I Say, You Say: Holt Takes The Stage For Shakespeare’s Will

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen's one-woman drama Shakespeare's Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen’s one-woman drama Shakespeare’s Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe. Ask William Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (Elinor Holt) what she thinks about that.

One part history, several parts dramatic whimsy, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will should not be taken as a pure biography of Anne Hathaway’s life. Think of the play – presented by Sage Theatre – more as an imagining inspired by historical fact. Thiessen’s imagining is primarily inspired by Shakespeare’s last will and testament, an actual document whose phrasing has produced much speculation on the nature of Anne and William’s relationship.

On the eve of William’s funeral, Anne is pressured by her husband’s sister, Joan, to hurry home and read his will. Anne is hesitant, however, to read her late husband’s final wishes. Instead, the widow journeys back to when she, at the age of 26, met the young Shakespeare. The 18-year-old writer is, surprisingly, a man of few words, content only to respond with ‘aye’ when speaking with Anne. Despite this, Anne falls for and eventually marries William – Anne’s pregnancy may or may not have fast tracked that decision.

Anne and her three children are just about abandoned by William when his theatrical aspirations call him to London. Yes, he sends money and (very brief) letters from the city, but what about the months spent away from his family? What about Anne’s unfulfilled sexual desires? Maybe Anne’s overbearing father was right about not trusting Catholics. After all, William is nowhere close for support when the plague breaks out.

Thiessen may not be interested in telling just any old love story, but the play certainly feels familiar. One reason for the play’s familiarity is that at its core, its premise is this: a woman marries an artist whose career takes him far away from home. No doubt, what makes this specific story standout is the mystique surrounding Shakespeare’s personal life. Given that Anne is very much on the periphery of that fascination, more of an answer on an high school English exam than a historical figure, Thiessen’s play feels as though any couple of the same dynamic could replace Anne and William.

Thiessen’s rich, flowing language has a rhythm to it that Holt carries wonderfully. Kelly Reay’s smooth direction matches Thiessen’s style impeccably. The director’s strong awareness of space and movement transforms the stage into an almost dream-like sea of memories where Holt is caught adrift. Ajay Badoni’s emotional lighting design plunges the stage further into this ethereal state, to the tune of Allison Lynch’s solid musical composition.

Memory is a powerful thing as Holt demonstrates in full force. How Holt so effortlessly sweeps back and forth between Anne’s memories is mesmerizing. Every word spoken feels honest, almost as if Holt were revealing a secret to a friend. Holt truly lives every detail of Anne’s personal history, from the birth of her children to her unhappy encounter with tragedy. Alone, Holt conjures an intimate, stirring performance that almost convinces us otherwise about Thiessen’s loose imagining of history.

Ultimately, Thiessen’s springboard for imagination, as he calls it, misses the mark by telling a story about a woman like Anne Hathaway, not a story about Anne Hathaway. Thiessen admits the play is not a proper historical representation of Anne Hathaway, and that apology is founded. Although there is not a vast wealth of knowledge about Anne Hathaway’s personal life, there is still something strange about trying to stage Anne’s perspective when it relies so heavily on her husband’s legacy. Thiessen’s script is written well as it offers plenty for Holt to sink her teeth into, but audiences may feel a lingering disconnect in the back of their minds.

Sage Theatre’s Shakespeare’s Will runs Nov 6 – 14 at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre.

For more information about the show, including ticket information: http://sagetheatre.com/

Artists’ Collective Theatre Brings Arden of Faversham to Canada

Artists' Collective Theatre's Arden of Faversham by Unknown ran Oct 22 - 30 at Festival Hall. Imaged provided by Artists' Collective Theatre.

Artists’ Collective Theatre’s Arden of Faversham by Unknown ran Oct 22 – 30 at Festival Hall. Image provided by Artists’ Collective Theatre.

Enjoying its Canadian premiere at Artists’ Collective Theatre, Arden of Faversham (1590) is a play whose authorship has long been disputed. Scholars have attributed the domestic tragedy to the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and William Shakespeare. While the authorship is still debated today, what is known for certain is that Arden of Faversham is based on a true crime from 1551.

Directed by Christopher Weddell, Arden of Faversham stages the grizzly murder of Thomas Arden (Peter Cameron) by his wife Alice (Jennifer Merio) and her lover, Mosbie (Felix Leblanc). Alice and Mosbie hire hitmen Black Will (Ben Francis) and Shakebag (Josh Bertwistle) to murder Thomas. Other conspirators include servants Michael (Jonathan Molinski) and Susan (Megan Baldrey), property rival Greene (Amanda Liz Cutting), and a painter named Clarke (Conrad Belau). The plot against Thomas repeatedly fails, despite many (humorous) attempts on his life.

Weddell has staged Arden of Faversham in the style of a film noir drama. An appropriate choice given that England’s seedy underbelly is thrust to the spotlight in this true crime dramatization. Weddell captures the style well by emphasizing the social decay surrounding the characters. Michelle McAulay’s lighting design sees the hall darkly lit , populating the performance area with shadows – shadows that hide malicious intent.

