It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Sings a Sweet Tune

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It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Theatre New Brunswick. Pictured, left to right: Beau Dixon, Kirsten Alter, Wally MacKinnon, and Ryan Hinds. In the background: Emily Shute, Sound Designer. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

I have never watched the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart. We rarely watched these “holiday classics” in our home. My family gathered around for The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Muppet Family Christmas, and that Christmas episode of Hey Arnold! Any personal knowledge of the film comes from pop culture references and parodies.

Enter Theatre New Brunswick and its holiday production It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry (from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling). Running at the Fredericton Playhouse.

A live radio play? That’s right. It’s like a podcast for your eyes and ears!

It’s Christmas Eve, 1946. Five actors are preparing for a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. A pianist (Emily Shute, sound designer) accompanies the actors. To the side, there is a table full of assorted objects. The radio drama will come alive through the magic of foley. Freddie Filmore (Wally MacKinnon) welcomes the studio audience and invites them to give their honest reactions to heighten the experience for listeners at home. The performance begins after he introduces the ensemble.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man trying to lift his neighbors out of poverty so that their families may prosper in the small town of Bedford Falls. That man is named George Bailey (Beau Dixon). Now, George’s efforts have not come without sacrifice. George has had to give up many dreams to continue his family’s work. He never went away to college, nor did he ever get to explore the world. George has stayed in Bedford Falls all his life.

George’s love for his community keeps him in Bedford Falls, but there is also something else that prevents him from leaving. Mr. Potter (MacKinnon) is a mean-spirited tycoon bent on controlling Bedford Falls. He owns nearly all the businesses in town save for George’s Building & Loan. Mr. Potter would have shut down the Bailey business long ago if it were not for George. Without George, there would be no Bedford Falls.

On Christmas Eve, an apprentice angel named Clarence (Rudy Hinds) visits George after a mix-up at the bank pushes him to the edge.

Unlike A Christmas Carol, there is no divine intervention that breaks through the heart of Bedford Fall’s old miser. The miser goes unbothered. Both stories are similar in that they demonstrate the impact that one person can have on the lives of many others. Of course, Scrooge only learns this lesson after spirits torment him. In It’s a Wonderful Life, divine intervention delivers George to the arms of his community. The last mile — it’s a community of ordinary people coming together to help one of their own. When George can fight no more, his friends and neighbors come to his aid so he can continue the mission. 

In A Christmas Carol, the poor struggle without the rich. Here, the poor are trying to survive against the rich. Scrooge shuts out the world around him, whereas Mr. Potter has his hands in every corner of Bedford Falls. In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter achieves his ultimate goal: total erasure of the small town. The marginalized are further cast aside. George’s efforts help preserve the identity, history, and future of his community. Dixon — one of three black actors in the ensemble — in the role of George Bailey elevates the theme of erasure that runs through It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s hard to ignore as a brown guy sitting in the audience.

The first act is a bit of a drag. Clarence flips through the chapters of George’s life like it were a magazine in the doctor’s office. Except for the odd perfume sample, the plot is mainly a series of “George gets knocked down again.” The tender moments between George and his wife Mary Hatch (Kirsten Alter) are heartwarming. Landry’s adaptation sparks life into the story with commercial jingles that interrupt the program. The actors gleefully perform the jingles.

The actors, already playing multiple roles, take turns as the broadcast’s foley artists. Ordinary objects produce sounds that enrich the radio broadcast. A plunger and washtub full of water stand in for an icy river. Bicycle bells become telephones. And there’s even a small door to mark entrances and exits. It’s quite the old-timey spectacle.

Dixon plays George as a kind of impersonation of James Stewart. It works okay. He slips in and out of it occasionally. Does a radio broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life really depend on an imitation of Stewart’s voice? Director Natasha MacLellan seems to believe it does. I don’t think so, but I say that as someone with no attachment to the original film. All that aside, Dixon delivers a spirited performance as George.

