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The Shop Around the Corner

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Until recently, I’d never visited The Shop Around the Corner — which is weird, since it sits at the intersection of two of your old-timey opiner’s favourite avenues of entertainment: Christmas stories and Jimmy Stewart movies. 

The original 1940 film’s been on my cultural to-do list for ages now — I’ve even had a copy of the movie on my DVR for about a year — but somehow or other I’d just never gotten around to it. Then ACT produced a stage version of the show this fall, which posed an intriguing dilemma: watch the movie and then see the play, or vice versa? 

Play before film, I decided, wanting to see the stage show with fresh eyes devoid of preconceptions or comparisons. So I attended the play after work on a Friday night, and watched the movie later that weekend. Both versions were quite enjoyable, in sometimes surprisingly different ways. 

ACT’s play, the Jimmy Stewart film and various other versions such as 1998’s You’ve Got Mail are all adapted from 1930s play Parfumerie, a reworking of Hungarian play Illatszertar by Miklos Laszlo (a.k.a. Nikolaus Laszlo). Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson and director Ernst Lubitsch concocted the first film version of Laszlo’s story in 1940 with The Shop Around the Corner

Bringing things full circle, Mariève MacGregor recently converted the 40s flick back into a play by transcribing and adapting Raphaelson’s script for the stage, directing and choreographing ACT’s ensuing production as well. The result is one of the most self-assured, playfully inventive, impressively versatile shows in recent PEI community theatre. 

Set in 1936 Budapest, the play revolves around the shop Matuschek and Company, where capable, confident Alfred Kralik (Adam Gauthier) is senior salesman. The store’s paternally officious, oft-awkward owner Hugo Matuschek (Gordon Cobb) also employs sales clerks Pirovitch (Richard Haines), Flora (Marti Hopson) and Vadas (Mike Mallaley) plus errand boy Pepi Katona (Jim McClean), so Mr. Matuschek feels his little shop is overstaffed – but winsome go-getter Klara Novak (Teresa Wright) somehow talks herself into a sales job regardless. 

A testy rivalry develops between Kralik and Klara, complicated by an unwitting prior connection: they have been exchanging anonymous romantic letters for some time, each of them unaware that his or her dreamy pen pal is also that annoying jerk from work. Cue shenanigans. 

The Laszlo/Raphaelson story is a charming romantic comedy that doubles as a touching holiday tale with much of the action happening near Christmas, complete with the seasonal sideshow of a repentant Mr. Matuschek playing a store brand Scrooge of sorts after a crisis spurs him to new levels of generosity and sensitivity — a bit derivative, but heartwarming all the same. 

Cobb’s posturing early Matuschek seldom fully pops, but he’s quirkily affecting and genuine in much of the character’s later post-reformation scenes. McClean suffers from rushed delivery and fuzzy articulation in spots, but captures Pepi’s amiably lean-and-hungry hustle nicely. Mallaley’s a bit cartoonish as oily flatterer Vadas, but it’s a cartoonish character and the audience seems to love to hate him. He’s effective, as are Hopson’s Flora and literally too many other fine supporting players to mention in this space. 

Best of the batch are a glumly pathetic yet adroitly comedic Haines as wearily resigned wage slave Pirovitch and the Gauthier/Wright duo as the show’s thoroughly appealing, entertaining romantic leads, all of whom compare very favourably with their cinematic counterparts. Jimmy Stewart is the better Kralik by a nose, perhaps at least partially due to the broader palette of nuance film affords, but Gauthier gives the late icon a run for his money. 

Despite the Stewart edge, MacGregor’s play actually surpasses the film overall. However strong the movie’s story and cast might be, Lubitsch’s workmanlike direction is eclipsed by the colour, energy and imagination of MacGregor’s staging, including a fun period soundtrack full of early 20th Century pop music by the likes of Benny Goodman, the Memphis Five and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and multiple dance numbers built around same. 

