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Some Things About Mary

The Magdalene Variations
Vagabond Productions

Review by Sean McQuaid

Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up? The Magdalene Variations asks that question by dramatizing tales of the titular saint’s life in a thoughtful and unexpectedly entertaining way.

Staged by UPEI’s Vagabond Productions, written by Drs. Greg Doran and Catherine Innes-Parker and directed by Doran, the play is an original script about one of Jesus Christ’s more colourful disciples.

Mary has had her share of image problems over the millennia. Male-dominated church leadership has often deemphasized her role in early Christianity, especially disputed accounts of Mary emerging as a spiritual leader after Christ’s death.

In addition, centuries of artists ranging from Titian to Andrew Lloyd Webber have tended to exploit Mary’s salacious side as a once-wanton woman redeemed by her faith in Jesus. Mary’s practically the prototype for pop culture’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché, the red-headed role model for Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty, Pretty Woman and so on.

The Magdalene Variations (or TMV to save ink) throws all of the above into one big theatrical blender by intermixing scenes lifted from various medieval plays about the character and charting Mary’s evolution as both sinner and saint.

At least a few readers have done the mental math by now and concluded that “religious figure plus medieval play adaptation” probably equals a trip to Slumberland—but if so, they’ve miscalculated.

Granted, TMV isn’t nonstop frolic; in particular, one segment performed in Latin, while a technically impressive homage to the way early churches would have presented these stories, runs long enough to have viewers checking watches or craving subtitles.

Most of TMV, however, entertains at least as well as it enlightens. Even knowing how things turn out for Mary, the script still elicits sympathy and even suspense over her struggles with sin and doubt; and more surprisingly, there’s lots of laugh-out-loud comedy.

Much of that comedy comes from the personified vices and worldly pleasures who tempt Mary to sin, a subversively charming rogues gallery of bad influences. Which raises one of the best features of TMV’s debut production: its superb cast. A baker’s dozen, almost all playing double or triple roles, and not a dud in the bunch.

In particular: Toni Timmins is winningly earnest as Mary, Devin MacKinnon is a fiercely intense Satan, Brian Ansems has divine comedic instincts as Curiosity, sonorous funnyman Ben Hayman’s Gluttony is weirdly spooky, Robyn Biggar is a leeringly honey-voiced treat as Sensuality, and Ashley MacLeod is a luminously self-satisfied delight as the World.

TMV’s debut production also benefits from its venue, the UPEI Chaplaincy Centre. This religious setting lends symbolic resonance, and Doran uses the unique location to maximum advantage by deploying his actors throughout the space.

The front, back and sides of the room all see plenty of action, even the staircases, and the actors often interact playfully with the audience. It’s a physically and mentally nimble production, and theatrically agile enough to breathe new life into some very old stories.

Sixty-six Percent

At Play in the Dark

Review by Sean McQuaid

Island theatre mainstay ACT (A Community Theatre) and young indie theatre company Sheep-for-Wheat Productions joined forces this January for “At Play in the Dark,” a trio of one-act plays billed as edgy, adult fare.

The plays as staged largely fit that bill. There’s sex, violence and swearing, things perhaps too often equated with an “adult” label, but it’s leavened by intelligence, wit and restraint, so the end result mostly comes across as a smart, funny show done by and for grown-ups.

The evening starts off strong with The Worker by Walter Wykes, a darkly comic absurdist script directed by Mike Walker and stage managed by Nicole Doiron. A workaholic husband (Ben Rayner) and his weirdly maternal wife (Rebecca Ford) hash out their marital problems after the husband starts bringing work home with him.

Rayner is good as the exhausted, exasperated husband, sculpting a rodent-like figure of nastiness, pettiness and gnawing mortal dread, though a bit more pathos might have enriched his role.

Peter Grandy offers solid support as a sinister messenger, but the superlative scene-stealer of the play (and perhaps of the entire night) is Ford: her crazy-eyed, musical-voiced, ever-smiling wife is a chilling, charming treat from start to finish, and nicely embodies the script’s off-kilter tone of creepy comedy.

