Shadow Theatre & Northern Light Theatre: “Meat Puppet”

On Saturday, Mack and I took in a matinee performance of Meat Puppet at the Varscona Theatre, a show put on jointly by Shadow Theatre and Northern Light Theatre (speaking of which, NLT has such striking poster designs this year – the use of dolls is eye-catching and inspired, though I suppose the poster for Pervert may not be embraced by all).

This show will be the introductory production for many to the work of Leif Oleson-Cormack, though he has also written shows for the New Works and Fringe Festivals. That said, Meat Puppet’s dark nature, exploring the motivations behind a fictional television program similar to NBC’s much-maligned series To Catch a Predator, is a departure from his previous two Edmonton shows. Meat Puppet is billed as a comedy, however, so I still expected it to highlight Leif’s wit and penchant for snappy dialogue.

The banter was enjoyable, particularly between the show’s host, Chuck Dalmer (John Hudson) and his plucky producer Deb (April Banigan). On the other hand, the tone of the play was perplexing – it tried to straddle the line between comedy and drama, but probably would have been more successful if it had chosen one or the other. I suppose for me, anyway, shows like To Catch a Predator always seemed to lure viewers with a morbid curiosity, rather than those looking for a cheap laugh – so the downfall of the “predators”  always seemed more tragic than funny.

I did like the connection of this kind of train wreck journalism with the internet sensationalism that continues to gain momentum today, however – it might be even more dangerous than television because of its instantaneity and ease to be shared.

If anything, Meat Puppet was a thought-provoking play, especially in this age of reality programming, where producers and editors can manipulate – and sometimes create – the “truth”.

Meat Puppet runs at the Varscona Theatre until February 6, 2011.

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.

Shadow Theatre: “Almost, Maine”

I’d been looking forward to Almost, Maine for quite some time. Standing in somewhat for Teatro la Quindicina while I await the release of their new season, Shadow Theatre, also based at the Varscona Theatre, offers similar, if not just as quirky fare. From the website:

“Set in a mythical New England small town, Almost, Maine is a witty, insightful, delightful exploration of loves lost, found and mislaid.”

I had heard that this play was one sweet confection, almost overly saccharine, and they weren’t mistaken. But not every one of the eight vignettes were sentimental, so overall, I’d say Almost, Maine was for me, the equivalent to a warm cup of cocoa on a cold day.

The play is perfect for someone with a short attention span, as the scenes didn’t last longer than fifteen minutes or so. I loved the visual metaphors for love – pillows in the scene titled “Getting it Back,” quantified the ‘amount’ of love one gives to another, and in “They Fell,” the literal act of falling to the ground accompanied the epiphany of realizing one’s true emotion. It was great to see Jeff Haslam in a role that was genuinely less kooky than usual, and one that didn’t require the wearing of a tight shirt (he’ll be in the Edmonton Opera’s H.M.S. Pinafore as well!). He was especially good in “Sad and Glad”; my heart broke for him as he encountered his ex for the first time – at her bachelorette party. The music was also a notable achievement – Chris Wynters’ score delicately supported the beauty that is love, and could easily have a place amongst media larger than a community stage (my only nitpick – I could have done without the overly obvious “ding” that indicated the scene’s turning point).

Almost, Maine was a lovely play – no pun intended.

Theatre: “Dreamland Saturday Nights”

May and I then attended a matinee of David Belke’s remounted Dreamland Saturday Nights at the Varscona. From the website:

“When two lonely hearts meet at an old time repertory cinema, they discover that where one sees colour and romance in a search for love and adventure, the other analyses lighting, direction and camera angles. The play follows the growth of their relationship over a series of Saturday nights as they watch old movies together, eat popcorn and fall in love – with a little help from their friends, Bogart, Davis and Astaire.”

Just as nostalgic as the description portrays, the play was a classic Belke romantic comedy. I loved the use of old trailers and concession advertisements to set the tone as the audience seated themselves (though Shadow Theatre’s own trailers could have been better put together – I thought they were fake until I looked in the program). The set was as functional as it was pretty – the designer found great replicas of theatre seats and a concession stand to accompany the whimsical pastel colored swirl backdrop, evoking the desired feeling of innocence and push for simpler times. The stage also incorporated a clever sheer movie ‘screen,’ to distinguish between the film realm and reality.

