We’ll Show You Ours: That’s a Wrap!

It’s not a secret that the Fringe is my favourite summer festival. The shows, the food, the buskers, the atmosphere – it’s a combination that rightly attracts an incredibly diverse crowd. I really admire what the Fringe is doing to try to build their audience from the ground up, tackling the age-old issue of those who wander the grounds, but never step inside a theatre. From their First Time Fringer discount program, to the variety of Fringe apps that were available this year (built by community members), I would hope that their efforts do translate into more tickets sold, or at the very least, a piqued curiosity that may lead to future ticket sales.

Fringe 2010

Outdoor mainstage

Fringe 2010

The Fringe should be commended for their green initiatives this year – we watched as Green Team volunteers sorted through the trash for organic material to compost

Fringe 2010

Mack and I at the Parlour photo booth

I would be lying if I said this Fringe won’t be memorable for a reason entirely unrelated to the festival. That said, I haven’t overlooked the fabulous productions we were fortunate enough to catch during We’ll Show You Ours:

  • The Lime Tree Bower still lingers in my memory because it reminded me that the core of theatre is storytelling. Vincent Forcier, Jon Lachlan Stewart and Cody Porter were seamless in their delivery, fully embodying the characters, Irish accents unwavering. I was swept up by the vivid language, rich descriptions that nourished my imagination, transforming the immediate setting of a family-owned pub into a shadowy graveyard, a college auditorium, an inhospitable bar. It was also a great choice to have the characters subtly interact and respond to one another during each of their monologues – it added a laid-back air that made the production such a treat to watch. Moreover, I was happy to be finally be able to see the much-buzzed about Lachlan Stewart in action, who lived up to every expectation.
  • There is no one like TJ Dawe. If you haven’t yet watched this master at work, weaving personal experiences into relatable, thought-provoking anecdotes all while demonstrating his incredible skill with the rhythms of the English language – remember his name for next year. While I didn’t take to Lucky 9 as much as last year’s Totem Figures, it’s difficult not to enjoy Dawe, whatever the content.
  • The bar was set pretty darn high for BASH’d, with all of the accolades it has received, on top of the fact that the show had a successful off-Broadway run in New York two years ago. It cleared the bar with room to spare. I am still in awe of Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow – not only for their conviction and limitless energy (they barely stopped to breathe over the hour), but also for their ability to compellingly portray the heartbreaking tale of love and tragedy in a single hour.
  • We picked David Belke’s The Crimson Yak for its plot mention of Coca Cola (and by golly, they even referred to it as Mack has in the past, as “the nectar of the gods”), but it turned out to be a good choice for a host of other reasons. The songs were as hilarious as they were catchy (“Crimson yaa-aa-aa-k”), and Karyn Mott absolutely stole the show as the wide-eyed, fanatical Dhara.

The Fringe turns thirty next year. You can bet it will be a huge party, just as it should be. See you there!

Teatro la Quindicina: “The Ambassador’s Wives”

The Ambassador’s Wives, Stewart Lemonine’s newest play that just wrapped up its run at the Varscona Theatre, is one of the best Teatro la Quindicina productions I’ve seen in a while. Unlike some reviewers, I’m not smitten with every Lemoine piece – there are some that ring truer, or happen to entertain me more than others.

The Ambassador’s Wives fell in the latter category, a super-charged ride through a farcical murder mystery:

“When the Monte Carlo embassy of the tiny yet volatile Balkan nation of Panonia is besieged by treacherous beauties as a result of a diplomat’s abundant political and romantic indiscretions, lethal consequences are simply inevitable.”

What was most refreshing about this production was the balance between Teatro favourites and newcomers to the Teatro team. Though I adore Davina Stewart and Jeff Haslam (Haslam played his typical sassy, impervious character, and Teatro regular Julien Arnold was outstanding as the infallible embassy attaché), it was nice to see the change of dynamics brought about by recent graduates Jenny McKillop, Kristi Hansen and Vincent Forcier. Hansen and Forcier were especially impressive – Hansen, as the effervescent aviator/Countess of Lichtenstein, had great comic timing, and Forcier, as the playboy to wealthy older women, seamlessly shifted from starry-eyed puppy dog to tactful investigator.

