Sad news: In Barbara Reese Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist

Barbara Reese, painted in the 1970s by Margaret Mooney.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

With the death last month of Barbara Reese, Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist, a generous collaborator and friend to artists, and an irreplaceable player in the drama of its history.

Her departure has left us a little unpinned from the days in which theatre here began to proliferate and boom — as a hinterland city 2,000 miles from Toronto gradually, but strikingly, took on the energy and colour palette of a bona fide theatre town.

Her embrace was wide and warm: Reese was onstage at every Edmonton theatre, from the largest playhouse, the Citadel (Uncle Vanya and The Trojan Women were among her credits), to the start-ups, like Workshop West and Theatre Network, that were springing up as alternatives in the late ‘70s. The Reese resumé includes Walterdale, the U of A’s Studio Theatre, and Theatre 3, the company out of whose ashes Phoenix Theatre arose. Fringe audiences enjoyed Reese’s performances too, in plays like Cut!, a witty theatre spoof by Lyle Victor Albert. “Cliché as it sounds her favourite show was always the one with which she was currently involved,” says her actor/ director/ teacher son Larry Reese, who appeared with his mother in more than a few films.

Reese was awarded the Sterling for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre in 1997. And by no means did she stop then. 

Her career, on stage and screen, first took off in the ‘70s in Edmonton, where she and her husband Will Reese, a science educator, poet, and notable storyteller in his later years, re-located from the U.S. and became Canadian citizens. Another invaluable grand dame of the theatre, Margaret Mooney, remembers working with Reese in the box office of the old Citadel, in the ex-Sally Ann citadel on 102 St. She recalls walking with her friend from the “new Citadel” to the Westin Hotel for lunch. “The doorman rushed over and said he’d seen Barbara in a play and raved and carried on! This was charming,” says Mooney, who painted her friend’s portrait in the 1970s.  

Reese taught in the Citadel’s “Drama Workshops.” The brochure for the 1971-71 season describes her as “a highly competent and popular returnee to Workshop staff … much in demand as a performer in radio and television.” Her experience, says the blurb, “includes acting and directing theatrical productions from East Pakistan to Edmonton.”

Barbara Reese

In 1979, the second season of Workshop West, a new company devoted to the Canadian repertoire, its founding father Gerry Potter remembers directing Reese in David French’s Of The Fields, Lately, the second of his seminal Mercer family saga (she appeared in the series’ first play Leaving Home at Walterdale). She played Mary, the mom character and Mercer family mediator in “the production that put the company in the public eye in Edmonton,” says Potter, not least “by later winning what was called the First Night Award for Outstanding Production…. Much of that attention was due to Barbara’s carefully crafted but very passionate performance.”

Stephen Heatley, an early artistic director of another of Edmonton’s new “small theatres” Theatre Network, and now a drama prof at UBC, remembers Reese in The Oldest Profession, the Paula Vogel play (in Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming season lineup) that was part of Network’s annual exchange with Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre in the ‘80s.

He himself directed Barbara in Raymond Storey’s thriller The Angel of Death in 1983. “She played the housekeeper and was truly wonderful.” He describes her as “such a generous performer and such a wonderful person to have in the cast. She really was like a mom to all of us. And she had a wicked sense of humour.”

She left her mark, literally, at the old Network, a very funky ex-Kingdom Hall near Northlands. “The space at Network was tiny and Daniel (designer Daniel Van Heyst) had designed a staircase that supposedly went to an attic; it was actually more like a clothes closet,” says Heatley. “Barbara’s character was to head up the stairs with a lantern and get suddenly yanked by ‘something’…. The stage walls were only made of tentest, and she launched up the stairs as directed, braced herself against the wall at the top and went right through. She was OK, but there was a patch on that wall up until the day we moved out of that space!”

Reese’s screen resumé includes such films as Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, Road to Saddle River directed by Francis Damberger, and Jake’s Gate, a short film made and directed by Potter. By then Reese was in her ‘80s.  “We filmed some of that piece in mid-winter, outside,” recalls Potter. “Barbara cheerfully stood around in the 30-below weather and knee-deep in snow, waiting for us to get the shot right.” 

“She took the sketchily-written supporting role I wrote, and made it into a sensitive and moving performance. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because her work was always so committed and empathetic.” 

Anecdotes from Reese’s theatre colleagues invariably allude to the fun of working with her, her graciousness and sense of humour. Judy Unwin was a cast-mate in Dirty Work At The Crossroads, the first of Walterdale’s series of Klondike melodramas at the Strand Theatre in the ‘60s. Reese was the “femme fatale.” Says Unwin, “I played the ingenue, Purity Dean and I was a rookie, 19 maybe…. Barbara was so giving. She was so helpful, so generous to me. And she was funny! Very gracious. I’ll always think of her smile!”

Potter echoes the thought. “Barbara’s working attitude was always calm, supportive, and full of good humour and wit. A pleasure to work with for a director and for the entire team…. Her calm and focused demeanour in a rehearsal hall starkly contrasted with the fire she could bring to a performance.”

She has left her mark.

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Heisenberg: the zigzag path to romance, at Shadow Theatre. A review

Glenn Nelson, Amber Borotsik in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s named for a scientific principle that’s all about the unprincipled nature of the particulate world — its randomness and unpredictability.

