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Highlight of the season

The Affections of May

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Years ago, your weather-beaten wordsmith was lunching with a visiting grad school chum in downtown Charlottetown. I exchanged greetings with various friends and acquaintances in the street en route, then did the same with other familiar folk inside the restaurant. My increasingly incredulous dining companion eventually asked me: “What are you, the mayor or something?”

It’s all part of the joys of small-town living, I explained, where everybody knows everybody. Folks “from away” might find this charming and amusing or baffling and unsettling, depending on their perspective—and both perspectives are on display in The Affections of May, Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s oft-produced romantic comedy, newly remounted at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.

Quirkily sunny May Henning (played here by Marlene Handrahan) and her self-absorbed spouse Brian (Robert Clarke) give up good jobs in the big city to open a bed-and-breakfast in small-town Grogan’s Cove, trying to resuscitate their moribund marriage. May loves their new life but Brian hates it, callously deserting May for his old job and an old flame back in the city. The suddenly single May attracts two rival suitors: socially awkward banker Hank (Gord Gammie) and hard-drinking, hard-luck handyman Quinn (Cameron MacDuffee).

Much of what happens next is predictable in terms of who May ends up with and how, but there’s chuckles aplenty to be had along the way. Foster’s funny, inventive script builds a world of amusing small-town eccentrics pleasantly reminiscent of Newhart, albeit with a dark underbelly that fuels some of the play’s more dramatic moments as the story develops.

Foster treats all his characters with some measure of respect or affection or both, making them more relatable. Even the appallingly selfish Brian is believable and understandable in terms of making a case for how and why he acts the way does, and all three corners of the love triangle spawned by his departure are sympathetic in their own way.

Director Catherine O’Brien’s solid production has much to recommend it—fun and familiar music choices, artfully composed blocking, designer David Antscheri’s handsomely convincing set, and most especially the cast: the same fantastic quartet featured in The 39 Steps also star in this show, and there’s a really smooth chemistry and comic timing between them. They all play their May parts well, especially Gammie. 

Gammie’s line delivery and body language make Hank a memorably distinctive, wincingly awkward, winningly sympathetic and often hilarious presence, sometimes without even saying a word. His tortured attempt at small talk with Clarke’s Brian, for instance, is a priceless slow-motion train wreck, and it helps make Harbourfront’s Affections of May a comedic highlight of the summer.

Evergreen

Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your fickle freelancer walked into this year’s Anne musical fearing he might be underwhelmed. Granted, the Charlottetown Festival’s version of Anne Shirley is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but her sharing a stage with the Festival’s surreally dazzling Alice Through the Looking-Glass this summer left your skeptical scribe wondering if plain, simple Anne might pale by comparison.

As it turns out, not so much. The whip-smart, wildly inventive Alice may be the better show overall—heck, it might be the best show ever mounted on the festival's main stage—but Anne herself is the better, richer character, and the musical built around her continues to satisfy with character-driven humour, charm and heart. 

Former associate artistic director Wade Lynch returns as director of this year’s Anne. There are lots of fun little touches befitting the comedically accomplished Lynch, plus some additional wordless scenes featuring a girl reading the original Lucy Maud Montgomery novel as our gateway into the story, a nice nod to Anne’s creator. 

Even with those extra scenes, Lynch helms a somewhat shortened version of the show here, and all to the good—there’s less of the outdoor sporting business, for instance, but what remains of that is still a lively visual spectacle with lots of tightly choreographed moving parts. The more compact running time is an especially good fit for a show that often attracts a child audience.

Performance-wise, publicity has focused on local actor Jessica Gallant as plucky orphan Anne Shirley—only the second Islander to fill the iconic role during its 51-year run—but she’s not the only item of note in the cast list.

Lynch has filled many of the musical’s roles with new faces (some of them new to the Festival and all of them new to their parts), including Hank Stinson and Charlotte Moore as Anne’s adoptive parents Matthew & Marilla, Festival fixture Glenda Landry as meddlesome neighbor Rachel Lynde, Ben Chiasson as Anne’s would-be beau Gilbert, Jessie Cox as Anne’s best friend Diana, Kayla James as Anne’s rival Josie and Katie Kerr as Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy.

