A few more amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

This is a follow up to my A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “secondary suite” issue in Edmonton lately. Maybe I’m wrong, but given that garage, garden and basement suites are virtually always discussed in the context of increasing the density of our “mature neighbourhoods” I’ve always understood that City Council and Planners have seen secondary suites as an important part of increasing that density.  I think believing secondary suites to be of any importance is foolish and I’ll try to explain why I feel that way.

Imagine a neighbourhood like my go-to example, Parkallen.  It’s a pleasant combination of single family homes and low rise apartments surrounding a school, community hall, a few shops and a greenspace. Arterial roads border the neighbourhood on all sides.  An LRT station is nearby.  It’s a little lower density than the neighbourhood I live in, Strathcona, with it’s mix of single family homes, low rise, mid rise, high rise apartments, schools, greenspaces and arterial roads.  Both Parkallen and Strathcona have some amount of secondary suites as well.

The new idea seems to be to permit secondary suites on virtually any single family lot (with some restrictions) with the goal of increasing density.  The thought seems to be that seniors will be able to remain in their home longer if they are allowed to build space for an old fashioned boarder.  If every house in Parkallen added a secondary suite – an impossibility, of course — it would be the equivalent of adding a single child to every family living in a single family house.  Parkallen has 655 single-detached houses, so, at best, the secondary suite plan would add 655 people to Parkallen’s 2200.  This would be a significant increase, but, as I said, an impossibility.

The plan is premised on home-owners actually wanting someone – face it, a stranger – living in their house or yard.  Yes, some would be attracted by the economic opportunity, but I would argue that most who chose to live in their own little home on their own little plot of land choose to do so because they want that little bit of space.  Most people have no desire to be a landlord. Most home-owners will not  add secondary suites. In fact, I would expect few would, so the 655 additional people will never move into Parkallen.  I’d be surprised if the secondary suite plan added more than ten residents to Parkallen in a year.

But let’s back up a little.

Up above I mentioned that Strathcona, my neighbourhood quite close to Parkallen, already has a satisfactory density.  In fact, it’s one of the densest neighbourhoods in Edmonton.  How can that be? My description of Strathcona above was very similar to my description of Parkallen: single family homes, low rise apartments . . . Wait! Strathcona has mid and high rise apartments as well. Parkallen has nothing above about four stories.  The key to raising density in a neighbourhood is not to put people in back yards; the solution is to go up!

Anyone familiar with 109th street south of Whyte Avenue knows that the street, the eastern boundary of Parkallen, is lined with low rise commercial/retail buildings. Would it not be a more certain solution to the density problem to rezone that strip, or parts of that strip to high rise residential with commercial on the ground floor, rather than to depend on the financial difficulties of ageing home-owners?  One or two high-rises on 109th would bring in the 655 additional people quickly, revitalizing Parkallen School and Parkallen Community League, bringing new customers to the restaurants and shops, and, very important to the current residents of Parkallen, retaining the character of the neighbourhood.

A densification plan that relies on every homeowner choosing to become a landlord in their own home will never work, but vastly increasing the tenancy of a single or a few select properties would. Careful, thoughtful rezoning of particular properties would increase the density of many Edmonton neighbourhoods much, much more quickly than the secondary suite plan ever will.  I certainly have no major issue with the idea of secondary suites: I’m happy to have them in my neighbourhood.  But I’m also happy that there are high rises and mid rises around the corner.  I wish every Edmonton neighbourhood were allowed the benefits of a full range of residential options.

Love in The Bengali Night Does Not Die: Maitreyi Devi and Mircea Eliade

Imagine a story like this:

It’s 1930.  A twenty-something Romanian student with Fascist associations who happens to be quite fluent in French and has a bit of English arrives in Calcutta in British India to study with a renowned Bengali scholar.  The scholar takes an interest in the young European and invites him to stay at his home as a member of his large household.

The Bengali scholar’s sixteen-year-old daughter, herself already a revered poet and philosopher, becomes the object of the European’s fascination.  Over the course of a number of months of miscommunication cross cultures, everyone speaking their second or third language but never their first, the two young people fall in love — or think they fall in love — which amounts to the same thing.  They visit her elderly guru, they witness the beginnings of the Indian Independence movement, they go to the theatre and see Ravi Shankar’s older brother dance.

