Slight of Mind: boarding now at the Citadel, flights into the unknown. A review

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Notes from the departure lounge:

We’ve been welcomed by a ground crew of beaming and perky flight attendants. We’ve been through security. Very professional. “Have you been on a farm?” No. “Have you consumed anything organic?” Well, there was that kale margarita flatbread. “Kale!? Step this way please….” Scanning wand, more questions: “Do you have a chicken on you?”

I’m flying with Icarus Air tonight, first time. And the flashing board in in the departures lounge (which, incidentally, looks quite a lot like the Citadel’s Shoctor lobby) gives some idea of Icarus’s global — no, galactic  — reach. TO London, VIA Stansted. TO Universe, VIA Milky Way.

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Welcome aboard. Smiling flight attendants will helpfully inform us of the “non-existent safety features of the aircraft… no emergency exits, no safety cards in the seat in front of you.…” 

Through departure gates all over the Citadel (except its theatres), Slight of Mind will take us on flights of fancy (on foot) into the great unknown. In Theatre Yes’s latest promenade production to pry theatre out of theatres (and into unexpected encounters with audiences), there are scenes in the secret niches, the corridors, corners, chambers and caverns, of the labyrinthine brick and glass playhouse downtown. Ah, and in locations in adjacent buildings that are in sight outside, through the glass walls.

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

I’m not going to tell you where they are: disorientation and discovery is part of the experience, and the fun, of Slight of Mind. Suffice it to say that, with the exception of the odd public staircase, where one scene unexpectedly happens, you won’t have been there before. Unless you’re a Citadel employee, or a member of IATSE Local 210.

The award-winning playwright/actor Beth Graham (Pretty Goblins, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble) has written a play, directed by Theatre Yes’s Heather Inglis, that takes off through the starry sky, up up up and down down down. And its flight pattern — which is, in ways both literal and metaphorical, all about flight — takes us into three intertwined stories.

At the heart of Slight of Mind is the yearning to break free of our earthly bonds and take wing. And in addition to its iconic characters,  Graham’s script captures that aching desire in occasional lyrical outbursts of rhymed poetry.     

The poster boy for exhilaration and risk — borrowed for the occasion from Greek mythology for a moving little father-son drama — is Icarus (Philip Geller). He and his inventor dad Daedalus (Ian Leung) have beautifully written and compelling acted scenes together. And they’re staged with striking ingenuity by Inglis in locations that add exponentially to the life-and-death stakes. 

Daedalus, as you may recall, fashions his son a pair of wings from wax and feathers, with the warning not to fly too close to the sun or they would melt. Icarus famously is too dazzled to heed his dad; what teenage dreamer ever really does listen?

There are two other signature risk-takers in Slight of Mind. Amelia Earhart, the ground-breaking ground-leaving pilot, chalked up a cluster of firsts — first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, for one —   before her fateful flight of 1937. On a circumnavigation of the globe she disappeared. The mystery has never been resolved.

She is played, with gusto, by Melissa Thingelstad, as a brisk, amused, vivid woman who dispenses with objections (and dopey questions about her fame as “a girl pilot”) like they’re so much lint. “Why do you do it?” she’s asked by a media dimbulb. “Because I want to,” she declares. “Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying.” 

Valentina Tereshkova, in Lora Brovold’s striking portrait, is a fierce but oddly soulful, Russian who becomes the first woman in space. As she’s constantly reminded by party headquarters (Cole Humeny’s Krushchev), she’s been chosen by the party to score points in the space race with the Americans. We meet her again, later, in orbit, wonderstruck and potentially doomed, since there’s been a malfunction. 

The dreamer-in-progress we meet at the outset is Agnes (Ivy DeGagné) on her 10th birthday, the daughter of a flight attendant (Rebecca Merkley) and an airplane technician (Byron Martin). She dreams of flying, of being a pilot. And in the course of Slight of Mind, she will learn something unforgettable about the high stakes. That scene, in truth, suffers from a little from acoustical problems. 

The nine-member corps of flight attendants (most of them U of A theatre school grads) are highly amusing: identical blue airline power suits with jaunty caps, identical red lipstick and professional smiles, and that brisk official flight attendant gait. They usher passengers to and from assorted gaits, offering jokes and philosophical asides (“flying is always just a state of mind”), their smiles undimmed. 

The scenic design (by Daniela Masellis and Tessa Stamp) rises to the challenge of multiple spaces in inventive ways. And these are enhanced by contributions from costume designer Brian Bast, videographer Ian Jackson, and sound designer Gary James Joynes. Among the latter’s inspirations is a kind of spacey sound installation in a chamber that, as a flight attendant acknowledges brightly, is very small. “But that’s because it’s coach.”

It’s Amelia Earhart who declares that “there’s more to life than being a passenger.” And that’s something that an immersive theatre experiment like this one hints at it, too. I must admit I don’t quite get the title, though. Slight of Mind is by no means slight in the thoughts it offers about aspirations and risk-takers. 

Carry on, dreamers, into the wild blue yonder. And keep your carry-on to a minimum.

REVIEW

Slight Of Mind

Theatre: Theatre Yes in collaboration with the Citadel Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed and produced by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Lora Brovold, Ivy DeGagné, Philip Geller, Cole Humeny, Ian Leung, Byron Martin, Silverius Materi, Rebecca Merkley, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Meet at Citadel box office for instructions

Running: March 27 to April 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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“If I’m honest…”: 19 Weeks steps up to the wall of silence. A review.

