Stage a Revolution: Day 3

Our first day at the 2009 Fringe involved two plays, a lot of nibbles, and the obligatory grounds exploration.

I was particularly interested to see Revolution Square, billed in the program as a multi-use area and internet cafe. What it is in actuality is a beer tent that substitutes coffee for beer, with four computers set-up with internet access. It’s a nice family-friendly idea that provides an expansive seating section, but we’ll have to wait and see if it is utilized.

The food vendors seem to be more spread out this year, with some booths actually set-up in the typically retail-only area in front of Fringe volunteer headquarters. In addition, I’m disappointed that the “Fringe midway” is gone – I wonder if poor attendance was to blame for its demise? Lastly, I’m sad to see that complimentary copies of the Edmonton Journal are not available on the grounds this year (they also eliminated this perk at the Heritage and Folk Festivals). We were told by an information booth volunteer that the Journal said that they could “no longer afford” to offer free papers. I can say that Fringe attendees are typically rabid for reviews, and people gravitated towards the papers that were readily available on site. I wonder if this change will result in a change in how people select their shows – from choosing based on star rating to choosing based on content?

Our first show of the day was Teatro la Quindicina’s The Oculist’s Holiday. The premise of vacation hijinx reminded us of A Rocky Night for His Nibs, but the tone of this play eventually changed from one of lighthearted fun to introspection and tragedy. I have to say that the pacing threw me off (Jeff Haslam’s purposeful stumbles took a while to get used to), but Barbara Gates Wilson’s almost regal presence helped stabilize the somewhat unpredictable turn of events. The end of the play has been resonating with me even now, hours later, and without giving anything away, was a reminder to embrace opportunity.

Later that afternoon, we took in LoveHateKill, also at the Varscona Theatre. Five separate playlets by five different authors ruminated on some variation of love, hate, and kill, which was a fun interpretive exercise. My favourite, in both plot and acting was “A Love Story” by Trina Davies, exquisitely brought to life by Shannon Blanchet, who is rapidly becoming an actress to watch (she was great in Teatro’s Evelyn Strange, and also starred this past season in Catalyst’s Nevermore). The playlet recounted a woman’s experience of falling in love with an accused killer, and her efforts to be with him. The rest were somewhat interesting (for example, “Social Sundays” highlighted a sadistically creative games night between couples), but not particularly notable. Mack loved the random interlude of the “Jai Ho” Slumdog Millionaire Bollywood dance.

We’ll be back on the grounds tomorrow – looking forward to it!

MacEwan Theatre Arts: “The Addelpated Nixie”

I had been looking forward to Stewart Lemoine’s The Addelpated Nixie for some time. A collaboration with MacEwan’s Theatre Arts Program, it was the first Lemoine-penned show I’d seen since Happy Toes at the Fringe last summer – I was ready to soak up some quirky, nonsensical fun.

The crux of The Addelpated Nixie is just that – a confused water-elf who has found herself on a 1950s college campus and is wreaking havoc in an effort to stay alive. This was entertaining enough and the high-pitched squeal of Mnimninmni (Ashley Plomp) garnered many laughs. The rest of the play – with subplots ranging from the coeds staging a show to helping a Soviet ballet dancer defect – was superfluous. It felt like the playwright had created roles to fill a quota of twenty, a cast inordinately large even for a Lemoine production. The show-ending non-romance between Irene and Press was also unnecessary, as their semblance of a relationship seemed forced, without chemistry between them to justify even flirtation.

There were a number of bright spots in the play, however, including the sparkling lead actress Robyn Wallis as Irene, who asserted herself just as she should have with spunk and sass. I appreciated Michael Davidson’s comic timing, in the role of the wandering groundsman, and Eric Wigston’s obvious potential as a leading man.

If anything, The Addelpated Nixie has renewed my excitement for the upcoming Teatro la Quindicina season, which starts at the end of April. For the first time, Mack and I are subscribers – I figured if there was a good time to support a small theatre company, that time is now. If you’re looking for a preview of their season, look no further than April 4, when Teatro will be revealing their season with snippets and interviews. Tickets are $20, $15 for subscribers. See you at the Varscona!

