Almost A Full Moon at the Citadel: Canada has a new holiday musical, full of snow, stories, and soup. A review

Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Almost A Full Moon, the oddly joyous and insightful new holiday musical premiering at the Citadel, generations jostle together on the stage.  

Wispy stray people, strangers, somehow find each other, get connected, and become families. Stories both happy and sad unspool backwards into the past in search of their own echoes. And every humble object and tiny moment — soup ladle to tree ornament,  song to kiss to phone call — gathers meaning.

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This is a holiday musical with its own kind of charm that knows that time acts all weird at Christmas (or maybe that’s when we notice). The past won’t stay put, and neither will the present: it’s a haunted season. The musical created by playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, with music by Hawksley Workman (especially his hit Christmas album of 20 years ago), is all about that. And it’s actually constructed that way, taking its cue from the quirky, distinctively oblique angles of Workman’s songs themselves. 

Would anyone but Workman have written A House Or Maybe A Boat, where the vague urge to build something solid mingles with smell of clementines at Christmas? Or an ode to a brand of notebook (“Claire Fontaine/You seem to bring/ The best out of me…”)? The images of the Workman songbook glint off Corbeil-Coleman’s characters. They bring the particular inspirations of this off-centre material to their uncertainties and their memories as it occurs to them to wonder, sometimes in song sometimes not, if they’re in love, or what they’re meant to do in life … or whether they’ll be home for Christmas.  

In a sense, the play, commissioned by the Citadel and directed by Daryl Cloran, is a story about how stories, like families and like happiness, have to be constructed, from the bits and pieces of human experience, including memory. The narrative is assembled, artfully, before our very eyes. Magic is something to be arrived at, by human agency; it takes work. It’s like theatre that way. 

And in the intersection of short, telling scenes and time periods in Act I — identified without exposition in tiny fragments of dialogue and in costumes designed by Jessica Oostergo — you wonder how it will fit together. It took me a while to catch the drift, but that feels active and intriguing, like putting together a human, intergenerational puzzle. 

Amanda Mella Rodriguez and Felix de Sousa in Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

An amusingly precocious take-charge little boy (Felix de Sousa as Phillip) insists on striking up a friendship and a sledding date with his droll and phlegmatic new neighbour (Amanda Mella Rodriguez as Tala) in the snow (First Snow of the Year). Both young newcomers are talents to watch. 

Two fearful soldiers (Luc Tellier and Kaden Forsberg) from a war long gone arrive by parachute (Bullets), literally dropped by danger into friendship. In a diner on Christmas Eve, an airline stewardess (Patricia Zentilli) on the lam from “the tyranny of family” strikes up a conversation with a musical stranger (Kendrick Mitchell) escaping from his own family, and leaves him with a notebook (Claire Fontaine) containing a family recipe. 

Alicia Barban and Kaden Forsberg in Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

In a way Almost A Full Moon could hardly be more quintessentially Canadian. Winter’s big. There are moments in both our official languages (and others). Snow is everywhere. In Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design it falls from the sky in vertical icicles of lights. Cory Sincennes’s set design is dominated by a self-contained three-doored wall-less room that is, like Christmas, both inside and outside — with a frost-covered floor and a snow-covered tree. It’s surrounded by unmarked cardboard boxes where the past is contained, and is set down in the enveloping darkness of a big stage. 

That’s Mimi’s home turf, a mysterious foreigner in Act I and the family grand-matriarch in Act II. She’s played with an amusingly un-sentimental edge by the excellent Lyne Tremblay, who has a line in epigrammatic wisdom. Love, she says in answer to a grandson’s query, is “everything that’s left after the party.”

Chariz Faulmino, Lyne Tremblay, Luc Tellier, Patricia Zentilli, Kendrick Mitchell in Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Mimi presides over the making of “magic soup,” as per Workman’s title song Almost A Full Moon. It’s a multi-generational family tradition of making something delicious by throwing in a mismatched assortment from every left-over on hand, which is something like a cooking up family if you think about it and try to ignore the parsnips. Anyhow, improvised soup, an unusual through-line for a musical, recurs in every holiday crisis; like charades (but way less stressful), everyone can join in.

You could make a dramatic case for having the winter gathering room surrounded by a dark world; people arrive in families from vast distances in time and space. But human exits do take a while under the circumstances. Set pieces — diner, bedroom, radio station, car —  mysteriously arrive and then disappear, in a way that could probably use a tune-up.

Under Cloran’s direction, though, the piece is in constant motion. And the musical numbers, accompanied by a seven-piece band (musical director and orchestrator Ryan DeSouza) don’t feel placed or delivered in a studied inert way. The songs feel spontaneous, like thinking or reacting, sometimes by characters who are actually writing them, or testing them out on an onstage audience. And Cloran’s 10-actor cast are all good, confident singers.

The audiences has the fun of see the same characters in different times at different ages, as love stories begin to emerge from the weave of memories. Corbeil-Coleman writes Sébastien, one of the two soldiers who was an aspiring actor in civilian life, in a particularly amusing way. And Tellier, who has natural comic chops, slides right into it, as the character writes a romantic letter in French to Marie-Ève (Alicia Barban) for his tongue-tied lovestruck buddy Reuben. The playwright gives the most comic opportunities to De Sousa and Peter Fernandes as the younger and older Phillip; they’re first-rate. And Mella Rodriguez and Chariz Faulmino as the younger and older Tala have their funny moments, too, and also provide a moving insight into the immigrant experience of arriving in Canada with luggage full of grief. 

Patricia Zentilli and Kendrick Mitchell in Almost A Full Moon, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

As in romantic comedies with their built-in array of obstacles, the prickly, tentative coupling of Clementine and Lewis takes some doing to resolve. The latter has a career (he’s a rock star); the former is adrift and afraid of commitment. Performances by Zentilli and Mitchell capture that romantic uncertainty. Workman’s lovely Wonderful and Sad drifts into the play in a skilful way, as a love-lost duet between sadder and wiser Lewis and the older Phillip: “Where have I gone? How long ago did I leave?”

The beauty of Canada’s new holiday musical is the way it wraps itself around a season that seems designed for happiness but can be weighted with sorrow. Maybe worst of all is the compelling need for it to be special, and the feeling that you’re somehow letting the whole human team down by not being festive enough. 

