With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

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Greg Everett’s Gullywhump — Abraham (Scott Harris) and the Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird). Image from 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 (Gullywhump) and Sophie Tremblay-Pitre (With Love, Josephine). Everett and Tremblay-Pitre’s one-act plays, presented as workshopped productions, are running together as a double-bill at Memorial Hall. Both plays received dramaturgical support from playwright Rob Kempsen, NotaBle Acts’ artist-in-residence for the 2019 festival.

Moving between the past and present, Tremblay-Pitre’s With Love, Josephine tells the story of Jo (Mika Driedger) and her grandmother, Josephine (Julianne Richard). It’s 2018, and Josephine has recently passed away. Her former lover Charles (Miguel Roy) visits her house to drop off a box of keepsakes to her daughter Lynn (Kelsey Hines). Among the keepsakes is Josephine’s diary which Jo begins to read in secret. 

The year is 1956, and Josephine is a young woman trying to make her own choices in life. She wants to marry Charles, but her family doesn’t approve of him. Why? Charles is not from a wealthy family, and he’s French. Josephine’s mother Dorothy (Hines) has someone else in mind for her daughter, someone who would be better for her future. Josephine struggles with self-doubt and fear of failure. She feels helpless against the expectations of her mother, her community, and the man she loves. 

Josephine’s story mirrors the issues Jo is facing in the present. Both women are trying their best, but their best doesn’t seem good enough for anyone. Loneliness begins to creep in as so much of their story is wrapped inside someone else’s. And so, what hope can either Jo or Josephine feel for the future when they can’t see their authentic selves ahead of them?

With Love, Josephine sees English and French sharing the same stage. Although it’s not necessary to know French, a basic comprehension of the language does help with appreciating the flavour of Charles’ dialogue. It’s important to note that sometimes Charles makes an effort to translate his thoughts into English, for the benefit of Josephine and some portion of the audience. The play’s bilingualism enriches the drama between Josephine and Charles.

The production is visually interesting with characters entering and exiting from different points of Memorial Hall. Blizzard transforms Josephine’s home into a place where past and present clash just as much as they melt into one another. 

Driedger brings tenderness to the role of Jo, a tenderness that Hines squashes as Lynn and Dorothy. Hines plays the mother characters with the firmness of someone hardened by experience. She is a steamroller run amok. Richard is fantastic as Josephine. Richard and Roy bring out a lot from the other. Anthony Bryan plays the character of Tom with a cool light-hearted energy.

Directed by Miguel Roy, Gullywhump tells the story of two brothers and their pilgrimage to spread their sister’s ashes. Elisha (Alex Rioux) and Saul (Alex Fullerton) revisit painful memories from their childhood as they venture towards Abigail’s final resting place. The brothers are not alone in the cursed forest of Burntland — the same setting as Everett’s Carrion Birds which premiered last year at NotaBle Acts. In pursuit of the two brothers is a Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird), a creature of darkness from their father’s old stories. The audience learns the story of the Gullywhump from Abraham (Scott Harris) in segments.

Don’t let all the talk about black magic and the supernatural fool you, Gullywhump is at its heart a story about coping with loss and trauma. Eli and Saul’s trek through darkness revolves around transformation and letting go. The dark is in between and all around the brothers. They can’t see the other in front of them. Eli and Saul project their regrets onto the other person. The brothers’ pilgrimage is a journey towards the light, towards clarity and understanding. 

The Gullywhump is a mysterious, nearly unimaginable creature. Is it a monster? No, maybe not. That seems inaccurate. The creature, animated wonderfully by Bird, is seemingly the physical manifestation of fear and death. Its true form is difficult to grasp, yet its presence is known. Abigail (Brenna Gauthier) befriends the Gullywhump before taking her life. 