The Problem by A.R. Gurney, Jr. is the night’s second show, a somewhat lighter and slighter confection, but no less entertaining. Directed by Rob Reddin, it features another spousal duo, this one played by real-life husband and wife Richard and Marly Haines.

Gurney’s script treads much the same ground as an earlier one-act play, Harold Pinter’s The Lover, but injects enough sprightly social commentary to achieve its own flavour.

Story-wise it’s all one big conversation about the characters’ marriage, a relationship which proves to be both less and more perverse than it seems. Reddin sets a brisk, breezy tone, sustained largely by the deadpan delivery of Mr. & Mrs. Haines.

Alas, the night ends on a down note with The Other Five Percent by Bryan Goluboff, directed by Adam Gauthier. This tale of a late-night Manhattan street encounter between a young woman (Bethany Mayne) and two strange men (Greg Chandler and Devin MacKinnon) has plenty of atmospheric potential, but most of it fizzles.

Chandler seldom conveys the sense of genuine menace or intensity achieved by MacKinnon, costing the play a lot of its crackle; Mayne sometimes seems uncertain about how best to occupy her often-passive role; and a trigger-happy finale descends into unintended farce thanks to a laughably unconvincing cap gun.

Add it all up and The Other Five Percent is the most ambitious but least successful play of the night, though the other 66 percent of “At Play in the Dark” satisfies enough to make the whole event greater than the sum of its parts.

Worth the Trip

Mesa

Review by Sean McQuaid

There’s something timeless about Victoria-by-the-Sea. Details shift, but the impressionistic big picture endures—a cozily colourful blur of seascapes, artists, merchants and lazy, leafy streets, with the venerable Victoria Playhouse smack dab in the middle.

All of which makes Doug Curtis’s one-act play Mesa an oddly apt import for the town and its theatre. The show’s sun-bleached, southwestern road trip may be a far cry from Victoria’s seaside charms, but its ruminations on travel, tourism and the layering of modern life atop history all feel quite at home in this unique venue.

Essentially a two-hander but with lots of minor characters in the mix, Mesa tells the story of Paul (Devin Mackinnon) driving his wife’s grandfather Bud (Bill McFadden) down from Calgary to Bud’s summer retirement community in Mesa, Arizona.

An underemployed, burnt-out writer seeking inspiration, Paul hopes to see historical locations and off-the-beaten-path discoveries, but Bud isn’t interested. This may be Bud’s last trip to Mesa, and he wants to finish it as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few stops beyond his favourite restaurant and hotel chains: Denny’s and Motel 6.

A bored, irritated Paul tries repeatedly to add some adventurous detours to their trip. Along the way, Paul and Bud learn more about each other, and Paul gains some new insights into both himself and the realities of present-day America.

Their trip is packed into a single act, eighty minutes long—no intermission, but it glides by as smoothly as a scenic highway view. Director Charlie Rhindress sets a steady, unhurried pace, Jonathan Smith’s simple set is unobtrusively functional, and David Nicholson’s lights and sound help sustain a vaguely dreamy, time-suspended tone.

Newcomer Mackinnon acquits himself well as Paul. A bit physically and emotionally stiff at first, he shows greater range and flexibility the longer he’s on stage, finishing his marathon role strongly as he makes a somewhat pompous, self-centered character reasonably sympathetic.

Playhouse veteran McFadden can play charismatic curmudgeons in his sleep, so the plum role of Bud fits him like a well-worn glove, stitched with wickedly dry humour and flashes of pathos. McFadden also gets to show off his versatility by doubling as several of the show’s minor characters, making each of them vividly distinctive.

Speaking of minor characters, while Mackinnon does a little doubling, too, most of the bit parts are filled by musician Mark Haines, who composed the production’s score and plays it on various instruments as he hovers on the fringes of the action. Both visually and sonically playful, his lively, alternately whimsical and moody presence is a big part of what makes this Mesa worth the trip.

Fighting the Hun

Billy Bishop Goes to War

by Sean McQuaid

The Montgomery Theatre’s summer ends with Billy Bishop Goes to War, a sturdy staple of Canadian drama in which the real-life World War One aviator recounts his oft-inglorious exploits, both military and civilian. Snoopy and the Red Baron it’s not.