Like Gallant, Stinson and Landry are Islanders, giving this year’s core cast an especially homegrown flavour. More importantly, all play their parts well, whether they are locals or “from away.” Gallant gives Anne the right mix of vulnerable sweetness and larger-than-life flourish; Cox is a girlishly charming Diana; Stinson’s Matthew is full of folksy pathos; Landry nails Mrs. Lynde’s obnoxious hauteur; Moore seems stiff at first as the repressed Marilla, even by the standards of the part, but is all the more emotionally potent when the character softens later on; James is fun to dislike as nasty little schemer Josie, as well as one of the company’s best dancers; and Kerr (who preceded Gallant in the title role) is bright and appealing as Miss Stacy, albeit somewhat implausible in the role since she often looks and sounds more like one of Anne’s classmates than a teacher.

An interesting asterisk, acting-wise: this review was based on a performance featuring understudy Anthony MacPherson as Gilbert, replacing an absent Chiasson. MacPherson usually appears in a smaller role as schoolboy “Moody” MacPherson but he slots seamlessly into a lead role here, which is exactly what an understudy is supposed to do. A solid triple threat, he sings, acts and dances his way through the part with energetic ease.

The story and the musical are so familiar by now, and this critic so old and jaded, that your reviewer half-expects to be numb to the play’s charms each time he returns—but it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t seem to have happened for the audience as a whole, either, if the large, happy crowd at this performance was any indication. These Gables remain evergreen.

Fantastic Four

The Affections of May 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Years ago, your weather-beaten wordsmith was lunching with a visiting grad school chum in downtown Charlottetown. I exchanged greetings with various friends and acquaintances in the street en route, then did the same with other familiar folk inside the restaurant. My increasingly incredulous dining companion eventually asked me: “What are you, the mayor or something?” 

It’s all part of the joys of small-town living, I explained, where everybody knows everybody. Folks “from away” might find this charming and amusing or baffling and unsettling, depending on their perspective – and both perspectives are on display in The Affections of May, Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s oft-produced romantic comedy, newly remounted at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. 

Quirkily sunny May Henning (played here by Marlene Handrahan) and her self-absorbed spouse Brian (Robert Clarke) give up good jobs in the big city to open a bed-and-breakfast in small-town Grogan's Cove, trying to resuscitate their moribund marriage. May loves their new life but Brian hates it, callously deserting May for his old job and an old flame back in the city. The suddenly single May attracts two rival suitors: socially awkward banker Hank (Gord Gammie) and hard-drinking, hard-luck handyman Quinn (Cameron MacDuffee). 

Much of what happens next is predictable in terms of who May ends up with and how, but there’s chuckles aplenty to be had along the way. Foster’s funny, inventive script builds a world of amusing small-town eccentrics pleasantly reminiscent of Newhart, albeit with a dark underbelly that fuels some of the play’s more dramatic moments as the story develops. 

Foster treats all his characters with some measure of respect or affection or both, making them more relatable. Even the appallingly selfish Brian is believable and understandable in terms of making a case for how and why he acts the way does, and all three corners of the love triangle spawned by his departure are sympathetic in their own way. 

Director Catherine O’Brien’s solid production has much to recommend it – fun and familiar music choices, artfully composed blocking, designer David Antscheri’s handsomely convincing set, and most especially the cast: the same fantastic quartet featured in The 39 Steps also star in this show, and there’s a really smooth chemistry and comic timing between them. They all play their May parts well, especially Gammie. 

Gammie’s line delivery and body language make Hank a memorably distinctive, wincingly awkward, winningly sympathetic and often hilarious presence, sometimes without even saying a word. His tortured attempt at small talk with Clarke’s Brian, for instance, is a priceless slow-motion train wreck, and it helps make Harbourfront’s Affections of May a comedic highlight of the summer. 

