Onegin

Look around
Look around
Look around
Do you see someone worth dying for?

Onegin

I just got home from a wonderful evening in downtown Edmonton.

No, not at that hockey game.

I just got home from an evening of wonder at Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin, an unqualified marvel of theatre.

But . . .

How was it not a full house?!

From the moment the cast walked out from the voms and mingled with the first few rows of the audience (Nadeem Phillip sat with us for a brief discussion of the Edmonton theatre scene which ended with a hasty “до свидания!”) it was clear this was going to be a warm, inviting, fourth-wall-breaking, audience participation piece.

With vodka.

But the mingling and conversation (and vodka) were just the warm up. The fortunate people who chose theatre over hockey this evening witnessed a tour-de-force of acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, lighting and costume design, and just pure theatre.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on Pushkin — or Tchaikovsky — so I really didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be except Russian and so probably dark and probably not a happy ending.  But I didn’t need to know anything in advance. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cast is outstanding, many of them in many roles, but I found Alessandro Juliani most remarkable as the title character, the nihilistic, dark, Russian young man with more wealth than empathy who probably won’t have a happy ending.  But everyone in the cast truly shone and endlessly surprised as they each in turn stepped into the background and joined the orchestra (The Ungrateful Dead), picking up instruments and joining right in. The cast doesn’t just break the fourth wall, they break the side walls and the back wall, too.

Special mention must be made of Chris Tsujiuchi, piano and keyboard player and clearly the leader of the band, who completed his one hundredth performance of Onegin this evening.

The voices of Meg Roe (Tatyana), Lauren Jackson (Olga and others), and Caitriona Murphy (Madam Larin and others) were simply angelic while Jackson’s flamencoesque pas de deux with Juliani was more than a little devilish in a very pleasing way. Josh Epstein as Lensky was lyrically charming until he became tragically pigheaded at the end of the first act. All the darkness of Russian literature suddenly possessed this sunny young poet, and the audience just had to head to the lobby for another Black Russian.

Andrew Wheeler and Nadeem Phillip round out the cast performing a multitude of powerful and memorable “minor” characters with major impact.

I found the choreography of lighting and “theatrical fog” particularly noteworthy. Here the fog is not simply an atmospheric device unto itself, rather, it is also a canvas on which the light is projected, made solid by colour and shadow. So effective.

As I mentioned, I’m embarrassingly not up on Pushkin, but I know poetry when I hear it, and there is poetry — not just verse — in Veda Hille and Amiel Gladsone’s lyrics, poetry which, if not directly channelling Puskin, certainly does the Russian poet credit.

Edmonton’s theatre world is an embarrassment of riches; Edmonton theatre goers are amazing, generous audiences; we are very blessed on both sides of the many, many curtains we have in our city. We all benefited from this remarkable community recently when the very remarkable Hadestown had it’s run on the Shocter stage. And our community was noticed.

Tonight that remarkable theatre community was evident again: as Catalyst Theatre’s catchphrase has it, “Edmonton is our home. The world is our stage.” Tonight Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and we, the audience, were at home on our stage. Our theatrical riches keep increasing, and we don’t need to be embarrassed. We should embrace our riches proudly.

Onegin is playing on the Maclab stage at the Citadel until January 28, 2018. Fill the seats, Edmonton! You’ll be moved. You’ll marvel. You’ll maybe be a little heartbroken.

 

But you won’t be sorry.

 

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Malachite Theatre’s Epiphany at Holy Trinity Anglican Church

It was a bitterly cold night outside Old Strathcona’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, but so wonderfully warm and cozy in the Christmas tree (and empty wine bottle)-filled Sanctuary in which the Malachites gave us a laugh-filled and tender gift of a remarkably fresh yet faithful treatment of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Years ago at the Citadel (during the second season of the Shoctor Stage) I saw Twelfth Night with Brent Carver playing Feste and the great John Neville turned out in fairly conventional yellow stockings cross-gartered. As fine as those two long-ago performances were, Colin Matty’s remarkable Feste and Brann Munro’s hilariously unexpected, outside-the-box, and, in the end, heart-rendingly sympathetic Malvolio set a new, very high bar for Twelfth Night.