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(You can’t measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously with any precision, according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Which makes it, to the layperson non-scientist sitting in a theatre, potentially way more fun than, say, the Theory of Relativity or gravity or any of the laws of thermodynamics). 

Anyhow, Heisenberg, by the Brit playwright Simon Stephens (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame), has a lot more to do with oddball chemistry, and unexpected sparks, than with physics — as you’ll see in Shadow Theatre’s production, now running at the Varscona (a 200-seat house). It starts with an encounter between strangers in a London railway station. Georgie (Amber Borotsik), a 40-something free spirit of American provenance impulsively kisses the neck of Alex a quiet, reserved 75-year-old Irish butcher who’s sitting on a bench.

There’s no use asking why this happens. Georgie seems as surprised as Alex. And in the unpredictable exchanges that follow, she seems to blurt out, then qualify, then amend or deny or contradict, in the same breath, whatever occurs to her in the moment. Verbal pinball, you might say. “I’m an assassin. I’m not really….” Or “We never had children. Which is one thing. I don’t regret it. I do really.”

Does she have a husband? Is she a waitress at Ottolenghi’s fancy restaurant? Might she actually have a son? “It’s best to assume that everything I told you was a complete fabrication,” Georgie tells Alex when next they meet.

Amber Borotsik, Glenn Nelson in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

It’s a relationship of sudden, unexpected “next’s.” And the way it evolves into a romance, by a kind of unplanned (or is it?) seductiveness, surprises Alex by turning out to be irresistible.

The charismatic Borotsik captures the startling but appealing charm of Georgie, who never shuts up, flits from thought to thought, and gradually erodes Alex’s life-time of defences by her sheer animation, persistence, and fleeting moments of attentiveness. She’s a hard person to say no to, as you’ll see in Borotsik’s performance. This captivating and capricious kook may in the end be maddening (she predicts this), but she’s the sworn enemy of the boring response; “I have a complete inability to control my own language.”

Amber Borotsik and Glenn Nelson in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

And Nelson creates a character whose layers of habits, reserve, and caution conceals untapped depths. Alex has a surprising kind of sturdiness; he thinks about his answers before presenting them to a free-associative barrage of questions. In one of my favourite scenes, Georgie suddenly asks him what sort of music he listens to, and dismisses his answer, all kinds, like so much fluff: “everybody says that.” Alex surprises her, and us, by carefully listing a couple of dozen different genres of music, symphonic to “the music that came out of Manchester at the end of the eighties.” Who knew?

In John Hudson’s production and Elise CM Jason’s design, the actors move bits and pieces of the set on and off, to abruptly change location. Which is about right for the zigzags of this hopeful little two-hander. Darrin Hagen’s lush and wistful-unto-angsty score is lovely. But it plays very loudly between scenes, and seems a little heavy-handed and melancholy for a play as light and whimsical and quirky as Heisenberg.

Which brings us back to a sense of uncharted possibility that a romance named after the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle seems to promise. Human relationships and even romance hatch out of the unlikeliest locations, and take courses that you just can’t predict. It’s not a profound insight, in truth, but it has an appealing bright side. Something to enjoy in dark times.

REVIEW

Heisenberg

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Simon Stephens

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Glenn Nelson

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 29

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

    

  

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The Children: a mystery, and a subtle Wild Side production. A review

Coralie Cairns in The Children, Wild Side Productions. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a play that domesticates a big issue, to find a more expansively human one, The Children is it.

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By the hot young Brit playwright Lucy Kirkwood, the fascinating  2015 “eco-thriller” that Wild Side Productions has brought to the Roxy (a venue, incidentally, set up for 90-seat houses) has as a given a nuclear disaster. Imagine, if you will, a play with a nuclear disaster in it that isn’t about nuclear disasters.

It’s set in a non-rustic English seaside cottage in the aftermath of a meltdown at the local nuclear power plant. That’s where a couple of retired nuclear scientists, Hazel (Coralie Cairns) and Robin (David McNally) are holed up, just outside the “Exclusion Zone.” Life apparently goes on, though it has a kind of improvised scramble about it: the electricity is intermittent, the menu is limited, and there’s a Geiger counter at hand to measure radiation.

What triggers this absorbing play, from the outset, is a mystery: the unannounced visit of Rose (Ruth Alexander), an ex-colleague of Hazel and Robin they haven’t seen for 38 years. Hazel turns around, and there she is, with a bleeding nose. Why has Rose come? 

At first, along with Hazel, we think we know. In the chit-chat between the two women — barbed from Hazel, evasive from the more ebullient Rose — we get, for example, the information that the former has four children, the latter none. And we catch the vibe of sexual tension and hostility, that Rose may have had a thing, long ago, with Hazel’s husband.

As Cairns conveys in an alert performance full of prickly cordiality and too-quick retorts, careful Hazel — her mantra: ‘if you’re not going to grow, why live’ — is on red alert for signs that the visit is all about reviving that past. It’s a very English kind of social hostility.

The Children unfolds like a particularly subtle thriller, in dropped hints and pauses and inflections, and the odd startling declaration and curved ball, that director Jim Guedo (who’s also the designer of the set, the pulsing score, the overcast lighting) orchestrates in an adept and savvy way with his three actors. As Rose, Alexander captures a disconcerting mix of forthrightness and retreat into more conciliatory tones. And McNally, making a welcome return to the stage, has a kind of remembered ease as Robin, the scientist-turned-farmer who makes his own wine and goes off into the Exclusion Zone daily to tend cows. 