Madcap thriller

The 39 Steps

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Decades ago, when your ramshackle writer was in near-mint condition and movie rental stores were plentiful, he scored some extra shekels clerking at Off the Wall Video. Staff got free rentals, so this old-time film fan gleefully sampled director Alfred Hitchcock’s assorted classics: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Birds, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt and many more.

Hooked on Hitchcock ever since, ye olde reviewer was easy prey when Harbourfront Theatre added The 39 Steps to its summer season. Starting life as John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, it has been adapted repeatedly for film, most notably by Hitchcock in 1935. A Hitchcock-inspired theatrical play written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon in 1995 and rewritten by Patrick Barlow in 2005 has enjoyed international success as a “comedy thriller” by playing the Buchan/Hitchcock espionage yarn for laughs.

Part of what makes the play inherently funny (and temptingly economical from a production standpoint) is its cast: only four actors playing dozens of roles. With countless quick changes, funny accents, facial contortions, shifting props/costumes and the wearing of literally many, many hats, the play takes on a madcap meta-dramatic energy where deliberate technical glitches, not-so-special effects and gleefully brazen guerilla stagecraft are all part of the gag, encouraging the audience to laugh along with the show at its own manic silliness.

Gord Gammie plays reluctant yet dashing adventurer Richard Hannay, who is unwittingly drawn into a spy ring’s treasonous plot and finds himself on the run from both the spies and the authorities. Marlene Handrahan has a triple role as Hannay’s three romantic interests, and all the other supporting roles are filled by the remaining two actors, Robert Clarke and Cameron MacDuffee.

Directed here by Caleb Marshall, the show is breezily brisk in pace and tone from start to finish. Gammie strikes just the right tone of knowingly cheesy self-regard as handsome hero Hannay and executes plenty of fun physical comedy, whether he’s fighting with a spotlight, eating while handcuffed to his ladylove, trying to shimmy out from under a corpse or battling a hilariously unconvincing stunt dummy to the death.

Handrahan is equally adept as the other half of some of those physical comedy bits and makes each of her three roles distinctively entertaining, especially the deliciously over-the-top femme fatale Anabelle; but the real MVP’s of this team are the heroically versatile Clarke and MacDuffee, who play more parts in two hours than some actors do in a year and net plenty of laughs along the way.

Hitchcock fans will enjoy the many references to his work sprinkled throughout the show, even a fun cameo of sorts by the late Hitchcock himself; but Hitchcock expertise is not required—you can still enjoy the highly atmospheric music, for instance, without knowing it’s been lifted from flicks like Vertigo and North by Northwest; and you don’t have to know the latter film to enjoy this play’s various other nods to it, including some epically goofy shadow puppetry.

If you’re up for comedic thrills (and if your lungs can weather the show’s liberal use of a fog machine), head to Summerside and get Hitched.

Expect the unexpected

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Many shows are billed as fun for all ages, but few make good on that promise quite so spectacularly as the Charlottetown Festival’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

Based on Lewis Carroll’s classic 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the late James Reaney’s 1994 stage adaptation was revived by the Stratford Festival to much acclaim in 2014, a production newly remounted here in Charlottetown.

Carroll’s tale of a young girl passing through a mirror into a dreamlike alternate reality of living chessmen has a timeless appeal on multiple levels. Adults enjoy Carroll’s clever wordplay and whimsical yet knowingly adult interpretation of a child’s mind, but there’s plenty of broad silliness for the kids, and imaginative weirdness for everybody.

Jillian Keiley (director of the Stratford/Charlottetown production with Christine Brubaker) says their goal “is to tap into the magical world of seven-year-olds, where anything is not only possible but likely, and the only thing you can reasonably expect is the unexpected.”

Your creaky chronicler is decades beyond age seven, though with a skull (and a basement) awash in comic books he communes more with his inner child than most. Even better, he attended the show with an actual seven-year-old (darling daughter Elsa), so this review incorporates the perspectives of both wide-eyed child and musty man-child—and they both enjoyed the heck out of it.

