“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.

“Jennie’s Story” at the Walterdale Playhouse

In these days of fairly routine genetic testing, of early diagnosis of susceptibility to genetically based diseases, in these times of new reproductive technologies, in these years so removed from the eugenics movements of the last century which culminated most darkly in the Final Solution, today, when a generation or two has grown up with no memory of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. . . .

These days a little touch of eugenics, a little improvement of the breed, might seem attractive. Maybe people with heritable genetic disorders should be encouraged to remain childless. Maybe, to improve the gene pool . . . .

But any attractiveness which may rise up today, if it is based on science at all, is based, like the earlier eugenics movements, on the science of stock breeding, which has created a gene pool so limited in many species that extinction could come from a minor illness. True genetic strength in a population comes from variety, from the mess that is natural selecion. A four person panel sterilizing a scatter of people based on brief interviews will do far less for the strength of the breed than will education, diet, public health, and the genetic roll of the dice that is human courtship behaviour.

We know all this – or should – by this point in our scientific investigation of the universe. And yet, we remain faced with new challenges because we can know so much about our children before they are born or even before they are conceived. It is indeed a Brave New World in the dark Huxlean sense of Miranda’s phrase. My neighbour Theresa Shea has recently confronted us with these issues provokingly in her novel The Unfinished Child. Some four decades ago, Betty Lambert confronted us from the other end of Eugenic History in her wrenching play Jennie’s Story currently in revival at Edmonton’s Walterdale Playhouse.

I scored a couple of tickets to opening night courtesy of Assistant Stage Manager Jenna Marynowski, but, I confess, I hesitated about taking my usual theatre-loving sidekick. You see, if she’d been born three or four or more decades earlier, she might have ended up before the Board for a decision under the Sexual Sterilization Act. It was looking to be a potentially heavy and personal evening of theatre.

In the end, I, like society at large, eventually made the right decision and opted for inclusion, and it was yet another evening of theatre magic in Edmonton.

A note about the Walterdale Playhouse

There can be shit on Broadway and gold in a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar, so don’t anybody get snooty about Community Theatre. In my limited experience I’ve seen (now Sir) Patrick Stewart in a pedestrian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company and I’ve seen the grab bag of characters in the Freewill Players make magic on a shoestring with the same play. Any stage can be boring or can be magical, but in my experience of the do-it-for-the-love-of-theatre crowd at the Walterdale have consistently delivered the goods.

To the play, the production and the performances

As I mentioned, Jennie’s Story is not a new play. It was first staged a decade before Leilani Muir brought the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act to wider public attention with her successful law suit against the Alberta Government for unlawful confinement, forced sterilization, and the lasting stigma of having been legally labelled a “moron”. it will be remembered that Muir was, in fact, of “normal” mental ability and had actually been an abused and unwanted child.

Muir’s real experiences, and those of so many others, are reflected in the fictional experiences of Jennie McGrane, the tragic heroine of Jennie’s Story. And herein also lies a fundamental tension in the experience of the play. We go to the play today with (if we’re Albertans of sufficient age and attentiveness to current events) with some knowledge of the Sexual Sterilisation Act. And, we likely go on thinking, “well, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to sterilize the *severely* mentally handicapped, like Carolyn in Shea’s Unfinished Child.” (But readers of The Unfinished Child may remember that Carolyn was institutionally abused – perhaps the cause of the severity of her disability, and, Carolyn became biological mother to a “normal” child.) Jennie’s Story overturns any such preconceptions immediately. Heather Brooke, in a beautiful, silent, lovingly long opening shows us that Jennie is ravishingly in love with life, devoted to her home and husband, brilliant in the role she sees for herself, keeper of the home fires of a rural farmstead in 1930s Alberta. There is nothing about Jennie that is not beautifully and wholly human. And yet, she is the subject of this story of the legal, forceful sterilization of a “mental defective”. Within thirty seconds Heather Brooke and Jennie’s Story overturn expectations and more than a few unnuanced prejudices.

The set is a beautiful piece of simplicity. All action takes place in the big farmhouse kitchen typical of Canada’s prairies. I can remember staying in a guest house on a painting excursion to Eastend, Saskatchewan and being amazed that the kitchen of the old house took up half the main floor. Stage right there’s a small riser with a tiny bed, Jennie’s refuge and the location of an aborted intimate moment between Jennie and her devoted but overwhelmed husband, Harry (Ryan Beck).

