Is history spinning forwards or backwards? Shows at Studio and MacEwan wonder about that

On the Verge, U of A Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It is a disconcertingly à propos moment in the space-time continuum for both the plays opening this week at Edmonton’s biggest theatre schools. You can easily make yourself dizzy wondering whether history is catapulting forward or spinning backwards. Both shows play with your vertigo.

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At the U of A’s Studio Theatre, opening tonight on the Timms Centre For The Arts stage, it’s On The Verge or the Geography of Yearning, Eric Overmyer’s nutty, fantastical chronicle of the adventures of three intrepid Victorian lady explorers on their way to Terra Incognito in the Antipodes in 1888. “High adventure and stupefying risk are my metier!” cries one, after they’ve negotiated another “awful, yawning chasm,” not to mention jungles, crocodiles, glaciers, cannibals, a troll….

En route to the last of the brave new worlds, as odd phrases pop into their heads, they come to realize they’re travelling not just through space but through time — until they arrive in the strangest location of all, 1950s America.

In MacEwan University’s Triffo Theatre, where it opened Wednesday, it’s 9 to 5, the 2009 Broadway musical fashioned from the movie of two decades before that, and spun from Dolly Parton’s irresistibly catchy title song (doesn’t just reading the title make the tune emerge from the depths of your brain to centrestage?). The book is by Patricia Resnick, the score is by the irrepressible Dolly.

It reverses through time to the age of slime in which the workplace was was dominated by creepy, lying, patronizing, hypocritical chauvinists — otherwise known as The Boss. “Be a good girl, go get my coffee.” Hey, wasn’t that earlier today? And hey, even in this enlightened age, aren’t there some countries in the world with bosses like that? What on earth happened to the notion of progress? Just asking.

In 9 to 5, it’s payback time.

On The Verge, directed by the former U of A drama department chair Kathleen Weiss, runs through Dec. 8 at the University of Alberta’s Timms Centre for the Arts. Tickets: 780-492-2495 or ualberta.ca/artshows. 9 to 5, directed by theatre arts head Jim Guedo (and launching the MacEwan University season), is at the Triffo Theatre in Allard Hall through Dec. 8. Tickets: Tickets@MacEwan.ca.

      

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“The elephant in the room is … an elephant.” Conni Massing’s Matara opens the Workshop West season

Elinor Holt, Patricia Zentilli in Matara, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

That not one but two new plays by Conni Massing are premiering this season is noteworthy. That they open a  mere two weeks apart, the work of two different theatre companies, is more striking still.   

And here’s the capper. One falls within the signature Massing turf, seeded with romantic comedies as wry and funny as the playwright herself. The other is a radical departure for Massing into a “very different tone” and a controversy that has galvanized heated, polarized feelings which she admits candidly she hasn’t entirely resolved for herself.

“It’s complicated,” says Massing of Matara, the first and only play of the season in which an elephant takes the stage. “My feelings about zoos have evolved but I still don’t know what I think….”

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You’ll have to wait till a fortnight for Oh Christmas Tree!, a festive “Christmas Valentine,” (to mix our seasonal references). It opens Dec. 13 in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series in an indie production directed by Massing’s old friend Brian Deedrick, retrieved from the world of opera for this special occasion. More in a future post about a Yuletide “relationship comedy” in which the old conundrum “to tree or not to tree” figures prominently.

Matara, which launches Workshop West’s 40th anniversary season Friday at the Backstage Theatre, “inevitably wades into controversy” (as Massing puts it) with the fictional story of an elephant in a small zoo. Ring a bell? Yes, it’s inspired by our Lucy, the only solitary elephant in the country, and in a frozen winter city to boot. OK, Christmas may have its stresses (and the ancient argument over real vs artificial trees). But as Massing says, laughing, “public controversies don’t normally break out over romantic comedies. I’m not expecting any protests outside the door of Oh Christmas Tree!.”

In Matara, as Massing has said, “the elephant in the room is … an elephant.” And on a break between rehearsals for both her new plays last week, she made time to explain why it had theatrical potential. “I’ve always felt strongly about animals,” she says. “But that on its own does not a dramatic premise make. And then I heard about Lucy….” Since Massing “doesn’t go to zoos” — “I thought they were flat-out creepy.” — it took a Free Lucy! button in a grocery story to pique Massing’s curiosity.

playwright Connie Massing. Photo supplied.

“I wanted to investigate this special relationship we have with animals. It’s complicated; it runs the gamut from household pets to wild animals.” And the story of Lucy, with all the attendant tumult of controversy, was “an interesting context to think more about the very peculiar, artificial environment where we plunk animals from half-way across the globe … so we can look at them.”

Massing was already working on a play about the relationship between an elephant and an elephant-keeper, inspired by Lucy, when Workshop West’s Vern Thiessen launched his 2016  initiative in playwright/community match-making. “Where would you like to spend a month?” he asked a diverse octet of Edmonton playwrights, with a view to generating diverse 10-minute playlets that could add up to a cultural mosaic of this place. Massing’s answer: “at the Valley Zoo,” where she’d never before gained backstage access.

The staff, naturally, were a little gun-shy. After all, they’d weathered the reverb of the Lucy controversies, including death threats: Should Edmonton keep Lucy? Should Edmonton send Lucy to join fellow elephants somewhere a lot more socially and climatically hospitable?. “People feel SO strongly about her. There’s so much anger, so much sense of being right…. It’s complicated and that’s great for me as a playwright.”

Massing donned steel-toed rubber boots and grabbed a shovel. She observed and shadowed the zookeepers through their shifts, and says she felt “a bit funny” about not offering up the information she was already writing a play about Lucy. “But I was so grateful to be able to hang out and learn….”

Some knowledge was practical. “This is how the keepers arrange themselves around the elephant when she’s on a walk. This is how you bathe an elephant. Elephants’ feet get sore: this is what you do….”

Some knowledge was insight into the “emotional connection” between the zookeepers and the elephant. “They’re not really supposed to anthropomorphize the animals; they’re supposed to be arm’s length. But they’re not! They LOVE the elephant. And the elephant seems to care for them too…. She’s been there since she was three or four years old. And now she’s 42. So I’m really torn about what she considers to be her home. And she’s really bonded with her keepers.”