Alas, her parents discover their star-crossed love in the delirious beri beri ravings of her younger sister.  Her father orders the young man out of the house and threatens to have him deported if he tries to contact his daughter.

The young man goes to a monastery in the Himalayas for a bit and eventually becomes an important scholar of world religions.

The young poet grows up to be an older poet, novelist, social activist, wife, mother, and grandmother.  Unknown to her, the object of her youthful infatuation, two decades after the events, writes a novel based on his experiences in Bengal.  Showing an unbelievable lack of judgement, while he gave himself a pseudonym in his novel, he uses her real name, and injects extra physical passion into the story.

The unfortunate lady does not know for another 20 years that she has been named by a famous man as his under-aged Bengali sex-partner.  Horrified by the distortions of her experience (it had not been a physical relationship), in 1974 she publishes a novel, forty-four years after the events, giving the true story.  Two years later she publishes her own English translation.  As well, she contacts the now old man and he agrees his novel will not be published in English until after her death.

And then, in 1988, a largely French team makes an English language film based on the European’s novel.  The film stars a young English actor destined to be famous both for his performances on stage and screen as well as public performances of a licentious nature on Sunset Boulevard.

Imagine a story like that!

Well, truth seems to be stranger than fiction.

In 1930, Mircea Eliade, Romanian, Fascist sympathizer, student of religions, and future professor at the University of Chicago, did, in fact, move into his professor’s house in Calcutta.  Eliade did spend time in the company of the then sixteen and already famous Maitreyi Devi.  The young friends did go to visit her elderly guru. The witnessed Indian Independence marches, and they did go to a performance of dancer Uday Shankar, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother.  And Eliade was asked to leave the house in some haste.

In 1950, Eliade published La nuit bengali.  It by agreement with Devi, it was not published in English until 1993, when it appeared as Bengal Nights.

In 1974, Devi published Na Hanyate and, in 1976, her English translation titled It Does Not Die.

And the film.

In 1988, French director Nicholas Klotz and French producer Philippe Diaz released their version called The Bengali Night, based on Eliade’s French novel, without any consideration of Devi’s novel.  The film stared Hugh Grant as the Eliade character, now a British Engineer building dams or something.  In 2009 an absolutely awful print of the film was packaged as a DVD.

Now, I’ll review these three versions of the same few months in the lives of Mercia and Maitreyi.

Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, translated by Catherine Spencer

Eliade’s work on Comparative Religions was a massive influence on my thinking as a young scholar.  He continues to be one of the giants upon whose shoulders I perch unsteadily.  I’ve long known about his early Fascist leanings.  Bengal Nights shows him to have been, at least in the first half of his life, a petty White man fully and unquestioningly steeped in an ugly colonial superiority, even after he falls in love with the “dark” Bengali girl.

The novel has little to recommend it as a novel.  It is a pedestrian version of the young summer love story that has been done thousands of times and usually far better, from Shakespeare to Trevanian.  Bengal Nights never rises to anything lyrical and is often ugly.  Perhaps it is never more ugly than when Eliade, at the end of the novel, goes off to the Himalayas to purify himself like a yogi on a mountain top, and finds cleansing in the bed of a blonde Nordic Valkyrie!

About the only interest Bengal Nights can has is for the student of Eliade’s scholarship — he slips in ideas which became important in his later work — or for the student of Maitreyi Devi who want to see what she was so pissed off about.

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi, translated by the author.

It Does Not Die is a beautiful, poetic, aching novel.  Here a born-poet is at the height of her powers and maturity and yet is still that vulnerable, joyful sixteen-year-old girl.  Devi slips back and forth in time, not simply remembering 1930 and all the years since, but living them again, even as her family life, her political and charitable work, and her poetry swirl around her.  It Does Not Die is a meditation on memory, and investigation of motivation, a study of the tragedy of self-delusion, and, in the end, a profound philosophical statement on Love and Truth.

At the end of the novel, when Devi meets Eliade for the first time in forty-two years, it becomes a confrontation because Eliade refuses to look at her, preferring the fantasy vision in his memory to the reality in the room with him.

