Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

Advertisements

“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!

 

“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.