“Shatter”, by Trina Davies, at the Walterdale Theatre

I dedicate this play to every shadow lost to tragedy. Every voice hurt, silenced, or blinded by this tragedy. Every person in our community and the world right now who is hurt, silenced or blinded by our recent tragedies.  May you find your hope. May you look forward towards the future. And may you find peace in putting these shadows to rest.
— Josh Languedoc’s “Director’s Notes” to Shatter

With all the coverage of its centenary the last few days, a Canadian would have to be living under a rock to not have some awareness of the Halifax Explosion.  For those few who might have missed Canadian History class (like the young lady next to us last night at the Walterdale who was unaware of German involvement in the First World War) here’s a little encyclopedia entry about the inconceivable event that shattered Halifax on the morning of December 6th 1917.

The good people of the Walterdale took good advantage of a commemorative opportunity by having opening night for Trina Davies’ Shattered on the 100th anniversary of the explosion that is the catastrophic spark for the action of the play.  At least two expat/former Haligonians were in the audience and in tears last night at the show, personally remembering the landscape described in the play.  That shattered cityscape was made vivid with words for the rest of us on the dark, mournful, minimalist set designed by Pierre Valois.  Shattered is a powerful, relevant play with solid performances from the Walterdale volunteers and effective direction from Josh Languedoc in his directorial debut.

Although there were a few first night glitches with the system projecting newspaper headlines and the German text of Elsie’s letter, the projector was a very effective way to quickly get background information to the audience.  Although 1917 Halifax may seem at first blush a vast distance from 2017 anywhere, Shattered disturbs us with a reminder that even in one of the most Canadian of Canadian cities, Just under our veneer of “I’m sorry!” courtesy lies the ethnic scapegoating feeding the horrors of Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust, and, yes, the twitter feed of the Trump Administration.  As Languedoc writes in his “Director’s Notes”:

The tragedy presented in Shatter is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Who do we turn to in times of tragedy? Who are our real friends? Who is to blame? Who can we really trust?

Shatter is an intense, powerful, timely play. In the hands of amazing, dedicated Walterdale crowd it is wonderful commemoration and tribute to the “Shadows” of  all tragedy everywhere.

 

Shatter plays at the Walterdale Playhouse until December 16 (2017).

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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 Guenevere 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 lighting 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!

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.

“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.

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (and other stuff) at the Walterdale Playhouse

Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its Ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.

-Lady Windermere in Act 1 of Lady Windermere’s Fan

I’ve just had a truly remarkable day of theatre experience, all of it in the old brick firehall now known as the Walterdale Playhouse. I’ve long had a warm place in my heart for the Walterdale and its people. For Walterdale people, the Ideal of Theatre is Love, and they purify their Theatre with sacrifice.

My day began with an intense Cradle to Stage workshopping session with Brian Dooley (Director of New Play Development at the Citadel Theatre), Vlady Penchoff (Cradle to Stage Festival Coordinator), Payam Saeedi (Associate Dramaturge), Eric Smith (Director), and nine members of the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company. These thirteen people spent the daylight hours of an Edmonton December Saturday voluntarily taking a dry script written by yours truly from words-on-a-page to passionate performance — twice. No one was being paid. There wasn’t even free coffee. And no one except the fourteen of us witnessed the event. Everyone was there from a pure love of Theatre.

Those young actors sacrificed more than just their Saturdays. They weren’t there to just walk through the piece. They passionately engaged with the text. They dug down into their young selves and somehow pulled out flashes of powerful — unbearably powerful — feelings of humans twice their age. They patiently worked through my ridiculously long and convoluted sentences and found the coherence. They even happily recited some Old English verse after a tiny bit of coaching.

It was a wonder and an honour to behold!

Edmonton is a wonderful theatre city. I’ve said it before: over the course of each year there are literally thousands of individul theatrical performances within a half hour walk of my front door — most of them within a lazy ten minute stroll.  But the Walterdale is its own kind of special. The Walterdale functions completely on the Love of Theatre, on the belief that Theatre is human nature, and on a mad certainty that if people act as if they are the glowing heart of Theatre, they will damn well be the glowing heart of Theatre. The people who muck about in Old Strathcona’s Number One Firehall (AKA The Walterdale Playhouse) have an Ideal and a Love of Theatre. And they make it pure through their individual sacrifices of time and effort.

The evening of my Walterdale day was a delightful two hours with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. I’ll not go too deeply into the production or the play as Jenna Marynowski has already offered one of her always sensitive and insightful reviews at After the House Lights. Just a few observations.

It was a full house and the house was in stitches throughout.  The costumes were sumptuous, the set was lovely and far more elaborate than expected by minimalist me, and the performances ranged from good to remarkable. The crowd on the stage nailed it and the crowd in the seats loved it.

If I were forced to name a stand out performance, I might choose Marsha Amanova as the absolutely self-sacrificing Mrs. Erlynne.  But I just as likely would select Emanuelle Dubbeldam for her brief, understated, almost totally body-language turn as Lady Windermere’s maid Rosalie. David Owen’s Lord Augustus is wonderfully bug-eyed-stunned, and Patrick Maloney’s Lord Windermere is perfectly achingly conflicted. And Hannah Haugen as Lady Agatha out does Vin Diesel as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy: her repeated “Yes, Mamma”is an “I am Groot” that is actually easily comprehensible to the entire audience in all its varied meanings.

But the centre of the piece is Miranda Broumas’ Lady Windermere.  At first I thought “she’s stiff. she’s thin.” like a stick is stiff and like water or American beer is thin.  But quickly I realized that Lady Windermere is very young in a very formal society, that she is not yet fully formed, but trying to be strong. She’s a young willow trying to be a stout oak.  Broumas has brought something to the role a more seasoned actor (this is her first Walterdale performance) might have moved beyond and abandoned. This Lady Windermere has, through her theatrical Ideal of Love and Sacrifice, created a truthful performance, to the great benefit of that full house of which I was honoured to be a part.

Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Walterdale until December 17, 2016.

Go see it. It’s a hoot.
P.S. Ever notice the influence of Othello on Lady Windermere’s Fan? Think about it. And Othello‘s in Stoppard’s The Real Thing, too.

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.