Hinds has a million dollar smile. His cheerful energy lights up the stage. His performance as Clarence is delightful. MacKinnon’s Mr. Potter reminds me of Ed Asner’s performance in Up. Only MacKinnon is playing a real cold-hearted man, and his gruff voice and mannerisms in front of the microphone prove it. Alter is positively terrific as Mary Hatch. Her robust voice and expressive physicality make for a great performance. Jenny Munday demonstrates considerable range as she hops from character to character. 

Set Designer Katherine Jenkins-Ryan turns Studio A into something that looks more like a living room recording session. For a radio station, there’s not a lot of equipment (that we can see, anyway). If it weren’t for the On Air and Applause signs, you would think a group of friends dropped into someone’s spacious home for a script reading. It’s not a negative. I, as a born and raised Martimer, think it’s a big plus. You step foot inside the theatre and almost immediately feel a part of something special. Jenkins-Ryan’s cozy set is the kind of warm and intimate space you want to be in, especially during the holiday season.

TNB’s holiday production is full of joy and wonderful storytelling from its versatile ensemble. 


Theatre New Brunswick’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play ran December 12 – 14 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

The production will tour New Brunswick, December 15 – 21.

For more information about the show, visit:
http://www.tnb.nb.ca/its-a-wonderful-life-a-live-radio-play/

Theatre New Brunswick Turns Back the Clock to 1979

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Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick. The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. Pictured, left to right: Sarah O’Brecht (Brian Mulroney), Jeff Dingle (Joe Clark), and Kevin Curran (John Crosbie). Photo credit: Andre Reinders.

Did you know there’s an election happening right now in Canada? You might have missed it. Pretty low-key. Theatre New Brunswick has had its eyes on it for awhile now. Since April, actually. That’s when artistic director Natasha MacLellan announced TNB’s 2019/2020 season would open with Michael Healey’s political comedy 1979.

Now here we are, just a few days before voters head to the polls. It is the opening night of 1979. Election chatter can be heard in TNB’s Open Space Theatre.

In Healey’s 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark (Jeff Dingle) is minutes away from losing a crucial vote in parliament. Minister of Finance John Crosbie (Kevin Curran) is ready to do anything and everything to save his budget. Meanwhile, foreign minister Flora MacDonald (Sarah O’Brecht) is focused on the extraction of six American hostages in Iran. Clark thinks the entire operation is ridiculous. A Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film? It’ll never work! (The real-life event was adapted for the film Argo, starring Ben Affleck.)

Built into the play is projected text, which is shown here on the back wall behind Clark’s desk (Matt Carter, Sound and Projection Designer). The text introduces the political figures who swing by Clark’s office. Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau are among those visitors. It also provides useful background information about the broader context in which the play’s events are happening. So, audience members are not only filled in about the politics leading to Clark’s short-tenure as Prime Minister, but also the aftermath of his loss in the 1980 election. Yes, there’s a lot of reading, but Healey brings life to the text with wit and humour. Imagine VH1’s Pop-Up Video. It’s kinda like that. 

At its core, 1979 is about an ordinary person trying to do the right thing while everyone watches in complete disbelief, because yikes. Almost everyone wants to pull their hair out while talking with Clark about the impending vote. So many strategies on the table and yet, Clark remains firm in his convictions. He doesn’t want to do the right thing the wrong way. We can laugh at how many times Clark refuses to budge from his position, but damn if there isn’t something admirable in being such an immovable object. 

On its surface, the play depicts the demise of Clark’s minority government forty years ago, but it also raises questions about power and leadership. You know, the kind of things to chew on during an election season. The kind of things to think about while you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. 

Do you need a degree in political science to enjoy 1979? Nah. It might enhance your experience, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Do you need some patience near the end when the play dives into a drawn-out lecture about politics vs. policy? Yes. You might feel like you’re back in your second-year political science course that was required to graduate.

MacLellan’s direction sees the production lean closer to wacky comedy about an awkward politician than a comedic look at a young politician’s naiveté, which becomes his undoing. In going down that path, the production has a hard time convincing us that Clark truly stands behind his beliefs. The inevitability of Clark’s fate in office defeats the play itself — a problem inherit in the script. TNB’s production does little in the way of spicing things up with some tension between Clark and those who want him to break his own rules. The physical comedy is fun, sure, but the underlying foundation is shaky. 

