Double Bill: Carrion Birds, Casualties at the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

This year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category are Greg Everett (Carrion Birds) and Alex Pannier (Casualties). Everett and Pannier’s one-act plays are running as a double bill at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial Hall until August 4th. Carrion Birds and Casualties are being presented as workshopped productions.

Directed by Robbie Lynn, Everett’s Carrion Birds is set along the Tobique River Valley where Rona (Kat Hall) and her uncle Corbin (Ryan Griffith) live and work in solitude. The relationship between Rona and Corbin is tense, to say the least. Rona resents living with Corbin who demands a lot of her. She would leave if it were not for her birthright — the land Rona’s grandfather poured (someone else’s) blood and sweat into hundred years ago. Birthright or not, Corbin needs to know Rona deserves to inherit the land, that she is willing to sacrifice just as he has.

When a shale gas surveyor (Kyle Bech) trespasses on their land, Rona and Corbin act quickly to make sure he doesn’t tell anyone about their whereabouts. The surveyor, blindfolded and tied up, soon finds himself involved in a dark and deadly ritual.

The play is set in rural New Brunswick, so what else could the personal conflict really be about than what it means to live a good life? Right, it’s not just that Rona hates taking orders from Corbin. Corbin despises his brother — Rona’s father — for abandoning their land for the suburbs and only returning whenever he thought he could make money off the property. And the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, because Rona perks up when the surveyor suggests he may have found something on their land. Of course, Corbin didn’t lose an arm — which has been replaced by a crow’s arm (credited to Kyle Brewer) — just so his niece could spit on the family legacy. For Corbin, he would rather lose his arm all over again than work under someone and live in a home he doesn’t truly own.

To spice up familiar territory, Everett has thrown in some supernatural elements, among which is a ghost story that’s closer to truth than fiction.

Still, Everett’s Carrion Birds feels better suited for a collection of short stories than the stage; It’s something you would read in the late hours of the night.

Lynn’s direction sees the play move at a brisk pace, evading much emotional complexity along the way. The performances are loud with meaningful or thoughtful pauses seldom appearing — too bad considering the themes of Everett’s drama. So, the ideas move, but they don’t necessarily connect.

Hall and Griffith do a fine job convincing us that neither Rona or Corbin would be a welcome sight out alone in the woods. Griffith delivers a fanatical, lyrical intensity while Hall’s Rona is dangerously mischievous and cunning. Kudos to Bech for the physicality of his role (at one point he’s thrown to the ground by Hall), he sells it well.

The set features big logs of wood downstage left and three screens upstage where video projection (crow painting by Darshini Moonesawmy; video editing by Gavin Alexander Reid) displays crows on branches. The video projection adds a nice touch of dramatic flair to the woodland scenery.

***

Directed by Jean-Michel Cliche, Alex Pannier’s Casualties sees siblings Andrew (Lucas Tapley) and Elaine (Sharisse LeBrun) thrown back and forth in time by memories of their painful childhood. Addicted to pills and alcohol, Elaine and Andrew’s parents are the absently present. Neither adult is capable of responsibility, nor are they able to see the consequences of their behaviour. Elaine and Andrew are left to fend for themselves, leading to a strained relationship between brother and sister.

Pannier’s play brings to mind the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse” where Larkin tells us plainly in the first line “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Following Elaine and Andrew closely on their journey through memory is a Monster (Alex Fullerton, wearing a mask that could belong to a killer clown) who sometimes represents addiction and anger and other times the family relative who sexually abused both of them.

Casualties is a brutally honest exploration of abuse and emotional fallout. And it is wonderfully directed by Cliche who translates the vulnerability of Pannier’s writing to the stage with great care.

Part of what makes Casualties an exciting, yet purposeful production is the measured theatricality of Cliche’s direction. To portray the parents, LeBrun and Tapley wear masks that are stylistically similar to those found in commedia dell’arte. The actors, upon donning these masks, become almost manic with big, exaggerated movements and heightened voices; it’s a collision between tragedy and comedy, but no one’s laughing. So while mom gets tangled up in the phone cord, LeBrun’s Elaine is trying to find some way to release the pain she feels inside. Cliche gives these harsh character moments time to breathe before the clowning starts up again.

With the Monster, Cliche has him behave as a puppet master, pulling the family’s strings. Fullerton’s Monster moves in a taunting manner, as if taking pleasure in watching the family fall apart. He is an ominous presence on the stage.

