The Tragedy of “Guenevere”

cradle to stage advert

A number of months ago I had another of my surprising little career changes.  On a whim, I had submitted an old manuscript I had kicking around to the Walterdale Theatre’s Cradle to Stage Festival. To my surprise, my play, Guenevere, was selected for development alongside Tessa Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner.  It seems I’d become a playwright.

My Guenevere is a play of an old-fashioned sort. Its structure is that of a Greek Tragedy.  It’s story is the story of the last moments of Camelot seen through the eyes of its Queen, Guenevere. This is her tragedy. Not Arthur’s. Not Camelot’s. This is not a manly, gritty, bloody King Arthur. This play is at the hearth, where the warming fire of home is about to flicker out once more.

Guenevere’s tragedy arises from the inevitably accumulated baggage of social responsibility that in the end prevents us from following our heart’s desire.  And Guenevere’s redemption comes in her willing embrace of her transformation into myth. Guenevere’s story is the story of every human who ages as a social animal. Only the solitary hermit or anchoress can escape the ever increasing calls for us to discharge our social duties at the expense of our dreams of simply following our bliss.

But the hermit and anchoress long ago gave up on worldly bliss.

As Guenevere has progressed through the Walterdale’s Cradle to Stage process, I have often referred to the play as an “artifact”.  I wrote this play three decades ago with little expectation of ever seeing it performed.  I thought that maybe, long after my death, if might be discovered in a drawer or old box and staged as a curiosity.  For me, as I wrote it, it was an exercise in poetic structure, an attempt to squeeze the English language and a traditional British theme into the form and structure of an Aeschylean drama.

Guenevere developed at a time I was steeped in Arthurian stories, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and in the Classics.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses were much on my mind.  Guenevere also grew out of my reading of Robert Graves’ odd book of poetic theory, The White Goddess.  And my study of the theories of Milman Parry and his students had at some point instilled in me a desire to develop a personal technique of extemporaneous verse composition. That desire resulted in a form based in part on the traditional ballad stanza of four lines alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter but with some deeper roots in the rhythm of the Old Germanic hemistiched alliterative line. The verse of Guenevere is one result of this practice. There’s even a bit of Old English toward the end.

The play was written quickly – days and weeks rather than months and years – and the words you hear on stage are almost entirely as they were first written down.  Guenevere emerged fully formed, the perhaps inevitable product of a long conscious and unconscious gestation.

At the suggestion of Brian Dooley, Guenevere’s Cradle to Stage dramaturge, I made a few hesitant cuts to a few passages for the Walterdale production, but far fewer than he had suggested. When the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company put Guenevere on its feet in a dramaturgical workshop, it was clear to me, and I think to Brian, that while cuts may make the action move along a little more quickly, there might still be some reasons to linger in Camelot.

I wrote Guenevere without stage directions.  I left no indication of how many made up the Chorus. Throughout the Cradle to Stage process, I have tried – and it took very little effort — to step aside and leave this artifact of my youth in the capable hands of Director Eric Smith and the dedicated group of actors assembled around him.  They have found so much in my text that I never knew was there and they have my great gratitude.
When I see Guenevere on the stage today, half a lifetime removed from its composition, I am startled by the ideas and emotions my younger self’s pen captured, and flabbergasted by the way art and life mirror – not imitate – each other. The youngster, twenty-something in the 80s, reading Aeschylus and Ovid, digging Roman dirt and waiting on Italian train platforms, planning future paintings and composing Guenevere — that youngster has been, to crib Wordsworth, a remarkable, wise, and sensitive father to the aging man I have become, a man able now to just manage that accumulated baggage of responsibility, and maybe, just maybe, allowed to spend a moment in Camelot with his heart’s desire, before taking ship to Avalon.

Guenevere and Portrait of a Family Dinner will be on the stage at the Walterdale playhouse May 15th to 20th, 2017. After the performance on the 17th there will be a talkback session in which I will be included.

The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round).  Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work.  A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.

This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays.  Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.

And it works.

Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts.  The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.

Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance.  Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.

A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.

As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.

Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.

They are us.

In a Summer of Love.

 

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.

 

“Wish”: Fine Performances in a Flawed Play

As thousands were fleeing their homes in Fort McMurray last night, I, more fortunate, sat down in the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona to experience Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co- production of Humphrey Bower’s Wish (based on Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of the same name). I won’t go deeply into the production – Jenna Marynowski has already done that in her usual expert way. I will get into some of the questions raised by Jenna but my take is perhaps a little different.

To be clear: Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co-production of Wish is beautiful. The performances by the two cast members are brilliant. As Jenna mentions in her review, lighting, sound design, everything, is wonderfully executed. The following is a review of the play-as-text not the play-as-performance.

