Cardiac Theatre’s Production of “Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes”

Westwärts
schweift der Blick;
ostwärts
streicht das Schiff.
Frisch weht der Wind
der Heimat zu . . .

— Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

What a wonderful opportunity it is to see Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes on stage five short blocks from home! Cardiac Theatre’s production did not disappoint, even on the first-night-preview-shakedown-cruise of a terribly powerful and difficultly precisely timed script.

I’ve written before of Peter Fechter when discussing Tannahill’s Governor General’s Award-winning three solo play collection Age of Minority. I was excited to see that Cardiac Theatre offered for sale copies of Age of Minority after the show. For literally decades I’ve wished that Edmonton theatres would make available copies of the plays they stage to their patrons. I overheard one theatre-goer this evening quite anxiously asking to buy a copy of Age of Minority. It might be a thought for theatre companies to include the cost of a dozen copies of their plays when they put together their grant applications.

But, enough about my hopes and dreams . . .

I immediately noticed that Director Harley Morison had opted for something akin to the original workshopped staging of the play, as playwright Tannahill describes:

The performer traversed the physical space of his memory onstage and would then be thrown back into the excruciating present of the Death Strip. The audience was in alley configuration (i.e., on either side of the performer), mirroring the ‘east/west/ spectatorship along the wall.

Age of Minority, p. 64

Barbed wire hangs above the stage, shoes, books, a telephone, and a perhaps anachronistic pyrex coffee pot snagged in the barbs. Apart from that hanging symbol of division, the set is bare. A chair. Four spot lights on the floor, angled upward.

I’m not certain that this staging is better than the one Tannahill chose for his self-performed premier of the play in Berlin. I was not there. I can only imagine. But imagining Tannahill standing still and alone, a spotlight on his face, as he performs his play, immobile like the wounded and paralyzed Peter Fechter, I can’t help but feel I someday want to see that staging of Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: Bradley Doré, even in this preview, gave a wonderful performance. I felt it was a little shaky at the beginning, but he hit his stride almost immediately. And, who am I — I who forgot a line in Sunday Costs Five Pesos and had to be bailed out by my Bertha at the age of eleven — who am I to criticize a young professional who stumbled once or twice in a preview but still managed to nail the fifty-nine minute deadline?

Have I mentioned the timing? It was impeccable.

But wait! “What is this play?” I hear you asking.

Well, this play, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, is a one-minute-less-than-one-hour one-act one -man show based on the short life and excruciatingly long death of Peter Fechter, an eighteen year old German fellow who, with his friend tried to escape East Berlin in 1962. Tannahill exercises a great amount of poetic license with the historical events, but he has made the narrative-construction, the meaning-finding of the dying Fechter powerfully believable. And Doré rises to the challenge of bringing Tannahill’s words to life.

A personal note: I can’t help but think that my response to a play about an eighteen year old who died in 1962 when I was not yet one year old will be different from both the twenty-something playwright and the twenty-something actor. They don’t remember the Berlin Wall! They don’t remember the Cold War! They don’t hear Bowie’s ‘heroes’ the way I do. They don’t hear Bowie’s “Where Are We now?” from his penultimate album the way I do. But then, when I was twenty-something, I didn’t hear ‘heroes’ the way I do now. And when I was twenty-something, I wrote a little play that I’m only coming to understand today, in my dotage. Jordan Tannahill is writing powerful stuff that will last. And Bradley Doré has brought it to life.

My friend decided to sit this play out, feeling that the subject matter was a little too intense. Yes, it is intense, and painful. But I couldn’t help but think as I tried to explain to her afterward that, in fact, there is something uplifting in the narrative Fechter constructs, in the life he creates, in those fifty-nine minutes at the wall, and in the Pieta-like image of him being lifted by the East German Border guard as the clock, Peter’s clock, ticks down to zero.

Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes runs until January 22, 2017 at the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns in Old Strathcona. Tickets may be had at the Fringe Theatre Adventures Box Office.