Minister Faust in Matara. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Massing sighs. She went into the research thinking “it’s just not right for Lucy to be here. Let’s send her away. The End…. The activists think that she hasn’t been examined by the right calibre of vet to make a judgment.” But in the end, “now, at this point in time, I really don’t think moving Lucy is the best thing to do.” Even if you concede that argument, there’s the self-fulfilling prophecy to consider: why was Lucy here in the first place? And then, knowing how unnatural solitude is for elephants, why on earth did the city wait so long that it eventually became problematic to move her? 

“I get why people are appalled that we have this lone elephant. In Edmonton. In winter for gawd’s sake…. So far from home (Lucy is from Sri Lanka). And the climate! In the natural order of things Lucy would be wandering through teak forests holding the tail of the elephant in front, with 40 others behind. They’re meant to live in herds, in families.”

“Times have changed. (The zoo) would never get another elephant. When Lucy dies, that’s the end of the chapter.”

“It’s been an interesting journey,” says Massing of her work on Matara. “I’ve gone from absolute black-and-white (certainty) to thinking this is actually quite complicated….”

The three characters in Matara are there, says the playwright, “to represent three points of view, on animals and on zoos generally. It helps me include my own complicated feelings.” One is Lucy’s keeper (Elinor Holt); one is a foreign PhD student from Rwanda (Minister Faust) working as a security guard. And the third is a marketing/ outreach/ image consultant (Patricia Zentilli). “I’m familiar with that kind of person from the arts,” says Massing, “someone who gets parachuted in to an organization having trouble, in order to help them come up with ‘a new narrative’.”

And there’s a fourth role, too, and not easy to cast: Matara herself, as created by the joint forces of puppet designer Randall Fraser and projection scenographer T. Erin Gruber, and sound designers Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil. 

“I’ve learned many admirable things about zoos,” Massing says. “They do great work in conservation and all that. No argument there. But, bottom line, to walk around any zoo, it’s hard for me to see giant wild animals — OK, not snakes or fruit flies — in cages. It hurts my head, my heart maybe….”

There’s something downright magical about elephants, as Massing muses. “They’re brilliant; they’ve had a place of honour in many cultures and mythologies…. People really care about them, find them so appealing.” So what is it about these huge exotic creatures that is irresistible, that makes you care about their fortunes in the world? 

Intelligence, for one, thinks Massing. And size: “people have the feeling of being in the presence of something grand.” And eyes. “We stare into their faces and see … ourselves. It’s much harder to make the public feel sympathy for animals who don’t have big eyes.” 

PREVIEW

Matara

Theatre: Workshop West

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Elinor Holt, Minister Faust, Patricia Zentilli

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

Running: Friday through Dec. 8

Tickets: 780-477-5955, workshopwest.org

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“Ripe for a lapse”: Fallen Angels is a Bright Young Things lark. A review.

Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The “nice part” of Julia is perfectly content with matrimonial “happiness and tranquillity.” There lurks, however, “a beastly, unworthy thing waiting to spring.”

And, she adds darkly, “it hasn’t been fed for a long LONG time….”

In Noël Coward’s light and fizzy 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, best friends Julia (Belinda Cornish) and Jane (Vanessa Sabourin), “wretchedly happy married women,” are sent into a tailspin by the imminent arrival of the exotic French lover with whom they each had a “grand passion” seven years before. 

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After five years of marital worthiness, a certain downside has begun to reveal itself — in boredom. And the women cut to the chase (and to sensational quantities of champagne). “We’re both ripe for a lapse,” declares Julia. “A re-lapse,” amends Jane, as they dissolve into laughter. My own favourite line, in their joint assessment, belongs to the latter: “we shall go down like ninepins.”

Drunkenness! Nostalgia for pre-marital sexual adventuring! From respectable married ladies! Coward’s scandalous hit comedy, which unleashed torrents of outrage in the press and activity at the box office, has been taken up with gusto and style by Bright Young Things. And in Marianne Copthorne’s production, the big offender (and the big draw) — the virtuoso scene in which Julia and Jane get drunk and disorderly — is calibrated in a masterful way by the actors.

Giddy laughter turns hysterical, rather astute analysis of marriage and sexual politics gets de-railed or upended by non-sequiturs or wistful thoughts of lost romantic passion … and two old friends work themselves into a major row. Cornish and Sabourin — the one more languid and fluting and the other a bit more furrowed and intense —  negotiate the wild fluctuations of the unravelling scene with great comic dexterity, chemistry, and detail. “Riotous” is, I guess, exactly the word for a two-woman riot against the Victorian certainties that are melting away in the cultural climate change of the modern age. And the actors are great fun together, as they weave gambits and feints and insights. 

In Fallen Angels, effervescent as it is, you get to see the Coward’s sassy intersection and reinvention of of three classic theatrical stage biz riffs. And all are accomplished with considerable pizzaz in this production. One is inebriation and the many shades of tipsy en route to completely corked. One involves telephones — both the calls and the cords thereof (Cornish in a self-strangulation tango with the cord is a sight to cherish). The third is the smart servant, since the time of Roman comedy way more knowing than the master.

The upper class ladies, languishing in idleness and exquisite gowns (lighted by Alana Rice), are no match for Julia’s remarkable maid “Saunders” — as re-christened imperiously by Julia since Jasmine is “rather a sticky name … for the house.” Saunders (Rachel Bowron) is arguably the model for The Modern Woman. She’s been everywhere; she’s done everything. She’s an expert in golf, tropical medicine, hangover cures. She has perfect pitch; she speaks excellent French; she sets herself down at the piano with aplomb to deliver art songs.

Bowron is very funny as this formidably capable person, whose catalogue of accomplishments is an affront to the class system. She steps forward with a pert and condescending smile of bemusement to be helpful. And when rebuffed by her dismissive employers she retreats into a position of professional maid-ly impassivity. Bowron gets laughs every time she crosses the stage.

Vanessa Sabourin, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt, Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels. Photo by Mat Busby.

