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Table Dancing

The Dining Room

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your rumpled reviewer seems slightly out of place at the stately Elmwood Heritage Inn. A beautiful historic property tucked away at the end of a long, curved driveway off busy North River Road, it's an atypically fancy setting for yours truly.

Walking up the front steps on a dark winter's night, I felt a bit like a doomed minor character in the opening minutes of some classy haunted house movie. The warm, welcoming interior quickly dispelled any such ominous notions; but the evening was full of phantoms all the same, courtesy of ACT's new production of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room

Gurney's first big success, this 1982 script epitomizes his speciality: satirizing and celebrating the well-to-do WASP culture in which he grew up. Set in an elegant traditional family dining room, the play features eighteen oft-overlapping scenes played out around, atop and even under the venerable dining room table. 

Each scene offers a different set of characters in a different time period, vignettes spanning decades and generations. These scenarios flow surreally into each other, sometimes playing simultaneously. As one character unwittingly-yet-aptly puts it on another topic, "It's as if we didn't exist. As if we were all just... ghosts, or something."

All 55 of Gurney's ghosts are portrayed by six quick-changing actors, each playing characters of widely varying ages, circumstances and personalities. Deftly directed by able ACT staple Terry Pratt, this versatile sextet includes Dylan Gaudet, Corin McFadden, Noah Nazim, Barbara Rhodenizer, Suzanne Wilkie and Teresa Wright. 

It's a uniformly solid, remarkably nimble cast. Ever-masterful ACT mainstay Rhodenizer shines as an officious, guilt-mongering mother, a boozily jaded teenager and an operatically outraged elder aunt, while multi-faceted McFadden excels as a detestably icy martinet of a father, a gleeful child, a bitter old man and more. 

Younger cast members Gaudet and Wilkie round out the cast skillfully, sometimes in younger parts — like Gaudet as an amusingly blunt anthropology student or Wilkie as a scattered, newly lesbian ex-housewife trying to move back in with her parents — and sometimes capably filling parts well beyond their years, like Wilkie's sad, unnerving turn as an old woman losing her memory. 

Local reporter Wright is returning to the stage after a long absence, but the only hint of said absence is its mention in the show's program. Wright's naturally cool poise helps her slide smoothly into the skins of Gurney's upper crust creations, and she also plays well against type in parts like a gloomily taciturn maid or a boisterous child. 

The uniquely talented Nazim, meanwhile, does some of his best work. Always a vivid stage presence, his occasional over-the-top tendencies are largely absent here as he shows impressive range, quiet charm and nuanced restraint, helping craft some of the production's best moments, like a sweetly romantic encounter with Wright or a funny, poignant father-son scene with McFadden. 

The 56th character in the show is the dining room itself, which ACT is staging in multiple venues: smaller, intimate spaces like the Elmwood Heritage Inn and the Haviland Club, and a more conventional theatrical run at le Carrefour Theatre. With a delicious cast making a meal of Gurney's funny, thoughtful script, Pratt's fine production is worth a look wherever it's playing.

Performances of The Dining Room take place at Le Carrefour Theatre February 17 and 18 at 7:30 pm and February 18 at 2 pm. Tickets are available at www.ticketwizard.ca.

Girl’s in the Hood

Robyn Hood — This Tale's Even Fairlier

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your quivering quibbler enjoys archers. Hawkeye, Green Arrow & Speedy, Yondu Udonta, the Spider, Artemis, Merida, Moonbow, Huntress, Daryl Dixon, Danielle Moonstar, Kate Bishop, Katniss Everdeen — the heroic archer archetype has a uniquely dashing appeal. 

Of course, Robin Hood is the swashbuckling standard, whether played straight by the likes of Errol Flynn (1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Kevin Costner (1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) or for laughs as in Daffy Duck’s Robin Hood Daffy (1958) and Walt Disney’s animated classic Robin Hood (1973), not to mention televised assault on sanity Rocket Robin Hood (1966-1969). 