Why has Rose come? What signifies the play’s elusive title? The intimate way The Children introduces and escalates ever-thornier questions about guilt and the responsibility of the older generation to fix the messes it’s made — and the younger generation have inherited — is surprising, ingenious, and disturbing. More I mustn’t tell you, except to say that The Children could hardly be more topical, though not in ways you might predict. The two women of the play have opposing views, and there are moral footholds on both sides.

So, two visions of the future and its orientation to the past. The one moment of accord is a giddy dance to the pop music of the three characters’ shared memory bank. It’s an unexpected, strangely perfect moment in Guedo’s production. The revelations mount incrementally; the ending is shattering.

Check out the 12thnight PREVIEW, with director Guedo, here.

REVIEW

The Children

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Wild Side Productions

Written by: Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Ruth Alexander, Coralie Cairns, David McNally

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through March 22

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Wild Side Productions brings a hot-button ‘eco-thriller’ to the Roxy: The Children

The Children, Wild Side Productions.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The wild side (to borrow the name of the indie theatre company) is where the questions live. The answers are conditional, elusive, to be discussed. 

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“I’m drawn to plays that ask more questions than give answers,” says Jim Guedo of Wild Side Productions and its tilt towards the powerful contemporary repertoire. “Plays that embrace contradictions, that can’t be boiled down to a TV Guide synopsis….” And you don’t have to hunt them down. As Guedo puts it, “the plays find you.”

The 2016 play that opens Thursday in the Roxy Performance Series is one of those. There’s a mystery attached to The Children, a suspenseful “eco-thriller” by the rising young Brit theatre star Lucy Kirkwood. In the aftermath of a nuclear power station meltdown on the English east coast, a couple of retired nuclear physicists have put a life together in a seaside cottage. And they’re visited by an ex-colleague of 40 years ago they haven’t seen for 38. Why has she come? “No one knows. That’s the elephant in the room.”

“There’s a slow burn to it,” says Guedo, who’s just finished directing another slow-burn play, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at MacEwan University where he’s head of the theatre department. “You don’t find out till two-thirds through The Children where it’s going….”

An eco-disaster, a poisoned environment — they give The Children an immediate sort of topicality. But the surface “subject” isn’t why he picked it for Wild Side. “I wanted to do a play about characters who are … seniors,” he says. “People who are over the age of 60 and they’re smart, they’re sexy, they’re clever.”

“Which opens things up to broader questions about what responsibility does the older generation have to the young. Name your topic … we helped build it,” says Guedo. “We made the mess. Should we be part of the solution to fix it?” The Children expands from its setup to embrace thoughts about that.

An immediate inspiration to direct The Children came from reading an interview with Patti Smith, in her younger years a New York avant-garde punk queen and now in her ‘70s. “Do the rebellious, revolutionary icons still have something to say?” Guedo was struck by Smith’s declaration that “I’m more worried about bumble bees than terrorism.” 

The generation that “broke the ground for all of us” has aged. So, muses Guedo at 62, “is it ‘I’ve done my bit, time to relax in the sunset!’ or do you keep going? People (at that age) are forced to make a decision to stay engaged. Or not.”

Guedo agrees that in the set-up, the arrival of “the other woman” who rattles the equilibrium of a couple, there are echoes of Harold Pinter, with his sinister outsiders, pauses, verbal fragments. “You don’t know what games are being played. But this is less oblique…. Once (the visitor) reveals her real intent, everything falls into place — ah, so that’s why this, or that, happened…. “ It all unspools in one room, in real time.

Interestingly,  of the seven plays Guedo has produced for Wild Side Productions since he arrived back in Edmonton from years in Saskatoon, five (“without planning it”) happen to be by female playwrights: Sarah Ruhl, Anne Washburn, Bess Mohl, and now Lucy Kirkwood. In The Children, the latter, in her mid-30s, has written a play about characters in their mid-‘60s. “Without lecturing, with haranguing, she challenges our perceptions,” says Guedo. “Everyone’s flawed. And she touches on hot-button topics without there being a political soapbox.”

“It straddles so many levels…. But all we can play is the human, what happens in that room in an hour and 50 minutes. It’s more about taking responsibility than it is about climate change, or the danger of nuclear power…. It’s fun. Funny. And the characters, nuclear engineers are intelligent and quirky.” Guedo ponders to land the right comparison for this unclassifiable play. “OK, if Noel Coward met Edward Albee in a back alley and wrestled, with a bit of Pinter, and some Caryl Churchill thrown in….”

PREVIEW

The Children

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Wild Side Productions

Written by: Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Ruth Alexander, Coralie Cairns, David McNally

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through March 22

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

  

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Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle comes to theatre, at Shadow. Meet Amber Borotsik

Amber Borotsik, Glenn Nelson in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there. Did you know that?” Heisenberg

“It’s a slippery thing,” muses Amber Borotsik. “I love it; it’s so complex. It makes me exhale (she does, like someone about to whistle), and shake my head.”