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The woman we meet up close in 19 Weeks, folding laundry in a toy-strewn room, says “if I’m honest…” and “being honest …” and “in all honesty …” a lot. And then she looks right at us, hesitates, takes a breath, and forges ahead with her story. Honesty is her mantra. And honesty costs.

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If Emily (Vanessa Sabourin) seems to be bracing herself a little against resistance, you can understand why. For one thing she’s telling us — and in Sabourin’s compelling performance re-living — a traumatic experience that’s barely more than a year old; it still feels raw. And Sabourin, a gutsy actor, steps bravely up to raw.

For another thing, in sharing her story full-disclosure, Emily, the stand-in for the Brit-turned-Australian playwright Emily Steel, is up against a formidable wall of silence on the subject.

At age 38, 19 weeks pregnant, Emily has a late-term abortion. Many have had the experience; few talk about it. As she discovers in the course of this gut-wrencher of a solo show — the season-ender for Northern Light in collaboration with Azimuth Theatre — her baby has Down Syndrome. All along, as she reveals near the outset, the pregnancy hasn’t been the source of untrammelled delight. It’s more on the spectrum of “O God, what have we done?” and “not quite the same amazing miracle it was the first time.”

Emily introduces us to her partner Chris, a generous-minded and caring guy, and their two-year-old kid Frank. She tells us about her family, all “on the other side of the world,” and the heartbreak of an beloved uncle with a degenerative genetic disease (and the mother who sacrificed everything her life to take care of him). She’s continually, violently sick, to the point of being unable to work and barely able to take care of Frank.

19 Weeks, a title that speaks both to duration and to countdown, is propelled by stress. It’s full of tense phone calls for test results, and waiting for tense calls to be returned, then further tests, and more tense waiting for results. We do the waiting with her. And the tone, while emotionally fraught, has an unexpectedly  earthy, matter-of-fact quality, resistant to self-pity and sentimentalism. Even under duress — and she goes through the wringer — Sabourin’s Emily retains a certain sturdy core sense of self, of resolve, as she re-creates her own experience. 

The pressures of the world are tilted against Emily’s decision, and she acknowledges the gaze, the potential for disapproval and controversy. “Maybe if I was a real mother I would sacrifice everything. But I’m not that person. With perfect clarity, I know who I’m not.” But, as Sabourin conveys so eloquently, she’s baring her own story, and stepping up to the consequences; she’s not in the end trying to convince people to change their minds.

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Which is something theatre does: expand your vision/compassion meter, let you meet a character, and see the world through their eyes.

Director/designer Trevor Schmidt deliberately doesn’t make it easy for Emily. The back wall of his beautiful design for the TransAlta Arts Barns’ Studio Theatre is dominated by opaque screens, slightly angled so light shines through the cracks (lighting design: Beth Dart). And the stage is dominated by a haunting painting (by Maria Pace Wynters). A grave, composed little girl in a red dress gazes directly out at us; a white bird of prey hovers over one shoulder. Under the circumstances you can’t help feel that she’s the “maybe,” the  “what if?” of a nerve-wracking story.

The little girl is still there, gazing out, when Emily muses, in the end, that “wondering isn’t the same thing as regret.” 

In stripe-y socks that speak to vulnerability, Sabourin pads around a lit, lived-in, colourfully child-friendly room, surrounded by blackness. In Schmidt’s production, a story much concerned with call-backs and medical technology dispenses with actual telephones or computers or ultra-sound monitors.

Liz Han’s clever original score punctuates its lyrical impulses with ominous buzzing at crucial moments as the tension escalates.  It’s just occurred to me, a couple of days after the opening, that the pre-show music includes Cole Porter’s “I’ve got you under my skin…” which has a witty morbid reverb in context.

The nightmare immediacy of the experience, with its punctuation marks of anger (“my life has value too!”) and desperation cedes to a kind of resolution in the arc of Sabourin’s performance. She leaves us with Emily reflecting on it, sadly but not with self-recrimination. And you realize, I think, that embedded all along in the calibrated anxiety and turmoil attached to the experience, is the core of Emily’s certainty. 

“And I know how certain that past-me was about how she felt and what she wanted,” she says. “And I have to trust her and believe her … because she made this-me possible.”

Everybody who watches 19 Weeks will react differently, but react you will. Discussion is open. Read 12thnight.ca’s INTERVIEW with playwright Emily Steel here.  

REVIEW

19 Weeks

Theatre: Northern Light, Azimuth

Written by: Emily Steel

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Vanessa Sabourin

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

Running: Friday through April 13

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door

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The season’s craziest logistics: Kat Sandler’s two new political comedies at the Citadel happen at the same time

The Party, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s beyond, (way beyond) coincidence that 4:05 minutes into two plays that both run on the same night, with the same cast, in two different theatres at the Citadel (starting tonight in preview), a scene begins that will last exactly 3:55 minutes.

Kat Sandler flips open her laptop to scroll through a chart, “one of many” she says, a spreadsheet dauntingly crammed with minute calibrations on a double-timeline. It looks like something an astrophysicist or a cardio-vascular surgeon might have on hand. But in a theatre? From a playwright?

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The Party and The Candidate, are the self-contained but interconnected new full-length comedies she’s created especially for the Rice, at 150 seats the Citadel’s smallest house, and the 700-seat Maclab. And since, in an apotheosis of lunatic logistics, the same 10 actors are playing in both, simultaneously, “the running times have to match,” she says.   