And please read Jenna Marynowski’s behind the scenes interview piece,  “Searching for the reason behind the risk in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes” and her review, Theatrical experiments abound in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.   Jenna’s blog, After the House Lights, is one of the best things for Edmonton’s theatre world!

On Bread

Like bread-making, any mugwump can do it.

— Elizabeth David, “Pleasing Cheeses,” Nova, October 1965.

Real conversation:

“You make bread?”

“Yeah”

“You got a bread machine?”

“No.”

“Then how do you make bread?”

“?”

I’ve baked bread as long as I can remember, first with my mother’s guidence and for at least four decades now on my own. Through high school I kept a sourdough starter alive, baking five small.loaves every Sunday as the centrepieces of the next week’s school lunches. Some might argue that I find baking bread to be one of the simplest of kitchen things because of this stupid long experience making the stuff. I would argue, however, that I feel this way because it truly is absolutely dead simple to bake a more than decent loaf of bread with little experience and less effort.

The other day I made a couple of loaves. No kneading. About three minutes of hands on effort. Lots of free time to do other tasks in and out of the house while ostensibly making bread.
Here it is:

Stir together

2 cups of bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
a bit of salt
a spoonful of “instant”yeast

Stir in 13 ounces of water

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and go away for the day or go have a good night’s sleep.

Whenever you get around to it, give it another quick stir.

After an hour or two, divide the lump roughly in half and quickly shape the two bits into elongated lumps on well-floured boards. Cover with plastic wrap. Go away for an hour or two.

Put a couple of heavy cast-iron lidded casseroles or pots or something into the oven and crank it to 450°F. There’s only one in the picture because my sister-in-law had my other one.

A while after the oven and the pots get hot, take the plastic wrap off the loaves, pull the pots out of the oven, take the lids off, sprinkle flour into them, flop the loaves into the pots, put on the lids and shove the lot back into the oven.

After thirty minutes or so, take the lids off and let the bread brown for five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, take the pots out of the oven, lift each loaf out of its pot, scrape the flour off their undersides, and put them on a rack to cool, if you can wait to taste your newly baked bread!

That’s it. Bread the easy, old-fashioned, no machine way. I’ve even baked this bread in a fire pit in my back yard (the cooking time was under ten minutes).
To be honest, I don’t know why there’s any sort of market for bread machines.

A Fragment

A fragment discovered during excavations at San Giovanni di Ruoti in 1983.  It seems to be part of a much longer epic, but at this point it is impossible to discern the intended development of the narrative.

. . . the shout was heard from R’oti unto Bella
as then came down the wrath of bold Wendela
for Jackie had climbed up the pot-strewn hill
and talked to Jenny, ‘gainst her leader’s will.
The shout died out and all around no sound
nor sight of one who cared could there be found.
Now with the speed of treacle in the snow
fair Jackie hastened back into her row
and as she wandered pass’d, wise David said
that Romans on the mould of cows were fed.
Up from the trench stood Jeremy the good
expounding that he’d not heard of such food:
“In all the years that I have Latin took
I’ve never found such words in any book.
I don’t know where you find your silly lies.”
He turns and up the eastern hill he hies.
And Mary Ellen strode through all the ranks —
or rather limped — she had herself to thank:
the other night, in battle with a beer
she’d broke a foot, and swore no doctor’d see her.
So on she limps, her metatarsals blue,
and she’ll dig on ’til rock — or bone — shows through.
And all of this came to the Doctor’s sight
as he watched from the Tip-Pile’s foggy height.
He shook his head and twirled his trow’l around,
said, “Well, we’ll see” and turned and stumbled down.

 

(Dedicated to the memory of Bob Buck, who taught me Latin, and to Alastair Small, who arranged that trip to Cumae, and who together somehow wrangled us all that summer.)

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (and other stuff) at the Walterdale Playhouse

Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its Ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.