Weddell has turned an otherwise musty narrative that runs too long into something of a farce. The emphasis on character antics works fairly well with the film noir elements. Blackwill and Shakebag’s assasination attempts are played like a series of Boris and Natasha plots. Bertwistle returns each time filthier and more beaten up, barely able to talk, but just alive enough to try one more time. Really, the dark humour is not a gigantic leap considering the strangeness already present e.g. a painting that kills any who look it at.

Even still, the play runs far too long, especially since the audience knows Thomas will eventually get sacked. The big (and bloody) moment is quite rewarding, thankfully.

What slows the production are the number of set pieces that have to be wheeled around between scenes. Stairs are a prominent image here. The set, designed by Nigel Francis, is visually appealing, but the actual build is concerning. The Arden residence wobbles whenever actors go up and down the stairs.

Merio’s Alice is truly befitting of the title femme fatale. The actress delivers a striking performance as the seductress who bends men to her deadly will. Leblanc’s Mosbie may be a lover, but he is also a worthy opponent for Alice. Cameron carries himself well as Thomas, a wealthy and reviled businessman. Eric Pettifor joins Cameron as Thomas’ trusted companion. Francis and Bertwistle really throw themselves into the comedic roles of Blackwill and Shakebag, respectively. The audience laughs plenty watching these two fail again and again, receiving a beating each time by Cutting.

Even actors in smaller roles pull their weight in this production. Molinski gets big laughs from the audience in fun character moments peppered throughout. Linda Kee brings a delightful energy to the stage as Bradshaw, an unknowing accomplice who was acquitted posthumously. And Charlotte Loeppky, who plays various roles, is solid, making us wish she were given more stage time.

Certainly, Arden of Faversham is not for everyone. The Elizabethean tragedy is difficult to access, mainly due to its unruly length. Where this production succeeds is in its efforts to make the play accessible by adapting the narrative to a familiar context. Issues aside, ACT’s Arden of Faversham is an alluring production that delivers both intrigue and fun.

Artists’ Collective Theatre’s Arden of Faversham ran Oct 22 – 30 at Festival Hall.

Artists’ Collective Theatre: http://acttheatre.ca/

Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman Delivers Satire, Wacky Family Antics

Desdemona (Conni Mah) has her eyes on Princeton in Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman. Photo Credit: Lillie Cameron

Desdemona (Conni Mah) has her eyes on Princeton University in Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman. Photo Credit: Lillie Cameron.

American society is often referred to as a cultural melting pot, a concept which vastly differs from Canada’s cultural mosaic. For any unfamiliar with the term, the melting pot refers to a society where its members have ‘melted’ into a homogeneous culture, adopting a singular identity (“American”).

While some may dislike the idea of the melting pot, there are others who fully embrace assimilation like the Wong family who are as American as apple pie. Maybe too American, in fact, if you ask daughter Desdemona (Conni Mah).

American playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman tells the story of Ed (Ben Wong) and Grace Wong (Grace Lu) and their two children, Upton (Devin Kotani) and Desdemona. The Wongs are a suburban Chinese-American family with all the usual troubles. Upton spends too much time playing World of Warcraft, Desdemona is stressed out about her grades and being accepted into Princeton, and Ed and Grace have communication problems. Everything drastically changes, however, when Chinese immigrant J (Kida Nakamura), hired by Upton to do his homework and chores, starts living at the Wong residence. J’s presence brings to surface questions about cultural identity that the Wong family has never seriously asked themselves before.

Much of the play is driven by Desdemona’s struggle writing a compelling admissions essay for Princeton. Desdemona cannot think of any obstacles she has had to overcome as a well-to-do American girl living in a nuclear family. In search of inspiration, and after watching the Joy Luck Club, Desdemona decides to explore her Chinese ancestry for help writing her essay.

That is a big part of what Yee goes after in this satirical comedy, that ethnicity, even the lack of, only matters when necessary. Never at any point of the play does the Wong family experience any sort of ethnicized discrimination. A lot of that is owed to the fact that the family plays the White Man’s game, which is not just golf in this case. Striking white makeup on the actors’ faces – with the exception of Nakamura – emphasizes the fact. Yee’s point is that sure, people enjoy Chinese things, like fortune cookies, but that is as far as it goes. There is a lot to be gained socially when immigrants totally assimilate into American culture, and plenty to lose out on otherwise. Cultural identity effectively becomes more about politics and less about meaningful self-perception, something Desdemona eventually struggles with in her investigations.

Given the eye catching title of the play, audiences should not be surprised that Yee’s satire burns hot. Yee’s oddball humour, too, makes for an enjoyable visit with the Wong family, until the second act anyway. The second act shifts gears in terms of tone, leaving us with something of a messy ending. Still, there are a lot of laughs to be had, particularly from the Wong family’s unease trying to connect with J – who they call Ching Chong, among other stereotypical names.

Limited space inside the Motel Theatre stifles the actors’ performances. Added chairs in the front means the front row has to tuck in their legs so not to hit or trip any of the actors. Nakamura and Lu have little room for their tap dance routine, which sees big leg movement from Nakamura. The lack of space creates hesitation, hindering the sort of pace needed to deliver Yee’s comedic material. Director John Iglesias might have done well by not adding any more chairs to an already tight space.