Your crumbling critic first saw the show as a lad, when it was relatively new. A lot has changed since then. Often revived, the play itself has been revised twice by its creators John Gray and Eric Peterson, reflecting changing times and an aging portrayer (Peterson, the original production’s Bishop, has also starred in some of the later revivals).

Deconstructing an icon like Bishop in an irreverent, warts-and-all way feels less daringly innovative now that public figures past and present are so routinely torn down by a more cynical world; but Bishop remains a fascinating character regardless, and the Montgomery production captures some of his spark.

Director Duncan McIntosh delivers a stripped-down, no-frills show. Often a two-hander featuring Bishop and a piano player, the play is done here as a one-man show, just Bishop (Alex Scott) and his memories. There’s little in the way of set or props beyond Bishop’s chair and his drinking glass.

McIntosh finds other ways to add colour and context. The show still has its songs, pre-recorded by local artists, and often played in tandem with vintage film footage from the war and other times past, projected larger-than-life on an upstage backdrop.

Though the film footage’s clarity varies and the scenes are sometimes repetitive, they cement the play’s feeling of time and place in terms of Bishop’s memories, and they help keep the war a starkly real presence in the show even when the songs and stories sometimes gloss over that reality.

The projections’ intermittent glow also mitigates an odd lighting quirk: Scott’s seldom-wide eyes are often reduced to inscrutable jet-black slits by the play’s lighting. Deliberate or not, it stands out, especially given how much time sharpshooter Bishop spends talking about his eyes.

It’s a low-key production. Scott is playing a tired, boozy old Bishop who spends most of the show sitting down, and speaking largely in a tone of quietly deadpan irony. There are livelier bits, like a frenzied account of a daring air raid, but most of the show is very subdued.

It’s a valid choice, and Scott tackles it with meticulous craftsmanship in terms of getting the most from each subtle verbal or physical nuance, netting more than a few laughs along the way; but it sometimes feels a bit stuck in low gear, leaving audience and performer alike working a bit harder than usual to follow the character’s highs and lows.

Old Friends, New Faces

Anne & Gilbert

by Sean McQuaid

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s literary offspring Anne Shirley is a constant presence in PEI, but with an ever-changing face. Each version of the character has its own flavour, and assorted interpreters put their stamp on her story.

As such, the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre’s Anne & Gilbert unfolded largely as expected for this long-absent reviewer: a pleasant reunion with an old friend who’s comfily familiar yet somehow different.

It’s a year of the new for Anne & Gilbert: a new director (former cast member Martha Irving) and new incarnations of Anne (Amy Reitsma), Gilbert (Jory Rossiter) and Marilla (veteran Island singer Pamela Campbell in Irving’s old role).

For that matter, Anne & Gilbert itself retains the sheen of novelty; launched a mere five years ago, just a freckled fraction of the decades-long Anne of Green Gables musical run, it still feels fresh. Where Green Gables charts Anne’s childhood, Anne & Gilbert tackles Anne Shirley’s young adulthood, especially her romance with Gilbert Blythe.

Anne & Gilbert’s music, composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White with a lyrical assist from Jeff Hochauser, is as lively and memorable as its Charlottetown Festival counterpart, and more versatile in terms of tone, mood and style.

Hochauser’s book stays true to the characters while giving them a modern sensibility. Peppered with sly humour, romantic sparring and even occasional glimmers of mercifully genteel sexual innuendo, it’s a more grown-up script for a more grown-up Anne, while carefully preserving the characters’ natural sweetness.

The story drags a bit in act two, becoming heavy-handed or repetitious at times (no less than four heartwarming letter-readings stoke the plot), but it never bogs down for long, and Irving always keeps the show moving briskly.

Reitsma’s crisp enunciation and emotional intensity capture Anne’s intelligence without sacrificing her playfulness, and Rossiter injects enough vulnerability and self-mockery into his Gilbert to make the often-smug character as charming as intended. Campbell’s Marilla evokes the inner warmth wrapped in outer reserve so essential to the character, and Brittany Banks is a font of impeccable comic timing as Anne’s chum Diana.

Other standouts include Robin Craig’s tart-tongued Mrs. Lynde, Brieonna Loche’s lean and hungry Josie, Anders Balderston’s likeably needy Moody, and an animated, engaged Page Gallant making the most of her bit parts.