The Big Kahuna: Day 2

On Friday night I went to see Happy Toes, Teatro la Quindicina’s return to the Fringe. Stewart Lemoine’s piece on friendship, possibilities, and happiness was poignant, and even more so in hindsight. There were a few moments of awkward pauses and odd pacing, but I chose to think such things would improve themselves over the course of the festival. For the most part the cast did a great job – Jeff Haslam was en pointe with line delivery that milked for laughs, and Leona Brausen was her usual delightful self on stage. It was nice to see Ron Pederson again, though Mack thought he was dialing in his performance. My favourite moment was the tender one between Haslam and Pederson’s characters – a lovely space of understanding and appreciation. The show has likely sold out for its run (it received five stars in the Journal today), so get tickets quick if you still can, or wait for the holdovers August 26-30 at the Varscona.

Teatro la Quindicina: “A Rocky Night for His Nibs”

It was an absolutely packed house on Tuesday, only fitting for the large cast of A Rocky Night for His Nibs. From Teatro la Quindicina’s website:

“Perched by a glacial lake and presided over by the stately Prince of Wales Hotel, there’s no quieter or more pristine North American destination than the gentle town of Waterton. At least that’s how it usually is, but then there was that one time when everyone showed up. Everyone. At once.”

I have no doubt that Nibs is destined to become a classic in the vein of Cocktails at Pam’s. A mix of interesting personas, a case of (self)mistaken identity (amnesia could be a category for a Lemoine drinking game), and a mysterious yet familiar setting equal an almost no-fail Lemoinian forumula for entertaining hijinx. I found the exchanges particularly witty, and as a whole, a play much better than the season debut, Revenge of the South Sea Bubble. While the deux ex machine ending was too easy, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself in spite of the million-dollar cop-out.

All of the actors looked like they were having a great time, many cast in roles seemingly written just for them: Farren Timoteo as a height-challenged, giddy wanderer; Sheri Somerville as a striking woman on the run with a musical talent; and Andrew MacDonald-Smith as an awkwardly-gangly Hutterite with a naïve disposition. I particularly enjoyed Mark Meer as an unassuming everyman (a departure from his usual accented-antics), the Hutterite exes (Shannon Blanchet was the female half), and Mat Busby’s smooth turn as the hotelier’s right hand man.

If anything, A Rocky Night for His Nibs has made me more excited for the upcoming Fringe. Watch for Teatro’s (hopefully triumphant) return to the summer festival with the optimistically-titled Happy Toes, playing at the Varscona stage.

Teatro la Quindicina: “Revenge of the South Sea Bubble” & “What Gives?”

I was so excited for the first Teatro la Quindicina show of the season (The Exquisite Hour, back in July of 2007, was the last Teatro play on stage) a double billing of the new Revenge of the South Sea Bubble and a revamp of What Gives? While not wholly disappointing, the evening was a mixed bag.

On the website, the Revenge of the South Sea Bubble is presented to be “a captivatingly convoluted noir-ish tale of deceptions compounded by lies, and speculations masquerading as conjecture.” Unfortunately, the one-act is as vague as the description. Involving two librarians, a Marilyn Monroe-esque dancer, a waiter, and a plot that was bereft of any real amusement, it really isn’t worth discussing further. Farren Timoteo as Vasco was endearing in his hyperbolic mannerisms however, and by the end of the evening, thoroughly reminded me of both Mark Meer (in his accent delivery) and Jeff Haslam (in his physical comedy).

What Gives?, a musical comedy, thankfully made up for the first show: “a pair of inspirationally bereft Broadway tunesmiths have their world turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of a pair of Canadian chorines.” Lighthearted and funny, the dialogue really allowed the actors to shine. I particularly liked Kendra Connor’s turn as Allure Potemkin, especially her showstopper of a “Baby Legs” number (Connor has the charm of Andrea House and the sass of Leona Brausen). The staging of “The Shanghai Stir-Fry” was also fairly clever, and as with most productions that don’t take themselves too seriously, it was easy to enjoy.