I think it also helped that the theatre was absolutely buzzing. The Ambassador’s Wives was the first Lemoine show I’ve attended outside of the Fringe that has sold out – the tone of the play can definitely be influenced – good or bad – by an audience’s response, or lack thereof.

In all, it was a good night – lots of laughter, fresh licorice, and the chance to see some young performers shine. You can catch Teatro at the Fringe Festival August 13-28 with another new Lemoine work titled Witness to a Conga. Should be fun!

“Macbeth” at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival provides a great excuse to get out and enjoy one of the Bard’s plays in one of Edmonton’s most beautiful parks. I adore the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, and love seeing how the tone of the production can change depending on the weather.

The Bard

Shakespeare!

Mack and I were lucky enough to get tickets to attend the show this year, courtesy of Bottom Line Productions. This year, the Company is staging Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth (set in Cold War Eastern Europe) – the latter won out as my pick this year.

Mack & Me

Mack and I at the Festival

Back in June, I had written about a “picnic in the park” promotion the Festival had organized, offering two tickets and a $100 Sunterra gift certificate to the creator of the best picnic basket using Sunterra goods. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to participate, with the deadline for submissions falling right around the time of our move.

So although I couldn’t enter the contest, I thought our trek out to Hawrelak Park would be a good opportunity to put a picnic basket together, and have an easy dinner at the Park prior to the show. We found out later that patrons can actually order a pre-assembled basket through Sunterra, which would be delivered to the show – how cool is that?

I met Mack at the Sunterra in Commerce Place after work last Friday, and though much of the deli inventory had been devastated by the lunch crowd, we were still able to pull together a nice warm-weather supper – a chicken, cucumber and tomato baguette sandwich for me, and a beef teriyaki wrap for Mack. We supplemented our mains with drinks, chips and a strawberry Napoleon from the bakery.

Dinner

Pre-show dinner

The sandwiches were a bit disappointing – while there was a fair amount of chicken and vegetables, as a whole, mine wasn’t very tasty; Mack said the same thing about his wrap. They also exceeded our $5 limit for cold sandwiches.

We did better with dessert – between puff pastry, icing, pastry cream and fresh strawberries, we couldn’t lose. I am glad to have shared it with Mack though – as you can guess, it was pretty rich.

Dessert

Strawberry Napoleon

By the time we finished our meal near the ticket tent, the line-up had tripled in size. The volunteers (who were all friendly and so helpful), said they had seen much worse, particularly on Tuesdays where the price of admission is pay-what-you-will (this past Tuesday, attendance was 1,200!).

Line

Eager crowd

There were still plenty of good seat options by the time we were through the gates though, so our dawdling went unpunished. Settling in our seats, we got a good look at the stage: a stunning, tiered wood structure with metal accents, including a balcony, winding staircase and a fireman’s pole – talk about a modern set-up. We both also really liked the round feature at centre stage that acted as the Witches’ cauldron, and doubled as the banquet table in the scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost.

Stage

Stage

As I mentioned, this production was set in Cold War Eastern Europe, which was a time period director John Kirkpatrick thought was very much in line with the original setting, rife with suspicion and corruption. While the execution didn’t work as well as we had hoped (without changing the place references – not that we are advocating doing so – the transposition seemed a bit strange), it did allow for some striking costumes, including Lady Macbeth’s dazzling black gown worn to celebrate her husband’s ascension, and ghost Banquo’s stark white dinner jacket, marred with blood (the haunting, Shining-like appearance of John Ullyatt’s Banquo is something I won’t soon forget).

Though none of the actors really blew us away (though I will always have a soft spot for Lady Macbeth, played well by Melissa MacPherson), the happiest surprise for me was to recognize Peter Fernandes up on stage in a supporting role. I had taught Peter back during my student teacher days at Louis St. Laurent (no, not in drama), and even caught one of his performances at the Citadel Theatre when he was a student in one of their development programs. It’s great to see that he has not only continued with his studies, but is also securing roles in top Edmonton productions – congrats, Peter!

