Since the ghostly interventions for the ossified soul of Scrooge propel him into the past, there’s a half-century — including Edwardian early-Scrooge, the 1920s, the Depression, the ‘40s — to work with. “So much fun to costume!” says van Belle. The Fezziwigs’ party is in the ‘20s, for example, with an early Flapper look.

A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, it need hardly be said. “It’s one of the draws,” as van Belle says. “A ghost story is inherently theatrical…. And the Victorians believed that Christmas Eve was when the spirit world came closest to the human world. Which is why telling ghost stories used to be a big part of the Christmas experience.” The thought echoes in the Christmas song It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year: “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories, of Christmases long long ago.”

It’s tricky to find the right kid-friendly balance between wonder-inspiring and scary, he and Cloran have found. “The Christmas and Halloween hybrid,” laughs van Belle, thinking of his daughters. “We don’t see it much, except in A Christmas Carol and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’d write something scary, and then add a stage direction ‘in a manner that will not scare five-year-olds’.” He took his older daughter last year to the see the Citadel production. “We played Scrooge and Marley for two or three months after that….” 

As fellow playwright Colleen Murphy told van Belle, “you can change anything you want just so long as you tell the story of Scrooge and his redemption.” The first act is about “all the love he was given, and how he closes the door on it, time and time again,” he says. “In Act II, he discovers the joy has been under his nose the whole time. The people around him are full of joy and good will…. Open your heart. Even if you’re busy, or stressed. Or angry about politics.”

There’s something mysterious and deep about our connection to the story, muses van Belle. “Because it’s so damn cold and dark?” he wonders. Last year, as he points out, out of 27 performances of Wood’s A Christmas Carol, only 300 tickets were unsold. A new version of something that’s so embedded in the local affections is “a huge responsibility. Not something I take lightly at all….”

“I hope people fall in love with this production too.”

PREVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Ted Dykstra, Julien Arnold, Vance Avery, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lilla Solymos, Sasha Rybalko — 36 actors altogether

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

 

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Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: A wild ride through the evolution of pop culture. A review

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The End.

So. What then?

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There’s something indestructible, maybe even sustaining, about the collective act of storytelling. Something viral, in the bloodstream, possibly toxic and radioactive, that can outlast apocalypses. When society shatters completely and we’re not only flung off the grid but grid-less, people will instinctively still be telling stories to each other. But in this “post-electric” universe, what stories will they be? And how will they be reshaped in the telling?

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, the truly strange allusion-packed play/musical by the American playwright Anne Washburn — currently to be found in a trio of “theatres” created inside the Westbury by You Are Here Theatre and Blarney Productions — runs with that question. And it follows that train of thought through three acts and 75 years in a witty theatrical arc that feels inevitable in Andrew Ritchie’s 10-actor indie production.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photo by BB Collective.

In the first act, we’re sitting around a campfire in the woods at the end of civilization (designer: Brianna Kolybaba). I landed one of those camping chairs with the drink-holder in the arm. We’re in the dark along with characters who are hiding out from a nuclear meltdown. Every sound in the “post-electric” world, every crackle and roar and echo, is ominous, a tension captured in Lana Michelle Hughes’ clever sound design.

To distract themselves from the terror of the unknown, and to bond and pass the time, the strangers are warming themselves with bits and pieces of the known. They’re piecing together their shared memories of The Simpsons, specifically the Cape Feare episode from season 2, which riffs on the 1991 Scorsese movie spun from an earlier movie adapted from a book (you see how the declension goes). Anyhow, in that episode, the psycho Sideshow Bob, out of the slammer, is threatening to kill Bart, and ends up singing HMS Pinafore. And because his store of Simpsons memorabilia is the most detailed Matt (Murray Farnell) slips into a sort of leadership role.  

The arrival of a latecomer (Patrick Howarth) from the darkness occasions panic, until he joins in this cultural pursuit — and even amplifies it with his Gilbert and Sullivan credentials. Rumours are the currency of knowledge; someone has met someone who met someone whose cousin knows something about the state of the world. Under Ritchie’s direction, the actors have a compelling and alert, natural spontaneity about them, in the cross-weave of fragments, interruptions, silent pauses.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Apocalyptic Play. Photo by BB Collective.