There is a gravitas missing in Clark’s words. Yes, Dingle is playing someone who was considered a nobody, but does he have to be so passive here? That aside, the actor is enjoyable to watch in this episode of a political sitcom. Dingle’s eyebrow game is strong. It’s fun to watch his character’s facial expressions as he patiently hears everyone’s two cents.

O’Brecht makes a splash with her enormous stage presence. Her interpretation of Mulroney as some slick used car salesman is hilarious. O’Brecht’s performance has Laurie Elliott and Kate McKinnon written all over it. And then there’s Curran whose John Crosbie would get along just fine with Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. The actor dresses in drag to play Flora MacDonald in some scenes, with O’Brecht playing the Secretary of State for External Affairs in others.

Andrea Ritchie’s costume design brings the spirit of the 1970s alive. Dingle’s brown corduroy suit is magnificently drab. Set Designer Patricia Vinluan brings elegance, with a dash of retro goodness, to Clark’s office. Ingrid Risk’s lighting design enriches the wood paneling. 

With voting day just around the corner, Theatre New Brunswick’s production of 1979 is a fun, sometimes too breezy break from lawn signs and campaign promises.


Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick (Open Space Theatre). The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. 

For more information about the show, including tour dates: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/1979-2/

Step Through the Wardrobe with Theatre New Brunswick

Published in 1950, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is an enduring tale of family and forgiveness. The book was adapted for the screen in 2005, with Liam Neeson as Aslan and Tilda Swinton as Jadis the White Witch. This holiday season, Theatre New Brunswick brings the story to life in a production that’s fun for the whole family, save for some intense moments.

Dramatized by Joseph Robinette, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tells the story of four siblings who discover the magical world of Narnia after walking through a wardrobe. The first to find Narnia, Lucy (Sasha Mais) meets a fawn named Tumnus (Andy Massingham) who has been ordered by the Witch (Raven Dauda) to kidnap human children. Tumnus refuses to take Lucy to the Witch and helps her escape Narnia. Because he allowed Lucy to go free, Tumnus is taken away by the captain of the Witch’s secret police Fenris Ulf (Qasim Khan).

Lucy returns to Narnia with her brother Edmund (Ben Rutter). Edmund stays put while Lucy goes out to find Tumnus. Edmund meets the Witch who promises him royalty and rooms full of turkish delight if he brings the other three to her castle. The Witch’s plan: To keep the prophecy that promises an end to her reign over Narnia from coming true.

Older siblings Peter (Carter Scott) and Susan (Elena Hrkalovic) join the others in Narnia. With help from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Derek Kwan, Allison Basha), the four children embark on an epic journey to help Aslan (Jeremiah Sparks) return peace to Narnia.

Patrick Clark’s set is really neat. The back wall features a large oval frame and within that frame, there are mountain peaks layered behind each other. In the centre of the frame stands a big, tall castle. It kinda has the look of a pop-up book. Outside of the frame, there are trees that resemble a paper craft, a lamppost, and multi-purpose blocks (stone table, Beavers’ dinner table).

Leigh Ann Vardy lights the inside of the frame with frigid blues, and warmer colours when the Witch’s control over Narnia starts to diminish. The lighting work gives Clark’s set a little bit of a Magic Garden vibe. Vardy’s eerie lighting for the scene where Edmund finds the Witch’s enemies, now turned to stone, is stunning.

Sound Designer/Composer Deanna H. Choi makes the production feel like a sweeping epic, despite being staged in quite a minimalist way. Choi’s sound design opens up the world of Narnia with strings and drums.

Robinette’s stage adaptation keeps some of the more harsh elements of Lewis’ story (Aslan tells Peter to wipe Fenris Ulf’s blood off his sword). These parts of the play clash with Lynda Hill’s brisk and upbeat direction, and the colorful pop of the production.

But Father Christmas makes an appearance, so it’s not all grim!

Speaking of not grim, Dauda is comically evil as the Witch. Sure, she has her dark moments, like plunging a knife into Aslan (it’s shadow theatre, don’t worry), but Dauda’s Witch is like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The actress is delightfully physical in the role, giving little kicks when things aren’t going the Witch’s way. There is a levity that Hill allows the production to explore and Dauda runs with it.

