“Wooster Sauce” at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head — not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but read-hot ones.

— P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

If you don’t laugh at Bertie Wooster’s Bionically allusive description of one of his frequent hangovers, you might not enjoy John D. Huston and Kenneth W. Brown’s adaptation of a pair of Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories (and you almost definitely don’t have a very refined sense of humour). It is with one of these hangovers that Wooster Sauce begins, and Huston marvelously brings to life both the lovably obtuse and frequently hung-over Bertie and the preternaturally competent Jeeves, his valet and the inventor of a miraculous hangover cure that actually works. Bertie’s initial hangover is the beginning of a wonderful introduction to the remarkable humour of Wodehouse. If you’ve never read Wodehouse, Wooster Sauce will make you want to seek him out. If you already have had the scales taken off your eyes, your life improved, and achieved something like Enlightenment through Wodehouse, Wooster Sauce will be a happy, happy homecoming.

I’m three-for-three at the Edmonton Fringe this year, taking in nothing but winners. After the dark and challenging duo of Oleanna and Prophecy, Wooster Sauce is a wonderful piece of joyful folly with a great performance from Huston in all the varied roles. It’s a laugh a minute, whether you are familiar with Wodehouse’s writing or not. Paraphrasing Wooster Sauce would be pointless, like having to explain a joke. Go see it if you can get in. If you can’t, find a book by P. G. Wodehouse.

I have to add thanks and kudos and praise to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for the amazing job they do as a BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) Fringe space. Not only does the Church host three venues in marvelous spaces,  there was a beer and wine and snack tent on the lawn and free barbecued chicken pita sandwiches available while we waited in line for the show! I can’t express how happy I am to have had a little bit of an artistic association with this community-building community.  The Wooster Sauce people are so fortunate to have found a home for the Fringe at Holy Trinity!

 

“Prophecy” by Jessy Ardern at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Le vrai héros, le vrai sujet, le centre de l’Iliade, c’est la force. . .

La force, c’est ce que fait de quiconque lui est soumis à une sélection. Quand elle s’exerce jusqu’au bout, elle fait de l’homme une chose au sens le plus littéral, car elle en fait un cadavre. Il y avait quelqu’un, et, un instant plus tard, il n’y a personne. C’est un tableau que l’Iliade ne se lasse pas nous presenter . . .

— Simone Weil, L’Iliade ou le Poème de la Force

 

The second play of my Fringing this year was something called “Prophecy”, a one-woman show written by Jessy Ardern and featuring Carmen Niewenhuis. I had read something promotional about it that said something about it telling the story of the Trojan War from a view point we’d never heard: the Trojan Women.  Somehow Euripides thrust himself to the front of my memory shouting, “Waitaminit! Hecuba. Andromache. The. Trojan. Women. For Heaven’s sake! Don’t they count for something?”

Well, that’s marketing.  The play’s the real thing, isn’t it?

I was a little excited as I walked into Strathcona Baptist Church to be seeing something rooted in the Classics. I confess, however, I was a little nonplussed as I walked into the church’s gymnasium, a few arcs of folding chairs and a remarkable bare set to welcome me. There seemed to have been no effort at lighting. Everything was janitor’s storeroom and homespun cloth.

I don’t know why I was surprised or nonplussed. I love minimalist productions. This is the Fringe. The play is the thing!

Guess what. As soon as Niewenhuis turned on the little lights behind the homespun cloth in the pitch black gymnasium and became Cassandra and the God Apollo in dialogue, I was hooked. This is a play of light and shadow, of words and meaning, of flesh and force.

With respect to Euripedes, this is a view of the Trojan War we’ve not seen before. Niewenhuis takes on the persona of the victims, Briseis, Andromache, Hecuba, and most importantly, powerfully, and forcefully directed at our time, Cassandra.

The Trojan hero Hector is played by a string mop. Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, is an empty can. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, is an empty Ben & Jerry’s tub.

The force and the flesh of Prophecy are the survivors, the Trojan women, Cassandra, doomed-to-be-disbelieved Cassandra, most of all.

There were moments that I thought the script could have used a little more development, times when I wasn’t sure whether the tone should have been a little less comic. But when Cassandra stood behind the audience, the house lights up and the room again a church gymnasium on 84th Street in Edmonton, Alberta Canada — when Cassandra stood there in that room, warning us of what lay ahead for us, for us in the 21st Century, and shouted at us “Do you believe me?”

I wanted to yell, “yes!” as I thought of the cesspool that is politics in the age of “Social” Media.

But I didn’t.

 

But I think I nodded my head a little.

What a rogue and peasant slave I am if I didn’t.