In Act II, seven years later, a troupe of travelling players is doing live enactments of Simpsons episodes, including commercials — selling pop-culture nostalgia to the masses. Ah, capitalism. We surround a little thrust stage on three sides as the performers rehearse, bicker, and bitch about their roles, their props, and their competition. They’re up against rival troupes making inroads in their audience.

Their pop-rap dance production number is riotous, choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard as a scrambling, improvised history of pop-culture dance moves, from Staying Alive to the macarena and Michael Jackson. And  Kolybaba’s costumes are a wild 20th century dumpster-diver assortment of make-shift pop-culture add-ons, rubber gloves and a fake fur stole here, a tatty tank top or corset there. 

By the third act, 75 years later, pop culture has morphed upwards into mythology, the TV Homer into the Odyssey Homer so to speak. Director Ritchie takes us into a third, more formal theatre space inside the Westbury for a sort of ritualized, masked sung-through operetta cum Greek tragedy cum melodrama, with its own Greek chorus. Homer’s boss Mr. Burns, the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is the arch-villain who’s after Bart now.

Pop culture has been solemnized, and it feels longer, too. With its declamation and extended fight scenes, Act III does go on a bit, in truth. But then, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is also a satire of the evolution of pop culture into capital-C Culture. And when’s the last time you went to a quickie opera?

There’s a wild go-for-the-gusto theatricality about this bold play. And in this ambitious indie venture Ritchie and his designers really dig in. Post-electric lighting, with its eerie off-the-grid sources, is an imaginative challenge; kudos to Tessa Stamp’s design. Hillyard’s choreography is a collage of 20th century pop-culture riffs and trends, remembered by non-pros. The Act III dance  is a mesmerizing mash-up of stylized classical theatre, grandly Broadway gestures, the can-can.…

The half-masks created by Megan Koshka imagine the Simpsons as stylized figures in a Greek tragedy. Kolybaba’s two-tiered set (art literally gets higher in Act III) is a ship nailed together from found wood. Even the live piano accompaniment (musical director/composer Berg at the keyboard) sounds homespun.

Ritchie and his co-producer Barney Productions have assembled an usually large indie cast of 10 top-flight Edmonton actors, led by Farnell as Homer, Chu as Marge, Kristi Hansen as Bart and Paula Humby as Lisa. In this intricate and fascinating play, where pop-culture is framed and re-framed, presented and re-presented, the actors re-create familiar characters the way memory does, in fragments, gestures, inflections.

And meanwhile, this is a play that asks big hard questions. “Making entertainment that is meaningless is hard,” says one actor in Act II. Maybe it shouldn’t be trying. That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, maybe meaning is automatic. Is Mr. Burns cautionary? Prophetic? Could you argue that Shakespeare, a first-rate cultural scavenger, was the Matt Groening of his day? At The End, will we be pining for the Diet Cokes of a lost age? 

In any case there’s no dismissing of pop culture, according to Washburn’s play. And you’ll be thinking about that long after the curtain (if there’s still a curtain after the apocalypse) comes down. How often does that happen in the theatre?

Funny, and frightening too.

REVIEW

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Series

Theatre: You Are Here and Blarney Productions

Written by: Anne Washburn (book, lyrics), original score by Michael Friedman

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie

Starring: Nadien Chu, Murray Farnell, Kristi Hansen, Patrick Howarth, Paula Humby, Madelaine Knight, Jenny McKillop, Elena Porter, Rebecca Sadowski, Jake Tkaczyk

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

Running: through Dec. 7

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

A holiday tradition to call their own: The Blank Who Stole Christmas at Rapid Fire Theatre

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch/ You really are a heel….”

In the show that opens Friday at Rapid Fire Theatre headquarters, you will see what happens when a company addicted to adrenalin and devoted to spontaneity wraps its supple wits around the season of the fa-la-la and figgy pudding.

Symphonies have their Hallelujah Choruses, ballet troupes their sugarplum fairies. Theatre companies set about redeeming an elderly skinflint on an annual basis. What, then, of a theatre outfit that regularly concocts whole musicals or Shakespeare plays or super-hero mini-series or Dickens spin-offs on the spot? With The Blank Who Stole Christmas, we’re about to find out.