So Robin Hood’s a fairly flexible icon, suitable for both comedy and adventure — and there’s loads of the former (plus a little of the latter) in this season’s Confederation Centre of the Arts community Christmas show, Robyn Hood — This Tale's Even Fairlier. Like the Centre’s earlier Fairly Tall Tale shows written and directed by Adam Brazier, it’s a deliberately goofy jukebox musical take on a classic story. 

In this distaff version of the Hood legend, female PEI outlaw Robyn Hood (a lively Maria Campbell) of Sherwood-Parkdale Forest subverts unjust ruler Prince John (Matthew Rainnie) with the aid of her Merry Men and earnest do-gooder Maid Marion (Jessica Gallant), while weepy royal underling the Town Crier (Sarah MacPhee) gets caught in the middle. 

The ever-entertaining MacPhee’s fun recurring role as the Town Crier from Brazier’s previous Fairly musicals is greatly expanded here, and Robyn’s Merry Men include a formidable female Friar Tuck (Alana Bridgewater) who doubles as a fittingly gospel-infused musical narrator of sorts, so pretty much all the major roles are gals except for Rainnie. My preteen daughter liked that progressive aspect of the show, especially seeing a female Robin Hood. 

She also enjoyed the music, singing along with tunes like “9 to 5,” “Firework” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Plenty of fine vocalists in the cast, and able musician/actor types like guitar-strummers Fraser McCallum & Jordan Cameron (as the Merry Men’s Will Scarlett & Little John) help give the show a fun house party feel, especially in an excellent “Feel the Same Way Too” group number. 

This year, Brazier collaborated with co-writer Graham Putnam (also fine here in several small acting roles), and it’s a nice mix. The gleeful, unabashedly silly tone of Brazier’s work endures, but there’s less toilet humour, more pop culture references, more and better local/topical gags, and increasingly frequent, clever fourth-wall-breaking material ranging from amusingly named-and-shamed bit players like Kid One (Noah MacKinnon) to surreal literary crossover character Moody MacPherson (Andrew Clow). 

It’s not all comedy gold — the Moody character as written is a bit funnier in concept than he is in execution, as is the Merry Men’s “exchange hoodlum” from Quebec, Déjà vu (Cameron MacDonald) — neither the script nor a nebulously-accented MacDonald ever seems fully certain of what to do with that character. 

There’s lots to love here, though, whether it’s oddball supporting players like the Prince’s guards (Duncan MacAulay’s artfully slow-motion battle demise springs to mind) or the uniformly solid main cast, especially the deliciously hammy, hilarious Rainnie, who evokes Peter Ustinov’s classic 1973 version of Prince John without aping it. The Merry Men may be thieves, but Rainnie’s priceless prince steals every scene he’s in — and this play’s all the richer for it. 

Hope on a Rope

The Laramie Project 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Humans like to find meaning in stuff — and as an unreasonable facsimile of a human, your pensive prattler is no exception. Watching ACT’s production of The Laramie Project at the Guild, a serious play trying to make sense of a serious real-life crime, I caught myself reading profundity or poetry into random things around me as the evening wore on.

Odd little rectangular strips of paper spiraling aimlessly down onto the stage from somewhere above us; quasi-disembodied sounds of grief from an oft-teary audience during the play; a sleek fox slinking through the half-lit shadows of Victoria Row after the show, wisely shunning the unpredictable bipeds. 

It all felt a bit unsettling, unreal, despite watching a play full of real events about real people. The Laramie Project is chock full of unpredictable bipeds, wonderful and awful and everything in between, and one can hardly blame the foxes for avoiding such unfathomably erratic creatures. 

Inspired by the brutal murder of young gay man Matthew Shepard on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, The Laramie Project explores the event and its aftermath, including public debate over how society should deal with anti-homosexual prejudice. 

Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project colleagues wrote the play collaboratively, drawn from hundreds of interviews they conducted with Laramie residents after Shepard’s demise. The result is an impressionistic series of vignettes in which eight actors play dozens of different characters talking about Shepard’s life and death and the impact he had on Laramie and the world. 