Act II is so light it’s actually in danger of floating away into the ether. It’s a measure of deluxe Bright Young Things casting here that the minor roles of the golf-playing husbands, who are there to be complacent and patronizing, then outraged, are taken on by substantial actors: John Ullyatt and Nathan Cuckow. The former has a lighter touch and charm; the latter is more of a blusterer and harder to budge. But, clearly, it’s a little late (by, oh, a couple of decades) for their kind of tweedy Victorian pomposity.

It makes Mark Meer’s cameo as the suave, alluring Frenchman, their worst nightmare, even more fun. And it takes your mind off passing thoughts about the vanishing of the plot. But by then, little glimmering points about sexual hypocrisy and equality have already landed, lightly and on their tippy toes, with bubbles in hand. 

12thnight.ca talks to stars Belinda Cornish and Vanessa Sabourin here. 

PREVIEW

Fallen Angels

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Noel Coward

Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Mark Meer, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 1

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com/ensemble/

   

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Miss Bennet gets a romantic comedy to call her own: Jane Austen revisited at the Citadel in a delightful holiday show

Umed Amin, Gianna Vacirca and (front) Mikaela Davies in Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the charmer of a holiday show up and running (well, alighting gracefully) on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage, characters are startled when they notice the live tree in the drawing room.

In the course of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, this radical (and bare) evergreen outsider will gradually acquire a paper star or two and then light — and become, tad-da, a Christmas tree. And you’ll want to celebrate.

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Something like that happens to the title misfit in this droll and cleverly written romantic comedy hit by the American team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

It revisits the world of Jane Austen’s 1813 comic masterpiece Pride and Prejudice two years after that novel closes the book, matrimonially speaking, on a household with a double-sided crisis — to wit, a surplus of marriageable daughters, five, and a shortage of cash — and its chief satisfaction, the pairing of the spirited sparkler Lizzie Bennet and the alluring Colin Firth (sorry, slip of the pen there), I mean Mr. Darcy. 

The Bennet sisters are gathering for the holidays at the Darcys’ grand digs. And suddenly we’re seeing the Austen world through an unfamiliar optic: Mary, the forgotten middle sister, the bookworm who plays the piano and barely rates an occasional mention in Pride and Prejudice. And when she does, it’s to be dismissed as dull, or tiresome, or pedantic.

Mary is the sister whose name you rack your brain and Coles Notes to recall, whose womanly fate in the Regency world is to be a career spinster, parental care-giver, and future charity case. That is, if you notice her at all. In this 2016 comedy Mary complains of suffering from “lack of definition” vis-à-vis her sisters. And she’s absolutely right.

How smart, and fun (not to mention profitable), it is to tune Austen’s satire, with its sharp wit (and crystalline language), to a contemporary sensibility — by being all about Mary. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story must be in want of a sequel. And this, dear readers, is Pride and Prejudice and Personal Choice.

This is by way of introduction to the lively, handsome, vividly realized production directed by Nancy McAlear in her Citadel directing debut. At the centre, a particularly modern position for the dismissible family nerd, is Mikaela Davies. And she’s terrific as Mary —  bristly, awkward, impolitic, and a lot smarter than she needs to be. It’s a performance that combines an undefined yearning to “live the large life,” social naiveté, and  exasperation in measures that will make you laugh and warm your heart.

In a world of circumscribed responses for women, she’s always blurting things impetuously, answering too fast, too sharply, and two jumps ahead, without assessing the possible outcomes. Caution is not her forte; evidently, Mary has had enough of meekly being relegated in Pride and Prejudice. Davies’ comic timing in all of the above is impeccable. Her twin refuges are the library and the pianoforte. And Davies attacks the latter with zest and a certain defiance.

Umed Amin and Gianna Vacirca in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

The unexpected arrival Arthur de Bourgh straight from Oxford is the entry on the scene of a kindred nerd, ill-suited for his world, albeit one oiled by inherited wealth. And as Arthur, whose first official act onstage is to open a book and smell the spine, Umed Amin is appealingly awkward, innocent, and wonderstruck, in a performance animated by the sense of discovery. “I find myself quite unprepared for the complexities of … people.”

One of the complexities is Mary, a fellow outcast who’s fortified by a number of defences, including irony, that he, poor lad, doesn’t have. Will they find their way to each other? Will it be a good night for romantic comedy? People, use your imaginations here, and get yourself a ticket to this festivity.

McAlear’s well-staged production, attentive to every choreographed scene change, is attractively cast, with a view to our rediscovering characters we recognize, at least a bit, from the novel. Mathew Hulshof captures the dry wit and the calm reserve that are what Mr. Darcy’s stand-offishness were really all about in the novel.

Allison Edwards-Crewe and Mathew Hulshof in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Perhaps he’s turning gradually into his father-in-law. In the performance by Allison Edwards-Crewe, at least on opening night, I found Lizzie pitched a little unrecognizably to the giddy and overheated as the incarnation of the sister whose romantic fortunes command our attention in the novel. While very charming and very energetic, Lizzie here is particularly resistant to sympathy for Mary’s plight. And that steals a little of Lydia’s thunder: Emma Houghton is a hoot as the flirtatious ninny, who has to be brought to her senses.

Emma Laishram is lovely as the conciliatory Jane, who sweetly tries to understand her wayward sister and make peace for Christmas. Cameron Kneteman is droll and sympathetic as Mr. Bingley, in countdown mode to fatherhood. And the male-bonding scenes between Darcy and Bingley are amusing. Gianna Vacirca has a show-stopping full-sail entrance (and vowels you could amputate a limb with) as an unexpected late and unwelcome arrival. She’s very funny as the comedy’s second and biggest obstacle to romantic resolution.

Dana Osborne’s fetching costumes and her grand Regency salon, with its arched windows and lighting by Oz Weaver, are high-style and of the time. There’s the odd moment in the writing when the contemporary agenda seems to nudge period style out of the way. “I find myself struggling to recall who I am, or perhaps I struggle against whom they expect me to be.” Tell it to your therapist, kid. But the actors have so much charm and skill, these are camouflaged.