“Mircea, you have read so much, but you have acquired no wisdom!  You don’t speak like a wise man.  Is love a material object that can be snatched away from one and given to another? Is it a property or an ornament? It is a light, Mircea, a light — like the light of intelligence, like the light of knowledge is the light of love.” pp 253-4

But Eliade has always refused to face the reality of Devi.  He has never returned to India because he has clung to his fantasy of her and of her land.

“Mircea, I am telling you, fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible.  Your book is a nightmare for me.  I was a simple little girl who sometimes played philosopher.  I was no enigma.  The mystery is your creation.  You love the fantastic and unreal.  But now I have really come, to perform an impossible deed.” p. 255

I’ll stop there; no further spoilers.

It Does Not Die by Maitreyi Devi is a simply glorious novel.

The Bengali Night
starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak
directed by Nicolas Klotz
written by Nicolas Klotz in colaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere

What a hash of a film!

Supriya Pathak is marvellously natural as Gayatri, the Maitreyi Devi character but is obviously older than sisteen.  Hugh Grant is somehow both slack-jawed and wooden throughout, and his accent wanders back and forth across the English Channel.  The rest of the Indian cast is professional and comes across as having mysterious depths, one of the few positives of the film.  John Hurt and the other European cast members have pretty much phoned in their performances.  Thankfully, the story ends before Grant meets the cleansing blonde Nordic Valkyrie.

The version in the DVD package from Cinema Libre Studio is visually flat, almost colourless.  Everything is washed out.  And the sound is as muddy as the water of the Sacred Ganges. It is physically difficult to watch.

While the film is merely dull, the DVD “Extra”, a monologue by producer Philippe Diaz is, at best, an uncomfortable experience.  Diaz strangely regularly punctuates his description of making the film with statements that “India was a wonderful experience for the cast and crew” and “Go to India!”  But most of what he says between the punctuation is either condemnation of or superior laughter at Indians and their culture.  And he makes a remarkable point of dismissing Maitreyi Devi, her novel, her upset over Eliade’s novel, and her opposition to the film.

The Indian were all running on Indian-subcontinent Time, not caring whether shooting got done each day, Diaz says.  They’re all used to the Indian film industry which has such quaint, backward little methods.  They aren’t at all like our Western civilized way.  According to Diaz, Eliade’s book is a masterpiece.  Devi’s is just a bitter little backward girl’s foot-stomping response.  Diaz admits he never read Devi’s book “because it’s in Bengali”.  Of course, Devi’s English version had been available for a decade and more.

Diaz’s entire monologue is a European dismissal of Indians, their cultures, and their concerns, despite his half-hearted, ass-covering “Go to India!”

In nutshells

Mircea Eliade’s pedestrian Bengal Nights is an early-middle-aged man’s extremely soft-core paedophilic sexual fantasy based on his youthful myopic brush with a culture much deeper than his own and with a young woman far wiser at sixteen than he ever got to be.

Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die is a brilliant, angry, gentle, loving, beautiful, generous, poetic novel.  When Devi translated her novel into English, she gave a gift to the West that the West hardly deserves.

The Bengali Night, starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak — If you must see it, see it for Pathak’s performance; the rest is a horrid mess.

“Imagining Head-Smashed-In” by Jack W. Brink

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place that will forever remain with us, geography somehow making a change in who we are.  It may be a small curve of the Bella Coola River or the ruins at Cumae or the sweeping vista from the Palace Tower at Palenque over the Plain of Tabasco and the Yucatan beyond.  As a young fellow, I found myself on the edge of a windswept sandstone cliff looking east across the Canadian Prairie and geography made yet another change in who I am.  I was at Head-Smashed-In.

It was the late 1980s. The Interpretive Centre for this UNESCO World Heritage Site had recently opened. The sun was shining. Everything was aligned. The geography of the place and of my life had channelled me, like thousands of bison over the centuries, to that spot at the top of the cliff on the edge of the Porcupine Hills.

Now, three decades later, I’ve just finished reading Jack Brink’s beautiful, award-winning biography of six thousand years at that sandstone cliff, Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains.  For so many reasons, Imagining Head-Smashed-In should be a required text in Alberta’s schools, indeed, in schools across Canada.  Brink’s book in not only an archaeological study of the technique of communal buffalo hunting.  It is a field study in how to – and how not to – do consultation with indigenous peoples. It is a heartfelt gesture of gratitude and respect across cultures and time. And it is a celebration of one of the greatest and most overlooked of human intellectual achievements, an achievement that should be as well known to all Canadians as the building of the Railroad, which did so much to wipe the bison from the Plains.

