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Mary’s Wedding

Dream Couple

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Dreams don’t always make sense. Take it from a guy who once spent most of a dream in a sing-along stock car rally teamed with Ray Charles and Anne Shirley (Ray was driving, naturally); but logical or not, true or not, dreams are often emotionally powerful. Sentimental and surreal, dream-spun drama Mary’s Wedding channels that power in spades. 

Penned in 2002 by Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte, Mary’s Wedding takes place in a dream in 1920 the night before the titular Mary’s nuptials. Mary (played by Jenna Marie) dreams of her romance with Charlie (Adam Gauthier) — how they met, how they courted, and how World War I tore them apart. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — also known, perversely, as “The Great War” — so Massicotte’s anti-war romance set during that conflict feels uniquely timely right now. It’s a smartly chosen project from indie producers Sandstone Theatre Company, as executed by director Paul Whelan, producer Grace Kimpinski and their collaborators. 

While Sandstone is a new outfit, part of the draw here is the show’s established names: Gauthier and Whelan are both among PEI’s most able and accomplished actors, not to mention Whelan’s impressive track record as a director (his only role here), and Marie has done very fine work in smaller parts for ACT. 

Gauthier’s Charlie is a charismatic, funny romantic lead, alternately frantic and stoic in war, often sad yet darkly serene as he drifts in and out of Mary’s dream; and Whelan’s capable direction, aided by stage manager Wallena Higgins, moves the Gauthier-Marie duo around their Watermark Theatre venue both smoothly and energetically with fluid blocking, a dreamily minimalist set and solid lighting and sound by Pat Caron. 

Good as Gauthier is, Marie is arguably the better half of Whelan’s dream team in this production. Matching Gauthier in terms of charm and chops, hers is the most enduringly, hauntingly memorable presence of the two. It’s partly because she plays multiple roles, appearing in the dream not only as Mary but also as Charlie’s wartime sergeant; but even more impressive is how she navigates Mary’s dual function as both dream and dreamer. 

Put another way, as written by Massicotte and directed by Whelan, Marie’s Mary is spectator or participant or both as various segments of her dream unfold, sometimes focused on action we can see onstage and sometimes fixated on something or someone offstage, and she’s fascinating either way. Marie’s emotional engagement in whatever Mary is seeing, tangible or not, is both credible and compelling. 

A superb Gauthier-Marie performance, Whelan’s adroit direction and Kimpinski’s polished production values all help make this a great show, but the best part remains Massicotte’s brilliant script. Equal parts elegiac and rhapsodic, it’s an unflinching portrait of wartime horror and a charming, funny, deeply moving romance all in one, as filtered through a fragmentary dreamscape that often defies logic but always feels emotionally real and true.

The Island Summer Review

Rolling in the Isle 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your derelict diarist is a fraud, folks. Or I was until last Wednesday, anyway. Here I was masquerading as an alleged quasi-authority on PEI theatre when I’d never seen a Patrick Ledwell show. Feel free to hurl your newspaper across the room in disgust, or just scowl scornfully at your screen if you’re reading this electronically. Maybe shake your head in my general direction, more in disappointment than anger. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

All done? Good. (No hard feelings, I had it coming.) Writer/comedian Ledwell’s become an Island cultural institution in the past decade or so, and I’m not entirely unfamiliar with his work. He’s a fun recurring guest on CBC’s The Debaters, for instance, and I always enjoy his distracted driving PSA at our beloved Brackley Drive-In Theatre; but somehow or other, I’d never seen any of his live shows. 

That includes the PEI-themed, musical comedy variety shows Ledwell specializes in, such as The New Potato-Time Review (2009-2010), Charlottetown Festival hit Come-All-Ye (2011-2012), and The Island Summer Review (2013-present). Ledwell’s Come-All-Ye collaborators included singer-songwriter Mark Haines, now the co-creator and co-star of the Island Summer Review (or ISR for short), Ledwell’s longest-running show yet. 