It starts with a good script, incorporating plenty of fun lines and characters from Carroll’s evergreen original text, and entrusts it to a solid cast. Natasha Greenblatt is delightful as Alice. Her lovely voice’s slightly husky, jazz singer quality is counterintuitive for a juvenile role, but Greenblatt is so convincingly, endearingly childlike in her expressions, attitudes and body language that she is charmingly believable throughout, with a touch of English reserve appropriate to the character and the period that sharpens the contrast between Alice and the cavalcade of kooks she encounters.

Just a few of said kooks include the Red Queen (a regally imposing Jan Alexandra), the White Queen (an elegantly loopy Eliza Jane-Scott), the Red King (a dreamily drowsy Hank Stinson doubling as an excellent narrator elsewhere in the show), and the White Knight (a mesmerizingly erratic Qasim Khan), whose weird quasi-musical number is a memorable showstopper.

A fun innovation is the play’s omnipresent swarm of bizarro Alice doubles. Carroll’s novel has Alice acting as an unseen force manipulating the chessmen at one point, but the play features a host of invisible forces (seen only by the audience) manipulating everything—and these invisible forces all look like photonegative doubles of Alice herself, dark-haired instead of blonde, in reverse-coloured costumes. Many of these doubles are actually men, making the Alice hordes all the funnier (and creepier).

Part stage crew, part chorus and all freaky, the Alice swarm keeps the play in near-constant motion and cranks up the surrealism yet another notch, in addition to plentiful visual quirkiness everywhere else you look thanks to set/costume designer Bretta Gerecke. The whole show is a perpetual feast for the senses, packed with gimmicky but fun extras like audience participation, airborne jelly beans, confetti cannons and more.

It all adds up to one of the finest, funniest, most wildly creative shows ever staged at the Charlottetown Festival. Or as Elsa put it after the final curtain, “That was amazing!”

Seeing Green

Anne of Green Gables – The Musical 

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your fickle freelancer walked into this year's Anne musical fearing he might be underwhelmed. Granted, the Charlottetown Festival's version of Anne Shirley is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but her sharing a stage with the Festival's surreally dazzling Alice Through the Looking-Glass this summer left your skeptical scribe wondering if plain, simple Anne might pale by comparison.  

As it turns out, not so much. The whip-smart, wildly inventive Alice may be the better show overall -- heck, it might be the best show ever mounted on the festival's main stage -- but Anne herself is the better, richer character, and the musical built around her continues to satisfy with character-driven humour, charm and heart.  

Former associate artistic director Wade Lynch returns as director of this year's Anne. There are lots of fun little touches befitting the comedically accomplished Lynch, plus some additional wordless scenes featuring a girl reading the original Lucy Maud Montgomery novel as our gateway into the story, a nice nod to Anne's creator. 

Even with those extra scenes, Lynch helms a somewhat shortened version of the show here, and all to the good -- there's less of the outdoor sporting business, for instance, but what remains of that is still a lively visual spectacle with lots of tightly choreographed moving parts. The more compact running time is an especially good fit for a show that often attracts a child audience. 

Performance-wise, publicity has focused on local actor Jessica Gallant as plucky orphan Anne Shirley – only the second Islander to fill the iconic role during its 51-year run – but she’s not the only item of note in the cast list. 

Lynch has filled many of the musical’s roles with new faces (some of them new to the Festival and all of them new to their parts), including Hank Stinson and Charlotte Moore as Anne’s adoptive parents Matthew & Marilla, Festival fixture Glenda Landry as meddlesome neighbor Rachel Lynde, Ben Chiasson as Anne’s would-be beau Gilbert, Jessie Cox as Anne’s best friend Diana, Kayla James as Anne’s rival Josie and Katie Kerr as Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy. 

Like Gallant, Stinson and Landry are Islanders, giving this year’s core cast an especially homegrown flavour. More importantly, all play their parts well, whether they are locals or “from away.” Gallant gives Anne the right mix of vulnerable sweetness and larger-than-life flourish; Cox is a girlishly charming Diana; Stinson’s Matthew is full of folksy pathos; Landry nails Mrs. Lynde’s obnoxious hauteur; Moore seems stiff at first as the repressed Marilla, even by the standards of the part, but is all the more emotionally potent when the character softens later on; James is fun to dislike as nasty little schemer Josie, as well as one of the company’s best dancers; and Kerr (who preceded Gallant in the title role) is bright and appealing as Miss Stacy, albeit somewhat implausible in the role since she often looks and sounds more like one of Anne’s classmates than a teacher.