There’s emotional manipulation on the authors’ part, and the play isn’t always subtle or even-handed about its messages, but it’s a moving story — and surprisingly versatile in terms of mood and tone. Often horrific and sad, it’s also disarmingly funny in spots and expresses a hopeful attitude about the future. It’s not just an earnest theatrical screed. 

Director Paul Whelan keeps it simple — minimal props and furnishings, practically no set, just eight actors cycling through assorted identities. Screen projections add context and colour, notably images of Laramie, but the real attraction here is Whelan’s omni-faceted acting octet: Guy Brun, Kassinda Bulger, Emily Anne Fullerton, Adam Gauthier, Margaret MacEachern, Keir Malone, Rory Starkman and Tim Wartman. 

There are occasional hiccups — actors such as Brun and Steele stumble over their lines briefly in spots (mostly unobtrusively), while Bulger and others could stand to boost their projection ever so slightly on occasion — but all eight actors do fine, memorable work here in impressively varied roles. 

Sometimes it’s the specificity of character that impresses, the creation of distinctive personalities like the mannered warmth of Brun’s decent, didactic priest; sometimes it’s interplay, like the easy rapport between a mother and daughter played by MacEachern and Fullerton; sometimes it’s moments of sheer goofy fun, like Fullerton’s over-the-top waitress, Wartman’s folksy Doc O’Connor or Bulger’s giddy reading of student Zubaida Ula’s metadramatic line about the weirdness of becoming a theatrical character. 

Other times it’s just sheer emotional punch, ranging from the quiet intensity of multiple Gauthier, Malone and Wartman monologues to the operatic anguish of Starkman’s star turn as Shepard’s would-be rescuer Aaron Kreifels. There’s something and someone for everyone in this richly diverse cast of characters and actors. 

Kaufman’s text is repetitive or heavy-handed in spots, but it’s an impressively sweeping, unflinching picture of a community and the crime that rocked it, all the more impressive for its underlying optimism about a potentially better tomorrow. As Doc O’Connor says in a plainspoken ode to mercy and forgiveness, “the whole thing ropes around hope.”

Ladies in Waiting

Waiting for the Parade 

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your postwar prattler has always had a soft spot for World War II — as an artistic subject, anyway. The real–life historical conflict may have been a tragic disaster that killed millions and damaged millions more, but there’s lots to like in that era's artistic output and the war has inspired many period pieces in subsequent decades. 

One such piece is Waiting for the Parade, penned by Texas–born, Alberta–based playwright John Murrell in 1977 and oft–remounted since then, most recently at the venerable Kings Playhouse in Georgetown. Murrell’s script explores the lives of five Calgary women on the home front during World War II, played here by Samantha Bruce, Grace Kimpinski, Madeleine Mitchell, Hannah Morgan and Playhouse executive director Haley Zavo. 

Murrell’s women include haughty Janet (Zavo), self-righteous leader of local volunteer activities supporting the war effort, overcompensating for her husband dodging military service; lonely Catherine (Mitchell), who endures her spouse’s overseas military service through a mix of factory work, alcohol and infidelity; mousey Eve (Morgan), an idealistic pacifist schoolteacher whose older husband is a bitterly jingoistic warmonger; blunt Margaret (Kimpinski), an aging widow with one son at war and one in jail; and proud Marta (Bruce), a defiantly nonconformist German immigrant whose father is jailed as a supposed spy. 

Justifiably angry, fatalistically funny and wearily resilient, outsider Marta is the story’s most fascinatingly multi–layered character, played with pleasingly ambiguous comic aplomb by Bruce. Murrell's unsympathetic insider Janet is a ploddingly predictable establishment heavy by comparison, but a nuanced performance here makes her more than a cartoon villain in moments such as Zavo’s eloquently silent sadness in the play’s final scene. 

Mitchell’s entertaining work as flawed–but–vital Catherine hits comedic and dramatic notes with equal élan, while a winningly well–cast Morgan and a matter–of–fact Kimpinski capably land many of the show's bigger laugh lines. 

Director Susan Hammond–Bruce keeps her staging commendably simple. The play's handful of settings is represented by a shifting assortment of furnishings and props often moved around by the cast themselves, with the actors literally and figuratively doing most of the heavy lifting. 