She’s talking about Heisenberg — and Georgie Burns, the mercurial character, wildly unpredictable and volatile, she plays alongside Glenn Nelson in the Simon Stephens two-hander that opens Thursday in a Shadow Theatre production. “It captivated me and scared me at the same time.”

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Heisenberg, the scientific “uncertainty principle” we all remember (in my case pretty vaguely) from school, is all about randomness. The Wikipedia oracle says the idea is that you can measure the velocity or the position of a subatomic particle, but not at the same time. “The act of watching something changes it,” ventures Borotsik. She cites the user-friendly analogy provided by her partner actor/ dancer/ improv star Jesse Gervais, who’s currently in Edmonton Opera’s Candide. “If you lose your lighter between two cushions on the couch, when you reach down to find it, you’re pushing it farther away, harder to find….”

Glenn Nelson, Amber Borotsik in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

The 2015 play by the Brit writer who adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, joins a cluster of hits — like David Auburn’s Proof, Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Nick Payne’s Constellations — that take physics into the theatre, and the laboratory of human relationships. Here, an off-centre romance is launched when, out of the blue, Alex (Glenn Nelson), a solitary, mild-mannered 75-year-old butcher of Irish origins, is suddenly kissed on the neck by a much younger, free-spirited stranger as he sits on a bench in a London railway station.

That would be Georgie, “possibly winsome and maybe psychotic” as she says of herself. She is, in a word, a handful. For actors, whose natural tendency is to apply themselves vigorously to figuring out intention in every moment of a script, Georgie is a challenge, possibly a nightmare. “Her flips, from moment to moment, even in a sentence …” Borotsik shakes her head, in wonder at the contradictions. Logic and causality have nothing to do with her, “not in any way,” says Borotsik. “Quicksilver, I like that word.”

Does Georgie have an agenda, a plan? “I don’t know that she goes into it with any intention,” muses Borotsik, who recently co-starred (with Nathan Cuckow) in another difficult two-hander, last season’s Wild Side production of Poison. “She’s beyond that, not destined for a traditional relationship in any way…. The through line is all over the place.”

Glenn Nelson, Amber Borotsik in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

“I find this play really hard, really complex, challenging in a good way. I have to ground myself. Go for a walk. Take a breath.”

Borotsik’s multi-faceted career, as an actor/dancer playwright/choreographer, has always been about marrying contemporary dance and theatre. “It’s exciting to see so many more opportunities for that,” she says. Her year has included time in Montreal working with the innovative dance company O Vertigo in a project that brought together three artists from Montreal, three (including Borotsik) from the rest of Canada and three Europeans.

In Montreal, too, Borotsik was part of a “remix project” which had choreographers play DJ with the work of other choreographers. “Mile Zero has been the driving force in connecting me with these opportunities, and mentors,” she says.

The idea of uncertainty, though not in a Heisenbergian sense, infiltrates her latest interdisciplinary “make-it-up” with Gervais. No Guesses Found, which premiered in Mile Zero Dance’s Dance Crush series (directed by Dave Horak) last April, explores, in a physical way, ideas of loss and human fragility. “We’re making it into two pieces,” says Borotsik. The first part has an ensemble backdrop (“and a candy floss machine”). In the second, No Guesses Alone, she’s alone onstage, inhabiting the bodies of other people, a kind of reverse haunting. The plan is to tour, to both dance and theatre festivals.

Mentorship figures prominently for Borotsik. She teaches movement for actors at both the U of A and MacEwan. She works with students at the Nina Haggerty Centre.

The day after Heisenberg closes, Borotsik is off to Toronto, and a Factory Theatre revival (with the original cast we saw years ago in Edmonton) of One, Jason Carnew’s re-imagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Then, immediately after that, Newfoundland, and a project with director Charlie Tomlinson, who’s adapting poetry for the stage.

Meanwhile there’s the fun of Georgie, in company with Nelson. Fun? Borotsik, a thoughtful sort, considers that possibility. “I think she’d be really loving it, to be described as a fun person. In certain moments. Absolutely.”

PREVIEW

Heisenberg

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Simon Stephens

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Glenn Nelson

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 29

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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The Blue Hour: nobody writes ‘prairie plays’ like it these days. Some thoughts on the SkirtsAfire premiere

Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Isaac Andrew in The Blue Hour, SkirtsAfire Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Just in the nick of time I finally got a chance on the weekend to catch The Blue Hour

Named for the magical moment of ambiguity when light shades into darkness, Michele Vance Hehir’s new play was the centrepiece of this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival, the annual celebration of the work of female artists, which ended Sunday.

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It’s an unusual piece in every way. For one thing, no one writes this kind of kind of spacious, full-bodied two-act prairie play any more. I say “prairie” because there’s a long tradition in these parts of plays that have the same expansive reverb as the landscape. Cloistered small-town characters have tantalizing glimpses, or ecstatic long-shots, of unapproachable horizons. Time doesn’t have an urban momentum to it; the past and the future merge into a perpetual present.

Under flat, un-flamboyant surfaces extending into the distance, dark secrets lie buried, but not deep enough to stay that way. In the prairies you get lulled into a false sense of security, because you can see tragedy, like storms and grain elevators, coming miles away.