-Lady Windermere in Act 1 of Lady Windermere’s Fan

I’ve just had a truly remarkable day of theatre experience, all of it in the old brick firehall now known as the Walterdale Playhouse. I’ve long had a warm place in my heart for the Walterdale and its people. For Walterdale people, the Ideal of Theatre is Love, and they purify their Theatre with sacrifice.

My day began with an intense Cradle to Stage workshopping session with Brian Dooley (Director of New Play Development at the Citadel Theatre), Vlady Penchoff (Cradle to Stage Festival Coordinator), Payam Saeedi (Associate Dramaturge), Eric Smith (Director), and nine members of the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company. These thirteen people spent the daylight hours of an Edmonton December Saturday voluntarily taking a dry script written by yours truly from words-on-a-page to passionate performance — twice. No one was being paid. There wasn’t even free coffee. And no one except the fourteen of us witnessed the event. Everyone was there from a pure love of Theatre.

Those young actors sacrificed more than just their Saturdays. They weren’t there to just walk through the piece. They passionately engaged with the text. They dug down into their young selves and somehow pulled out flashes of powerful — unbearably powerful — feelings of humans twice their age. They patiently worked through my ridiculously long and convoluted sentences and found the coherence. They even happily recited some Old English verse after a tiny bit of coaching.

It was a wonder and an honour to behold!

Edmonton is a wonderful theatre city. I’ve said it before: over the course of each year there are literally thousands of individul theatrical performances within a half hour walk of my front door — most of them within a lazy ten minute stroll.  But the Walterdale is its own kind of special. The Walterdale functions completely on the Love of Theatre, on the belief that Theatre is human nature, and on a mad certainty that if people act as if they are the glowing heart of Theatre, they will damn well be the glowing heart of Theatre. The people who muck about in Old Strathcona’s Number One Firehall (AKA The Walterdale Playhouse) have an Ideal and a Love of Theatre. And they make it pure through their individual sacrifices of time and effort.

The evening of my Walterdale day was a delightful two hours with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. I’ll not go too deeply into the production or the play as Jenna Marynowski has already offered one of her always sensitive and insightful reviews at After the House Lights. Just a few observations.

It was a full house and the house was in stitches throughout.  The costumes were sumptuous, the set was lovely and far more elaborate than expected by minimalist me, and the performances ranged from good to remarkable. The crowd on the stage nailed it and the crowd in the seats loved it.

If I were forced to name a stand out performance, I might choose Marsha Amanova as the absolutely self-sacrificing Mrs. Erlynne.  But I just as likely would select Emanuelle Dubbeldam for her brief, understated, almost totally body-language turn as Lady Windermere’s maid Rosalie. David Owen’s Lord Augustus is wonderfully bug-eyed-stunned, and Patrick Maloney’s Lord Windermere is perfectly achingly conflicted. And Hannah Haugen as Lady Agatha out does Vin Diesel as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy: her repeated “Yes, Mamma”is an “I am Groot” that is actually easily comprehensible to the entire audience in all its varied meanings.

But the centre of the piece is Miranda Broumas’ Lady Windermere.  At first I thought “she’s stiff. she’s thin.” like a stick is stiff and like water or American beer is thin.  But quickly I realized that Lady Windermere is very young in a very formal society, that she is not yet fully formed, but trying to be strong. She’s a young willow trying to be a stout oak.  Broumas has brought something to the role a more seasoned actor (this is her first Walterdale performance) might have moved beyond and abandoned. This Lady Windermere has, through her theatrical Ideal of Love and Sacrifice, created a truthful performance, to the great benefit of that full house of which I was honoured to be a part.

Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Walterdale until December 17, 2016.

Go see it. It’s a hoot.
P.S. Ever notice the influence of Othello on Lady Windermere’s Fan? Think about it. And Othello‘s in Stoppard’s The Real Thing, too.