Those dance numbers are the play’s secret weapon, enjoyable as spectacle — ACT’s company executes them with winningly lively flair — but also as multi-purpose devices building atmosphere, covering scene changes, moving along the plot and even advancing character development, such as an early number that captures the dynamics of the shop in general and the Kralik-Klara relationship in particular with no dialogue required. Pretty fancy footwork.

Tragicomedy

A Misfortune 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Charlottetown Festival takes a lot of guff from critics about artistic integrity, cultural nationalism and such whenever they stage yet another recycled American jukebox musical (like the admittedly entertaining confection Million Dollar Quartet); but in the spirit of fair play, we grumpy media types should also take note when the Festival transcends commercial concerns to produce something uniquely artistic or Canadian or both. 

A Misfortune is just such a project. As its program notes, it’s the fourth original Canadian musical the Charlottetown Festival has produced in recent years (after a test run at the Toronto Next Stage Theatre Festival in 2014), and it’s an odd little tragicomic chamber musical based on an ambiguous, melancholy, blackly comical 19th Century short story about marital infidelity. Not exactly the Charlottetown Festival shaking its money-maker, to be sure. 

Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the musical features young rural housewife Sofya (played by Kelsey Falconer) and young urban lawyer Ivan (Connor Lucas), an old friend who declares his love for Sofya during a walk in the woods. A conflicted Sofya rejects Ivan — which makes it awkward when her oblivious husband Andrey (Réjean Cournoyer) invites Ivan to a dinner party at their cabin that night. Shenanigans ensue, thanks in part to added friction generated by the other party guests, theatrically volatile bickering married couple Masha (Melanie Phillipson) and Pavel (Brendan Wall). 

Written by Kevin Michael Shea (book and additional lyrics), Wade Bogert-O'Brien (lyrics) and Scott Christian (music), and based on Anton Chekhov’s 1886 story of the same name, A Misfortune is broadly faithful to its source material. The musical’s biggest and best deviation from same is the invention of two entirely new characters, Masha and Pavel. 

The additional party guests in Chekhov’s original story are insignificant background characters, but Shea’s prominently featured Masha & Pavel add a lot of broad, lively comic relief to a potentially bleak story, and their deeply dysfunctional but genuinely passionate relationship offers a vividly telling contrast to Sofya’s emotionally hollow marriage. 

However entertainingly the Phillipson/Wall duo chews the scenery, the funniest character in the show may actually be Andrey — paradoxically, also perhaps the saddest character. Proper and practical, stubbornly clueless and relentlessly dull, Andrey’s an older man who has settled into a comfortable rut devoid of any romance or adventure, and he likes his life that way. 

Shea’s script milks a surprising amount of comedy from this, aided by the superb Cournoyer’s deadpan comic timing; but however pompously dense he might be, the musical’s Andrey is likeable enough (arguably more so than his Chekhov counterpart) that we never fully lose sight of the story’s tragic dimension as Sofya starts slipping away from him and their daughter. 

Falconer and Lucas are appealing romantic leads able to lather on the angst as required (though Falconer’s high notes seemed a bit shaky early on), the Shea/Bogert-O'Brien book & lyrics are often clever and amusing, and Christian’s music is well performed by his piano/flute/cello/violin quartet, even if most of the individual songs tend to blur together. 

Brian Smith’s set design, depicting Sofya & Andrey’s cabin and the surrounding woods, is attractive and functional. I especially like the vaguely impressionistic trees, even if one of them did visibly wobble a bit as Lucas wended his way between them. At 70 minutes it’s a short play, and a somewhat dark one given the subject matter; but Chekhov’s core story remains compelling, and the musical’s script as executed skillfully by director Eliza-Jane Scott and company adds a lot of entertainment value without undermining the original tale’s morally murky vision. 

—Plays select dates at The Mack to September 22, 2017. Tickets at www.confederationcentre.com.

Grappling Schnook

The Wrestling Play

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Island audiences tend to give standing ovations to just about everything, regardless of the quality of the play or the performance. I’ve seen standing ovations for merely good shows, okay shows, even downright crummy shows, as if PEI stood for “Proclaims Excellence Indiscriminately.” 