The set is clean and accommodating of movement. In the center, there is a large bed, with a white and black wall behind it that looks like a QR code. Downstage on both sides are big wooden cubes with an E and A written on them, respectively. The sides of the cubes have key images from Elaine and Andrew’s childhood.

LeBrun and Tapley, who can really turn on a dime emotionally and physically, make a fantastic pairing. 

The final minutes of Casualties are chilling. While Elaine and Andrew wonder if they will turn out like their parents (“what will I be?”), the actors walk slowly to the bed, put on their masks, and sit up in bed looking out into the audience. It’s a frightening transition that says so much about how children can be affected by trauma.


Carrion Birds by Greg Everett and Alex Pannier’s Casualties run August 2 – 4 at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial, as part of the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

For more information about the festival, visit: https://nbacts.com/

Dylan Sealy’s The Dangers of Geothermal Heating Kicks off the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Dylan Sealy's The Dangers of Geothermal Heating runs July 26 - 28 as part of the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Anna Chatterton, Kira Chisholm, Len Falkenstein, and Jake Martin. Photo Credit: Mike Johnston.

Dylan Sealy’s The Dangers of Geothermal Heating runs July 26 – 28 as part of the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Anna Chatterton, Kira Chisholm, Len Falkenstein, and Jake Martin. Photo Credit: Mike Johnston.

It’s not easy going green. Just ask the Weatherbee-Savoie family — victims of a fourth-dimensional hellscape.

Running as the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s Mainstage production, Dylan Sealy’s The Dangers of Geothermal Heating is a lot like morning breakfast. The comedic elements are crisp like bacon, and the references to classic horror movies run deep like a refreshing glass of orange juice. And the family drama? It’s running all over the place like the yolk from three soft eggs.

Directed by Lisa Anne Ross, The Dangers of Geothermal Heating finds parents Tim (Len Falkenstein) and Tara (Anna Chatterton) trying to casually pass the time in their newly haunted home. Their daughter Annabelle (Kira Chisholm) has had enough of the twisting labyrinth outside of their living room. Not only is there a minotaur roaming the hallways, but the bathroom is constantly moving around. Oh — there’s also hands trying to drag Annabelle into hell.

Who knew trying to install geothermal heating could have such horrific consequences?

Well, if you ask Tim, the geothermal heating isn’t necessarily to blame. The family must have disturbed an ancient Indian burial ground. That’s if Tim remembers Poltergeist correctly. It’s been awhile.

Whatever the reason, Tara just wants her house back. That’s why the family has hired Doctor Richard Dee (Jake Martin) to help them return the house back to normal.

Let’s talk about Ross’ absolutely marvelous direction.

Ross plunges the Fredericton Playhouse’s backstage studio space into total metaphysical weirdness. As established, everything outside of the living room is chaos. To show this, Ross has devised simple, yet effective choreography for the actors whenever they walk outside of the living room and into the infinite abyss. The actors walk in a very slow and deliberate manner that demonstrates a kind of space-time distortion in the labyrinth. As well, there are two doors that neatly slide around in the void, showing us how the house continues to twist and shift around — no wonder Annabelle can’t find the bathroom!

The physicality of Ross’ direction, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given her background in physical theatre, also brings out wonderful comedic moments, some of which are staged behind the scrim. The director delightfully expands on the already campy tones of Sealy’s script.

Speaking of which, The Dangers of Geothermal Heating is very funny. Fans of horror movies will appreciate the way Sealy plays with tropes of the genre. But of course, what’s the paranormal without the human element? The Weatherbee-Savoie family could seriously benefit from family counseling. Not because dad poisons their food sometimes, but because the family struggles to talk about their feelings honestly. And that’s what makes Sealy’s play a lot of fun, because you can almost imagine a ghost turning and saying to his partner “uh, let’s not get involved right now.”

Chisholm brings great comedic timing and a lot of attitude to the character of Annabelle, an eye-rolling teenager who just wants her mom to open up. Chisholm’s eyes are like daggers whenever Falkenstein’s Tim starts to say something super problematic. Chatterton is a force to be reckoned with as Tara, the family’s breadwinner. Falkenstein plays Tim with bumbling TV dad confidence, and it’s hilarious. It is a joy to watch Falkenstein and Chatterton’s characters argue in the midst of everything going to hell.

Martin’s Doctor Richard Dee, a paranormal expert with multiple PhDs, is wildly amusing to watch as his eccentric energy frustrates everyone and deflates all hope for normalcy.