The Festival is in its final weekend, with two matinees and two more evening performances. If you’re not yet ready to dive into the frenzied crowds at the Ex, Indy or Taste of Edmonton, this is a great summer alternative.

Shadow Theatre: “The Liars”

Earlier this month, I took in a pay-what-you-can matinee at the Varscona Theatre. I know I don’t get out to as many plays as I’d like to, and on that Saturday, it was a great excuse to kill two birds with one stone, as I also got to pop into the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.

Jocelyn Ahlf is one of my favourite on-stage talents, but in the last few years, has began presenting plays of her own creation. Space, at last summer’s Fringe, was an enjoyable, noncommittal romp, and even better, was Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s, the entertaining musical she co-wrote which capped the end on Teatro’s 2009 season. The Liars is her first play for Shadow Theatre:

“Audrey and Simon are invited to dinner with their best friends Gaby and Adam — whom they’re not even sure they really like. Before they know it, Gaby and Adam are dragged into a series of domestic disputes which grow ever more dissimilar and outrageous. But who is lying? So starts a comic journey into a place that no sane person should ever willingly go – someone else’s business.”

Along with others in the audience, I was able to relate to some of the awkward and almost passive-aggressive feelings experienced by Audrey and Simon. Still, for a play that I thought hinged so much on being able to empathize with the protagonists, I couldn’t help but finding myself being annoyed by Lora Brovold’s over-the-top portrayal of Audrey. She may have been trying to keep up with Gaby’s (Shannon Blanchet) frenetic breakdowns, but between the two women, I was emotionally overwhelmed. As a result, Andrew MacDonald-Smith’s relative sanity and calming presence as Simon was a welcome touchstone, and one that made me believe the too-neat engagement seemed forced – the audience wasn’t given much history into their relationship.

Still, though I didn’t enjoy this play as much as Ahlf’s previous work, The Liars had its moments (and clever one-liners that I wish I could remember). I look forward to Ahlf’s next work!

On an unrelated note – Northern Light Theatre announced its 2010-11 season, and I was delighted to see a new play by Leif Oleson-Cormack on the schedule! I attended high school and university with Leif – it’s always cool to see old friends succeed. Look for his play, Meat Puppet, January 21- February 6, 2011 at the Varscona.

Teatro la Quindicina: “On the Banks of the Nut”

Two weeks ago, Mack and I headed to the Varscona Theatre to check out the first production of the season from our favourite company – Teatro la Quindicina’s On the Banks of the Nut.

“…a plucky temp and affably inept federal talent agent [are] on a hare-brained talent quest in rural Wisconsin in 1951. Theirs is a madcap undertaking which involves pie, Mahler, bird-watching, embattled star-crossed lovers, a hapless lady tourist, and the abruptest civic election in history- all at the curiously appointed Nut River Lodge astride the noble banks of the River Nut.”

This play is another revival – from 2001 – and means that Teatro is drawing closer to restaging a play I may have seen in its original inception, as I started to follow the company around that time. I am also proud to say that we are season subscribers for a second year in a row.

Anyway, On the Banks of the Nut was most definitely a screwball comedy, and really asked the audience to suspend reason and logic on many levels. While I didn’t enjoy the storyline as much as other Teatro productions (though I had to chuckle at my favourite line, “Nut-ward ho!”), Kristen Padayas, who played the aforementioned temp Norine Cuthbert, was the shining star. I first saw Kristen in a mostly-forgettable role as a wealthy heiress in a Stewart Lemoine-penned MacEwan play, The Addelpated Nixie last March, then again a few months later in Space, a fun Fringe romp where she revelled in the role of a junior crew member. She was even better in On the Banks of the Nut – her comic timing and deadpan delivery put fellow cast member Eric Wigston (as the federal talent agent Pinkerton Sprague) to shame. I imagine she will be cast in more Teatro shows in the future, and I think she is a wonderful addition to the company! Mack and I also enjoyed Jeff Haslam (when don’t we?) – his hilarious accent and lovesick demeanour was fun to watch.