Merran Carr-Wiggin’s Viola is charming to the point of jerking more than a few tears, Byron Martin’s Orsino is romantically melancholy but not at all lacking in strength, and Danielle LaRose’s Olivia glitters from the eyes to the toes as she transforms from melancholy to love-struck to pragmatically and gently happy. Perry Gratton and William Mitchell are everything Sir Andrew and Sir Toby should be, and Monica Maddaford’s prank-pulling Maria is a perfect, earthy, brainy, trickster string-puller . . . .

Oh, come on: they’re all so good and individual and memorable! Andrew Cormier’s Sebastian, Evan Hall in the dual roles of the Sea Captain and Antonio, Samantha Jeffery in her two roles of Fabian and Valentine, and Phillip Hackborn in his of Curio and the rifle-toting Officer.

And the music! Every single cast member is a singer, many take a turn at Holy Trinity’s grand piano, and Feste even pulls out a harp for one scene. The denizens of the courts of Duke Orsino and Olivia clearly throw themselves into this mid-winter holiday period and, indeed, into life itself. What a raucous romp!

Over a fairly short number of years, Holy Trinity has made itself into a vital part of Edmonton’s arts scene. The wonderful building is host to three venues for the annual Fringe Festival, and it hosts constant literary, dance, visual art, and theatre events.*

Holy Trinity is a phenomenon to be treasured and supported by the whole city.

Just before the play started this evening, Holy Trinity’s Rector (and cast member — he plays the Priest), Father Chris Pappas, started the festivities off with a first small wonderful gift: his hope that Shakespeare by the Malachites in mid-winter will become an annual event at Holy Trinity.

The addition of an annual mid-winter celebration of Shakespeare would be tremendous, but, please, don’t wait: — Twelfth Night continues until January 20th, 2018. Twenty bucks a ticket. Endless fun and tenderness. You won’t find a better entertainment value on any winter evening, cold or otherwise!

_______________________

I’m deeply honoured to have been a part of Holy Trinity’s first ArtSpirit festival in 2013.

Pawâkan Macbeth

Pawâkan Macbeth is not 1870s Rupert’s Land period-dress Shakespeare, not a Red-Face Scottish Play. Rather, Pawâkan Macbeth is a breathtaking, entertaining, and timely (re)conciliation of Cree traditional narrative and an iconic piece of the European narrative tradition.

As I scrambled on a wet and icy Edmonton November evening to get to the Westbury Theatre in time for Opening Night I wasn’t sure what to expect of this co-production of Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero and Yellowknife’s Akpik Theatre. I knew through my own odd grapevine that this thing had been worked on very hard by a dedicated team and that it was intended as a touring production targetting smaller and/or indigenous communities. Beyond that I knew the buzz that was in the #yegtheatre air: Fusion of Cree tradition and cosmology with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Treaty 6 and 7 territories in the 1870s, and all that implies. 

And a lot is implied!

I rushed to catch up with a gentleman and his young daughter in the crosswalk on 104th Street, hoping to minimize pedestrian delays for motorists on a slippery night. Clearly the father amd daughter were also heading to the Westbury, which I could now see through the lobby windows was very crowded. Clearly the #yegtheatre/Treaty Six buzz had gotten word out that something interesting was happening in the Arts Barns.

I remembered something I’d read somewhere about how the production team had been very careful to consult with Elders about the protocols for presenting ceremony on stage and about how to deal with mention of the Wihtiko, which is at the vital centre of Pawâkan Macbeth. I couldn’t help thinking of the theatrical taboo on uttering the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. And the friendly “break a leg” of Western Theatre. 

“If you tickle us do we not laugh?”

Pawâkan Macbeth is a (wonderfully sucessful) exercise in coherently fusing 1870s Plains Cree and Elizabethan English, but more importantly the play is about the reconciliation of contemporary peoples. That reconciliation will never be achieved through paternalism or patronizing, through the celebration of the “Indigenous” as something “interesting” to some flake of the upper crust of colonial society, through a continuation of Colonialism. 

You want reconciliation of peoples? Then send out the best of those cultures and let them go toe-to-toe and hand-in-hand in a friendly, honest fusion. Not looking for winners or losers. Just let’s see how things go.