In the end, there’s something moving about the insight Mary has brought to her impasse, and her courage as an advocate for her weaker new friend in the journey towards recognizing choice and untethering yourself from expectation to open up The World.  Before the fa-la-la’s with all their expectations begin in earnest, what a delightful way to introduce the festive season.

REVIEW

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Mikaela Davies, Umed Amin, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Emma Houghton, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram, Gianna Vacirca

Running: through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

 

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“My first happy play…” Nancy McAlear makes her Citadel directing debut with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Emma Houghton, Emma Laishram, Cameron Kneteman in Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It makes me … happy,” says Nancy McAlear, with a tiny hesitation and a smile of musing wonder — maybe about using that word. 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the larky romantic comedy of the holiday persuasion opening tonight at the Citadel, marks a number of firsts for the actor/director. A veteran of indie theatre of the innovative, experimental stripe, The production is McAlear’s first time directing in a 700-seat house in a big regional theatre. It’s her first time directing on a stage as large as the Shoctor, with the considerable resources that go with that.  And, she grins, “this might be the first ‘happy play’ I’ve ever worked on. I had to look at my resumé.”

Director Nancy McAlear. Photo supplied.

That resumé is a journey through dark mysteries, macabre comedies, unsettling thrillers, probing psychological explorations of angst. When the Montreal-born U of A- and Grant MacEwan-educated McAlear returned to Edmonton theatre a decade ago, after our 10-year loss of her to the Toronto film and TV, it was in an award-winning turn as the ever-optimistic, and doomed!, family retainer Justine in Catalyst’s way off-centre musical Frankenstein. She was the scarily unstable literary fan in Theatre Network’s stage version of Stephen King’s Misery, and a  would-be president killer in Sondheim’s Assassins.

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The most recent outing by her own theatre collective, MadFandango, was Bryony Lavery’s chilly and enigmatic The Believers. She directed Belinda Cornish’s Category E , set in an animal testing laboratory. And her production of Billy (Days of Howling), with its three furiously disaffected characters, opened the L’UniThéatre season in October.

Yes, the pastel end of the colour palette, graceful Regency gowns, light-hearted romance and happily-ever-afters seem to be in short supply in the McAlear resumé so far.“To come into work and laugh a lot, and indulge every comic instinct” is something new.

This novel experience comes courtesy of a hit 2016 romantic comedy,  by the American team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, that is a ‘what happens next?’  to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. McAlear, who is funny, self-deprecating, and straight-forward, admits candidly she was by no means an Austen devotée before now. The stormy tragedy and angst of 19th century capital-R Romance have been more her thing.  “I’m more of a Bronte person, really,” McAlear smiles apologetically. “People die… I’m more drawn to that…. Actually, Wuthering Heights was my first film as a child in Montreal. I started dark.”

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley takes up the fortunes of the Bennet sisters two years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice. And it shines the spotlight on the blossoming personality and romantic prospects of the middle daughter Mary, the dull, dismissable, bookish one who rates barely a mention in Austen. Did McAlear remember Mary?“I had to think about it,” she says.

Once rediscovered though, Mary was a draw, McAlear found. The youngest of three sisters, she “connected very much with that character, shuffled off to the side…. It took me a long time to (get past) the ‘I’m not this enough; I’m not that enough, to start to ignore what you don’t have to offer and think about what you do….”

Poor Mary, who’s devoted herself to reading, learning, playing the piano, “has devoted all this time bettering herself — for what? That’s the heart of the story, and it’s what drew me to the play.”  Mary has “a funny unfiltered quality: she is who she is….” After all, she’s been at home with her parents for two years, not seeing people and buffing up her social skills. There’s a contemporary resonance to her: “she has qualities that would not be valued even today…. She’s an outlier.”

There are, thinks McAlear, two ways to go in preparing a piece like Miss Bennet, with its gleaming surfaces and conflicts underneath. “I work both ways. But for this play I went to the form and shape first. And once you do the broad strokes, then (explore) what’s happen in that moment. Start from the outside and work backward….”

McAlear, who moved back to Toronto last season to be with her partner, will be heading back West this spring, to play the artist Emily Carr in Sher-D Wilson’s spoken-word A Love Letter to Emily C at Calgary’s Handsome Alice Theatre. Meanwhile, there’s the Citadel and the fun of a Bennet sisters reunion at Lizzie and Mr. Darcy’s place. And McAlear is downright delighted with her cast, assembled from across the country.

Some actors she’s worked with before: Edmonton’s Mathew Hulshof, Gianna Vacirca, and Emma Houghton (with whom she’s acted in the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol). Others are new to her. “And they all get along, and open to trying any silly thing I think up!”  

As for Mikaela Davies who plays Mary, McAlear’s career crosses the acting/directing divide. And she likes it that way. “I love comedy. I love musicals. I feel I have something to offer in every lane.”

PREVIEW

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Mikaela Davies, Umed Amin, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Emma Houghton, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram, Gianna Vacirca

Running: Thursday through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Happy hour from Bright Young Things: meet the stars of Fallen Angels

Vanessa Sabourin and Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“My mind is a mass of corruption,” Noel Coward told the Evening Standard in 1925.

“England’s solid-gold jazz baby,” as his biographer John Lahr described him, was responding to the selection of epithets dusted off by the press for a light, bright Coward comedy Fallen Angels. Among them? “Amoral, disgusting, vulgar, and an insult to British womanhood!” as the playwright listed gaily in the preface to the published play — and capital for the box office.

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“The realization that I am hopelessly depraved, vicious, and decadent has for two days ruined my morning beaker of opium,” he added.

Those of you who are delicate sensibility may want to stop reading immediately. Shocking but true! Fallen Angels is the very play that Bright Young Things have chosen to open the Varscona Theatre Ensemble season Thursday.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. After all, Fallen Angels is about about the two married ladies of the title, upper-crust best friends who get smashed together under the stress of anticipating the arrival of a French lover they’d once shared. “Soused sluts!” roared the Daily Express.

It was, therefore, with a certain moral trepidation that I ventured to the Varscona last week to meet up with the actors, artistic directors both and old friends, who are playing Julia and Jane in the production by Bright Young Things, a five-year-old indie company devoted to the vintage offerings of the last century. 

