A night walk through Strathcona: Workshop West launches season with ‘an adventure into the unknown’

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is back in action next week — live, on its feet, and in motion. And it’s with an original promenade adventure that takes you on a nocturnal walk through Old Strathcona.

The logistics of Here There Be Night (since there is no live theatre without intricate logistics in this new world) amount to a tour: eight locations (outdoors or in found spaces), eight original five-minute plays, for a solo actor and an exclusive audience consisting of you (or you and a partner) and a cellphone.

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The great outdoors, the built-in distancing, the (very) small cast size and audience, not to mention the short attention span required … Here There Be Night could have been specially created for these COVID-ian times. Oh wait … it was.

As Workshop West’s new artistic producer Heather Inglis explains, Here There Be Night, the highlight of By Fire (Part 1 of the company’s 2020-2021 season), was designed, from the outset, “to use the restrictions of COVID as theatrical conventions.” And the idea was a theatrical adventure that showcased playwrights, as per the Workshop West writer-nurturing mandate. “The language has been pivoting to online experience. But theatre is live!” declares Inglis, who arrived at Workshop West last year from Theatre Yes, the indie company she founded and led. “It’s a different medium than anything recorded electronically. Artists who work in theatre specialize in creating experiences for people who are in the same space together….”

Alternative theatre, immersive “guerrilla” experiences that happen in unconventional spaces, have been something of an Inglis specialty. The Theatre Yes archive contains an assortment of off-centre initiatives, installations, immersive experiments in re-working the usual dynamic between performers and their audiences. Anxiety, for example, gathered original “performance installation” responses to the title epidemic from six of the country’s leading indie companies, and then bused audiences to a secret Edmonton warehouse location to experience them. The National Elevator Project redefined “intimate theatre” by commissioning original short plays performed in a succession of downtown Edmonton elevators.

“Like everyone else in the country, we spent a lot of time thinking how to move forward, what programming could be in a changing environment, with new information every day,” says Inglis of the extreme and unforeseen circumstances of her new gig at Workshop West. “There’s such a huge risk in conventional theatre production on a number of different levels, since the house capacity has to be very small.”

“All across the country we were having conversations about how to keep some energy pulsing through the theatre,” Inglis says. The immediate inspiration for Here There Be Night she credits to a conversation last May with actor/ director/ dramaturg Brian Dooley, a veteran Workshop West artist now Montreal-based. In his time as head of new play development at the Citadel, he’d experimented with Encounters, a series original playlets performed by one actor for an audience of one, the personal touch in theatre.

Inglis extrapolated. “If we were going to do this, now was the time to go forward…”  The performers would be spread out, outside or in intrinsically safe spaces, within a three-block radius in Old Strathcona. The audience would access them, guided by their cellphones.” That was the geographical proposition. And, says Inglis, it involved an element of surprise in the ‘where’; that was part of the fun.”

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

The dramaturgical proposition for 10 playwrights, of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (and varying degrees of theatre experience from emerging to starry), started with the requirement to write for one actor performing for an audience of one or two, in a five-minute piece, strictly no longer. And “built right into the writing at the very beginning, was that each piece was created for the specific scenario of COVID and the environment they’d be performed in…. The idea was using the space between the audience and actors as an important component of the theatrical experience.”

“It felt important to engage a bunch of artists to create, to practise their craft at this time, as opposed to doing a longer work by one playwright for 15 people a night.” Two of the ten writers are a husband-and-wife team, Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab. Their fellow playwrights include Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Bevin Dooley, Mieko Ouchi, Jason Chinn, Harley Morison and Mūkonzi was Mūsyoki. The audio narrator you’ll hear on your cellphone is award-winning filmmaker and horror writer Susie Moloney.

Their “thematic prompt” to the writers, says Inglis, was “the potentiality of the un-seen: the things we can see, the things we can’t see , the potential to find something in the darkness.…” It takes its cue from these uncertain times, “when everyone has spent a lot of time wondering about next week, next month, don’t ask about Christmas, the what’s beyond our present.”

“It’s certainly not a haunted house,” Inglis laughs. “But it ties in with the spooky season … the connection with what might be on ‘the other side’.” She reports, happily, that the “responses from the playwrights have been as individual as they are…. The audience will be treated to a collection of short stories that reflect unique Edmonton visions.”

“The pieces all adhere to distancing rules we must enforce. But they also involve the audience in some way. Not with ‘audience participation’ but the storytelling happens with them.” Although most of the playwrights are themselves expert performers, only Amena Shehab appears in her own piece.

The four directors  — Inglis herself, Patricia Cerra, Lana Michelle Hughes and Trevor Schmidt — are provided by the participating theatres, Workshop West, Theatre Network, Catalyst, Northern Light, and Theatre Yes. It is likely to be the season’s only example of BYOD (bring your own director) theatre.

The logistics of preparing the production are intricate, as you might surmise. Zoom has been only marginally involved. Rehearsals have happened, masked, disinfected, and on an elaborate schedule of staggered start times in the large hall at Workshop West headquarters near NAIT.

COVID: it’s not an age that’s been kind to musicals or romances, as Inglis points out “What makes Here There Be Night viable is that, after a big first day on Zoom, we don’t all have to be together…The director, actor, and stage manager can be very spread out.”

For both the artists and the audience, “this is theatre as going on an expedition into the unknown.”

PREVIEW

Here There Be Night

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre (with participation from Theatre Network, Catalyst Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Theatre Yes)

Written by: Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab, Jason Chinn, Bevin Dooley, Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Mieko Ouchi, Susie Moloney, Harley Morison, Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki

Directed by: Patricia Cerra, Heather Inglis, Lana Michelle Hughes, Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Helen Belay, Nadien Chu, Patricia Darbasie, Sheldon Elter, David Madawo, Jameela McNeil, Christina Nguyen, Amena Shehab, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: eight locations in Old Strathcona (meet at the Theatre Network at the Roxy box office 8529 Gateway Blvd.; wear warm clothes and bring a cellphone, at least iPhone 6 or Android 4, plus mask and earbuds.