Vance Hehir’s plays make you think like that. The Blue Hour is the third of her Roseglen plays, a trilogy that takes us, in contrasting forms, to that fictional prairie town at different moments in its history. Ruination (3 short stories) is an artful construction of three interlocking monologues from which a mystery gathers during Depression era Roseglen. One Polaroid visits two aging sisters in Roseglen, in its last gasps in 1973. In The Blue Hour, a (possibly) final instalment, it’s 1947. And the post-war narrative of hope and new starts is as foreign to Roseglen as the Eiffel Tower and people who speak French.

It’s a harsh town in a harsh landscape. And it’s steeped in death, loss, and accommodation to grief and disappointment. In short, it’s perfect soil for proscriptive lake-of-fire type fundamentalism. 

Recent arrivals 15-year-old Bonnie (Helen Belay) and her kid brother  Jonas (Isaac Andrew) are, in different ways, chafing at the bit under the distracted parenting of their single mother (Nicole St. Martin), struggling to put food on the table. Bonnie, circumscribed by punishing limitations of church and place, dreams of escape, of taking her musical gifts out into the big wide world; Jonas has left childhood behind to be the family breadwinner, a junior prairie entrepreneur who barters the fish he catches for sugar and flour.

Behind other doors in town are other stories, and The Blue Hour takes its time, over two acts, to letting their secrets get aired. The new pastor (Ian Leung) and his young wife (Bonnie Ings) have a baby in progress after many miscarriages she can’t help interpreting as God’s punishment for “fornication” (that’s a word they use in Roseglen). The affable mayor (Robert Benz) is up against his purse-lipped church-y wife (Elinor Holt). Marriages are straining at the seams, resentments are festering, prayers are not getting answered, gossip is getting hatched and overheard on the party line. And other people’s sins are being enumerated (the list of the good lord’s do-not’s always comes with fiery or-else’s).

For a small town, it’s a high-traffic intersection of subplots, dreams of the future and mistakes of the past. And a collision between right and wrong, free will and inherited guilt, has a kind of inevitability. Tragedy is coming. And the “villain,” a man of the cloth with flaws, has plenty of time, and a lot of words, at his disposal, to regret his bad choices.    

Annette Loiselle, the artistic director of SkirtsAfire, makes her directing debut with the production. She sets it in motion with a first-rate cast and design. Megan Koshka’s wood-slatted set lets slivers of light through, as the days roll into evenings. T. Erin Gruber’s atmospheric lighting is a character in itself.

The actors are excellent. Benz, for one, knows how prairie minimalism works. He can do more with an uninflected pause, a moment of stillness, a reassessing glance, than many actors can do with a long speech. And the play gives him a chance to work with all of the above.

The Blue Hour is not quite so judicious with other characters, though; it occasionally does seem overwritten instead of leisurely. Angst from the guilty pastor, for example, gets long speeches to go with it — they seem especially overlong given the actorly skills and charisma (the excellent Leung) available. Act I seems to end twice. 

Perhaps a trim is in order for subsequent productions of The Blue Hour. Especially since its accomplished playwright savours mysteries and nuances in her characters, and a lyrical sense of the thorny small-town prairie inheritance in her writing. It’s time for the mysteries and nuances of acting to get more credit.

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Gerald: the man, the playwright, the long-running comedy, and now the Fringe playwriting award

Gerald Osborn (centre) with Fringe directors past and present (from left) Thomas Scott, Murray Utas, Adam Mitchell, Miki Stricker-Talbot, Judy Lawrence, David Cheoros. Photo by Aaron Talbot.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

He’s a playwright with a gift for sassy and subversive black comedy. He’s an administrator who can tap his own sense of cosmic absurdity and wry good humour to broker calm between artists (and their close relatives), media divas, aggrieved theatre patrons, irate jugglers…. And nowhere is Gerald Osborn’s rare assortment of skills more crucial than at the festival that was, and remains, Edmonton’s craziest, best invention ever: the Fringe.   

For 30 years he’s worked at the festival where organization comes face to face — and in Osborn’s case, eyeball to eyeball — with chaos, and the new is born in the tension between order and anarchy. Last night at a rather riotous roast-and-toast tribute, the Fringe honoured Osborn — “the unofficial keeper of the Fringe’s history” and its secrets — with an anniversary launch of the new Gerald Osborn Playwriting Award.

Gossamer Feast by Gerald Osborn, Edmonton Fringe 2019. Photo by Russ Hewitt.

Perfect, since Osborn has himself penned and directed some 19 Fringe premieres, embracing characters as varied as Adam and Eve, Oedipus, bedbugs, and a talking penis. As he pointed out Friday night, it’s great that David Mamet and Sam Shepard show up at the Fringe, but the heart of the matter is new work. 

There were speakers (yours truly honoured to be among them), video clips (including one from Fringe founding father Brian Paisley), and a stellar pool of Gerald anecdotes, many involving his smarts, his deceptively mild-mannered archive of worldly shrugs, eloquent eye rolls, and comic running gags. No matter how big the Fringe has gotten, and how inaccessible it can sometimes feel, there’s Osborn on the front line, in his H. Potter glasses, patiently giving directions to the nearest green onion cake or Fringe ticket, responding to “So, what is this Fringe thing anyhow?” on the phone as if he’s never heard the question before.  