It was barely noon. And while Belinda Cornish, artistic director of Bright Young Things, and Vanessa Sabourin, co-artistic director of Azimuth and The Maggie Tree, weren’t drinking champagne they might as well have been. They were smiling. And laughing. A lot. And when director Marianne Copithorne arrived later, they laughed some more. Suspicious at that time of day, I thought. Is theatre meant to be … fun? 

When Fallen Angels premiered in 1925, the 25-year-old playwright, who’d written it whilst appearing in a revue called London Calling!, had three plays simultaneously running in the West End. But since that heady time, has not been in the inner circle of Coward’s most produced plays, Private Lives or Hay Fever. Which is part of the allure for Bright Young Things. After all, the company made its debut five years ago with Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea — who does Rattigan on this side of the pond? And the company archive has included such unexpected offerings as Harold Pinter’s The Lover, Coward’s We Were Dancing (part of Tonight at 8:30), Sartre’s No Exit, and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.

“I do like to find things that aren’t done consistently,” says Cornish. “More than just the pathways that get accessed all the time,” adds Sabourin.

And there’s this: “I like how female-driven Fallen Angels is. And in such a joyous way,” says Cornish, musing on the way the wives will gain the upper hand over their complacent husbands. “I gravitate to that kind of play…. And I really enjoy the way the characters speak to each other in Coward, veiled elegance with a certain bite. And they do it with such style. And it’s so funny!”

Vanessa Sabourin and Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels. Photo by Mat Busby.

“The characters lean into the cartoon at times, but it’s strongly based on reality,” Cornish adds. Sabourin concurs. “They expand into something larger than life, but they’re based on something very truthful!”

“The preposterousness of the English upper class trying frantically to maintain social veneer while their little dog-feet are paddling frantically below the surface trying to make the terrible thing happening to them go away!” London-born Cornish beams. “So delicious!” Sabourin giggles.

After five years of happy marriage, well-off Julia (Cornish) and Jane (Sabourin) are, well, bored with contentment. “They have to create their own drama,” says Sabourin of the events by which the friends get themselves into a tangle of ambivalence and competition about the arrival of the exotic French lover from both their pasts. “They have literally nothing to do,” says Cornish. “Happiness is dull. Or rather, the comfortable is dull.” As Sabourin puts it, “comfort comes with things that are known…. But we’re curious beings. And the unknown makes them feel alive, feel that they have something to do.”

“They’re intelligent, educated people who aren’t doing anything useful with it,” says Cornish. “The less you do, the higher the status….”

Cornish and Sabourin concede that since the central conflict is about a man, with peripheral discussions of complacent husbands who golf, Fallen Angels would flunk the Bechdel test. But the man “is just a catalyst,” argues Cornish. “The central relationship is about the friendship.” And the more champagne that gets consumed, the more grievances get aired.

It turns out that Cornish and Sabourin go back, as actors together. “WAY back!” they declare in unison. They remember productions like the slice-of-life revue Shakers and the vampire play Blood Sympathy. They remember terrible shows they were in together in the ’90s, and really good shows, like last summer’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival pairing of A Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. The range is considerable. But then so is the multi-talent arsenal in Bright Young Things. Sabourin is a director and theatre deviser. Cornish is a playwright (Category E, Little Elephants) and Die-Nasty improv star. 

After Fallen Angels, Sabourin with her Azimuth partner Kristi Hansen will curate the Expanse Movement Festival for the Chinook Series in February. Later she’ll star in this season’s potentially most disturbing and controversial play, 19 Weeks (about a late-term abortion) in an Azimuth/Northern Light Theatre co-production that’s about as far from Fallen Angels as theatre can go. Freewill artistic director  Copithorne has been rehearsing two high-contrast offerings in divided days: What A Young Wife Ought To Know now running at Theatre Network (a tragic ‘20s love story about lack of access to birth control)  and the giddy Fallen Angels

Talk turns to booze. Fallen Angels is  full of it, and the scandal of Coward’s day was that it was consumed by respectable ladies. In the half hour or so in which Julia and Jane move from martinis to champagne to Benedictine, it’s harder and harder for them to maintain decorous behavior. “Jane loses it and gets abusive; Julia gets more and more dignified,” says Cornish. Both actors find that calibrated dynamic hilarious.

Drunk acting is a challenge; there’s a considerable temptation to ham it up outrageously. But according to their cast-mate Mark Meer (who’s married to Cornish), the key in acting drunk is “to try really hard to not seem drunk, to do your very best to seem sober.” Director Copithorne agrees. “It’s pronouncing everything very carefully.” 

You’ll have your chance to practice if you see the show next week on “Champagne Wednesday,” when the performance comes with complementary bubbles and snacks.

PREVIEW

Fallen Angels

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Noel Coward

Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Mark Meer, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Dec. 1

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com/ensemble/

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The forgotten sister comes into her own: meet Mikaela Davies, star of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Umed Amin, Mikaela Davies, Emma Houghton in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I grew up with the kindest, cleverest, and most beautiful elder sisters in the country; and with the loudest, silliest, and prettiest younger sisters in the country,” says Mary, in the romantic comedy that brings a Christmas tree onto the Citadel’s Shoctor stage starting Thursday.

“This left few fair adjectives for me. I find I still suffer from lack of definition….” Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the 2016 seasonal hit that made Lauren Gunderson the continent’s most-produced playwright last year, is all about correcting that.

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You can see what Mary is up against. She’s the middle child in the volatile five-daughter Bennet household set forth in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s sharp-eyed 1813 comic masterwork. And in a novel where matchmaking is not just an pastime but an obsession — and the romantic fortunes of the second daughter Elizabeth, one of the literature’s most spirited, witty heroines, are the headliner — bookish Mary, “the only plain one in the family,” doesn’t get much ink.

Unless you’re a hard-core Jane-ite, you might have to do a mental head-count to even remember there’s a Mary, much less appreciate her. “She’s almost non-existent,” laughs Mikaela Davies, who plays Mary in Nancy McAlear’s production of this “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice. “But in a way, by being so rigorous, so studious, so practical, she shows the lightness and the joy and the charm of all the other women.”

