Ins Choi at Chinook: the Kim’s Convenience creator goes solo

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words. Photo from a Calgary performance by Donna McTaggart.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s pretty much what I’ve always wanted to do!” says a genial, amused voice on the phone from Toronto. “Talk directly to the audience about my life. And make people laugh….” 

That double-barrelled thought has propelled Ins Choi across the country once more, back to Edmonton, back to Fringe Theatre Adventures, this time to winter festivities in an arctic place. Yes, in the Chinook Series, the playwright who brought Canadian theatre and then Canadian TV one of their biggest homegrown hits ever — Kim’s Convenience the play and Kim’s Convenience the CBC series — is back onstage himself, in person. And in a free-wheeling, elastic-sided show of his own device, Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words.

“It’s taken me back to my roots of writing as a kid,” says the good-natured Choi. “I majored in writing; I was always writing poetry, journals, little bits of things, in secret. Then I got into song-writing…. I was such a shy kid; I never shared my poetry and songs till I got into acting.” He laughs at the thought of his introverted younger self, in those days before he found himself at York University’s theatre school. “Acting and theatre got me out of my shell.”

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Choi has said he credits this entry into “showbiz” to his dad, the pastor (now retired) of a Korean immigrant church, a funny and engaging storyteller who tried to affect his audience and generally make their lives better.

A veritable poster child for the multi-hued multi-ethnic reality in this land of newcomers, Choi has found much to inspire (and amuse) him in memories of growing up in Toronto. He’s the son of Korean immigrants; their first Canadian home was with cousins above their convenience story. Home and church: Korean. School and hockey and everything else: English. He tapped that immigrant experience for his charmer of a comedy — amazingly, his first play — about a fractious Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store.

Citadel audiences saw the hit Soulpepper production of Kim’s Convenience on a cross-country tour in 2014, between sold-out Toronto runs that broke every box office record for the company. In earlier incarnations, Choi himself played the estranged son; he opted out of the tour when the conflicting demands of TV production and family life proved insurmountable. 

A year later, Choi was onstage himself, though, in his highly unusual solo play Subway Stations Of The Cross. It sees the world through the eyes of a homeless performance poet, a ragtag urban wilderness prophet and mad genius who delivers a barrage of free-associating, intricately rhymed poems, part ancient truth part social commentary. Choi brought it to the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringes in the summer of 2015. “I have great memories of Edmonton,” he laughs. He and wife and their two little kids camped, “in a little trailer we hauled with our little car.”

“We saw elk, we saw the northern lights…. I’d do my show, hang out with people at the Fringe…. A huge memory. I saw Andrew Phung do his improv show, and afterwards went up and introduced myself. I thought he’d be great as Kimchee in Kim’s Convenience. And six months later he was!”

Ins Choi: Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words. Photo by Donna McTaggart

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories and Spoken Words, pilfers some material from Subway Stations of the Cross, says Choi cheerfully. But it has other roots too. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I’d go along to open-mike nights at the Free Times Cafe at College and Spadina. And in a tiny spot in the back, I found myself among a bunch of other singer-songwriters…. We’d do two or three songs every week — for each other. That was the audience!” he laughs. “It was kind of embarrassing; you just hope there’s real people out there…. Anyhow they appreciate my songs.” Almost invariably they had comedy to them.

Occasionally he was invited to participate in cabaret evenings. So he’d have to introduce his songs and poems.” And slowly, “very organically,” the new show emerged.

Choi did his “first test-drive of this weird concert/ cabaret/ stand-up thing” in Saskatoon when he was there for the Word on the Street literary festival in September. He rented a little church hall venue for a night, and was amazed when 60 people came out, “my first audience!” At the Q and A afterwards, they asked him about writing Kim’s Convenience for TV.

“Over time some of the introductions have developed, and the stories are a bit more robust,” he thinks. “Like the origin of my name, or the fact that Bruce Lee was the first Asian man I saw on TV, and how that influenced me.” Choi’s comic song Bruce Lee’s Best Friend is a tribute.

Edmonton is “the first time I get to do the show more than once!” Choi says happily. The Chinook gig is also his chance to sneak away from TV and its insatiable appetite for more and more episodes: Kim’s Convenience is currently running season three, and a fourth season has the green light. Choi and Kevin White write some of the episodes, and they edit and shape everything about the series. “I’ve been itching to get back onstage, but the TV schedule is against it,” Choi says. “I’ve been pushing away a little bit…. Most of my year I’m surrounded by writers, and key execs. And CBC folks. And heads of props. I’m making a lot of decisions, and that’s OK. But I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”

“Initially I wanted to learn everything (about TV); I figured when was I ever going to get this opportunity again. That first season was just crazy!” He sighs. “The energy it takes to be a show runner, and trying to balance family home life. And friends: I have no friends!” He’s amused by the thought that he might be the only theatre artist in Canada who likes theatre “for its hours and its benefits!”

And he reflects on the way that, from the start, Kim’s Convenience, charmed and resonated with people of all ages and ethnicities. “It did hit a chord,” Choi allows, modestly. “It’s a good play but it timed well,” in the way it synchronized with a frustration in the lack of diversity on the country’s stages.

The immigrant experience repertoire is full of darkness and angst. By contrast there’s a kind of sunny sweetness to Kim’s Convenience. “My dad would tell me stories of the Korean War, his family in North Korea walking over hills and mountains to freedom in South Korea,” Choi recalls. “You’d think it would be filled with tears. And there were tears. But also in the telling of that story there were so many funny moments, moments of people being generous and hilarious; my father at 13 and his brother coming up with weird songs and games to entertain their siblings on the way….”

“It’s influenced me a lot , not only in my writing but in how I live my life…. Human decency goes a long way. Dignity, being courteous. A smile. A door opened. They speak volumes.”

When Choi emerged, clutching his degree, out into the so-called “real world,” he didn’t exactly find the nation’s stage doors flung open to him as an artist of colour. He tried film and TV, and found an assortment of Asian waiters and gang members to play. There were zero takers for a comedy called Kim’s Convenience. So Choi took it to the Toronto Fringe, where it won both both “best new play” and “patrons’ choice.” And things changed after that.

If he were graduating as an actor in 2019 would Canadian theatre be more welcoming to an artist of colour than it was to him a decade before? Choi thinks so. He points to the work of Asian-Canadian playwrights and actors on the country’s largest stages. He notes artistic director appointments at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Kelly Thornton), Factory Theatre (Nina Lee Aquino), Soulpepper (Weyni Mengesha).“There’s always more to do, but it has been visible at that top level.”

And here’s the thing: the people want to see it.