Set designer Mike Johnston drops us into a nice and orderly living room that has an almost vintage feel to it — for one, there’s vinyl record coasters. It’s as if Tara beat everyone to the best deals at Value Village. The living room is situated on a raised platform, directly above and stage left are windows suspended in the air. The living room is warmly lit by Chris Saad who also hits us with all sorts of red for the play’s freakier moments. Johnston also provides the sound design, delivering loud demonic voices that are often a little hard to make out clearly. Costume Designer Laura-Beth Bird dresses Chatterton in ‘good work ethic’ plaid, with Falkenstein in more relaxed, goofy dad — e.g. short-sleeved dress shirt — clothing. Martin could not be better dressed as a mix between the Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor and the 11th Doctor.

Sure, the playwright drags out his defiance of audience expectations, but The Dangers of Geothermal Heating should not be missed. It’s hilariously ghoulish.


Dylan Sealy’s The Dangers of Geothermal Heating runs July 26 – 28 at the Fredericton Playhouse (Backstage studio space), as part of the 2018 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. The NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival runs July 26 – August 4.

For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival, visit: https://nbacts.com/

A Record of Us Drives Through the Heart of New Brunswick

Two years after premiering at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival, A Record of Us is back for a New Brunswick tour, beginning here in Fredericton at Saint Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre. A Record of Us is the inaugural work created and performed by Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop. The touring production features the original cast — Jean-Michel Cliche, Kira Chisholm, Alex Donovan, Ian Goff, Alexa Higgins, and Lexi McCrae.

Directed by Lesandra Dodson and Lisa Anne Ross, who created the work in collaboration with the coop company members, A Record of Us blends physical theatre with the texts of author David Adams Richards. So, yes, bleak is one way A Record of Us could be described for its reflections on loss, isolation, and family violence.

In one episode, the question on everyone’s mind is — what did you do, Ben? A cacophony of public suspicion overwhelms Ben (Cliche), a young man dealing with alcoholism. His father (Goff) meets him in a physical confrontation where dinner plates slide into the scene behind them. Later, Ben’s sisters (Higgins and McCrae) attempt at ignoring the damage in their family — while cleaning the mess left behind —  fails when their conversation breaks down.

Elsewhere, a young woman (Higgins) falls apart while no one seems to care or notice. Her worries are drowned out by the noise of men playing pool, aggressively, in the background. Another round of beer. Another night of pool. Another face in the bar.

In another part, two men (Donovan and Goff) slinging coffees try breaking away from their scripted customer interactions to have a meaningful conversation between themselves. Earnest human emotion in the wake of tragedy surfaces after much difficulty, leaving the men vulnerable to each other under the store’s harsh fluorescent lighting.

A Record of Us suggests the New Brunswick experience is rooted in a spirit of perseverance that, despite all odds, endures across the province — demonstrated most recently in last month’s record-breaking flood. Yet, failure has managed to find its way into New Brunswick’s fabric: high unemployment, low literacy, and continued youth out-migration. And so, in these reflections, A Record of Us depicts the fallout of continued personal hardships.

Unfortunately, the show suffers from a narrow perspective of living in New Brunswick. What about bilingualism? And the aging population? The indigenous population? The steadily increasing number of visible minorities? Sure, the social issues mentioned earlier can affect everyone, but not in the same ways; it’s called intersectionality. Since Richards’ works were only used for inspiration, there was room for the creators to develop their own contributions for the project. So, it’s not as if A Record of Us is a firm adaptation of anything that could explain the gaps. 

Under the direction of Dodson and Ross, the production stages stunning images that effectively expand the work’s themes. The movement language, elevated by impressive lighting work, is almost cinematic. In one such moment, Higgins performs in front of strobe lights (lighting design & technical direction by Trent Logan), producing a motion blur effect that looks as if a film reel is spinning out of control. That film reel consists of nothing but different versions of her character, different outcomes based on other people’s expectations. There’s also this intensity that continues from segment to segment, an intensity mixed with an unexpected, kind of morbid sense of humour. Dodson and Ross explore this intensity through brute, yet calculated movement that is performed with great vitality by the cast.

A talented ensemble and articulate direction help distract from the limited narrative presented in A Record of Us.


The New Brunswick tour of Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop’s A Record of Us runs June 1 – 8 in Fredericton, Saint John, Moncton, and Sackville.