 

 

Oleanna, by David Mamet, at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival

In Oleanna land is free,
The wheat and corn just plant themselves,
Then grow a good four feet a day,
While on your bed you rest yourself.

Beer as sweet as Muchener
Springs from the ground and flows away,
The cows all like to milk themsleves
And hens lay eggs ten times a day.

Little roasted piggies
Just rush about the city streets,
Inquiring so politely if
A slice of ham you’d like to eat.

–from “Oleanna”, translated from the Norwegian by Pete Seeger

Well. That was an intense, prejudice-challenging piece of theatre.

Full disclosure: Eric Smith, the director and one of the two stars of Get Off The Stage Productions production of Mamet’s Oleanna (brilliantly) directed my Guenevere earlier this year at the Walterdale. Maybe I’m prejudiced.

Smith and Cristina Falvollita are riveting as they perform the signature Mamet interrupt-and-talk-over dialogue, the intensity increasing steadily and uncomfortably through the two counterbalanced acts.  Here the interruptions are power-differences manifest in speech: the powerful male professor repeatedly asks the female undergraduate what she thinks and just as often interrupts her to tell her what she thinks, and, more important to him, what he thinks. In the second act, the interruptions shift across the stage as the power shifts.

Smith and Fallvollita make the brutal climax inevitable, unexpected, and I would hope,  painful for any audience. Oleanna argues forcefully, harshly, and, I think, correctly, that there can be no Utopia in which everyone’s rights and responsibilities are never compromised, in which middle-aged men with power never make unwitting but disastrous mistakes, where Political Correctness is always correct, or where pigs willingly sacrifice themselves to become our ham sandwiches.
The world is a messy spatter-painting in infinite shades of grey. Mamet’s Oleanna forces us to face that world.

But will we see it?

I found it a strange thing as the house lights came up to hear the young ladies seated next to me, ladies very probably much like Fallavollita’s character Carol, I found it strange to hear them say “I liked it.” They had just watched two people destroyed on stage before them. Violently dismantled emotionally, psychologically, and physically, and: “I liked it”?

I was the last of the audience out of the theatre this afternoon. I stayed to shake Eric’s hand (with great respect as he and Cristina Fallavollita are also performing in The Sinner’s Club at the Fringe this week). Eric asked me,

“Did you like it?”

And, actually, yes.

Yes, I did like it.

You have three chances left to see Oleanna at the Edmonton Fringe: August 22 at 8:30, the 25th at Noon, and the 27th at 6:00. All performances are at the very appropriate Venue #9, the Telus Phone Museum.

A Merry Romp with the Freewill Players

I’m a sucker for Shakespeare done in the out-of-doors.  When old Will’s words are performed in the Heritage Amphitheatre beside the lake in the heart of Edmonton’s central River Valley Parks, it’s hard for a company to do wrong by me.  I admit, however, that, even after the Freewill Players‘s salvation (in the face of a last minute catastrophic loss-of-venue) of Willy’s irredeemably misogynistic Taming of the Shrew a few seasons ago, I wondered if Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne and the cast and crew could make the fat-shaming Merry Wives of Windsor palatable to a contemporary audience.  After seeing the riotous yet gentle performance this evening, I’m joyously gobsmacked and now excited to see in a few days the Freewill redemption of the extremely problematic The Merchant of Venice.

The weather was beautiful as the happy audience of all ages, from newborn to a few even older than me strolled across the lawns to the gate.  The Moon was rising, the Sun very slowly setting (we’re closer to the Pole than the Equator, after all). As always there were 50-50 tickets to be purchased (again I didn’t win) and nifty Freewill t-shirts and undershorts with Shakespeare’s face printed on them available to take home for a reasonable price. And local beer (and wine) and lots of snacks and popcorn (for the perennial squirrels, I think). As I sat in one of the eleven hundred or so best seats in the house, I snapped a picture of the set and sent it out over twitter saying that I felt that summer had now truly arrived for me because I was at Freewill.  Perhaps it is a sign of thespian focus and professionalism that one of the cast “favourited” my tweet from the green room during intermission.  Truly, that moment of electronic connection is a hint of the deep connection the Freewill Players and their audience feel with each other. Every member of the cast, from the semi-retired John Wright to the newest members of the company seems like a friend or a buddy.

I can’t help but imagine that something similar must have been the relationship between Shakespeare’s company, the Kings Men, and his audience around the turn of the 17th Century.  London in 1600 had about a fifth the population of Edmonton today.  I suspect Edmonton has at least five times as many theatre companies and theatre-goers as London had in Shakespeare’s day.

But that’s a discussion for another day . . .