The colourfully costumed cast looks great apart from a few conspicuous microphones, and assorted quirks of lighting and movement spice up the often plain set, such as a lovely night-lit graveyard scene or Gilbert “swimming” below the main stage. In its best moments, Anne & Gilbert is as playful as Montgomery’s characters themselves.

Gender Bender

The Dating Scheme

by Sean McQuaid

Full disclosure: This reviewer is enduringly fond of the Kings Playhouse, as many of his earliest theatrical memories are rooted in that grand old institution.

Since renovated into a bigger and better version of its former self, the venue has aged considerably better than the reviewer, who nonetheless hauled his superannuated carcass out to Georgetown on July 11 for the world premiere of The Dating Scheme, a play about a couple of Island gals trying to fix their brother up with a friend.

Like many a past Kings Playhouse production over the decades, Scheme hovers somewhere in that hazy critical limbo between the amateur and the professional. Young writer/director/ designer/star John Anderson is formally trained, but his collaborators in the latest version of the King’s Players tend to have less in the way of official credentials or experience.

As such, while Scheme aims for professional quality in many respects, it’s also very much a community theatre project. Local volunteers supply the time, effort, talent and considerable bravery required to put on a live show—and God bless ’em for it, says your musty old reviewer, because these quixotic enterprises help build a richer, livelier community.

This particular community seems to understand that, and showed its players no shortage of love on opening night. The audience received the performers with an air of familiarity, affection and raucous approval more akin to a sporting event than a typical stage show, like a hometown crowd cheering on their local team.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Anderson and company ignited and stoked that warm reception by consistently entertaining the crowd. This dynamic started strong with a weirdly random pre-show of crowd-pleasing, dueling Elvis impersonations by Anderson and castmate Marcus King, and continued into the main show, which had the audience laughing loudly and often.

King Lear it’s not, but it isn’t trying to be. With its mix of slapstick, goofy outfits, mugging and transparent setup-punchline gags, The Dating Scheme feels like an odd throwback to the Miller-Boyett TV sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s: Family Matters, Full House, Perfect Strangers, etc.

It’s very broad comedy milked for easy laughs, but the cast are having fun with it, and it’s often infectious. There are glitches here and there: Marcus King, for instance, playing a waiter, talks a mite too fast—slowing down a bit would sharpen his articulation, boost his volume, and aid his breathing control.

Overall, though, it’s a lively and confident bunch for an amateur cast, and Toby Murphy is the show’s secret weapon as Peggy. Her performance has a few rough edges, but she tackles the role with a natural charisma and palpable glee that mines plenty of laughs from pure, unadulterated silliness, much like the show itself.

Envelope Pushing

Sketch-22, Season 7

by Sean McQuaid

Watching Sketch-22 is a bit like eating those freaky Every Flavour Beans from the Harry Potter stories: wildly eclectic variety, often delicious, sometimes unpleasant.

The show’s occasional lapses are not for lack of ability. Producer Jason Rogerson, director/star Rob MacDonald and his fellow performers Graham Putnam, Dennis Trainor, Andrew Sprague and Lennie MacPherson include some of PEI theatre’s most gifted and experienced funnymen.

They can and do create smart, funny sketches, but sometimes drift into bits where vulgarity, shocks or gross-out tactics end up replacing comedy instead of enhancing it, though the good outweighs the bad overall.

As in past seasons, the live sketches are accompanied by pre-recorded video shorts. This continues to serve the group well, expanding their capabilities in terms of setting and effects.

The recurring “Awkward Moments” video sketches are hit or miss in terms of content, but their oddly formal, eerily-voiced, vaguely robotic, Theremin-playing host Thomas Grillo, introducing each short like some sort of surreal coin-operated phantasm, is an indelibly memorable keeper.

In terms of local humour, “Smelt Shack” overstays its welcome on stage despite a fun video follow-up, but multiple sketches skewer local cable television both effectively and affectionately (and provide an excuse to hand out 3-D glasses, typical of the endearingly playful extra touches often found in Rogerson productions).