Running: October 22 to Nov. 1, staggered start times

Tickets and schedule: workshopwest.org

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An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling: get Zoomed on magic and mixology

Lucy Darling (aka Carisa Hendrix) at home. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For an awful moment, says Lucy Darling brightly, “I thought this was one of those terrible juice box events!”

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No fear, my (socially distanced) friends. When you’re a guest at L.D.’s magic comedy show An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling (coming to the Citadel’s online theatre lineup Friday), the beverage of choice, not to mention the chief prop and improv cue, is the cocktail. Thanks to the ubiquitous magic of Zoom, gussied up for the occasion with the latest gallery features, you’ll find yourself at Lucy’s place, as I was, on Sunday afternoon. And along with your fellow party-goers and Lucy’s lovely assistants (Richard Lee Hsi and Miranda Allen), you’ll see cocktails of your choice magically appear from shakers, and arrive in the proper-shaped glasses. With garnish. You’ll even see them defy gravity, hang upside down, and freeze.

And the booze will be accompanied by a non-stop stream of funny, improvised chat from the retro-glam character in the golden age diva gown. Lucy Darling, the star with the ‘40s cadence, the kewpie charm, the shellacked bouffant hair, and the wicked glint, is one of the alter-egos of the Calgary-based magician Carisa Hendrix.

Henrix is also, incidentally, the Guinness record-holder for how long she can hold a lit torch in her mouth (witness the documentary Girl On Fire). Which would seem to have only a peripheral connection with her expertise in card tricks or cup-and-ball games. And none at all with Lucy’s uncanny ability, having asked an audience member for the name of their favourite book, to produce that very volume. Right then and there. 

It’s a startling array of skills, to say the least, that Hendrix brings to the table (hers, as it happens in these COVIDian times). And one of them, you’ll discover, in a live Zoom “meeting” that brings 36 of us together, along with Lucy’s assistants, is an uncanny knack for making magic “real,” which is to say convincing, online. 

As Lucy points out “there can be no magic without surprise.” And quite possibly there can be no magic without audience interaction. But being online makes the latter a very tricky achievement in spontaneity — hard work that needs to seem live, much less easeful — as we know now from a variety of theatrical experiments, on the spectrum from deadening to enlivening, that have happened on a variety of platforms in the last six months.  

“Wit,” declares Lucy, “is my favourite of the seven accessible forms of intelligence.” She combines it with charm, a flirtatious relationship with the X-rated, and a redeeming whiff of eau de self-mockery. Plus the gift of the gab . And suddenly, there are volunteers, in the Zoom “gallery view,” for the “virtual front row.”

Lucy is a great retainer of individual names, with running gags attached to each. And the show has segments. There’s Mixology with Lucy Darling (respond to the poll, and take notes). Ask Lucy has this dexterous personnage improvise answers to questions submitted by the audience in advance. What are Lucy’s quarantine activities? someone wondered. Raising potatoes, she says instantly. Since potatoes make vodka. And so it goes. 

Bonus: two impressive Edmonton theatre artists star in their own sequences:  Actor/dancer Lee Hsi and actor/escapologist Allen. There’s an impressive array of entertainment talent on display at Lucy’s party. And, yes (to anticipate your party thought), there are contests and prizes. Damn. Shoulda worn my sequinned vest.    

REVIEW

An Exceptional Evening In With Lucy Darling

Theatre: Ballyhoo Entertainment

Starring: Carissa Hendrix, Richard Lee Hsi, Miranda Allen

Where: online, live-streamed on Zoom

When: Friday and Saturday, and Oct. 16 and 17

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

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Cool breath in, warm breath out: Catalyst’s ‘until the next breath’ in the great outdoors

until the next breath, Catalyst, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

From the River Road at dusk, you catch a glimpse of something mysterious through the trees of Victoria Park. Rounded huts — hives? a village perhaps? — glowing from within, and strung with twinkling lights.

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We’ve arrived at until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre’s Grand Act of Theatre — “marking the moment,” as the National Arts Centre says of its initiative to engage live, outdoor, one-off (COVID-safe) shows from 11 of the country’s most innovative performing arts companies.

From the parking lot the site looks like an exotic base camp at the North Pole. “Welcome back to the theatre!” says the masked person with smiling eyes working the (distanced, ski-jacketed) queue with hand sanitizer and new masks in the park Sunday night.

And, yes, it’s a thrill to be out. How did I ever take it for granted? Why did I ever get all ironic about the ubiquitous over-use of the word “journey” by theatre people? The virus has stolen so much from us, touch and even breath included. What it can’t steal is the excitement of being with real live people in the great outdoors on a lovely fall night.

until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

There are 100 of us (the free tickets gone in a second), spread out in a beautifully thought-out way in the Victoria Oval, a size-large clearing in the trees. Ghostly masked figures in white surgical suits glide through the park. And we’ll find ourselves, human chess pieces, on individual squares of a giant grid measured out on the grass, with our own personal lit blue balloon bobbing gently and tethered to out spot.

There’s a kind of other-worldly hum in the night air that’s nearly music. We surround an encampment of silvery balloons, a beautiful galaxy of glowing moons and planets of every size, including X-large, under a shimmering, gauzy veil. They seem to float, and with every gust of wind, to breathe. The whole set (designed and lighted by Catalyst’s Bretta Gerecke) seems ready to levitate.

“I invite you to consider … your breath,” says a hypnotic voice. The until the next breath book and music, by Catalyst director (and artistic director) Jonathan Christenson, are all about that. The prevailing artistic metaphor of the night, which has visual and aural reverb in Christenson’s production, certainly struck a chord with me. It started with the abrupt way we had to catch our breath six months ago. The news was literally breath-taking, a huge collective gasp. And there’s a sense we’ve been collectively holding our breath in fear ever since. 