A Rocky Night for His Nibs is up next in July.

Edmonton Opera: “H.M.S. Pinafore”

I had heard about Edmonton Opera‘s Explorers’ Club a few years ago, but it didn’t seem economical to join until I read about their 2007/2008 lineup. The venerable Stewart Lemoine would be rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and thus, even if I didn’t use my membership to purchase tickets for the other shows that season, it would still be worthwhile.

As the play neared, it was released that Jeff Haslam would be among the cast members. At the time, I thought his involvement was more of a token gesture; a thoughtful inclusion of a longtime Teatro associate. Little did I know that he would play a leading role, if not one that upstaged the rest of the cast all together.

While this was my first opera, it wasn’t my first experience at the opera. I had volunteered during the earlier run of Carmen, so I knew that many, if not most of the patrons dressed to the nines (yes, cocktail dresses and four-inch heels in the dead of winter). The majority of the audience was not surprisingly comprised of the older set, though I do think the Explorers’ Club is doing a fine job of trying to foster appreciation of this art form with younger professionals.

I convinced Mack that the Opera Talk prior to curtain was a good way to orient ourselves to the history, plotline and characters of Pinafore, so we arrived earlier enough to join a modest crowd in the Kasaa lobby. I didn’t understand all of Dr. David Cook’s jokes, but the overview of the story would be helpful to my appreciation of the show later on. Mack and I both thought that he seemed a little too keen on Jeff Haslam, however.

I don’t know Gilbert & Sullivan well enough (well, at all, really) to recognize how Lemoine “improved” the script, but in the end, Pinafore really didn’t seem like that much of a leap for him – farce is his specialty, romance his standard, and unusual settings his forte. This opera could be considered typical Lemoine…with musical interludes. I will admit that it was no small joy on being able to hear “He is an Englishman” sung live, as it was used in one of my favorite episodes of West Wing (“It’s from Penzance!” “No, it was from Pinafore!”). And Haslam? He was tailor-made for the role of flamboyant, self-centered Sir Joseph Porter, so much so that I can’t help but think that Lemoine must have specifically requested his participation, as the part was undoubtedly written with him in mind. He was hilarious in his mannerisms, delivery, and even his uproarious laughter (because no one has a cackle as distinctive as his).

As for the production itself, I had a few nitpicks. The lighting was odd throughout, bordering on distracting, actually (was the blue, spinning, simulation of the waves really necessary?). It also seemed that the costume designers should have given Ralph Rackstraw’s character some kind of distinctive piece to wear; otherwise, he too easily blended in with the rest of the ship’s crew. The symmetrical set was functional and allowed for great visuals and movement during the chorus numbers, but I couldn’t see how it was as “special” as continuously touted in the program and in the show’s introduction by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick.

As a member of the Explorers’ Club, Mack and I were able to partake in a pizza and beer reception during intermission. Getting to and from the second balcony to the basement of the Jubilee Auditorium in twenty minutes was a slight challenge though.

Opera really isn’t my area of expertise, but all I hear is how expensive it is to produce, and how ticket prices barely cover the costs (Deedrick offered the statistic that only 42% is reimbursed through ticket sales, while the rest is supported by government donations and private sponsorship). If that’s the case, isn’t it possible to offer more than three shows, given what must be a very large overhead to construct sets and costume from scratch, on top of rehearsals and expenses that I can’t even begin to know? Perhaps there isn’t enough demand (or people who can afford to see it) in Edmonton, but it just seems an extraordinary waste of resources to only offer three opportunities to see a very good local production.

I’d like to attend Falstaff in the spring (my last chance to get “cheap” tickets this year), and I do think that will be a more genuine litmus test as to whether or not I truly enjoy opera. Pinafore was a treat, there being just a slim chance that I wouldn’t find it entertaining – it was in English (making the availability of supertitles less of an issue), penned by Lemoine, featuring Haslam, and more light hearted than what I’d expect from more traditional operas. This was “opera-lite”, so after Falstaff, I will reassess my feeling about the medium then.