Imagine Head-Smashed-In:

A group of people gather together on a landscape that has been carefully altered over countless generations.  With skills trained over a lifetime, unarmed and on foot – the horse had not yet been brought from Europe – the most skillful approach a herd of the largest land animal in the Americas and persuade that herd to move along a designated path, marked out by uncountable generations of humans and bison before them.  As they progress, the herd’s movements become an inevitability.  The result is, as Brink describes it, “the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings.” (p. 6)

The sheer quantity of biomass harvested in a communal hunt at Head-Smashed-In or any of the other buffalo jumps on the Northern Plains was unrivalled by any other human activity.  And that vast quantity of food spurred the invention of something often attributed to Henry Ford: the assembly line. The bison carcasses had to be processed quickly, the food and hides preserved for long term use. Teams would assemble, to skin and gut the animals, to prepare the hides, to cut and dry the meat, to prepare immediate meals for the other workers, to pound the dried meat for pemmican. Head-Smashed-In was an industrial operation during a communal hunt, an industrial operation on a scale as large as anything on earth during much of its six thousand and more year use.

It should be mentioned that as much as Brink marvels at the ingenuity of the people who used Head-Smashed-In for all those generations, he is very careful to emphasize that they were human, not mythical beings magically at-one with the environment, never letting a bison hair go to waste.  They killed bison to survive. If they needed hides for tipi covers, they killed for hides and used what meat and fat they needed, leaving the rest to rot.  In starving seasons they would use every bit of an individual animal down to the stomach contents. In rich seasons they would use the best cuts and preserve what they could for the lean winter times.  Brink remarks:

Some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people believe it is a disservice to Native heritage to state that sometimes ore bison were killed than were needed.  In my opinion, such assertions show a lack of understanding of both the deeply spiritual and profoundly practical world of Aboriginal buffalo hunters of the Plains.  It seems to me always a disservice to relegate rational and spiritual people to the status of robots, acting in a machine-like fashion without regard to contingencies, deeply held cultural beliefs. and common sense. (p. 160)

Throughout Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Brink’s primary purpose is to make sure we understand that he is talking about real people, human individuals, who came together in a physical, biological and cultural landscape to perform a magnificently choreographed inter-species dance of death and survival.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is a wholly remarkable piece of writing about archaeology and humanity. Jack W. Brink well deserves his many awards for the book, including:

2009 Best Book Award from the Society for American Archaeology
2009 Canadian Archaeological Association Public Communication Award
2012 Felicia A Holton Award from The Archaeological Institute of America.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is published by Athabasca University Press.  Buy it. Read it.

Edmonton’s Iron Foot Place (AKA “Ice District”)

Okay, peeps, chill!

That Katz guy just renamed a couple of buildings in Downtown Edmonton (as he has every right to do), he didn’t rename Downtown. This is like when Edmonton Centre (a stupid name) and Eaton’s Centre (a stupid name after Eaton’s went belly up) got a snappy new pedway connecting them and some suit said “let’s call the two buildings Edmonton City Centre!”  Nobody calls it that.  Some call it “City Centre Mall” and some call it just “City Centre”.  Or like when the Coliseum got renamed “Skyreach Place” or “Rexall Place” or . . . .  No one is at all confused if you say “meet me at the Coliseum.”  And after 37 years of name changes to the arena, that LRT station that serves the place is still called “Coliseum”.

Out of convenience we’ve been calling a vague area around the under-construction arena “the arena district” for a little while. I expect when it’s all done and the “Ice District” signs go up, we’ll all call it whatever seems convenient. I imagine people will say,

“Let’s go Downtown to the arena.”
“Where should we meet?”
“At the Cineplex” or “In the Winter Garden by the Janvier mosaic” or at the front door of Stantec” or “with all the other White people in that video”.

Some time ago the City put up “Arts District” signs around Churchill Square. Has anyone EVER said “let’s meet in the Arts District Friday night!” Of course not! It’s a silly, artificial thing and it’s properly ignored.  People meet in Churchill Square or at City Hall, or the Library or at City Centre Mall.