What do we do now?

In a tense world where breath has become dangerous — we’re all masked because of it — the invisible voice, set to the yoga frequency, “invited” us to take another tack. Cool breath on the inhale, warm breath, heated by our own bodies, on the exhale. And the soothing voice persisted: breathe, to reach all the imprisoned parts of your body. It’s possibly the first time the word “buttocks” has ever floated through the night air in the Victoria Oval.

It’s the heart, however, that’s really engaged in Catalyst’s Grand Act, with its grand-sized cast of 50 actors, dancers, musicians, singers. The music has an incantatory quality, until the moment it turns to high-volume rock and chanting in an explosion of apocalyptic orange light, to evoke the instant the world changed … forever. Then, silence is deafening. Isolation is deadening. And (as we see) a simple physical embrace (by three cohort couples in the cast) is shocking. 

As its archive attests, the Catalyst team of creators, led by Christenson and Gerecke, with choreographer Laura Krewski and sound whiz Matthew Skopyk, have always gravitated to the highly theatrical intersection where bold visuals, music, and physicality meet for the purposes of storytelling. And until the next breath plays with the metaphor of breath and breathing in inventive ways. 

The present is uncertain. The future is unknown. But there’s hope in the exhale, a kind of rebirth as the cast emerge from their surgical suits and disappear into the darkness. At least that’s how I saw an open-ended finale that’s nothing if not enigmatic. The strings tethering the breath-filled planets to the ground extend in a multi-coloured palette of floating light as we leave. Is the earth exhaling too? 

And we take our blue balloons, each containing a tiny light and “a wish for the future from someone else who attended this evening — a message of hope as we step together into an unknown future.” Thank you to the anonymous person who contributed “I hope for greater empathy and understanding in our new world.” 

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S.I.S.T.E.R. The Fox Den Collective brings you an online mystery to solve

S.I.S.T.E.R., The Fox Den Collective. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Alone and fretful? Weighed down by the unsolvable mysteries of the world?

The show that opens tonight online gives you the fun of wrapping your frayed wits around a mystery that actually can be solved. If you’re on the ball. When their house’s most valuable artifact disappears, the  sisters of Gamma Gamma Gamma, a venerable sorority on the University of Edmonton campus, have called in investigators from S.I.S.T.E.R. (Squadron for the Investigation of Sorority Transgressions, Evildoing, and Rapscallionism).

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Enter, the audience. In groups of five, you sift through evidence, interrogate suspects on Zoom, ponder clues. S.I.S.T.E.R. even gives you back your friends (and relatives, if you think that’s a good idea) to work with you, no matter where they are in the world, so you can deduce together as a team. Or you can team up with like-minded strangers from here, there, and everywhere.

S.I.S.T.E.R. is the bright idea of The Fox Den Collective, an ingenious Edmonton-based indie theatre collective — Jessy Ardern, Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor — specializing in original, interactive, site-specific work. If you caught their Sterling Award-winning Fringe show Queen Lear Is Dead that took audiences to a church to attend the funeral of King Lear’s wife, you’ll have seen an intriguing example of their work.

“Think of S.I.S.T.E.R. as an interactive theatre piece,” says Ardern, TFDC’s resident playwright. “A cross between a theatrical show and a board game.”

“We email you links to physical evidence — a photo of vandalism that happened the week before the crime, a Gamma Gamma Gamma poster…” Then groups of five, from an audience of 25 per performance, repair to Zoom breakout rooms  to interview suspects that come to you and your pod there. “All the characters were at the sorority house when the artifact went missing,” says Ardern of the mystery that she, Feutl and Osahor created in collaboration. “To uncover the right solution, you have to ask the right questions,” says Ardern. “You have to be alert!”

Originally S.I.S.T.E.R. was going to happen live, with a live audience, at the John Walter Museum. COVID changed the plan. And the new online configuration has certain advantages, as Ardern points out. You can participate with people you long to see but can’t, in person. “One audience member has teamed up with his fiancée in England,” she reports. “So, it’s a matinee for her, and an evening performance for him. Three of our shows have already been bought out, all 25 tickets, by big extended families and big groups.” If you don’t have four available friends, TFDC will find you some amenable fellow-detectives at the outset.

The group of five — five interrogators, who question each of five suspects — is an ideal configuration for participation, TFDC has discovered. “Five means that everyone gets to participate.” They experimented with another interactive mystery, Off’d On Whyte, which sold out at the 2018 Found Festival. It gave audiences maps, and took them in limited groups into a variety of unexpected Strathcona locales — bar basements, hotel rooms, etc. — to find clues and make deductions. “Five was the sweet spot,” says Ardern. Audiences had a 70 to 75 per cent success rate at figuring out the mystery at the end, she reports.

Balancing the clue to red herring ratio, knowing what to reveal, and when … artful mysteries are tricky to create, onstage or online. “We had no idea how complicated it could be,” says Ardern. “Solvability” is a nuanced goal: “we want to make it manageable, but not easy.”

Because “we have no idea what questions the audience will ask … there’s a  a script but not in a traditional sense.” Instead, “each actor had pages about their characters and alibis. They know their characters inside and out. We’ve tried to prepare them for every possibility, a really shy audience, an aggressive audience…. And then it’s improv time!”

“In our dry run last week there wasn’t a single audience that couldn’t come up with questions…. Actually people get a bit competitive. Pride and prestige are at stake!”

PREVIEW

S.I.S.T.E.R.

Theatre: The Fox Den Collective

Created by: Jessy Ardern, Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor

Starring: Jessy Ardern, Michelle Diaz, Chariz Faulmino, Sarah Feutl, Marina Mair-Sanchez, Kristen Padayas

Where: online

Running: tonight through Oct. 10

Tickets: Eventbrite (singles, pairings and groups can be accommodated)

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Catalyst commits a Grand Act of Theatre: ‘until the next breath’ comes to a secret outdoor location Sunday

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“A grand act!” sighs Jonathan Christenson. “It’s everything I miss about theatre. I want to go to a big event. Where something happens. And it matters!”