Next up for Teatro la Quindicina, the premier of  The Ambassador’s Wives, July 8-24, 2010, set in the French Riviera. It’s a great opportunity to get your feet wet in time for the Fringe in August!

The Citadel Theatre: “The Drowning Girls”

I was drawn to The Drowning Girls at the Citadel, partly because I wanted to see a Bretta Gerecke design sans Jonathan Christenson, but also because the stories that inspired the play were fascinating:

Meet Bessie, Alice and Margaret: over a short period of time in the early 1900s, these three wealthy women were each seduced, wed, insured, and ultimately slain — all by the same man.

This was the first time Mack and I attempted to buy rush tickets – all remaining seats available at 50% off the adult price one hour before curtain (it’s quite a significant discount, with Rice Theatre tickets priced at $50). We lined up a few minutes before 12:30 p.m. for the matinee showing on Sunday, and with only a pair of people in front of us, getting tickets was not a problem.

After we settled in our seats (the theatre looked about three-quarters full), the lights dimmed, and the usual omniscient voice reminded us to turn off all electronic devices. New, however, was the announcement that the Citadel would donate money to the Actor’s Fund of Canada if the performance was entirely free of gadget-emitted sounds and lights – we thought that was an innovative approach to a frustrating issue.

As for the show itself – fabulous. I loved the clean set – the black reflective floor, divided into a grid, and three immaculate porcelain bathtubs, each with a polished silver showerhead positioned above. Water was used throughout the show as a prop, as a metaphor, for affect, so between the already-filled bathtubs and the showerhead that was turned on and off at different intervals, the three actresses performed the entire eighty minutes soaked to the skin. It makes me cold just thinking about it, but they did it with grace to spare.

The production was able to convey the women’s feeling of claustrophobia right from the start, the iron vice of familial and societal expectation cloistering all other possibilities, and brutally exploited by the man who appeared to be their saviour. One by one, each woman replayed their story, underlining the ties that bound them all to the same tragic thread – the whirlwind romances, the shotgun marriages, the isolation, the psychological manipulation, the cruel endings.

The trio of actresses were required to take on multiple parts in addition to their main roles as the three women, and all were versatile in embodying the vastly different personalities (Natascha Girgis’ molasses thick Scottish accent blew us away). Beth Graham impressed me the most with her commitment to each character and her electric energy throughout. And in spite of some pin-drop tone reversals (from moments of black humour to sombre remembrance), the transitions were seamless, and more importantly, remained authentic and believable.

I have to admit I was a bit jarred by the optimistic ending though, featuring a cascade of jubilant bubbles. Even if justice was served, the women were still dead, betrayed by a husband and a society unwilling to accept the women as they were.

At the conclusion of the performance, the actresses thanked the audience for supporting a play originally conceived for the Edmonton Fringe, and that has now toured as far as Toronto. It was their final show at the Citadel, and happened to be their 99th performance (or, as Graham called it, their “Wayne Gretzky show”). Bravo to the cast and crew for a fantastic show and a great run.

Roxy Theatre: “Hey Ladies!”

We really enjoyed ourselves at the first Hey Ladies! we attended back in June, but for reasons to do with timing (and poor planning), hadn’t yet gone a second time…until Friday.

As per our previous experience, you could count on one hand the number of men in the audience not connected to the show in some way. Mack felt a bit uncomfortable, squirming in his chair any time the possibility of having to go up on stage came about, but as he loves Leona Brausen (she stole the show with her peahen call) and Davina Stewart as much as I do, it was an evening worth the potential stage fright factor.

Hey Ladies! is billed as “infotainment”, and I could not think of a better name for it. A variety show not unlike Oh Susannah for women, Hey Ladies! is a daytime talk show without network censors (where else would you find an audience Q & A box dressed in the form of a vagina?). Crude humour aside (the “aspic” joke got really old, really fast), the mix of light-hearted segments, from Michael Berard’s homemade Bump It and backcombing how-to, to musical interludes from Red Shag Carpet, to a “What is it?” bit featuring an oddly-shaped egg peeler, provided for an entertaining show.