I’ve not read Goldsworthy’s novel that is the basis of the play.  Although a few of my interests are consciousness, animal consciousness, legal issues surrounding animal rights, disabilities and parenting children with disabilities, languages, language learning, species boundaries . . . the list goes on — although I have these interests which are touched on by the play, I don’t think I’ll be running to read Goldsworthy’s novel. If the play is any indication, the novel is a didactic conflation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and Shaw’s Pygmalion with a gorilla playing Eliza and a trial for bestiality replacing the Ambassador’s garden party.  I don’t object to the lifting of plots: I have a habit of lifting structure from Homer or Aeschylus when I get around to writing creatively. Virgil, of course, lifted both the Odyssey and the Iliad when he slapped together the Aeneid.

No. What I am uncomfortable with about Wish is that the didacticism that has been imposed on structures borrowed from already didactic works has a sledgehammer clumsiness more baldly preachy even than anything Steinbeck produced at his height.  And it’s a sledge hammer that finally manages to hit no nail on the head. In Wish (the play) we are led by the hand through issues: disabled-as-outsider; disabled parenting; parenting the disabled; animal rights; species boundaries; animal consciousness; language; the nature of Nature; and so on.  Early on J. J. (Christopher Schultz) talks of Signing coming “naturally” to him and that water is his “natural” element. But, signing actually isolates him, and the ocean would quite indifferently drown him. “Natural” is not, to use the language of the play, a sign that is necessarily made with the “good hand”.  In the end, where does Wish leave us? Where we probably all should have been before we saw the play: in a world of shades of ethical grey. In a world in which simply living, however simply we live, has an impact on Nature. If you live in a black and white world, “Wish” may discomfit you. What starts out feeling like a wordy ad for PETA veganism becomes for a moment a poster for species-apartheid before resolving into : “The needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few except when they don’t — oh and, the individual counts for something. Most of the time. Maybe. And wishes, too.”

I might still have been able to accept and even enjoy the over-the-top but ultimately aimless didacticism of the play if not for my crashing inability to suspend my disbelief when it came to the character of Eliza, the gorilla.  This persistent disbelief has nothing to do with Ainsley Hillyard’s marvellous uncostumed performance. Remember “Elephant Man”? The stage play, not the film, in which the titular character’s deformities where portrayed by skill rather than prosthetics? This is the sort of skill Hillyard brings to the roll of Eliza, and her movements are convincingly gorilla-like. What I had trouble with was Eliza’s character as written. I simply could not imagine that a gorilla, no matter how isolated from peers, could develop into the too-human personality that the text gives her.  If Hillyard were portraying a Bonobo I might have had an easier time.

But, still.

I don’t feel I walked out of Wish with any clear answers or even any clear questions.  For a play which seems so clearly intended to teach, I can’t help but see that as a failing.

Wish is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre,  until May 7.Go see it for the marvellous performances and to support local live-theatre.

PS: I chuckled a bit at the doctor’s repeated correction of “monkey” to “ape” – a little bit of fun I have when talking to fluently anglo-franco billingual people is to ask them,

What’s French for “monkey”?

“Singe” they imediately reply.

What’s the word for “ape”?

Invariably they pause and visibly startle before saying with a mixture of amusement and perplexiry: “singe.”

Wish certainly gets right the power of language to affect thought and concept.

A F#%king Fine “Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Walterdale Playhouse

In his notes in the playbill for Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Director Curtis Knecht writes

These seven fine actors took to the script with a ferocious passion and their willingness to live in this world of bad men doing bad things to unsuspecting people was remarkable and thrilling to watch.

And it was a thrilling and remarkable experience to sit in the audience and watch these seven actors plunge into Mamet’s brutal, harsh text and bring these bad men and their bad world to tragic, destructive and self-destructive life.  I find it hard to imagine a group of actors making a better job of the thing. As I’ve consistently seen at the Walterdale, this is pure theatre: no elaborate sets, costumes or props. No distracting with or hiding behind flash.  Actors, gestures and words are the fundamentals, and the Walterdale Theatre delivers the fundamentals

Dale Wilson’s performance as the foul-mouthed (they’re all foul-mouthed) Willie Loman-esque aging salesman Levene is wonderfully natural and stirs warm sympathy despite the fact that the character is not actually what could be called a good man. He is the tragic heart of the piece, and from the opening scene Wilson makes us cling to Levene as a bit of hopeful light in the dismal world of Glengary Glen Ross. This attachment makes Levene’s downfall all the more shocking for us.

A second object of sympathy is J. Nelson Newa’s nervous and hesitant George, the junior salesman, a contrast to the aged senior Levene. The two are at opposite ends of their careers and yet face the same challenges and temptations.  Newa is absolutely natural in his performance.

Another standout performance in an evening of standouts was Cory Christensen’s spittingly enraged and frustrated Moss. It’s a smaller part than some of the others, but Moss is pivotal to the action and Christensen fills the stage and half of the house when he gets wound up. Intense, like everything about the play.