Almost A Full Moon isn’t unaware that a sense of loss can come down the chimney at Christmas time. “No one is different, everyone’s alone,” as Workman tells us in the title song. “We’ll make enough soup to feed everyone we know; we’ll make enough to feed everyone we don’t.” But Corbeil-Coleman unwraps a sense of hopefulness too in this new musical. A family, after all, is something that can be created, from scratch if need be. Strangers can join. It’s heartwarming stick-to-your-ribs knowledge for the holidays. 

[Meet the playwright in this 12thnight preview here.]

REVIEW

Almost A Full Moon

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

Music by: Hawksley Workman

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Alicia Barban, Felix deSousa, Chariz Faulmino, Peter Fernandes, Kayden Forsberg, Kendrick Mitchell, Amanda Mella Rodriguez, Luc Tellier, Lyne Tremblay, Patricia Zentilli

Running: through Nov. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

 

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Newly rock-ified and fast on its feet: Jesus Christ Superstar arrives at the Jube. A review.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a rush down the aisles, a veritable runners’ stampede onto the stage at the start of the Broadway Across Canada touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar that exploded into the Jube Tuesday. And it reimagines for us, in a stunningly physicalized way, a 50-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice musical that feels newly rock-ified and fast on its runner-clad feet.

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Is the unstoppable crowd heading pellmell towards the light? the great band? the pounding rhythm of the famous opening guitar licks? In this revival, the 2017 Olivier Award-winning production from the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, it’s the irresistible allure of celebrity-in-the-making that propels them. It’s a theme that links stardom to religious and political movements through a canon of hit musicals that includes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Evita. 

Nowhere is that link more audaciously set forth than Jesus Christ Superstar, which started life as a single in 1970, then a concept album before it hit Broadway in 1971, and the West End and theatre immortality thereafter. It gives the story of the last seven days in Jesus’s career a showbiz rethink, through the eyes of his betrayer,  railroaded into infamy. The early controversies that surrounded this rock opera are long gone (even the Vatican relented in 1999). But what we see is the history of a rising rock star who overcomes his humble origins to achieve mega-wattage in the galaxy … by a spectacular early death, made possible by not just some Judas but the Judas. 

This revival is by no means the second, third, or 103rd coming. What gives this production directed by Timothy Sheader, its mesmerizing momentum (90 minutes goes by in a flash) is, for one thing, its stunning stagecraft and rock concert accoutrements. 

No desert scenes with the odd palm tree or hippie tickle trunks of costumes here. The cast are in runners and agelessly draped work-out sweats and leggings (set and costume designer: Tom Scutt). The stage is backed with towering multi-level metal grid-work, with windows like an eerie modern tenement (the band is visible in one or two). And it’s dominated by a raked cruciform shape and dramatic high-beam arena lighting, which bathes tableaux in light or picks out soloists from the darkness, lights up hand-held portable crosses, or glints off the metallic palm fronds the ensemble are waving, a witty reference to Bic-flicking fandom. 

Weapons are microphones. The menacing high-command brigade of Jews led by Caiaphas arrive on the raked cross with shoulder-height staffs; they flip them to become microphone stands. When Jesus is roused to anger at Judas’s dismissive treatment of Mary Magdalene, he grabs the mic from him. Judas’s own end has to do with his microphone cord, in a memorable image.

The other outstanding feature of the production is the compulsively physical choreography by Drew McOnie for a cast of 26. They are, it must be said, an ensemble of powerful singers (more about this in a sec). And incidentally, the sound, for once at the Jube, is impeccable, so you can hear Rice’s witty lyrics as well as the big rock rearrangements. But in many ways, this is Jesus Christ Superstar reinvented as a movement piece. 

You eye is drawn over and over to hands, lots of hands over eyes or pushing back. Bodies flung robotically to the side or down, jerked into cultish frenzy by forces beyond themselves. It adds up to a powerful insight into how crowds work, how groups become mobs.

The ever-louder crowd of supplicants demanding miracle cures encircles Jesus closer and closer; it’s stressful work being a superstar. With the addition of white choir smocks, the energetic acolytes of Jesus become the bloodthirsty rabble that call for his crucifixion. And blood they get, in a strikingly gruesome evocation of Jesus battered and beaten, lashed by glitter. There is a heavy price exacted for celebrity, and it’s about to be paid.  

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Judas, “your right hand man all along,” has been on the money about this. He predicted in his opening number Heaven On Their Minds that things will end badly since Jesus has started to believe his own press, so to speak. “You started to believe the things they say of you.”

The performances are compelling. As Jesus, Jack Hopewell, an actor of delicate frame, is mild-mannered in a pop star sort of way, with a line in homilies — “save tomorrow for tomorrow/ think about today instead” — and (understandable) anxiety issues. That is, until he’s provoked to anger by the venal mob in the temple and really lets loose a high rock tenor. He’s often carrying (and sometimes playing) a guitar. 

Judas, as played by Elvie Ellis, is the more passionate figure — as a performance full of edgy, furious, exasperated angles both physical and musical, conveys eloquently. He’s being set up for the label of eternal villain, as the enabler of his friend’s superstardom ambitions, and he knows it. The money he gets for betraying Jesus sticks to his hands, indelible silver stains, an inspired image.  

Faith Jones, the possessor of a silky and lustrous voice, plays Mary Magdalene. She delivers the detachable hit I Don’t Know How To Love Him in an appealingly simple way. And then she melts back into the ensemble.

The villains are striking, especially Isaac Ryckeghem as Caiaphas, he of the rib-rattling bass voice, and Erich W Schleck as Herod, here a ruthless high-camp satyr with a major codpiece whose followers are served up as bodiless heads on golden platters. 

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The show’s big moment of silence, memorable because it’s the only one, comes at the Last Supper, inventively staged by Sheader. And the ending, which leaves Jesus and Judas together in a light that’s almost companionable, is the capper to an exciting and breathless production. Even if you think you know Jesus Christ Superstar, catch this one if you can. It rescues the piece from the stable where warhorses live, and sets it running again, wearing its 50 years lightly.

REVIEW

Jesus Christ Superstar

Theatre: Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

Directed by: Timothy Scheader

Starring: Jack Hopewell, Elvie Ellis, Faith Jones, Isaac Ryckeghem, Nicholas Hambruch, Kodiak Thompson, Joshua Bess

Where: Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: ticketmaster.ca   

 

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Up close and chilling: a small-scale Sweeney Todd for our time, from the Plain Janes

Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen in Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre Company. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/ He served a dark and vengeful god….”