Period music (both recorded and live) and numerous sound effects help convey varied moods and situations, though scene changes feel inconsistent in this regard — some of the scene–shifting blackouts are covered by music or sound effects but others are not, making the latter more awkwardly conspicuous transitions since the scene changers are often somewhat visible or audible. 

That's a relatively peripheral element, though, as is one of this production's nicer extras: a collection of war memorabilia curated by Wayne Hambly and displayed in the lobby evokes the play's time period while offering a solemnly tangible reminder of the people whose wartime sacrifices helped secure our modern freedoms.

Plant Feud

Little Shop of Horrors 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

(photo: pixbylorne)Little Shop of Horrors isn’t pretty, but it grows on you. Ye olde reviewer isn’t sure at this late date which he saw first — Roger Corman’s original 1960 sci-fi black comedy about a man-eating plant, or the 1982 Alan Menken/Howard Ashman stage musical version that blossomed into a film of its own in 1986 — but both shows initially left me a little cold. 

Corman’s 1960 low-budget seedling managed to be darkly downbeat and hokey at the same time (despite a young Jack Nicholson's memorable bit-player debut), while the 1986 movie musical offshoot was more clever, inventive, funny and visually spectacular but tacked on a discordantly happy ending. 

The 1982 stage version is comparatively authentic and daring, but dark — it’s a bloodily murderous, pitch-black comedy without much in the way of characters you can root for, most of them weak or corrupt and ultimately doomed. It’s perhaps the most nihilistic musical I’ve ever seen, albeit cheerfully so. 

All of that makes it pretty ideal for the Halloween season, during which ACT mounted the show at Holland College’s handsome new Florence Simmons Performance Hall. I like the space; the hall is small enough and its sloped-seating sight lines clear enough that there’s hardly a bad seat in the house. 

My wife, a lifelong Little Shopaholic, says it’s one of the better live productions of the show she’s seen over the years. She cites a strong cast (though she felt Robyn MacDougald’s Audrey too closely echoed her 1986 film counterpart) as well as some neat directorial touches like varied musical pacing amplifying the creepiness of certain scenes. 

As for me, I had fun despite my squeamishness. There were occasional technical difficulties, particularly with sound — ranging from a near-silent prologue to random actors' mics going quiet during certain songs, plus at least one supporting actor’s mic cutting in and out intermittently in one scene — but the show’s fundamentals are strong. 

The music’s great, both the clever Menken/Ashman songs and the performance of same, featuring a solid pit band and thirty actors. Director Peter Krauskopf's crowded stage is often busy but never cluttered, and Morgan Wagner's simple but effective choreography helps everyone navigate the space smoothly. 

Among the smoother navigators are the Ronettes — streetwise teens Chiffon (Jenna Marie), Crystal (Lindsay Schieck) and Ronnette (Alexandra Sorensen) — who offer oft-musical commentary on the proceedings like a doo-wop Greek chorus. Fine vocalists all, they do a lot to sustain the show's tricky tone of light-hearted darkness, and Schieck in particular adds a winning mix of charm and cynicism to numbers like "Skid Row." 

Steve Bruce and Robyn MacDougald are both funny, believable and sympathetic as meek star-crossed lovers Seymour and Audrey, an amusing Richard Fellbaum evokes Mel Brooks as schemer Mr. Mushnik, and ACT mainstays Gerry Gray & Terry Pratt shine in bit parts as an anguished dental patient and wheeler-dealer Patrick Martin, respectively. 

But the show's supreme scene-stealers are homicidal houseplant Audrey II, brought to life via elaborate puppets crafted by Ontario's Deb & Jenny Erb for Korda Artistic Productions and animated by an able team of puppeteers and vocalists; and an ideally cast, note-perfect Noah Nazim as gleefully sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, the only performer chewing even more scenery than the giant flytrap. With monsters like these on stage, Little Shop of Horrors may not be pretty but it sure is entertaining.