In establishing the playwriting award with Osborn’s name on it, the Fringe’s goal is $10,000 (100 donors at $100 apiece will do it). You can contribute by phone (780-409-1910, online at fringetheatre.ca/give or by mail to Fringe Theatre headquarters at the ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave, T6E 2G9.

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The Roseglen Trilogy: the final instalment. The Blue Hour launches the 2020 SkirtsAfire Festival

Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Isaac Andrew in The Blue Hour, SkirtsAfire Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The award-winning Michele Vance Hehir play that launches the ninth annual SkirtsAfire Festival Thursday at the Westbury Theatre takes us to place we’ve been before.

Welcome to Roseglen, a small fictional prairie town that we’ve visited at different times in its history. In Vance Hehir’s Ruination (3 short stories), which premiered at the 2017 Fringe we were there during the Depression. The next summer, with One Polaroid, we were in Roseglen 1973: the train doesn’t stop there any more; the school is gone; the town is on a long slow fade-out into oblivion. Last one to leave turn out the lights.

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The Blue Hour, Vance Hehir’s full-length full-bodied (seven-actor) play, getting its premiere at SkirtsAfire, takes us back to Roseglen, post-World War II. It’s the culmination of a trilogy with interlocking characters, cultural and religious cross-currents, social hierarchies, generational tensions, ethnic prejudice, fractured families and dark secrets with centrifugal ripples — fuelled by gossip, wrapped in dreams (and disappointments), circumscribed by an ever-present sense of being watched.   

Playwright Michele Vance Hehir. Photo by Nathaniel Vance Hehir.

“It’s a memory play,” says Vance Hehir. “I wanted to spread the poetry that exists in that world.”

But her Our Town, prairie-style, isn’t some bucolic vision of life beyond the clutches of urban corruption. At the centre of The Blue Hour is is a struggling single mother (Nicole Saint-Martin) and her kids: 14-year-old Jonah (Isaac Andrew) and 15-year-old Bonnie (Helen Belay). The latter, suffocated by the rigorous fundamentalist proscriptions shared by her mom, is desperate to leave town and find a place for her musical talents in the big wide world. It’s the relationship between Bonnie and the new Pentecostal pastor (Ian Leung) that will rock the town to the core.   

The playwright is, as she says, irresistibly drawn to the acute minimalism of small towns. And it’s not because she has first-hand  nostalgia to tap. “My parents grew up in Chilliwack, and we moved to Edmonton when I was five or six.… But my mother was a marvellous storyteller.” Her stories of growing up in a smallish town” planted the seed, Vance Hehir thinks. “She’d ‘tell’ a book or a movie, and I’d feel I’d read or seen it.”

The “environment of surveillance” was something Mom did not like about living in a small town,” says Vance Hehir. “At 18 she moved to Vancouver.” When Vance Hehir, as a teenager, fantasized about a reverse migration, moving from city to town, her mom was aghast. “She squelched that idea!”

When she created Bonnie, with her yearning to enlarge her horizons, speak French, sing Piaf instead of gospel, Vance Hehir was taking her cue from her mom’s reaction. “Bonnie feels suffocated. Trapped. And her possibilities, as she’s come to realize, are limited. Maybe she could be a teacher. But there are so few choices.”

The Blue Hour started as a monologue, one of a quartet of 15-minute monologues Vance Hehir wrote while in the Citadel’s Playwrights Forum nearly a decade ago. And it gradually gained characters and storylines, and length, as a two-act play about a young girl and her family.

Her mentor? The great Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy, who advised her “to go back and look at every beat, every pause, to make the script as tight as you can!”

Like Murphy, whose playwright’s mantra is “it’s never good vs. evil; It may be combative, but it’s always right vs. right,” Vance Hehir is a writer of subtlety and oblique angles. And there is nothing simple about her take on (organized) religion or her multi-dimensional characters. The pastor, for example, on paper the villain of the piece, “struggles to be a good person,” says Vance Hehir. “He’s a damaged person, who’s glommed on to religion as a way of controlling (his impulses)…. He’s the most complicated character.”

Helen Belay and Nicole St. Martin in The Blue Hour. Photo supplied.

The mayor, Hank (Robert Benz), who’s a kind of father figure to Bonnie and Jonas, is “a lovely anchor in the town. People are drawn to him; his is the religion of hope.”    

Director Annette Loiselle, SkirtsAfire artistic director, whose eye was caught by The Blue Hour, an Alberta Playwriting Competition winner,  a couple of years ago, says its appeal is “the human connections. It’s very layered that way. Religion can be helpful or hurtful….There is sympathy for all the characters; it’s not black and white. It’s very gray!” The subject matter includes the darkest of subjects, but The Blue Hour, she says, is “funny and charming, too.”

Loiselle, an actor of note and one of co-founders of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, wasn’t a small-town kid herself (she grew up on an acreage north of Namao). But her husband is from Villeneuve; in fact, they got married in the church there. So The Blue Hour feels automatically evocative to her.

With its size, scope, and stage population of seven actors, The Blue Hour is responsible for SkirtsAfire’s move to embrace locations in addition to its home turf on and around Alberta Avenue. “We had to have a real theatre,” says Loiselle of the adventurous mainstage move to the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. And the lobby board room there is where you’ll find the annual Peep Show of new play staged readings (curated by Tracy Carroll), always a hot SkirtsAfire draw. This year’s playwrights: Jessy Ardern (Kit & Joe) and Giorgia Severini (Border Breakdown).