Said longevity means I finally got around to seeing ISR this year, on a rare night where I wasn’t broke or busy or distracted by a shiny object; and I’m glad I made the trip to Harmony House Theatre in scenic Hunter River, because the Haines-Ledwell duo puts on a really great show: clever, funny, energetic, even surprisingly moving in spots, and packed with laugh-out-loud comedy on topics local, regional and universal. 

An ongoing Island-centric stage anthology of monologues and songs is a concept dating back at least as far as David Weale and Roy Johnstone’s seminal A Long Way from the Road, plus later variations on that theme by groups like The Four Tellers and Crowbush. The latter’s cast included the late, great Frank Ledwell, Patrick’s dad — professor, storyteller, gentleman, poet laureate and patriarch of PEI’s preternaturally accomplished Ledwell clan. 

Funnier and far sillier than his father, Patrick seems more comfortable in the spotlight; but he shares his dad’s common touch, keen wit, and keen eye for the unique aspects of Island life, even if father and son expressed their insights quite differently. Probably the most touching part of ISR is a bit where Patrick recites his father’s poem “John of the Island” accompanied by Haines playing an original composition for cello, a sweetly wistful fusion of words and music spanning genres and generations. 

It’s not the only played-straight, low-key grace note here — Haines leads the audience in a genuinely stirring sing-along of his great original tune “I’m on My Way” for instance, a dreamy ode to quixotic homecomings — but most of the show is fast-paced, funny, high-energy hijinks. 

Comedy-wise, this includes Ledwell’s dissection of Maritime linguistic oddities, his fake news show Compost, extensive musings on Islanders’ relations with the mainland in general and Halifax & Moncton in particular, and proposed PEI-centric reboots of beloved Canadian TV classics like Mr. Dress-Up and the Littlest Hobo (here’s hoping for Mighty Hercules and Rocket Robin Hood next year). 

Haines may be the musical pro, but Ledwell also plays multiple instruments, and the pair often jams together. The show’s playlist is a mix of covers like Ron Hynes’ “Love is Murder on Your Heart” and original tunes such as Haines’ funny, disturbingly familiar tribute to forgetfulness “What the Heck Did I Come in Here For?” and the duo’s clever, verbally nimble “Call Me Pal” song about trying to remember names in a province where everybody supposedly knows everybody. It all adds up to a memorably hilarious show.

Haunted Georgetown

Ghost Town 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

It’s Thursday night at the historic Kings Playhouse in Georgetown, PEI. An ornate black podium looms above the audience as swirling wisps of fog and the faint strains of eerie music fill the dimly lit air. Eventually, the stage lighting turns blood red as a cloaked, hooded figure appears like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. 

The apparition pivots, strides slowly but purposefully downstage and takes the podium as the spectators stiffen in anticipation. Turning its gaze toward the audience, the phantasm doffs its hood – and reveals the friendly, familiar face of Playhouse executive director Catherine O’Brien. “Oh thank goodness” whispers one young patron, exhaling gratefully. 

Thus begins Haunted Georgetown, “a guided walk through the haunted theatre and into the historic streets of Georgetown.” The original playhouse was built in the 1880s and the town itself dates back to the 1700s, so plenty of spooky legends and ghostly tales have developed over time. The Kings Playhouse conducts a fun walking tour built around these stories, told here by O’Brien with assistance from interns Destiny Best and Morgan Duncan. 

O’Brien fares well as host, smoothly paced and alternately solemn or playful as the material and the moment requires. The staging is mostly effective, though they might consider investing in a less prosaic prop to house O’Brien’s speaking notes – whether she’s in or out of hooded wraith mode, a garden-variety binder doesn’t quite suit the ghostly mood, though that’s an exceedingly minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. 

I’ve visited the playhouse since childhood as audience member, performer, reporter and so on, hearing many eerie stories: tales of inexplicably moving objects, flickering lights, clutching hands, disembodied whispering voices and the like. Older theatres tend to spawn such yarns. While I’ve yet to experience anything solidly supernatural in the playhouse myself, I did have a quasi-spectral experience in another old theatre once, so maybe ghosts just like drama. 