PREVIEW

Chinook Series

Ins Choi: Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words

Theatre: Fringe Theatre

Created by and starring: Ins Choi

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

Running: Feb 14 to 16

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

   

  

  

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Lend Me A Tenor: a classic ’30s door-slammer at the Mayfield. A review

Steven Greenfield, Jeff Haslam, Vance Avery in Lend Me A Tenor, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“These things happen, sir,” ventures Max, the rabbity assistant manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, trying to look on the bright side.

In view of the premise of Ken Ludwig’s ingeniously engineered old-school 1986 farce Lend Me A Tenor —which involves the apparent suicide of the import star tenor and does not exclude the possible mass poisoning of the gala audience — this has got to be one of the most wildly off-the-mark consolations in the history of the arts.

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The manager himself, tyrannical, doom-laden Saunders, is under no such comforting illusion. As he’s forced to contemplate his prospects, including announcing a cancellation from the stage and (even worse) returning money, he’s envisioning the grand cosmic apocalypse: a disaster “that will make Salomé look like The Merry Widow.”

He is not one to not take things personally.“Why me?” the aggrieved Saunders demands of the universe and Max. “He could have jumped out the window at breakfast tomorrow.”

In Dave Horak’s well-cast, expertly high-speed Mayfield production, this farce engine is unveiled with great comic clarity by Steven Greenfield as the mousey go-fer Max and Jeff Haslam as his operatically choleric boss, in whom the distance between crafty calculation, desperation, and explosion is perilously short. 

When Saunders badgers his beleaguered factotum, an aspirational opera singer, into taking on grand opera’s Hamlet-scale tenor role in place of the (apparently) late Tito Merelli, chaos goes from Status: Impending to Status: Red Alert. The countdown to opening night of a gala benefit performance of Verdi’s Otello in Cleveland, 1934 is an apotheosis of classic door-slamming farce ingredients: mistaken identities, hoary and misleading double-entendres, improvised concealments, escalating lies, near-misses, outsized (let’s just say operatic) intentions, lace underwear.

Lingering on any of them would be a fatal exposé of their essentially preposterous cheesiness. But as charted in Horak’s production, farce inevitability (Greek tragedy minus Greeks and tragedy, but with a spoiled Italian tenor instead) kicks in, running. Soon we will see not one but two Otellos in full regalia — minus, of course, the black-face that would make Lend Me A Tenor impossible to stage these days — hurtling through the six doors of a posh Cleveland hotel suite, followed by a careerist soprano, a would-be non-virgin groupie, a panicky opera house manager, an imperious board chair, a firecracker Italian wife. And one show-stealing bellhop (Nicholas Rose).

Grand opera doesn’t consort much with ‘30s comedy in the theatre repertoire (when’s the last time you heard a Lawrence Melchior joke emanating from any stage?). So tickle your mind with this thought: twin Otellos singing Verdi full-blast. And consider the sophisticated stagecraft and timing that go into setting a terrifyingly elaborate farce like Lend Me A Tenor in motion.

Steven Greenfield, Vance Avery in Lend Me A Tenor, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Director Horak and his cast make it happen, with well-chosen stage biz, on an elegant (and durable) period hotel room set by Megan Koshka. White-face makeup and Koshka’s amusingly goofy Italianate costumes on Tito (Vance Avery) and Max (Greenfield) are indispensable to the shelf life of the premise: the fatal intersection of two high-contrast characters who become two indistinguishable Otellos.

Rich-voiced Avery is very funny as the adored Italian divo and skirt-chaser, in whom the combination of charisma and chianti is Molotov. Greenfield, a classic milquetoast in a knitted vest, is in a state of perpetual nervous agitation, from a combination of employee terror and unrequited passion for his employer’s airhead daughter (Madelaine Knight).

Madelaine Knight and Steven Greenfield in Lend Me A Tenor. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Unexpectedly Max and Tito hit it off.  But their Verdi duet does strain credulity, in truth. The pleasant-voiced Greenfield, while capturing the sweet, amusing haplessness of a man who’s used to panicking, isn’t exactly a credible operatic impersonator, vocally. But, really, singing cedes pride of place to comic business in the production. And director Horak gives Max clever stage accompaniment, including some very funny choreography with an operatic corpse. And it’s amusing see Max rise to the occasion of adopting the flamboyant Italian-ness of the womanizing tenor. It pretty much redefines the old art saw that “it’ll be there, on the night,” not to mention all the tenor jokes you’ve ever heard.

Maralyn Ryan and Madelaine Knight in Lend Me A Tenor. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Smoke, not to mention, his spleen, may well come out of Saunder’s ears, in Haslam’s very funny performance as the exasperated but wily opera company manager.  Incredulity stops time, and gets facial topography, as he grapples with the unthinkable, the news that the star attraction isn’t just taking a pre-show nap, he’s dead. The deadpan pause built into Saunder’s initial reaction to a tentative offer from Max is a corker. “His tragedy is the fate of tortured greatness, facing the black and gaping abyss of insensible nothingness,” he says of Otello, and pauses portentously. “It isn’t you, Max.”

Stephanie Wolfe as Tito’s fiery Italian wife, is a hoot, as is Maralyn Ryan as the grande dame opera dowager and board chair. The giddy ingenue role, Saunder’s not-entirely-innocent star-besotted daughter, is amusingly occupied by Knight. And Melissa McPherson is a knock-out in the blonde bombshell role of the soprano determined to sleep her way to the Met.

There’s more than a whiff of Marxism — the Groucho Harpo Chico variety — about the whole affair, as director Horak evidently relishes. And it’s nailed in the season’s curtain call, a dizzying two-minute re-cap. Verdi Schmerdi. It’s a fast and funny evening of vintage period farce.  

REVIEW

Lend Me A Tenor

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Ken Ludwig

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Vance Avery, Steven Greenfield, Jeff Haslam, Madelaine Knight, Melissa MacPherson, Nicholas Rose, Maralyn Ryan, Stephanie Wolfe

Running: through March 31

Tickets: 780-306-0926, mayfieldtheatre.ca

 

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A new Ellen Chorley play is the centrepiece of the upcoming Northern Light season

Playwright Ellen Chorley. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The centrepiece of Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming season, announced Saturday, is a new play by one of Edmonton’s most unusual artists. Ellen Chorley, the director of Nextfest since 2016, is an award-winning playwright, actor, director, dramaturg, teacher/mentor. She’s also a producer, a curator, a former artistic associate at Northern Light — and the multi-track founder of both a kids’ theatre (Promise Productions) and an experimental burlesque theatre troupe (Send In The Girls).

No one has a range of credentials quite like Chorley’s. With Everybody Loves Robbie, premiering in Trevor Schmidt’s Northern Light production next January (10 to 25), Chorley is poised to undertake a further expansion. Schmidt describes the play as “a love letter to Edmonton, to Edmonton theatre, and to everyone who was ever in musical theatre or a high school drama club.”