I really don’t find this little corporate naming-rights moment of any great concern. The fact that the promo video is all “White People only unless you’re the DJ”, however, is troublesome. It would be nice if our collective ‪#‎yegSpleen‬ were being vented over that bit of corporate propaganda rather than over the naming-yawn that is “Ice District.”

Personally, I’m gonna call that bit of Downtown Edmonton with that hockey rink beside the new Alex Janvier mosaic “Iron Foot Place”, “Tsątsąke k’e” because it was Treaty Six land before the NHL and before Katz and it still is Treaty Six Land and “Iron Foot Place” is a damn better name than “The Arena District” or the articleless “Ice District.

I hope Mayor Iveson and Edmonton City Council can come up with a way to make the official City neighbourhood placename of that bit of Downtown “Iron Foot Place”, whatever the corporate brand on the buildings.  It would be an easy gesture toward Reconciliation and a good description of a place devoted to strapping steel blades to our feet.  But even if it’s never the official name . . .

Let’s meet at Iron Foot Place.

Who’s with me on this?

Pretend that Bike is a Backhoe, Edmonton!

Recently the Alberta Motor Association put out a handsome little video about how to drive in traffic circles.  This video explains in detail three fundamental principles and some bonus advice:

Don’t Change Lanes
Yield to the Vehicle on your Left
Yield to Pedestrians
and, the bonus:
Ideally, Don’t Go More than One Exit in the Right Lane

I’m not going to make a snappy video but I’d like to make another simple suggestion of how we all can work together to make Edmonton’s roads safer.

Have you ever noticed that if you find yourself behind a slow moving vehicle like a backhoe while driving along Edmonton’s streets, you do something funny?  You slow down, too.  You may curse a little, but you slow down.  You don’t try to squeeze by the slow moving vehicle in the same lane, even if that vehicle is doing its best to hug the curb.  What you actually do, not matter how much you curse, is you wait until it is safe to signal, pull out into the left lane, and pass the slow moving vehicle, secure in the knowledge that the slow moving vehicle will be right behind you at the next red light. In short, you give the slow moving vehicle the lane.

This all seems like common sense, right?

Wrong.

It all breaks down (except for the cursing) if that slow moving vehicle is a bicycle.  Most automobile drivers simply zip past cyclists, apparently assuming that it is the cyclists’ responsibility to ride in the gutter and keep their elbows in.  A rare few drivers will make a token effort to move to the left a foot or two, sometimes even letting their left wheels slip over the centre line.  The rarest of the rare behave as though the bicycle is a backhoe, an actual vehicle on the road with an operator trying to get to a destination in a safe an timely manner given the physical limitations of that vehicle.  Those rarest of the rare drivers slow down and wait to pass the bicycle when it is safe to do so properly, as though they were passing a backhoe.

Now I can hear a bunch of you grumpily yelling “Yeah, but, bike riders [insert favourite complaint about feral cyclists].”  Didn’t your mother ever teach you that Two Wrongs don’t Make a Right? Just because a year and a half ago some yahoo zipped past you between lanes of traffic stopped at the light at the bottom of Scona Road and then ran the red light doesn’t mean the guy in front of you today doesn’t have a right to be on the road.  If a BMW cut you off on the Yellowhead three years ago are you going to cut off every BMW you see on the road for the rest of your life?  Of course not.  I don’t want to hear any of your “Yeah, but, bike riders” cop outs.  We all encounter bad driving and we all sometimes have driven badly.  Bad drivers we’ve encountered are never excuses to drive badly ourselves.  Be quiet.

Most cyclist, of course, habitually ride in the gutter with their elbows in, bracing for impact because the vast majority of automobile drivers behave in an intimidating manner, shouting “Get Outta Da Way!” with their actions when not doing so with their voices.  Some few cyclists hold their lane.  Kudos to them.  A few others seem to want it both ways, holding their lanes somewhat while traffic is moving, but zipping past stopped traffic, sometimes weaving through it, to get to the front of the line at traffic lights.  To those cyclists who weave through traffic, consider: it is an exceptionally rare motorcyclist who even imagines doing the same thing, despite the vehicles’ similar size and manoeuvrability.

And, drivers, if the bike you passed properly and safely a block or two ago zips past you on the right at the next traffic light, don’t give up on doing the right thing. When the light turns green and you catch up to the cyclist again, as you will: yield the lane until it is safe to pass properly and safely.  Remember again your mother’s words about Wrongs and Rights.