The feeling seems more than mutual, the playhouse having warmly embraced its supernatural elements. One ghost affectionately dubbed “Captain George” has a seat officially reserved for him in the theatre, and anyone else sitting in it reportedly sparks misfortunes or malfunctions. O’Brien’s ghostly presentation begins with Captain George and other phenomena specific to the theatre, tales of swaying chandeliers, erratic lights, physics-defying playing cards and more. 

Paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost-hunting TV shows have all visited this theatre and tend to come away believing something unearthly is present, perhaps in part because the building was constructed atop an old burial ground (always a red flag in the movies). O’Brien spends much of the Haunted Georgetown show beyond the theatre, however, leading her audience outside to spots like the public gardens, the courthouse and various historic properties, sharing a mix of ghost stories, true crime tales and other local legends. 

Strolling the streets at night adds a lot to the experience as O’Brien speaks of phantom soldiers, flickering street lights, the Minnie McGee murders, disembodied voices, historic hangings, the old funeral parlour, a ghostly girl seeking her lost baby and a doomed sailing vessel’s tragic tale of fatal prophecy. 

Half the fun of the outdoor segment is its unpredictability – wind, rain, animals, shadows, voices, noises, you never know what you might encounter in the dark. As we walk, a nearby church bell rings for no apparent reason, much like the bell in one of O’Brien’s stories. They say that’s never happened before, and as a newly wide-eyed Duncan edges nervously closer to O’Brien, you tend to believe them.

Best of The Island Fringe Festival

Dynamic Duos 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Most years at the Island Fringe, I can narrow my favourite show down to one or two contenders by the end of the festival. This year, three shows were pretty much neck-and-neck in my affections come the end: Cardboard Countess, Half a Star and Wild Card.

All three plays have something in common beyond quality entertainment: they’re either two-handers or shows with larger casts totally dominated by two lead roles. It’s been a good summer for dynamic duos at the Fringe. 

That includes real-life mother-daughter duo Victoria & Carson Goring from British Columbia, creators of The Cardboard Countess. Victoria plays the titular Countess, a refuse-clad homeless woman who lives in a “palace” fashioned from repurposed garbage, hoarding surprising treasures in a stash of cardboard boxes. 

The high-minded, anachronistically fancy-talking Countess sees her “kingdom” as a revolution against the world’s soulless materialism, consumption and corruption; sullen teen Ever (Carson) is contemptuously skeptical at first, but the mismatched pair ultimately bond as Ever starts coming around to the Countess’s way of thinking. 

Smart, funny, poignantly sad yet ultimately hopeful, and well-played by both Gorings, The Cardboard Countess is linguistically playful and whimsically inventive. I particularly like the recurring bits where the Countess’s madness enables her to perceive and address the audience, a fun metadramatic gimmick that ultimately has a meaningful payoff. 

Half a Star is more straightforward, but no less full of smarts and heart. Longtime friends and theatrical collaborators during their years together in PEI, Justin Shaw (now based in Alberta) and Benton Hartley are reunited here, playing a theatrical duo whose longtime friendship and creative partnership ended after a scathing Toronto Star review panned their dismal Pyramus and Thisbe play. Given a shot at redemption when they get a chance to redo their show, the ex-partners try to revive their career and rebuild their friendship.  

Co-written by Hartley and Shaw, Half a Star features some of the cleverest, funniest dialogue of this year’s Fringe, delivered with rat-a-tat precision by a super-simpatico acting combo. Their lines are packed with eclectic, oft-amusing references ranging from Shakespeare to pro wrestling to local colour (paging Whisperwood Villa), all rooted in two distinctly drawn characters locked in a conflict with real emotional stakes and more than a few touching moments. It’s so good, not even its deeply problematic venue (the noisy, distracting Charlottetown Legion space) can seriously sabotage it. 

Last but far from least, Wild Card features its writer/director Brynn Cutcliffe as Chris, an impish free thinker who embarks on a unique experiment: declaring herself and her platonic friend Will (Josh Graetz) to be in love, and trying to make it really happen by sheer mental force of will. Their ensuing awkward, occasionally sweet pseudo-courtship takes some weird turns, such as discussion of quantum physics theories about the “multiverse” or potentially infinite parallel worlds, which perhaps explains why the show spins into a series of sometimes-conflicting versions of Chris-Will interactions as if watching this play out in assorted alternate realities. 

