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.

Teatro La Quindicina: “Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s!”

Last Wednesday, Mack and I attended the last Teatro La Quindicina performance of the season, a spirited musical comedy titled Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s! As with the last few years, the final play of their season highlights other local playwrights.

Mitzi’s was written as a tribute to the Edmonton supper club scene in the 1960s, cataloguing the romantic hijinx of staff in one particular establishment. The cast, made up of Teatro regulars and one recent graduate (Robyn Wallis) was solid, and the group definitely looked like they were having fun.

A band was up on stage and played through most of the production, which really helped to set the lighthearted tone. The songs were catchy and upbeat, and instead of simply being musical interludes, actually helped move the plot forward. My favourite was the duet featuring Tippi (Wallis) and Jack (Ryan Parker), if not only because it was the song most pleasing to my ear. The clever will-they-or-won’t-they duet between Mitzi’s staff Mitch (Andrew MacDonald Smith) and ‘Numbers’ (Jocelyn Ahlf) was also enjoyable.

The 60s-inspired costumes deserve a special mention as well <insert ubiquitous Mad Men reference here>, and in particular I thought Tippi’s wardrobe stole the show (she seemed to change outfits after every scene).

The play ended on a very optimistic note – one that sees the characters adopt a forward-looking stance on the city’s development, which is not unlike the outlook many citizens have on the current state of Edmonton. It was a fitting ending, and left me smiling as I left the theatre.

Everybody Goes to Mitzi’s runs until October 24.

Alberta Arts Days: Citadel Open House and Randall Stout

After a visit to the City Centre Market (only 2 more opportunities left!), I packed up a lunch and met Mack at Churchill Square. Our day of arts activities would start at the nearby Citadel. As a part of Alberta Art Days, the Citadel had opened its doors and stage to the public for a behind-the-scenes look at their theatre, and I wasn’t about to miss it as I had last year.

Mack in the Tucker Amphitheatre

There were costumes on display, in addition to dance and stage combat demonstrations, but the real draw for me was the backstage tour.

Costumes from the Wizard of Oz

Citadel staff led us behind the Shoctor Theatre stage, where we took a peek inside their beautifully-refurbished green room, narrow change area, quick change area, and incredibly complex fly system of ropes and pulleys.

Change area

Quick change area (with my reflection in the mirror)

 

A small portion of the ropes backstage that control the fly system (to allow for backdrop changes, among other things)

The brother-sister team who head up carpentry and lighting then gave us a quick orientation to their work. Unlike some other companies, the Citadel constructs all of their own sets. However, they pressed upon us how “low-tech” things could be – for example, the bottle that conveyed Tinkerbell’s bottle prison in Peter Pan was nothing more than LED lights and a circuit board controlled by simple switches.

Heads of lighting and carpentry, on the set of The Drowsy Chaperone

The view from the Shoctor stage

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for the whole of the tour, as we had to leave for our engagement next door at the Winspear. When we both heard that Randall Stout, the man behind the controversial new Art Gallery of Alberta design, would be speaking, we jumped at the opportunity to hear his address.

Randall Stout

Like having the curtain drawn on anything, listening to Stout talk about his inspiration and choices behind the design made me appreciate the building further. The dichotomy of the sweeping stainless steel curves and boxy zinc forms was Stout’s observation of the disparity between our serene river valley and urban core, although the curves also reference the aurora borealis. The interior will have not only a great hall accented by four stories of glass panes, but also a grand staircase that will link it all together. Photos of the hall reminded me of the stunning Newseum we visited in DC, and if it has even a fraction of the grandiosity of that building, I think Edmontonians will have something to be extremely proud of. I’m also excited to see the  third floor outdoor terrace and street-level cafe.

What most struck me about his address was how well Stout seemed to know Edmonton, or at least the ideal that the city could be. For example, he showed one early conceptual shot of the gallery, with a similarly sweeping steel entrance highlighting the LRT across the street – he said that although the LRT entrance was beyond the scope of the competition, it was his “gift” to the City’s fathers, in the hopes that they would incorporate it on their own.

The new AGA, still under construction

The gallery will officially open on January 31, 2010. If you want to learn more about the background of the design, the Art Gallery of Alberta is currently hosting an exhibit called Building a Vision, which covers its conception to construction (remember – the gallery offers pay-what-you-may admission on Thursdays from 4-8pm!).

These are exciting times in Edmonton – I’m looking forward to January already!

Stage a Revolution: Day 11

Our last day at this year’s Fringe was short and sweet – two plays nearly back-to-back, which, given that the skies threatened rain all day, meant that the prospect of getting drenched waiting in line was somewhat lessened.

We started the afternoon off at a new Fringe venue – The Laugh Shop – to see The Art of Being a Bastard. Set-up cabaret style not unlike the Yardbird Suite (which I similarly don’t like), the hodgepodge of chairs and tables wasn’t an ideal theatre. The play, one of two written by Matt Alden this year, was another very contemporary look at life, this time out of the lens of three shy twenty-somethings who wished they had more luck with the ladies. It was an enjoyable hour, though it did take a while to get going. The three actors kept up with the fast-paced production very well, juggling multiple characters and visibly sweating after a few of the frantic side-scenes (Mack in particular enjoyed the rap number, while I loved the Saturday Night Fever nod). It was another light, fun play that I imagine was written specifically for the Fringe, but of the two I watched in this category, Space was better.