Starting Friday in a small and intriguing downtown space (CO*LAB), up close enough to smell blood, Plain Jane Theatre brings us a small-cast chamber revival of Stephen Sondheim’s grisly and glorious 1979 musical masterpiece.

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In the 60-seat house we’ll be virtually eyeball to eyeball with “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” the escaped convict of 19th century penny dreadful melodrama fame — a tonsorial pro who returns in a murderous rage from unjust exile to exact his revenge on the corrupt judge who’s destroyed his family and his happiness. There he’ll be, Sweeney Todd, with his trusty razors and his resourceful accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who — waste not want not — bakes the corpses of his murdered clients into meat pies.

As Sondheim himself explained in Finishing The Hat, the first part of his wonderful two-part musical diary, he was a big fan of horror stories and horror film scores, like Bernard Hermann’s for Hangover Square. And Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was inspired by chancing upon Christopher Bond’s version of the period melodrama in a little black box London theatre, played for comedy. 

As director Kate Ryan says of her eight-member Sweeney Todd cast — led by the husband and wife team of Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen as the unwholesome couple — “we can really lean into the characters of a piece that Sondheim had always intended to be intimate, small, connected to the audience….” One location, minimalist, small chamber musical dimensions: “it totally works in a Janes sort of way. ” 

Intimate, small … two adjectives that, along with ‘minimalist’, are music to Plain Jane ears. The Broadway premiere, directed by Hal Prince, had a cast of two dozen or more and the massive factory design onstage. But since then there have been ingeniously small-scale stagings, including John Doyle’s 2005 staging in which the cast (led by Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone) also played instruments, and an eight-actor 2014 English production that happened in London’s oldest pie-and-mash shop.

As Ryan explains, the setting of the Plain Janes Sweeney Todd is contemporary, the lunch room in a meat-packing plant. “We wanted a place near blood, inspired by stories of meat!” she says cheerfully. Says Hansen, “the workers have decided to tell the story,” and they grab what’s at hand to assist them — hats, gloves, hairnets, blades.

In this enterprise they have a real-life meat consultant in the person of Sweeney Todd himself. Elter worked in the meat department at the IGA in Peace River from the time he was in Grade 7 to his second year of college. “It was a good job,” he says with a grin. “Lots of blood, bone dust, cuts, stitches….” And the young Elter was on an upward career trajectory. “I started as a cleaner, moved up to grinding hamburger,” and first aid courses later, “eventually I started to learn how to cut meat.” The bosses wanted to send him to a certification course, but in the end (luckily for theatre audiences) “becoming a butcher wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life.” 

In this late-pandemic “I knew I needed to challenge myself,” says Ryan of the first complete Sondheim she’s directed in a career of bringing musicals of every size, shape and profile to the stage. “And I always knew that at some point I needed to work on Sondheim…. The work is always ongoing. You never feel like ‘Oh, we nailed that!’. I knew we’d be constantly learning about this piece,” incidentally one of only two of his musicals initiated by Sondheim himself (the other is Passion), as she points out. 

“His characters and their relationships are complex, messy, driven by huge passionate desires…. What Sondheim has done for all of us is to celebrate all sides of the human experience, the dark, complex, demanding sides. Sweeney Todd is a piece about obsession, revenge. And how we all have those feelings in us.” 

“AND he’s funny, witty, he’s made us laugh at ourselves, our faults, anxieties, doubts,” says Ryan of the particular achievement of Sondheim in “riding the line between horror and hilarity” in Sweeney Todd. “And he puts it in a strong, strictly structured musical platform. It’s cathartic but it feels safe.” Ryan revisits “safe,” and laughs. “Safe, but it’s so hard, so musically difficult!” 

She particularly appreciates the collaboration with musical director Shannon Hiebert, who spends most of her time in the opera world. And the cast includes a mix of veteran musical theatre talents (like Josh Travnik as the Beadle and Vance Avery as the Judge) and newcomers, some with opera specialties. “We’re all learning from each other,” says Ryan “I love when worlds collide!” 

“I love the idea of overwhelming the audience,” says Hansen of the intimate CO*LAB venue where that collision happens. “The show is swirling in the space. And we are an ensemble of storytellers.”

Elter and Hansen have been in Plain Jane musicals before now (It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane It’s Superman for the former, Fiorello! for the latter). Sweeney Todd was gold star “bucket list,” says Hansen. “And “a chance for us to get to do this together” was the capper. 

They’ve been in casts together, Freewill Shakespeare Festival productions in the park among them. But not since Romeo and Juliet in 2006 have they been in leading roles directly with each other. They’re amused by the idea of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett as the natural follow-up to their Romeo and Juliet.

Elter comes to Sondheim after a Dora Award-winning performance in Where The Blood Mixes in Toronto (“one of the most incredible, rewarding experiences of my career!”), and the pairing of Queen Goneril and King Lear at Soulpepper. Hansen is the producer of the Maggie Tree production of The Wolves just ended at the Citadel. 

Like Ryan, they’re struck by the aptness of Sweeney Todd and the Industrial Revolution setting of the original tale for our own moment in history. “Hard-done-by people struggling to live,” says Hansen of the rapidly receding sense of the human community. “‘It’s man devouring man, my dear’,” says Elter, quoting Mr. Todd’s interjection in Mrs. Lovett’s show-stopper A Little Priest.

“There’s something indelibly wrong right now, a society pushing back in human rights,” says Ryan. “The (new) industrial age has dehumanized people, and has turned us against each other.” Is authority inherently corrupt and self-justifying? “We’re seeing our own systems that protect us are turning against us. Even in Canada…. Something needs to change; voices need to be heard.”

“What happens if they’re not, if there’s no action? What drives us to the razor?”  

“It’s not a case of the good guy wins,” as Ryan says. “Anyhow, who is the good guy? Who are these people? There’s a Sweeney in all of us. There’s a Lovett in all of us.” 

PREVIEW

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Theatre: The Plain Jane Theatre Company

Written by: Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler based on the play by Christopher Bond

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Kristi Hansen, Vance Avery, Josh Travnik, Erin Selin, Aran Wilson-McAnally, Jacqueline Hernandez, Mark Sinongco

Where: CO*LAB, 9641 102 A Ave.

Running: Nov. 11 to 20

Tickets: at the door or  tickettailor.com

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On the right track, baby: Vegas Live at the Mayfield, a review

Larissa Poho, Nick Sheculski, Sam Jamieson, Melissa MacPherson, Devra Straker in Vegas Live, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Vegas. The time-honoured holiday fixer-upper for when you want to take a load off, shed your inhibitions and quite a few layers of your clothes, stay up way late, drink giddy drinks, get married, beam come-hither smiles at strangers, use your Westjet points.  

