The Citadel Theatre: “The Three Musketeers”

A number of years ago, I remember being drawn to a Fringe show called Klang! Pow! Kersplat! primarily because it was promised that each of the scenes would involve stage fighting. I remember it being very entertaining, and really, I hadn’t seen anything like it before – there’s nothing quite like watching the dance of live, choreographed combat.

When Mack won tickets to The Three Musketeers at the Citadel, I was excited for the promise of stage duelling. We watched it on Sunday, and I am happy to say it didn’t disappoint on the action front. There was so much going on in the first grand fight sequence that it was difficult to keep up with the individual battles – though I suppose that wasn’t really the point. The spectacle of it all was exhilarating, and combined with the lavish costumes and props, definitely a crowd pleaser.

But given the running time of the show was nearly three hours, how the story unfolded became that much more important – the fight scenes couldn’t be the means to the end. I have to say that I wasn’t ultimately that engaged with D’Artagnan’s rise to musketeer status (though Eric Morin did a fine job emanating a nervous energy befitting of the character). My favourite scene was surprisingly one of the quieter moments in the production, when Athos (Kris Joseph) disclosed of his past heartbreak to D’Artagnan. I was actually hoping for more of such exchanges between the would-be musketeer and his mentors – his swift acceptance into the “all for one” trio seemed too expedient.

Tom Wood, who adapted the show, did take liberalities with the ending, understandable because of the production’s family friendly nature. Of his changes, I particularly enjoyed the final confrontation between Athos and Milady de Winter (Melissa MacPherson), which resulted in a much more dramatic, intense end than in Dumas’ original, complete with a resounding flash in the darkness. MacPherson, I should note, was delightfully evil, so much so that I had flashbacks to her equally solid performance as Lady Macbeth at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival last year.

Overall, it was a fun production that lived up to my expectations. The Three Musketeers runs until April 24, 2011.

The Citadel Theatre: “Hunchback”

Catalyst Theatre is one of those companies that makes one proud to be an Edmontonian. Frankenstein and Nevermore, the previous two creations by Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke, were nothing short of spectacular, so their third production, commissioned by the Citadel Theatre, was highly anticipated with near-daunting expectations. Hunchback, as described on the Citadel’s website:

This darkly romantic musical, set amid the buttresses and shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral, is a surprising new take on Victor Hugo’s famous story. A tormented priest, a beautiful dancer and the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo, are swept up in a vortex of lust, fear and the desire to control destiny that ultimately destroys them all.

It was also the first Catalyst production to host live musicians, which definitely seemed to fit the grand landscape of the epic story.

The set, while seemingly utilitarian at first glance, was a versatile wonder. With the help of deft lighting design, the steel tripods were transformed from the soaring towers of Notre Dame to the cavernous dungeons underneath. I also particularly liked the scene where Quasimodo introduced his ringing charges to La Esmeralda – the two-dimensional drop-downs meant the focus remained on his verbal adoration of the bells, and of course, on their resonance. The costumes were similarly eye-catching – notably, Quasimodo’s skeletal, wired hump and La Esmeralda’s fall from grace epitomized by the trade of her shimmering tulle skirt for a haunting white gown.

Compared to Frankenstein and Nevermore, Hunchback was not based around a central pillar, and in fact, the titular Quasimodo was actually a secondary figure to La Esmeralda and Claude Frollo. For that reason, I was left wanting to learn more about Frollo’s back story – it seemed that  La Esmeralda was likely a catalyst and not the cause of his surfacing flaws.

The two actors that had me transfixed were Jeremy Bauming, as the tale’s narrator, and Ava Jane Markus, as La Esmeralda. Bauming extolled the rhythms of Christenson’s language as if they were song (his effortless delivery of the passing of a “liquid afternoon”  was magical). Markus was taxed with the weight of being a hub of lust for two men, and the saviour of one. She handled it with grace and beauty.

The musical numbers, while bolstered by the live musicians, weren’t as memorable as those in the other two shows; not one of the songs remained with us after curtain. As a result, Mack and I remained true to our favourite Catalyst productions – he to Nevermore and I to Frankenstein.

Still, because of the highly stylized shows that are Christenson and Gerecke’s trademark, Hunchback is worth seeing. I don’t know when it might run again, but if you missed it, be sure to jump at the next opportunity.