The Westbury lobby was packed. I figured I’d make my way to the box office and probably try to buy a ticket for Friday night. “Oh, we’ve got a few donated comps!” the lady said. “I’m happy to pay for one, if I can,” I said. “Oh. Sure. I guess you can pay.”

!!

And I was in!

What a pleasant, friendly evening so far.

I picked out a seat, third row on the right, aisle seat and was about to sit down when the gentleman and his daughter from the crosswalk came right upnto me. “Would you like to sit in this row?” I asked, stepping aside to let them by.

“Actually, could we have these two seats at the end? I have to give a sort of speech at the beginning and then I need to kinda run back to my seat.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mark Henderson, the gentleman in the crosswalk and co-director of Pawâkan Macbeth and Barry Billinsky, the other co-director didn’t so much give a speech so much as a friendly welcome and reminders about cell phones and Treaty Six Territory. I’m glad I listened to the gentleman and his daughter and gave up my seat. This was all a moment of family time, sort of.

And then the drum started. 

Stuff just got serious.

A stylized opening battle-scene that was all Plains total warfare and far more effective than old Polanski’s gory 1971 opening. This material can go toe-to-toe!

So, it’s late now. Let’s get all reviewy.

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân is brilliant as is Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). In fact, all the cast ranges from very good to brilliant. There were a few technical glitches and a few line stumbles, but the thing was smooth and powerful. 

It was both Cree and Shakespeare.

Go see it.

I stayed for a moment at the reception after the play and then wandered off through Edmonton, to my home on Pappaschase and Treaty Six territory and I thought of the words of Big Bear, and of the Playwright, Reneltta Arluk, echoed by Klhcîkosisân (Malcolm) at the end of her play:

Now, in the time of reconciliation, we need to make good on the unity our ancestors agreed to. It is time to step out of comfort zones. To go beyond the blackbox of theatre. To Listen. Pawâkan Macbeth asked Shakespeare to do just that, listen. If Shakespeare can create space for Indigenouse voice, then I am hopeful we are in better days. Plains Cree leader Big Bear asked us to “Remember your ancestors. They had many hardships too. They prayed for better days.” Those days are now.

If we can kill our own individual Wihtikos.

Together.
Pawâkan Macbeth plays at the Westbury Theatre until November 27.

“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:

Hope.

 

Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown

 

 

Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.


*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.

 

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“The Testament of Mary” at Northern Light Theatre

Why have ye no reuthe on my child?
Have reuthe on me, full of murning.
Taket down on Rode my derworthy child,
Or prek me on Rode with my derling.

More pine ne may me ben don
Than laten me liven in sorwe and shame.
Als love me bindet to my sone,
So lat us deiyen bothen isame.

— National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21.

I suspect I’m a bit of an outlier in my opinion of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary. While Northern Light Theatre’s production of the Tony-nominated play is almost uniformly a fine thing (the smoke machine was both distractingly noisy and pretty much unnecessary) I found the play itself fairly ordinary and certainly not up to the “controversial” hype that seems to surround the piece. While chatting before the performance on Hallowe’en I couldn’t help but feel NLT Artistic Director Trevor Schmidt was a little disappointed the promised religious protestors failed to show up. Looking at the half-full house on Two-for-One Tuesday, I imagined free publicity from the local chapter of the Anti-Blasphemy League would have been welcome. But after seeing what is actually a very approachable, not terribly controversial or religiously ground-breaking work, I wonder if the talk in local reviews about controversy might not have made some potential audience members give The Testament of Mary a pass.

In a nutshell, The Testament of Mary is a monologue by a mother grieving for her tragically lost son, a son who’s life and death is being used for political purposes by his followers who are now her handlers. Yes, the mother is Mary, Mother of God, but she speaks for all mothers of children martyred for whatever causes children are being martyred these days. Holly Turner turns in a sterling performance as Mary, the set and sound designs are suitably generic-East-Mediterranean, Mary’s grief and anger satisfyingly expressed.

But the piece itself seems strangely familiar and not fresh.