I’m not going to give anything away about Freewill’s wonderful production of The Merry Wives of Windsor except to say it is a truly wonderful production, full of joy and laughter and teasing and surprises and a very satisfying reconciliation for all at the end.  The performances are uniformly outstanding, from the smallest bit to Robert Benz’s absolutely brilliant turn as Sir John Falstaff. Everyone shines, the costumes are stunning, the multi-level, angular set is marvelously utilized . . . you get the picture.  And the show was an over-the-top merry romp that left everyone as jolly and carefree as Jesse Gervais’ pharmaceutically enhanced Host of the Garter Inn.

The only shortcoming of the production — and I mean that: the only shortcoming of the production as witnessed by me tonight was technical trouble with the actors’ headset microphones/sound system. I understand this has been an intermittent problem throughout the run so far. I hope, of course, that the problem is rectified soon, but I must compliment the cast: every word carried throughout the amphitheatre, whether the mics were working or not.

Thank you, Freewill Players. You have become a joyous and joy-giving part of the fabric of Edmonton’s civic life.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays, alternating with The Merchant of Venice, until July 16, 2017. If you like being happy, go clap and laugh along with The Merry Wives and their friends, please.

I guess that’s a wrap.

I guess that’s a wrap for my little “Guenevere.”

I never imagined my bare words would or even  could be presented so powerfully! 

Thank you, Director Eric Smith, Captain, my Captain, for being so ingenious, industrious, focused, silly, serious, distracted, and for so totally getting what “Gwenevere” is! 
Thank you Miranda Broumas, Erin Forwick-Whalley, Jesse Harlton, Derek Kaye, Austin Kumar, Kohl Littlechilds, Brooklyn Melnyk, Sarah Spicer, and Catherin Wenschlag for bringing a dying world to life. Each one of you gave “the best performance of the night” in the opinion of various people I spoke to,  which probably means you all made each other better.
Thank you to Karlie Christie for the exquisite liting and to Nicholas Juba for the gobsmackingly evocative sound design!  And Jaimie Lievers! The costumes!  And to all the crew, thank you!
Thanks to Vlady Peychoff for midwifeing two such very different plays into being. 
To Payem Saeedi Varnousfaderani a special thank you for reminding me that not everyone grew up with the tales of Camelot.
And to Brian Dooley and the Citadel Young Acting Company a terribly profound bow for that moment back at the beginning when you showed me in a flash what this thing I’d made so long ago could actually be. Thank you.
And, to the young fellow on Wednesday evening who told us we blew Guy Ritchie out of the water, and to the lady the same evening who mentioned “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (the greatest poem of Winter ever) and thereby spurred me to speak a bunch of West Midlands Middle English verse . . . 
Thank you! I wrote “Guenevere” for the two of you.
Little did I know there were so many just like you!

“Queen Milli of Galt” at the Walterdale Playhouse

Queen Milli of Galt is a bitter-sweet and charming and lovely play about love and duty.

I was mentioning to my companion on the walk home after the preview performance at the Walterdale (shoutout to the Alberta Society of Artists for the invitation) that because I’ve spent so much more time reading plays than actually going to performances, I’m always looking with two eyes (even though only one of my physical eyes actually works): one is examining the text; the other is observing the one-of-a-kind phenomenon on the stage.

Queen Milli of Galt is lovely and charming to both of those eyes. I would love it as a play to read quietly at home. And the phenomenon of it on stage in the loving hands of the volunteer denizens of the Walterdale is utterly charming and lovely. And beautifully tragic.

Whatever the actual, historical relationship between Millicent Milroy of Galt, Ontario, Canada, and Edward, Prince of Wales, future King Edward VIII, and even further future Edward, Duke of Windsor, in the play, two young people find a moment of happiness before being shoved into a lifetime of memory. At the beginning of the play, in an inscription on a stone, and at the end, in the gift of a small piece of cutlery, the two young people, now old, each make their own stand for their youthful love over society’s absurd duty.  No spoilers.

In the Walterdale production:

Stephanie O’Neill as Milli is vibrantly strong and beautifully gentle, even in her many moments of bitterness, sorrow, exhaustion, and total-fed-upness. Milli is the heart of the piece and O’Neill makes her live. As the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge nears, I found O’Neill’s telling of Milli’s hopeless yet hopeful fantasy narrative of the return of Jonathan, her first love, lost to the trenches of the Great War, particularly moving.

Owen Emblau as Edward is insufferable at first – to himself as well, I believe – but the royal shell soon cracks and a vulnerable, warm, living, flawed little butterfly comes out. I always kind of figured Edward VIII (in real life) to be a philandering, self-centered foppish fellow with no sense of duty who didn’t want to be king anyway. But Emblau, while nodding to all that, makes Edward a much more sympathetic man, more than a bit childlike, and, in the end, doomed by a sense of duty he wants nothing of.