Maybe JP Thibodeau’s ‘white washed’ design for the Wong residence could have been scaled back, too.

Mah displays great comedic chops as Desdemona. Mah’s hilarious teen angst plays well against Wong’s Ed, a corporate type who rather be on the green than at home dealing with his family. Lu’s Grace is a lonely housewife who everyone ignores, everyone except for J. Lu’s blossoming personality is a lot of fun to watch, especially as the tables turn on everyone else. Kotani plays pro-gamer Upton with delight. The mostly silent Nakamura really steals the show. Nakamura’s expressions of confusion at the totally strange Wong family are hilarious.

Otherwise strong performances are troubled by several fumbled lines of dialogue, unfortunately.

Overall, Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman is a very funny play that has a lot to say, and says it brilliantly, about America’s melting pot. While Yee’s strong writing may trip in the second act, the Wong family is still worth visiting, thanks to the ensemble’s dynamic performances.

Iglesia Productions’ Ching Chong Chinaman runs Oct 27 – Nov 7 at the Motel Theatre (Arts Commons).

Let’s Do a Puppet Show!: Ronnie Burkett’s The Daisy Theatre Impresses

It’s often said that puppets can get away with just about anything. Think about Punch & Judy. Despite being very cruel and violent, the show is still a hit with audiences today. Think about the Tony-Award winning musical Avenue Q. Puppets sing about racism, pornography, then go off to have wild puppet sex – and that’s just the first act!

And then, there’s The Daisy Theatre by Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett.

Because over forty marionette characters call The Daisy Theatre home, each night is a different show. Unscripted, Burkett’s razor sharp wit is free to play and surprise in every performance.

At the top of the show, Burkett introduces us to Franz and Schnitzel. Franz is a dirty sex fiend, and Schnitzel is a sweet little fairy child. When he’s not berating Schnitzel, Franz finds time to riff on the NDP, and the political left. Poor Schnitzel – everything good and innocent in the world – only wants to grow wings and fly with the birds. Cue the audience melting into a goopy puddle of emotions.

Or we would if Miss. Lillian Lunkhead, Canada’s oldest and worst actress, weren’t so picky about how the audience greets her entrance – clap this way, gasp that way. The stage veteran does make up for it by giving one lucky audience member the opportunity to be her scene partner for Romeo & Juliet. Sure, she might be a little…mature for the role of Juliet, but dang if she doesn’t know how to command the stage and audience.

The audience later meets Edna Rural, everyone’s sweet elderly neighbor. Edna is from the small community of Turnips Corner, Alberta. Lord love a duck if the audience doesn’t fall in love with Edna Rural. Edna, a widow, starts one place with her humourous (mis)adventures, and before we know it, she’s somewhere else entirely in her story. That’s life, though, isn’t it? But start to finish, the audience is taken by Edna’s genuine goodheart.

About puppets getting away with just about anything, Burkett pushes that theory to the limit. Over the course of two hours, Burkett’s puppets indulge in some of the filthiest, most bizzaro humour ever to grace a Calgary stage. (Salty old entertainer Rosemary Focaccia has quite the mouth on her!). Proving the theory right, the audience eats it up, almost falling out of their seats laughing. And it’s not just the puppets who have lots to say. Burkett has a thing or two to say during the evening, especially about Canadian Theatre (Showbiz, what’s that?).

What’s simply fascinating about Burkett are his masterful articulations of movement and voice that bring these puppet characters to life. Even though we can see the puppets hanging off to the side, there’s so much spirit that we can almost imagine each of these wacky, endearing characters nervously pacing backstage, all in their own personal ways.

Hands down, The Daisy Theatre should not be missed. The incredible wealth of humour and heart that Burkett brings to the stage makes for an unforgettable experience at the theatre. No wonder The Daisy Theatre is an audience favourite.

The Daisy Theatre by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes runs Oct 27 – Nov 15 at the Big Secret Theatre.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.artscommons.ca/WhatsOn/ShowDetails.aspx?show_id=66984640-5CF2-4919-975D-FBE780E7BC3C

For more about The Daisy Theatre: http://www.thedaisytheatre.com/

Fritters in Kandahar Pours a Warm Story About Home, Purpose

Lunchbox Theatre is accepting non-perishable food items for the Veteran's Food Bank. Pictured, left to right: Amy Sawka and Barbara Gates Wilson. Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photo

Lunchbox Theatre is accepting non-perishable food items for the Veteran’s Food Bank. Pictured, left to right: Amy Sawka and Barbara Gates Wilson. Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photo

Enjoying its world premiere at Lunchbox Theatre, Peter Boychuk’s Fritters in Kandahar tells an undeniably Canadian story about finding home in a far, unknown place.

In 2006, the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency opened a Tim Hortons outlet for soldiers deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Before ceasing operations in 2011, the Tim Hortons outlet served “four million cups of coffee, three million donuts and half a million iced cappuccinos and bagels” to soldiers from all different nations.

