“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.


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“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.

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.