It’s a thoughtful, funny, original romance featuring a pair of thoroughly charming leads – and if it doesn’t always make logical, linear sense, well, as Cutcliffe’s script contends, no subject is worth studying if you can fully understand it. 

Realizations

This is Her Life 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Like some of the other shows at this year’s Island Fringe Festival, Realizations is dark, brave and quasi-autobiographical. Staged by Small Town Queer Menace Productions, this play explores issues regarding rape culture and forging one’s own sexual identity, as written by Kandace Hagen and directed by Rory Starkman. Based in part on incidents from Hagen’s own life, it’s a bigger, more ambitious play than most of its semi-autobiographical festival siblings, more complex and more complete. 

Advance publicity sometimes made the show sound like a humourless, eat-your-vegetables slog of earnest social activism. One blurb, for instance, describes it as “a transitional story that exposes the politics and negotiation of one’s sexual awakening in a culture that is controlled by heteronormativity.” Activism is definitely part of the mix here, but it’s wrapped in a pretty well-written, very well-performed, often entertaining story about long-closeted lesbian Molly’s lifelong quest for self-acceptance, complicated by repeated incidents of sexual harassment and assault. 

The quantity and variety of sexual predation Molly contends with feels excessive — like, we’re talking Perils of Pauline levels of serial misfortune here — but Hagen’s writing keeps the individual incidents and Molly’s reactions to them unique enough that this recurring thread doesn’t become tedious or repetitive, though it’s often uncomfortable (as it should be). 

Starkman’s set — assorted clusters of furniture and set dressing representing a shifting array of times and places — is dominated by stacks of boxes representing Molly’s memories, which she literally unpacks for us as she tells her stories. It’s a visually interesting concept that serves as an effective framing sequence through which Molly narrates much of the show. 

Molly, incidentally, is played by two actors: Marli Trecartin as present-day Molly, also our de facto narrator; and Hannah McGaughey as the younger Molly of yesteryear. Both do a very good job here, crafting a character who’s funny and charming and appealing while capturing all the pain and fear and anger that comes along with this troubled life. 

All six supporting stars are solid, most of them playing multiple roles. Standouts include Kate Dempsey’s cheerful Toni, whose warm chemistry with Trecartin’s Molly helps make Molly’s lone happy romance work; comedic gem Cameron MacDonald flexing his drama muscles capably as assorted appalling scumbags; Richard Haines bringing the creepy as two very different flavours of sexual predator; Sophie MacLean’s beguiling turn as Molly’s first female crush; and Rachel MacLeod’s earthily comedic chops as Molly’s blunt gal pal Lydia. 

Speaking of comedic, local stand-up comic Sam MacDonald is the biggest revelation in this cast. He’s surprisingly genuine and entirely effective here in a purely dramatic, wincingly uncomfortable role as Molly’s final, hapless male love interest Marcus, the only person slower to recognize and accept Molly’s true sexuality than Molly herself. It’s painful to watch, impressively so. 

In other painful watching news, the spacious, air-conditioned Charlottetown Yoga Space is a pretty nice Fringe venue overall, but sight lines were sometimes pretty terrible further back in the audience — depending on blocking, future shows may need to find some way to elevate their playing area. Infrastructural quibbling aside, though, Realizations is one of the more impressive offerings of this year’s Fringe roster.

The Island Fringe Festival

Fringe Fried  

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your crumbling correspondent somehow made it through the Island Fringe Festival’s newly supersized slate of ten shows in one humid, tiring-yet-fun August weekend. Limits imposed by my old nemeses time and space mean a few shows (Cardboard Countess, Half a Star, Realizations and Wild Card) are featured in expanded reviews while the rest of the plays get quicker coverage here in my omnibus musings. Onward…

Despite featuring more productions, this year’s Fringe is less varied in format — of the ten shows, only two aren’t exactly plays: Cocktails: Olivia Face and PTSD-Post Trump Stress Disorder. Both are one-person shows whose stars share observations, musings and anecdotes drawn from their own lives while exploring larger topics such as PTSD star Pam McCann’s thoughts on Trump’s America (though PTSD isn’t as Trump-centric as its title suggests). 