For more information about the show, including performance dates and ticket information, visit: http://www.solochickenproductions.com/a-record-of-us-june-2018-tour/

Laugh and Cry with Buttercup Productions’ And the Lights Go Out, Semi-Sweetheart

Presented at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre, Buttercup Productions’ And the Lights Go Out and Semi-Sweetheart pair splendidly for an evening of local theatre. The one-act comedies, written and directed by Artistic Director Samuel Crowell, will warm anyone in need of a good thaw after such a long winter.

And the Lights Go Out finds four high school students locked in after a disastrous dress rehearsal of Bye, Bye Birdie. Being locked in wouldn’t be so bad if theatre rivals Bess (Mallory Kelly) and Pepper (Naomi McGowan) weren’t trapped in the same room together. Pepper’s boyfriend Daveth (Peter Boyce) is caught between the two leads while Hannah (Sydney Hallett) grows frustrated with everyone calling her Anna. Moments later, the lights turn off and come back to reveal the students standing in four spotlights (lighting design by Christ Saad), with an ominous countdown appearing on their phones – and Hannah’s watch.

What’s fun about And the Lights Go Out is that the play feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone, only instead of a creature on the airplane’s wing there’s a shadowy figure in the booth. So, imagine the episode Five Characters In Search of An Exit but with the outrageous drama of high school drama. (Oh, the memories.) One by one, the students begin disappearing, time starts to run backwards, and memories begin to fade. And like an episode of The Twilight Zone, there’s a twist at the end: no one was ever trapped, the whole play is Daveth (actually Benji, from the booth) revisiting what was a very special time in his life.

Sure, Crowell’s ending doesn’t quite land, both in the writing and direction, but the main idea still manages to come through. That is, we can’t really appreciate something until it’s gone and then it’s too late.

McGowan has a blast playing Pepper, with all the shouting and big physicality of a character who needs to be the best. Kelly is right there with McGowan, throwing back everything she lobs at her. Hallett quietly steals scenes with her meek, offbeat performance as Hannah. And Boyce brings a lively nervous energy that is fun to watch as his character tries to keep it together.

Crowell manages to keep the play from feeling stale with a sense of anticipation in the movement, which gradually goes from rambunctious to slow and heavy. Same with the writing where the unexplained ramps up to a boil.

In Semi-Sweetheart, Charlotte (Sydney Hallett) visits her dying friend Joan McCloud (Naomi McGowan) in the hospital. The childhood friends look back on their friendship and the significance of Joan’s obsession with chocolate. Joan doesn’t only love chocolate, she lives for it. And sometimes, chocolate gets Joan in trouble. Although Charlotte knows the story differently, Joan’s high school sweetheart Henry (Miguel Roy) cemented the couple’s relationship with a plate of chocolate chip cookies – a gift stolen from Charlotte – for Joan’s birthday. Of course, none of this comes out until all three are adults and in the same room for the first time in many years.

Crowell doesn’t hide the fact that Joan is dying, it’s mentioned right away. So, this isn’t one of those plays that’s out to trick its audience. Everyone is on the same page about Joan. Which is what makes it hard for Charlotte to say what she needs to say. Here’s Joan dying, and then Charlotte wants to set the record straight about something that happened twenty years ago.

Despite its grim premise, Semi-Sweetheart is actually very funny. The friendship between Joan and Charlotte is presented in scenes that depict the two women at different ages. Joan meets Charlotte at the age of seven, then the audience watches Joan’s first communion where Charlotte ruins her white dress with dark chocolate (it’s an acquired taste). As if things couldn’t get worse, the altar crucifix almost falls on top of Joan. Hallett and McGowan are a joy to watch in the scene as their characters (Charlotte shuffles close behind Joan to keep anyone from seeing the chocolate stain) try surviving what ends up being a disaster anyway.

Hallett and McGowan deliver high-energy performances that manage to remain grounded in sincerity. The actors do a great job of portraying the characters at different ages, from carefree children to ‘whatever’ teenagers. Roy brings a tough guy attitude to Henry, a former football player with the game still in his blood. He also plays the Priest and Joan’s father.

Crowell’s minimalist set design has different items from Joan and Charlotte’s friendship placed around the stage. It’s all chocolate-related, of course. Saad’s lighting gives focus to the flashback scenes, taking us in and out of the present with clarity.