Miss Bennet, the title a pointed reference to the spinster prospects of the family nerd, rediscovers the characters two years after the happily-ever-afters in which Lizzie and Mr. Darcy finally overcome pride and prejudice and end up together. It’s at their grand estate the Bennet sisters have reassembled for the holidays.  And it’s Mr. Darcy who first twigs to the dramatic blossoming of Mary, once dismissed by everyone as dull and “pedantic.” 

Umed Amin, Emma Houghton, Mikaela Davies in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

When we meet Mary at Pemberley she’s witty and sharp, but not a Lizzie-in-the-making, thinks Davies. “She’s different. Mary dreams big, and not just big for herself but in a world picture way as well.” In favouring honesty over politeness, “there’s a certain practicality that lack’s the woman’s charm that Lizzie has” in such generous measure.

The Montreal-born, Toronto-based Davies, in person highly articulate, smart, and spirited, is in a position to appreciate those original and renegade qualities in characters like Mary. Her multi-limbed career since Dawson College theatre school has branched out from acting, to directing and theatre creation. 

She arrives in Edmonton, for her first time, from three seasons at Stratford. In two she was an actor. Most recently, she was assistant director to the star director/actor/playwright Robert Lepage — “he has a divided career too!” — in rehearsing his production of Coriolanus. Davies was impressed. “It was fascinating,” she says. “He ran a really beautiful open rehearsal room, very free. And there didn’t seem to be much hierarchy. He’s very funny, self-deprecating…. His  power to tell stories through bodies is really unparalleled.”  

In Davies’ second Stratford season, she’d starred in Jackie Maxwell’s production of the lurid, blood-spattered 17th century play The Changeling, in which the heroine hires an assassin to ice her fiancé. In Breath of Kings, Stratford’s six-hour cross-gender adaptation of Shakespeare history plays, Davies played both Catherine of France and the Dauphin.  

Gender and casting across that divide is a subject that interests Davies. “Some actors do the chameleon work of changing genders. And there’s a lot good to be said about that. Other times — and this is a personal preference in my own work; many would disagree — it’s changing the pronouns. And there’s a wonderful middle ground where you’re just telling the story and the actors are instruments….”

Davies sees the changing of “he” to “she” as an act with political resonances. “When you see a woman playing a man dressed as a man, and using the pronoun ‘he’,  you’re saying that for a woman to be powerful, to be a leader, to have 17 monologues, she needs to be a man…. Women do have power in the world, and (by using ‘she’) you’re embracing it. And now, let’s get back to the story.”

As she tells it, in droll fashion,  Davies was always the kid with a certain indie creative streak. “‘Devised theatre’ for five-year-olds,” she laughs. “I was supposed to play a queen,” she remembers, “and two or three weeks into our ‘rehearsal process’, the teacher told another girl she could also be the queen. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to have two, and I remember thinking ‘oh no, there’s no place for me’. So on the day of the performance I refused to come down.”

“Some would say ‘diva in the making’,” Davies grins. “I would argue for a really strong sense of dramaturgical structure.”

That came in handy, for a director in the making. After theatre school I wasn’t getting acting work and I didn’t want to not be an artist,” says Davies. So at 21 she added directing and producing to her skill set. Her creative partnership with Polly Phokeev, which has resulted in such innovative work as their site-specific series How We Are (it played in random bedrooms on the Danforth), dates from the two years Davies spent in the Soulpepper Academy. Phokeev writes; Davies directs; they “co-develop” work. In progress is a new musical, spun from the Mikhail Bulgakov novel The Master and Margarita.

Mikaela Davies, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Davies wouldn’t call herself a playwright. “I’m a storyteller,” she says simply. “I create stories, characters, conflicts, drama, human moments. I think I’m quite good at that….” She even created, directed and performed a solo show about her own life. “But I work best with other people.”    

Soulpepper is why Davies moved to Toronto from Montreal. And that’s where she made her professional debut in Idiot’s Delight, as half of a young lovestruck honeymoon couple. Eight more Soulpepper productions followed, which paired Davies and her fellow Academy actors with company veterans onstage in season offerings. “Amazing!” she says of the learning experience.

At a company that impaled itself in horrifying fashion on the thorny issue of sexual harassment — including the substantiated allegations that resulted in Soulpepper cutting all ties with Hungarian director Laszlo Marton in the fall of 2017  — Davies also found a dark side. And she stepped bravely forward, despite her fears about an emerging theatre career, to shed light on it. Witness her thoughtful, beautifully written and argued op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail last March (read it here), about the experience of being silenced by a non-disclosure agreement, and emerging from it. It’s been a tumultuous year for Davies, and she has high hopes for the new Soulpepper regime.

On the descriptive ‘brave’, Davies hesitates. “If bravery means doing things in spite of fear, then perhaps…. I think I can get very scared.” She finds Mary “remarkably brave, in searching for something more than society is willing to provide her.”

“It’s not just love,” says Davies, though the Miss Bennet story provides that possibility in the form of the awkward fellow nerd Arthur DeBourgh). “She wants more! It’s about a woman feeling stuck, and wanting something beyond social, cultural, and family expectations. That hasn’t gone away.”

And how’s this for brave? When Mary sits down at the piano and plays the Moonlight Sonata at critical junctures, you’ll be hearing Davies really playing … “and I’m not that good!” Davies laughs. 

“I used to play the piano as a kid, and that was one of the pieces I kept up.” There was a confidence-sapping setback: Davies discovered it isn’t the lyrical first moment with the theme everyone knows; it’s the fast and fiendish third. Davies rented a place here with a piano, and the Citadel gave her a practice room. Director McAlear has assured her that it doesn’t have to be note-perfect to land the moment. “But it makes me terribly nervous. I want it to be good — for Mary’s sake!”

“It’s special to take a character who’s a linchpin in her own way but is given so little time, and see how she blossoms, who she is now, how she thinks, how she sees the world, what she craves.”

After Christmas, Davies heads to Stratford for a four-day workshop of The Neverending Story (she’s Jillian Keiley’s associate director), then back to her home town to act in The Last Wife at the Centaur, her Montreal debut. Meanwhile there’s the fun of a holiday-humour show.