Bob Klakowich’s Godfrey is an hilarious Stephen Fry to Emblau’s Hugh Laurie, or a Jeeves to Emblau’s Wooster — which amounts to the same thing. Godfrey suffers long, knows his duty, but doesn’t hesitate to roll his eyes.

Lauren Tamke as Milli’s worldly friend Mona is spot on. She flamboyantly fills the stage when it’s her place, but knows the main event is the love story.

Anne-Marie Smyth as Milli’s mother is hilarious, but, like Tamke, is quick to step aside — or step in, in one instance — when the main current of the drama returns.

 

As usual, the Walterdale Crew have done a remarkable job on the technical side. Geri Dittrich and Karin Lauderdale’s costumes for the women are exquisite and the men’s ones (generally shabbier in real life) aren’t too shabby. And the set design by Jim Herchak and the set painting by Joan Hawkins and Kimberly North are beautifully compact and simply detailed. I love that Master Builder Richard Hatfield arranged for Milli’s garden to have actual soil in it that could be exuberantly dug with trowel and hands.

If I were to complain about anything on the technical side it would be that the voices of the children in the schoolroom scene come from offstage left rather than the direction to which the actors reacted. But I don’t know the technical challenges of placing speakers in – or under – the audience.

 

Queen Milli of Galt at the Walterdale is, as I said, a bitter-sweet and charming and lovely play.  Go see it.

 

Queen Milli of Galt plays at the Walterdale Playhouse, 10322 83 Avenue, from April 5-15, 2017. The performance runs about two hours including a fifteen minute introduction.

 

Full disclosure: I like the Walterdale. I’ve liked the Walterdale for a long time. I liked the Walterdale even before the Walterdale chose for its Cradle to Stage Festival my little old play about a strong woman abandoned by every man in her life who decided his duty to society was more important than his love for her.  So, now I have a bit of a more personal connection to the Walterdale Theatre, but that’s not going to make me shut up when I see something really worthwhile on the stage at Edmonton’s wonderful Little Community Theatre That Could.

I Took My Father for a Drive Today

My father was born and raised in Montreal in the first half of the last century. He served in the RCAF (briefly) and the Royal Canadian Navy (less briefly) during World War II. In the ’60s he traveled in Europe as a merchandise buyer for a major Canadian jewelry chain. My father has been around the block.  For some reason, although he had never visited this city on the North Saskatchewan River, my father always wanted to live in Edmonton. He had a feeling it was the place to be.

In the early 1970s he was offered the position of Edmonton Area Manager of the jewelry chain and, of course, jumped at it. We were living in Windsor, Ontario at the time. My father flew out to Edmonton first to find a place to live and settle into his work. I can still remember him describing Edmonton to me: the River Valley was everything in that description! As you approached the city, everything was flat and then suddenly, this vast expanse of green opened up beneath you! My father took a furnished apartment downtown and walked everywhere.

A few months later when the school year had ended, he flew back to Windsor and packed us all into our old Ford Custom and drove us to our new home. It was the best move ever! Our family is now into its fourth generation in Edmonton (our eighth generation in Canada, if my arithmetic is correct). Edmonton has been very good to us.

My father lives in Sherwood Park now, a bedroom community on the east side of the city. He’s ninety-one and hasn’t been downtown for a few years.

Today I took my father for a drive.

He could not believe his eyes! The New Arena! The Epcor Tower! The new City office tower, the Stantec tower going up, MacEwan University, Norquest College, the U of A’s Enterprise Square campus, all the apartment towers! The warehouses converted to lofts! The Neon Sign Museum! To close off the little ten minute tour, I turned south onto 104th Street, heading for Jasper Avenue.

“Look up to your right,” I said. My father craned his neck to try to see the top of the newish apartment towers on the west side of the street.

“And look. There’s the Armstrong Block. And the Birks Building.”

Edmonton had come full circle for him.

We turned east on Jasper and struggled through rush hour to take a look at the new Hyatt hotel and to go down Grierson hill for a glimpse of the new funicular. “Is that a new bridge?” he asked, pointing at the giant white arches connecting Walterdale to Rossdale.

I told him that indeed it is the new Walterdale Bridge.

When he packed up his family to pursue his odd conviction that Edmonton was the place to catch a ride to Tomorrow, my father was much younger than I am today. This afternoon I felt like my little car was a time machine, and I’d gone back and fetched that younger version of my father from a 1970s River Valley stroll and brought him right into the future he had been dreaming of all those years ago.

Well done, Edmonton: you really impressed an old dreamer today!

And that old dreamer was right all along: Edmonton really is the place to be.