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“We wanted to start a new holiday tradition. Our own,” says Rapid Fire artistic director Matt Schuurman, who had the idea a couple of years ago and has been hatching it ever since. In The Blank Who Stole Christmas, an homage to Dr. Seuss, the king of the jaunty rhyme, “a different guest improviser every night shows up in costume, as whatever villain they want to be.” A pop culture celeb maybe, a genre star, a cartoon character, a stereotype … there’s no predicting.

You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch …

The cast of six Rapid Fire improvisers doesn’t know in advance who will show up as whom. “But they have to incorporate the character,” who is fully scripted. And there’s no foretelling whether the character will “play nicely” with others, as Schuurman puts it. For experimental purposes, the writing team has tested the concept with Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid and Guy Fieri the Food Network chef, among others, he says. 

“We’ve written an entire musical, very clearly a tribute to the Grinch,” says Schuurman of the five-member creative team. “We’ve left holes in the script: this scene or that will be improvised. The songs (the score is by musical director Erik Mortimer, a stunningly gifted improviser himself) have holes in them too.” One riffs off the indelible anthem You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch. “The rest are completely original, fun and silly,” says Schuurman.

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch …

The Blank Who Stole Christmas isn’t the first time Rapid Fire has tangled with the Yuletide spirit. For several seasons the company would steal the Citadel’s Scrooge, Glenn Nelson or Julien Arnold, for a night for their alternate version of A Christmas Carol, Based on audience cues, the frozen-hearted Ebenezer, a career money-lender, would land a new profession — “a vet, a ninja, a Canadian Tire employee…. He’d do all his lines, and we improvised around him,” says Schuurman.

The Blank Who Stole Christmas, which runs through Dec. 21, is a holiday tradition to call their own, pure Rapid Fire, a full-length tribute to the rarefied skills of the company’s deluxe improvisers. Two of the creative team, Joleen Ballentine and Gordie Lucius, write for TV. Mortimer works as a composer and musical director with theatre companies across town.

It made sense to say YES to a musical. “Our improvised musical is one of our most popular shows,” Schuurman says. “A narrator and rhyming couplets (a la Seuss) are in the DNA of the company already.… And it’s very cool to tap into the other skills we have with something unique, and really fun.” There are two versions of the show, naughty and nice, for evening performances and matinees.

You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch …

The full production — with set design (by Elise Jason), video projections, costumes, a score — is a tribute, too, to the way improv and theatre are inseparable in this town.

Yes! agrees Schuurman. “We do relish the terrifying!”

PREVIEW

The Blank Who Stole Christmas

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Directed by: Tara Koett

Starring: the Rapid Fire company

Where: Citadel Zeidler Hall

Running: tonight through Dec. 21

Tickets: rapidfiretheatre.com

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Sweet and savoury: Waitress the musical arrives at the Jube. A review.

Kennedy Salters, Bailey McCall, Gabriella Marzetta in Waitress, Broadway Touring Production. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Broadway musical that has landed on the Jube stage this week, like a slice of the daily special on our plate, is a tale of self-discovery and empowerment.

Powered from a bottomless larder of pastry references, Waitress, by composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles and writer Jessie Nelson from the modest 2007 movie (starring Keri Russell and E-town’s Nathan Fillion), is a little bit savoury, and more than a little sweet. Much like the “deep-dish blueberry bacon pie” invented by its sad, small-town diner waitress/ pie-maker heroine Jenna (Bailey McCall).

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The last time pies got made on the Jube stage, Mrs. Lovett, another pie virtuoso, was making them in Sweeney Todd — out of Mr. Todd’s deceased clientele. Waitress is, to say the least, a contrast. At Joe’s Pie Diner, just off a countryside highway in the South, flour is fairy dust; sugar is the elixir of life. And Jenna’s only form of self-expression is turning out pies with fanciful names like Mermaid Marshmallow pie — and edgier ones too, like Betrayed By My Eggs Pie or My Husband Is A Jerk Pot Pie…. And he is, too. A jerk that is. Earl (Clayton Howe) is an abusive lout with a violent streak, who pockets her tips at the end of the day.

“My whole life is in here/ In this  kitchen baking/ What a mess I’m making….”

Jenna feels trapped in her life, as she sings in one of the musical’s best numbers, the climactic She Used To Be Mine. The prospect of a pie-baking contest with a $20,000 prize feels like an exit strategy. And then, as she finds out she’s pregnant, a not very welcome surprise, an unexpected love story happens: Jenna falls for her appealingly nervous married gynaecologist Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar) and he falls for her. And, even if doomed, it’s a life-changing experience.   