Tired of her humdrum life in Airdrie, Lisa (Amy Sawka) applies to work at the Tim Hortons outlet on the Kandahar base. Lisa’s boyfriend Craig (Evan Hall) absolutely disapproves of her leaving their comfortable, if stale, life for a war zone, especially when she could do the same job at home. Contrary to what Craig thinks, however, it’s not just about slinging coffee. For Lisa, it’s about serving her country, to whatever capacity she can. All good and well, except Craig suspects Lisa is leaving Canada to be with her recruiter Daryl (Justin-Michael Carriere).

The humour in travelling across the world to work at a Tim Hortons is not lost on Boychuk, but it is a premise that he handles appropriately. After all, there are many ways each of us find purpose in our lives. While Lisa recognizes that fact, she still thinks her boss Debra (Barbara Gates Wilson) is too uptight – and mean – about managing the store. It’s just donuts and coffee, Lisa thinks.

What Lisa ultimately realizes is that it’s the little things in life that we miss the most sometimes. Something so simple as, say, a double-double from the Tim Hortons just down the street. Because in that double-double, there’s not just cream and sugar, but memories, too. Memories of all the times we shared coffee with friends, family, and neighbours. And none if it could be important than when you’re miles away from home, surrounded by danger, and have suffered incredible loss.

So, if Debra can offer soldiers even just a brief escape from what’s outside the base, then she is going to do so by pouring her heart and soul into every cup of coffee she serves.

Boychuk stirs in good doses of comic relief, mainly from Hall and Carriere’s characters, into the mix. Director Val Goggin stages the physical humour well, although the general pace of the play feels a bit sluggish. Initial scenes between Hall and Sawka feel particularly lacking in zest, as if there is some hesitation from the actors.

Wilson really knows how to turn on a dime emotionally. The moment that Lisa and the audience discover there is more to Debra than meets the eye is a striking moment. Sawka and Wilson share a fun dynamic together as Wilson puts Sawka through her paces. Sawka plays ‘fish out of water’ with a charming sweetness that makes the resolution of her character’s journey all the more satisfying.

Carriere plays Daryl with a real cool composure that, to our enjoyment, dips into meathead territory. Compare that against Hall’s panic towards change (the only change Craig wants is a bigger TV!), and there’s a lot of fun to be had when the two butt heads over Lisa.

For sure, Boychuk’s script is about as sweet as eating a dozen fritters at once, but there is still something genuinely heartfelt to take away from this story about a real Canadian event – especially with Remembrance Day around the corner. Still, Lunchbox Theatre’s Fritters in Kandahar might be more appetizing with stronger direction to steer the narrative forward.

Peter Boychuk’s Fritters in Kandahar runs at Lunchbox Theatre, Oct 26 – Nov 14.

Lunchbox Theatre is accepting non-perishable food items for the Veteran’s Food Bank. Veterans and military personnel are invited to attend the show for free.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.lunchboxtheatre.com/fritters-in-kandahar

To read more about the Tim Hortons outlet that operated in Kandahar: https://www.timhortons.com/ca/en/corporate/kandahar-withdrawal.php

Geoffrey Simon Brown’s The Circle Empty of Teen Spirit

Geoffrey Simon Brown's The Circle was produced by Alberta Theatre Projects as part of the Enbridge New Canadian Plays program. Pictured, left to right: Brett Dahl, Geoffrey Simon Brown, Eliza Benzer, Leanna Govier, and Daniel Fong. Image provided by Alberta Theatre Projects.

Geoffrey Simon Brown’s The Circle was produced by Alberta Theatre Projects as part of the Enbridge New Canadian Plays program. Pictured, left to right: Brett Dahl, Geoffrey Simon Brown, Eliza Benzer, Leanna Govier, and Daniel Fong. Image provided by Alberta Theatre Projects.

Enjoying its world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects, Geoffrey Simon Brown’s The Circle is a new Canadian play that has been touted as a must-see for anyone under the age of 25. A bold claim if ever there was one. For The Circle suffers from an uninspired narrative, flat characters, and forced dialogue. In fact, young people may find themselves put off by the dishonesty staged in this “provocative” new play.

Directed by Anne Marie-Kerr, The Circle stages a late-night garage party, in the suburbs of Calgary, hosted by 18-year old Ily (Joe Perry) and his girlfriend Amanda (Eliza Benzer). Well, it was never supposed to be a party, just a small get-together with Will (Daniel Fong) and his boyfriend Daniel (Brett Dahl). But Ily just had to invite his childhood friend Tyler – or Mutt (Brown) as he’s known now – after reconnecting with him. And much to the annoyance of Amanda, Mutt brings with him another unexpected guest, his girlfriend Kit (Leanne Govier). The crowded get-together takes a turn for the worst when Ily realizes that a lot has changed in the years since he last saw Mutt.

Audiences will immediately notice the very liberal use of ‘fuck’ and other profanities spoken by the six troubled youth. With no adults around, it makes sense that the six teenagers (who range between 15 – 18) speak the way they do. The problem is, what does ‘fuck’ mean after the twentieth time? In the pursuit of authenticity, Brown weakens the audience’s emotional response to moments where cursing is justified, where a character really has nothing else to say but ‘fuck’.

And truthfully, Brown fails to give teenagers enough credit by suggesting that they are not capable of speaking their minds without resorting to excessive cursing.