2011 California Wine Fair

What event combines three hundred wines, tasty appetizers, one of the most stunning spaces in Edmonton and the ability to support fine theatre? If you answered the California Wine Fair, you’d be correct! A fundraiser thirteen years running, the proceeds from the event go towards the artistic endeavours of the Citadel Theatre.

I was lucky enough to be given two tickets to this year’s fair, which ended up being a blessing of sorts. Due to a prior volunteer commitment, I wasn’t able to meet up with May until the last hour of the event, which, though unfortunate, still meant we could get a taste of what the California Wine Fair was all about.

Walking into Hall D at the Shaw Conference Centre was a bit overwhelming. Sure, there weren’t three hundred vendors (most booths were pouring several different bottles), but the fair still presented a veritable sea of wines to try. The crowd was diverse, but was definitely younger than I expected – a majority consisted of that “next gen” set.

Given our time limitations, May and I opted to be selective with our sampling choices, opting for varieties that we knew we would enjoy – namely, rosés and dessert wines.

California Wine Fair

We love rosés!

We ended up only trying about ten different wines. Our top three: the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Moscato (no surprise, given the Moscato was our favourite from a wine tasting at Vinomania); the sweet nectar also known as Deviation by Quady; and the Classic Brut from Domaine Chandon. I was particularly tickled to see Domaine Chandon represented – Mack and I had the pleasure of touring their winery in Napa when we were down in San Francisco last fall.

California Wine Fair

Domaine Chandon

We observed that there weren’t as many rosés as we would have expected, though we acknowledged the season and the fact that they are meant for more uncomplicated palates. Also, it was somewhat surprising that some wines being sampled weren’t (yet) available in Edmonton liquor stores. Of course, a room full of wine enthusiasts provides a great opportunity to introduce new patrons to a brand in the hopes they may look for it in the future.

After attending the appetizer tasting and wine preview, it was neat to be able to see which the planning committee ended up choosing. Like me, May enjoyed the goat cheese sphere with caramelized onions marmalade most of all. The cheese plate and the chocolate truffles were much appreciated (in pairing with our wines and preventing the alcohol from going straight to our heads), but a hearty meal would have been the ideal proactive move.

California Wine Fair

The jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup and roasted shallot, spinach and feta cheese tartlet were good too!

At the end of the night, May and I agreed that we would attend the California Wine Fair next year. For the food, atmosphere and of course, the wine, it would be well worth the $65 ticket. Especially if one were to be on time.

Thanks again to the Citadel for the chance to check it out! See you in 2012!

The 2011 California Wine Fair: A Sampling

I know you’ve seen it, just as I have – the bold, back-page ad in The Tomato advertising the California Wine Fair, now in its thirteenth year. One of the Citadel Theatre’s premiere fundraising events, the California Wine Fair boasts over 300 wines and food catered by the Shaw Conference Centre, all for the price of $65 a ticket. This year’s event will be held on March 8, 2011 at 7pm in Hall D.

Part of the preparations for the Citadel staff include selecting the food which would complement the wines. Along with Mel, it was a privilege to be asked to join several staff for a tasting of hors d’oeuvres at the Shaw Conference Centre on Thursday.

Table

The tasting table

Natasha Susylinski, of Treasury Wine Estates, had chosen four wines for this tasting. A range of representative California wines, they included a Stag’s Leap Chardonnay, Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon, and a St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon (a list of the wineries that will be present can be found here).

Wine selection

The wine spread

As one who prefers white wine, and sweeter whites at that (most Chardonnays are too dry for my taste), my palate probably wasn’t the best one for the wines. That said, like most wine reps, Natasha had a fun anecdote about each of the wines, which always helps with making that particular label memorable. For example, Sapporo (the Japanese beer company) once owned St. Clement, and named one of the wines after themselves: Oroppas (or “Sapporo” spelled backwards).

After we had familiarized ourselves with the wines, we were introduced to the food options. The idea was to choose three appetizers from the fourteen options presented.

SEared scallop fork with vanilla apple chutney

Cold platters, featuring seared scallop form with vanilla apple chutney

All of the hors d’oeuvres were so visually appealing – daintily prepared, garnished with bursts of colour, they were almost too beautiful to eat.

Jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup

Jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup

Though most of us were hard pressed to pick our preferences, a few emerged as favourites around the table, including the goat cheese sphere with caramelized onion marmalade (creamy texture with just the right amount of sweetness), the barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise and wonton chip (a perfectly rounded bite with a satisfying crunch), and the roasted shallot, spinach and feta cheese tartlet (buttery and a good alternative to the more pedestrian spanakopita). These three will likely end up on the final menu.

oat cheese sphere with caramalized onion marmalade

Goat cheese sphere with caramelized onion marmalade

Barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise and wonton cup

Barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise

In addition to the plated hors d’oeuvres, three varieties of cheese will also be served (oka, brie and old white cheddar). As well, expect to see another classic wine supplement at the event – chocolate truffles.

Truffles

Dark chocolate espresso with biscotti crumbs, ginger milk chocolate, banana with toasted coconut, and salted caramel truffles

These weren’t the heavy, unyielding mounds I am used to – instead, each bite revealed a thin chocolate shell that encompassed a velvety filling. The standout flavour for me was definitely the salted caramel – there is no doubt I’d be eating my weight in these truffles at the Fair.

Thanks to Pam and Sydney for inviting me to be a part of a fun afternoon!

Tickets for the March 8, 2011 California Wine Fair can be purchased online.

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.

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!

Citadel Theatre: “Extinction Song”

When I heard last year that Ron Pederson would be gracing the Citadel Theatre stage in the spring, that was all the information I needed to buy tickets to Extinction Song, the final play in the Rice Season Series. One of my Teatro la Quindicina favourites (even though he doesn’t reside in Edmonton any longer, and hasn’t for quite some time), I was interested in seeing Pederson in a very different role. He didn’t disappoint. From the website:

“Meet James. Seven years old, he has escaped to a fantasy world where he is being raised by wolves. Every day is a new adventure until, frightened they are on the verge of becoming extinct, James and the wolves concoct a plan to save themselves. Extinction Song is a funny, tender and heartbreaking account of a child’s way of coping with the troubled world around him.”

I was totally taken into James’ world – at times terrifying, at times mystical. I was especially captivated at the point in the play when the character sees himself soaring through the air with his wolf pack, and with the help of lighting and sound, was able to imagine his flight and freedom. That moment was so pure that I desperately hoped, alongside James, that the magical innocence of childhood could be real.

I typically do not enjoy one-man shows (particularly when they lean towards drama and not comedy), but this was a well-paced production, with a fine balance between the lighthearted and more serious moments (James had literal names for many things, such as the “ding-dong-Avon-calling-lady”). Pederson had excellent timing, a dead-on stern tone for the father, and maintained a near frenetic energy throughout the ninety minute play without intermission.

The set was notable as well – the bedroom – from the furniture to the door frame – was set to scale to allow the audience to see Pederson as a small boy. The overhanging tree branches that lined his bedroom walls were an ethereal touch.

Extinction Song runs until April 19. See it while you can.

Citadel Theatre: “Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy”

10 Days on Earth, the first Ronnie Burkett show I saw two years ago, was a revelation to me. It was the best piece of theatre I had seen in a long time, if not ever. Given that it was an “adult marionette” show, that was a surprise to me, but I was convinced that Burkett was a master storyteller and genius at his craft.

As such, I had really high expectations going into his latest production, Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy. From the website:

“Billy Twinkle is a middle-aged cruise ship puppeteer who dazzles audiences with his Stars in Miniature marionette niteclub act. His saucy burlesque stripper Rusty Knockers titillates the tourists, octogenarian Murray Spiegelmann invokes sidesplitting laughter with the inflatable balloon in his pants, Bumblebear juggles and roller-skates and steals the hearts of every audience, and Biddy Bantam Brewster brings a bit of highbrow hilarity to the high seas with her drunken aria. Billy is the best in the business and on top of the world as he floats along through life.

“Until he is fired by the cruise line. Standing at the edge of the ship contemplating a watery demise, Billy is abruptly called back to reality when his dead mentor Sid Diamond appears as a hand puppet. Sid literally will not leave his side, and forces Billy to re-enact his life as a puppet show in order to remember and rekindle the passion Billy once had for puppets, people and the dream of a life that sparkles.”