The fun of the big, lavish, flashy, full-sequined, full-body holiday revue that’s singing and dancing its Spandex pants off at the Mayfield is that Vegas Live has given the ‘old Vegas’ of the ‘50s the hook. 

The Rat Pack is nowhere to be seen. Elvis is apparently on research sabbatical. The only lounge lizard is inflatable and prehistoric (shhh, it’s a surprise). And whenever a vintage Vegas is invoked, Vegas Live updates — as in contemporary versions of The Temptations’ Get Ready or Smokey Robinson’s The Tracks of My Tears (Jahlen Barnes). Or else it’s in the key of playful mockery. In a brief appearance Wayne Newton (Brad Wiebe) keeps nodding off mid-song, and has to lie down onstage, a musical corpse with his own pillow. 

Compiled and written by the Mayfield’s team of mystery man Will Marks and Gerrad Everard, the show is a tribute to the Las Vegas of now —  an entertainment capital that’s a destination for some of the world’s hottest contemporary stars in rock, pop, country, soul, funk.… And its larger idea of having a wide cultural embrace does not go amiss in this place (we’re looking at you Alberta) and these parlous, marginalizing times.    

Vegas club owner Bobby (Nick Scheculski) enters at the start, in fishnets and full Frankenfurter mode, “just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.” And he sets the tone with a worldly shrug: acceptance, welcome to all, come as you are, “embrace your inner monologue,” “send your gender on a bender.” The theme song, so to speak, reprised in Act II, is Lady Gaga’s “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way,” and Pamela Gordon nails it.  

Bobby’s onstage companion and fellow narrator (Melissa MacPherson), sweetly dazed, libidinous, and no respecter of boundaries (including taste), has evidently embraced her inner stoner chick. You may tire of this chirpy character in the course of the evening and even perhaps fantasize about nailing a sequined tarp over her. She is, however, a veritable archive of old and mouldy nudge-nudge jokes in a new package.

Pamela Gordon (centre) in Vegas Live, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Anyhow, an ensemble cast of 10 with major musical endowments (including taking a turn or two on banjo, trombone, trumpet, violin) throw themselves into a huge repertoire in every style. And they’re accompanied by an expert five-member band (musical director Van Wilmott). The sound, as always at the Mayfield, is impeccable. 

The visuals are striking. All of the above co-habit, in assorted permutations, a glitzy two-level set, one of the Mayfield’s biggest ever, designed by John Dinning. It speaks to the improbable, a Vegas specialty: a fantasy showroom framed by a glowing translucent neon proscenium that changes colours, translucent walls, gilt palm trees. And there’s an upper-level balcony stage surrounded by flashing lightbulbs (lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy) across which Matt Schuurman’s ever-inventive projections dance, sometimes in abstract designs, sometimes in shadow play. 

And the songs (and Ivan Brozic’s costumes, all glitter and Spandex) keep coming.  

Kudos to choreographer (and, with Wilmott, co-director) Robin Calvert, whose inspirations are detailed, and amusing in every scene. Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling probably has the show mantra wrapped up, “Ain’t nobody leaving’ soon so keep dancing….” Honourable mention to Garth Brooks (Brad Wiebe): “ain’t goin’ down ’til the sun comes up.” There’s even a barroom brawl as the Act I closer. This is a very busy, versatile cast.

Highlights, to pick a few, include Devra Straker digging into Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, Gordon having her way with Alan’s Morissette’s You Oughta Know, Sam Jamieson with Britney Spears’ Toxic, Sheculski with Hozier’s clever Take Me To Church, amusingly staged with a six-member robed choir. 

The most audacious choice, arguably, is Elton John’s The Circle of Life, from The Lion King though, to be fair, that musical has actually played Vegas in a shortened form. To me, setting Pink’s open letter Dear Mr. President (“how do you sleep while the rest of us cry?”) to projections of the current war in Ukraine is a misstep: it exhorts a Bush presidency long gone.

No one has ever accused the Mayfield of being stingy with music; this is a fulsome song list and like Vegas itself an evocation of the shiny spirit of showbiz. And there’s going to be a part 2 next year. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. As Hozier tells us, “I’m a pagan of the good times.”

REVIEW

Vegas Live

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Created and compiled by: Van Wilmott and Gerrad Everard

Directed by: Van Wilmott and Robin Calvert

Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Trevor Coll (Gabriel Antonacci Jan. 10 to 22), Pamela Gordon, Amelia Hironaka, Sam Jamieson, Melissa MacPherson, Larissa Poho, Nick Checulski, Devra Straker, Brad Wiebe

Running: through Jan. 22

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca 

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Face the dusk: off the couch everyone, and into the theatre this weekend

Daniela Vlaskalic in Dora Maar: the wicked one, GAL Productions with Hit & Myth. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Our outdoor colour scheme has gone monochromatic; something weird has happened to the evening lighting. There is an obvious fix: face the gathering darkness, arise from the couch and go to the theatre.

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There’s been a heartening proliferation of new plays so far this month (with more to come). And three of them are ending their runs this weekend, so it’s the moment to show some hustle. 

•At Workshop West, a new Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic play, Dora Maar: the wicked one, gets an exceptionally  charismatic performance by Vlaskalic as the French photographer — a brilliant innovator in her own right, who finds her wings melted by a relationship with the most famous artist in the world, Pablo Picasso. As Dora Vlaskalic single-handedly conjures the exuberant, glittering world of Paris in the ‘30s, on the brink of a cataclysmic darkening toward the end of the decade. And then, the artist who inspired and documented Picasso’s great anti-war painting Guernica found herself tumbling into obscurity. A riveting story, elegantly staged by Blake Brooker in a GAL/ Hit & Myth production. The 12thnight review is here, and an interview with the co-playwrights and director Brooker here. It runs through Sunday. Tickets: workshopwest.org.  

Davina Stewart in Squeamish, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

•At Northern Light Theatre, Squeamish, a creepy solo thriller, has its doubts about the much-vaunted quest for self-knowledge. It’s a bona fide 90-minute tour de force, starring Davina Stewart as a therapist sitting in the shadows tells the story of her own first-hand experience of the aftermath of a funeral. And it escalates — from unsettling to disturbing to horrifying. Aaron Mark’s play is an experiment in seeing what words, storytelling, can do to your equilibrium. 