Having an affair with your gynaecologist: the musical acknowledges the queasiness of that in scenes of amusing awkwardness that afford the rare sight of stirrups as a comic prop. Their piquant duet It Only Takes A Taste (“sometimes one bite is more than enough/To know you want more of the thing you just got a taste of …”) has a kind of teasing hesitancy about it. Bareilles’s lyrics are consistently salted to perfection. And their affair progresses to a less oblique love ballad You Matter To Me, delivered with lovely simplicity by McColl and Socolar, who both capture ambivalence, via different routes.

Waitress. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

On opening night, the initial scenes were marred (as often seems to happen in touring musicals) by a harsh, tinny sound mix. Joe’s Pie Diner is possibly the loudest eatery in the South; nobody talks when they can holler. McCall’s Jenna, and her fellow waitresses Becky (Kennedy Salters) and Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta) who, along with the crusty (ha!) diner boss Cal (Jake Mills), sound at the outset like they’re auditioning for an outdoor production in a windy city. But this rights itself; rolling dough can be calming. It takes a little while to warm to the charm of Waitress, but I did. 

McCall is a strong singer, with an endearing smile that hints of sadness within. Socolar, who has a lustrous voice too, plays the doctor with a goofy, acrobatic humour forefront that puts him somewhat in competition with the show’s designated geek Ogie. The latter, played by Brian Lind (who has a certain piquant resemblance to Pee Wee Herman), is the supple ultra-nerd that fellow ultra-nerd Dawn, who’s played Betsy Ross in 33 Civil War re-enactments, lands via a five-minute dating site. Marzetta is a delight as the flaky one; ditto Salters as the brassy one. Their romantic entanglements are the comical version of Jenna’s predicament. And Lind gets to deliver the acrobatic showstopper Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me whilst ricocheting through the diner. As someone says of baking, “the fuller the condiments the fuller the experience.” This guy’s a condiment on legs.

So, it’s is by no means a low-cal cooking-light version of Waitress that’s come our way. Scott Pask’s set, lit dramatically by Ken Billington, takes us to a country diner with a view of the countryside. Dr. Pomatter’s office and Jenna and Earl’s place, with its classically awful fake-wood panelling and harvest-gold couch, arrive onstage by human agency. And the excellent six-piece band onstage led by pianist Alyssa Kay Thompson, deliver Bareilles’s melodic and rhythmic score on real instruments. A grand piano counts as à la mode. 

REVIEW

Waitress

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Jessie Nelson (from the Adrienne Shelly movie) and composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles

Original direction by: Diane Paulus

Starring: Bailey McCall, Kennedy Salters, Gabriella Marzetta, David Socolar

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-4357

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The world is ending, so what about Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa …? Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is on it. A preview

photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

So a director and an a choreographer go into a Strathcona bar to discuss the apocalypse and The Simpsons.… It happened last week.

 Whoa, the end of the world? Now what do we do?

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“We’re obsessed ties what will happen next,” says Andrew Ritchie. The musical that opens Thursday in the Fringe’s Westbury Theatre is on that. And curiously — revealingly, perhaps — Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, a collaboration between two leading Edmonton indie theatres, is happening right across the street from another unusually full-bodied three-act two-intermission American “comedy” in which apocalypses figure prominently (Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, currently running on the Varscona stage).

“Yup, everyone thinks the world’s gonna end,” says Ritchie, with his usual jaunty good cheer. The director of a starry 10-actor cast in Anne Washburn’s 2013 Mr. Burns, he’s is the artistic director of You Are Here (the contemporary-minded sibling of Thou Art Here, the “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare company he co-founded with Neil Kuefler). His Mr. Burns producing partner is Blarney Productions.

He and choreographer Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance made time after rehearsal last week to hoist a vegan cocktail and chat about the challenging, highly original 2013 musical — ah, and their connection to The Simpsons. 

Mr. Burns takes us to a post-nuclear meltdown world in which survivors sustain themselves by sharing memories of their favourite Simpsons episodes, starting in Act I, with the “Cape Feare” episode. Remember that one, where Bart is stalked by the evil Sideshow Bob and the family goes into witness protection? Based on the 1991 movie which remakes the 1962 movie, based on the 1957 novel?