These vertical ovationists presumably mean well, but the cumulative effect of all this randomized reverence is to cheapen standing ovations so much that they become meaningless. As such, your contrary critic tends to shun standing ovations on principle. I’ve probably participated in fewer than ten over the past decade. 

Like universal standing ovations, Justin Shaw is a product of the Island theatre scene. He’s spent much of the past several years working and studying in Quebec and Alberta, recently hired as artistic director of indie company Theatre; Just Because in Fort McMurray; but before that, he was a familiar face in Charlottetown through gigs with the UPEI Theatre Society, Vagabond Productions, ACT, aBigWHAT, the Popalopalots and more, including fine work in last year's Island Fringe Festival as the star of Nutshell

Shaw's career comes full circle at this year's Island Fringe, where he stars in a one-man comedy that he wrote and workshopped in Montreal, rehearsed in Alberta and brought home to PEI for its world premiere in a makeshift wrestling ring assembled in Rochford Square. 

The Wrestling Play is Shaw's debut as a playwright, and it's an impressive first effort. TWP stars Shaw as Charles, an unhappy English teacher who quits his job to pursue a career in pro wrestling. His ensuing odyssey entails physical injury, sexual exploitation, emotional trauma, pharmaceutical misadventure and more than a little public humiliation, all of it entertaining. 

It’s an always ridiculous, occasionally dark, surprisingly surreal, frequently hilarious tale, and strangely moving in terms of how much heart Charles brings to his story in general and his ludicrous dream job in particular. Shaw’s script also dabbles in metadramatic quirk, allowing Charles to interact with the audience, comment on storytelling mechanics and even mess with his underlying reality, suggesting alternate endings and questioning his own identity. 

Quixotic, neurotic and slightly deluded, Charles is a fascinating character — partly for the suspense and sympathy his self-destructive quest generates, but also because his all-consuming passion for this silly pseudo-sport is so charming, even infectious. Charles sees wrestling through eyes of enthusiastic, child-like wonder, such that it’s hard not to get swept along with him. 

It helps that he’s played by an engaged, intense, endlessly energetic Shaw. Years of stand-up and improv comedy have helped him hone a sense of comic timing and audience rapport ideal for this interactive show, and he gives an athletically and emotionally grueling marathon performance full of physical slapstick, wacky prop comedy, manic rants, wry humour and quiet desperation. It’s a bravura performance, probably the best of the 2017 Fringe, and I gladly joined in Shaw’s richly deserved standing ovation.

Just the Way It Is

He Said, She Said 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

There’s an old saw about writing what you know, and young local thespian Rory Starkman definitely walks that talk as the author/director/star of Just the Way It Is, one of the more intriguing entries in 2017’s Island Fringe Festival. 

A self-described “non-binary” person who identifies as neither male nor female, Starkman plays Maddox, who was born a girl as Maggie (played in flashbacks and visions by Olivia King) but eventually evolved into the more masculine Maddox. 

Starkman wrote the play, as the author’s self-penned program bio puts it, “to be seen and heard for the human being that I am” after years of hiding, and to promote compassion and understanding regarding gender-identity issues. 

As a confessional and as a public service effort, the play works fairly well — it’s a gutsy, mostly unglamorous look at a lifelong struggle to define one’s self in a world where the kind of change Maddox undergoes tends to be confusing and difficult. 

As drama, it’s a smidgen more hit-or-miss. While still sympathetic given the character’s inner struggle, Maddox is such an oft-obnoxious personality that it’s unclear what exactly Maddox’s preternaturally supportive girlfriend (played warmly yet somewhat stiffly by Justeann Hansen) sees in our protagonist, regardless of all the gender-related stuff. 

The off-puttingly angry, abrasive Maddox personality is partly the script, and it’s partly the performance. Starkman has long had a knack for playing seething sorts prone to explosive outbursts. While it’s well acted here and believably motivated, Maddox’s anger is somewhat gratingly repetitive within the play — and it also feels a bit overly familiar coming from this particular actor. 