Read the whole 12thnight review here (and an interview with Stewart, director/designer Trevor Schmidt, and stage manager Liz Allison-Jorde here). It runs through Saturday at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn. Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com.

Steven Greenfield, Andrea House, Elena Porter in The Wrong People Have Money, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At Shadow Theatre, Reed McColm’s The Wrong People Have Money — the title, admit it, a phrase we all regularly use and sigh — spins a comedy from a university class assignment that gets co-opted by big money. The proposition: relocating Greenland a couple of thousand miles south in the Atlantic to a more hospitable tourist-friendly location. The fun is in the comic performances, led by Julien Arnold as the star professor, Andrea House and Steven Greenfield as his go-fers, Linda Grass as the mysterious and glamorous capitalist, and Elena Porter as a lawyer with ethical concerns that are ignored by everyone in the play. Read the full 12thnight review here, and an interview with the playwright here. It runs through Sunday at the Varscona. Tickets: shadowtheatre.org, 780-434-5564.

AND

playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. Photo by Hannah Endicott-Douglas.

A new Canadian holiday musical starts previews Saturday at the Citadel, the theatre that commissioned it, in a Daryl Cloran production. Almost A Full Moon is by the notable playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, a triple-generation story set to the songs of Hawksley Workman’s 2001 Christmas album of the same name. 12thnight talked to the playwright here. It runs through Nov. 27. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

At the Mayfield, Vegas Live! is up and shaking its sequins (through Jan 27), with a new holiday Will Marks/ Gerrard Everard gathering of hits from the pop, rock, soul, country repertoires. Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051.

The Thousand Faces Festival turns the big one-o with CanNatyam: Classical Dance, a showcase of five styles of Indian classical dance, tonight (Nov. 4) and Sunday at La Cité francophone. Tickets: TIX on the Square (tixonthesquare.ca). 

At Concordia University’s CUE Theatre, the run of Meg Braem’s Chrysothemis, a student production directed by Patricia Darbasie, ends on on Sunday. See history’s most famous dysfunctional family, the House of Atreus, from the perspective of Electra’s older sister Chrysothemis, the obscure sister who didn’t even get her own Greek play — till now. Tickets: TIX on the Square (tixonthesquare.ca) or at the door.  

 

 

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Capturing a complicated holiday: a new Canadian musical by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, with songs by Hawksley Workman

playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. Photo by Hannah Endicott-Douglas.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s the first snow of the year/ Guess it happens once a year….” from Almost A Full Moon, Hawksley Workman

“Christmas is a complicated holiday,” says playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, pausing to consider the multiple facets of that show-stopping calendar centrepiece. “So so complicated. Well, it’s about family. And family is complicated.” 

It’s the raison d’être of Almost A Full Moon. the new Canadian holiday musical commissioned by the Citadel, where it officially premieres next week in a production directed by Daryl Cloran. It’s set to the evergreen 20-year-old Christmas album of that name, a sort of seasonal song cycle by Canadian indie rocker/ singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman. And it has lured Toronto-based Corbeil-Coleman, one of the country’s younger generation of playwriting stars (Scratch, The End of Pretending, Guarded Girls), into the world of musicals for the first time. Ah, and into writing about a holiday with which, as she says, “I have a very complicated relationship myself….”

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“That for me was THE most nerve-wracking part of signing on to this project,” Corbeil-Coleman says. Hers is a holiday history steeped in sorrow. “My mother (novelist and arts journalist Carole Corbeil) died when I was young. And what had been this really magical holiday became all about really missing someone, about grief.”

And both the idea and the circumstances of creating a multi-generational show about family — finding one, having one, being in one — have been “transformative” in redeeming the beauty and joy of the holiday season for her, as Corbeil-Coleman explains in her exuberant way. A joint inspiration of the Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran (who’s talked about his family’s annual bonding with the album) and Workman, the notion of the musical floated her way in 2018. 

For her, its creation is part of a birth and rebirth story. She smiles. “Having a child really did transform Christmas,” says Corbeil-Coleman, who’s married to Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck. “I found out I was pregnant when I had my first official meeting,” she says. “I pitched Daryl and Hawksley my idea. And they were so excited, so generous, so I just went for it!” Four months after the birth of her son Dash in 2019, she wrote the first draft of Almost a Full Moon. “And we’ve been developing it ever since,” she says of a show history that has included five weeks with the late lamented Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College, a Zoom workshop as part of the Citadel’s Collider Festival and a live Christmas concert version last year. 

And now, as opening night approaches, Corbeil-Coleman, pregnant again and due in February, laughs that she is making a second baby in addition to a first musical. And actually she has a second musical (with Greg Morrison of Drowsy Chaperone fame) in gestation, too. 

Hawksley Workman. Photo supplied.

One of the draws of an Almost A Full Moon musical for her was that she is by her own description “a huge Hawksley fan… I saw him in concert when I was 17 or 18, and it transformed me. I became obsessed. His sound, his writing … there is something in his music that really spoke to me.” Later in the playwriting program at the National Theatre School, he was her creative soundscape. “I wrote to his music…. If I could go back in time and my 20-year-old self (got told) I’d be writing a musical with this person some day, I’d have lost it!”

Corbeil-Coleman was both an actor and a playwright when she co-wrote (with her best friend Emily Sugarman) and performed in her first play The End of Pretending in 2001. She grew up surrounded by writers and theatre artists (her dad is actor/director Layne Coleman). “But it was the death of my mom (in 2000) that really made me a writer,” she thinks. “It was for me a real coping mechanism at the beginning…. It was the tool I had to express myself, and I really needed to express myself.” 

Post-NTS, she pretty much stopped acting (“I was much happier writing”). An exception, though, was her contribution this past year to Year of the Rat, a series of original solo pieces commissioned by Factory Theatre, and streamed live from each playwright’s own home. Corbeil-Coleman’s Want Now (a title borrowed from the immediate demands of toddler Dash) had to do with living in a house bequeathed to her by her surrogate mother, playwright/actor Linda Griffiths (who passed away in 2014), always wondering if she’s “acting” her life. “When I’m telling my own story, being the face of it … I’m interested in that kind of storytelling.” 

What is it about Workman’s music that appeals so strongly? “I felt very familiar with his voice…. It’s a sense of humour that really aligns with my humour,” she considers. “And leading with the heart: that also runs in my work.” 

