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Alison Hart & Associates (AHA) are hosting a series of workshops and retreats this fall from the [ ... ]

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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.

Jam Sandwich

Million Dollar Quartet

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Greg Gale, Edward Murphy, Alicia Toner, Evan Stewart, and Matthew Lawrence in a scene from Million Dollar Quartet (photo: Berni Wood, The Charlottetown Festival).  Her musical's lyrics urge Anne of Green Gables to "never change," and the show's Charlottetown Festival home often seems somewhat simpatico with that advice. Anne's antics return every year, and most Festival seasons also feature at least one jukebox musical. That includes this year's main stage companion to Anne, Million Dollar Quartet

Written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, MDQ is loosely based on a real-life event: a December 4, 1956 Carl Perkins recording session during which Sun Records musicians Perkins (played here by Ed Murphy), Jerry Lee Lewis (Jefferson McDonald) and Johnny Cash (Greg Gale) played an informal, impromptu jam session with visiting Sun alumnus Elvis Presley (Matthew Lawrence). 

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Stephen Guy-McGrath) hosted this "million dollar quartet," as newspaper reporter Bob Johnson dubbed them after Phillips called him in to document the occasion. Sun's recordings of the session were eventually released on several albums in later decades. The Mutrux/Escott musical adaptation debuted in 2006, hitting Broadway in 2010 and coming to Charlottetown this summer. 

Inevitably, there's a degree of speculation, imagination and fabrication at play in the musical's fictionalized version of the event, though often rooted in knowledge of the real-life personalities — using the famously volatile Lewis as a conflict-generator among the other characters makes sense, for instance, in terms of creating much of the show's drama. 

The 1956 session's participants included drummer W. S. "Fluke" Holland as well as Perkins' brothers Jay on guitar and Clayton on upright bass, but the musical's sidemen consist of Fluke (Trevor Grant) and a single composite Perkins brother, a bass-playing Jay (Evan Stewart). Similarly, Presley's dancer girlfriend Marilyn Evans attended the 1956 session strictly as a spectator, but she is replaced in the musical by a fictional singer girlfriend, Dyanne (Alicia Toner), who jams with the boys and even gets some numbers of her own. 

The Mutrux/Escott story also takes some chronological liberties: the musical gins up its thin plot by having Cash and Carl Perkins preparing to quit Sun Records like Presley before them, though their respective departures from Sun happened much later than this in real life. Along with a parallel subplot about Phillips considering selling Sun, this adds a bit of extra intrigue beyond the musicians' personality clashes. 

Of course, all the drama is secondary to the music, and there's tons of it. Only several of the musical's 20-plus songs were actually played in the 1956 session, but it's hard to care when the show boasts so many classic tunes performed so skillfully by director Tracey Flye's solid cast, including highlights such as Toner's "Fever," McDonald's "Great Balls of Fire" and Gale's "Ghost Riders."

Beyond the music, Murphy really captures the chip on Carl's shoulder, Gale has a stoic energy reminiscent of the real Cash, Guy-McGrath crafts one of the more colourfully likeable bosses since Stephen Root's Jimmy James, and a superb McDonald steals scene after scene as loose cannon Lewis — all mugging, mischief and manic energy throughout, like some loquacious latter-day Harpo Marx.  

Clocking in well under two hours, it's a fast-moving, hard-rocking, good-natured blur of a musical — more concert than drama, but packing enough of the latter to give the material emotional resonance, especially in its nods to the oft-troubled futures facing 1956's young icons-in-the-making. Built as it is around a jam session, it may not be the meatiest play in town — but it is a mighty tasty jam sandwich.

—Select dates at Confederation Centre of the Arts. Tickets/info: confederationcentre.com.

Six Appeal

It’s All in the Timing 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your scattershot scribe enjoys short-form compilations. Whether it’s old Disney “package films” like The Three Caballeros and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad or vintage anthology comic books like Adventure Comics and 100-Page Super Spectacular, I’ve always liked variety in my entertainment. 

My hankering for patchwork productions extends to theatre, and Charlottetown has hosted many a fine assemblage of one-act plays. Among the finest to date: It's All in the Timing, staged at the Guild this March as part of The Prince Edward Island Pay-What-You-Can Theatre Festival. 

First off, the festival itself is a wonderful idea. Affordable, accessible, professional-quality theatre is a great thing to see on PEI, especially in the oft-inactive winter months. What the PWYC festival collective is doing here is art, yes, and it’s satisfying entertainment, but it’s also commendable community service. 