The play falls into two acts, the first in a restaurant, the second in a real estate office. The sets are basic and suitably evocative of place.  During the 20 minute intermission, the crew makes a choreographed change of set which is a fascinating bit of theatre itself, able to elicit a gasp or a startled jump in the audience. If you can manage to skip the bathroom break, you’ll have a small bonus entertainment.

The entire cast and crew is to be commended for their intense and professional performances, perhaps more remarkable in that they do the work not for money, but for love of theatre.  The fact that the volunteers of the Walterdale Company have taken on such a harsh, cut-throat, commission driven, capitalist world is a contrast not to be ignored. Yes, the human world can be selfish and brutal and Mametish, but, in the Walterdale Playhouse we are reminded that good and generous people also come together to make art purely to entertain and for the love of the thing.

The Walterdale’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross runs until April 16th, 2016. If you can handle coarse language and intense theatre, don’t miss it.

Veiled Thoughts on “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at the Citadel Theatre

That was an hilarious, over-the-top romp! The all-Edmonton cast at The Citadel Theatre in this version of the Stratford Festival-National Arts Centre production of Alice Through the Looking Glass is by turns mystifying, magical, joyful, creepy, playful, and tender, but always thoroughly charming and endearing. This Looking Glass House and Garden are populated by all the characters to be expected from Lewis Carroll’s book with the addition of an at times disturbing chorus of dark-haired, dark-cross-dressed Alice Doppelgangers.

The cast is consistently outstanding – a demonstration of the depth and breadth of the talent pool in Edmonton’s theatre community. It would be pointless to single out individuals as all are a joy to watch in their multiple rolls.

I don’t want to post any spoilers, so, my brief thoughts are veiled:

The Fourth Wall is the Looking Glass, and the characters break the Fourth Wall in a very sweet way.

Everthing is reversed/inverted/turned about in Alice: upstage/downstage, onstage/backstage, House/stage, audience/cast. While the cross-dressing of the Alice Doppelgangers is an obvious inversion, what I found to be  a witty, smart, easy-to-miss, and powerful-in-post-TRC-Edmonton-and-Canada casting decision was to have a White guy play the Red Knight and a Native guy – the brilliant Sheldon Elert (oops! I singled him out!) – play the White Knight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is, of course, a celebration of childhood, a gentle reminder to adults who may have lost touch with their happy, frightened, puzzled, fascinated inner child, and an homage to magnificently successful and sensible nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. But here, in this production at the Citadel Theatre in its Fiftieth Anniversary Season, I think Alice is also a bit of a love letter, a bit of a note home from a still-young but oh so precocious city to and from itself. That guy up on the wall in the egg costume lives down the road and dresses up like a fountain. That guy in the Victorian little girl’s dress is the guy you see playing in the local ukelele band or walking through Old Strathcona with the bright pink shirt on, a guitar over his shoulder. Alice is the nervous kid starting out at Grant MacEwan. And all of those people on stage you’ve seen so many times before pacing the boards of the theatres – or raising a glass in the pubs or a cup in the coffee shops – of Whyte, Jasper, 124th, 118th, or the French Quarter.

Happy Birthday, Citadel Theatre! And, Thank You! to the larger Edmonton theatre and arts community. You’ve helped make Edmonton both a Looking Glass House and a Wonderland!

Oh, and:

Alice Through the Looking Glass is the most fun you’re going to have at the theatre in a long time. Maybe ever. Go see it. At the Citadel. Until March 20th, 2016.

“The Other” at The Roxy on Gateway

 

That was a pleasantly intense evening of theatre!

Tonight (March 8, 2016) the stars aligned and I was able to get to a play with a companion other than my usual, sometimes distracting sidekick. The play was Matthew MacKenzie’s The Other on its world premier run at The Roxy on Gateway.  Run, don’t walk to this play — you’ve only five more chances to see it before it goes off to Toronto or some other hole on its tour of the provinces.

As we sipped our wine before the show we chatted with the lady selling the 50 50 tickets (gotta rebuild the Roxy!) about the state of theatre – and other arts and things – in Edmonton. “My daughter went off to Toronto and Portland and so on and called me saying ‘Mom I wanna come home to Edmonton – I miss the theatre!’.”

It’s true, friends: Edmonton is the place to be for live theatre (and so much else), whether you’re making theatre in the remarkably collaborative and mutually supportive bunch of companies that tread our boards, or out in the audience being blown away by what our neighbours are offering us from beneath the proscenium arch.

Before going into the play, about all I knew about The Other was: the “perpetual other woman” nature of  the main character; that the star was Amber Borotsik, who I knew as Grendel’s Mother and Prospero’s Ariel; that it was from the bunch who brought us Bear, which I regrettably missed; that Dance would be involved; and that it was said to be darn good.