I was hoping the story would be better than it read in the preview, but it wasn’t. I didn’t buy the talking handpuppet bit, which was essentially the lynchpin to the entire play. Some of the flashback sequences also seemed unnecessary, dragging out the sans-intermission production to a lengthy hour and forty-five minutes. That said, there were some amusing comedic bits, including Doreen Gray’s Jesus rap, and Sid’s final “performance” as a sad, deranged old man. I also liked the fact that the audience and Billy both realized, at the same point in the play, how important Sid actually was to Billy, and because of this, I wished we could have seen more of their interaction while Sid was still alive.

What lacked in the story was made up somewhat by Burkett’s continued mastery of the puppet craft. He flexed his technical muscle not only with the stripping marionette (it was less dirty and cooler than it sounds), but also being able to control a marionette who was controlling an even smaller marionette.

In the end, I found that the biggest impediment to my enjoyment of the play was Burkett’s physical presence as Billy Twinkle. Unlike 10 Days on Earth, I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the world of puppetry, and for that reason, I think some of the marionette magic was lost.

Even with this overall disappointment, I will not hesitate to see what Burkett cooks up for us the next time he is in town. He is definitely a playwright and performer I will look forward to seeing whenever he returns!

Citadel Theatre: “Beauty and the Beast”

I’d like to think I’m a bit of a reverse snob when it comes to theatre – I overlook the Citadel in favour of community companies like Shadow and Teatro la Quindicina. Of course, the fact that I am an admitted cheapskate when it comes to ticket prices also has something to do with this, and the only reason I have even set foot in the theatre (to see A Christmas Carol), was actually because the tickets were purchased by my friends. So when Dickson invited me to see Beauty and the Beast with tickets he had bid for in a charity auction at work, I jumped at the chance to “see what I was missing.”

While waiting for the show to begin, I did a bit of local celebrity spotting. It seemed to be media night, as the Journal’s Liz Nicholls, the Sun/CBC’s Colin McLean, Global’s Lorraine Mansbridge and Edmonton Opera’s Artistic Director were all on hand (my question – did Nicholls’ mid-centre seats represent her relative review power? McLean was seated to the far left of the stage, quite the snub, in my opinion). The house was filled with a fair number of children – and after seeing the show (ignoring the expense), I could see why – it is a great way to expose young children to the spectacle and possibilities of theatre.

I loved the cartoon-tinged set, and was amazed at what they were able to do with such a small space. The costumes were impressive for the most part (the gold and silver theme was rich, eye-catching, and coupled with a reliance on yellow lighting tones, gave the scenes a necessary mystical quality about them), with my favorite of the household items being the functional wardrobe and the napkins. I had to wonder, however, about the choice to dress Belle in an oval-shaped hoop dress as opposed to a more flowing ensemble in the last half. I would have preferred a gown that moved with her and the Beast while they danced – another mainstay of fairytale romance sequences.

The songs were catchy (I wanted to run home and listen to whatever version of “Beauty and the Beast” I could get my hands on), and while I agree that the Citadel should be lauded for the incredible feat of “Be Our Guest”, I was actually most drawn to “Gaston”, if not only because I was absolutely craving a dance number by then. The Beast’s solo, “If I Can’t Love Her” was a weak way to end the first act, but plot-wise, it did make sense. And while I understand the constraints of time (especially with a children’s production), the jump to an immediate love connection in “Something There” in the opening of Act 2 was much too sudden.

The cast as a whole had excellent comic timing, but more than that, they seemed to have a great time with the play. Standouts: Kharytia Bilash as Belle (fabulous voice and spunk to boot!), John Ullyatt as a hilariously sexual Lumiere, Sean Hauk as a hyperbolized Gaston, and last but not least, the very agile and acrobatic Colin Heath as LeFou.

Beyond the ticket prices, going to a show is more than a stand alone experience for me. I really do enjoy following the theatre community in Edmonton: knowing which playwrights are up-and-coming, getting a feel for the flavour of a theatre company, and most of all, having the privilege to see the same consistent talents on stage. The majority of the Citadel’s Mainstage cast are brought in from other cities, and while I understand the need to do this, I don’t think I could ever build a “rapport” with the Citadel if the faces and names are revolving on a continuous basis.

So while I enjoyed the show, unless someone extends a free invitation to me again, I doubt I will be back at the Citadel in the near future.