“He captures a feeling really really well,” she says of Workman’s gift for storytelling through music. And, as his history as a cabaret performance artist attests — witness his cabaret The God That Comes — Workman is a musician strikingly tuned to theatricality, and to characters as the ‘voices’ of his songs. “I was really able to feel the story coming off of them.. I did a lot of listening, a lot of imagining and letting the images come!” 

In short, “I knew this was a match that could work,” she says. “Now I’ve listened so much to his music. And I wake up every morning with another song from a musical in my head!” The song list from the musical — 10 actors strong with a six-member band — is joined by songs from elsewhere in the Workman canon. “Always room for discovery!” 

“When I was pitching my idea, I explained that I had different relationships with Hawksley’s music at different stages of my life.… That’s what so wonderful about music. About any art, right? You can explore it when you’re a teenager, and in your 20s or 30s it changes….”  

That thought has found its way into the structure of Corbeil-Coleman’s new musical, with its weave of generations, of three stories from different time periods. “I was interested in having people share songs in different times, and having it mean something different….”   

For the playwright it’s been important that the musical capture the holiday, “in all its beauty, the complications, and yes the sadness…. I wanted people to be able to bring all their feelings to the musical and feel they were seen a little.”

As for three-year-old Dash, who’s visiting from Toronto for a week, he’ll be bringing his own excitement to the theatre — though perhaps not to the house seats. ‘We’ll bring him in for part of the music rehearsal,’ says Corbeil-Coleman, who doesn’t quite trust Dash yet not to talk and ask questions out loud all the way through the show. “Because he just loves music. Ryan (musical director Ryan DeSouza) is going to take him down to the pit to meet the band. I’ll be great!”

PREVIEW

Almost A Full Moon

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

Music by: Hawksley Workman

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Alicia Barban, Felix deSousa, Chariz Faulmino, Peter Fernandes, Kayden Forsberg, Kendrick Mitchell, Amanda Mella Rodriguez, Luc Tellier, Lyne Tremblay, Patricia Zentilli

Running: Nov. 5 to 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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Love takes us backstage at a kids’ TV show: Die-Nasty lathers up for a new season of Monday night episodes

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Suds alert: We’re backstage at DNTV, a television studio where tensions are on red alert and the real drama happens in this age of streaming. 

TV executives, actors both human and puppet, camera people, script writers and doctors, directors, production assistants, make-up artists, assorted showbiz egos are working up a lather. Studio boss Sidney Caulfield (Tom Edwards) is clutching his two top shows: Helping Hands for kids and the reality show Thirst Trap Island for, you know, the seekers of guilty pleasures.  

What could possibly go wrong, right?

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Die-Nasty, Edmonton’s deluxe Canadian Comedy Award-winning improv company, returns Monday night with a new season. And like its immediate predecessor Die-Nasty’s 32nd year of live all-improvised serial soap, Love, Death, and Doctors divides the season into three eight-week mini-series. The first, which runs Monday nights through Dec. 19) is set backstage in the TV studio, “a cross between 30 Rock, Sesame Street and Noises Off.” The second, Death, is a murder mystery lit in noir-ish tones. The third, Doctors, is something medical, which implies that the odd corpse may be involved.   

In uncertain times, improvisers (who tend to come from the theatre in this theatre town) are way more able to commit short-term, as the company’s new co-artistic director Jason Hardwick (who shares the gig with Delia Barnett) explains. And “after a rocky two years” of pandemical hard-scrabble it makes sense to start with Love, he says. “Die-Nasty has always been such a fun-loving place and it had started to feel like ‘real work’. I just want to get that family feeling back…. I want this to be a fun place to be.” 

Hardwick, a dancer and tap-dancer specialist by trade (and a Grant MacEwan musical theatre grad “in the Tim Ryan years”), laughs. “I learned everything I know about acting doing Die-Nasty with (the likes of) Jeff Haslam, Cathleen Rootsaert, Stephanie Wolfe….” He first guested on Die-Nasty in “the Italian fashion year,” as Bob Fussy. And “the Tennessee Williams year” was a Hardwick favourite too. 

What he and Barnett are after, he says, is “soapy layers,” a mingling of drama and laughter. “We’re funny, we’re serious, we’re funny because we’re serious.… It can be over the top, big choices, a heightened sense of reality.” Ellen Chorley is the director of Love. And she’s a perfect fit: a playwright, the director of Nextfest and the artistic director of both a kids’ theatre company (Promise Productions) and a burlesque troupe (Send in the Girls). 

The idea of puppet characters mingling with human characters was his. “Bonkers,” he admits cheerfully. “All of us love puppets!” he says of the discovery at preliminary workshops that the ensemble is full of people who live with them. “Who knew?” His own blue wide-mouthed puppet, featured on the poster, may well turn out to be a production assistant, or an ingenue. 

The prevailing idea of Die-Nasty that sets it apart, is a dramatic storyline, made up on the spot before your very eyes, that plays out in weekly instalments. It’s so fluent, so expert, that you sometimes have to wonder if it’s scripted and rehearsed: it’s not. 

Hardwick and Barnett are planning a new website (“with a catch-up feature: what happened last week?”) and a newsletter. Every Monday night, after the improvisers briefly introduce their characters (“the hot 30s”), he’s thinking of a “Previously On … with three lines from the previous episodes. Yup, stolen from Netflix.”

In the new year,  after Love, mystery novelist Janice MacDonald returns to direct the murder mystery series Death. Everything about Doctors, the finale 8-week mini-series, is to be announced. 

Die-Nasty star Stephanie Wolfe has long referred to Die-Nasty as “bowling night.” Hardwick laughs. “This is bowling night, with a bowling trophy.”

PREVIEW

Love

Die-Nasty: The Live Improvised Soap Opera

Directed by: Ellen Chorley

Starring: Stephanie Wolfe, Kristi Hansen, Jason Hardwick, Vincent Forcier, Nikki Hulowski, Kelly Turner, Delia Barnett, Joey Lucius, Gordie Lucius, Kirsten Throndson. With special guests

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Mondays (starting Oct. 31) through Dec. 19, followed by two other 8-week mini-series

Tickets: dienastysoaps.com/tickets or at the door

     

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Flying too near the sun: the hunger for artistic inspiration in Dora Maar: the wicked one, a review

Daniela Vlaskalic in Dora Mar: the wicked one, GAL Productions with Hit & Myth. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Images of fire, flames, burning, melting are everywhere in Dora Maar: the wicked one, a compelling new solo play by Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic (The Drowning Girls, Comrades, Mules) presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre to launch their new season.