Allison Edwards-Crewe and Mathew Hulshof in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

You don’t need to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy the show, Davies assures. “But for anyone who knows the story, there is something so satisfying in seeing where the characters are now…. What happens in happily-ever-after stories? Are they divorced? Are things working out? Are they miserable? To be brought back into one of the most famous worlds in all of literature is a gift!” 

“Where there are interesting artists and interesting stories to tell, I want to be there.” 

Stay tuned for a 12thnight.ca interview of director Nancy McAlear.

PREVIEW

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Mikaela Davies, Umed Amin, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Emma Houghton, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram, Gianna Vacirca

Running: Thursday through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

 

 

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Enter smiling, glass in hand: the Varscona Theatre Ensemble season begins with Fallen Angels

Belinda Cornish, Vanessa Sabourin in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the effervescent 1924 comedy that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, you will see two married women, bored with contentment and longing for passion, restore the zing of excitement to their lives. They levitate into this thrilling new zone on a jet stream of  anticipation (of the arrival a lover they once had in common years before). Ah, and did I mention martinis, champagne, and Benedictine? 

With Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things launches the second season of offerings from the trio of distinctive indie companies that make up the Varscona Theatre Ensemble. “I love Belinda Cornish’s choice of plays,” says VTE producer Jeff Haslam of the

 artistic director of Bright Young Things, a company that specializes in the repertoire of the last century. “Such a probing spirit in those well-made plays…. They achieve a lot of the social contract artists have with audiences through dialogue! And that seduces you… You watch the action take place on the stage!”

“With Coward, you have to be great at the craft side of acting,” says Haslam. “The timing, the rhythm … are so tricky.”

Marianne Copithorne’s production, which runs through Dec. 2, stars Cornish and Vanessa Sabourin (co-artistic director of Azimuth Theatre and The Maggie Tree) as Julia and Jane. The all-star cast includes Mark Meer, John Ullyatt, Nathan Cuckow, with Rachel Bowron as the maid who, tellingly, might well be the smartest character in the play. Stay tuned for 12thnight.ca’s PREVIEW of the show.

Julien Arnold, Mesa. Photo by Mat Busby.

In February Julien Arnold’s Atlas Theatre brings a funny and warm-hearted buddy road trip play to the VTE season. Mesa, much-travelled on both sides of the Atlantic, is a 2000 piece by Calgary’s Doug Curtis in which we meet a 93-year-old snowbird and (as Haslam puts it) the “34-year-old liberal groover artist” (married to his granddaughter) who has agreed to drive him south.

Young Paul is all about “discovering the mythology of the Wild West, Tombstone, the ‘painted desert’,” Haslam laughs. Grandpa Bud is all about “Motel 6, getting there as fast as possible, and eating at Denny’s.”

“Paul needs to go on this journey, even though he doesn’t know it….”

Haslam (who “can’t stop crying when he reads it “even though it’s really really funny!”) has a particular affection for Mesa. And maybe it’s because he played Paul in in the 2001 Workshop West production. Bud was Ashley Wright, who was nearly the same age as Haslam. “He did it all in body language,” says Haslam in admiration.

He remembers the fun the cast had in the course of preparing the production. “We went to Denny’s all the time and ate burgers and called it research. We gave over to it — Denny’s without shame,” he laughs.

Patricia Darbasie, who co-starred opposite Cornish in last season’s Atlas production of Going To St. Ives, directs the Atlas show. Her cast includes Atlas artistic director Julien Arnold and Richard Lee, with Cathy Derkach performing live onstage music. It runs Feb. 21 to March 2.

Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby.

The finale of the VTE lineup is Kate Ryan’s Plain Jane Theatre production of Fun Home. The highly unusual Tony Award-winner by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, which moved to Broadway from Off- in 2015, is spun from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of growing up with a closeted gay dad and discovering her own gay sexuality.

There’s darkness in the story, certainly. But as Haslam points out, “it’s so funny.” And there’s a certain unexpected lightness, or playfulness, of tone about it, maybe from its graphic provenance, muses Haslam. “Graphic … is an inch closer to the theatre; it’s visual; it’s theatrical. Alison is always saying ‘what’s my caption in this scene?’. It’s definitely not maudlin sentimentality, or another ‘award-winning subject matter’!”

Haslam himself plays the dad, “a complex and interesting character,” in Dave Horak’s production, April 11 to 20. Jocelyn Ahlf plays the adult Alison (there are three Alisons at different ages in the show), with the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan) as the mom.

Though the three VTE shows are very different in tone, they’re have theatrical pizzaz in common. And, as Haslam says, “they’re all versions of family.” 

Tickets and subscriptions are available at Varscona Theatre Ensemble.

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If you could live forever… Tuck Everlasting the musical at St. Albert Children’s Theatre

Tuck Everlasting, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If “the music!” is the answer, what is the question?

It seems wise to consult musical theatre experts. Janice Flower and Jackie Pooke, director/artistic director and choreographer respectively, are on the phone explaining their attraction to the semi-obscure Broadway musical opening Thursday in a St. Albert Children’s Theatre production. Tuck Everlasting is a highly unusual musical version of an award-winning 1975 novel for young readers by the American writer Natalie Babbitt. And it got overlooked in its short-lived Broadway run in 2016, partly because that was the year of the Hamilton sweep at the Tony Awards.

“Jackie and I share an office, and we have soundtracks on all the time,” says Flower of the house music in their Arden Theatre headquarters. They heard Tuck Everlasting, and were instantly struck. “We ordered the script right away,” says Pooke.

In Tuck Everlasting, 11-year-old Winnie, a rural New Hampshire kid whose father has died, follows the sound of a music box into the woods, discovers a magical spring and the immortal family who’ve been drinking from it for a century — with mixed results on the happiness scale. And there’s a villain, the venal Man In The Yellow Suit, who’s eager to get his mitts on the water and bottle it. 

Flower and Pooke describe the score by Chris Miller (music) with Nathan Tysen (lyrics) as an appealing combination of pop and “folkloric,” with a Celtic flavour. Says Flower, “it reminds me a little (musical) The Secret Garden, and with some musical theatre vaudeville duets…. One of the thing I love about it is that the ensemble is critical to the piece, a sort of Greek chorus (of townspeople).”