Local drag performer Face sustains a tone of dry, ironically detached wit paired with sly, slow-burn comic timing that makes Cocktails a frequently amusing show despite its often-bleak subject matter — tales of drug use, depression, death and other dark detours. Sunnier Californian import McCann’s oft-rambling show feels a bit more tentative and unfocused, but her genuine, charming, spontaneously funny personality makes it a fun ride regardless. 

Less fun is Caged, written/designed/performed by Toronto’s Emily Schooley as Lora, a woman wrongly imprisoned via false accusations from an abusive ex-boyfriend. Based in part on Schooley’s life, it’s gutsy stuff, but Lora’s often-angry monologue feels repetitive by times in terms of tone, physical business, and/or content; and her hopeful closing sentiments, while welcome, don’t quite feel like a natural progression. There are smart, funny, memorable and moving moments in the script, performance and staging, but it’s not a fully coherent whole yet. 

One of my favourite running bits from bizarre TV gem Gravity Falls is characters uttering “Wait, what?” when things get weird (like, say, Stan Pines finding “beautiful men” eating from his trash cans like raccoons). This year’s Fringe slate features two shows operating on a “Wait, what?” level of weirdness, both playfully inventive, entertaining and well-crafted: European import 25 @1919Paris and Toronto-based Diana (I knew you when we were fourteen)

Anastasia Wells and show creator Elliot Delage star in the semi-inscrutable 25, playing 12 different 20-something characters navigating everything from office romance and funeral arrangements to nightclub revelry and criminal insanity. Some (perhaps all?) of these short scenes seem connected in various ways, though it’s not always clear how. Some bits work better than others, but the tonally versatile and physically nimble Delage-Wells duo is watchable throughout. Wells in particular is eerily fascinating in an off-kilter way. 

Falling Iguana Theatre’s Diana is an even more jumbled assortment of scenes (all inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s “Elimination Dance” poetry) but it works quite well, partly due to its unifying through line: a young man (played by Ian Goff) obsessed with the abrupt departure of an old high school classmate, Diana Whitehouse (an incandescent Alexa Higgins). Written by stars Goff and Higgins and stage manager Sarah Higgins (also the show’s note-perfect narrator), it’s a whimsical-yet-wistful, high-energy show full of music, slapstick, mystery and strangeness as we learn Diana’s fate with surreal side trips along the way. 

Speaking of surreal, local playwrights Laura Chapin & Dave Stewart’s The Satan Show features the titular archfiend (played by Nicholas Whalen) posing as a psychiatrist. His patient — unstable reprobate Susan (Chapin) — blames her misdeeds on satanic influence, but an oddly subdued, sensitive Satan encourages Susan to take responsibility for her own choices. It’s a thoughtful, often funny script, though a couple of Chapin’s loopier laugh lines feel more like self-consciously constructed chuckle bait than natural dialogue. Her over-the-top Susan is often laugh-out-loud funny, but Whalen’s restrained, nuanced rendition of Satan is where the show feels most devilishly clever.

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Bittersweet beauty

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The gaps in your scattershot scribbler’s education are both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that there are plenty of literary classics I just haven’t gotten around to yet — too busy watching Doctor Who or hunting Black Lightning back issues or some such thing (and no regrets on either count) — but a blessing in the sense that even now, past the midway point of my likely lifespan, I can experience the joy of discovering iconic stories for the first time. 

The consistently excellent Watermark Theatre is a superb supplier of that particular drug, helping audiences discover or rediscover theatrical classics every summer. This year’s offerings include a play I already knew and liked (a very fine production of Dial M for Murder) and a play I’d long heard of but had never seen before: Eugene O’Neill’s 1943 tragicomedy A Moon for the Misbegotten. As skillfully staged here, O’Neill’s smart, incisive script lives up to its lustrous reputation — earthily human yet poignantly philosophical, slyly funny but hauntingly sad. 