When Sandler says “running” she’s not kidding. The Citadel is big and spread-out. Getting from the Maclab, on the lower floor of the Lee Pavilion, to the Rice (formerly the Club formerly the Rice), scene by scene, is a matter of running up two punishing floors of cement stairs. Then shooting across the public lobby space in front of the Second Cup hoping no one gets in your way and you have your pants on. Then taking the hallways behind the Ziedler and down, as Sandler’s co-director (and Citadel artistic director) Daryl Cloran explains. “There is no secret underground tunnel.”

Hey, no problem. If you have the fitness level of Roger Federer.

Luc Tellier, the youngest member of the cast, is the current record-holder at 45 seconds (without costume changes). The average, says Sandler, is 1 minute 10 seconds, down from 1 minute 20. “People are already fitter…. Daryl and I try to always take the stairs. In solidarity….”

This state of galloping theatrical hyperactivity can be traced back to Cloran. “What we have here is a lot of spaces,” he grins. “We’re at our best when we’re full of different things happening.” 

He got intrigued by reading Alan Ayckbourn’s 1999 House and Garden, where the same actors run between interconnected plays in next-door theatres. He offered Toronto’s Sandler, one of the country’s hottest younger generation playwrights, an option. She laughs. “Either adapt a Restoration comedy or … do this crazy two-play thing. And I was, like, let’s do the crazy thing, it sounds like fun. And easier than adapting something! And … it wasn’t!” Cloran shrugs comically.

Playwright Kat Sandler. Photo supplied.

“I wanted the plays to be in the world of politics,” says Sandler. “And politics lends itself really well to farce!” No one who has even a passing acquaintance with the news will be inclined to argue.

“We knew we wanted them to be big broad fast-paced comedies, with larger-than-life characters, comic archetypes, outlandish scenarios, high stakes, accessible, ripped from the headlines…. You really can’t make up the stuff happening in politics right now.”

Sandler’s muse is comic. And farce sits well with her, as you might guess if you caught Punch Up, her (very) dark comedy about comedy, at last summer’s Fringe. It’s the only one of her plays to be produced here — till now, and “here I am, you guys double-dosed me.” She says “I have roots in old-time-y comedy. My dad had me listen to a lot of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. That’s what what my comedy sensibility is, dark, fun, fast, a lot of patter jokes, ‘who’s on first?’”

Says Cloran, “when Kat decided on the ‘crazy two-play idea’, we toured all the theatre spaces at the Citadel” (running between venues, stopwatches in hand). What appealed to her most were the Maclab and the Rice. “For one thing, she says, “they were the most different. The Rice feels immersive and exclusive; the Maclab is so much bigger, and more open.” Her two comedies are specifically tailored for the spaces they occupy.

“Certainly they’re linked thematically and by story, but the atmosphere and tone are very different,” says Cloran. The Party, which happens first, chronologically, is a birthday party fund-raiser in which two political rivals, vying to be the party’s candidate, are both courting a powerful sponsor. One (Martha Burns) is a career politico, a Hillary-esque figure in a pantsuit trailing the old scandal of a cheating husband. The other is a glossy but not-too-gifted up-and-comer (Jesse Lipscombe), an ex-movie star with a drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison).

The Party happens in the Rice, with “the actors all around you, maybe sitting at your table,” says Cloran. “You’re in the middle of it. You’re at the party!” In the Maclab,The Candidate takes place nine months later, on the eve of the election, and has to do with containing a scandal whose seeds have been planted at the fateful party. “It’s much more a door-slamming farce.” Sandler grins at Cloran. “I’ve never had this many doors! Thank you for all the doors!” Both plays, she summarizes,  have a lot of classic comedy hallmarks — “secrets, hiding, lewd humour, twins. But one is more immersive, and one has doors!”

With its big thrust stage, the Maclab “looks like the kind of space where a presidential debate could happen,” says Sandler. “I envisaged two people at podiums.” So in The Candidate, the audience isn’t just watching the play they’re the audience in the story too, part of the experience, the 11th character, with a role to play.”

Cloran is tickled by the meta-theatrical jokiness of it all. “We have the classic twin gag (Glenn Nelson whips a funny moustache on and off, as required). But if you think about it, the plays themselves are a twin gag.… We’ve created moments when we tip our hand to the audience. And that’s been really fun.” In one scene, for example, a character says “I’m so tired; I feel like I’ve been running up and down for the last two hours.”

“Theoretically, you could come see the farce and have no idea the actors are running between theatres the whole time…. Kat has written a breathless farce. And the characters are going to be breathless!” 

Sandler does think there are “big issues and big themes” at play: “scandal, #MeToo, ideas about sexuality, the sacrifices we make for power, social media, a melting pot of stuff…. But it’s exciting to explore them in a way that doesn’t take them too seriously.” She calls it “dark comedy with lightness,” a Sandler signature.

“I take shots at politics, celebrity, Hollywood. I love making fun of showbiz. And politics are showbiz now, too. We’re asking people to think about story a new way.… What I really wanted to explore was cause and effect. In The Party you see wheels set in motion. In The Candidate you see how choices play out in the future.”

“Kat’s been so clever,” says Cloran. “Each play has lot of jokes. Sometimes the set-up is in one play and the punchline’s in the other….” While you can see just one and be happy, “you get a lot of extras when you see both!”

So how on earth does a playwright wrestle down the season’s craziest logistics? “I should have written one play first and then written the other one around it. But I kind of wrote them both at the same time!” declares Sandler, who’s bright and funny, and talks really fast as if she might actually be in a high-speed farce herself.