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Everybody Loves Robbie started life as a 10-minute three-person scene at the Loud ’N Queer festivities a few years ago. “Heartbreaking and screamingly funny,” says Schmidt, who directed it. This new full-length two-hander version, suggested by Northern Light general manager Gina Moe, is “funny, raunchy, and truthful, a great story about a young woman in musical theatre in high school.”

He summarizes. Chloe loves Robbie; everybody loves him. “They’re a theatre couple; they’re Tony and Maria (in West Side Story); they form a drama club in Grade 10. They go to prom and the one-act festival together. They go to Limelight North,” a fictional version of Alberta’s venerable Arts Trek.

“And then suddenly Robbie thinks maybe he’s gay. And then Chloe thinks ‘maybe I’m gay too’. And she just goes off the the rails…. ‘Whether I’m gay or straight, it’s all OK’, she says. ‘But I just wanna know what I am’.”

Richard Lee and Jayce McKenzie co-star in Schmidt’s production, as the young couple, plus the characters who surround them — drama teachers, coaches, roommates.

Playwright Joanna Weinberg. Photo supplied.

Northern Light’s three-production “Confessions and Obsessions” season of plays by female writers opens Oct. 18 to Nov. 2 with a cabaret, and a bloody one. Baroness Blanka’s Bloodsongs  is, says Schmidt, “a one-woman accordion musical, I’m not kidding you. It’s bizarre. It’s crazy.”

In the play, by the South African-born Australian Joanna Weinberg, the protagonist has been obsessed with blood since “a childhood incident,” as Schmidt says vaguely. We’re in a cabaret setting, “a gathering of fellow addicts.  As with every addiction, the ante keeps getting upped: first nursing, then stealing blood from the hospital, then bathing in blood. Our heroine visits a fortune teller, who predicts bloodshed in her future, with particular reference to Mme Bathóry, the infamous Transylvanian countess who’s a contender for the most prolific serial killer in history (she reputedly killed a thousand children and bathed in their blood).

“It’s super-funny, super-stylish, a confession that’s a really clever allegory about addiction,” says Schmidt. His Canadian premiere production stars starring Kristin Johnston (the 4,000-year-old woman in NLT’s Origin of the Species), who will be learning to play the accordian. Since the show runs through the Halloween festivities, Schmidt expects vampiric embellishments in the theatre marketing.

Playwright Merri Biechler. Photo supplied.

The last of the Northern Light trio (March 27 to April 11) is the world premiere of Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver by the American playwright Merri Biechler. Schmidt, who has regularly brought hitherto unknown titles and writers to Edmonton audiences, discovered the play a decade ago, he says. “Now, as I approach 50, it really speaks to me, thoughts of mortality, feelings of guilt about taking care of (aging) parents….”

The protagonist, who’s already lost her mom to cancer, puts her struggling actress life on hold and returns home to take care of a dying man with whom she’s always had a thorny relationship: her father.

“This is a painful show, eloquent and beautiful,” he says. “It’s funny. Until it’s not…. People are cruel in the way only families can be.” 

Curiously, Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver has never had a professional production. But, says Schmidt, “it’s used as a training tool for doctors … to learn sensitivity to family members in hospice situations.”

In Schmidt’s production, Davina Stewart plays the mom (and all the father’s caregiver characters). Brian Dooley returns to Edmonton to play the prickly dad, obsessed with sci-fi television and ordering from Amazon, plus all the mother’s caregiver characters. Casting awaits for the daughter role.

The “confessions and obsessions” that link the trio of plays in the 2019-2020 lineup are all about “people losing control,” says Schmidt. “Even if it’s wrong and dangerous and you look like a lunatic, you can’t stop!”

“Every play I really want to do involves the conflict between my responsibility to myself and my own happiness, and my responsibilities to others … what characters should do, and what they really want to do.” 

The current Northern Light season continues March 28 to April 13 with 19 Weeks, a co-production with Azimuth Theatre.  

  

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Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: an opera for a hearing son and a deaf mom

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, Concrete Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I learned to sign before I could speak,” says Dave Clarke, who’s highly articulate, to say the least, in his second language. 

There’s an intriguing contradiction built right into the architecture of Clarke’s multi-angled theatre career (as he concedes amiably). As an award-winning musician, composer, sound designer (not to mention playwright/ actor), one of E-town’s busiest, his work is based on sound. His parents are deaf, from birth. 

Clarke’s unusual childhood in south London — a hearing kid with a deaf mom and dad, and a startling bent for music — is the wellspring of his new memoir, a through-sung bilingual “opera” in English and ASL (American Sign Language). Songs My Mother Never Sung Me premieres Feb. 13 at Sound Off, the ground-breaking deaf theatre festival that’s part of the 2019 Chinook Series.

“People ask, first, why I can speak, since my parents were not verbal,” says Clarke, who re-located across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1987 (why? “I met a woman, of course!”) and then to Edmonton in the early ‘90s. The answer: his grandparents were hearing people. “A piano showed up one day in the house, with no announcement. My dad’s mom had it delivered to our little council house…. It took up an enormous amount of room,” he laughs. His grandparents bought him a record player, too, and there was no stopping a musical kid. 

“The house must have been very quiet, people say,” continues Clarke. Actually, no. “My parents don’t know how loud things are.” Naturally when Clarke started playing in rock bands, the practices were always at his place. Only the neighbours complained. 

“I didn’t know it was unusual,” says Clarke of his pre-school years in  both the deaf and hearing worlds. Once he started school, though, a sense of difference was bound to happen. And seminal moments, borrowed from real life, find their way into his opera. “When the boy hits five, he and his mom are outside, and the boy notices some hearing people making fun of them….” And, in a way that parallels the tension of immigrants’ children, the boy becomes “his mom’s translator on expeditions to the doctor or the grocery store, or when someone knocks at the door.”  

But it wasn’t traumatic, he says. Au contraire, “it made me feel responsible and independent and grown-up.” And the challenges have a lighter side, like the puzzle of the produce section in a grocery story: if there’s no sign in British Sign Language for zucchini, how can you finger-spell the word when you’re too young to know how to spell?

The opening line of Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, after all, is “this is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice.” The boy, says Clarke, “is the main character. I don’t speak for the deaf…. Really, no one can.”

In the cast of the Concrete Theatre production, directed jointly by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth, are three hearing actors who sing, and a deaf actor. The boy, Clarke’s proxy in his opera, is played by Luc Tellier, with Kieran Martin Murphy as the Narrator. The role of Mom is occupied jointly by one of the country’s premier deaf, signing actors, Elizabeth Morris, and musical theatre/cabaret star Susan Gilmour, who sings the signs. Erik Mortimer is at the piano, “onstage as a character.”