As an automobile driver who is on the streets of Edmonton every day, I call on other drivers to simply give all vehicles including bicycles their lane, even when a cyclist is hugging the curb.

Take a breath, pretend the bicycle is a backhoe and it’ll be easy.

Give them the lane, for Safety’s sake.

Always.

Summer Republic III

This past Thursday evening (July 9, 2015) I went to a show-opening reception at a small North-Side gallery in Edmonton.  The work, by a collective of artists, is a mixed bag of styles, subject matter, and media, but bright, summery tones of orange stand out around the four walls.

I bumped into (name dropping alert) David Janzen, one of Edmonton’s premier landscape painters, and his partner Sue.  Dave and I seem to get talking when we bump into each other, sometimes about art, sometimes about cutting grass.

I pointed to a large work that occupied one corner of the gallery, a deceptively simple looking monochrome wood-cut print in black hung beside the actual block from with it was printed.  A quirky aspect of the print is that rather than being rolled in a press, this piece was printed, once on paper and once on cloth, by driving a steam roller over the thing.  The result is an extremely limited edition print titled “Roadwork” by Aaron Harvey.

“I like that,” I said.  “It’s got a sort of Mexican Day of the Dead vibe going.”

Dave said “Oh yeah . . . (?)”

“Yeah.  The two figures are sort of skeletal and those look like sombreros on their heads.  And down at the bottom is the underworld, Xibalba, the Maya Land of the Dead.  And the two figures are the Hero Twins, Hunapu and Xbalanque, or maybe they’re One and Seven Death, the highest of the Lords of Xibalba. . . . .”

“What about those twisted amoeba-like things at the top?”

“Those are clouds and they’re reflected in the similar shapes at the bottom, just as the underworld must reflect the upper. And the crosses in the buildings reference the remarkable syncretism of Mexican ‘Catholicism’ . . . .”

Dave had another chip.  I nibbled baklava, hoping the nuts wouldn’t kill me.

“I like this one, too,” I said, pointing at Lora Pallister’s “Golden King of the Jungle.”

“What is it?” asked Sue. “A rabbit?”

“No, it’s a gorilla dressed sorta like Carmen Miranda.  Or a lion.”

“And that’s a big joint in his mouth,” said Dave.

“Or a piece of red licorice,” I suggested.

Dale Badger’s three line-drawings after Crucifixions by Dürer, particularly “Angels Collecting Blood after Dürer”, are brilliant.  Simply brilliant.

I spent a little time nibbling the snackies and then (name dropping alert) Rona Fraser (you may remember her as one of Avenue Magazines “Top 40 under 40” from a year or two ago) asked me if I knew of a good place to get beef ribs to barbecue (I don’t) which took us to the subject of black pudding and then Rona asked “Do you know a good place to get haggis?”

Well, obviously, I told her the best place in Edmonton for both black pudding and haggis (and meat pies) is (name dropping alert) Old Country Meats in Allendale across 106 Street from the Allendale School.

 

I suppose you’re wondering where this magical North Side gallery is, a place full of wicked good art, a place you can rub shoulders with top artists and hobnob with Top 40 under 40ers and talk with them about food and art and the Popol Vuh.  I suppose you’re wondering.

Wonder no more.

(name dropping alert)

This gallery is at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts.  If you are in Edmonton you should know about The Nina, you should go to the Nina, and you should learn what it is and what it isn’t.

The Nina is a mentoring collective.  It is not a sheltered workshop.  The Nina is a studio for artists working with barriers, not “art therapy” for the “handicapped”.  The art on display in the show I described above, Summer Republic III, has been created by Artists in a studio, not by disabled people in segregation.  They have been mentored by some of the top artists in Edmonton such as (name dropping alert) Jill Stanton, Caroline Gingrich, Brenda Kim Christiansen, David Janzen, and Artistic Director Paul Freeman.  The Nina Collective is made up of these and more mentoring Lead Artists as well as Apprentice Artists who are being themselves mentored in the art business (writing grant applications, etc.), volunteers, and the almost two hundred Artists with abilities, not disabilities, who are being mentored in art making.

The works in Summer Republic III have been chosen through a jurying process and represent the best of what the Artists of the Collective have produced over the last year.