King’s performance as Maggie is more interesting, more nuanced and — deliberately or not (I suspect not) — more appealing and sympathetically relatable than Starkman’s Maddox. King’s open, expressive face is fascinating, and her emotional range nails everything from awkward vulnerability and gnawing anxiety to playful whimsy and predatory menace. 

If King’s Maggie semi-subversively steals the show, the rest of the supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Morgan Wagner and Ash Arsenault each play multiple parts, but while Wagner is versatile and effective in that capacity, Arsenault is a genial yet tediously one-note presence. 

The Charlottetown Firefighters Club isn’t an ideal theatrical venue — poor sight lines, stifling heat and lots of background noise — but adapting to odd spaces is a Fringe tradition, and Starkman’s company makes the best of it here in terms of projection and blocking. There are also flashes of inventive visual flair in the show’s props and physical action, producing memorable images such as a mummy-wrapped Maggie or a metaphorically-yet-visually sword-wielding Maddox. 

Earnestly agenda-driven, this is not a perfect play — but there’s a lot of heart, brains and more than a few laughs in this story. It’s one of the more intelligent, unique entries in this year’s Fringe Festival, and a worthy addition to Starkman’s growing list of commendable Fringe credits. 

Tickling Ivories

Perk up, pianist!

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Island Fringe Festival is a bit like Forrest Gump’s metaphorical box of chocolates in terms of never knowing what you’re gonna get, but patterns do emerge. Fringe fare is often weirder, edgier, more artsy, more challenging or some combination of the above; so it’s always refreshing to see a Fringe show that’s pure, uncut fun, like Sarah Hagen’s exquisite Perk up, pianist! 

As a smart, artful one-woman theatrical show built around classical piano music, Perk checks off some fairly standard Fringe boxes in terms of featuring unconventionally executed high art, but Hagen’s show never takes itself too seriously. The music is beautiful, the comedy is funny, the performer is charming, and the whole show exudes unpretentious mainstream appeal. 

A celebrated veteran concert pianist whose gigs have ranged from small-town stages to Carnegie Hall, Hagen branched into theatre as the writer and star of Perk last year. It’s basically an anecdotal comedy show in which Hagen talks about her life as a musician while playing around on the piano, adding sprightly melodic ambience to her stories. 

As a comedic keyboardist she’s been likened to the late, great Victor Borge, an apt comparison; but speaking as an oddball spawn of the 70s, she reminds me even more of Borge’s one-time collaborator Rowlf (Jim Henson), the comical canine pianist of Muppet Show fame, which is sincerely high praise coming from this Muppet devotee. She’s got much the same winningly mellow, low-key vibe, and a similarly sly, dry comic wit. 

In Hagen’s case, that wit is delivered with a dulcet, dreamily deadpan lilt, punctuated by occasional over-the-shoulder flashes of her Cheshire Cat grin as she lands punch lines ranging from gleefully shameless puns to saucy double entendres. It’s often silly, but knowingly so, and all filtered through Hagen’s unique, wistfully whimsical sensibility. 

On the serious side, Hagen delves into her own personal and professional insecurities. Calling herself a “recovering pianist,” she talks about her family, her romantic misadventures, the challenging life of a touring musician, burning out on the concert circuit and trying to find direction and stability in her career. There’s a faintly melancholy tone to these confessional elements — the “sadder but wiser girl,” as The Music Man puts it — but Hagen’s endearingly self-deprecating humour keeps things light. 

As for that “recovering pianist” jazz, luckily for us it seems to be a chronic condition. In addition to her recurring musical accompaniment throughout the show, Hagen relapses into full-blown concert pianist mode at one point with some spirited Rachmaninoff, and it’s a movingly beautiful interlude. Watching her lose herself in the piece, one recalls her remark earlier in the show about being able to taste sound — and she certainly seems to be savouring it here.

There might be more innovative, daring or complex plays than Hagen’s on the 2017 Island Fringe slate, but none of them are more thoroughly entertaining. Perk up, pianist! is a simple show, and it’s simply delightful.