Under the circumstances there’s no such thing as a simple rewrite. A revision in one play demands a precisely corresponding change in the other, “down to the second.” Every run-through is a time-trial. Q: How many stage managers does it take to run The Party and The Candidate? A: Five, each armed with a stop-watch. “And the stop-watches never quite agree. It’s weird,” says Sandler.

“We’re asking so much of the actors,” she says of the emotional and mental aerobics” that go with the physical work-out. “We’re asking them to run a lot for two hours, back and forth in space and also on two different timelines,” says Cloran. For every character, an exit from one play is an entrance into another, months in the future or the past.

Sandler laughs. “It’s a really twisted version of Scrooge and the ghosts. With more sex jokes.”

PREVIEW

The Party, The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Daryl Cloran and Kat Sandler

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

   

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19 Weeks: “It’s not something anybody talks about.” Emily Steel’s story of a harrowing real-life decision, her own

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light/ Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“One of the things that made it so hard was that you feel completely isolated — because it’s not something anyone talks about. I had no reference points. I had nobody to talk to, nobody who’d been through an experience like that…. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”

— Emily Steel

In 2016, the Welsh-born Australian playwright Emily Steel made a thorny (and inevitably controversial) decision. She had a late termination after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Just a year later, she made another hard decision: to tell the story of that real-life experience to people, honestly, in a play.

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19 Weeks, getting its Canadian premiere Friday in a Northern Light and Azimuth Theatre collaboration starring the latter’s co-artistic director Vanessa Sabourin, is that play. 

It’s a fall Tuesday morning in Adelaide, where Steel and her partner moved, from London, in 2010. And the playwright, a warm, thoughtful, cheerfully direct voice on the phone, has dropped her little boy off at kindergarten (he’s just started his first-ever term at school) and walked the dog. And she’s back home drinking tea, considering the harrowing, traumatizing experience of 2016, recorded so unflinchingly in 19 Weeks.

Playwright Emily Steel. Photo supplied.

“You just don’t know what the path might look like. You just don’t know,” says Steel. “Having no reference points and nobody to talk to about it just made the whole experience harder. Not only are you going through something difficult you feel completely alone….”

“It’s the point of writing the play,” she declares. “I feel like one of the things theatre can do is it can make people feel less alone, if they can relate to a story they hear told onstage, connect to it…. As a playwright I want to tell stories about women, stories that are complex and not necessarily the ones that are normally told. So when all of this happened, I had to look at myself and go ‘are you the writer that you think you are?’ Then this is the story you need to tell….”

And tell it she did. Which required more than a little bravery under the circumstances — the cautious gravitate to secrecy — though Steel wouldn’t put it that way. She does concede she anticipated disapproval, maybe even rejection. “When I made the decision to have the termination I thought ‘this might mean there are a lot of people in this town who won’t want to work with me any more’.”

“But I also thought I’m not going to be able to keep this a secret.. I think if something has happened to you, you carry the experience and if you can’t talk about it, that’s extra weight.… And I was also a bit angry about the carrying the weight of the secret. I thought ‘there is no way I’m also going to do that…”

“In all honesty, I thought ‘if I write this play I may never work again’. And I thought I’d just do it anyway.” Steel pauses, a smile in her voice:  I was feeling a bit bloody-minded at the time.”

“It was a difficult thing to write down,” she says. “But in the long run it’s probably been quite helpful; it means that the story is filed in a different place in my head now,” she says, “the ‘work region’ rather than the ‘difficult life experience region’.… For a lot of people the choice to not talk is the right one. For me, talking about it was the best one.”

And Steel discovered, through her play, she wasn’t alone. “It’s been extraordinary,” she says. People would come up after the show to talk about their own experiences, she says. “People are very emotional, in tears…. Quite often I get hugs. It’s quite beautiful. Very moving, very humbling to be trusted with stories they’ve never told anyone, for fear of being judged.”

“The feedback here from the Down Syndrome community is they think women are pressured into having abortions after that diagnosis. My experience was the opposite. I felt like the social pressure, unspoken, was the other way … to continue with the pregnancy even though I didn’t want to.”

Steel had tapped her own life in plays before, but there were, needless to say, particular risks attached to writing about her own late-term abortion. “I’m attracted to characters who don’t necessarily behave in the prescribed manner, who say things you’re not meant to say, do things you’re not meant to do,” says Steel cheerfully. “The idea of transgression and what that means….” 

“Society has huge expectations about women, and what it wants women to do,” as she puts it. “And if you choose a certain path, you’re a bad woman, or a bad mother, or you’re not fulfilling your role. That’s something we need to tackle, and will continue to need to tackle. Probably for a long time.

“You’re in a position where the choice you are making is completely legal. There are medical, ethical, and personal justifications for it. But it still feels like a transgression. What is it that makes you think and feel that? Is it from a lifetime of being told what it is to be a mother, what it is to love, what it is to be a good person?”

Vanessa Sabourin in 19 Weeks, Northern Light and Azimuth Theatres. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“Some of what 19 Weeks is about is admitting to feelings you’re not supposed to feel but that everybody does.” Steel looks for an example. “In grief you might feel enormous rage but what you’re supposed to feel is (just) sad. Sad is O.K. Anger is ‘what’s wrong with you?’”

19 Weeks, which has sold out in every incarnation, is the third play Steel wrote in Australia and took first to the  giant Adelaide Fringe and then to Melbourne. “If you’re in a new country and you don’t know anyone, hey, you can put a play in the Fringe!” — an inspiration thought that should resonate with Edmonton artists and audiences.