And so, Gullywhump is not a play about a monster that needs a stake impaled through its heart. Yes, there is a monster, and that monster is the children’s father Abraham who sexually abused Abigail. The ritual of laying Abigail to peace is grounded in healing. Abigail’s spirit joins the Gullywhump in meeting Eli and Saul. Eli puts his knife down as everything becomes clear. The siblings, imbued with each other’s strength, can go their separate ways now. Abraham, who spoke so gleefully of the creature, finds himself vanquished by the Gullywhump.

Gullywhump is a heavy play, and it is also at times hard to decipher. Everett leaves ample room for interpretation. It is a compelling play, though, with its vivid imagery and poetic qualities. Roy’s direction keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. The scenes between Abraham and the Gullywhump are almost dream-like in their fluidity and intensity.

Harris is frightening in the role of Abraham. He appears on stage as a ghoul, and he floats like one too. The way the actor snaps his fingers and dances to his characters’ telling of the Gullywhump is unsettling. Rioux and Fullerton do well in their roles of estranged brothers. The brotherly conflict is tense. Gauthier breathes energy and a soft earnestness into the character of Abigail.


With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump ran as a double-bill August 1 – 3 at Memorial Hall. 

Fruit Machine Premieres at NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

 

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Fruit Machine is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Lucas Tapley, Samuel Crowell, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Dustyn Forbes. Photo Credit: Matt Carter.

Alex Rioux and Samuel Crowell began working on Fruit Machine in 2017. At the time, Rioux and Crowell were members of the Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop ⁠— a platform for contemporary artists to create original works of physical theatre. In May of last year, a work-in-progress showing of Fruit Machine ran before another production from the coop, A Record of Us.

Fast forward to this summer: Rioux and Crowell, in collaboration with members of the coop, have developed Fruit Machine into a full-length production, and it is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

Presented at the Black Box Theatre, Fruit Machine explores the decades-long purge of gay men and lesbians in the Canadian military and RCMP. The ‘fruit machine’ was a device designed in the 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor from Carleton University, to detect homosexuality in subjects, who were unaware of the machine’s true purpose. Cold War paranoia motivated the witch-hunt as officials believed gay personnel could be blackmailed by Soviet spies, effectively making them threats to national security. 

What unfolds in Fruit Machine, which uses physical theatre to interpret historical texts and quotes, is a story of betrayal. We meet men and women who are betrayed by their peers, their families, and their country. We enter a world of secrecy, of coded language, and hidden intentions. It is a dark chapter of Canadian history that is almost too hard to believe, especially from the perspective of a young millennial.

Rioux and Crowell present moments that express the same kind of disbelief. These are moments that could appear in any episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. One standout moment is when the actors shuffle across the stage while holding newspapers to their faces (no eye holes). It is entirely comical, again straight from a cartoon, because this period of history seems so outlandish from a young person’s point-of-view. Seriously, a man couldn’t drive a white convertible car or wear a ring on his pinky finger without people thinking he was gay? We are soon reminded that these seemingly trivial actions had life-altering consequences.

Fruit becomes a powerful image in the play. It is an object that holds a lot of significance for the characters and their relationships with others. Fruit is something to be discarded. Fruit is something to be destroyed. Fruit is something to be embraced. Fruit is something that connects people. The inanimate objects are transformed into characters, and the actors respond to them accordingly. The result is beautiful storytelling told through eloquent movement.

Rioux’s direction smartly crafts an intimate atmosphere with characters weaving in and out of the action on stage. There are moments where the connective tissue seems loose, leaving the play and its network of characters feel a bit disjointed. Still, the scenes manage to be effective on their own. The director stages scenes of palpable heartbreak and tightening dread.

The company — Lucas Tapley, Dustyn Forbes, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Crowell — proves versatile with every scene. The actors jump effortlessly from the physical demands of the play to its segments that are more documentary-style. 

Fruit Machine is emotionally devastating. A must-see.


Fruit Machine ran July 23 -25 at the Black Box Theatre as part of the 2019 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

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

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/

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/