Furthermore, Brown’s efforts towards authenticity gets in the way of telling a compelling story. Inside the garage, the kids drink, smoke pot, and just chill out. As long as the music is loud and pumping, nothing else matters – except for maybe Amanda’s AP classes. At first, the novelty of staging such an intimate look into the ‘secret lives of teenagers’ is fun, but the lack of any significant plot development is a real wet blanket. The audience knows Ily and Mutt will eventually come to blows as Mutt says and does all the wrong things at the party, but until then the audience is trying to figure out what this party and these kids are all about.

Slowly, but surely, Brown reveals what these kids are all about, and it is very simple: they are young and just trying to figure life out. All easier said than done, of course, especially in the face of loss and damaged relationships. The issues at hand will certainly resonant with some audience members, but unfortunately the characters lack any depth worth investing in. The haste in trying to establish authenticity for six characters while trying to remain edgy derails the dialogue, making it feel as forced as just about any hashtag or meme spoken out loud.

Much has been made about the fact that Brown is a 26 year old playwright. We have to assume that the point of mentioning Brown’s age is that we are going to tell ourselves that if anyone is going to write about young people with any success, it is going to be a young new playwright. That is not the case here. The representation of youth staged here feels out of touch with the complexity that defines adolescence. No doubt, Brown’s writing has the potential to tell many truths, but in trying to capture a broad image of youth, Brown captures very little of it. There is much to be desired in terms of proper time with these youth not just for the sake of a worthwhile narrative, but for young people to recognize themselves in the mirror that the stage always holds to the audience.

Kerr’s direction sees the six youth animated as if they were in a music video or Degrassi: The Next Generation montage. All sorts of antics take place inside the garage, strangely none of them are documented on social media. The blocking certainly reflects fun, but Kerr might do well to let scenes sit and breathe every once in awhile.

Jennifer Lee Arsenault’s costume design is mostly on point, but Kit’s goth/punk appearance looks dated by at least 10 years. Myspace might be a better fit for Kit than this high school party. The same can be said about Anton de Groot’s sound design (Eminem’s Without Me was released in 2002), but the soundtrack is mainly successful in getting that youthful spirit.

We learn being a high school dropout stoner is not exactly the life Ily wants for himself, but the party is too good to worry about that now. In Perry’s performance, we see Ily’s fear and regret that he tries to push down with good times. Benzer emotes well Amanda’s frustration, if not resentment, towards her loser boyfriend. Dahl does the most he can with Daniel’s vagueness, specifically the character’s long-winded monologue about fear, faith, and losing his mother. Fong also tries bringing more to Will, which he does when the nature of his and Daniel’s relationship is made clear. Brown and Govier share a particularly emotional scene together, one that sparks excitement in the play again (although too late, perhaps).

Is The Circle a must-see for anyone under the age of 25, as ATP claims? No. Certainly, what the play tries to say about youth is important, but young people will struggle to identify with this shallow representation of their everyday experiences. In fact, young people may feel that the play owes them more than what it offers.

Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of Geoffrey Simon Brown’s The Circle runs October 20 – November 27 at the Martha Cohen Theatre.

For more information about the show, visit: http://atplive.com/whats-on/the-circle/

The Shakespeare Company Stages Refreshing Production of Romeo & Juliet

The Shakespeare Company's season opener Romeo & Juliet ran Oct 1 - 17 at Vertigo Theatre's Studio. Pictured: Lady Capulet (Chantal Perron), Nurse (Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan), and Juliet (Allison Lynch). Photo Credit: Ben Laird Photography.

The Shakespeare Company’s season opener Romeo & Juliet ran Oct 1 – 17 at Vertigo Theatre’s Studio. Pictured: Lady Capulet (Chantal Perron), Nurse (Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan), and Juliet (Allison Lynch). Photo Credit: Ben Laird Photography.

To this day, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet continues to be read in nearly every high school across the country. Students read aloud the play, dissect its themes, then clumsily stage the famous balcony scene as part of their final project.

And so, by this point in time, there are very few who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s tragic love story, making it all the more challenging to stage. In their mind, audiences already know what to expect from Romeo & Juliet because the play is so well-known. The question then arises: how does one defy expectations and make Romeo & Juliet feel new once again?

Director Ron Jenkins answers that questions very well, thanks to a keen eye and stellar cast of actors.

Many will say that the feud between the Capulets and Montagues is what ultimately kills Romeo and Juliet, played by Eric Wigston and Allison Lynch, while others blame the irrational, hasty behaviour of its two main characters. Both are true, but it is the latter that Jenkins is truly concerned with in this production by The Shakespeare Company.

Here, Jenkins is not so interested in presenting the play as a tale of mean old adults versus unfairly treated teenagers. Instead, the director explores youth as a turbulent time where everything seems like the most important thing ever. That sort of immediacy is demonstrated best in Romeo, a mopey teen who’s made dumb by what he perceives as true love.

Wigston’s physicalities are big and oozing with passion (and hormones). The actor is particularly wild during the balcony scene, which he and Lynch play wonderfully. Wigston’s Romeo is reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman running away with Katharine Ross at the end of The Graduate, except he never reaches the bus. Wigston displays the sort of optimism that thinks love prevails in the end, even against an ancient family feud.