The show stars with an empty stage, and elements are added,” says Clarke of the piece commissioned by Concrete Theatre. Its first life was as a 15-minute “sprout” at the company’s new-plays-for-kids festival of that name a decade ago. 

The music starts simple, and grows more sophisticated, more emotionally complex, along with the libretto, Clarke explains. The song Baby Signs, for example, consists of English words for basic-need signs: eat, drink, pee, potty….”  As Clarke describes his score, it embraces a wide mix of forms and musical allusions: “comic opera spoof, tango, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, simple ballads.

The hearing actors have learned to sign as they sing. Kieran Martin Murphy compared signing to learning choreography for a musical, Clarke reports. There is an eloquence to sign language in the way it marries the conceptual to the physical. “A lot of signs are more expressive than their English equivalent.” And sign languages are local, with their own “accents, dialects, idioms …” he explains. In ASL, for example, the sign for playing a trick on someone and having it work, so you’re calling them gullible, is that they ‘swallowed a fish’. If you want to indicate ‘you missed the boat’, the sign is ‘the train is gone’.”

And since there are no pronouns or conjunctions, “no I or You,” facial expressions are crucial to communication. Distances in both space and time are “gestural, a relationship between the hand and the body,” says Clarke. A year ago is farther away than yesterday.

The show deliberately doesn’t have ASL interpreters. The idea, says Clarke, is to level the playing field, and put the hearing audience in the position familiar to deaf people. “There are good jokes that are only signed!” says Clarke. “So the majority hearing audience can experience being the minority.”

In one way, crafting songs to combine lyrics and visual language complicates composing, Clarke agrees. But in another, he’s found it it liberating, too. “The lyrics scan, but they don’t rely on rhyme very much.… The sung English is very direct and simple, and there’s a fair bit of repetition.” Additionally, the piano score is amplified acoustically in the lower registers (by sound designer Bobby Smale). “It’s a vibration experience when the piano gets below middle C,” says Clarke.

“For many born-deaf people, music isn’t part of their lives…. I’m proud of this,” says Clarke, of reactions of deaf people to earlier workshop incarnations of the piece. Some reported “it’s the first time I’ve understood what music is.…”

Clarke has a strong aversion to the sentimentality that often accompanies the hearing reaction to deafness. He’s thinking of the dated play Children of a Lesser God, or the deaf glee club on Glee. Songs My Mother Never Sung Me isn’t like that. “It isn’t heavy; it’s fun, very funny. A very accessible simple story, actually, with common parent/kid benchmark experiences.”

Kids, bring your parents. Parents, bring your kids.

PREVIEW

Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete

Written and composed by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi, Caroline Howarth

Starring: Elizabeth Morris, Luc Tellier, Kieran Martin Murphy, Susan Gilmour, Erik Mortimer

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Feb. 13 to 17

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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How to feel the breeze at Chinook

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a town that needed a chinook … an E-town story.

And yes, we’re having one. The Chinook Series, which opens tonight, is a resource-pooling experience between arts groups  with a view to expanding our experience of live performance and theatre creation. Maybe you’ll even find out what “multi-disciplinary” really means. In practice, where it counts. 

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The best way to do Chinook, I think, is to give yourself over to the breeze: wrap yourself in the  “festival” mantle, show up for the evening, and let yourself be blown here and there to whatever is going on. If you get there early enough, you might hear artists talk about their work in the lobby, and ask a question or two, even one that starts “what on earth.?” … Between shows you can (whilst clutching a glass of wine) watch a troupe of “Lobbyists” create movement pieces that are a kind of inspiration for those of us who are intimated by the idea of dance. By happenstance and just hanging out I’ve seen “plays,” dance-theatre fantasias, personal memoirs, unclassifiable fusions of music and text, wordless movement pieces, and, generally, theatrical experiences I might never have chosen for myself. Hey, I even took salsa lessons last year in a show (my skills have atrophied since then). 

So it’s against my own advice, I know, but here’s a little selection of shows that did catch my eye. I’ll be seeking them out….  

Gemini (part of Workshop West’s Canoe Festival): I saw the first incarnation of Louise Casemore’s award-winning two-hander  at the 2017 Fringe, and in a bar (the catacombs of El Cortez Bar and Restaurant, which is where the characters meet each other.  Julia (Casemore) is the server; Ben, a failed poet and underachieving consultant (Vern Thiessen), is a regular. And in a bar culture that palms itself off as intimate, their relationship ets explored in nuanced ways you’ll recognize.

The production at the Almanac bar on Whyte is new. It’s directed by Mitchell Cushman, the wunderkind of Toronto site-specific theatre — returning to the town where he got a degree in directing at the U of A. And in addition to Casemore, who’s an alert and dexterous performer, you’ll have the rare sight of Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen onstage.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival): This new show by the multi-threat Dave Clarke, one of E-town’s busiest sound designers and composers, was commissioned by Concrete Theatre. An opera of sort, through-sung, it’s spun from Clarke’s own experience of growing up with deaf parents. And Mieko Ouchi’s cast includes both hearing and deaf performers. Keep an eye out for 12thnight.ca’s interview with Clarke.

Ins Choi: Stories, Songs, and Spoken Words (Fringe Theatre). The charismatic creator of Kim’s Convenience is here onstage himself in a performance swirl that’s part concert, part storytelling, part cabaret (kind of)… 12thnight.ca had the fun of talking to him. Look for that interview soon.

Makambe K. Simamba in A Chitenge Story. Photo supplied.

A Chitenge Story (Black Arts Matter!): Calgary theatre artist Makambe K. Simamba tells her story of returning to her birthplace, Zambia, to confront the man who abused her as a child.

NIUBOI in Tip Off!. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Tip Off! (Expanse Movement Arts Festival) and Glass Washrooms (Fringe Theatre): Both are the work of one of our most adventurous theatre artists, NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson). The first, which developed under the mentorship (and new work award) of Good Women Dance, has NIUBOI joined onstage by three actors (plus the voices of sports commentators). It’s inspired by the lexicon of basketball. The second, which happens in the Westbury Theatre washroom, explores the artist’s own background growing up and into the trans-non-binary quester they are now. It was developed in NIUBOI’s term as the first recipient of the Nordic and Cloutier Family Innovation Award. Beth Dart directs.

Mni wiconi/ water is life (Expanse Movement Arts Festival): It’s by Nicole Schafenacker, whose work at Nextfest has always been off-centre and original; the Schafenacker pieces I’ve seen have involved intriguing juxtapositions of text and movement, with an activist edge. As billed, this one is inspired by her 2016 experience time as a ‘water protector” at Standing Rock, N.D.  