“Grand!” declares Bretta Gerecke, lingering over an alluring word that’s dropped out of the arts lexicon of late. “Impactful! The idea of thrilling people, transporting people!”

No wonder Catalyst’s artistic director and resident designer found the proposition of Grand Acts Of Theatre irresistible. It came this summer from Jillian Keiley, artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre. Says Christenson, she reached out “with the notion that right now one of the things we’re missing is the ability to create work on a large scale, something writ large, big metaphors. To invite audiences to a live experience that speaks to our collective experience, now….”

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The Catalyst artistic duo was listening. In these micro-sized screen-bound times, it was music to their ears.

The Edmonton theatre with the archive full of original highly theatrical musicals was chosen by the NAC as one of 11 innovative companies from across Canada commissioned to create a Grand Act Of Theatre. Their creation until the next breath happens Sunday night, one time only, at a secret Edmonton location, performed outdoors by a cast of 50 for a masked, distanced audience of 100, under strict COVID precautions.

“Do you want to do this? And can you do it in two months max?” Those were the two questions posed to Christenson and Gerecke at the end of July. The answers: ‘Yes!’ and ‘Wow! What will we do?’

Christenson and Gerecke loved Keiley’s examples of Grand. The Newfoundland company that trundled a grand piano to the top of a cliff, and dropped it over the edge. Or the grand theatrical ‘happenings’ of the green movement Extinction Rebellion, with their m.o. “of creating an event that makes people stop and stare, and see the movement in a different way,” says Gerecke, chatting with Christenson (and 12thnight) on her first day out of quarantine after crossing the Atlantic from her London home base.

These are the sorts of experiences “that stay with you.… Surprise and imagination! The unexpected!”

BIG was a rare kind of draw. “We normally can’t do huge-cast shows,” as Christenson points out. “This is a chance to work with a lot of performers!” Says Gerecke happily, “we’ chose to max out. Maximum number of performers, maximum number of audience members — a two-to one ratio of audience to performer — in a big space. We’ve gone for it!”

On paper the single performance proviso sounds like a limitation. Au contraire. “Liberating!” says Gerecke. “An opportunity!” says Christenson. “Normally you have to be able to re-do it every night.” Gerecke thinks of Burning Man, where the design goes up in flames as the one-off finale. 

The majority of the $50,000 budget for under the breath goes to artists. The cast of 50 includes “a mini-orchestra” of eight, eight singers, and 34 actors and dancers, with a crew of 10. “No one’s busy right now. And everyone is like us, craving (expression),” says Gerecke.

Fifty people can’t rehearse indoors. So the scripts, the score, the choreography video (by Laura Krewski) are distributed this week. And there are four-hour on-site rehearsals Saturday, one for the actors and dancers, and one for the musicians. Everyone comes together for a final rehearsal Sunday afternoon. And then, show time! It might be a new speed record for a company that normally develops work over months, sometimes years.  

What was the inspiration for Sunday’s event? “The idea of the liminal space,” says Christenson, of these strange, isolating pandemical times where certainties, both past and future, seem to have vanished into thin air. “The in-between period. In coming-of-age rituals it marks the moment between what you were and what you will be….”

“We felt it spoke to the time we’re in, that feeling of being in-between. We don’t have what we had, and it’s unclear if we’ll have it again. And do we even want to have it again?.… The experience of resistance, that part of you that desperately wants everything to change, and the part of you that doesn’t, the fear and anxiety about what comes next.” 

As admired and successful theatre artists whose careers had come to an abrupt and indefinite stop-work, he and Gerecke, continents apart, spent the summer musing on the threshold moment when certainties seem to have evaporated. “We wanted to give expression to this feeling….” The tone was liminal too. “We didn’t want under the breath to be a dark statement but at the same time it couldn’t be glibly upbeat,” he says.”What mattered to me was creating an experience that gave expression to that feeling….” 

He thinks that’s what Grand Acts of Theatre is getting at, “the ability of theatre to make a big statement, where you recognize (something of) yourself. That’s one of the things art can do, validate your own feelings….” 

“And it’s something that can only be done now,” says Gerecke, who was in the final tech rehearsal for a production at Birmingham Rep when theatre suddenly, completely, stopped. “How we are now is, I’m certain, very different than how we will be six months from now.”

A Grand Act is a chance to think about “how do we mark the time artistically when the doors are shut to our normal access point for storytelling? How do we create something that you look back on and say ‘Wow! That’s how we were!’.”

The process of creating under the breath “paralleled our own experiences trying to work through where we were at in our own journeys,” says Christenson. “We’re trying to figure out, in different ways and different places, how to move past. How do you get to the place where you step into the ‘what’s next’?” ”

Gerecke echoes the thought. “What do you want to change? What do you want to hang on to? We’re all being tested across the board…. If you build something that crumbles, how do you find a way to re-imagine your future? How do I reinvent my career” She notes that two of her four upcoming theatre projects are “digital, augmented reality.… You help define what comes next.”

“What we landed on was the idea of breath,” she says of the experience Edmonton audiences will have Sunday. Breath is dangerous, times being what they are, and precious too. Nature, at risk in the world along with humans, has breath. “We’re in a state of inhale, of holding our breath….”

But you can’t hold your breath forever. Says Christenson “We’ve all been shut down. And now we have to move forward.”

12thnight talked to NAC artistic director Jillian Keiley about Grand Acts of Theatre. Check out the PREVIEW HERE.

PREVIEW

Grand Acts of Theatre: “The NAC Foundation wishes to thank the RBC Foundation as Presenting Partner of Grand Acts of Theatre. Also made possible by support from The Jenepher Hooper Fund for Theatre.

until the next breath

Theatre: Catalyst, as part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre

Created by: Jonathan Christenson (book, music, lyrics) , Bretta Gerecke (design), Laura Krewski (choreography), Matthew Skopyk (sound)

Directed by: Jonathan Christenson

Where: a secret urban location in Edmonton

Running: Sunday, 8 p.m.