Kwan and Basha are a great pairing as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Clark has dressed the Beavers with big tails, which are attached to overalls. No comically-sized teeth, thank goodness. For the bottom layer, the Beavers wear long-sleeve flannel shirts. If it weren’t for the tails, one might think the couple worked deep in the woods.

Back to Kwan and Basha.

Kwan and Basha are superbly pleasant as the Beavers. Basha’s Mrs. Beaver is a sweetheart, while Kwan’s Mr. Beaver has a little bit of a gruff edge but you know he’s a softie at heart. The actors are a lot of fun to watch.

Who’s afraid of Fenris Ulf? Not me, because Khan’s howls sound more like an angry house cat than a big bad wolf. Which is hilarious. It works well with the ‘cartoonish supervillainy’ of this production.

Massingham is jovial as Tumnus, brutish as the Dwarf, and jolly as Father Christmas.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe asks us to reflect on what family really means. Family means to love each other despite our faults and to forgive when we are wronged. It’s a strong message for this time of year when families are coming together, sometimes from far away, for the holiday season. 

It’s also a hopeful story about good always winning over tyranny, no matter the odds.

The big brother/little brother dynamic is well-performed by Scott and Rutter. I say this as someone with two older brothers. Mais’ Lucy is daring and kind — a small, yet mighty force. Hrkalovic’s Susan is a joy. The four actors make clear the play’s message about family with strong performances and a confidence that pulls the production forward.

And what’s Narnia withouts Aslan? Sparks is fiercely majestic as the good lion. He is a big presence with a big voice that fills the theatre.

TNB’s production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is fun, exciting, and heartwarming. Step through the wardrobe, a good time awaits you.


Theatre New Brunswick’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe ran Dec 13 – 15 at the Fredericton Playhouse. The production is now on tour with performances this week in Moncton. 

For more information, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/lion-witch-wardrobe/

Float Comfortably with Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River

Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is like that chocolate chip muffin that turns out to actually be raisin. It’s still a muffin, so yay, but raisin? Well, okay.

Part of Theatre New Brunswick’s 50th anniversary season, Come Down From Up River is a world premiere production from The Foster Festival. The production, running at the Fredericton Playhouse, is directed by Patricia Vanstone.

Come Down From Up River stages a family reunion between Bonnie Doyle (Amanda Parsons) and her uncle Shaver Bennett (Peter Krantz). The two haven’t seen each other in 23 years, and Bonnie has been perfectly okay with that. Bonnie’s wife Liv (Kirsten Alter), on the other hand, thinks it’s sad that Bonnie wants no kind of relationship with her uncle. After all, doesn’t family stick together, no matter what? Well, Bonnie doesn’t think so, even though Shaver is all the family she has left.

Why is Bonnie so cold towards Shaver? She won’t tell. All Bonnie will say about Shaver, a logger from up around the Miramichi River, is that he’s a lout who will strongly disagree with Bonnie and Liv’s interracial, same-sex marriage.

And that’s all we know about Shaver until he steps foot inside their home.

Surprise, Shaver is actually an okay guy.

In fact, Shaver is super likeable. Maybe too much, though. Every time he cracks a joke, you wonder what messed up thing Shaver did for Bonnie to hate him. Was he part of a hate group? Did he kill his sister in that drunk driving accident? You can’t help but feel a kind of dread for the big reveal that Shaver is a monster.

Well, turns out Shaver didn’t accept guardianship of Bonnie after her mother’s death.

That’s bad, obviously, but not exactly everything Bonnie made him out to be.

Yes, Foster’s misdirection makes a point about stereotypes, but the way Foster just so weakly tackles racism and homophobia is disappointing.

The hate doesn’t come from inside the house, but the law firm where Bonnie works. She isn’t made partner because the firm’s biggest client has a ‘moral conflict’ about her and Liv’s relationship. Seriously fucked up, right? This news prompts an emotional speech from Liz about facing racism and homophobia everyday. Instead of walking around it, Liv says, she walks through it.