That’s just a quick sample. There are alluring possibilities everywhere at the festival, including in a new Chinook partnership called Sinergia. Check out the program, and the full schedule, at chinookseries.ca.      

The festival runs through Feb. 17 in various venues in the ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

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The body in motion: Expanse is back in the Chinook Series

Room 2048, Hong Kong Exile. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It starts with the body.

As its name suggests, Expanse sets the body in motion in space — and celebrates what happens next.

In the ever-expansive movement arts festival curated by Azimuth Theatre and returning to the fourth annual Chinook Series, the body is elastic, light on its feet and international in its vision. So are “physical theatre” and “dance” (language optional).

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The 14-year-old festival inherited by Azimuth’s co-artistic directors Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin is one of the five performance streams that pool creative resources and connections for Chinook, the two-week showcase of innovative multi-disciplinary art that, er, breezes into the ATB Financial Arts Barns Thursday, and runs through Feb. 17.

As Sabourin points out, “the body as lens, work that stems from ‘body’: it’s a big basket to access.” Which suits the Azimuth personality to a T, since that experiment-minded company gravitates to unusual partnerships. For this 2019 edition Expanse teams up with Good Women Dance Collective, Mile Zero Dance, the Rubaboo Arts Festival, and Dreamspeakers.

It’s Good Women Dance, the curator of movement arts for Nextfest, who have mentored Edmonton artist Kiruthika Rathanaswami. At Expanse Thursday and Friday she performs a quartet of stories executed in variations of the intricate Indian classical dance form bharata natyam.

You can try it out on your own body: Rathanaswami leads a bharata natyam workshop for beginners Friday afternoon. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Sabourin, who’s taken one before. “I highly recommend it!”

In Local(e), which runs Feb. 12 and 13, three Edmonton artists perform original pieces of very different inspirations and styles. Tip Off!, created by NIUBOI (Julie Ferguson) with a trio of collaborators (Ryan Jackson, Jameela McNeill, and Abbie Cogger), is inspired by basketball and its lexicon of dribble, dunk, dance, slam. The cast includes Cliff Kelly and Taylor Chadwick as sports announcers. “Fast and fun,” says Hansen.

The second of the Local(e) offerings, The Music Crept By Us, inspired by the Leonard Cohen poem of that name, is the work of the dance/trained actor/choreographer Rebecca Sadowski. She’s joined onstage by sound designer Dean Musani, whom Edmonton theatre audiences know for his collaborations with playwright Matthew MacKenzie (Bears).

Mni wiconi/ water is life is inspired by creator/performer Nicole Schafenacker’s 2016 experience as a “water protector” in Standing Rock, North Dakota. “It’s not dance as dance,” says Sabourin. “It’s about experience, physical performance….” Cole Humeny joins Schafenacker onstage.

Expanse’s contribution to your Valentine’s night is a surprise — to Hansen and Sabourin as well as the audience. Raconteurs invites three artists of very different aesthetic stripe, perspective, and practice to experience Chinook, then “come together for a cabaret of responses, reflections, and questions” Sissy Thiessen, a Jingle Dress dancer and spoken word poet; visual artist Yazmin Juarez, and singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor (who was Calgary’s first poet laureate, much involved in the Treaty 7 program there). Hansen calls Raconteurs “a total experiment; what will they respond to?.”

Room 2014, Honk Kong Exile. PHoto by Juan Contreras.

In Expanse’s partnership with Mile Zero Dance, the Vancouver-based dance troupe Hong Kong Exile brings Room 2048 (Feb. 15 and 16), a multi-media dance theatre work billed as “a dream machine for the Cantonese diaspora.” Says Hansen, “it’s dance with bells and whistles, crazy lights, (electronic) music, fog, projections, high-level training” brought to bear on “the Cantonese experience in Canada.”

The Lobbyists, this year a collaboration between Expanse and the Rubaboo Arts Festival, create a series of performance pieces for the Westbury Theatre lobby between Chinook shows, Thursday to Saturday each Chinook weekend. The cast, mentored by Amber Borotsik, includes Barry Bilinsky, Ayla Modeste, and Tarene Thomas. 

The Expanse line-up also includes master-classes. In a two-day intensive, New York’s Third Rail Project arrives to explore with participants immersive theatre and community-building, their specialty (Feb. 9 and 10). The Anitafrika Method, led by Dub poet D’bi Young Anitafrika is an Azimuth Performance Lab offering (Feb. 16 and 17). Stafford Perry of Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality leads a workshop “Creating a Culture of Consent: Community Bystander Interventions” Feb. 12 (a follow-up to last year’s “intimacy for the stage” workshop).

Two of Chinook’s “salon” series — panelists and public discussion — are Expanse initiatives. One (Feb. 8), curated by Good Women Dance, explores “safe spaces in dance.” The other (Feb. 12), led by Azimuth and questions from Sabourin and Hansen, is designed to generation conversation about “decolonizing process and practice.” Says Sabourin, “it’s all about finding others ways of thinking about inclusivity….”  

Chinook is no mild-mannered zephyr; it’s more gale-force than that, a series of cutting-edge performances curated by arts festivals of different sensibilities: Azimuth’s Expanse Festival, Workshop West’s Canoe Festival, Fringe Theatre Adventures, along with BAM! (Black Arts Matter), Sound Off (the deaf theatre festival), and Sinergia (a new multi-disciplinary multi-cultural Indigenous roots lineup). See the full program of offerings and a colour-coded performance schedule — and buy tickets — at chinookseries.ca.

PREVIEW

Expanse Movement Arts Festival

Chinook Series

Theatre: Azimuth

Where: Westbury Theatre and lobby, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Feb. 17

Tickets (and full schedule): chinookseries.ca or at the door

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Lake of the Strangers: a magical mystery tour of a vast universe. A review

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Last night I had a haunting experience. It was the summer of 1973. And a young Indigenous boy and his little brother, on a fishing expedition together, were sitting in a pool of water up among the stars. They were looking down at the world, trading memories, laughing.   

Lake of the Strangers is mysterious and magical that way. It’s a  story of an adventure in the woods en route to a great lake — an adventure full of fun and games, action and danger. And it’s a story of loss and recovery, grief and healing, and the connections that weave past, present and future into a timeless web that holds the constellations (and human stories) in place in the vast firmament.

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Welcome to a new solo play about brothers, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins… by a brother and sister team (Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal). And it’s brought to life — conjured, you might say — by one of the country’s most charismatic and resourceful young actors, Hunter Cardinal.