The festival theme is “Complicated,” as Loiselle explains, a thought with far-reaching reverb, that unspools from The Blue Hour. “Our human impulse is to simplify, to put people in boxes. And that (tendency) can get us into trouble; we create monsters….” “Complicated” gets tangible form in an interactive Westbury lobby installation by Betty Hushlak and Deanna Finnman.

SkirtsAfire is not abandoning Alberta Avenue. “A lot of the programming there is very experimental,” says Loiselle of a plethora of cross-disciplinary events (to which admission is always by donation). At the Nina Haggerty Gallery, for example, She Moves is a multi-ethnic multi-company cross-cultural dance collage. Stephanie Florence’s installation there melds Hayley Moorhouse’s play Suspension to visuals inspired by the March edition of Cardiac Theatre’s Alberta Queer Calendar Project.

On Saturday at the gallery, you can get a first glimpse of Tiger’s Hearts Collective at work: an adaptation and staged reading of Shakespeare’s immensely challenging Troilus and Cressida by an all-female-identifying company. It’s the brainchild of Danielle LaRose of Malachite Theatre.   

New this year is musical programming at Station on Jasper downtown. Check out skirtsafire.com for a complete schedule of events. Available till Thursday are festival passes.

PREVIEW

SkirtsAFire Festival

The Blue Hour

Written by: Michele Vance Hehir

Directed by: Annette Loiselle

Starring: Ian Leung, Helen Belay, Nicole St. Martin, Robert Benz, Isaac Andrew, Bonnie Ings, Elinor Holt

Where: TransAlta Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.), Alberta Avenue Community League, The Carrot (9351 118 Ave.), Nina Haggerty Gallery (9225 118 Ave.), Station on Jasper (10524 Jasper Ave.),  Bedouin Beats (11805 94 St.), St. Faith’s Church (11725 93 St.), Otto Food and Drink (11405 95 St.), The Nook Cafe (10153 97 St.).

Running: Thursday through March 8

Tickets: skirtsafire.com

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Got To Get You Into My Life: Will and the Fab Four do love love love. As You Like It at the Citadel, a review.

As You Like It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Party time.

True, there are as many ways to century-swap and play dress-up with Shakespeare’s great romantic comedy As You Like It as there are theatre artists, impresarios, and music industry sages to dream them up.

(And the ‘60s have a particularly hypnotizing effect on all of the above.  Must be the flowers in the hair, or maybe the bellbottoms, or the idea of a camp-out in the woods. If the van’s a rockin’ don’t come knockin’, etc. My theory: In theatre, camping is always funny).

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Still, the idea of pairing Shakespeare at his most genial with the Beatles, a partnership of big-deal heavy-hitters, is a kind of celebrity match-making that makes for classic double-takes. At first. And the opening scene of Daryl Cloran’s larky ‘60s production — a big hit at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach in 2018 and currently cavorting onstage at the Citadel to a 25-song Beatles score — is like no other. It’s a measure of zany exuberance and unstoppable playfulness that it starts with … live wrestling, choreographed expertly by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. And a live onstage band of rockers, who go in and out of the play, as characters.   

As You Like It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

Really, you should get to the theatre early, and see for yourself. As a highly comic motormouth announcer in platform boots (Kayvon Khoshkam, who will later turn out to be the court comic Touchstone) is working the crowd, talking the talk. And Charles ‘2 Guns’ Leibowitz (Austin Eckert) is taking on all comers, including an oily ex-matador from Barcelona (Farren Timoteo) and a tag team of Russian twins.

Anyhow, when the show starts, it’s in a wrestling ring (designer: Pam Johnson). And the Act I scene where young Orlando (Jeff Irving) stubbornly challenges the champ (his evil bro has cut him out of their father’s will), he takes a pounding to the strains of She Loves You. It’s in the ring where We Can Work It Out happens too, as a duet between Rosalind (Lindsey Angell) and her cousin/best friend Celia (Jameela McNeil). The evil Duke Frederick, played by Paul Essiembre with a very nasty part in his hair and anger-management issues, banishes Rosalind, and Celia opts to go with her into exile.

At the preview I was kindly allowed to attend, the audience ate up this sassy counter-intuitive placement of songs. As well they loved the moments when the songs seem almost eerily designed for the story. And they were tickled that the exilés, victims of court oppression (the court is symbolized by the martini glass), drop out, turn on, and go back to Nature by gathering in “the forest of Okanagan.” 

This is where the good Duke — Essiembre in a double-turn, this time as a slightly dazed career stoner with an inkling that he looks ridiculous — lives out his exile in an orchard of frankly fake fruit trees. There’s a psychedelic VW van in the back where the band hangs out. Johnson’s design, with its triple-frame of translucent tiles like a sort of light-up Rubik’s cube, is consistently amusing. Gerald King’s lighting glows. 

Incidentally, there must be something inherently hilarious about the word “Okanagan.” Everyone laughed at every reiteration, me included.  Note to aspiring stand-ups: Okanagan is its own laugh line. Ponder, and discuss. 