Information and free tickets (now a waiting list): catalysttheatre.ca. A five-minute video version will be posted by the National Arts Centre when Grand Acts of Theatre is complete. 

 

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Canada as a work-in-progress: All That Binds Us at Azimuth Theatre

All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight

There has likely never been a more all-inclusive welcome to a piece of theatre than the one we get from Kit (Sheldon Elter), our “guide of sorts,” in the opening moments of All That Binds Us.

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The hopeful and the hopeless, the thoughtful and the clueless, the newcomer and the refugee, the poor, the mad, the scared, the anxious, the newcomer, the refugee, the bodies of every length and width and colour … Kit really digs in. 

The complacent, however, will find themselves directly challenged by this new Azimuth creation, currently running live (and live streamed) at the Westbury Theatre. The Pangloss-ian view of Canada as a self-styled haven of freedom, fairness, amicable diversity, racial equality, is up for re-assessment in this collaborative production, fashioned by five BIPOC creators, directed by Reneltta Arluk, and performed by a BIPOC cast of six.

Reneltta Arluk, Jenna Rodgers, Lebogang Disele, Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grauman, All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo supplied.

In the course of the show, set against a design of pale, shimmering, draped translucence by Elise CM Jason (video design by Effy Adar), the characters bring their individual stories, present and past, to the stage, and present them. The voices are mic’d, and loud. And they have the ring of lived experience to them.

Maria (Nadien Chu) is a mixed-race Canadian — “mixed” as she emphasizes, not half Chinese or half anything, but “a whole of everything.” Shams (Makram Ayache), a Lebanese immigrant, is gay and Arab, and “sort of Muslim,” a combination that doesn’t lead to a tranquil life anywhere, including Canada. Mands (Lebogang Disele, who performs via video projection due to COVID travel restrictions) is from Botswana, and trapped between worlds, finding that blackness means something different in Canada than in her native country.

Setsun (Tai Amy Grauman) is an Albertan Cree on Treaty 6 land, wondering forcefully why, in a country where Indigenous people are the true originals, white people aren’t asked where they’re from. Kamar (Amena Shehab) is a Palestine Syrian refugee, finding that freedom is a relative notion when you’re housebound with kids in a snowy new country, longing for connection. And then there’s Kit (Elter), “the storyteller … your whimsical spirit guide,” as he says of a user-friendly Indigenous identity that plays well with white people. “I am whoever I need to be.”

It’s Canada Day. And the “fearless fivesome,” a group portrait of Canadian inclusivity, are off to a club to celebrate — and discuss and argue. Against that multi-hued fabric, their individual stories emerge, stories of dispossession, displacement, hopes and dreams partially satisfied and then deferred or destroyed.  These happen mainly as presentational speeches, with occasional sparky exchanges.

All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography

Mands’ story of the black female experience, in all its violence (“locked out, beaten, silenced, refusing to be broken”), unrolls on screen in long lyrical poetry, with repeating choruses. “I hear you, I see you” and “I want to say Me Too.” For the benefit of her white ex-boyfriend, who refuses to be dislodged from her mind, Maria invokes shameful chapters in Canadian history, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment, the Komagata Maru incident. Her July 1 greeting: “Happy Humiliation Day.”

Shams rejoices in the Canadian freedom to embrace his gay sexuality, only to discover its dangers — and the subtler ways he’s marginalized as an immigrant. Kamar, a refugee who has more positive feelings about her new country, finds a Canadian friend, and discovers that Susan (Chu) doesn’t have a clue about the perils of fleeing war.

The Indigenous experience so eloquently set forth by Setsun means, as the bartender (Elter) finally reveals, that he has to “apply” to white Canada for official approval of his ancient rights — and his very identity, as a “status Indian.” 

For each character, the Canadian passport, and indeed “Canadian-ness,” resonate in different ways. But if you’re looking for reassurances about the Canadian record in racial and ethnic inclusivity, you’re looking in the wrong place. The Canada Day palette of red and white stands for “blood and colonization,” says Maria, still stinging from her fractured relationship.

It was memorable to see a show challenging the Canadian sense of superiority on the night of the appalling first American presidential debate, with its validation by the incumbent of white supremacy. Up north across the border, it may not be a rallying cry but here we are: there’s diversity and then, at the top, there’s whiteness. In this provocative show the threads spool out. And then, white-out. 

In the blinding flash of light that bleaches the stage of all colour at the end, it turns out that “all that binds us” is the supremacy of white. 

REVIEW

All That Binds Us

Theatre: Azimuth

Created by: Reneltta Arluk, Makram Ayache, Lebogang Disele, Jenna Rodgers, Amena Shehab

Directed by: Reneltta Arluk

Starring: Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Lebogang Disele, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grumman

Where: in person at Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave. or livestreamed

Running: through Oct. 3

Tickets, COVID safety info, and streaming: fringetheatre.ca

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Big, memorable, and live: Catalyst is part of Grand Acts of Theatre across the country

Caitlyn MacInnis and Margaret Thompson in Something Bubbled Something Blue, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Scott Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the fateful summer of 2020, Jillian Keiley’s thoughts turned to … live. And she was not alone.

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Four months into the new, weird, screen-dominated pandemical world, the artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre found “I was missing the live show. And also really missing the event of being at the show. The moment of it. The experience.”

Jillian Keiley, artistic director of National Arts Centre English Theatre. Photo by John Arano.

True, the NAC had already done “something great, something I was really proud of,” says Keiley of #CanadaPerforms, an online series launched in mid-March that paid artists, whose livelihoods were suddenly and indefinitely on hold, to livestream their shows. “Seven hundred performers from across the country, broadcasting from their bedrooms,” as she puts it.