The production directed by Ron Jenkins, a collaboration between Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre Adventures, happens on a stage that’s a shallow pool of water in Tessa Stamp’s beautiful design: a familiar element made foreign with hidden depths and reflections, lighted stunningly by Narda McCarroll. The water shimmers in the dappled glow of projections (designed by Brianna Kolybaba) on a series of hanging, swaying strips. There’s a “splash zone” in the front row of seats.

Henry and his little bro Thomas, ages 10 and seven, who’ve snuck out of their Sucker Creek Reserve house in the middle of the night, splash through the water in high-tops and jeans. They’re en route to Lesser Slave Lake. Their goal: to catch a big fish and thereby instigate a family celebration. Cardinal singlehandedly creates the brotherly dynamic in all its giddiness, friction, playful joy: proprietorial big bro coaxing, wheedling, jollying his exasperating little bro along, improvising as he goes. Remember when we played “cowboys and us guys”? Or Manhunt, when the object is “not to be caught by the law or the dogs”?

Nature glints with life, danger, beauty. What if there were a giant bear? The world is evoked in light, flickering imagery, Aaron Macri’s sound design — and an inventive, deeply committed performance. And gradually, a multi-character story about how to find your co-ordinates, your past and future selves, in a fathomless universe accumulates. It happens in wisps of memories, Cree words with a big embrace, fragments of wisdom and advice from dad, lullaby riffs from mom, lessons learned from Nehiyaw mythology, Indigenous skills improvised for crisis moments. And it easily transposes itself from underwater to the sky and back again to earth, where two little brothers are going fishing.

The effect is riveting. The theatrical pizzaz of Jenkins’ production enhances insights that are (I return to the word) haunting, without being solemn. Somehow a crazy sense of absurdity is there too, along with awe. If ever there was a show where laughter and tears are simultaneous, this is it.

You still have a couple of chances to see Lake of the Strangers. It runs through Saturday at the Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Don’t let it get away. Tickets:  780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca.  

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Miss Teen premieres at Shadow Theatre: game actors, tired script. A review

Emily Howard, Kristi Hansen, Emma Houghton in Miss Teen, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Miss Teen a strapped, single mother enters her awkward, bookish daughter in a local teen pageant. “It’ll be good practice … for life,” argues Coco brightly, undeterred by Margaret’s reaction, a mixture of appalled and incredulous.

Well, true enough — if life includes a chance to survive humiliation, learn a lesson about teen pageants (and high school) you already knew, and gain a (temporary) platform to announce your new-found wisdom about what’s really important. 

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The latest Michele Riml sitcom currently premiering at Shadow Theatre, is one of those plays that reference the culture and play around with its clichés, but don’t actually dig into anything. And, as Edmonton audiences know, the Riml canon contains a few of those.

In Sexy Laundry, for example, a hit for Shadow a decade ago, a middle-aged couple has a dirty weekend in a posh hotel in order to put the spark back into their 25-year marriage. Its sequel Henry and Alice: Into The Wild, which played the Mayfield a couple of seasons ago, involved a non-stop series of aged sight gags that got gender clichés into Eddie Bauer gear, putting up a tent. The ad exec of Poster Boys, which was at Theatre Network, discovers that, lo and behold, the industry she works in is shallow and its re-branding motives suspect. 

What all of the above, and Miss Teen, have in common is their reliance on the charms and comic chops of game actors, stepping bravely up to thin material. And John Hudson’s production has four of those.

Coco’s life has a daunting column of negatives: a shitty childhood, low income, debt, a crap job, an ex-husband dying of cancer in her apartment, two teenage daughters to support. Both are smart: Margaret (Emily Howard), the elder sister, is shy and unpopular; Nicole (Emma Houghton), an 11-year-old mouthpiece for unfiltered observations, is phobic about social contact. Both performances amusingly and convincingly set forth characters:  Howard as the skeptical Margaret, whose essay on “the economic effect of automation on the women of the Third World” is her calling card; Houghton as the eerily watchful, wary little truth-sayer who’s stony-faced about the social niceties. 

As played by the engaging Kristi Hansen, Coco, though, has somehow armed herself with a plucky positivity fuelled by family mythology and parental aspirations. She is a veritable repository of aspirational slogans designed to implant dreams in others: “shy sometimes comes off as aloof” or “you need to get your feet wet if you’re gonna go swimming” or “it’s the startling line that counts.” Or this one: “luck changes,” short for the hope that the Miss Teen title will bring with it an alteration in family circumstances, including a university scholarship for Margaret.

Emily Howard, Patricia Cerra in Miss Teen, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Which brings us back to the teen pageant — and Coco’s brisk and glossy corporate-speak counterpart in sloganeering. With Dusty, the pageant’s improbable coach and polisher, Cerra has the play’s most thankless role, a parody of  clichés well past their prime for fighting back with any vigour.

“Choices about your outside reflect your inside,” she tells the glum Margaret, advising 15 minutes of smile exercise, “working up to half and hour.” Or “you have cheekbones. Use them.” As Dusty tells Coco, “”training to be a Miss Teen takes discipline…. She needs to bring her A-game to this.” Cerra, a skilled comic actor, steps up and attacks with gusto on pink stilettos (costume designer: Leona Brausen) and the kind of carnivorous smile that should terrify the rabbity.

Beauty pageants — even the more modern kind that claim to be about rewarding global vision, heart, soul, smarts, “being fresh” etc. instead of anything superficial like “beauty” — are a pretty tired target in truth. Miss Teen has a go anyway (you could call it bravely old-fashioned in a way), with its sample judges’ questions and its “correct” prescribed responses. When a candidate is asked “what makes you happy?” you should avoid saying Netflix. The only possible answer is “being there for other people.”

Dusty’s climactic advice, “just be yourself,” is of course the play’s most deliberate irony, and somehow it fails to fire at the crucial moment.

The story here, and the lessons therein, hinge on Margaret’s being cajoled, or bribed, or perhaps badgered by the persistence of her mama, into signing on to the teen pageant — and then, for reasons that are less clear, to say the least, being actively gung-ho herself,  The love of retro? The seductiveness of celebrity? The erosion of will? The desire to please trumping inherent smarts? Your guess is as good as mine. Darrin Hagen’s scene-separating score hints amusingly at conventional fairy tale fantasies.

Anyhow, when Margaret unexpectedly wins the first round, Coco steps up her tactics in ill-advised ways. Poor Margaret. Poor Coco. It is the determination of Miss Teen, rather self-evidently, that comedy and poignance should co-exist, and that lessons should be learned, and “issues” resolved before the end. 