Rosalind and Celia, who have co-opted the jaded urbanite Touchstone for their camping trip into the wilds (mainly to schlepp their luggage), arrive in “the vast Okanagan” in disguise — as Ganymede and his sister Aliena. “He” might be the only person in history (who isn’t a wine rep) to wear a three-piece suit in an orchard (designer: Carmen Alatorre), but no one seems to notice. Anyhow, Rosalind is keen to conceal her feminine identity (You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away) and play improv games with Orlando. She’ll “pretend” to be Rosalind and he’ll pretend to court her. 

Lindsey Angell as Rosaline, As You Like It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

Why? The more you think about it, the ‘why’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in this production. This isn’t an As You Like It that wonders much about testing the irrational ecstasy of love and the mysterious byways of passion. They’re comic givens. And Angell’s Rosalind, while vivacious and smarter than she seems when she’s being giddy with Celia, isn’t a heroine who comes to a new sense of self while dressed as a man. This is more about FUN, the fun of performance. 

Fun may, in the end, be a limited rather than a cosmic goal, unencumbered by, say, heartbreak and wonder. But there’s so much of it, fun that is, in the production, and it’s pursued with such single-minded purity of intent, that you can’t help feeling elated.

The muse, to reiterate, is comic, and the performances are cartoon-sized. Revealingly, Jaques, the melancholy forest existentialist, has been transformed by Sharon Constible’s droll, unusually energetic portrait (in startlingly non-melancholic orange tartan pants). Cloran and musical director Ben Elliott give Jaques the wistful Fool on the Hill and the enigmatically whimsical I Am The Eggman.

It’s revealing that Jaques’ famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech about the human track through the world (“All the world’s a stage…”) got a lot of laughs. I’ve never seen that happen. And Jaques’ scenes with Orlando, a droopy, sad-eyed, humourless, perpetually dishevelled character in Irving’s performance, are among the evening’s most amusing.

And what of the bad poetry that As You Like It mocks, when Orlando nails his love sonnets to trees in the, er, orchard? Not to spoil your surprise, I’ll just say the Beatles catalogue steps up on this count.

Emily Dallas and Farren Timoteo in As You Like It. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

If Orlando is of the desperate school of unrequited lovers, he is outdone by lovestruck shepherd Silvius in this production. He’s played by Timoteo in a supremely acrobatic portrait of romantic desperation, and he’ll crack you up.    

The centrepiece of the evening’s comedy, the m.c. of this cabaret, is Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone. He’s a virtuoso clown in a series of flamboyant Elton John specs, who takes the task at hand to an apotheosis of high-camp engagement with the audience. This flamboyant urbanite, who is not one of the world’s natural campers, virtually levitates in his silver boots. His scenes with the adorable hayseed Audrey (Jenny McKillop), unperturbed by his vast repertoire of upstaging techniques, are a delight: When I’m 64.

The exhilarating sense of discovery and self-discovery isn’t what happens in Cloran’s production; the performances aren’t detailed in that way. What is a bona fide discovery is how appealingly the Beatles canon works as a kind of cabaret of songs about different kinds and intensities of love, As You Like It in comic sketch form.  

This hit production, headed for Chicago and Milwaukee next, is certainly ingenious, full of inventive touches, cartoon gestures and pratfalls, and the insight that love is all you need — except maybe dancing, and OK, sunshine. Like its heroine, it’s As You Like It “in a holiday humour.” There’s a lot to like about that.

(12thnight talked to Daryl Cloran about his adaptation, and his hit production, in this 12thnight preview.

REVIEW

As You Like It

Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Lindsey Angell, Jeff Irving, Kayvon Khoshkam, Farren Timoteo, Jenny McKillop, Jameela McNeil, Paul Essiembre, Sarah Constible, Emily Dallas, Justin Stadnyk, Robb Paterson, Austin Eckert, Oscar Derkx, Sharon Crandall, Benjamin Camenzuli

Running: through March 15

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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What does it mean to live here? A tiny sneak preview of rehearsals for The Garneau Block, coming up at the Citadel

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What saves us is our sense of community: theatre has always known it. Cities have to learn it. And coming up is a new play about Edmonton, by an Edmontonian, for an Edmonton audience, that’s all about what it means to live here.

For a brief moment Tuesday morning, I got to be a fly on the wall in the Shoctor rehearsal hall as introductions were made and work got  officially underway for the Citadel premiere of The Garneau Block, Belinda Cornish’s stage adaptation of the Giller Prize-nominated 2006 novel by Todd Babiak, novelist, satirist, polymath, creative thinker, sometime journalist (and a great friend of mine, who has written Fringe reviews for 12thnight.ca!).

The secrets of the rehearsal room are safe with me — unless it’s a secret to reveal a sunny, ebullient mood. Three dozen-plus people (and three dogs) gathered for the meet-and-greet, as Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran was there to welcome director Rachel Peake (the theatre’s associate artistic director), the award-winning playwright (actor and improviser) Cornish, and the actors, who include such Edmonton faves as Rachel Bowron, Julien Arnold, Nadien Chu, Stephanie Wolfe, George Szilagyi, plus actors now based elsewhere who went to theatre school here (and lived for a time in Garneau!). The creative team, including designers Narda McCarroll, Joanna Yu, the production staff, company manager Peni Christopher, stage manager Molly Pearson.… they all had things to say about community and neighbours, and where they live. 

Stay tuned for more. The Garneau Block opens March 14.

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