An interesting asterisk, acting-wise: this review was based on a performance featuring understudy Anthony MacPherson as Gilbert, replacing an absent Chiasson. MacPherson usually appears in a smaller role as schoolboy “Moody” MacPherson but he slots seamlessly into a lead role here, which is exactly what an understudy is supposed to do. A solid triple threat, he sings, acts and dances his way through the part with energetic ease. 

The story and the musical are so familiar by now, and this critic so old and jaded, that your reviewer half-expects to be numb to the play’s charms each time he returns – but it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t seem to have happened for the audience as a whole, either, if the large, happy crowd at this performance was any indication. These Gables remain evergreen. 

Power by fear

Captives of the Faceless Drummer

Review by Sean McQuaid

There’s a fun old Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode (“In the Cards”) where a possibly brilliant, probably paranoid scientist is obsessed with protecting his radical scientific research from the “soulless minions of orthodoxy.”

This nifty turn of phrase having lodged in your rerun-relishing reviewer’s noggin for nigh unto two decades now, it sprang to mind repeatedly during Vagabond Productions’ latest play, Captives of the Faceless Drummer.

Written in 1970-1971 by Canadian playwright George Ryga, best known for his 1967 hit The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Drummer shares Rita Joe’s scattershot narrative structure and sense of crusading social consciousness but was more controversial, less coherent and far less commercially successful. 

Adulterous career diplomat Harry (played here by Robert Crossley) is captured by the terrorist Commander (Courtney Starkman). The play is mostly a series of Harry/Commander conversations and confrontations in the terrorists’ hideout with intermittent appearances by other characters.

Some of those characters appear in person like the Commander’s hapless minions Marcel (Adi Vella) and John (Malachi Roswell), while others manifest as figures from Harry’s memories like his wife Adrienne (Morgan Wagner), girlfriend Jenny (Jade Myers) and confidant Fritz (Ben Hartley).

All five supporting actors double as members of the Chorus (which also includes Matt MacPhee), vaguely ominous observers who drift in and out of view, often commenting on the story and sometimes interacting with it, occasionally slipping into the guises of various major and minor characters. 

Peppered with numerous flashbacks and other digressions, Drummer is light on plot—suffice it to say the Commander’s revolution ends happily for no one—but exists mostly as a framework for sociocultural statements and character study, fueled by a class warfare dynamic between complacent intellectual establishment man Harry (our soulless minion of orthodoxy) and the thuggishly idealistic working class Commander.

Ryga’s script shows flashes of insight, even prescience—its portrayal of a captor/captive bond predates the “Stockholm Syndrome” concept by about two years, and the Commander’s warnings that “anybody can ride to power on fear” feel especially timely in 2015 when our current Prime Minister relies heavily on stoking and exploiting fears aplenty, terrorism included—but Drummer’s oft-preachy characters feel a tad too didactic to be real by times, and their dialogue is often vulgar, banal or repetitive when it’s not being flamboyantly poetic.

It’s the kind of play that might be unbearable (or unintentionally hilarious) in the hands of subpar actors, but director Greg Doran’s casting dodges that bullet. Crossley and Starkman are superb throughout their respective marathon roles, showing tremendous range and intensity—alternately charismatic, repellent, sympathetic, funny, thoughtful, weary or scary as the script demands of them, and fascinating throughout.

The supporting cast is also strong, notably Wagner and Hartley in two of the meatier flashback roles as Adrienne and Fritz; and Vella as terrorist flunky Marcel, who adds extra humour and dimension to his role by conveying Marcel’s hunger wordlessly even when he isn’t vocally complaining about it.

Less ideally, Roswell brings impressively passionate emotion to John’s final falling out with the Commander but he rushes that scene, not giving the audience or the character enough time to move through John’s emotional beats naturalistically; and while Myers brings an affectingly gentle, fragile presence to the role of Jenny, her vocal projection could use a boost.