One major issue with the production is Crowell’s puzzling choice to include voice-over. Near the end, the voices of two older women play right over Hallett and McGowan’s dialogue. It’s hard to hear clearly, but it’s the same dialogue being spoken. The intended effect is to convince/remind the audience, at the last minute, that these characters are not being played by early 20-something actors. The voices have no presence anywhere else, so they don’t even work as, say, a framing device. Again, whatever dialogue being spoken is hard to hear, so the established mood and pace are really zapped by the voice-over.

Elevated by strong performances, Semi-Sweetheart is a heartfelt comedy that sure knows how to pluck the heartstrings.


Buttercup Productions’ And the Lights Go Out, Semi-Sweetheart ran as a double bill from April 19 – 21 at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre.

A Howling Success: Griffith’s Fortune of Wolves Premieres at Theatre New Brunswick

TNBFortuneOfWolves

Theatre New Brunswick presents Ryan Griffith’s Fortune of Wolves, Oct 12 – 22 / 24 – 30. Left to right: Michaela Washburn, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, Graham Percy, and Kimwun Perehinec. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

Enjoying its world premiere at Theatre New Brunswick, Ryan Griffith’s Fortune of Wolves is a fabulously imaginative play about a young man named Lowell (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, and others) who encounters the strange and inexplicable while travelling across Canada. According to TNB, no performance during the show’s run will be the same. Dice are rolled before every performance to determine which of the more than 40 characters Lowell will meet and interview. In its entirety, the show would run over nine hours long. How long is the show actually? Approximately two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission. So, the chances of a repeat performance are slim.

Lowell’s entire world is empty after the death of his parents. Wanting to recapture sound, Lowell sets out on a cross-country adventure from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to Tofino, British Columbia. Along the way, he documents the lives of everyday Canadians using his voice recorder. That’s the plan, anyway. What Lowell doesn’t know is that he may in fact be documenting humanity’s last days on Earth.

Of course, no one knows right away that the world may be ending. The strangest thing Keith (Graham Percy) from Perth-Andover can tell Lowell is about a friend who claims he met God while in a coma. When not drunkenly complaining about a town that thinks it’s a city, Stacy (Michaela Washburn) from Fredericton mentions that someone from her boyfriend JP’s work disappeared recently. In Waterville, Lowell learns from a hospital worker named Emma (Kimwun Perehinec) about a patient who disappeared without a trace. It’s not until Lowell arrives in Montreal that he and other people start to realize that the reported disappearances are not isolated, but part of a larger unknown phenomenon.

What makes Fortune of Wolves a howling success is its refreshing and grounded approach to the science fiction genre. Aliens. Starships. Experiments run amok. These classic images associated with science fiction are nowhere to be found, or at least their implied presence is very minimal, in Griffith’s play. Instead, the New Brunswick playwright focuses on what’s at the very heart of science fiction: ordinary people against extraordinary circumstances. And no scene better encapsulates Fortune of Wolves than Dwight’s monologue.

Montreal resident Dwight has earned a pay raise at work. The bump in pay means that he and his girlfriend can now stay a little more ahead of their monthly bills. Tragically, Dwight’s girlfriend dies suddenly in her sleep. What is a greater unknown than death? He is reluctant to leave his girlfriend’s body to call for help, fearing that her body may disappear. Of course, it’s not about aliens abducting people. It’s not even about the world ending. For Dwight, the world has already ended, and his only connection to the world he knew and cherished is his girlfriend. It’s a powerful and very human monologue about loss that breaks the heart thanks to a delicate and nuanced performance by Gonzalez-Vio.

Anyone curious about the ‘no performance is the same’ concept should know that yes, it does actually matter. Going in, I was skeptical about the concept, because what difference does it make if I’m only going to see the play once? So what if this performance may only exist for me and none of my friends? Here’s the thing, Lowell records frequent travel updates, and in them he references events the audiences may or may not have seen in scenes prior. It’s really cool to hear Lowell speak about something I was lucky to see in this performance of the play. It’s also really cool to hear about what I didn’t get to see, to let myself imagine what else is happening to the characters that inhabit Griffith’s apocalyptic Canada. Such excitement over the play’s other stories is super dependent on the quality of the script. In that sense, it’s an incredibly risky work of drama, because frankly nine hours of material doesn’t mean a thing if no one wants to sit through any portion of it.