It premiered in a pool (“my idea, but I wasn’t entirely serious!”) at the Adina Apartment complex: an audience of 30 took off their shoes and socks, sat around the edge, and dangled their feet in the water. The performer Tiffany Lyndal Knight, in a red bathing suit looking vulnerable and alone in the intimate setting, played Emily, conjuring all the characters, including Steel’s partner Chris and her then-two-year-old son Frank, in, on, and under the water. “It made initial rehearsal quite a challenge,” says Steel. “For the performer it was physically exhausting; there were days I was afraid she’d drown..”

In the end Steel says “it was a crazy idea that turned out to be a good idea…. People read the water as a metaphor; there’s a lot of emotion in water. And they see different things in it: tears, amniotic fluid….” And it gave the production, despite its heavy subject matter, “a certain lightness.”

The Edmonton production directed by Trevor Schmidt at the Studio Theatre in the Arts Barns is the first production of 19 Weeks on dry land. And Steel would love to see it, she says.

Does she still recognize herself in the play? Steel, who rejected from the start the idea of starring in 19 Weeks herself, thinks for a moment. “The actor took on the role so fully that everybody, I and the audience, felt like it was her story….  even if they knew us.”

“I wanted it to be a piece of theatre, not a confessional,” Steel says. “I wanted the audience to be able to react in whatever way they want — to the story not to the person.”

“It’s not a story about making a decision,” she says, remembering the resolve of her slightly younger self. “I think in some ways the play wouldn’t be as confronting if it had been more about the difficulty of making a decision…. But it’s a story about how you go through a decision.”

PREVIEW

19 Weeks

Theatre: Northern Light and Azimuth

Written by: Emily Steel

Directed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Vanessa Sabourin

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

Running: Friday through April 13

Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door

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Say Yes to flight: Slight of Mind takes us through the secret caverns of the Citadel

 

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What goes up must come down. In the multi-pronged flight of fancy that opens Friday at the Citadel, you’ll do a little of both as Slight of Mind takes you on a journey into the wild blue yonder: the secret nooks and crannies of the cavernous glass-and-brick playhouse downtown.

The roving production, part of the Citadel’s new-play Collider initiative, is the latest from Theatre Yes , the adventurous indie company that doesn’t say No to experiments in immersive theatre in unexpected places. 

In The Elevator Project, Theatre Yes explored the dynamics of storytelling in nine downtown elevators, spaces so intimate we were cast as voyeurs and eavesdroppers (or participants), elbow to rib with actors in 16 short plays. Anxiety led us through tense encounters in a secret industrial warehouse. In the Theatre Yes installation Viscosity, we came face to face with real-life stories of oil workers.

And now, in the new adventure fashioned by the award-winning actor/playwright Beth Graham (Pretty Goblins, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble), we’ll fly the friendly skies of Icarus Air. As a nine-member corps of Icarus flight attendants leads us through the non- theatre spaces in the labyrinthine Citadel complex, we’ll be on a flight path designed to take us into the heart of myth, explains Theatre Yes artistic director/ producer Heather Inglis. 

The invitation to “explore the architecture” came from the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, says Inglis. “We started with the gaze.… What could be seen outside through the glass? What could be seen looking in? We worked to find a way of highlighting the building.”

Inglis’s cast improvised up on their feet: “we’ve never created that way before!” And Graham devised three interlocking stories of flight, linked by a nine-year-old girl (Ivy DeGagné) who dreams of becoming a pilot,  All three stories have a mythic reverb, starting with Icarus (Philip Geller), the boy who flew too close to the sun with his custom-made wax and feather wings, and paid a big price. And, says Inglis, all three storylines are imbued with paradox: “the contradiction between aspiration, and the inevitability that if we fly we must come down….”

Slight of Mind, Theatre Yes. Photo by db photographics.

In one of aviation history’s most celebrated mysteries, we meet the pilot Amelia Earhart (Melissa Thingelstad) who vanished into thin air in 1937 during an aerial circumnavigation of the globe. In 1958 Valentina Tereshkova (Lora Brovold), factory worker-turned-cosmonaut, risked “a close call” for the distinction of being the first woman in space: 48 orbits in a Vostok 6.

Slight of Mind, says Inglis, “is partly about the trade-offs we make to get the most out of life…. Love and the way it’s undermined by the human will to achieve.”

In an age when truth has lost its lustre, its value and its contours to counterfeits, myth retains its special impact. “There’s a truth in myth. Fiction reveals truth…. And myths are by their nature timeless; they speak to now, in a society with oppressive regimes that manipulate truth and constrict freedom,” says Inglis. 

Playwright Graham, who usually works in more traditional dramatic structures with an audience that sits still, rose to the challenge of setting a play in motion “as a physical journey to different spaces,” as Inglis puts it.

Graham’s intertwined story arcs take the production along two pathways. The audience (maximum 60) meets at the Citadel box office, the departure lounge so to speak. And we get divided into two groups that journey to sites in a different order. The play “embraces the reality that people are walking,” says Inglis. Slight of Mind parallels the disorienting experience of being in an airport: “it’s illogical; you’re always in motion and you don’t know why or where. Each experience has a gate number, and that scene becomes a flight of the imagination….”

Contributions from the innovative composer/sound designer Gary James Joynes and video designer Ian Jackson make Slight of Mind “seem less like a traditional play and more like a poem,” says Inglis. “It’s a love-letter to risk-takers.”