The work is rich, it is evocative, it should be seen, it is Art.

 

Summer Republic III is on display at the Stollery Gallery at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, 9225 118 Ave, until August 14, 2015.

Go see it.

And drop into the busiest studios in the City while you’re there.

 

 

“As You Like It” at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

I keep trying to find bad things to say about the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, but . . .

I went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus.  The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower.  Again the cast uses every bit of the multi-level set and also the aisles and hillsides and the flat spaces to the left and right back stage.  The entire space under the tent has been transformed into the Forest of Arden and the very full house seems completely welcome and at home in this Arcadia.  All positive.

The quasi-Edwardian costumes by Hannah Matiachuk are lovely. I got a golden Enchanted April feeling.

When the music began for Amiens’ (Nicolas Donald Rose) opening song, it struck me as a little Alan Parson’s Project, and I thought, “Finally!  I can criticise!” But the prog-rock vibe disappeared sooner than I’d thought it.  Nice job, Sound Designer Matthew Skopyk!  I later had a similar pause over the whistling tune in the second half, but immediately was caught up in the joyful celebration — on stage and in the audience — that culminated in the glorious curtain call/dance party that closed the show.  This burst of joy perhaps surpassed last year’s rousing rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by Sheldon Elter and the cast at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

I wondered whether Charles’ (Jesse Gervais) Cockney accent might slide into Dick van Dyke’s mid-Atlantic Burt from Mary Poppins.  Nope.  It held steady and together with Kemble and Phebe’s (Nancy McAlear in a double role) brogue from somewhere in the northern half of the Irish sea, helped to draw the lines between the classes.  This distinction is too often made in productions of Shakespeare by making the lower classes little more than cartoon Disney bumpkins, like the button people after the horse race in Mary Poppins.  Freewill pulled it out of the hat again.

Gervais and Farren Timoteo are hilariously physical, slapstick, and rude as the wrestler Charles and his coach Hugh (a part not in Shakespeare’s text).  And John Ullyat steals his few scenes as a Clouseau-like only slightly repressed gay Frenchman.  Ullyat is somehow at once over-the-top and magically restrained as Le Beau.  It is perhaps a disappointment that Ullyat was not a part of the finale, as far as I could tell.

Mary Hulbert’s Rosalind is tremendous and Belinda Cornish’s Celia is the perfect foil/companion/friendly gadfly.  Ashley Wright made Jaques, a difficult role, into something thought provoking, quietly joyful, as well as the melancholy that is his nature.  And Ryan Parker as Touchstone made something reachable out of a character potentially very alien to a modern audience.

I did find one truly negative criticism of Freewill’s As You Like It, but I had to dig deep.  It is not that Touchstone sometimes drops his cane while juggling it — the recovery is always smooth — or that Cornish and Hulbert had an hilarious Harvey Corman-Tim Conway moment of mutual corpsing — it just felt like it needed to be there.  Such fumbles happen in live theatre — I seem to remember the wonderfully steady Wally McSween saving the plot by fudging a misthrown curling rock with his foot in the Citadel’s production of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon back in 1980.

No. The problem I have I’ll leave at the door of Director Marianne Copithorne.  In this production, with such nice use of accents, Jaques’ “Thereby hangs a tale” speech is unfortunately delivered with North American Theatrical English pronunciation and virtually all of the dense, ribald, earthy humour is lost.

. . . And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

In Shakespeare’s day, and in available English dialects today, every “hour” of this passage is an “whore”, each “rot” is a “rut” and the “ripes” are “rapes”.  And thereby hangs at least a piece of a tale.

But Hulbert’s delivery of Rosalind’s “I set him every day to woo me” speech revealed a gender reversed parallel between Rosalind/Orlando and Hamlet/Ophelia I’d never imagined before, Orlando sent to a monastery down the road from Ophelia’s nunnery.  That discovery probably more than makes up for the loss of a little ribald humour.

No matter how desperately I try to find fault, the Freewill Players continue to present joyous, moving, and truly impressive Shakespeare the way it should be performed:  in the open air, with grass, and trees, and squirrels, in the Forest of Arden where fantasy and reality meet.

Freewill’s As You Like It continues in repertory with Coriolanus until July 19, 2015, in the Forest of Arden (the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park).

Go and feel the joy!