A highlight of the close-to-home comedy and of the show in general is “Atlantis Regional Municipality,” which re-imagines local government as acted out by undersea mermen and their randomly bloodthirsty king, played with peerless oddball panache by Putnam.

This sketch also showcases the oft-impressive costumes of stage manager Kelly Caseley, whose merman outfits are visually inventive and surprisingly functional, though only Putnam’s swishing hips fully exploit the design’s finny features.

Other high points include video sketch “Backbencher,” where a great concept deftly defiles a Sir John A. MacDonald statue; video sketch “Fox on the Run,” in which a beloved Canadian icon gets the zombie movie treatment; and the staggeringly weird, daringly obscure and surprisingly profound “Stand Up Canada, Atticus Finch is Passing By,” featuring great turns by the whole ensemble and a bravura performance by Trainor in two or three roles, depending on how you count.

Even the group’s stumbles are often memorably spectacular: the well-acted “Gay Friendly” very nearly spins some envelope-pushing straw into comedic gold, until growing audience revulsion overwhelms the whole sordid exercise partway through.

And speaking of revulsion, kudos to the often-understated Lennie MacPherson, who adds welcome depth and shading to scenes ranging from the Atlantis bit (where his hapless assistant fosters surprising pathos) to “Gay Friendly,” where MacPherson’s own escalating revulsion is a key reason the sketch works for as long as it does.

String Theory

Juan Martín brings his ensemble to the Carrefour

by Sean McQuaid

Juan MartinGuitarist Juan Martín is more than just a set of nimble fingers. Specializing in his native Spain’s traditional Flamenco, he has studied the roots of that music extensively and brings them to life for modern audiences through his composing, writing, recording and performing.

Flamenco’s unofficial international ambassador is now coming back to Canada, where Martín’s latest coast-to-coast tour this October will include his first ever performance in Charlottetown.

An often fast-paced, intricate and sometimes improvisational musical style, Flamenco achieved its earliest and most enduing popularity in the Andalucían region of Spain where Martín grew up, but has always had an international flavour.

Arabic, Moroccan and other Middle Eastern influences permeate its sound, and Flamenco’s popularity in nomadic Gypsy cultures has helped make the music internationally mobile, picking up new sounds along the way.

Recent Flamenco often takes on the properties of modern jazz, but Martín reaches back to older, purer Flamenco traditions, sometimes reviving tunes or styles seldom heard in centuries.

Percussive elements are usually part of the Flamenco mix, even with a solo guitarist; Martín often drums his guitar’s soundboard with his fingers in addition to playing its strings, making it almost two instruments in one.

“That comes partly from years of playing with dancers,” he explains. “They don’t dance for you; you play for them. Flamenco combines guitar, singing and dance — my purpose … is to show it in its purity in all three of its forms.”

Martín’s latest tour achieves that by teaming him with singer/guitarist Manuel Jimenez and dancer “El Tigre” (Salvador Moreno). Some of their songs feature only guitar or song or dance, while others feature assorted combinations of all three. “It gives a lot of variety to the show,” said Martín.

Martín has always drawn inspiration from visuals, and not only dancers. His mother was a painter and he grew up around art, later recording songs based on pictures — most notably his 1981 tribute to Pablo Picasso, Picasso Portraits.

“Dance is very visual,” he continues. “The music fulfills the most spiritual side of Flamenco, but with beautiful dancing it can be more of a sensual experience; you engage the eye and the ear at the same time.”

Like the traditional fiddling and step-dancing of the Maritimes or the jazz, blues and rap pioneered by African-Americans, Flamenco is a musical style with humble socioeconomic roots.

“I don’t think many great geniuses were born in palaces,” Martín muses, crediting much of Flamenco’s development to “downtrodden peoples” like the Gypsies. Some Flamenco “is like a Mediterranean Blues,” he says, though it is also often sunny and upbeat.

As a touring musician, he feels some kinship with the Gypsy lifestyle, but he feels modern airports are “a bit too boring” by comparison. “To be honest, what compensates for all of that travel is the two hours on stage — if it goes well, you’re in Heaven.”

Flamenco trio Juan Martín, Manuel Jimenez and dancer “El Tigre” (Salvador Moreno) will perform at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown on October 11.

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