“One piece of art gets transformed into another, and another…” says Ritchie of an evolution that happens in the course of Mr. Burns’s three acts.

Ritchie was, is, a big Simpsons fan. Not not least because he grew up forbidden to watch the show. “My mom thought it was a bad influence on kids — swear words, bad ideas, political satire…. So I’d watch when I wasn’t allowed to, a bad-boy thing to do.” From an archival knowledge of the canon, his own favourite Simpsons episode is “Lemon of Troy,” classic early-period Simpsons (remember? Shelby kids steal Springfield’s ancient and venerable lemon tree).

“It’s hopeful, I guess, in the way that humanity will survive in some fashion,” thinks Hillyard. “We will move on, but the question becomes what will we carry forward? What will be remembered from this time period?” She’s a huge Simpsons devotée too; her favourite episode as a dog lover is “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” a Christmas special in which they rescue Santa’s Little Helper from the racetrack. She also loves the episode in which Lisa is mentored on the saxophone by an old jazz master.

Ritchie and Hillyard report that Mhairi Berg, their musical director/ composer, has a special attachment to “A Streetcar Named Marge” (my personal fave, too) in which the Tennessee Williams classic is revived as a razzmatazz musical. They’re struck by the thought that all their favourites riff directly off works of art, a Simpsons signature.

Two years ago when Ritchie flipped Hillyard the script, she was reading Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel in which “a group of travelling artists perform in makeshift cities in a Mad Max-ian world,” as she put it. “My new year’s resolution was to read only books by women, and I read only feminist science fiction….” There were uncanny parallels with Mr. Burns.  It was a sign.

“Is pop culture what we derive our meaning, our ethics, our morality, from?” says Ritchie of a play whose three acts happen, successively just after the apocalypse, seven years, then 75 years later. “Pop culture is a time capsule,” says Hillyard. “But you don’t get to decide what to put in…. That decision is for the masses to make.” The Simpsons, says Ritchie, becomes the oral tradition, evolving, transforming over time.

Hillyard has had the fun — “so much fun, ridiculous fun!” — finding a through-line of choreography that pulls from pop culture dance moves “to create an entire movement language.” The twist, the macarena, line dancing … . we all know how to do them, maybe not well, but we know….”

Megan Koshka masks for Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photo supplied.

In each act, a different world emerges, with its own theatrical, musical, choreographic style as Ritchie explains. In Act I, right after the end of the world, “in a forest in the middle of America, strangers who have lost everything — relationships, jobs, money is completely pointless — are trying to figure out how to survive together.” What do they share? The Simpsons. In Act II, seven years later, a theatre troupe travels around doing live Simpsons episodes. In Act III, performed in half-masks, those Simpsons episodes have become high art, as Ritchie explains.

“We’re really working on three different plays,” says Ritchie. He changes the configuration of the audience between each act; “the audience moves physically from one space to the next.” He laughs, “it wouldn’t be an Andrew Ritchie show, I guess, unless I make you move,” he laughs, thinking of his gravitation to perambulatory experiences (like Shakespeare’s Will in a graveyard or Much Ado About Nothing in an old house). The stage configuration changes to match, from immersive theatre-in-the-round to a thrust arrangement to the formality of a proscenium.

Meanwhile, stories get told and re-told, morphing as they go. Says Ritchie, “storytelling will continue to exist, as an integral part of humanity, the way we connect with each.”

REVIEW

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Series

Theatre: You Are Here and Blarney Productions

Written by: Anne Washburn

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie

Starring: Nadien Chu, Murray Farnell, Kristi Hansen, Patrick Howarth, Paula Humby, Madelaine Knight, Jenny McKillop, Elena Porter, Rebecca Sadowski, Jake Tkaczyk

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

Running: Thursday through Dec. 7

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Waitress the musical, serving up the special (a slice of possibility). A preview.

Bailey McCall as Jenna, Waitress. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

David Socolar is a man on an unusual journey. He’s in the enviable position of travelling the continent surrounded by women (and baking metaphors).

David Socolar, Waitress. Photo supplied.

The 26-year-old Baltimore native is on tour in a 2016 Broadway musical created, directed, and produced by a history-making team of women. And he’s in a story where the central character and her comic sidekicks are women.