And so, would I see the play again? Yes. I want to hear from the other characters. I want to discover their stories. I am so curious to know the full scale of the play’s mysterious phenomenon. I wouldn’t even mind if, somehow, it was the exact same performance, because there is just so much to appreciate in the script. Griffith’s strongest quality as a playwright is writing characters who you feel like you could meet one day, either walking down the street or in your apartment building. The script’s elegant introspection will stay with you and may even call you back inside the theatre.

There is something haunting and turbulent about the atmosphere created by Composition and Sound Designer Deanna Choi. Somehow, Choi makes TNB’s Open Space Theatre feel at once intimate (which the space is) and very large. Perhaps it’s the melodic eeriness that follows Lowell combined with the violent rumbling, that feels as if the whole world is trembling, that comes periodically. David Degrow’s lighting design adds to the production’s otherworldly atmosphere with its moody character and emphasis on silhouettes.

Director Thomas Morgan Jones’ approach to staging Fortune of Wolves is economical. When not delivering monologues, the non-speaking actors perform movements either in the background or around the actor speaking, and/or they represent an extension of Lowell. While Jane (Perehinec) explains the Fermi Paradox and Great Filter to Lowell, the other actors run in circles on stage, swirling around her like stars and Lowell’s brain trying to grasp the cosmic significance of these two theories. Other times, the non-speaking actors perform small, repeating movement patterns.

This cast that TNB has brought together is immensely versatile. Gonzalez-Vio disappears into his characters, transforming head-to-toe from scene to scene, and portrays Lowell’s disintegration with vigor. Perehinec’s confident and engaging stage presence makes her shine as Jane and Casey, an army medic with no left to report to. Perehinec’s Casey is an endearing character that anyone would want by their side at the end of the world. Percy is seriously, seriously frightening as the unhinged and sadistic Ed who nearly ends Lowell’s journey prematurely. Washburn’s Zoe speaks profound truths with a smile and peppiness that makes one almost forget that the actress also really knows how to play a cantankerous old woman.

Anything is possible in science fiction. The genre embraces the extraordinary and imagines circumstances and worlds so unlike our own. And yet, in works of science fiction, we often find ourselves and truths that have deep meaning towards the way we live. Griffith’s Fortune of Wolves is one such work of science fiction that holds profound meaning for both today’s world and the world of tomorrow. Theatre New Brunswick’s world premiere production is a must-see.


Theatre New Brunswick’s Fortune of Wolves runs October 12 – 22 at the Open Space Theatre in Fredericton. Then, the production will tour New Brunswick from October 24 – 30. For more information, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/fortune-of-wolves/

Hinter, It Happened at a Party Debut at NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Hinter by Jean-Michel Cliche and Caroline Coon’s It Happened at a Party are this year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category. For winning in their category, Cliche and Coon received dramaturgical support from playwright and librettist Anna Chatterton. Audiences can see the winning one-act plays at Memorial Hall, located on the University of New Brunswick campus, where they are being presented as a double bill until August 5th.

Nature has reclaimed the earth in Hinter, directed by Sharisse LeBrun. Val (Amanda Thorne) and Missy (Telina Debly) are sisters trying to survive the post-apocalypse and return home – well, whatever is left of it anyway. The wild has buried much of humankind and its achievements.  Seemingly, humans went too far in their pursuit of gaining purpose and were subsequently punished for it by the animals. The animals have divided themselves into different classes, each fulfilling an important function to maintain their dominance over humankind.

A stranger named Calvin (Ryan Griffith) finds Val and Missy’s camp. Calvin claims to be a Guardian, a special class of human that protects the young, and that there are many others like him, searching for others to help. The sisters are hesitant at first to trust Calvin, but then eventually decide to accept his company.

There are three layers to the world that Cliche has created here: (1) the New World, dominated by nature (2) the Old World, buried underneath the wild (3) memories of the Old World, otherwise known as home. Val and Missy’s memories of home are almost ghostly in the way that they can be seen (down to the floor plan of their house) but never lived again. Returning home is a futile attempt at going back to the way things were.

And so, it is an interesting choice by LeBrun to have Val step outside of the stage – effectively removing her from all three layers of the world – and deliver a monologue about her home life. The blocking certainly provides intimacy with the audience, but what about the fact these characters have just retraced their steps back home? Going home is as much spiritual as it is physical. There is a sense of a missed opportunity for Val to walk through her former life on stage, to guide the audience through her introspective journey.