Walk through it? The play glides through it. Bonnie and her colleague decide to resign and start their own firm. That’s it. Bonnie doesn’t even drop her resignation letter into the hands of her employers. Instead, she tells Liv, it was their personal assistants who felt her wrath.

Cool?

Well, at least the playwright got to tell us how bad hate is.

If you want a fun two hours of characters trading quips, look no further than Come Down From Up River. It’s a funny play that happens to be set in Saint John, New Brunswick. Picture a combination of Ron Swanson and Uncle Buck, that’s Krantz as Shaver. He’s hilarious. And Alter, she’s fabulous in the role of Liv, a person who needs to know details even if it annoys the other person. It’s like a game of squash when Krantz and Alter share a scene together. It’s hit after hit after hit, with the walls vibrating with laughter. Parsons does a fine job of playing Bonnie, the tough one. Of course, she isn’t always tough. Bring a tissue.

Stage right, there’s a table and some bar stools, with a Moosehead sign just behind on the wall. Stage left, a hospital waiting room. And right in the center, it’s Bonnie and Liv’s living room with a couch and table where family photos are on proud display. It’s a simple set from Set and Costume Designer Peter Hartwell.

There’s a lot of sitting and talking, though it doesn’t feel like a lot. Vanstone breaks it up with some movement, just enough so the banter keeps from going stagnant. She keeps the play grounded in effective simplicity, wonderful for those emotional highs that come late in the play.

If you don’t think about it too much, Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is a comfortable comedy.


Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River runs Nov 8 – 10 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/come-down-from-up-river/

Any Given Moment is Marvelously Reassuring

Ever feel the totality of existence weighing down on you? Emma (Claudia Gutierrez-Perez) feels that way. The 21-year-old barista has big questions but no answers. And lately, it’s become too much for her.

Enjoying its world premiere at Theatre New Brunswick (a co-production with Ship’s Company Theatre), Kim Parkhill’s Any Given Moment is marvelously reassuring — like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night.

No, Parkhill doesn’t solve life’s greatest mysteries nor does she pretend to be ahead of everyone else. Any Given Moment is about finding clarity through the support of other people.

Directed by Natasha MacLellan, Any Given Moment stages three strangers trapped inside a church after police initiate a lockdown. The lockdown is put in place after Emma, armed with a plastic gun, calls 911 on herself. To escape the rain, Emma runs inside the church where she finds Lisa (Alexis Milligan), busy preparing a benefit concert, and Bill (Wally MacKinnon), an older man experiencing homelessness.

Despite being strangers, Emma and Lisa think they have each other all figured out. How? Well, Lisa’s affluent lifestyle is all the proof Emma needs to know that she has the perfect life. Kids, husband, and a “McMansion” — what does Lisa have to worry about? And Emma’s diary is all Lisa needs to know that she is a troubled left-wing teenager ready to commit a mass shooting. If Lisa actually listened to Emma, instead of relying on what the news tells her, then maybe she would see things differently. 

It’s easy to think the world and other people are shit when the news (credible or not) is everywhere, all time. It’s hardly surprising that Lisa discovers all sorts of rumours about the lockdown when she logs onto the internet. Any Given Moment reminds us that we live in a time where people can know everything and nothing —  the double-edged sword of Web 2.0.

No matter how much the world changes, however, people can make a difference. Big or small, it all matters. And it starts with listening — a simple, yet powerful act of kindness. It’s only when Lisa learns to truly listen, with help from Bill, that she can not only see the hurt and confusion in front of her, but also make a real impact on someone’s life.

Keeping true to the play’s lesson of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, costume designer Cathleen McCormack has the actors dressed in extremes. Gutierrez-Perez is dressed kind of like Wednesday Addams if she were the lead singer of a 2000s Emo band — torn denim skirt, black leggings, and black boots with black and white socks. Milligan has a neater, more approachable look — a white t-shirt with brightly coloured yoga pants. And MacKinnon is dressed with a dirty face, plaid jacket, and old jeans and sneakers. McCormack leaves no room for ambiguity, these costumes invite preconceived notions. 