The description of Lazarus, Zombie-like after his resurrection struck me as remarkably like Kazantzakis’ description of the same poor fellow in chapter 25 of his 1955 The Last Temptation. In Kazantzakis’ novel, Mary feels abandoned by her son, calling his friends “ragamuffins” in P. A. Bien’s translation. Compare Tóibín’s disgruntled Mary referring to Jesus’ friends as “misfits”. In Christ’s final temptation in Kazantzakis’ novel, he witnesses precisely the possibility at the heart of Tóibín’s play: that Christ’s life and death are fictionalized, “based on a true story”, a myth made by Paul and the Apostles. This is hardly the untilled soil of controversy, especially in light of Scorcese’s well-known 1980s film version of Kazantzakis’ novel.

But the portrayal of Mary as the bitterly grieving mother rather than a serene Madonna is a thread running throughout the history of Catholicism and Christianity in general. As one example I cite the early 16th century “Meditation Off the Buryall of Criste and Mowrnyng thereat” a late-Medieval play preserved in Bodleian MS. e Museo 160, in which Mary is described to Joseph by Mary Magdelene as having been gently led away from Golgotha by Zebedee and John (much like Mary’s handlers in Tóibín’s play) in a state of supreme grief and distress. And, contrary to the Gospel of John, this “Meditation” suggests that Christ would not speak to His Mother:

The wo and payn passis alle other.
Was ther neuer so sorowfulle a mother
For inward thogt and cure!
When sho harde hym for his enmyse praye,
And promesid the thefe the blissis aye
And to hirself no word wald saye,
Sche sighid, be ye sure!
(lines 169-175)

Christ spoke to the thief crucified beside Him but would not speak to His own Mother!

The sonne hynge and the moder stood,
And euer sho kissid the droppes of blood
That so fast ran down.
Sche extendit hir armes him to brace,
But sho myght not towch him, so high was the place,
And then sho felle in swoune.
(ll. 176-181)

Mary is described at length as being distraught to the point of collapse. And she is led away by two handlers.

I could go on with examples of the well-trod road Tóibín’s Mary walks, but suffice it to say, for someone who well remembers news of a Paris cinema being firebombed over Scorcese’s film, for someone who remembers the public readings of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses after the issuance of a certain fatwa, watching Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary on the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses seems nothing like controversial. Perhaps each generation must rechew this hay and I am getting old.

The Testament of Mary is certainly worth taking in, but it is in no way controversial.

And, if you want an unbearably powerful portrayal of a mother’s grief, wait and hope for a revival of Nicole Moeller’s The Mothers.

Northern Light Theatre’s production of The Testament of Mary is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona until November 4th (2017)

“Mad Fantastic Maid of God: Joan of Arc” at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

I was a little uncomfortably unsure what to expect from Kenneth Brown’s retelling of Saint Joan of Arc’s story when we first sat down in the third row of La Cité Francophone’s l’Unitheatre. We looked up two stories and saw Ellie Heath looking quite angelic in white robes but mundanely hobnobbing from above with audience members. “Seems kind of unprofessional” we whispered to each other. What we didn’t realize until sometime after the play finished, was that the play had already begun.  Heath had been in irreverant character from the moment the doors opened and the audience started filing in.
This is not a run-of-the-mill treatment of Joan of Arc. Risks are taken here, almost all of them on Heath’s side.  Not to say that Melissa Blackwood plays it safe as Joan: she’s pure intensity and passion and downright scary leading her invisible French army into battle. Blackwood’s Joan is the half of the play we expect, a version of the Joan of Arc we know from film and story. Blackwood plays it straight and very, very well. 

Heath’s protean performance as Joan’s Voices, the Saints of her visions, as English  French and Burgundian soldiers, as the Dauphin, and Joan’s inquisitor and executioner — this performance is the risky bit, the bit that may leave you asking yourself “what’s she doing? is this just too flippant?”

But wait. Stick it out to the end. You’re part of Joan’s story. Her story is our story still today. Heath’s characters ignore the fourth wall, or rather, push that wall to the back of the house, making this stage all the world. Here the opportunistic still betray the passionately dedicated and then reclaim them for the team after the execution. This is the problem the play asks us to make sense of.  It is we who condemn Joan to the stake. And centuries later we canonize her. 

I’m not sure every detail of Mad Fantastic Maid of God works, but the whole package is an exhilarating and challenging thought provoker.  

Another Edmonton Fringe Festival gem.


“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!