Moreover, I think it’s great that Hey Ladies! promotes local talent and businesses. I can only think of the traffic to Kunitz Shoes that will arise after the three hosts raved about the selection and service at the boutique (it was also quite the Oprah-giveaway movement when Kunitz Shoes announced they were giving each audience member a luggage tag). Being able to sample locally-made liquor is also great (even in spite of the anchovy-packed lobby at intermission), and on this instance, Amber’s Brewing Company treated us to a cinnamon-cardamom beer, brewed specifically for New Asian Village.

Hey Ladies! is next up on April 23, and finishes up their season on May 21. Get your tickets soon – the shows sell out every time.

Mayfield Dinner Theatre: “Dial ‘M’ for Murder”

For Christmas last year, Mack, Thom and I gave Grandma Male a ticket to an upcoming show at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. None of us had been before, but with our collective love of theatre and food, we thought it would be something fun to experience together for the first time.

Mayfield Dinner Theatre

The show we agreed on was Dial ‘M’ for Murder, a play made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, that happened to star two of my favourite Teatro la Quindicina actors – Jeff Haslam and Mark Meer. Tickets ranged from $55.99 to $79.99, which seemed pricey to me at the outset, but factoring in the convenience of dinner and entertainment in the same venue took the edge off somewhat. As I hadn’t been to the theatre before, I didn’t have any idea what constituted a good seat. I relied extensively on the opinion of the ticket agent, and thankfully, she steered us to a pretty good seat.

Our view of the stage, from a raised booth

When I purchased the tickets, I was told that the buffet dinner would be served from 6-8pm. We arrived around 6:30 to an already bustling venue. Looking around the room (and seeing the ads for retirement communities, mobility aids, and dentures in the playbill) it was evident that the crowd skewed older – Mack commented that the Mayfield might consider further marketing initiatives to attract a more diverse audience.

After depositing our coats and bags at our comfortable booth angled just right of the stage, we headed to the separate buffet room, connected to the theatre via a short hallway. Nearly three dozen cold starters and hot entrees awaited us, in addition to the usual assortment of cakes, squares and fruit at the dessert bar. We joined the line-up, eager to fill up our first of several plates.

Like most buffets, the food was hit and miss. Recommended dishes included the smoked Alberta whitefish, the roasted chicken in cream sauce and sautéed beef tenderloin and shitake mushrooms. To avoid: sushi, the prime rib (served cold), and the flavourless manicotti.

My plate

We seemed to fare better on dessert as a whole, each of us enjoying our respective choice of sweets. Mack especially liked the carrot cake, and my black forest torte was rich, but thankfully restrained in terms of sugar content.

Mack and Thom hit up the dessert bar

Our early arrival ensured we had plenty of time to enjoy our food, without feeling rushed. When they announced that the buffet would be closing in fifteen minutes we had already had our fair share. Although the food was self-serve, a server did approach our table to ask if we wanted any drinks other than water and coffee. Also, roving staff were great at promptly picking up empty dishes and refilling glasses – even though it was our first time, it was clear the Mayfield was a well-oiled machine.

As for the other half of the evening, I was a bit disappointed with the show, which follows a jealous husband as he blackmails an old college classmate into killing his wife. While I’ve never seen the Hitchcock version, I expected a lot more from this production and from the actors. I thought the use of ominous music was unnecessary and overdone, and cheapened the on-stage tension tangible in some scenes. Also, while Jeff Haslam (playing the scheming husband Tony Wendice) was somewhat successful at walking the fine line between drama and comedy, John Wright (in the role of Inspector Hubbard) was less so, and to me, upended the serious tone of the play. More than anything, I found myself unable (or unwilling) to sympathize with any of the characters, so in the end, the show was a lost cause for me.