A sequel of sorts to O’Neill’s quasi-autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey into Night (written first but published/produced after Moon since O’Neill did not release Night during his lifetime), A Moon for the Misbegotten is set in 1920s Connecticut and revisits alcoholic actor James “Jim” Tyrone. O’Neill’s real-life brother Jamie (an alcoholic who died in his 40s) was the model for Jim Tyrone, who’s described by his most loving admirer in this play as shuffling through life “like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin.” 

That admirer is Josie Hogan (played here by PEI’s own Brielle Ansems), a brawny, hardworking, acid-tongued farm girl with a bad reputation and a good heart, the latter carefully concealed. Josie’s preachily pious brother Mike (Jacob Hemphill) is fleeing home like his brothers before him, tired of their hard-drinking, violent, demanding father Phil (a gruffly amusing Paul Cowling). When talk arises of the Hogan family’s friend and landlord Jim Tyrone (Geoffrey Pounsett) possibly selling the Hogans’ farmland to despised oil fortune heir T. Stedman Harder (Richard Beaune), Phil and Josie scheme to stop this by any means necessary, including Josie’s subsequent moonlit seduction of a drunken Jim. 

Bill Layton’s handsome Dial M for Murder set is lavishly detailed but his Moon set is much more minimalist, dominated by the sketchily skeletal outlines of the Hogans’ ramshackle farmhouse and a large, lovely projected moon hanging over everything for much of the play. In this regard and others, Moon’s director Robert Tsonos (deftly doubling as a compellingly layered Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder) strikes a tone of bittersweet beauty that permeates this production and lingers long after the actors’ final bows. 

Speaking of actors, all this works as well as it does thanks to a solid cast, notably Ansems and Pounsett as the moonstruck lovers. Both roles as written are richly multi-faceted acting showcases, and the Ansems-Pounsett duo take full advantage to craft a charming, hilarious, disturbing, achingly melancholy stage romance you’ll remember for many moons to come.

—On stage at Watermark Theatre in North Rustico to August 31, 2018 

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged/Revised)

Bard Medicine 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Performed by
Kassinda Bulger, Benton Hartley and Jay Nicholson 

Directed by
Laura K. Bird 

The Story
Authors Adam Long, Daniel Singer & Jess Winfield packed all of Shakespeare’s plays (or assorted distorted fragments of same) into one show in 1987. Later revisions by the authors, plus tweaks and improvisations by Bird and her cast help modernize and localize the script. Most of the plays get fleeting cameos, but featured stories include a loving look at Romeo and Juliet, heaps of Hamlet, and a meaty serving of Titus Andronicus

The Performance
Bulger and Hartley are funny, flexible, versatile and responsive, as befits their improv experience. Hartley in particular excels at listening to his scene partners, an underrated but essential skill. All three actors play many characters, plus fictionalized versions of themselves presenting the plays. 

Nicholson isn’t quite so confidently polished or genuine as his partners, but he’s an enthusiastic, likeable stage presence and his less-slick vibe actually fits the role they give his fictionalized self as the least knowledgeable presenter, so he’s quite effective here and often a crowd-pleaser. 

Best Thing
There’s a sense of manic, anything-goes whimsy that comes with a small troupe playing a big cast of characters at breakneck speed and with gleeful abandon. The actors are having fun and it’s contagious, even (or especially) during performance glitches (whether deliberate or genuinely accidental), such as Bulger hilariously cracking up during her own puppet show. 

Shortcoming
The script unavoidably shortchanges most of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of stage time, the authors’ humour gets a little crass in spots and the show’s comedy isn’t always kid-friendly, though the iffier bits are often lost on younger patrons regardless. 

Final Thoughts
If heavily abridged Shakespeare blended with pure, uncut silliness into a potent comedy smoothie sounds refreshing, get thee to Georgetown while supplies last.

—On stage at Kings Playhouse in Georgetown July 15, 29 & August 5, 12, 19, 26, 2018 

Events Calendar

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