Of course, love doesn’t save Romeo and Juliet, because the feud is not only very real, but it is also very violent. The violence is well affirmed by Fight Director Karl Sine’s tight choreography. On top of being dreamy, Romeo is also a big dreamer.

Lynch plays Juliet as level headed as any 13 year old can be at that age. Because of Romeo, however, Juliet becomes a dreamer, too. We see Lynch, every so tenderly, make that journey from infatuated to completely swept up in Wigston’s enthusiasm. When everything falls apart at the end of the first act, we see Lynch play a tortured girl with no exit with tremendous force.

Juliet’s Nurse, played by a delightful Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan, is not blameless in this whole affair. Per this interpretation of the play, Juliet’s Nurse almost seems to play along with Romeo and Juliet, humouring them almost. In doing so, she becomes absorbed in their youthful spirit. And so, it is all fun and games until the gravity of the situation shakes the Nurse out of it and snaps her back to reality.

Jenkins offers plenty to chew on in this production of Romeo & Juliet, especially with the gender cross casting of Benvolio, played by a fierce Amy Burks. The play becomes more than about forbidden love, but the perils of being a teenager in a loveless world. Watching this production, how often do youth go astray because they feel that cannot confide in their parents? What happens when inexperienced youth are left to figure out life themselves? A lot, and sometimes they are things that cannot be undone.

The layers of depth Jenkins pursues are brilliantly staged in this refreshing production of an old classic. Jenkin’s confidence as a director is on full display from top to bottom. Those looking to fall in love with Romeo & Juliet again will want to catch this spirited production by The Shakespeare Company.

The Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet ran Oct 1 – 17 at Vertigo Theatre’s Studio. 

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.shakespearecompany.com/currentseason/

Theatre Calgary Stages Powerful Revival of Miller’s The Crucible

The cast of The Crucible. Photo Credit: Trudie Lee.

The cast of The Crucible. Photo Credit: Trudie Lee.

Widely considered a modern classic, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is at once a compelling drama about the Salem witch trials and a striking allegory of McCarthyism, a practice born from the second Red Scare. To think, however, that Miller’s play is a relic of the Cold War era would be naive considering the politics of fear that govern us still today.

First produced in 1953, The Crucible stages the mass hysteria that consumed the town of Salem, Massachusetts between the years 1692 and 1693. In Miller’s semi-fictionalized account of events, the town is taken by accusations of witchcraft after Reverend Samuel Parris’ daughter Betty (Kevin Corey and Caitlynne Medrek, respectively) is struck by a mysterious, seemingly incurable illness. Rumours begin to circulate between the townspeople that Betty’s illness is the work of witchcraft.

Samuel reveals that he caught Betty and other young girls, including Abigail Williams (Claire Armstrong), from the town dancing in the forest around a fire with his slave Tituba (Lennette Randall).  Fearing punishment for trying to conjure magic, specifically a death spell against Elizabeth Proctor (Vanessa Sabourin), Abigail deflects any accusations against her by accusing Tituba of being a witch. Soon, a witch hunt is underway as Abigail and the other girls begin falsely naming other witches living among them.

Abigail’s lie turns to something even more dangerous when she tries to win back John Proctor (Karl H. Sine), a farmer whom she had an affair with while his wife was ill. To be with John, despite him rejecting her, Abigail accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft, and it is an accusation that John fights hard against in order to save his wife from hanging.

Modern audiences may find the idea of witches laughable, certainly this audience does, but the belief in witches was very strong at the time. And the belief was largely reinforced by inexplicable behaviour, which we would recognize today as neurological disorders, displayed by the accused. Awash in the unknown, the people of Salem grasped at any explanation to provide them comfort in the face of an invisible threat.

Understanding this play within a modern context, there has been no greater, incomprehensible threat in the last 15 years than the threat of terrorism. No greater period of uncertainty than the days, months, and even years that followed the attacks on September 11th. Suddenly, in the public’s mind, there were terrorists everywhere. And sadly, to great harm, members of the American public identified potential terrorists as any who fit a specific ethnic or religious background. The threat was out there, and the public needed to project their fear and panic somewhere. The very same fear and panic would justify increasing the government’s surveillance powers e.g. The Patriot Act.

Given recent anti-terror legislation in Canada, there could be no better time for Theatre Calgary to stage The Crucible. Still today, fear is used for political gain, to motivate public support for controversial measures like Bill C-51. And the public is encouraged still to watch their neighbours for suspicious behaviour – reporting them to a tip line if necessary! We may be long past claims that communists and Soviet spies have infiltrated every level of American society, but the same politics of fear continue today.

Director R.H Thomson translates the urgency of Miller’s play to the stage masterfully. Thomson’s staging displays careful attention to the text. Well-paced, the theatre seems to melt away as the audience becomes absorbed in the hysteria that suffocates all reason onstage. Given the large cast of actors, Thomson does well enough keeping the action open to the audience, but some audience members may feel left out at times nonetheless.