“What we weren’t able to do was to have artists come together and create something that showed design and metaphor in how it was put together, in how the story was told, how it had meaning in how the story was told. I really longed for that!” she says.

Grand Acts of Theatre was born in that longing. Keiley’s bright idea was a cross-country string of original large-scale outdoor events, happenings, to be performed — once — for a live audience, and then captured in short videos. What she had in mind was something with big theatrical impact, meaning, and community reverb. Something to capture the public imagination, inspired by the times.

“A big statement, something that people would remember, that would have deep meaning to the community where it played…. And the community would extend to the people who will watch it recorded as well,” nationally (and internationally).

So, with the assistance of the Jenepher Hooper Fund for English Theatre (“to do something special”), the NAC commissioned 11 (soon to be 12) innovative Canadian theatre companies from across the country, St. John’s to Vancouver. Keiley and her co-curator Sherry Yoon of Vancouver’s Boca del Lupo chose Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre to be one of them. The Catalyst creation, until the next breath, happens Sunday night at a secret urban location, with a cast of 50 and a live audience of 100. (More about this in an upcoming 12thnight post). 

On the phone from St. John’s (“if you’re working from home you might as well be home”), Keiley amplifies her idea of  “a grand sweeping statement,” something with impact in inverse proportion to length. “When I was a young woman I witnessed someone throw a grand piano off a cliff,” she says. Now, there’s the  kind of no-intermission event that sticks with you. 

“We gave each company $50,000 to create something, with a bit extra to make the film. You can’t really make a two-hour show with that. So this is more of a performance burst, an event. We asked the companies to ‘put all your efforts into this one statement’…. It’s an opportunity for theatre-makers to boil down what they usually stretch out over an hour and a half.” So far, the creations run mostly in the 10 to 15-minute range, she reports.

As for size, “big” is an elastic concept, both in cast and audience. It varies show to show, not least because it depends on the changing COVID safety restrictions in every locale. For another it depends on the nature of the show itself. And after all, it only takes one person (and a crane) to hurl a grand piano off a cliff.

She and Yoon drew up a “master list of 60 companies” across the country, with a view to diversity, racial and artistic. “Just to be fair,” the pair ruled out Boca del Lupo, where Yoon is artistic director and St. John’s Artistic Fraud (Keiley was the founding artistic director for 18 years before she arrived at the NAC in 2012). No geographical area got more than one event. In the next couple of weeks the NAC will announce a 12th company, in the North. Interestingly, the series doesn’t include events in either Toronto or Ottawa.

Intramural.e, designed by Peatr Thomas for Théâtre Cercle Molière/ Synonym Art Consultation, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by BNB Studios.

The turn-around was fast. After all, this is Canada. And the seasonal clock is ticking. “We wanted this to be happening in September and October, before the snow flies.…We looked at companies with long histories of big-impact outdoor events. High impact, high metaphor, high mystery, different kinds of artists.” In July the NAC asked 11 companies to say Yes or No, and get to it. “The only provocation we gave,” says Keiley, “was ‘do something that speaks to these times’.…

The series began Sept. 12 in Barrie, Ont. with Something Bubbled Something Blue, a collaboration between Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre and Toronto’s Outside The March. It was a wedding which had the happy couple in big separate inflatable bubbles. Trespassers Waltz, from Regina’s Curtain Razors (Sept. 20), says Keiley, who’s seen the pictures, was “holy cow! a sweeping vision of people out on the prairies, Queen Victoria out surveying her land.”

Slated for Saturday are performances from Kaha:wi Dance Theatre of Six Nations, Ont. and the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry in Calgary. Vancouver’s Electric Company and Neighbourhood Dance Works in St. John’s are coming up in October. So far, the series finale is Oct. 11 with Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop.  

But before that, on Sunday, is Edmonton, and Catalyst’s until the next breath. The company isn’t known for outdoor work, true. But the Catalyst aesthetic tilts to bold theatricality, high-impact visuals and physicality in performance. Keiley is a long-time admirer. She still remembers, lo these many years, seeing Catalyst’s Abundance in Edmonton (in the ‘90s). “A bunch of, wombs?, inside a warehouse, a big meaningful installation…. I love their work.”

The goal, as Keiley puts it, was to create performance that would be part of people’s memories of a strange time. “So people would look back in 10 years and say ‘remember the pandemic? remember when we went to that wedding in balls?’”

The idea wasn’t a “play,” per se. Not for this project.

“We’re in a place now where we really have to re-think theatre. And I’m happy to challenge these companies to do that…. I don’t think theatre as we know it is over forever. But I think that people are starting to find some really interesting ways to tell stories that still have a theatrical edge but don’t require soft seats and a backstage.”

The variety in Grand Acts of Theatre is striking — in tone and spirit, in aesthetic, in perspectives on the divisive, uncertain times we live in. “Some are funny, some very political, some beautiful and dreamy, about isolation…. It made me cry, too, to think about resilience. People are just so resilient. When you think about the time we’re in, you think you just want to go back to bed. But then you see people being so clever, so resilient, getting around it, and you think something beautiful can come out of this!”

Check the Catalyst website for updated details on until the next breath.

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Through the window and out in the world: some thoughts on Plain Jane’s Scenes From The Sidewalk

Josh Travnik with Matt Graham and Sue Goberdhan (rear) in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Varscona Theatre opened its door this past weekend for the first time since March.

The door to the lobby, that is. Which is where 20 of us sat (distanced and masked) on Sunday at 5:30, looking out the big street-side windows at the world beyond — and at a sextet of young theatre artists out on the sidewalk. Theatre often talks the talk about being of the world, in the world, a reflection of the world, a live capture. With their ingenious new cabaret Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside Out Cabaret, which played three performances on the weekend, the Plain Janes have figured out how to walk the walk (or dance the dance) in a clever new way.