Eight is enough

Island Fringe Festival

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Island Fringe Festival has wrapped up another successful season, faithfully attended by yours truly. How faithfully? For the second year in a row, I attended all eight shows. Limitations of time and space (pesky space-time continuum!) mean I can’t fully review all eight productions this year, though I did full-length reviews of my three favourites: The Wrestling Play, Just the Way It Is and Perk up, pianist! 

The remaining five shows embody a key trait of this year’s Fringe slate: variety, not just of style or tone or genre, but also of format. They include a site-specific theatrical drama, a talk show, a comedic monologue, a theatrical dance production and a couple of stand-up comedy sets. 

Speaking of which, Personal Philosophy is a pair of stand-up routines performed in the basement lounge of the Factory Cookhouse. Billed as “obscene, possibly vulgar,” foul-mouthed funnymen Dana Doucette and Mark McCue lived up to their hype with profane, often off-putting humour. The more confident, polished McCue got the lion’s share of the laughs with smoother delivery and funnier material, such as tales of cruelly toying with pizza delivery drivers. 

Nestled snugly at the opposite end of the classy spectrum, Grasshoppa Dance presented Ship of Dreams at the Charlottetown Firefighters Club. Described as “dance drama” and “historical poetry,” it stars Massachusetts-based dancer Maureen Shea in a series of interpretive dances accompanied by recorded voice-over readings from old journals and letters regarding past generations of her family. Partly inspired by Shea’s stepmother’s childhood on PEI, it’s a handsome show (the functional backdrop made of family letters is a nice touch) full of attractive and moving dance, despite occasional issues with pacing, audio clarity and sight lines. 

If I Were Me… I’d Know What I Want is an at least somewhat autobiographical one-woman show staged in Rochford Square, starring “Creativity and Confidence Catalyst” Pamela Ziemann talking about her 50-year journey of finding herself. She’s an appealing, animated, often amusing speaker, though little about this monologue memoir stuck with me afterward beyond her love of Alice Cooper and her resentment of milk (a.k.a. “creepy moo juice”). 

One of the more conceptually intriguing entries in this year’s festival, What’s So Funny About…? is an honest-to-gosh talk show (staged at the Startup Zone) in which local comedians interview assorted local personalities. Producer and primary host Sam MacDonald has a good idea here, though he’s not putting the best possible face on it — nervous, rambling and too often laughing at his own jokes. Co-hosts Kelly Caseley and Dylan Miller were more insightful, focused and funny during the episode I attended, stealing (and saving) the show. 

Last but far from least, The Runaway Game is a one-act play produced by Hey Ladie of Montreal, written by Leni Krivy, directed by Madie Jolliffe and starring Krivy, Sophia Metcalf and Andrew Sawyer. Staged compactly in a furnished room at the Haviland Club where the unavoidably small audience is seated inches away, it’s an intimate, playful, amusing, thoughtful and sometimes uncomfortable portrait of two troubled young women and their relationships with men and each other. 

A chronologically jumbled assemblage of dreams, anecdotes, memories and conversations that often hints at the histories, issues and situations of its characters without spelling them out, The Runaway Game is pleasantly reminiscent of David Lynch. The chemistry between Krivy and Metcalf (who gives one of the festival’s best performances) reminds me of Lynch’s Mullholland Drive, and the play as a whole reminds me of Homer Simpson’s review of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: “Brilliant! …I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” 

Words worth

On a First Name Basis

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Ah, Victoria-by-the-Sea. The seashore, the shops, the tree-lined streets... it’s been several years since I last sampled the village’s enduring charms, chief among them the lovely Victoria Playhouse, so I was keen to review that venue’s premiere of Norm Foster’s 2011 comedy On a First Name Basis

Full disclosure: the show’s directors Rob MacLean and Melissa Mullen are recurring collaborators of ye olde reviewer, as is their female lead’s father, so factor that into your reading accordingly. I’m wearing my Heartless Reviewer hat as I type this — less stylish yet more on-task than my “Goofy Through the Years” cap from Walt Disney World — but one never knows when my icy resolve might waver. 