PREVIEW
Slight Of Mind

Theatre: Theatre Yes in collaboration with the Citadel Theatre

Written by: Beth Graham

Directed and produced by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Lora Brovold, Ivy DeGagné, Philip Geller, Cole Humeny, Ian Leung, Byron Martin, Silverius Materi, Rebecca Merkley, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Meet at Citadel box office

Running: March 27 to April 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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Lungfuls of anxiety: Lungs at Shadow Theatre. A review

Jake Tkaczyk and Elena Porter in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Times being what they are, are you still “good people” if you decide to become parents? To bring another being into a world that’s already over-crammed with beings? A kid leaves a carbon footprint that’s bigger than “flying from London to New York and back every day for seven years.”

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In the first scene of Lungs, a crackling and edgy two-hander by the Brit playwright Duncan MacMillan, we meet a couple having this volatile “conversation” — in the lineup at IKEA. “I’m not freaking out!” declares Woman, freaking out in a veritable torrent of free-associative freak-out to Man’s thought that maybe they should have a baby. “It’s like you punched me in the face and then asked me a math question.”

The actors, Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk, have valiantly stepped in, on short notice (a week ago) to the production now directed by John Hudson and Emma Houghton when the original cast departed.

Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk in Lungs, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Theirs is not an inconsiderable achievement in a scant week’s rehearsal. Lungs doesn’t have a set or props or costume changes, true. But at 90 continuous minutes, it takes a daunting amount of lung power: it’s full to overflowing with words, edgy shards and cross-hatched fragments. And there are no breaks or even pauses between scenes. Understandably, Porter and Tkaczyk had scripts in hand on the re-scheduled opening night even if they weren’t tied to using them.

The script by Macmillan (whose Every Brilliant Thing is part of the upcoming Citadel season), is a window into an anxious generation, one that operates routinely at red alert — vis-à-vis the planet, the environment, and the all-absorbing self. And it charts the rocky course of a relationship that’s relentlessly, neurotically, self-questioning in its assessments of the political as it rubs up against the personal. How do you know if you’re doing the right thing about the planet and the fate of humanity? Is it more moral to refuse to procreate and bring a new lost person into the environmental disaster of the world — if thereby you’re leaving procreation exclusively to the kind of people who don’t even read much less recycle and just aren’t as thoughtful as you? 

The most volatile (and voluble) of the pair is W, a smart, confrontational, and unstoppably wired PhD student in something worthy like environmental studies. And Porter, a magnetic actor, is riveting and funny in her breathlessly one-sided self-torturing, ranting “conversations,” continually readjusted with second thoughts about the world, the doomed environment, sex, climate change, parenting and parents, feelings over logic…. W wants her emotional needs anticipated and met without having to ask, but she doesn’t know what they are.

As M, a musician without a regular (sorry I mean, corporate sell-out) job, Tkaczyk captures the way M, conciliatory by nature, is always stranded a beat or two behind W’s ricocheting train of thought. He veers between bewildered and exasperated; his hair is always a little bit standing on end, which may be a sartorial representation of his footing in the relationship. 

The actors are already into the crazy pellmell rhythms of an impatient piece that can’t be bothered with creating fictional spaces on the bare stage. And they’ll be more confident as the run continues.

Time can’t be stopped, or separated out into manageable bits. It’s night-time it’s morning then it’s night again it’s months later, or years. And in the last quarter of the play, where an actual plot kicks into the love story, events over the course of a lifetime are telescoped in a rush.

Are we actually good people? Is it enough to “support smaller coffee shops instead of chains — even when it tastes like dirt?” Lungs, which has a kind of twitchy, itchy brilliance about it, wonders about wondering about that. There’s an originality in that.

REVIEW

Lungs

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Duncan MacMillan

Starring: Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through March 31

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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Improvised Star Wars on the planet YEG, at the Grindstone

Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Spring seat sale: I visited the planet YEG last night, a gritty post-apocalyptic landscape (and cantina) “far from everything that’s really happening.”

Kanuck, cantina proprietor and aspirational Bounty Hunter in training, had evidently screwed up his first assassination assignment in last night’s edition of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga. Guilt-plagued, Kanuck (Tristan Ham) was visiting his gruesomely wounded victim (and party-hearty bro) PartyBot (Jesse Gervais) in hospital — and revisiting his career goals. “I don’t have the killer instinct,” he wailed. “You’re in pieces, a shell of what you were….” Which only goes to show that being a BH isn’t all fun and games and cheery acts of murderous violence, my friends.

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We’re ensconced in a tiny, lively comedy club just off Whyte on happening 81st Ave. The bar is dotted with improv stars having a snack and a beer after a performance of Wagon Load, a recurring improvised entertainment (directed by Dana Andersen) in which a major television network is vetting scripts for a new Western series.

At the 9 p.m. performance of Kanuck’s Cantina: An Improvised Star Wars Saga, happening at the Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro twice a month, a deluxe (and rotating) cast of improvisers, many of them Die-Nasty regulars, has assembled to unleash their low-budget ingenuity and comic chops on one of the most high-budget high-profile other-galaxy scenarios the entertainment world has ever seen.

A repressive imperialist regime is in progress. The military, led by General Nova Toxin (Tom Edwards), is in charge, in a dithery, slightly needy way. Captain Jane Phasma (Chantal Perron) is the formidable, quite possibly out-and-out evil head of enforcement and torture. “We need to extract information,” says the one. “And an organ or two,” says the other.