Happily, Timing satisfies in terms of both quality and quantity. The Guild’s similarly excellent 2015 set of short Pinter plays featured some of the current PWYC creative team, but that show’s three plays barely filled an hour. All in the Timing’s six plays roughly double that running time, a fuller evening of theatre and a better bargain even before you factor in PWYC’s audience-friendly pricing. 

Featuring plays penned by David Ives between 1987 and 1993, All in the Timing premiered in 1993 and was published in 1994. A later expanded edition of the print version included 14 Ives plays, with 1997’s Mere Mortals among the additions. The PWYC production features five of the six original plays, replacing the 1993 show’s Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread (1990) with Mere Mortals.  

Sure Thing (1988) features potential couple Bill (director Adam Brazier) and Betty (Melissa Kramer) meeting in a cafe, where the scene pauses and resets repeatedly as it cycles through dozens of possible outcomes. It’s fast, funny and well-played, though Kramer’s projection could use a boost in spots. 

Variations on the Death of Trotsky (1991) is a darkly surreal comedy starring oddball provincial treasure Graham Putnam as Russian revolutionary Trotsky, fatally wounded by an axe lodged in his head, pondering life, death and his legacy as he dies multiple times. Hilarious, disturbing and oddly poignant, the play (directed by Mark Fraser) boasts strong support from Catherine O'Brien and Fraser McCallum as Trotsky’s wife and killer, respectively. 

The Universal Language (1993) features eager student Dawn (Becca Griffin) learning bizarre nonsense language Unamunda from sketchy tutor Don (Donnie Macphee). It’s great fun from start to finish thanks to Ives’ deliriously inventive wordplay and a pair of thoroughly charming leads directed by Catherine O'Brien. 

Mere Mortals, directed by Brazier, casts Putnam, Macphee and Lennie MacPherson as seemingly ordinary construction workers hiding some very strange secret identities. The script, direction and performances all combine for a superbly-paced slow burn as the story’s weirdness escalates, all while preserving its heroes’ blue collar personalities. All three actors are great in this, especially MacPherson. 

The Philadelphia (1992) stars Brazier/Putnam/Kramer, directed by Marlane O’Brien, in a fun, well-played little oddity about a man trapped in a Philadelphia-inspired alternative reality of sorts where you can’t get anything you want. 

He’s almost as frustrated as the simian stars of Words, Words, Words (1987), directed by Fraser, in which three lab monkeys (Griffin/McCallum/MacPherson) are forced to type endlessly in hopes of randomly replicating Shakespeare. It’s a smart, funny script with plenty of nifty physical monkey business from the cast, especially top banana Griffin’s oft-hilarious, eerily convincing chimp-like facial & vocal tics.

Tears for Two

Grace and Glorie 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your past-his-best-before-date playgoer has always had a soft spot for older folks, even as a youngster. Living more or less next door to my wonderful maternal grandparents might have had something to do with it, but it’s also been a long-recurring element in my favourite entertainment. 

As a kid, for instance, I always liked the greying Justice Society of America (JSA) formed in the 1940s better than their younger Justice League of America (JLA) counterparts, and the annual JLA-JSA team-ups were my favourite JLA comic book stories. 

As I got older, some of my favourite TV shows similarly bridged the old/young divide, like the colourful intergenerational cast of WKRP in Cincinnati, where sleazy salesman Herb Tarlek’s elderly father once opined that the only difference between being young and being old was that it takes courage to be old. 

That sentiment came back to me repeatedly while watching playwright Tom Ziegler’s 1991 melodramedy Grace and Glorie, the full length play component of this year’s excellent Pay-What-You-Can Theatre Festival at the Guild. Directed by Adam Brazier and assistant director Graham Putnam, it’s set in a remote Blue Ridge Mountains shack where 90-year-old cancer patient Grace (Marlane O’Brien) has retreated to face her imminent death. 

Grace gets unsolicited assistance aplenty from hospice volunteer Glorie (Catherine O’Brien), an accomplished New York lawyer who has left her lucrative practice and moved to rural Kentucky after a family tragedy. Friction and miscommunication ensue as the spiritual, simple, country-bred farm widow and the cynical, sophisticated, city-bred attorney get to know each other. 

Cue The Odd Couple theme music, one might say, and Ziegler’s script does opt for broad, easy laughs in spots, especially at the expense of Glorie’s sometimes cartoonishly severe inability to cope with country life, whether she’s cowering in terror of mice, burning herself on the woodstove or letting chickens push her around. 