With this particular show, and the at par meal, Mack and I both agreed that we didn’t see the value of our $69.99 ticket. Besides the convenience of a one-stop dinner and show, the alternatives that we could think of (dinner at Origin India or Packrat Louie and show at the Varscona or Catalyst Theatres) would be similar in price, but almost guaranteed to be of better quality. While I wouldn’t rule out a visit in the future, the sway of the production would have to be pretty great to get me through the door again.

Of course, with any night out, the company plays a factor. And on that night at least, we found some solace at our table.

Grandma Male and Thom

Mack and me

Mayfield Dinner Theatre (at the Mayfield Inn & Suites)
16615 109 Avenue
Ticket office: (780) 483-4051

Dial ‘M’ for Murder runs until April 11, 2010

Teatro la Quindicina: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Mack and I watched Teatro la Quindicina’s live radio version of It’s a Wonderful Life this afternoon at the Varscona. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but guessed that it would be a sort of hybrid of the stage reading style of Urban Tales and David Belke’s radio serial at the Fringe I saw a few years ago.

Lucky for us, it was even better than Belke’s radio serial, with the 50s-style costumes worn by the actors setting the tone immediately. The light-up on the air/applause sign for radio WTLQ and retro microphones were also a nice touch.

The talented cast, which included our favourites Jeff Haslam (as George Bailey) and Davina Stewart (as Mary Bailey) transported us to Bedford Falls, a community-minded town peppered with characters. The story, a familiar tale of finding what’s most important in life – family, friends and integrity – is always a comfort at Christmastime, a good reminder to be thankful and appreciate life as it is.

The music and sound effects helped enhance the experience, pushing our mind’s eye to picture everything from the Baileys’ residence to the fateful bridge where George contemplates ending his life. Cathy Derkach provided a wonderful musical soundtrack throughout, and Kendra Connor’s work as the foley artist was great, as she had to balance a table bursting with sound props (the use of a box of corn starch to mimic steps in the snow was ingenious).

The show even included two “commercial breaks” with cheeky advertisements of Teatro’s 2010 season and Irmengarde’s New Years’s Wrap Up on December 31. Mack especially liked the Teatro jingle.

All and all, it was a great matinee to be a part of. Unfortunately, It’s a Wonderful Life had a limited engagement of three shows, with the last one finishing up on stage as I write this. To tide you over until next year though, check out this hilarious clip of It’s a Wonderful Life in 30 seconds (and re-enacted by bunnies).

Fringe Theatre Adventures: “The Bone House”

Marty Chan’s The Bone House was the first play I ever watched, introducing me to the wild world of live theatre back in my high school days. I haven’t looked back since, immersing myself in the Fringe Festival every summer, subscribing to Teatro la Quindicina, and partaking in many other productions throughout the year. When I heard Fringe Theatre Adventures was bringing back the play that started it all for me, I couldn’t wait to watch the remount.

Mack and I headed to the Arts Barns on Friday night, and joined a relatively intimate crowd in the PCL Studio Theatre. One of the coolest things about this incarnation was that Chris Fassbender, who played assistant Jacob in the past production, took on the lead role of “mind hunter” Eugene Crowley this time around – it was great to see him on stage in Edmonton again, as Fassbender has since relocated to Vancouver.

The play, set up as being a lecture on serial killers (and on the Midnight Cowboy in particular, who has not yet been caught), is psychologically unnerving. Though having seen it before prepared me for some of the twists, my memory could not protect me from other frights. Crowley shifted random members of the audience (including me) twice, ensuring that a majority of the attendees were sitting among unfamiliar peers. Moreover, the build up towards the unexpected ending is subtle and so well done, gradually encouraging unsaid possibilities to multiply in the audience’s mind. Tracey Power’s turn as the frail Gabrielle halfway through manages to heighten the terror even further, ensuring the audience is vividly aware of the Midnight Cowboy’s brutality, as Gabrielle recounts the murder of her parents.

The Bone House is one of those productions that you have to experience yourself – any more detail shared would ruin it. Even after my second viewing, I would still name it as one of the best plays I have ever seen. Go while you still can.

The Bone House runs at the TransAlta Arts Barns until November 7.