The set dressing is exquisitely evocative of the time, right down to the black cast iron hand pump (Princess Auto?) I have two for rainbarrels) which really pumps water into the kitchen sink. This is a well appointed Alberta farmhouse kitchen circa 1938. With newly installed electric lights!

I probably should avoid spoilers, so, suffice it to say, Jennie, as a young teenager, was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, on the pretext of being a mental defective, but actually because of the horrific combined events of: her mother having lost five babies and then her husband – which made her malleable when here signature of consent was needed; the serial sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her parish priest; and, most heinous, the priest’s selfish desire to cover up his abuse.

Syrell Wilson as Edna, Jennie’s mother, is wonderful, by turns slave-driver intent on expunging all household “filth” with lye-water and shatteringly vulnerable as the virtual sole-survivor of a family wiped out by the vagaries of chance or God.

John Trethart is chillingly slimy and tortured and self-righteous as Father Edward, but I found myself feeling he was a bit too much channelling Tom Baker as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. I couldn’t help but uncomfortably feel that Father Edward was a much lesser victim but a victim nonetheless of the absurd requirement of celibacy of young men “called” to the priesthood. Edward is a local farm boy, from the same area as Jennie. in a sensible world, we would have courted a young lady, and she would have courted him, and they would have discovered the world of sexuality together as equals. But in a Catholic community in Alberta in the 1930s, he has been shoved into celibacy before he knew what it was. But these nuances of Father Edward’s background are largely ignored, and he is left a sort of Mad Monk, not yet old enough for a beard, but already cultivating the haughty disposition, the greasy black hair, and the black cassock of Rasputin. But Trethart does a tremendous job of this villainous priest.

I haven’t said enough about Ryan Beck as Jennie’s husband. Beck i completely natural as the strong man who is in control of his universe, the sensitive man who reads poetry and wishes his wife would damn well sit down with the men like an equal, and the man who is out of his depth because the people beyond his circle are doing unfathomable things.

And Heather Brooke’s Jennie, a devoutly, faithfully, trustingly Catholic girl who would have been truly and properly (for her) fulfilled as the mother of a happy brood of children fathered by a good if somewhat eccentric husband. I know well exactly such completely positive Catholic families. It is a tragedy – a true tragedy – that Jennie isn’t destined to be the matriarch of such a family, and Brooke makes us know this tragedy.

And, finally, Molly as Molly. Molly Mackinnon as the long suffering, hard working, magnificently gravid Molly Dorval. She’s the perfect apple cheeked, impertinent but obedient farm girl. She’s the one who feeds the farm hands when threshing time comes, inspite of not because of the guidance of Edna. She’s sixteen going on thirty-seven and running a complex business while carrying some Doukhobor fellow’s child under her skirt. She’s living proof of the success of natural selection, a stunning contrast to the failure of the Sexual Sterilization Act. But she remains vulnerable, as shown in her quiet scene with Harry. Homesick and pregnant, she’s asked to tell a story, and the story she tells shows her to be as in love with life as Jennie showed us in that silent opening scene.

Molly and Jennie are obviously parallel characters, but I would argue, from experience, that the parallel is not contrived. I well remember a young woman, single, a new mother, a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who, through the efforts of the Church was housed through her pregnancy and as a single mother in the basement suite of a young Morman family. The situation was, in fact, horrible. The couple upstairs had a number of fine children, but the mother, before marriage, had been an unwed mother. The very same church had in contrast “encouraged” her to give her child up for adoption. How hard would it be to have your church “encourage” you to host an unwed mother and her child in your home when the church had told you to abandon your own child? How hard is it for forcefully sterilized, Catholicly maternal Jennie to have obviously fecund Molly sharing a house with her husband?

Jennie’s Story isn’t a sledge hammer polemic about the Sexual Sterilization Act or about eugenics. Rather, it is an examination of the implications of the transfer of reproductive decisions from the family to the State or Church. Jennie’s Story is a story we must consider more and more as reproductive technologies progress and as the eugenics programs of the last century recede into history.

A final note on the set dressing

The gun behind the door, although fired in Act II, is not Chekov’s gun. Chekov’s gun is under the counter, and in the bucket, and in so much of the dialogue about cleaning.

 

 

Jennie’s Story is at the Walterdale Playhouse in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Theatre District until July 12th, 2014.