At its centre is an insight into the high price tag on artistic inspiration. We meet an artist who plays with fire to be near a heat source.

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The most famous artist in the world, both a heavy-hitter and a celebrity, is in the play. But Picasso isn’t onstage. The stage, bare save for two photography lights, belongs to Dora Maar, an innovative French photographer, 29 when she met the 55-year-old star painter, at the start of her own bright career. Ah, as she says at the outset, the moment “when life was a hydrogen balloon, going up and up and up.” 

Dora’s story loops back, again and again, to the Greek myth of Icarus, who leapt into the wild blue yonder on his wax and feather wings, flew too close to the sun, thrilled by its beauty and his own freedom — and plummeted into the sea.  

It’s not easy to capture the heat of inspiration onstage (as we know from the deadening experience watching characters with furrowed brows bent furiously over their computers or in front of their easels). In Dora Maar, best known since the 30s and 40s as Picasso’s lover, model, and muse, Graham and Vlaskalic have fashioned a character irresistibly attracted to the seductive energy of creation, in herself and in others. She expresses herself in playful, extravagant ways. “He burns so brightly,” she says of Picasso. “We drink to the agony of creation … we drink to the shape of my earlobe!” she laughs, reporting the high-wattage of her new relationship.  

The mercurial character we meet in Vlaskalic’s alert, charismatic performance has a kind of confident sparkle at the outset; she exults in her world — her friendships with the big shots of Surrealism, her experiments in marrying photography to Surrealism in original montages. Even her commercial photographs, for high-end fashion and booze clients, have bold weirdness to them: severed limbs, bizarre contortions, a ceiling that’s a floor, human chandelier, a Chanel-draped model with a cut-out star for a head. Dora wants to surprise, and she “likes being seen.” 

Daniela Vlaskalic in Dora Maar: the wicked one, GAL Productions with Hit & Myth. Photo supplied.

Additionally (and perhaps this is the photographer in her), she brings a leftist spirit to her aesthetic. She’s hip to the dark political drift to the right in the late ‘30s and feels the responsibility of expressing that in art. The play’s multi-faceted portrait of the artist — photographer, painter, documentarian, poet — is in sync with Picasso’s celebrated portraits of Dora Maar — all intersecting planes, fractures, distortions, in profile and full-face simultaneously. She seems to look in several directions at the same time, and inwardly too. So does this new play, that premiered this past spring at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary.

One of the appeals of the play, and of Dora Maar as its amused observer, is the eloquent capture of a City of Light milieu and period that seems fantastical to us now. Paris in the ‘30s, “another party, another chateau,” more champagne, more sex, outrageous influencers who were actually talented, Man Ray emerging from a birdcage where he’s been “taking pictures of his penis … again!” An astonishing array of groundbreakers, where the answer to every question is “why don’t you ask Gertrude Stein?” There is, as per Dora Maar’s fascinating survey of a world soon to be at war, a lot to lose. Peter Moller’s evocative modernist soundscape, with its ominous undercurrents, glints with memories.

As Blake Brooker’s elegantly minimalist staging conveys, Dora Maar had found her light, in the cross-beam of two lamps. And her fall from sky into the darkness of a full-fledged breakdown, is a tragic one, as we see vividly in Vlaskalic’s performance. It’s an image captured by the stage’s sole embellishment — two birds, one with melted wings by T. Erin Gruber, and by the dramatic lighting designed by David Fraser. After a decade in which Dora Maar has supported, even propelled, Picasso through dangers and terrors of the Occupation, their passionate, tempestuous relationship (“beyond sex, beyond love, beyond comprehension”) stops.  

Having supplanted both his wife (the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova) and his mistress (Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of his daughter) as lover and muse, Dora, feisty and outspoken, is replaced, brutally, by a younger more compliant woman. The cruelty of an artist who needs fresh young blood for inspiration is shocking. Picasso the bull is a beast. And the insight into artistic creation and the magnetism of power, fame, and ego is tough-minded, to say the least.

The vivacious young artist, who revels in new ideas, seems almost physically reduced, to the vanishing point. Vlaskalic’s performance lingers in the mind.

The playwrights and director Blake Brooker talked to 12thnight in a PREVIEW. Check it out here.

Dora Maar: the wicked one

Theatre: GAL Productions with Hit & Myth, presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic

Directed by: Blake Brooker

Starring: Daniela Vlaskalic

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Nov. 6

Tickets: workshopwest.org

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Theatres are haunted places. A ghostly meet-and-greet in Dead Centre of Town XIII

Dead Centre of Town, Catch the Keys Productions. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Imagine, if you will, a place where where live people are haunted by imaginary people. Where they inhabit the lives of others, and stories come to life when the lights are out. A place of strange rituals, where “break a leg!” is a slogan of good luck….  

Yes, theatres are genuinely eerie places. They’re inhabited by ghosts — of people who existed and people who were imagined by people who existed.

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Catch the Keys Productions knows where the bodies are buried. For their 13th nocturnal excursion into our our civic history Dead Centre of Town takes us into a real theatre, the vintage Capitol Theatre on 1920 Street in Fort Edmonton Park. It’s a beautiful reproduction of a theatre (c. 1929) that was once to be found on Jasper Avenue, in the heart of a lively entertainment district that is no more.  

It’s one of their best. Even when theatres are dark, they’re never really empty, after all. There’s always a single ‘ghost light’ hanging over the stage, just to make sure the resident phantoms feel at home. 

Fort Edmonton at night is a shivery spot; you’re walking into the graveyard where the secrets of our macabre civic history lie slumbering. And, as playwright Megan Dart has found, stories can come to life. As always in Dead Centre of Town, you start around a bonfire under the dark sky, the traditional gathering place of ghost stories and their tellers.  

Colin Matty, Dead Centre of Town, Catch the Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Expertly managed by pale spectres (Christine Lesiak and Adam Keefe look freshly dug up, so to speak), and narrated by tall lanky Colin Matty, Beth Dart’s production immerses us in the mysterious world of theatre. It’s crammed with theatre stuff, old costumes, ropes, heads where wigs once stood (designed by John and Kat Evans and Ian Walker). We loop from onstage to backstage, through the dimly lit hallways of the theatre labyrinth the audience never gets to see into prop rooms, the shop where sets were made. We see the view from the house seats, we hear the ghostly sound of two hands clapping. Where’s the laughter coming from? (designer: Michael Caron). We find ourselves in the lobby, the portal to the so-called “real” world. 