But if Ziegler’s characters are a bit broadly drawn by times, and the rough outlines of their emerging friendship fairly predictable, the play makes up for it with the compelling background details it builds up around its setting and its characters, as well as the bigger philosophical issues it explores with humour and heart regarding how one lives and how one dies. 

The play’s thoughtful ruminations on age and mortality remind me of another old TV favourite, the superb Twilight Zone anthology series (1959-1964). Series creator Rod Serling was half-fascinated, half-haunted by aging, a topic featured in about 20 of the show’s episodes, including series highlights such as "Walking Distance", "The Trouble with Templeton" and "Nothing in the Dark". The latter George Clayton Johnson script, with its elderly recluse Wanda awaiting the grim reaper, is pleasantly echoed by Gracie’s own half-religious, half-superstitious anticipation of personified Death coming for her. 

Quiet, understated sequences like Gracie’s talk of awaiting the reaper are among the strongest moments of this production; and while the broad comedy elements fit both O’Briens like a glove (despite a few overly shouty exchanges), Marlane O’Brien in particular does some of her best work here in the quieter bits with some genuinely moving line readings.  

Beyond the cast, the overall craft and production values are strong despite the perhaps-limited budget that comes with a Pay-What-You-Can production. Suitably old-timey furnishings and props convincingly embody Gracie’s shack, and extensive sound effects add a lot in terms of mood and colour, as well as facilitating certain plot points. It’s a very solid production, and commendably affordable for all audiences.

Festive Special

P.E.I Community Theatre Festival  

By Sean McQuaid 

Before we were dating, my future wife reportedly described me to her best friend as “the dense one.” Seems I was slow-on-the-uptake in some respects back then. Decades later, this year’s PEI Community Theatre Festival proved that little has changed in that regard. 

I’d gone to see the festival’s featured shows and possibly write something about them. This year’s festival entries included improv games by Spotlight School of Arts, the latest iteration of the Mi’kmaq Heritage Actors’ charming, self-assured Tales from Long Ago, and excerpts from ACT’s recent production of The Dining Room, still stellar. 

All good stuff, as were the entries representing various geographic communities. There are small local theatrical venues and groups all over PEI, from St. Peters to Tyne Valley and beyond, and the festival offers a singular chance to gather samples of these far-flung theatre scenes for a Charlottetown audience. Communities represented this year included Murray Harbour (The Murray Players’ A Partridge in a Pear Tree), Tracadie (The Tracadie Players’ A Trip to the Dentist) and Georgetown (The Kings Players’ Pygmalion excerpt). 

All three groups fared well, though my favourite was probably Tracadie’s dental romp — not because my aunt Joanne Schieck was in it (conflict of interest #247 in a series, collect them all), but just because it was such fun. Chock full of stock characterizations, goofy gags and shamelessly punny character names worthy of Max Allan Collins, it was powerfully corny stuff but lots of laughs, especially some primo Brian Craig slapstick. I literally slapped my knee at one point as I guffawed, mentally chiding myself for becoming a human cliché as I did so. 

As for that “dense one” business I mentioned? Turns out there was a seventh item not listed in the festival program, the presentation of ACT's semi-annual Community Theatre Appreciation Award. ACT rep Keir Malone was a good ways into his eloquent introduction before I had the vaguest inkling of who he was talking about, which turned out to be me. 

Keir said some very kind, exceedingly generous things about my theatre background in general and my theatre reviewing in particular, and presented me with one of the niftiest gifts I’ve ever received: a framed Sandy Carruthers caricature of yours truly scribbling a theatre review while reading a Kid Colt comic (eerily close to my actual writing process, really). 

I was beyond surprised. My wife, daughter and others had successfully concealed the award plans from me for about a month, hence my dumbfounded deer-in-headlights reaction. Both touched and vaguely unsettled by their expert hoodwinkery, I later urged them to use their surprisingly potent powers of deception only for good. 

My mother-in-law said the award presentation was the only time she’s ever seen me at a loss for words. I was then (and remain now) slightly overwhelmed by it all — such a gracious gesture, expressed through a very fine artist’s work as presented by one of PEI’s best actors on behalf of such an admirable organization. I’m not sure I deserve it, but I do appreciate it. 

In that spirit, and still groping for words adequate to the task, I’ve just one thing left to say to Carol, Elsa, Keir, Sandy, Rob, Kim, Peter and all the other folks who made this happen: Thank you all so much.

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

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