Also in need of a boost: UPEI’s theatrical venue options. It’s yet another Vagabond show staged in the UPEI Faculty Lounge, and while Doran’s production makes the most of this immediacy with semi-in-the-round seating arrangements and frequent deployments of his Chorus among the audience, a proper UPEI theatre space is long overdue.

Wonderful Bright

Our Town 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your superannuated scribbler has a thing about time. It's partly nostalgia, a lifelong fascination with the past: early jazz, Golden Age comic books, old movies, always looking back. And it's partly mortality, or an aging thespian's awareness of same; knowing all the world's a stage, and that we're all here for a strictly limited engagement. 

Those two preoccupations—one eye on yesteryear, the other on the undiscovered country—make this reviewer an immeasurably easy mark for Our Town, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning 1938 play about the nature of life and death as epitomized by the ordinary folks of fictional hamlet Grover's Corners, New Hampshire circa 1901-1913. 

Wilder's script is brilliant—sad, funny, hauntingly insightful—and timeless. So it's elegantly fitting on multiple levels that Our Town was the first production staged by ACT (a community theatre) way back in 1995, and that the company is remounting the play this year as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations; a play about community staged by a group building a PEI theatrical community, their efforts and the fruits of same spanning generations. 

It's a surreal slice of déjà vu all over again for ye olde reviewer, who covered the 1995 show in his younger days: same play, same venue (the fine Carrefour Theatre), same critic, even some of the same performers (albeit in different roles). It all feels vaguely unreal somehow, in a pleasant sort of way. 

ACT's nods to its history in this production go beyond the play, the venue and select performers. The program's credits are split between the present-day cast and crew and the 1995 originals, printing the latter's names in a spectral grey that foregrounds the new folks' credits while paying ghostly tribute to the past. It's a nice touch, as are the exhibits of ACT memorabilia on display in the Carrefour halls. 

So how does the 2015 production stack up against its fabled 1995 counterpart? Quite well, overall. Both productions are faithful to the stripped-down, impressionistic staging Wilder envisioned, using very limited props and sets and relying heavily on pantomime to build the play's world. Director Paul Whelan's actors do a fine job of that here with consistent and believable mime work. 

The 2015 company occasionally stumbles over lines, and some of them struggle with projection. Able ACT founders Barb Rhodenizer and Rob Thomson, both comedy gold here in smaller parts as Mrs. Soames and Professor Willard than the roles they played in 1995, unwittingly underline select fellow supporting players’ volume problems by filling the Carrefour with crystal clear vocal clarity, so the quieter stretches clearly aren't a venue acoustics issue. 

Fortunately, Whelan's core casting is strong. Fraser McCallum and Rebecca Griffin have great chemistry as the play's romantic leads, and are equally strong individually. McCallum crafts an earnestly genuine George with a winningly awkward appeal reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, while the potently expressive, immensely charming Griffin is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Emily. 

Gordon Cobb, Samantha Elizabeth and Marly and Richard Haines are all solid as the young couple's assorted parents (apart from Elizabeth's occasional projection dips), with particular kudos to the comedic chops of Mr. and Mrs. Haines—most especially some priceless, wordless interplay between Mr. Haines and McCallum before George's wedding. 

Throw in some very fine supporting work from actors like Thomson, Rhodenizer, Gerry Gray, Errol Richardson, Raven Skyllas, Keir Malone and Greg Stapleton, plus predictably superb ACT staple Adam Gauthier as the omnipresent Stage Manager knowingly narrating the whole shebang like some community theatre Rod Serling, and you've got an ensemble to conjure with—worthy of Wilder's words, and of ACT's 1995 debut production. 

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Confederation Centre: Art Gallery exhibi...

Open daily The Ronald Bloore Conservation Project Until January 13 Inspired by then newly-built C [ ... ]

Come Home to Us

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What They Had

November 26–December 2
City Cinema PG, coarse language
Dir: Elizabeth Chomko, US, 101 min. Hilary S [ ... ]

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