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The musical is Waitress, which arrives Tuesday at the Jube in a Broadway Across Canada touring production that officially premiered earlier this month in Vancouver. The music and lyrics are by Grammy magnet singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, the book by Jessie Nelson (from the 2007 Adrienne Shelly movie), direction by Diane Paulus, choreography by Lorin Latarro.  

It’s the story of small-town diner waitress Jenna, pie-maker extraordinaire and abused wife dreaming of an exit strategy, who puts her unappreciated all into her exquisite baking. Socolar plays appealing Dr. Pomatter, the OBGYN who ignites Jenna’s long-buried sense of self when they start an affair. “If pies were books yours would be Shakespeare’s letters,” he sings.

A couple of weeks ago, we caught up with the genial Socolar in final rehearsals in Boise, Idaho. And he mused happily on “a powerful story,” a heroine with “such real and relatable troubles,” and his own part in it. 

“My character comes in as a lesson to her, more than anything else,” he says of the good doctor. “And there’s a lot of self-discovery in that.” Dr. Pomatter is not without his dimensions or his back story, “a man from humble beginnings who gets wrapped up in the high-class doctor culture.” When he meets Jenna, it’s at a critical juncture (she’s discovered she’s pregnant). “It takes him back to a more carefree, less suit-and-tie time in his own life.”

“On the page he’s a guy who cheats on his wife, yes…. But there’s more. He’s very important to Jenna’s growth; they have a real connection. All she’s known is abuse, and in cycles of abuse you can convince yourself that’s how life is.”

Waitress. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

His favourite song in the musical? You Matter To Me, the duet of discovery that Dr. Pomatter and Jenna share. “It’s addictive the minute you let yourself think/ The things that I say just might matter to someone….” Says Socolar, “it gets to the core of what we’re talking about: being important to someone means the world.” It restores a sense of possibility that’s been put on hold in Jenna’s rocky marriage. 

Waitress isn’t the first time Socolar has found himself in a woman-centric musical — and it even represents a Canadian connection. He was in Anne of Green Gables, a new folk-rock musical adaptation of the iconic Canuck novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery that premiered at the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in upstate New York.  “My mom says I sang before I spoke,” laughs Socolar, who grew up listening to the classics, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, and the rest before he went to theatre school in Connecticut. “‘I have confidence’ … I knew all the words!”

He loves the Waitress music by Bareilles, who has herself played Jenna from time to time. The style? “Definitely not Rogers and Hammerstein,” he says. “But it has the same function: the songs carry the story forward; they’re integral to the storytelling. And the lyrics are fantastic.”

To borrow from the show, “sometimes one bite is more than enough/ To know you want more of the thing you just got a taste of.” There’s a mantra for touring. As Socolar says, “to be in a musical that’s centred around women … it’s a good time for that to be happening!”

PREVIEW

Waitress

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Jessie Nelson (from the Adrienne Shelly movie) and composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles

Original direction by: Diane Paulus

Starring: Bailey McCall, Kennedy Salters, Gabriella Marzetta, David Socolar

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-4357

Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Strange, playful, and of this moment: The Skin Of Our Teeth from Bright Young Things. A review.

Vincent Forcier, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Lauren Hughes in The Skin Of Our Teeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s strange, it’s playful. And it gets right to the heart of the dark, chaotic, freak-out of the present moment. 

That’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, the high-spirited, anarchic, category-resistant 1942 “comedy” (for want of a better word) by America’s great theatre subversive Thornton Wilder.

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In three acts, and through two intermissions, we follow the fortunes of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey through one catastrophe after another — the Ice Age, devastating storms in Atlantic City, wars. Radical lurches in the climate, the migration of refugees, the extinction of animals … ring a bell?

The cast includes a fortune teller, Moses, Homer, a dinosaur, a woolly mammoth. Eons pass. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus have been married for 5,000 years. Plato, incidentally, argues that leaders must have self-control and a balanced mind if the world is to work properly. If that doesn’t speak to the craziness of the present moment, what does?

This bizarre epic, alternately anxious and whimsical, is brought to us by Bright Young Things (an indie that borrows the London tabloid nickname for the elite artsy bohemian crowd of the 1920s). Their mission? The airing of mid-century masterworks we don’t very often get to see. The Skin of Our Teeth, unlike Wilder’s classic Our Town, certainly qualifies. And Dave Horak’s clever, brazenly theatrical production and its cast of top-drawer actors show us what we’ve been missing: a wild experiment which brushes off convention like so much lint off a coat of many colours. It’s alternately anxious and whimsical, mythical and sometimes cheeky about being mythical.