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The unexpected configuration — turning theatre inside out, with the actors outside, performing against the backdrop of the real live city, and the audience tucked inside looking out — is a bright idea. It’s one of those multi-faceted metaphors with a pulse and resonance beyond these strange COVID-ian times. And these times being what they are (i.e. full of screens), there’s something pretty thrilling and extra-dimensional about entering a real theatre — even if there’s a little ripple of un-reality about having your temperature, instead of your ticket, taken at the door.   

In the benign golden light of late afternoon Sunday, urban life was going on. It was the set, and the cast of extras, for a cabaret. Intrigued passengers stuck their heads out windows of passing cars on 83rd Ave. Curious cyclists and E-scooter-ists slowed down; ditto, joggers and strollers who did double-takes and stopped. A family across the street did a photo shoot of themselves in various permutations against Walterdale Theatre’s big red garage doors. A couple of cops arrived at the Gazebo Park, where a camp for the homeless was happening, a moment of potential drama that would have felt very different, I suspect, at evening performances.

In fact, the lighting of the night-time shows, and the sense of street life, would have changed the magic (I’m imagining the “extras” fading into shadows).

(from left) Matt Graham, Sue Goberdhan, Daniela Fernandez, Josh Travnik in Scenes From The Sidewalk. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

We could hear the cast (Janes artistic director Kate Ryan was inside with us, at the sound board). They couldn’t hear us, so we were encouraged to display our reactions physically. Apparently the cast chose (and/or created) songs — and in the case of Althea Cunningham poems — to reveal something of their personal perspective on a year in which the meaning of togetherness, solitude, and home have changed so radically, and theatre careers have lurched to a complete stop.

The comical Josh Travnik tucked into the opening number, One By One By One from Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, as a luckless “ambassador” for a visual artist trying in vain to hand out flyers to the passing citizenry who are oblivious, or worse. His cast-mates were supplemented by the odd anonymous extra. “The city tends to make me feel invisible,” he sang. “It makes me wanna scream/ Or write a manifesto/ That declares the city void of any soul.”

Jason Hardwick in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

There’s a lively and enlivening variety of takes: the pandemic as imprisonment, or even liberation from the usual. The Janes know their musicals, and they easily cross into pop.  Jason Hardwick’s lovely account of Sailing, a dreamy desire for escape to sweet idylls gone by, from the off-centre William Finn musical A New Brain, will strike a chord.

Nice, from Lucky Stiff, a duet for a fracturing couple who think they’re sick of each other — “now I have no one to ruin my day” — might well have been written with enforced quarantine partnerships in mind. It’s performed in sprightly fashion by Travnik and Daniela Fernandez. Another take on the lurking transformation of closeness is Monster (Sue Goberdhan and Matt Graham) by Dodie, an English singer-songwriter I didn’t know anything about. “Well, this ends bad then, we knew it would/ So we won’t eat our words, ‘cause they don’t taste good….”

Sue Groberdhan in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

Funny how songs take on new and unexpected colours under our peculiar circumstances. Goberdhan, a thoroughly engaging performer (and the new co-artistic producer of Azimuth Theatre), picked Sammy Rae’s Whatever We Feel to find an up side to the pandemic: a new freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want, for no particular reason except whim.

Adele’s Hometown Glory (Fernandez) has a different feel at the moment, too: “the people I’ve met/ Are the wonders of my world….” So does When Everything Falls Apart from Frozen (Hardwick). Althea Cunningham brings us her reflections on the black experience — in her powerful account of the Tracy Chapman song Behind The Wall (“the police always come late/ if they come at all”), and in her own fierce and moving poetry.

Althea Cunningham in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

I was very taken with Matt Graham’s original song In 50 Years, with its jazzy intro and smart, thoughtful reflections on the maybe’s built into an uncertain future. And Travnik revealed an unstoppably catchy original dance party tune Taste (co-written with Homofonik queer pop duo partner Daniel Belland): “I don’t want you forever/ just one little taste.” 

The finale, The Tuba Song, from a pop musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s rarely performed Love’s Labour’s Lost, turns out to be a jaunty anthem to exploring the uncertain future through fresh eyes. “I need the rush of possibility/ The unprepared reply….”

They hit home. Words to live by.

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Clowning around … online: the 5th annual Play The Fool Fest goes digital

Meredith Gordon, Squeeze The Clown. Photo by Mike Borchert

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Clowns work as well as aspirin, but twice as fast.” –Groucho Marx

And for the major migraine that is COVID, it’s high time we had some. Clowns, that is.

The only thing is, clowns thrive on real live close-up encounters with real live people, responding to their vibe — and their laughter. The fourth wall, barricading the theatrical illusion, means absolutely sweet tweet to a clown. “So it’s a tricky pivot,” says Christine Lesiak of re-tooling the fifth annual Play The Fool Festival for the digital (and socially distanced) world. “The live interactive element, the ‘what’s going to happen next?’,” as she puts it, make a festival devoted to the celebration of clown and physical theatre for adult audiences an oddball fit in the new onscreen pandemical world order.

Philip and Lucinda. Photo by John Marian.

But, as she says, “clowns make do.” And screen clowning isn’t an outlandish prospect. After all, Lesiak she points out, “there’s a rich history of film clowns” — from Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy to media stars like Stephen Colbert, or the clown characters of Jim Carrey and Melissa McPherson. Lesiak, the creator and star of the widely travelled Fringe hit For Science!, has curated a digital Play The Fool lineup that includes film and video component, live streamed delights, a live act (for socially distanced gatherings), and a panel discussion.

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In fact, there’s a first-ever Play The Fool two-minute film competition, especially tailored for fierce concentrators and/or short attention spans. You’re never going to say ‘so cut to the chase already’ at a 120-second film festival. “There is no fat in a two-minute film,” Lesiak laughs.