Eric Rice’s “Starless” at the Walterdale Playhouse

Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre, now in its 55th year, continues the important by largely forgotten tradition of the Little Theatre Movement, which took as its mandate the engagement of communities and live theatre in each other.  The Walterdale has, like other community theatres, nurtured amateur theatre workers – playwrights, actors, directors and technicians and thereby seeded successive generations of professionals.  The Walterdale has also engaged the community around it both through the writing and production of powerful drama and, perhaps more importantly, by putting up on the stage our friends, our neighbours, and, in the end, ourselves.  The latest product of the Walterdale’s “Cradle to Stage program, Eric Rice’s Starless movingly shows off all the best things of community theatre.

Rice’s drama, a day in the life of Ralph and Mary, a homeless couple, is firmly rooted in the geography known so well to both the audience and the players.  The Park where Ralph and Mary spend their nights is next to the Walterdale Playhouse.  The Church is a few doors north on 104th Street, past the Library where young Paul searches internet to help his friends.  The coffee shop where Ralph nibbles a muffin and meets the blogger, Amanda is a block south, on Whyte Avenue.  The audience knows, with some dread, that across the street from the Park is a funeral home, never mentioned in the play, but looming unnamed throughout.

The concrete rooting in the community reminds me of the way Brad Fraser unselfconsciously made Edmonton the uneraseable seting of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — even Denys Arcand couldn’t erase Rose Bowl Pizza, Flashbacks and CFRN from his cinematic version.  And, further afield although identical in toponym, I think of how Elizabethan villages north of London are the necessary geography of the sadly underknown play, The Merry Devil of Edmonton.  By so closely marking out the geography of Ralph and Mary’s kingdom as the familiar few blocks at the heart of Old Strathcona, Rice tells his audience that Ralph and Mary, although not portrayals of actual individuals, are not simply types, not Platonic homeless people in som sort of abstracted theatre space.  Ralph and Mary are inhabiting *our* space, and we are inhabiting *their* space, and that space is quite simply daily life.  All the world is *this* stage.

This is, of course, amateur theatre, so there are rough edges.  Most polished is Rice’s script, having been rolled about in the nine months of Cradle to Stage.  The set is happily minimal: a wall or two, a park bench in the centre, a church door upstage centre, beside the Walterdale Tree.  Set and props assist the script, nothing more.  And no more is needed.

The performances, are varied, but on the whole a big cut above what one might expect from amateur theatre.  These actors are only amateur in that they aren’t being paid tonight.  Mark Anderako’s Ralph is flawless and quirkily mannered — I imagined Lear played by the most eccentric form of Nicol Williamson — oh to have seen Williamson’s Lear in Wales in 2001!

I digress.

Dave Wolkowski’s Constable and his smaller role as the Landlord have a certain Steinbeckian bombast which for me spoke to the characters meaning as something other than simply Cop or Slumlord.  Wolkowski’s characters represent all the forces of social order — forced social order — which so terrify Ralph.

Monica Maddaford’s Mary is suitably warm and maternal, the strong but terribly vulnerable centre of the play.  There is no question why Ralph seeks her so desperately.

Stephanie O’Neill’s Amanda, the blogger/journalist out to change the world/get her story is painfully blinkered and defensive, and a painfully sympathetic character.  Amanda is what everyone with privilege wants to be, and she shows us the dangers of our desires to “fix” things for people.

Jim Zalcik simply *is* the artist who chats with Ralph and Mary, and, in other scenes, the Priest who gently wants to help them.

Everyone in the play wants to help Ralph and Mary, but it is only young Paul, played by equally young Carter Kockley, who actually listens to them, who asks questions and listens to their answers, who asks what they want, who does what they want — who actually helps them, however futilely in the end.  Hockley is comfortable and at ease on stage, doing a more than creditable job as Paul.  Like many young actors, Hockley sometimes delivers his lines hastily, but that is a minor quibble .

Something I would like to especially note is how nicely the production worked the title theme of stars into the evening.  From the artist’s revisioning of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in black and white, through the description of night skies, both starless, light polluted urban ones and aurora-filled nights of the North, to the ingenious choice of Don McLean’s Vincent as the music leading us into the intermission.  In fact, Starless is Star Filled on so many levels.

Eric Rice’s Starless is a play I can see going places.  What the play desperately needs is to be given more time with audiences — this week long run is far less than it deserves.  A run at the Fringe would certainly be worthwhile, but, to be honest, I dream of a run of Starless on a Gazebo Park-filled, decidedly Edmonton stage in Toronto, Montreal or Halifax.

Starless runs at the Walterdale Playhouse in Old Strathcona only until May 17, so get down there!

 

(For another pretty much completely positive take on Starless, have a look at  “Starless Shows Us Another Side of the Interactions Right In Front of Us” from After the House Lights.)