Like most Belke plays, the supporting cast stole the show. Patrick Howarth, the only actor who appeared in the original, was fantastic. His impersonations were spot-on (and he can dance!), with his Jack Nicholson imitation garnering the most laughs. Aimee Beaudoin, playing the “wicked” gold digger, was so fabulous in her oozing indifference and cruelty that I was left wondering how it could have been possible that I’d never seen her before. In particular, her maturity as an actress shone through in her Bette Davis masquerade. Angela Christie was well-cast as Dorothy, the cute and shy female lead, but I’m still unsure about Chris Bullough. Although better this time around than in Teatro’s House of Cats earlier this season, he didn’t completely convince me that he was remotely torn about his decision of tearing down the Dreamland. The program didn’t list the original cast, but as Chris Fassbender was a Belke favorite while he was still in town, I couldn’t help but think Fassbender’s ability to juggle quirkiness with heartfelt sincerity would have better suited the role.

As a classic movie fan, I’m embarrassed to say I couldn’t recognize all of the allusions (the buck stopped with Citizen Kane and Empire Strikes Back for me), but I could relate to Dorothy’s sentiment of wanting to have a bit of both Oz and Kansas in her life. So despite its shortcomings, Dreamland Saturday Nights was an enjoyable piece of fantasy, comedy, and romance.

Theatre: “Sexy Laundry”

I met up with Annie on Saturday afternoon to watch Shadow Theatre’s Sexy Laundry at the Varscona Theatre. From the website:

“Armed with a copy of Sex for Dummies, Alice and Henry check into a trendy hotel with a mission to jumpstart their 25-year marriage. Time has taken its toll; kids, stress, and gravity have all had a detrimental effect. This once-loving couple has hit their fifties and the marriage blahs. Will Alice and Henry survive the test of their relationship…or even this weekend?”

I became especially interested in seeing the play after reading a pre-production interview in Vue Weekly with Coralie Cairns, who said, in regards to one of the themes of the play, “Any time you know someone well enough, you almost just stop listening to them, and start looking for the markers, hearing what they say without actually listening to what it is they’re saying.”

Yes, this issue was addressed, but perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses of this play was the fact that it tried to tackle too many issues, including, among others, self-image, career, work/family balance, fantasies, aging, and of course, the meaning of marriage. As a result, the play felt scattered, unfocused, and like a wrought emotional rollercoaster. More than Dinner with Friends, I was exhausted by what seemed like two hours of straight yelling. While everything felt very realistic – the dialogue, communication, and the actors’ familiarity with one another – I can’t say that it was enjoyable to watch two people go from rational to frustrated to tender without any time for the viewer to reflect on what was said (there was no intermission in this production either). Though I tried to empathize, I found that I couldn’t relate to what the characters were going through, and thus, couldn’t bring myself to the point where I was invested in the outcome of their weekend. Essentially, watching this couple air their dirty laundry got tiresome.

As for the acting – Cairns was fabulous, and really brave. The end scene had her in fishnets, hooker boots, a leather mini and a stomach-bearing leather print top. It was a necessary costume, to visually demonstrate her desperation and vulnerability at that point, but I’m sure not every actress would be so willing to display her flaws. Glen Nelson did a good job in the role of Henry as well, the proud and sarcastic family man. However, I did find his character’s tendency to interrupt conversational flow jilting and rather annoying.

The set was surprisingly sleek and polished, and unusually sophisticated for the Varscona stage. Designer Trevor Schmidt made good use of circular pieces (linking to Henry’s last metaphor of ‘coming home’) – with the bed, table, lighting, and of course, three large mirrors, hung so that they provided a visual reminder that the audience was literally reflected on stage.

Though I may not have enjoyed the play as much as I thought I would, Annie liked it. I’m sure she’s well on her way to becoming a full-fledged theatre convert.