Inside TNB’s Open Space Theatre, Katharine Jenkins-Ryan’s set features what look like stained glass windows, an elevated staging area and two benches downstage (one on each side). The way Ingrid Risk lights the back of those windows is beautiful, especially when MacKinnon sits alone with the Virgin Mary.

And those delicate piano notes from sound designer Aaron Collier…!

Gutierrez-Perez brings an energy that feels like a mix between Daria and the Warped Tour. She is fiercely compelling as Emma, an angry young woman who feels powerless against, well, everything. Milligan channels every awful Minions meme that has ever been posted unironically on Facebook. She is brilliantly infuriating as Lisa. Versatile, too. Milligan manages to take us from rooting against Lisa all the way to making us feel bad for her. It’s a solid performance.

MacKinnon is hilarious as Bill. He has a warm presence that makes us wish others could see Bill’s golden heart.

Any Given Moment reassures us that we do matter, no matter how big the world might feel at times. A must-see.


Theatre New Brunswick’s production of Any Given Moment by Kim Parkhill ran September 12 – 16 at TNB’s Open Space Theatre. A co-production with Ship’s Company Theatre.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/any-given-moment/

Sappier Makes Debut With Finding Wolastoq Voice

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Aria Evans in Natalie Sappier’s Finding Wolastoq Voice, presented by Theatre New Brunswick. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

The final world premiere production of Theatre New Brunswick’s 49th season is Finding Wolastoq Voice, the debut work from Indigenous artist Natalie Sappier-Samaqani Cocahq (The Water Spirit). Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones, Finding Wolastoq Voice stages the awakening of a young Wolastoqiyik woman as she reflects on family, healing, and identity. 

The production, running at TNB’s Open Space Theatre, features interdisciplinary artist Aria Evans (dancer/choreographer).

In Sappier’s play, the beginning and the destination are, in some ways, one and the same. There is something circular about the personal, often difficult journey that the young woman embarks on. She moves away from her family only to return again. Of course, the young woman doesn’t return the same. Life experiences and guidance from her ancestors push the young woman to see beyond herself and see herself in others, namely her mother. She learns forgiveness and that makes both her return and a new beginning possible.

Evans performs on what has the appearance of a large medicine wheel. The set, designed by Andy Moro, has two tiers. In the first, each of the four quadrants are filled with sand, and they are divided by small canals of water. The second tier is a wooden platform raised in the middle, with a glass-covered opening in the center for light to shine through (lighting design by Moro).

What’s interesting about Evans’ choreography is the vulnerability and unease that comes through in the movement, but also the resilience that pushes the character forward. Of course, that resilience is challenged at certain points, but nonetheless it remains. Evans’ movement captures the anxiety of being displaced, of not feeling a sense of belonging. The sand plays an important part in this personal investigation as Evans pushes it, spreads it, and eventually comes to make peace with it. Rough waters calm with time, but, as Sappier warns, it’s easy to lose one’s footing and be swept away. Evans’ choreography is exciting and articulate.

Although the script could be more concise, Sappier’s writing is rich in vivid imagery, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given her creative background. The set truly feels like an extension of Evans and her character. And Moro’s lighting choices sync well with the stages of growth in Sappier’s play.

Finding Wolastoq Voice is a confident debut.


Finding Wolastoq Voice by Natalie Sappier runs March 8 – 18 at Theatre New Brunswick’s Open Space Theatre. The production will tour across the province March 21 – April 6. 

For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/finding-wolastoq-voice/

A Christmas Carol Returns to Theatre New Brunswick

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The restless spirit of Jacob Marley (Ijeoma Emesowum) visits Ebenezer Scrooge (Nora McLellan). In the background: Andre Morin. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol returns to Theatre New Brunswick with a new adaptation by Artistic Director Thomas Morgan Jones. Nora McLellan features in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, marking the first time in TNB’s history that a woman has played the character. The production, directed by Anne-Marie Kerr, runs at the Fredericton Playhouse from December 14 – 16, then at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre on the 17th.

Let’s talk about the set and lighting first, because…wow.