Naturally, there are rebel forces. One of them, with particularly fetching wind-swept hair, is being tortured. The prisoner, Frank O’Phoné (Vince Forcier) is looking quite a lot worse for wear. He bravely proposes that “it’s the accent, right? That’s ethnic profiling….”

An exuberant and very funny pair of Keystone rebels, played by Jesse Gervais and Donovan Workun, are brainstorming an expedition into the heart of the enemy establishment. The smaller and rounder of the two is complaining about “the paper work” involved in the hatching of rebellion. Soon they will set forth to infiltrate and sabotage, etc. As soon as they find the keys to the space ship.

Matt Alden Dykes directs — a wry, amused introducer and annotator of scenes. “In this scene Vincent Forcier will be making acting look very very hard….”

The costume pieces, props, masks, fun to see, are selected for their cheap-theatre hilarity. And a variety of sound effects is supplemented by improvised music (the invaluable Paul Morgan Donald), full of portentous Star Wars references, and nods to the gummier end of musical theatre balladry. Yes, to anticipate your question, there are improvised musical numbers.

The Grindstone, after all, is the home of The 11 O’Clock Number, led by Byron Martin (the founder and artistic director of the Grindstone), in which entire musicals get improvised, an amazing weekly feat of musical theatre dexterity.

Also amazing is this: The cast of Kanuck’s Cantina, supplemented by guest stars, is obviously tuned to the classical frequency. They do Shakespeare once a month — the plays that somehow Will never quite got around to writing.

I can tell you this, but keep it to yourself: A Jedi in disguise has been detected on planet YEG. What will happen next? No one knows; there’s no one to ask. The only thing to do is show up at the Grindstone, grab a drink, and find out for yourself.

Check out the full schedule of performances, six nights a week till late — sketch comedy, standup, cabaret, improv of every size, shape, and style — at grindstonetheatre.ca.

  

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Dear Evan Hansen arrives in the upcoming Broadway Across Canada season

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

An innovative award-winner of a Broadway musical with every kind of contemporary traction is the finale of the upcoming three-show Broadway Across Canada season.

Dear Evan Hansen, arriving at the Jube Feb. 11 to 16 2020, has been  sold out in New York ever since it opened on Broadway in late 2016. It chronicles a declension into deception by a solitary and awkward high school kid caught up in an escalating social media frenzy set in motion by his own failure to correct a misunderstanding about a teen suicide.  The musical — book by Steven Levenson and music by the wunderkind team of Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) — gets to the very heart of the experience of being young and feeling desperately alone.

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Among its competitors for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2017 (which it took home, along with five other Tonys) was Come From Away, currently stopping down in Canadian ports of call on its North American tour.

The new three-show Broadway Across Canada season opens in September (3 to 8) with another landmark Tony winner: Jonathan Larson’s Rent returns as part of a 20th anniversary tour. The 1996 rock musical updates the scenario of the Puccini opera La Bohème and takes its scenes of imperilled youthful exuberance to New York’s East Village.

The heroine of Waitress, the heartwarming 2016 musical based on the Adrienne Shelly movie (with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles), is a woman trapped in a bad marriage — and finally empowered to do something about it. It runs Nov. 26 to Dec. 1. The add-on option is the much-travelled Wicked, the untold backstory of the witches in the Oz story (Aug. 12 to 22, 2020). 

There’s a big bonus attached to subscribing: when they renew, subscribers from the 2019-2020 season get first crack at tickets to Hamilton, coming in the 2020-2021 season.

Meanwhile, subscriptions are available at 1-866-540-7469 or BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca.

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Small Mouth Sounds: the human comedy gets the silent treatment at the Roxy. A review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There aren’t many words in it, but Small Mouth Sounds isn’t what you’d call quiet. The silent treatment is loud in the ingenious, funny, and mysteriously affecting play that the indie company Wild Side has brought us in a superb Canadian premiere production at the Roxy. It’s not to be missed.

In the play, by the young American writer Bess Wohl, six strangers, a mismatched assortment of urbanites who would ordinarily never meet much less spend time together, have showed up at a bucolic five-day silent retreat led by a famous spiritual guru. Each is steeped in private miseries, fears, rage, pain. And as Jim Guedo’s perfectly calibrated production reveals, in a world with minimal verbiage, throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising are major incidents.

Every sigh, cough and grimace, every snort and munch, gasp and giggle, count. Big time. And Nature, as captured and amplified by Guedo’s sound design, is a veritable sound fest: rain, wind, birdsongs, the rustle that could be a bear, the roar that is a bear.  The guru himself (Nathan Cuckow), a disembodied, miked voice with an exotic sing-song to it, is a veritable windbag under the circumstances. You can hear his spit rattling around; the spiritual leader has a cold. He also has a cellphone — which he actually answers but hastens to assure is not his own — and issues that are his own.

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No cellphones, no booze, no smoking, and no talking (clothing is optional): these are his rules. It’s all a test case for human communication. And there’s comedy in the misunderstandings that arise as the participants, evidently in various states of unease and distress, arrive, and notice each other, or not. Guedo choreographs an all-star cast (all-star but truly ensemble) in the intricately timed and detailed theatricality of this enterprise.

Least anxious is Rodney (Richard Lee Hsi), a perfectly toned yoga instructor with an impenetrable Zen serenity about him, clothes on or off (witness some very funny encounters with other characters). Most anxious — and therefore by the cosmic law of perversity Rodney’s assigned roommate — is furrow-browed Ned (Garett Ross), with a perpetual wince about him. He’s earnestly trying to take notes with a pen that won’t work.