What I found out is that The Other has its roots firmly in the ever rich soil of Classic Greek Drama; that Matthew MacKenzie writes dramatic poetry, that Amber Borotsik and the Good Women Dance Collective are wicked-good performers; that Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective weave dramaturgic magic; and that I’m inconceivably fortunate to live in this city.

The Other is in a sense a one-woman-show: Amber Borostik has the only speaking role and she speaks constantly, while constantly dancing, for the whole eighty minutes or so of the show.  The intensity of Borotsik’s performance stands for me beside that of Cliff Cardinal in Huff at this year’s Rubaboo Festival and Annette Loiselle in The Mothers at last year’s SkirtsAFire Festival. There is something awe-inspiring to me about one individual carrying the entire verbal burden of a piece of theatre. When I was much younger I had the privilege of seeing Roy Dotrice in his magically stinky Brief Lives at The Citadel.  A wonderful piece of Theatre, but not the Drama of The Mothers, Huff, or The Other.

But wait! Look at the gestures, the facial expressions of the Chorus (Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posniak, Aimee Rushton, and Kate Stashko)!  They are a Chorus pulled straight from Euripides but their language is Gesture rather than Greek!  As much as Borotsik’s performance is a tour de force, this is an ensemble achievement. The contribution of the Collective must not be minimized.

As for this “perpetual other woman” thing: that is decidedly not what The Other is about. The Other is about love, lust, hurt, Alberta, food(ie) culture, history, dreams, refugees, Fascism, horticulture, magic, multiculturalism, Edmonton, mythology, NIMBYism, Peace River, loneliness, and how we deal with it. All.

No spoilers there!

The Other, although I had to choke back one or two cosmological quibbles, is everything I could want in Theatre –in Drama.  In fact, I think The Other managed to give me a few things I never imagined I wanted from Live Theatre. And that is a very good thing.

The Other, presented as a part of Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series by Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective is at The Roxy on Gateway until March 13th.

Don’t miss it.

“Huff” by Cliff Cardinal at Edmonton’s Rubaboo Festival

What a theatre experience!

If you missed Cliff Cardinal’s painful, disturbing, challenging, difficult, funny tour de force performance in his self-written Huff during it’s Edmonton run at Rubaboo, you might want to catch up with Cardinal in Vancouver next week, or Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal, Manitowaning, Kelowna or Victoria in the coming weeks and months. As brutal as Cardinal’s exploration of substance abuse and inter- and intra-generational violence is, Huff is a piece of theatre worth seeking out.

I might have missed Huff if, when I bumped into her at the opening of Tomas Illes’ A Delicate Side of Edmonton, artist Dawn Marie Marchand had not mentioned the play to me. Her reminder to me a few days ago got me planning ahead to make sure I didn’t miss the play. I made sure to mention it to #yegtheatre blogger extraordinaire Jenna Marynowski and was pleased when she told me she’d already planned to be at the same matinee performance I would be going to.

Something over fifty people made a good audience in the Milner Library’s cozy theatre. The set was a beautifully economical infinite black space with very effective use of lighting, still projection and simple hanging cloth banners, three of which are tied to the lives of the three brothers, the main characters of Huff. A wooden chair and crate, a beer bottle, a rag, a bowl, a brown paper huffing sack, and a large jar of stewed tomatoes completed the set and props.

And then Cardinal goes to work. If I count correctly, in seventy fast paced minutes, Cardinal plays all three brothers, their father, their mother, their father’s new partner, their kookum, their dog (who speaks), and an aggressive and accidentally suicidal skunk. I believe up to six of these characters, all portrayed by Cardinal, are on stage at any one time, all interacting with each other, all absolutely clearly discriminated in Cardinal’s wholly remarkable performance. As well, Cardinal ingeniously incorporated — no — he forced audience participation.

The standing ovation for Cliff Cardinal, playwright and actor, was absolutely well deserved.

I will give little more away than to say Huff is an extremely challenging, difficult, and timely piece of theatre.  At one point one of the brothers says (of his brothers? of his family? of the audience as well?) “we are products of the Res (Rez?) schools!”

Repeatedly the youngest brother speaks of his gift from the Creator, the ability to breath gently and put a feeling of joy into the heart of others. Each time he demonstrates this gift, his arms are extended, as though crucified.

Here, I think is the quintessence of Huff: the three brothers, the four (and so many more) in La Loche, the now largely forgotten lost of Natuashish, and the countless “products of the res schools” . . . they all had that gift from the Creator, to breathe — to huff joy into our hearts or anyone’s. But everyone of the dead died for our sins and the sins of our fathers to the seventh generation and to the Eighth Fire.  And all the survivors have died a little or a lot.

Huff is a painful, painful piece of theatre, a wonderful drama, and Cardinal’s is a stunning, human and humane performance. If Huff comes your way, see it.