The set is simple enough with two big tree stumps serving as seats around the campfire, logs of wood on top of a circle of rocks. There is a large camping tent, set up by Thorne and Debly, stage left. Strangely, the trees are represented by a long plastic looking material, split down the middle, that hang from up high. The flimsy material really seems misplaced alongside the tree stumps, logs of wood, and rocks – the aesthetic of an earth reclaimed by nature. Yes, there is a kind of depth and image of wild growth achieved, but then the camping tent – a product of the Old World – and the trees look too similar, contradicting the primary conflict at the play’s core.

There is an ambiguity as to whether or not Calvin is telling the truth about the Guardians. What feeds that ambiguity is Calvin’s obsession with hero narratives – saving the day from the big bad wolves that prey on innocent life. Is Calvin simply a hero in his own mind or has he really been tasked by a secret group of magical protectors with saving the next generation? He wouldn’t be the one who’s chasing a fantasy. Griffith makes this ambiguity interesting with the way he is calm with a very slight aggression underneath.

Although sometimes the script loses its footing, the conclusion is very satisfying, albeit with the exception of one thing, Left for dead, Val comes face-to-face with one of the monsters (Alex Rioux, wearing a large animal-like skull with massive antlers and fur). LeBrun’s perceptive study of the scene, in addition to her eye for theatricality, produces a confrontation that is magnificently melancholic, yet hopeful. The play feels so emotionally and thematically complete at this point that it’s really too bad that it’s not the final scene! And that’s nothing against Debly who closes the play with a brief scene afterwards; knowing when to end something is hard.

***

Directed by Tilly Jackson, It Happened at a Party tells the story of Camilla (Kelsey Hines), a high school student invited to a house party hosted by popular student athlete Ryan (Alex Fullerton). Joining Camilla are her friends Tyler (Robbie Lynn) and Lexi (Mallory Kelly), a couple in a problematic relationship. The group of friends get drunk together at the party. Tyler is the only one worried that Camilla may be too drunk. Lexi doesn’t think so, and neither does Ryan who flirts with Camilla all night. After Tyler and Lexi leave, Ryan invites Camilla to lay down in his bedroom, and then the truth about what happened that night is taken to court.

Coon’s It Happened at a Party seeks to raise awareness about consent and sexual assault. The subject matter is very important, especially for young people. For some parents and educators, teaching sexual education is uncomfortable and something that would preferably be avoided altogether. As a result, some young people are left to figure out a lot on their own, including how to define a healthy relationship.

Coon recognizes social media’s damaging effect on the victims of sexual violence. Online, classmates actively try to damage Camilla’s reputation and credibility by spreading false information about her; she becomes a target of cyberbullying. The students show a lack of understanding – and concern – that their words have consequences in the real world. The aftermath of Camilla’s coming forward with her story leads her to feel alone, powerless, and trapped within a (larger cultural) narrative twisted against her.

Unfortunately, the play struggles to push its subject matter in a way that satisfies the question, “what does this play contribute to the conversation?” There is a lot that Coon wants to say with It Happened at a Party, as evidenced by the bloated script’s frequent jumps from scene to scene to scene. But there is a distinct lack of focus and individual voice throughout, perhaps a result of the 60-minute limit for entries in the Acting Out category. In trying to cover everything, Coon has written a play that’s not only flat, but missing the kind of urgency that generates discussion on the drive home (and hopefully beyond that, too).

For the set, there are three large rectangular panels upon which images are projected. The setup is put to good use by showing images of posts on popular social media sites about Camilla, along with text messages between students. The set can be described as minimalist, likely necessary in order to accommodate the number of scene changes.

Jackson’s direction produces a steady pace for the play. Although, time and place are loosely established.

Hines carries the show with ease as Camilla. The actor demonstrates great expression with an ability to deliver emotional highs and lows. The ensemble do a good job working together in a play that tackles serious issues.

Although there is a clear enthusiasm for education and awareness, Coon’s It Happened at a Party is a play in need of more work. The script might benefit from another look where the perspective is refined and its characters are given dimension. Maybe then, the play will have more weight that goes beyond its surface.


Hinter and It Happened at a Party were presented as workshopped productions.
The plays ran August 3 – 5 at UNB’s Memorial Hall.

For more information about the Notable Acts Theatre Festival, visit:
https://nbacts.com/the-festival/

Grace Notes Returns to the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Returning this year to the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival is Patrick Toner’s Grace Notes. Grace Notes was first presented last summer as part of NotaBle Act’s Play Out Loud series, where new plays in development are given public readings. Audiences can catch Grace Notes at St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre, July 26-29.