A women’s world

Belles Soeurs: The Musical

Review by Sean McQuaid

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” sang Tammy Wynette in 1969. Michel Tremblay’s innovative 1968 theatrical black comedy Les Belles-soeurs expressed a similar sentiment more sweepingly and bitingly, arguing it’s pretty much always hard to be a woman—at least as embodied by the ladies of Tremblay’s 1960s working class Montreal. 

Tremblay’s first and most popular professionally produced play, Les Belles-soeurs was a controversial trailblazer in the ‘60s for its earthy French dialect, its sexual politics, its focus on mundane, lower class characters and its subversive scorn for targets ranging from materialism to religion to the whole darn male gender. 

Now a longstanding Canadian theatrical institution, Tremblay’s iconoclastic play has somehow morphed into a mainstream theatrical musical. First adapted into this form in French by René Richard Cyr and Daniel Bélanger in 2010, it was further modified and translated into English by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram in 2014. 

Recently directed by Cyr for the Segal Centre, Cyr’s current production of the English musical is now appearing at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, where it’s a cousin somewhat awkwardly thrice removed from Tremblay’s original tale. Most of the characters remain, as does much of Tremblay’s oft-withering take on their crushingly dull, empty workaday lives, but the musical tries to have its cake and eat it too by tacking some happy closing sentiments onto the show. 

The result feels off, not so much because of deviating from the darker original play—the current musical can and should be judged as its own entity—but more because of the cognitive dissonance within the musical itself. The show spends a lot of time telling us how empty and unhappy most of these women's lives are before it unconvincingly reassures us they'll be okay in the end, and it can't quite stick the landing. 

That being said, there’s still plenty of entertainment value in Tremblay's story, as skillfully executed by Cyr’s cast and crew. When 1960s Montreal housewife Germaine Lauzon (played by Lisa Horner) wins a million trading stamps in a contest, she invites female friends and relatives to her apartment to celebrate her good fortune and help her paste all the stamps into redemption books she can exchange for fabulously tacky luxury consumer goods. The gloating, gleeful Germaine, however, doesn't realize her jealous guests are stealing her stamps while they gossip, gripe and swap stories. 

The entertaining Horner heads an all-female cast of widely varying ages, showcasing fine and funny performances such as Valerie Boyle playing Yvette Longpré, whose seemingly endless wedding anecdote song is a little gem of understated comic timing; the honey-voiced Lili Connor as Des-Neiges Verrette, whose ode to her salesman paramour is equal parts sweet and sad; Geneviève St Louis, who makes a filling comedic meal out of a relatively one-note role as the relentlessly bitter Marie-Ange Brouillette; and the broad-yet-nuanced Marcia Tratt, who makes snooty Lisette De Courval’s operatic tribute to snobbery a rousing comic showcase. 

Like the original play, the musical doubles as an anthology of sorts by giving most of its characters a turn in the spotlight as they tell their various individual stories (though the best musical number is the ensemble’s hypnotic, hilarious and masterfully staged “Ode to Bingo”). The musical’s larger overall story may not bear close scrutiny, but its individual characters, songs and vignettes are often entertaining, insightful and compelling.

To shell and back

Island Fringe Festival:
Nutshell

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your withered wordsmith knows youth is a vital component of any thriving theatre scene, so it's reassuring to see creative young Island thespians doing fine work like Nutshell. Staged in the outdoor patio area at the Beanz coffee shop as part of the Island Fringe Festival, this dark comedy is a co-production of UPEI's venerable Vagabond Productions and a new company, The Fantastic Space. 

The latter company's founder, ubiquitous young local theatre fixture Benton Hartley, is the author and co-star of Nutshell. Inspired by (but not directly based on) Hartley's own experiences with social anxiety, the play stars Justin Shaw as Jonah, a young man whose long-term depression and anxiety spiral out of control after he is fired from his job and hides out in his apartment for 13 days, shunning friends and family. 

Director Rory Starkman (previously director and co-star of last year's Fringe highlight Small Talk) makes good use of the Beanz space, arranging much of the action downstage but with lots of upstage depth and free-ranging movement courtesy of the surrounding courtyard. Sight lines are good, and the composition and physical action are varied enough to offer points of interest from multiple audience angles. 