Andrea House as Sabine, The Skin Of Our Teeth. Photo by Mat Busby.

It not only breaks the fourth wall (that theatrical convention that lets us be voyeurs on other lives) but it demonstrates that breakage. The walls (and the windows) won’t stay put. And neither will the exasperated actor playing the maid Sabina (Andrea House), who can’t stand the play (“I don’t understand a single word of it anyway.”) or the comedown of her role  (“I took this hateful job because I had to …. Look at me now.”).

The apocalypse is already in progress as the play opens. A beaming announcer (Sheldon Elter), armed with slides, an old-fashioned clicker and a projection screen, presents the dramatic lead news of the world story of the day: “the sun rose this morning at 6:32 a.m.,” as reported by a public-spirited American citizen. Uh-oh. 

It’s August and New Jersey is getting colder. Dogs are sticking to the sidewalks, and they’re burning pianos in New England. Chez Antrobus, a freezing dinosaur (Cody Porter) is clamouring at the door to get in, along with a woolly mammoth (Nicole St. Martin) and a cluster of refugees. The family is awaiting the arrival of the ebullient Mr. Antrobus (Jeff Haslam), who’s just invented the wheel (he’s already invented the lever), and he’s closing in on the alphabet.

We meet the implacable Mrs. Antrobus (Stephanie Wolfe), inventor of the apron, and the two Antrobus children: Henry (Vincent Forcier), a kid with a murderous mean streak (his name used to be Cain), and Gladys (Lauren Hughes). Sabina, the eternally seductive “other woman” who’s forever giving her notice, has let the fire go out.

Act II happens on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Mr. Antrobus, who’s been elected president of The Ancient and Honourable Order Of Mammals, Subdivision Human, has awarded Miss Atlantic City 1942 to Sabina, now the hostess of the Bingo Hall. When a terrible storm comes up, he herds the animals in his audience, two by two, onto a ship.

In Act III of a play written in war-time, a seven-year war has ended. Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys (and a baby) emerge from the detritus of their suburban house. And Mr. Antrobus, back from the war, deflated and depressed, declares “I’ve lost it…. The desire to begin again.”

Horak opts — this is indie theatre — for a stylized, improvised look that has its own low-budget theatre jokes and captures the oddball jauntiness of the play. He and Bright Young Things artistic director Belinda Cornish are credited with the design, lit by Daniela Masellis. And the handsome costumes, which identify the period in witty fashion, are courtesy of the Citadel.

As Mr. Antrobus, Haslam beautifully charts the evolution into despair and back again of the confident, hearty but naive head of household who doesn’t quite realize that it’s his wife who’s holding the world together. The wife and mother, with her prim apron and fierce defence of the idea of family through every crisis, gets a formidable performance from Wolfe as Mrs. Antrobus. “I could live for 70 years in a cellar,” she declares, “and make soup out of grass and bark without ever doubting that this world has work to do and will do it.”

Her nemesis is Sabina, the eternal seductress and upstager, always undermining the family and lobbying on behalf of herself. It’s the diva role Tallulah Bankhead played in the 1942 Broadway premiere. Whiney and sullen in Act I, and posturing extravagantly in red stilettos in Act II, House’s amusing performance exudes the sense of a character with one eye ever on the audience, trying on possible versions of herself to see which one is more profitable.

Forcier is genuinely disturbing as the ever-violent uncontrollable son, who can never see a stone without wanting to hurl it at someone’s head. And the sweetness of Hughes as Gladys can’t conceal the Mrs. Antrobus-in-the-making of the character.

Is surviving the apocalypse an oxymoron? Sit back (not too far back if you want to catch the quick ‘40s cadence of the actors) and ponder the possibility of optimism in times like ours. Mr. Antrobus has his books. Sabina, a repository of worldly negativity (“it’s better to be dead”), has the movies to go to. And we have the theatre — and a weird, sprawling play that says something about surviving catastrophe. Maybe it’s by the skin of our teeth — but still….