The production, and Hansen’s performance, emphasize that the character is an empathetic, well-meaning stage mother who figures out that handing dreams to your kids instead of letting them devise their own can backfire. Hey, it’s called self-esteem for a reason. Coco doesn’t go down screaming or in a straitjacket; she gives up her plan in a graceful and good-natured way that seems less dramatically demanding but more touching.

The script is not without its comic inspirations. And you’ll have the fun of seeing what skilled actors can do in lack-lustre circumstances. There’s something theatrical in that. 

REVIEW

Miss Teen

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Michele Riml

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Patricia Cerra, Emily Howard, Emma Houghton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 10

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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The Citadel’s upcoming 54th season: local stars in an international galaxy

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The new logo is just the tip-off.

Monday afternoon at Edmonton’s largest playhouse artistic director Daryl Cloran unveiled an ambitious upcoming Citadel season —  its 54th and his third as the architect of the company lineup.

Not unexpectedly at a big regional theatre, the lineup includes a blockbuster Broadway musical and a Pulitzer Prize winner; both come with unusual casting challenges en route to showcasing greater diversity onstage. There are new, less expected international partnerships — with a Brit rock musical en route to New York and an off-centre London-based comedy theatre company.

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New? There’s an alternative series for “the theatrically adventurous” and a new-script festival. After 19 Yule seasons the Citadel is retiring Tom Wood’s hit adaptation of A Christmas Carol for a new version, by Edmonton playwright David van Belle, directed by Cloran (Nov. 30 to Dec. 23). The company even ventures into the summer for the first time with a July musical (Ring of Fire, a Johnny Cash extravaganza), tucked between the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and the mighty Fringe (July 20 to Aug. 11). Notable director/choreographer Tracey Flye, a former Edmontonian, brings it to the stage.  

And as for wearing its Edmonton heart on its sleeve, at the centre of the new season there’s the mainstage premiere of a new play that, in every way, is recognizably of, by, and about this place. The Garneau Block is a stage adaptation, by Edmonton actor/playwright Belinda Cornish, of Todd Babiak’s hit 2006 novel The Garneau Block.

Belinda Cornish

It takes us to an Edmonton neighbourhood we all know, and introduces us, with subtle satirical zest, whimsical humour, and affection, to its idiosyncratic denizens — in a story where they come together to save something: the ‘hood. Says Cloran,  “A great Edmonton novelist, a terrific Edmonton playwright, an Edmonton story, premiering here in Edmonton … it’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing.”

Directed by the Citadel’s associate artistic director Rachel Peake, The Garneau Block runs March 14 to April 5. It anchors the new Collider Festival, the Citadel’s answer to Alberta Theatre Projects’ late-lamented new play festival PlayRites in Calgary, Cloran hopes. He says, “it’s our attempt to make the Citadel and Edmonton a destination for new work,” in something of the way Austin’s South By Southwest is a destination for new music. 

The Color Purple

The season opens with The Color Purple, the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the ensuing film, that chronicles the struggles of an African-American woman from the South in the early half of the previous century. Kimberley Rampersad (who’s choreographed Cloran’s upcoming production of Matilda), directs a cast of 16 African-Canadian performers, to be assembled from across the country (Sept. 21 to Oct. 13).

In a study of musical theatre contrasts, the Citadel’s other mainstage musical is a first Citadel collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (it plays here after its North American premiere in Chicago), Six springboarded from last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe into a hit run in the West End. 

As Cloran describes, Six is a sassy rock musical/ concert à la Spice Girls — “original pop music, very catchy; great sense of female empowerment!” — in which the much-abused wives of Henry VIII get together “to reclaim their identities” and generally rock out.The subtitle sheds light: “Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert.”

“I watched it at the Arts Theatre in London, surrounded by 20-somethings,” says Cloran. “It’s a lot of fun, a coup for us…. Soon it will be everywhere. But we got it first!”

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living gets its Canadian premiere in a Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club Theatre Company co-production directed by the latter’s Ashlie Corcoran (January 11 to Feb 2). In the play by Polish-born American writer Martyna Majok, we meet two couples: a young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver, and a woman who’s a quadriplegic and her ex-husband. Says Cloran, “it challenges our stereotypes — about disability, about care-giving. It’s about fragile human relationships.”

Cost of Living

“We’re always looking for ways to feature artists of different abilities onstage,” says Cloran. “And our audience, as we discovered from The Humans and Disgraced, is really up for great contemporary challenging stories.”

Two seasons ago, the biggest big shot in theatre history had writer’s block (Shakespeare in Love) at the Citadel. This season in April his magical late-period romance The Tempest is reimagined for a cast of deaf and hearing actors. Next season Shakespeare grooves to 25 Beatles songs, in the hit production of As You Like It created by Cloran for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach last summer.

Set in ‘60s Vancouver this high-spirited version of Shakespeare’s celebration of love proved the best-selling show in the history of the company, “literally off the chart,” Cloran laughs. “Joyous” was the word most often used by critics, right after “I never would have thought that….”

Cloran, who’d previously directed a 1920s version of Love’s Labours Lost for Bard on the Beach, says he “cut half Shakespeare’s text” for the songs (negotiations with seven different Beatles rights holders starting with Sony is a story in itself). Amazingly, he found that they “really tell the story,” in the arc of the celebrated catalogue “from the innocence and first blush of love” in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, say, through “the more philosophical offerings” of the later albums. 

What we’ll see Feb. 15 to March 15 is a new production, with an Edmonton cast. And Cloran revisits his challenge of building “a full-on wrestling ring” onstage; the show opens with a real-live wrestling match.

The season finale comes about through an unexpected small-world-isn’t-it? intersection of the international and the local. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the work of the British comedy outfit Mischief Theatre, creators of the giddy Broadway hit The Play That Goes Wrong, which recently closed a two-year Broadways run (it’s currently onstage in Toronto).

The Citadel/ Arts Club co-production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong (April 11 to May 3) will feature a Canadian cast of 12, directed by Londoner Adam Meggido, whom Edmonton audiences and actors already know for his improv virtuosity in Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thons.   

To even say the title Peter Pan Goes Wrong is to wince and laugh.  Cloran does both. “An (earnest) community theatre is trying their best to put on a production of Peter Pan and … well, yes there are mid-air collisions.”

The J.M. Barrie classic is up against it: falling stage lights, collapsing set, cues awry, and (try to not think about this) those flying wires . “It’s very technically complex,” says Cloran of the chaotic hilarity that attends the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s efforts. “I’ve never seen a revolve go that fast! And there’s a surprising amount of heart.”

Speaking of wires, Highwire is the Citadel’s new alternative series of three innovative, challenging productions — “risky theatre, theatre without a net,” as Cloran puts it. It will mostly happen in the Rice (the Citadel returns to this original name of its smallest 150- to 200—seat black box theatre, aka “The Club”).  “It’s a great opportunity for partnerships.  We can bring the work of exciting small companies to our audiences.”