Our last play this year was David Belke’s A Final Whimsy. Watching Belke’s yearly offering (this year marked his twentieth festival) has become a tradition for me. Whimsy focused on two sisters rehearsing a song for their father’s upcoming wedding, and needing to hash out some of the mysteries surrounding their mother’s departure from their young lives. Although the church setting was appropriate given the context of the play, the echoing acoustics made the dialogue hard to follow sometimes, particularly when the conversations were heated. That said, the vaulted ceilings worked for the musical portions of the show, with Andrea House’s rendition of “All I Have to Do is Dream” being the delightful standout. In all, it was a sweet story about family and what people will do to protect each other from painful truths.

Because the shows I wanted to see all scheduled themselves so well this year I didn’t end up spending that many days on the grounds. For that reason, it felt like I could have seen twice as many productions as I did. Of course, although the Fringe ended today, there are still opportunities to catch several popular shows that have been held over – check out the schedule here.

Thanks for a great Fringe! I am looking forward to next year already.

Stage a Revolution: Day 7

The food at the Fringe has been disappointing so far this year – Funky Pickle’s booth is nowhere to be seen, and the vendors we have visited on site have not been very good. Mack’s mini doughnuts were a little sad, and sweet potato fries from The Punky Potato only resembled its namesake in colour.

As a result, we’ve been hitting up Whyte Ave for sustenance – Fat Franks, and on Wednesday, the take-out window at Origin India. We both had a butter chicken wrap ($8.95, including a can of pop). The naan is, dare I say, the best in the city, and contained within was some rice, red peppers, and saucy butter chicken. Mack was impressed with the ingenious bag it was contained in, to help avoid sauce-on-clothes contact. I wished for some fresh herbs, and maybe some more prominent onion goodness, but as a whole the wrap made for a pretty good quick meal.

Butter Chicken Wrap from Origin India

Having taken the day off, I started off day 7 of the Fringe solo. My first show that day was Unsolicited Mail, portrayed as a love story between a listless man who mails spam for a living and an anonymous phone sex operator. Between the two main actors, Fiona Morris’s low-key, laid-back emotion felt far more genuine; Fred Krysko’s frantic, climactic breakdown seemed forced and over-the-top. And though the message of resounding loneliness in a world dominated by sensational stories and personal distance was relatable ( a world where Krysko’s character worked alongside another person for three years but did not get to know one another), something just didn’t click.

Thankfully, my day would get better – Space, a Panties Production featuring Jocelyn Ahlf (one of my favourites), Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer was light, fun fare that hit the spot. About a trio of women sent to explore the possibility of other life in the galaxy, there were a multitude of hilarious one-liners and the perfect role for Meer to once again steal the show. He played an android with human aspirations not unlike his character in Salon of the Talking Turk, with a mechanical laugh that almost always set the audience off (“my fleshy colleagues”, heh). Kristen Padayas, who I had seen but didn’t stand out in The Addelpated Nixie, was actually quite well-cast, and revelled in her role of the naive crew member. See Space if you’re looking for a non-committal, but entertaining show.

I met up with Mack for our final production of the day – Totem Figures by the one-of-a-kind TJ Dawe. I typically avoid one-person shows because they are so hit-or-miss, but Dawe is the one exception to that rule. On Wednesday, he didn’t disappoint. Totem Figures is Dawe’s bio, a play about the influential figures and myths in his life where he ponders the question – “who would be on your personal Mt. Rushmore?” Artfully written, seemingly unrelated anecdotes were woven together to form a rich tapestry of learning and experience. As always, his delivery – demonstrative of his expertise in manipulating the rhythms of the English language – swathes the audience in that magical feeling only achieved when watching someone very good at their craft. I do hope he returns to next year’s Fringe.

Two more plays to go!

Stage a Revolution: Day 4

Since volunteering for Front of House, it’s become a habit of mine to always seek out the main show boards at the information tents or box office at the Arts Barns. I like to see what shows have been selling out, particularly after good reviews in the Journal. I checked them out this afternoon while we were on the grounds, and it looks to me like there are a higher number of sold out shows than usually expected this early on in the festival. They also seem to have no correlation to reviews in the paper, though I have to say I haven’t done an exhaustive comparison. Most surprising to me is that not a single show of Spiral Dive has sold out, in spite of getting the only five-star review thus far. Perhaps the La Cite venue really is too far off the beaten track for most festival-goers to seek out?

Anyway, Mack and I watched two shows today – the first was Mockingbird Close by local artist Trevor Schmidt. An exploration of the ills of suburbia isn’t a new subject, but Mockingbird Close does an exceptional job of reaching and maintaining a harrowing level of intensity almost as soon as it starts. In particular, I appreciated the highly visual language, and the incorporation of Hansel and Gretel’s tale throughout. The play’s success rests heavily on the shoulders of the two actors, and Tiana Leonty and Cody Porter are well cast and well-matched for the roles of a couple searching for their lost son. The play’s two “halves” (the first about the family dynamic and the second about the neighbourhood), could have been individual shows themselves, and as a result, Mockingbird Close felt somewhat disjointed. As a whole though, I did enjoy the play, and would recommend it.

Mack picked our second selection for the day, @Life, at one of my least favourite venues, the Yardbird Suite. The description of the show in the program led me to believe the play was a “comedic examination of the role of technology in modern life”, but really, this is a play written by and for gamers. As a result, I have to say I didn’t understand enough of the references to like the play. However, I have to admire the energy level of the three actors, who were entertaining to watch, and a few of the sketches (the evolution of Mario, the “console reunion party”) that I mildly comprehended. Mack, on the other hand, having spent some time gaming, did enjoy the play.

I’ll be back at the Fringe on Wednesday. Have you seen any plays yet?