REVIEW

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Thornton Wilder

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Andrea House, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Vincent Forcier, Lauren Hughes, Sheldon Elter, Nicole St. Martin, Cody Porter

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 30

Tickets: ensemble.varsconatheatre.com or at the door

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Check-in time at the Bed and Breakfast, Theatre Network’s season-opener comedy. A review.

Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira in Bed and Breakfast. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You never have the full story when you’re in the middle of it,” says Drew (Chris Pereira), one-half of the beleaguered urbanite couple we meet at the outset of Bed and Breakfast.

In Mark Crawford’s funny, skilfully structured hit comedy, opening the Theatre Network mainstage season, Drew and Brett (Mathew Hulshof) will undertake to re-create and populate, for our benefit, their year of living dangerously — its antecedents, its crucial decisions, its seminal moments, its setbacks, its generational secrets uncovered.

It’s a year in which they sally forth from their teensy Toronto condo and their downtown rat race life (Brett is an interior designer, Drew a hotel manager) where they fit in. “We have become the people we hate,” says one. Since Brett’s late lamented auntie has willed him her big old heritage house in a picturesque small-town Ontario (where he’d spent his summers as a kid), they exit the big city. And they set about opening a bed and breakfast there, three hours out of their natural habitat.

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“How hard can it be?” says Drew, in a line which is to comedy roughly what “I’ll check the fuse box in the basement” is to horror movies.

I know what you’re thinking (g-a-y-s-i-t-c-o-m, or gay Wingfield), right? So, is this the story of a brave can-do gay couple who triumph over small-town prejudice? The story of small-minded small-town bigots redeemed by (brave, etc.) gay city slickers? Or maybe the story of gay city slickers who drink soy latte macchiatos instead of coffee and get redeemed by the country idyll of Our Town, Ontario?   

The surprise of Bed and Breakfast is that while it steps up and plays a little bit with all of the above tropes (there, I’ve gone and used that word), it subverts them all, too — and in wry, knowing ways you might not have predicted. It’s deceptively mild-mannered; there’s an edge to its charm. So when it goes poignant on you — and it does — you feel that’s earned. 

Chris Pereira and Mathew Hulshof in Bed and Breakfast. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

As Bradley Moss’s production attests, there’s the big theatrical fun of watching two excellent, dexterous actors playing nearly two dozen characters between them: all ages, all genders, all sexual persuasions and occupations, octogenarians, drag queens, snarly gay-unfriendly contractors, bikers, real estate agents…. That’s a veritable barrage of quick transformations.

And there are virtuoso scenes — a committee meeting in the local cafe, a dinner party, and most memorably, the hysterical opening weekend — where multiple characters seem to occupy the stage simultaneously, and at farcical speed. Hulshof and Pereira are impressively precise about differentiating characters with a hand gesture, a facial grimace, an adjustment in posture or gait, speed or vocal cadence. 

Moss’s production ricochets through Scott Peters’ allusive  wooden set (with its burlap net walls, beautifully lit). The production relishes the scramble of it all, but leaves “relationship moments” space to breathe. It’s clear that the characters are channelled through the eyes of Brett and Drew as they remember their tumultuous year with its heartwarming ups and its genuinely disturbing downs. Christmas, as we know from the theatre, brings out the best, and the worst, in people.

The broadest comedy is reserved for the representatives of the real estate industry, each outrageous in their own way: the flamboyant Ray, and Carrie, a shriek-y gusher who talks in smiley-face winky-face emojis.

The most amusing characters, affectionately drawn by both playwright and actors, are a couple of teenagers. There’s taciturn nephew Cody (Pereira) who never stops eating, and responds to every conversational gambit with a shrug/ “I dunno” combo. Dustin (Hulshof), the son of the surly contractor who’s taken up baking, peppers everything liberally with “like.”

Nostalgia, as Brett will discover, is double-sided affair. There are the wrap-around porches and porch swings of youth, newspapers “made of actual paper,” the dream of Grover’s Corners, Ont. It’s a world that is vanishing into either the mists of time and/or cottage kitsch. And there are the family secrets buried in that past.

Bed and Breakfast weaves both into a fabric that speaks to the notion of what it means to find a family, and be home. And that’s something you never get on Hotwire.

REVIEW

Bed and Breakfast

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Mark Crawford

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Mathew Hulshof, Chris Pereira

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 8

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

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