On a First Name Basis was written by Foster for his old friend Patricia Vanstone, and he has since co-starred in many productions of the show with her. Victoria’s version of this tidy two-hander stars Lee J. Campbell as wealthy spy novelist David Kilbride and Martha Irving as his long-suffering maid, Lucy Hooperstaad. 

The play builds from a simple premise: the comically self-involved Kilbride belatedly realizes that he knows almost nothing about Miss Hooperstaad — not even her first name — despite their decades together; so he insists on chatting informally after her shift one night, wanting to know her better. Liquor and secrets alike are uncorked as the evening unfolds, and Kilbride learns a great deal more than he bargained for. 

The entire plot is a relatively physically static dialogue between two characters in a single room, so Foster’s words are key. Mostly that’s to the play’s benefit — there are tons of funny lines here with scarcely a clunker among them, and there’s also a fun recurring motif about the meaning of words and phrases that works well as a conversational complication, an intellectual exercise and a plain old running gag. 

That being said, the play’s sheer volume of words is a mixed blessing. Foster’s script gets repetitive in spots — the many jokes about Lucy taking umbrage at David’s implied snobbery net diminishing comedic returns past a certain point, for instance; and in a play full of revelations, the ratio of telling to showing can potentially feel more expository or explanatory than emotional by times, depending on how the actors spin it. At least one of Irving’s later speeches bogs down a bit in this regard. 

Speaking of Irving, she and Campbell seemed a bit uncertain of their words on opening night, with occasional hesitations, self-corrections, repetitions and such, including at least one audible assist from a prompter. With a creative team this accomplished, I’m confident any such hiccups won’t last long, and Campbell & Irving are consistently charming, entertaining leads regardless — hence the hearty, frequent audience laughter. 

Also charming: W. Scott MacConnell’s simple but attractive scenic design, which sketches David’s mansion for us with two bookcases, a couple of chairs, a table and a central mantle/fireplace combo, all nicely lit. It’s a pleasant place to while away an evening, and Victoria’s lively production of Foster’s witty script feels right at home. 

—Playing select dates to September 3 at Victoria Playhouse. Tickets available at victoriaplayhouse.com.

Time capsule

The Tomorrow Box

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Performed by
Kelly Caseley (Lisa Graham), Sherri-Lee Darrach (Alice Cooper), Alison Hart (Maureen Cooper), Nils Ling (Jack Cooper), Tim Wartman (Joe Cooper)

Directed by 
Keir Malone 

Written by 
Anne Chislett 

Head Carpenter/Set Design/Stage Manager 
Sarah Emily Bruce 

The Story 
In this 1980 play returning to the Playhouse after a late 1980s run, newlyweds Joe & Alice Cooper leave the city to buy the family farm from Joe’s father Jack, who hasn’t told his wife Maureen about his plans to retire to Florida with her. Stunned to learn that male chauvinist Jack has sold their home without consulting her, Maureen rethinks her life with support from Alice and feminist lawyer Lisa, Alice’s sister.  

The Performance
It's a likeable, plausible and often funny ensemble. Assorted repetitions, hesitations, interruptions and self-corrections on the part of the actors opening night felt like a company not fully confident of their lines just yet, though that may firm up as the run continues. While multiple cast members bring the comedy, a movingly sympathetic Hart does much of the heavy lifting drama-wise. 

Best Thing
Chislett's script may be more of a period time capsule than a timely revelation decades later, but it's still funny and its observations on issues like rural gender dynamics are still broadly relevant, with more than a little familiar resonance for Island audiences. 

Shortcomings 
Solid technical elements like a projected scenic backdrop (adding colour and depth to the physical set) are offset by weaker bits like an unconvincingly decorated beer carton prop and an oddly vague, vexingly repetitive, distractingly uniform and occasionally ill-timed arriving car sound effect. 

Final Thoughts 
With an entertaining script and an appealing cast, The Tomorrow Box may not be a flawless package but there's a lot to like inside it. 

—Playing select dates at Kings Playhouse. Tickets/info www.kingsplayhouse.com.

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