Haslam in H.M.S. Pinafore

Theatre: “The Exquisite Hour”

After dinner, Mack and I headed to the Varscona to check out Stewart Lemoine’s latest, The Exquisite Hour. From the website:

“A seemingly well-adjusted bachelor finds his life forever altered on a summer evening when an alluring stranger materializes in his backyard to ask the question ‘Are you satisfied with what you know?'”

Not a new work but a remount, the play had the feel of a Fringe production. It really was only sixty minutes in length, but more than that, the light, summer quality of the content was devoid of the existential elements I have come to associate with Lemoine. As well, though Jeff Haslam did his best to make the mood shift from one of lighthearted make believe to mourning the loss of time realistic, even he couldn’t hide the fact that the switch was much too sudden.

That said, The Exquisite Hour did feature some great exchanges between the two leads, and allowed Haslam to showcase his talent in line delivery. This was my first time watching Kate Ryan on stage, and she was every bit as spunky and charming as the role demanded.

I should say that Mack didn’t enjoy the play at all, but I am certain he felt he got his money’s worth with our proximity that night to fellow audience member Ron Pederson(!).

I may also have to make it a habit of watching Teatro productions on a non-pay-what-you-can night. That Thursday, they offered free wine before curtain, and a dessert reception following the play. I guess that’s what our ticket dollars go towards.

Two changes at Teatro this fall: Lemoine is stepping down as Artistic Director of the company, and will be replaced by longtime associate Haslam (but not to worry, Lemoine will still be writing!). Secondly, the production calendar will be shifting to a spring/summer/fall schedule after a winter hiatus. More information about the news available here.

Theatre: “East of My Usual Brain”

After dinner, Mack and I watched the new charmingly-titled Stewart Lemoine play East of My Usual Brain at the Varscona Theatre. From the website:

“East of My Usual Brain sets forth the utterly unexpectable tale of young bookstore clerk Eric Thaw (Ryan Parker), whose perceptions of life in an unremarkable city undergo an extraordinary transformation when he accepts a position as the research assistant to tempestuous European author Istvan Madaras (Ron Pederson). Istvan has himself been completely untethered from his moorings after a chance encounter with the alluringly pensive Bianca (Belinda Cornish) one afternoon in a public garden. Inspired, amused, and occasionally horrified by this romantically tortured pair, Eric must broker a resolution in a suddenly unfamiliar landscape that grows more peculiar and more beautiful with every scene.”

Let me just preface this review with the advice to never attend a show tired. That said, it was no fault of the play itself that I missed most of the first half due to, well, a lack of caffeine in my system. From what I did gather, it was a typical Lemonian-exercise of a verbally shy courter, with Pederson for the first time cast not as the yuppie bystander, but as the starry-eyed would-be Romeo. Pederson did great, pulling off both a mustache and accent without falter (his silent struggle with low table seating in the tea shop was a notable comedic moment). Parker was a seamless addition to the Teatro family (as this was his Teatro debut), and I can see why Lemoine reacted with a “You–get in the car” comment after seeing Parker’s spoof of the 80s duo Wham. My only lukewarm reception was towards Cornish – noticeably older than Pederson, her inclusion in this role appeared mainly to be because of her English accent. She was as upright, mysterious, and transcendent as her character demanded, but I wasn’t entirely sold that both Eric and Istvan would fall for her. Moreover, whoever’s decision to allow Bianca the number of costume changes that would rival an Oscar host’s should regret it – Maggie Walt‘s designs were flashy and ultimately distracting. Bianca’s wardrobe superseded the focus that should have been on the words.

The set deserves its own praise as well – both beautiful and functional, the red lanterns hung behind the paper screen were a nice touch. However, I am still wondering whether designer Mike Takats deliberately chose to use low tables, despite its alignment with Japanese and not Chinese culture.

All in all, it was an enjoyable play, with the expected poignant metaphor (in this case, excuse my mangling, but of the orientation necessary in love and in life), charming characters, clever dialogue, and laughs.