As usual with the St. Albert troupe, unafraid of tackling the most full-bodied Broadway musical, the cast is large (well, huge, by the standards of the era). The unfazed-able Flower, though, doesn’t consider 30 actors (ages 10 to 23, plus one 30-something alumnus) out of the ordinary. This is the unusual part: more than half are boys.

The story is unusually philosophical and resonant for both a young-reader-type book, and the musical spun from it. It touches on the meaning of life, the passage of time vs. the idea of the eternal, so desirable in theory and maybe less so in practice. If you got the chance to live forever, would you snap it up? “The message of the story is the life (lived) not the years,” says Flower. “Technology is changing us; everything’s about saving time. And ironically we find ourselves with less and less of it…. People aren’t making the same connections as when we grew up.”

Poole, who has choreographed the movement epilogue “that tells the story of Winnie’s life,” echoes the thought. “This is about kids just being kids…. Now by Grade 10, they’re pressured to know how exactly how they want to spend their lives. And, really, it’s OK to be a kid and enjoy your time. Enjoy your life, enjoy the people in your life, whatever amount of time you have. That’s the message! It’s very positive….”

The kids in the unique St. Albert theatre company “devote 15 to 20 hours a week to something they love….” says Flower. Not everyone will go on to make theatre a career, of course. But that doesn’t negate the life-long reverb of theatre training. “Theatre is about how to communicate, to listen, to empathize. It’s so important right now.… I’ve often heard from interviewers that (theatre kids) stand out because they look you in the eye; it’s the ability to carry on a conversation with an adult.”

“To meet people to have a face to face conversation, to work through problems, not just Send or Copy and Paste,” says Pooke. That’s live theatre.

PREVIEW

Tuck Everlasting

Theatre: St. Albert Children’s Theatre

Directed by: Janice Flower, with Jackie Pooke (choreography) and Janet Nichol (musical direction)

Where: Arden Theatre, St. Albert

Running: Nov. 22 to Dec. 2

Tickets: Arden Theatre box office (780-459-1542), Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca)

   

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A love story and a cautionary tale: a riveting production of What A Young Wife Ought To Know at Theatre Network

Cole Humeny and Merran Carr-Wiggin in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Love,” Sophie tells us near the start of What A Young Wife Ought To Know, “is a strange sort of madness that comes over you and makes the future go dark.”

In Hannah Moscovitch’s gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, which opens the Theatre Network season in a riveting Marianne Copthorne production, there’s a dark and terrible price to be paid for love, intimacy, and desire. And it’s paid, in the main, by the poor and the female.

In the Ottawa of the 1920s, with its immigrant ghettos and entrenched poverty, young lower-class women like our narrator Sophie (Merran Carr-Wiggin) and her spirited big sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard), have no access to information about “family limitation” or “birth prevention” — and no means to support an unstoppable series of babies.

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Men must be approached with extreme caution, and certainly not whilst lying down, according to Alma who’s in a position to know, as it turns out in (trust me) horrifying developments in the play. Sophie’s mom, by reputation an archive of “what a young wife ought to know,”  tells her girls that there are only two types of men, “the ones who leave you, and the ones who don’t leave you but you wish they would.”

Handsome Irish stablehands like Jonny, played with a beguiling mixture of come-hither swagger and perplexed innocence by Cole Humeny, spell trouble. Passion without birth control is a fearful thing. We watch the heartbreaking struggles of Sophie, young wife, and then serial mother, and Jonny, the husband with whom she’s madly, deeply in love, to keep their distance, we’re seeing a love story thwarted by ignorance, by poverty, by class prejudice and puritanism, by everything about their lives. 

And it’s a world of nightmare absurdity: strict medical warnings (do not have more children), zero medical advice on how that might be accomplished in an intimate relationship. And speaking of those, if sex is risky, don’t have it. Separate beds and gardening are the only answer provided; the under-the-table answer is back-alley or DIY surgery. And this is a play that is unflinching about going there. 

Tessa Stamp’s design, a tall, blank facade of tenement windows that dwarfs its powerless inhabitants, is eloquent in itself  (lighted empathetically by Scott Peters). And Darrin Hagen’s haunting Celtic-flavoured score lingers in the harsh air.

Merran Carr-Wiggin, Cole Humeny, Bobbi Goddard in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

The desperate stakes are set forth vividly in Copthorne’s strikingly well-acted production. And it’s not least because the chemistry between Carr-Wiggins and Humeny is compelling, and hot. The movement-scape by which proximity is both longed-for and dangerous is electric.

Carr-Wiggin is stunning as the young wife who steps out of the frame of her era into a shivery timelessness intermittently to address us directly, with questions that (as in the case of so many Moscovitch narrators) are guilty overtures to potential allies or accusers. “Ladies, would you make the same mistake?” 

It’s a beautiful (and beautifully thought-out) performance that charts the development of the character from sweet and girlishly comical naiveté to a kind of desperate, not to say tragic, womanly wisdom about the world, and the nature of the lonely trap in which Sophie finds herself. You believe Carr-Wiggin every step of the way in a love story that becomes a story of unrequited love. Start right now thinking about all the roles you’d love to see this luminous actor take on.

Goddard is excellent, too, as the feisty, cynical Alma, whose confidence — she doesn’t walk, she stomps in her boots — is camouflage. The sisterly relationship, which goes beyond the grave, is compellingly lived-in. And Humeny as Jonny, battling comfortless social and economic circumstances designed to keep a poor immigrant down and cast him as a sort of domestic villain if he yearns to have a big family. When he says that the world around them treats them as animals, he’s not off the mark.  

One hundred years later, the world has changed, true; birth control and abortion are widely if not universally available. But we’re seeing a drift backwards. What A Young Wife Ought To Know can’t help but be a cautionary tale about women’s reproductive rights and its corollary, women’s identity as sexual beings. That little frisson of relevance is  horrifying in itself. What a young wife ought to know, in the end, is what everyone ought to know, that what has been gained can be lost. 

REVIEW

What A Young Wife Ought To Know

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, Cole Humeny

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

  

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