In August the festival invited clown and physical comedy-themed submissions, the only stipulation. And much to Lesiak’s delight — and surprise, since “making things for the screen is hard, and incredibly time-consuming” — she got 40. There’s a startling variety, and they’re from everywhere: an international array of “little gems,” of which 20 or so, selected by a jury of film-makers, will be up on playthefool.ca for screening starting Thursday. 

Candace Berlinguette at Play The Fool. Photo by John Marian.

There are those who will doggedly argue that the red nose is the only true clown ID.  Lesiak disagrees: “One of our missions is to challenge the parameters of clowning!” she says of Play The Fool programming. From the start it has regularly expanded that horizon with clowns of every shape, style, aesthetic, and personality from the wide-eyed innocent to the macabre Euro-existentialist, bouffon to burlesque, blabber-mouth to mime to drag artist. Lesiak’s own gallery of clown alter-egos is a hint — among them red-nosed Sheshells, the worldly lifestyle advice guru Aggie (Ask Aggie), the white-coated Professor with the brisk beaming good cheer in For Science!.

A highlight of this year’s Play The Fool is the Saturday 3 p.m. screening of The Wise Fool, Geraldine Carr’s documentary honouring the life and career of the legendary clown (and clown guru, mentor, coach, philosopher, writer, director) Jan Henderson. If you haven’t already, you’ll meet Henderson’s charming clown Fender. And you may well be inspired by this engaging artist to unleash your own inner clown. 

The Wise Fool happens (once!)  at playthefool.ca right after a 2 p.m. live screening of the quirky spoof Telethon-a-thon; The Calgary Clown Society fields an international cast. The afternoon finale, at 4 p.m. is the annual Play The Fool panel discussion, this year “Culture, Identity and Clowning: a BIPOC Artist Conversation.” What’s it like to clown in a white-dominated culture? The diverse all-star panel of theatre and circus artists and clowns includes “medical clown” Meredith Gordon, June Fukumura, Barry Bilinsky, Kiana Woo, Pratik Motwani, sheds light (moderator Lisa Dawn Daniels).  

Trevor Schmidt and Darrin Hagen, Dragula. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Signal Boost is Lesiak’s curated online assortment of high-contrast clown film and video offerings, from Edmonton, across Canada, and beyond. It’s a lineup of recommendations that reflects an elastic view of clown identity. Guys in Disguise’s audio-play revival of Dragula is one. Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky’s Folk Lordz, which mines and cross-hatches the former’s Cree and the latter’s Russian Jewish heritage, is another. In this incarnation it’s a selection of two-to-four-minute sketches, “very funny, very political,” as Lesiak says.”Beautifully written, great production values, so well-crafted. This is very smart comedy.”

Toronto-based clown duo Morro and Jasp and Vancouver’s New(to)Town Collective are in the line-up, along with the film ABC (Anything But COVID) by Ugly Bucket Theatre from the U.K., who have, says Lesiak, a distinctively contemporary theatre/clown sensibility. She describes The Uncle Junior Project as “a community-driven online exhibit that celebrates the history of black circuses in the U.S…. Eye-opening, especially in Canada.”

COVID has shut down live performance, and cruelly. But to look on the bright side (which clowns are apt to do) “we can reach a global audience,” says Lesiak. “It’s exciting. And even after, we’ll keep an online presence I think…. The biggest challenge is time zones.”

And live, did someone say LIVE? Via Play The Fool The Great Balanzo (Aytan Ross) and his Circus To Go can be booked to come to you, “like a pizza,”  in your own backyard.

PREVIEW

Play The Fool Festival

Produced by: Hit The Jive Productions

Running: Sept. 24 to 27

Where: playthefool.ca

Tickets: most programming is free (donations gratefully accepted), with some Signal Boost acts requiring payment directly to the artists.

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Off the cuff and on the spot: Gordon’s Big Bald Head makes (up) a movie

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson in Gordon’s Big Bald Head: Good Head

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Hey, tonight I was in the virtual audience at the Grindstone, i.e. the invisible sweatpants brigade online at home. And I was watching an amazingly dexterous improv duo onstage do, off the cuff, something that is clearly, by every reasonable definition, impossible. Q: Was I hallucinating?

Mark Meer and Ron Pederson, two-thirds of the improv troupe Gordon’s Big Bald Head, did a movie. Really. They improvised an entire movie, in an hour.

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Armed only with a title from cinematic history and the description and review provided by Leonard Maltin (of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide fame) — picked randomly by a random member of the live audience at the Grindstone — Meer and Pederson improvised their own version of Gothika. This 2003 pyscho-thriller flop is described by Maltin in his fat reference volume in a number of unflattering ways (as read out by Meer), including the memorable phrase “a snakepit hodgepodge,” not a compliment I reckon. Evidently the set-up involves a shrink in a mental hospital who wakes up to find herself accused of assorted murders. Sounds abysmal. One-and-a-half stars.

Anyhow, Meer and Pederson “did” their own Gothika on a bare stage (save for two boxes ) — with a cross-hatched gallery of lurid characters, a looping narrative, wildly escalating supernatural interventions by assorted monsters, subplots, flashbacks, running gags, action, extravagant physical comedy, pop culture annotations, witty asides (“I’m not just some mixed genre; I’m a human being!” chides one of the principals). And they did it, all this making up of stuff, with a great onward rush, and nary a fumble, a stumble, an awkward hesitation. 

If you hadn’t seen the elaborate demonstration of random choice by the audience at the outset, you might suspect it was scripted. In short, for sheer entertainment value, you’d lay down money this improvised Gothika kicks the “real” Gothika‘s butt. 

This is beyond quick-witted; you shake your head in amazement. These two are masterful, the best anywhere. And since there are three more performances of Gordon’s Big Bald Head Presents: Good Head — so, three more movies purloined from cinematic history — you shouldn’t miss the chance to treat yourself to something riotous, either live at the theatre (in  distanced, masked, sanitized safety) or live streamed at home (with smart camera work). The show runs through Saturday. Tickets: grindstonetheatre.ca 

    

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