And what an outstanding set design from Cameron Porteous. Those familiar with Puritan beliefs will appreciate the encroaching forest in the background, a sign of danger in the wake of moral decay. Porteous’ set is lit beautifully by Kevin Lamotte.

The town of Salem comes alive thanks to exceptional performances from both veteran and emerging actors. Truly, Sine delivers an electric performance as John Proctor. The actor’s fury and sadness as the guilt-ridden farmer resonates across the theatre, leaving the audience shaken in the play’s final moments. Stephen Hair’s Deputy-Governor Danforth is like thunder, truly a force to be reckoned with. Caught in the storm is Kelly Malcolm who plays Mary Warren, a young girl whose testimony could end Salem’s hysteria over witches. Malcolm’s warm sincerity in gesture and emotion makes her character’s journey all the more involved.

Audiences will find themselves deeply frustrated with Abigail Williams who Armstrong plays with great malice. Corey’s Reverend Samuel is sure to agitate audiences, too, as he plays his character with the right sort of disgusting behaviour such an immoral, hypocritical character deserves. Such hateful characters break the Reverend John Hale, played wonderfully by Graham Mothersill, and his faith in justice.

So powerful and moving is this production of The Crucible that the audience cannot wait to applaud the cast and crew. The lights are barely dim when the audience bursts into applause, quickly rising to their feet for what is a well deserved standing ovation.

MIller’s The Crucible is an intense confrontation between personal desire and morality. Still relevant today, the play asks us to consider what we lose when we allow fear to rule us, and if what we lost can ever be gained back. Any opportunity to see such a timeless drama should not be missed.

More specifically, any opportunity to catch Theatre Calgary’s powerful revival of The Crucible should not be missed. A must-see.

Theatre Calgary’s The Crucible runs October 13 – November 8 at the Max Bell Theatre.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.theatrecalgary.com/2015-16/the-crucible

The Truth, or Some Version of It: Theatre BSMT Stages Drader’s Liar at Motel Theatre

Theatre BSMT's season opener Liar, by Brian Drader, ran October 6 - 10 at Motel Theatre. Pictured: Carolyn Ruether (Sherri) with Simon Tottrup (Jeremy) in background. Image provided by Theatre BSMT.

Theatre BSMT’s season opener Liar, by Brian Drader, ran October 6 – 10 at Motel Theatre. Pictured: Carolyn Ruether (Sherri) with Simon Tottrup (Jeremy) in background. Image provided by Theatre BSMT.

The truth is invaluable, or at least we like to think it is. There are times when honesty is not the best policy because sometimes, the truth is unkind. When truth becomes displaced, white lies make lofty nests. And as Ben and Sherri Ingles (Grayson Ogle, Carolyn Ruether) discover in Brian Drader’s Liar, these nests are lined with patient thorns.

Presented by Theatre BSMT, Drader’s Liar tells a compelling story about family, loss, and the lonely journey towards closure. And it begins one night at a gay bar where Sherri’s estranged brother Jeremy (Simon Tottrup) meets a strange drifter named Mark (Corey Joyce). And maybe the reason why Jeremy joins Mark on the roof of a building for some beers is that he seems harmless enough, despite leading Jeremy on.

The next morning, Jeremy is found dead, and only Mark can answer the question of whether he fell or jumped.

Ben and Sherri’s marriage is in trouble, the love that was once there is just an act these days. Ever since their four-year old son disappeared, Ben and Sherri have never been the same. And so, Sherri becomes desperate to establish a relationship with the person who was there for her brother’s last hours in order to find closure. Unfortunately, the closure Mark provides is dishonest. Mark was neither Jeremy’s boyfriend, nor a co-worker at the hospital where he worked. Slowly, good intentions reveal themselves as something more sinister.

The Canadian playwright demonstrates the shattering effect of loss on the human psyche. Ben is quick to suspect Mark has ulterior motives, especially as he starts entering deeper and deeper into the couple’s personal lives, while Sherri takes anything this stranger has to say about Jeremy (and himself) as gospel. The audience may find Sherri gullible, if not totally irrational, but is she really? Consider how psychic mediums claim to have the gift of communicating with the deceased, and the fellowship they amass by those who so desperately want to believe. From the outside, the whole idea is nonsense, but to those affected by loss it is something, which is easier to accept than the complete absence of a person.

And it is this vulnerability that Mark preys upon. What makes Mark such a threat is that, as a drifter, he has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Given this, Mark can be anything anyone wants him to be, as he shows with Ben who he wins over by becoming his new drinking buddy. In Mark, Drader reflects the malleability of truth, the versions of truth we seek out and, sometimes to our own peril, lose ourselves in.

Unfortunately, DJ Gellatly’s direction feels too relaxed for such a gripping narrative. If the production’s pace were tighter, then perhaps the pauses and silences would be more effective than they are. As it is, Gellatly traps himself and his actors within a fairly limited range where these breaks have little significance in the face of the menace and anger from which they are born from.

Where Gellatly has some success in the staging of this play is in keeping the actors actively involved at various periods within this web of broken truths on stage. Something so simple as having Ogle review his tapes downstage while a scene plays out upstage behind him benefits the dramatic tension by adding layers to the action.