My Mazel Tov Cocktail

It’s pretty hard to be alive and not be aware in some sense of the U.S. Election. And for anyone who spends a bit of time on social media it would be difficult to be unaware of Donald Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes’ televised “Mazel Tov Cocktail” slip of the tongue  Of course, the twitterverse exploded with fulmination and amusement and, eventually, recipes.  Last night CBC Radio’s As It Happens even got involved.

Well, I can play that game, too.

After some moments of historical thought, consideration of current events south of the Medicine Line, and ruminations on flavour, I’ve come up with my own Mazel Tov Cocktail along with justifications for each ingredient.

Mazel Tov Cocktail

1 ounce Manischewitz kosher wine, obviously

1 ounce Finlandia vodka (I wanted Koskenkorva but it doesn’t seem to be available in Alberta)

1 ounce orange juice

1/2 ounce Wild Turkey Bourbon

A healthy dash of orange bitter(nes)s

Shake well in an iced cocktail shaker.

Serve in tiny glass bottles with an outrageous weave of orange zest and a small sprig of rue.

An outrageous weave of orange zest and a sprig of rue

Manischewitz Concord grape wine is awful, sweet stuff on it’s own, but a necessary accompaniment for any Mazel Tov toast.

The improvised incendiary device known as the Molotov Cocktail was given its name by Finish soldiers during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. It seems only appropriate to give Finland a nod in my Mazel Tov Cocktail. Koskenkorva would be even better.

The orange juice provides a necessary citrus balance to the grapey sweetness of the Manischewitz. It also is a cheap shot at a certain presidential candidate’s epidermal pigment challenge.

The Wild Turkey Bourbon? Wild. Turkey. cf. above mentioned candidate. And his supporters.

And I don’t think either the bitters or their orangeness need explanation.

I think you see where I’m going with the garnish.

The ingredients, with a lovely Canadian sunset

Good luck with your election, neighbours, and Mazel Tov, America!

A glass actually works better

What We Mean When We Say “We have bigger problems than that”

This evening somebody on teh Twotter said something like “Da City gots bigger issues than da unPC name of da sports team!”

Let’s unpack dat.

Yes. The City/Province/Country/County/State/World — lets just say We — have bigger issues than the name of a bunch of guys who chase a ball/puck around a field/diamond/court/rink. In fact, we have bigger issues than every single issue we have except for the top two issues we have.

But, can we agree on those top two big issues? And, even if we could agree, does that mean we should only work on resolving those top two? What about the person wrongly ticketed for jaywalking? The kid with the peanut allergy at Hallowe’en? The senior widow having trouble navigating social services in her jurisdiction? The women facing chronic sexual harrasment on the walk to work? The new immigrants desperate to work and contribute but with unrecognized credentials? The homeless? The disabled? The Environment? The Economy? Pipelines? Rhino horns? Politics? Art? Space exploration? Crumbling infrastructure? Minimum wage? Tax the rich? Don’t mention Trump? Hope? Love? Justice? Peace?

Which are the top two for you? Should we all just pay attention to your picks? Or are we not big enough to deal with lots of issues? Can we not delegate? Can we not work side by side on many projects?

Of course we can!

So what was the fellow who said earlier this evening that “We gots bigger issues. . .” really saying?

Well, I think he was saying a few things, the most important (to him) being “Shut up already!!” But more deeply he was saying “I don’t care about your stupid issue except to the degree it lets me say ‘Shut up already!’ and thereby make it all about me and my right to not be bugged by the stinging gadflies from outside my ever-shrinking fenced-in yard of privilege!”

Too often grievances — legitimate or otherwise — are dismissed with “We have bigger problems.” I write “legitimate and otherwise” with careful intent: a grievance, whether deemed “legitimate” or not, is a person hurting. It is inhumane and inhuman to turn aside from a person in pain. It is obscene to tell a fellow human being “Your pain doesn’t count.” 

Yes, WE collectively may have bigger problems, but YOUR problem isn’t thereby reduced.

Some of us will listen.

And help if we can.

We all can multi-task when it really counts.

A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”