And we meet the unruly theatre ghosts who never sleep because, as we all know, theatre is all-consuming. There’s the projectionist at the Garneau Theatre who may have met a terrible fate (Jake Tkaczyk); the ‘princess’ of the Princess Theatre (Sarah Emslie); the undead fireman (Murray Farnell) who haunts the ex-firehall Walterdale Theatre; the ghost of the Bus Barns (Max Hanic) where the Fringe now creates theatre. And we meet an uncanny little girl (Dayna Lee Hoffman) who seems to know every nook and cranny of the Capitol. 

“Edmonton’s only live action thriller” has found its natural home. You have till Sunday to catch it there (7:30 and 9:30 p.m. nightly).  Tickets (which can be bundled with Dark): fortedmontonpark

12thnight talks to playwright Megan Dart in this preview.

 

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‘Everyday horror’ mined for comedy: that’s Girl Brain, and they’re back

Caley Suliak, Ellie Heath, Alyson Dicey of Girl Brain, in the luxury bathroom at Theatre Network. Photo by Brianne Jang, bb collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make a sketch comedy trio revel in being together again — in person, in a spanky theatre, rehearsing a new show, with a fog machine. 

“Where are we?” says Ellie Heath in something like wonder. “The delight! The excitement! We’re like little girls at a sleepover putting on a show for our parents….”

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Where Girl Brain is this weekend, Thursday through Sunday, is the beautiful Lorne Cardinal black box theatre at Theatre Network’s Roxy. Where Heath, Alyson Dicey and Caley Suliak were to be found Monday afternoon is in their separate apartments, in the living room called Zoom sharing a screen. 

It’s especially sweet to be doing a live in-person full-length show, says Suliak, after a summer of busy-ness in which the three had very separate gigs, positive reinforcement for the link between sketch comedy and theatre. Both she and Heath had solo Fringe shows, The Paladin and Fake n’ Bake respectively, the one at La Cité francophone and the other at the Roxy. Dicey got bronzed out in the sun in a perpetual motion multi-tasking assignment running the KidsFringe. They’ve been writing sketches for the new show ever since. 

Togetherness, just hanging out, seems like a treat. “So great to be collaborating with my besties,” Suliak says. “Having somebody to pump you up backstage … after doing a solo show and being by myself in the dressing room,” the very definition of solitude,   

After a couple of years of bizarre, often lonely, and far from comical, pandemic separateness, they wondered (as we all do) who they are and what still makes them laugh in the fall of 2022. “The heart of what we do remains intact!” she says. 

Caley Suliak, Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath of Girl Brain, at Theatre Network. Photo by Brianne Jang, bb collective

The three actors/ writers/ best friends who share Girl Brain specialize in mining the “ordinary” absurdities and hypocrisies of the world. Which, unsurprisingly, have not gone away. You know, those familiar moments of life when, as Dicey says, “you wish you could just dissolve into the wall.” Or moments of maximum irritation when regular people overstay their welcome and turn into  “nightmare people.” And as for dating? An endless treasure trove of embarrassment, aggro … and sketch possibilities. 

All of the above find their way into the Girl Brain show we’ll see at the Roxy, a mix of the new and “the re-vamped and improved,” as Dicey says. In honour of the spooky season, they’d originally thought of “true crime” as a through-line. Now it’s a a riff on Halloween that she calls “everyday horror.” 

Naturally, Dicey’s thoughts turned instantly to costumes. ‘What is my biggest pet peeve? I’ll dress as that…. People who don’t follow through with the promises they make to you.” Costume concepts don’t come more impossible than that. Not going to happen. Incidentally, feel empowered to attend Girl Brain wearing a costume yourself; there’s a costume contest, with prizes, every show.

“All our shows are scary, kind of spooky in a way,” Dicey laughs, “because we’re always talking about the things that annoy us, things in life that are scary…. Yup, everyday horror.” 

“The Overstayers,” for example, was inspired by her brother’s experience on a joint cabin holiday retreat with another couple and their kids who more or less moved in, ate all the food, drank the booze even though they had their own cabin. And how’s this for everyday horror? “The ex- of the guy you just started dating shows up at a party, and you think, at the moment, ‘this is the worse moment of my life’…. Later, it’s ‘what was I thinking? If only I could have seen how silly it really was’.”  

Suliak plays “a lot of men in the show,” she says. “Which is not horrifying to me, but might be them!” (laughter all round). “One sketch took me quite a bit of time to write because it was actually very personal, dredging up those feelings…. How do I make this funny? I don’t want to revisit this. But I should. Because I think it’s relatable.” 

And “relatable” is a veritable mantra with Girl Brain. As Heath says, “it’s fun to find parts of our every day lives that get under our skin…. In rehearsal, we get together and have creative conversations about the little things that make us laugh….” It’s how Girl Brain came into being in the first place. 

They play a wide assortment of characters in the sketches they write, sometimes for themselves to play and sometimes with each other in mind. Heath’s specialty, she thinks, is “high-strung female characters. I like really wacky, crazy characters. Kooks…. Actually I think we all do. That’s probably why we get along.”

Favourite characters in the show? For Dicey it might be the woman who’s unstoppably excited about her Bosch washer and drier, “Inspired by my mom but bigger and sillier!” For Suliak “there are so many lovable, ridiculous, and yes hatable characters in the show that I can’t pick just one.”  

As for Heath, it’s “The Weeping Vag,” a recurring sketch she narrates, à la Masterpiece Theatre, “as a storytelling nymph.” Her Girl Brain cohorts nod their assent. For the new show designer Tessa Stamp has fashioned them a handsome historical tome, a volume apparently direct from the medieval period. It looks “so ancient, so precious,” as Dicey says, “containing the stories and traumas of womanhood we need to pass on.…” 

Stamp wondered if she might decorate the grand volume “like an ornate vagina,” Heath reports. “Absolutely!” Then “is a tampon string hanging from it too much?” Nope, “great!” was the response.

“With a book mark that’s furry,” smiles Heath sweetly, and pauses. “Yup, we’re back!” 

[And they’re back again at the Roxy with another new show Dec. 16 to 18, too]. 

PREVIEW

Girl Brain

Starring: Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak, with special guests Natasha Lyn Myles (Oct. 27) and Tiff Hall (Oct. 28 to 30)

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 10708 124 St.

Running: Thursday through Sunday 

Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca

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