Ruethers’ has some difficulty capturing the emotional nuance of her characters’ arc, effectively lacking punch when the script calls for it, but there are moments where the young actress really digs inside and shines. Ogle is very expressive as Ben whose emotions read clear across his voice, face and gestures. The actor moves with tremendous purpose, even when the character is unclear of the situation. And that makes it all the more unsettling how such a strong-willed character is won over by a mysterious stranger. Jeremy, who appears briefly throughout, is played well by Tottrup who delivers as a troubled youth in need of presence.

Joyce has the challenge of playing a manipulative character ready to change persona at the turn of a dime, and ultimately it does prove too challenging for the actor. A part of the problem is that Joyce rarely shows the same genuineness with Ben and Sherri that he does in scenes with Tottrup’s Jeremy. The audience is never given the chance to doubt Ben’s suspicions about Mark, to be surprised when Mark’s true colors are revealed. Joyce’s performance as the evening’s catalyst for emotional ruin leaves much to be desired.

The use of the Motel Theatre’s windows as both the city’s nightscape and Ben and Sherri’s house windows is smart given the theatre’s limited space. Lisa Floyd’s atmospheric lighting design makes the theatre space feel intimate, if not deeply personal.

Although it may fall short in some areas, Theatre BSMT’s production of Liar still manages to provoke its audience to consider the many ways we lie to each other and ourselves, and what that means in the long run. And no doubt audiences will think about this on their way home from the theatre.

Theatre BSMT’s production of Brian Drader’s Liar ran Oct 6 – 10 at Motel Theatre.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.theatrebsmt.ca/Theatre_BSMT/Whats_On.html

Totally Rad: The Wedding Singer Comes to Stage West

Sammy (Ian Ronnigen), Robbie (Aidan Desalaiz), and George (Andrew McGillivray) are a hit at all the weddings in New Jersey. Image provided by Stage West.

Sammy (Ian Ronnigen), Robbie (Aidan Desalaiz), and George (Andrew McGillivray) are a hit at all the weddings in New Jersey. Image provided by Stage West.

From the loud colours to the big hair and questionable fashion, there is no doubt that the 1980s were truly outrageous. The 80s were also a lot of fun thanks to pop culture icons like Eddie Murphy, Madonna, Pac-Man, and the ever puzzling Rubik’s Cube. And now, Stage West Theatre Restaurant brings back, in full force, these memories of the 80s with The Wedding Singer, a totally rad musical comedy.

First produced on Broadway in 2006, The Wedding Singer is a musical based on the hit 1998 film of the same name, which starred Adam Sandler in the titular role. This quirky comedy tells the story of Robbie Hart (Aidan Desalaiz), a popular wedding singer from New Jersey. When his fianceé Linda (Sarah Horsman) dumps him at the altar, Robbie becomes disillusioned with love. All that changes, however, when Robbie falls for Julia Sullivan (Elicia MacKenzie), a waitress at the reception hall where he and his bandmates Sammy (Ian Ronnigen) and George (Andrew McGillivray) perform. Unfortunately, Julia is engaged to Glen Guglia (Kellan Ziffle), an obnoxious Wall Street banker.

For sure, The Wedding Singer (book by Chad Beguelin & Tim Herlihy) is light on character development and heavy on cliché, but is it ever a good time regardless. And a lot of that is thanks to director/choreographer Tim French and the talented cast of actors at his disposal.

Right away, French’s vibrant choreography for the musical’s opening number (“It’s Your Wedding Day”) captures the audience’s attention. Leslie Robinson-Greene’s bright, eye popping costume design is an attention grabber, too. And musical director Konrad Pluta and his band deliver a great sound for the production’s catchy musical numbers (music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin).

Desalaiz’s Robbie, a romantic sap to begin with, is played much like a lost puppy, although this puppy has serious (and hilarious) bite as heartbreak shows. Playing opposite Desalaiz is MacKenzie who brings a charming dorkiness to her role. And both actors really dig into the fact that their characters are in love with love, giving us an innocent clumsiness between the two as they come to slowly realize their feelings for one another.

And surrounding Desalaiz and MacKenzie are a group of oddball characters. Marcia Tratt delights as Rosie, Robbie’s rapping/breakdancing grandmother. (Yes, really). Dana Jean Phoenix plays Julia’s friend Holly, a spunky Madonna-esque character who dances like a maniac. (The bucket of water from Flashdance makes a cameo). And McGillivray who wins the audience over as a very flamboyant Boy George.

But what’s a shame about the great character work, by the ensemble too, is that pieces of dialogue are hard to hear, if not totally lost, over the sound system. The issue may be with the wireless microphones, but certainly the troubled dialogue does take the audience out of the action a bit.

Nonetheless, French knows how to stage a spectacle, to fill the stage with big, exciting movement. The actors make the most of otherwise flat characters by pouring their hearts into their performances. And really, issues aside, it’s hard not to feel a smile grow on your face in this lighthearted, outrageous throwback to the 80s.

Stage West’s The Wedding Singer runs September 4 – November 8.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: http://stagewestcalgary.com/the-wedding-singer/