The series opens in October ( 17 to 27) on the Maclab stage with a “truly interactive five-performer production” from the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. In Fight Night, as Cloran describes it, each actor steps forward to “make a pitch and plea, and the audience votes” which one to send off — until there’s a winner. “It celebrates the live nature of theatre,” he says of a show that will, by definition, be different every night. “I’m always drawn to work that can’t be a movie.” And in a ripple of synchronicity, this show about how we make choices happens during the federal election.

John Ullyatt

Every Brilliant Thing, by the Brit team of Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donahoe, “is one of the best scripts I’ve read in the last 10 years,” says Cloran of a play in which a young man struggles, for the benefit of his mother, to come up with a list of things that make life worth living. The Citadel production, directed by Dave Horak and starring John Ullyatt, runs in the Rice Feb. 1 to 23.

The third Highwire act (April 18 to May 10) in the Rice is Matthew MacKenzie’s After The Fire, which has just  finished a Toronto run. The dark comedy re-envisions, through an Indigenous lens, its earlier incarnation as Bust, which explored the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire while the ashes were still smouldering. Collaborating with After The Fire producers Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Arts is a way, says Cloran, of giving those smaller companies access to a wider audience. The aim is a tour. “We’ll launch it here, and send it out into the world.”

What isn’t in the new Citadel season? The Citadel/Banff Professional Program; this season’s The Tempest is the last of it. The cancellation, says Cloran, represents a “shift in priority to the development and showcasing of large-scale new work.”

“We’re increasing the amount of resources we’re putting into developing work and our spring new-work festival, Collider, will showcase the work nationally.”

THE CITADEL 2019-2020 SEASON AT A GLANCE

Ring of Fire, July 20 to Aug. 22

The Color Purple, Sept. 21 to Oct. 13

Six, Nov. 2 to 24

A Christmas Carol (a new adaptation by David van Belle), Nov. 30 to Dec. 23

Cost of Living, Jan. 11 to Feb 2, 2020

As You Like It, Feb. 15 to March 15

The Garneau Block, March 14 to April 5

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, April 11 to May 3

Highwire: Fight Night (Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed),  Oct. 17 to 27; Every Brilliant Thing, Feb. 1 to 23;  After The Fire (Punctuate! Theatre, Alberta Aboriginal Arts), April to May 10.

 

 

 

   

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From story to myth: Lake of the Strangers asks “how do we heal?”

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Lake of the Strangers, the solo play that premieres this week at the Backstage Theatre, you’ll meet two Indigenous brothers, 10 and seven, on a mission out in the natural world.

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“It’s their last summer adventure together, just before summer ends,” says Hunter Cardinal. “And their goal is to catch a really big fish….” And if it takes sneaking out of the house at 2 a.m. and trekking through the woods to get to the lake, well….

He laughs. “Conflict ensues. You knew it would….”

Cardinal, one of the country’s young generation of accomplished and versatile Indigenous actors, stars in Lake of the Strangers. And he shares the playwriting credit with his big sister Jacquelyn Cardinal for this, his first one-man show.

“It starts in 1973 in Sucker Creek, the First Nations reserve on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake,” where the Cardinal family is from. “There’s an old house there my dad’s dad built.” And that’s the starting point for the brothers on their journey.

“1973 was a really powerful time for our people — and also for my dad and his brother growing up,” says Cardinal, a U of A theatre grad. “We’ve used a lot of our own family history….” It’s a family with deep roots and “a long line of sibling partnerships.”

Cardinal’s dad Lewis Cardinal is a well-known human rights activist, Indigenous educator, and sometime political candidate. His uncle Lorne Cardinal is a stage, film and TV star (Theatre Network plans to name the studio space in their rebuilt Roxy Theatre after him). And Cardinal traces his lineage back through his grandfather ,Cree Elder Don Cardinal, and Don’s writer/ activist brother Harold, back to the signing of Treaty 8 at the turn of the last century.

Now there’s a theatrical sibling collaboration in the family. Cardinal and his sister have been working on Lake of the Strangers for a year. Hunter follows the impetus back to a conversation with “Cree astronomer, Elder and knowledge keeper” Wilfred Buck., “He knows a lot about the myths that have been woven into the stars,”  says Cardinal, who took on English theatre’s most storied role when he played Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s Festival hit production of last summer.

“Their purpose is not only to guide us on the long journey, but keep us on course morally as well.” The Cree concept for this starry tapestry of myths is “misewa,” and it’s been a mantra and a method for the young artist. “It’s our connection to all that was, all that is, and all that will be. And it reminds us that those stories exist in a sea of other stories that have yet to be created and shared.. I took that as a call to action!” 

Myth-making fascinates him, says Cardinal, heir to a whole tradition of Nehiyaw myths. The idea is “to begin with the seed of a truth, and drive that truth upward through all levels of interconnectedness: your family, your community, your nation, through the natural world to the spiritual world.” The spiral he describes “ends with a story placed in the stars as part of a new constellation.”

The story of Lake of the Strangers began, he says, with a question: “how do we heal?” And “in typical Edmonton fashion a great team has joined us,” distinguished veteran artists like director Ron Jenkins (who’s known Hunter and Jacquelyn since they were little kids), designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll, singer-songwriter Sarah Pocklington, sound designer Aaron Macri. Cardinal plays multiple characters, a challenge in focus and clarity. “Hamlet was great preparation!” he laughs.

Cardinal is “Director of Story” at Naheyawin, an Indigenous communication agency designed to build community, to help clients find ways of embracing diversity, to invite them to look at the world “through an Indigenous lens,” as he puts it. “Building community to reinvigorate the spirit of peace and friendship that’s at the core of our identity as Canadian Indigenous and treaty people…. I’ve been using all of that within my artistic practice as well. Naheyawin has been a lifeline for me as an Indigenous artist”

As Hamlet, I based my performance heavily on my unique experience as a young indigenous male in exploring Western concepts of masculinity. I used it to frame the deep anger, rage, sadness that Hamlet is going through, his feeling of not being able to live up to certain expectations.”

The spirit of inclusiveness is a theme that Hunter returns to repeatedly. “It’s another way of looking at language,” he says, “to think of it as a way of taking part, singing the song of the world.”

He singles out the Cree word “tatawaw” (which Naheyawin uses to title its workshops). “It translates as “welcome’. But what it really means is ‘there is room’.”  

PREVIEW

Lake of the Strangers

Theatre: Naheyawin, in collaboration with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Jacquelyn Hunter and Hunter Cardinal

Starring: Hunter Cardinal

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

Running: Tuesday through Feb. 2

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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