An accomplished-seeming couple (Belinda Cornish and Kristi Hansen) arrive showing some strains in what is evidently a long-time relationship under pressure. They’re already mid-squabble over the directions to the place. 

There’s the smiling, slightly dazed Jan (Dave Horak) who nods amiably and keeps dozing off — when he’s not fending off hordes of mosquitoes and scratching his bites. And there’s a late arrival (Amber Borotsik), who crashes in breathlessly, clutching too many bags, muttering “sorry sorry,” Rules notwithstanding, Alicia and her cellphone cannot be separated; she texts frantically, and seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Who are these people and what sorrows, dissatisfactions, miseries and pressures have brought them to this retreat? It’s for us to piece that together, the same way the characters discover each other. And that’s a highly entertaining kind of audience participation, especially since the actors, all of them, are so skilled at making the minutest adjustments eloquent.

Without the carapace of small-talk to fortify (and conceal) themselves, the characters scramble to make themselves understood. Only Ned gets an extended monologue — he’s asking the teacher a question — and it’s delivered with a fragmenting hilarity by Ross.

Ned’s life is a veritable catalogue of tragedies, and the accumulation of them shows just how close human suffering is to a cosmic sense of, if not comedy, absurdity. The world is disintegrating into apocalyptic chaos, and we’re looking for … peace? Ned is wondering if that makes any kind of sense.

But the guru, whose elliptical ways, flights of fancy and declensions into jargon are captured beautifully by Cuckow’s cadences, isn’t about answering questions. Nor is the play. 

Instead, there’s a kind of compassionate embrace of the human struggle in all its mysterious dimensions. Do the retreat-ers leave cured of their spiritual malaise? The guru has rejected the idea of exorcism; he’s told his students that the five days are the best kind of vacation since “you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.” There are a lot of variables in that, of course. The only thing that’s certain, though, in Small Mouth Sounds is that there’s a consolation to be had, an affirmation of sorts, that whatever bad things you’re up against, however isolated in sadness and pain you feel, you are not, in the end, alone in this. There’s a human embrace.

It sounds like a morbid and weighty thought. But it doesn’t feel that way, oddly enough. It feels like taking a deep breath and then exhaling.

REVIEW

Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee Hsi, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

  

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Small Mouth Sounds and the silent scream: a unique challenge comes to the Roxy

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“When you see the ocean, you may not be able to return. To the well.”

Small Mouth Sounds

The play that gets its Canadian premiere tonight in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series is a theatrical puzzle of sorts, in every way — for the director, for the actors, and for the audience.

Small Mouth Sounds is mostly silent — in premise, conception and execution. The play, by the American actor-turned-playwright Bess Wohl, is set at a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York. Six strangers, troubled and lonely in various ways, have repaired there in search of solace, or answers, or release. On this journey they are led by a guru, present only as a disembodied voice.

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So … how to stage it? “The actors are silent for 90 per cent of their time onstage,” says Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions, who’s been trying for a couple of years to get the rights for the 2015 play. He was fascinated by the challenge, and refers to the American director Peter Sellars who has famously said of a play he’d read that “I didn’t know how to do it. So I had to do it….”

The playwright herself had the experience of a silent retreat, says director/ designer Guedo. The setup in the play is authentic, “including the packet that tells (the participants) what’s optional, what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re not supposed to do…. The ultimate challenge for the characters is the need to put away everything in your life that made you want to come to the retreat in the first place.”

There are hints of Waiting For Guffman, and (Annie Baker’s) Circle Mirror Transformation, with its needy community theatre participants,  in the scenario, Guedo agrees. But ultimately Small Mouth Sounds isn’t like either. “Depending on how you’re feeling when you see it, it’ll be either incredibly funny or incredibly sad. Every character is looking for … something. A fix. That’s the human comedy.”

Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions. Photo supplied.

“It’s a very different kind of storytelling,” Guedo says of his attraction to the script. Silent, yes, “but not silent movie.,” he laughs.  “(The characters) are not world-class mimes.…”  The “perversity of it is appealing,” he says. “In theatre we take words, dialogue, for granted….”

In one way, the experience for his all-star cast has been “liberation: no lines to learn,” he reports. Wohl’s stage directions, which are basically back stories for the characters, have many more words than the script.

How then do we discover who the characters are? “It calls for a different kind of specificity,” says Guedo. Like the characters trying to connect with each other, “the audience is looking for non-verbal cues.”

“You reveal character not just by what you do but how you do it,” says Guedo. “I feel like I’m the midwife, and (the actors) are doing all the pushing….”

Intriguingly, the guru/teacher is on a mic, “so the disembodied voice is not quite human.” That voice might conceivably be taped. But that approach doesn’t breathe in the same nuanced way as having an actor (Nathan Cuckow) present to interact, though invisible. “There’s a lot of verbal jazz in people’s breath, in the noises we make, the small mouth sounds, when we’re not speaking.” In rehearsal, Cuckow sat across from his cast-mates at first, facing them. “Gradually we weaned him off being physically present….”

To read the script is to wonder if the teacher, as a new-age-y sort of guru, is an object of mockery. “But the playwright does not want to take easy pot shots….” Guedo thinks of it as “gently satirical.”

“All the characters have a private pain, a weight on them. And they’re trying to dislodge it…. This is a very human play, very compassionate.”

PREVIEW

Small Mouth Sounds

Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bess Wohl

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee, Garett Ross

Running: tonight through March 24

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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