Directed by Clarissa Hurley, Grace Notes tells the story of Sergeant Grace Neil (Leah Holder), a recently demoted member of the military police. She is given the ‘easy’ assignment of Junior Pipe Band Instructor in the Territories. The band is comprised of young Tribe followers. There is a deep mistrust by the West towards those who follow the religious teachings of Tribe, with Tribe being unable to fly on airplanes as just one example.

There, in the Territories, Grace is reunited with her sister Magda (Caroline Coon). She also becomes acquainted with Solomon (Warren Macaulay), the pipe band’s drum major. Solomon is a Tribe activist guided by dangerous ambition. He pressures Grace to question the truth of everything the West has told her, and many others like her, about Tribe. Grace eventually opens herself to Tribe teachings as she becomes more involved with life (and Solomon) in the Territories.

A lot is broken in this world that Toner has crafted, with clear inspiration from the state of global affairs today. Solomon carries the weight of a traumatic childhood, memories of occupation. What motivates the character to push towards despicable acts is the immutable narrative that has emerged from the Territories. Solomon is frustrated by the fact that nothing has changed, only worsened. There are drones now that fly overhead and are capable of massive destruction. And the local people have become accustomed to air raids, heading into underground shelters when the sirens blare. The possibility for peace through diplomacy has long been ruined for Solomon; violence begets violence.

Grace Notes offers its audience interesting commentary not only about the world at broad, but also the treatment of ‘others’.  One of such key moments is when Captain Boisclair (Joel Diamond) informs Grace that her pipe band has been invited to play in the West. Grace recognizes the invitation for what it is: propaganda. It is a clear demonstration of the way in which (typically) marginalized groups of people are used by institutions to publicly convey and reaffirm their values, then are discarded and forgotten once their temporary purpose has been fulfilled.

On a similar note: given the real-world parallels here, kudos to Hurley for not attempting to play up the ‘foreigness’ of the Tribe characters.

Toner’s ambitious scope is certainly worthy of praise, but it is too bad that the characters are underdeveloped. More could be done to explore and reveal the struggle of these characters trapped at the mercy of powers beyond them. And it is frustrating when there are glimpses of where Toner might peel away layers only for him to rush through the emotions and move onto the larger story at play. (Toner should consider expanding the play into two-acts). Imagery of bagpipes and food steal focus from characters in a play stuck on a higher metaphorical level.

Thankfully, the production is gifted with a talented cast that help enrich the human factor of Toner’s play. Holder expresses her character’s shifting loyalty through subtle movements that speak volumes. She really has that capacity to take a character through an emotional arc. Macaulay’s back and forths with Holder’s Grace are fascinating to watch. He is a great antagonist with his ability to make words creep and crawl, planting seeds of doubt along the way. Holder and Macaulay are a strong pairing. A recent graduate from Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, Coon brings a subdued intensity to Magda that she knows how to use to its fullest effect. So, it is a shame that there is not more Magda (see paragraph above) in the script because Coon shows promising range. (And what a singing voice!) The same can be said for Diamond who really only gets to play towards the end, where he’s not delivering exposition. Devin Luke plays the minor role of a lawyer, a character put in to help advance and frame the plot.

Back to Hurley’s direction, she manages very well with the numerous scene jumps that take the audience to different locales in the past, the future, and the present. The actors travel across the stage fluidly and with clear intentions that help establish space. There could be some restraint on animated projection images in the background (ex: grainy aerial footage) since the detailed play-by-play from the characters stand on their own.

Mike Johnston’s set design is very conscious of the demands of the play. As a result, the set pieces are mobile and dynamic. In one scene, the set pieces are used as bus seats; the next, they form a wall and the entrance to an underground shelter. Chris Saad’s lighting work in the play’s final moments make for an exciting conclusion. There is effective sound design by Mike Doherty who delivers a robust sound for the action sequences. Costume designer Sherry Kinnear gives Macaulay a military jacket that has strong hints of ‘revolutionary’, very fitting for his character’s appetite for justice – justice as he defines it.

Grace Notes is relevant today in a world where our collective future grows more and more uncertain everyday. Although thought-provoking, the play struggles to bring together its big ideas in a way that connects on a deeper, more personal level.


Patrick Toner’s Grace Notes runs July 26 – 29 at the Black Box Theatre, 7:30PM nightly.
For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival, including tickets and the complete schedule: https://nbacts.com/the-festival/