Starkman also assembles and helms a strong ensemble of actors including Hartley, Shaw and Starkman's Small Talk writer/co-star Kassinda Bulger. Ashley MacLeod plays Jonah's best friend and unrequited crush Ellie, Hartley plays her significant other Bryce, and Bulger, Dylan Gaudet, Noah Nazim and Morgan Wagner steal assorted chunks of the show as the voices in Jonah's head: Naivity, Catastrophe, Apathy and Intimacy, respectively. It's a bit like an adult male version of Pixar's excellent Inside Out film. 

Shaw is quite good as Jonah — believably troubled, bitter and intense but still sympathetic. MacLeod and Hartley are natural and likeable as Jonah's friends, and both have an easy, organic interplay with Shaw. Bulger is loads of capricously playful fun as the most child-like of Jonah's inner voices, the well-cast Gaudet and Wagner are effective in their parts, and Nazim is quite entertaining. His seething stare often feels more like Anger than Apathy, but he's vividly memorable regardless and helps instill a real sense of menace in the voices tormenting Jonah. Jay Gallant, Kat Nazim and Greg Doran also do solid work in assorted supporting roles. 

Hartley is trying to say something important about a serious topic here, which could easily drift into cloying very-special-episode territory; but the play largely avoids that trap, partly through handy narrative devices like Jonah writing an article about his condition. This enables the character to talk about his issues directly and even somewhat didactically without feeling wholly unnatural. 

Also helping keep the story grounded are a sense of psychological realism — the story doesn't pretend to solve all of Jonah's problems in an hour — and even more importantly, a sense of humour. Nutshell may be a serious message play, but generous spoonfuls of comedy help the medicine go down.

Fruitful pursuits

Island Fringe Festival:
Life as a Pomegranate

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your nomadic natterer has lived in multiple small towns in multiple provinces. Shortly after moving to a remote northern Alberta village years ago, I was introducing myself to one of the locals during a supply run to High Prairie. Asked what I did for a living, I alluded briefly to my checkered past in the arts, academics and such. "Boy," said my new acquaintance, laughing, "are you ever in the wrong place!"

That experience helps me relate to Rosie Fudge, the heroine of actor/playwright Dawna J. Wightman's one-woman show Life as a Pomegranate. An aspiring actor whose promising career is hindered by a needy mother, Rosie gets married and moves to small town British Columbia, largely devoid of show biz opportunities. Rosie's artistic ambitions slowly wither as she submerges herself in the roles of wife and mother, yearning for a way to resume her craft and rediscover her bliss.

Wightman's impressions of being an artistic fish out of water in a small BC town feel real and familiar, and she builds a character you can root for in Rosie. Awkward, moody, anxious, self-critical verging on self-loathing, yet sweet and funny and idealistic and eternally bolstered by the "blue ball" of creativity she visualizes as the core of her being, Rosie struggles but you want her to succeed. 

It's a frequently funny, sometimes painfully sad script, and all nine characters in it are played by Wightman, giving each of them his or her own voice, posture and mannerisms, ranging from charmingly, flamboyantly manic-depressive Rosie to her croaking mother, her loutish husband and vividly sketched supporting characters like amiable stoner Slow Moe or mean girl Sutton, a haughty ice sculpture of a woman who becomes Rosie's nemesis.

Her biggest external nemesis, that is. Rosie's often her own worst enemy, especially when her inner critic manifests vocally as a self-destructively wicked witch persona who could match Margaret Hamilton in terms of menacingly venomous glee.  

Despite the confining close quarters of Marc's Lounge, Wightman's multi-role extravaganza is a very playful, versatile performance incorporating pantomime, song, dance, kazoo music and even finger puppetry, all of it done energetically and passionately. 

As Wightman herself said in a 2012 interview with Cate McKim about this play, "When I act, I give all of me, every cell. No tricks. No shortcuts." That all-consuming zeal for her craft persists in Wightman's 2016 run, making Life as a Pomegranate perhaps the best-acted show of this year's Island Fringe Festival.

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