Set designer Joanna Yu presents an industrial warehouse aesthetic with four giant shelves – one on each side with the other two upstage – stocked with props and furniture, and a pair of rolling stairs. (Up above are chairs suspended by wire). Yu’s set is not only eye-catching, but very appropriate given the Industrial Revolution’s impact on British society and Dickens as both an author and social critic.

And it’s all beautifully lit by Leigh Ann Vardy. Vardy employs shades of blue for a ghostly, chilling effect. This is a ghost story, after all, and it’s winter. There are also warm shades of green and orange for more jovial moments, like the Ghost of Christmas Present’s introduction.

Everyone from Mr. Magoo (later parodied by The Simpsons) to The Flintstones to the Muppets has told their own version of A Christmas Carol. Therein lies the challenge of staging A Christmas Carol. By this point, everyone knows the story, even if they aren’t familiar with the source material. So, how do you tell the story in a way that surprises people again?

Fast, fun, and full of surprises, TNB’s production of A Christmas Carol enchants with its theatricality. The ensemble, acting like an otherworldly theatre troupe, pull various props from the shelves to tell the story and create different settings. For instance, what looks like an ordinary door knocker turns into that scene from Stranger Things where the Demogorgon tries to push out of the wall. The effect is created with actress Katie Swift pushing her face through a framed painting of a door knocker. It’s terrifying.

What’s really interesting is Kerr’s choice to block the scene between young Scrooge (Andre Morin) and his fiancée Belle (Swift) in one of the shelves. Suddenly, Yu’s industrial-looking warehouse reveals its true purpose – the warehouse is Scrooge, and its stored with his memories, if not unconscious mind. Perhaps then, the miser’s journey with the spirits exists somewhere between internal conflict and supernatural phenomenon. It’s a different take on the classic tale that gives it a just a little more dimension.

However, Kerr stumbles with McLellan’s entrance as Scrooge. McLellan’s entrance ends with a top hat lowering onto her head, as if the hat were some cultural icon that deserves something so dramatic. What happens next is that the hat looks ridiculous because there’s a small metal ring (where the wire hooks) poking out for no reason other than that one ‘cool moment’.

What happened to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s dress?

Ijeoma Emesowum enjoys a fabulous entrance as the happy spirit, but then she turns and there’s an exposed wire cage sticking out behind her. Either there was a costume malfunction or it’s an intentional design choice by Sherry Kinnear. Likely the former given that the spirit is supposed to have an overall big presence, and a similar form is used for another dress just a few scenes before. If intentional, it’s a choice that really doesn’t pay off. The cage steals a lot of attention from everything else. Otherwise, the dress is lovely with its bright festive colours.

McLellan brings a nice touch of dry humour to Scrooge. Don’t fret, McLellan’s Scrooge has plenty of humbugs to pass around. Everyone who dares wish Scrooge a merry Christmas or, worse, asks him to part with his money is met with the popular catchphrase. This hint of humour makes Scrooge’s redemption all the more joyous because the character’s hardened exterior melts away to fully reveal the good-nature that had always been.

Speaking of goodness, Sophia Black is an absolute delight as Tiny Tim, among her other roles that include the Ghost of Christmas Past. Your heart may just break a little when the cheery young actress walks on as Tim, and then a little more later when the Cratchits are missing a seat at their table.

Also in the cast are Adrian Choong and Mark Crawford who like everyone else, besides McLellan, play multiple roles. Notably, Crawford plays Bob Cratchit, later the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Kinnear has dressed the spirit as what looks like a plague doctor, with glass eyes and a bird beak. It’s a strong choice that’s unsettling from far away, and a fitting one since the spirit is there to cleanse Scrooge (by showing him death).

All in all, it’s a fine production of A Christmas Carol. There are elements that help reinvigorate Dickens’ heartwarming tale, and then some that don’t quite hit the mark. Still, audiences looking to escape the winter blues will more than likely feel uplifted by TNB’s production of A Christmas Carol. If nothing else, they will walk away impressed by very splendid set and lighting design.


Theatre New Brunswick’s A Christmas Carol runs Dec 14 – 16 at the Fredericton Playhouse, then at Saint John’s Imperial Theatre on the 17th.

For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/a-christmas-carol/