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Nights of the Coffee Table

Celebrating two decades of ACT

by Sean McQuaid 

ACT’s first director David SherrenIt might be the most important coffee table in PEI theatrical history. That table belonged to civil servant Gerry Gray, who was hosting fellow theatre enthusiasts in his living room one wintry Sunday evening on March 19, 1995. They had gathered around Gray’s table to discuss forming a permanent community theatre group on Prince Edward Island.

Then as now, PEI boasted lots of theatre—year-round professional operations such as Theatre PEI and Off Stage Theatre (both now sadly defunct), plus seasonal enterprises like the Charlottetown Festival and Victoria Playhouse.

There were also scattered amateur productions, school musicals and Confederation Centre Christmas plays, but the coffee table assemblage wanted more—more and better community plays more often, staged by a permanent ongoing community theatre group. As actor Barb Rhodenizer put it, “In order to have performance opportunities, they needed to be created.”

Some of them had idly discussed this idea since at least 1993, and Gray had been courting Confederation Centre administrator David Sherren as a potential director for this theoretical theatre group.

Sherren eventually said yes, and the coffee table crew put their money where their mouths were: a membership fee of 25 bucks apiece made them all founders of a group semi-anticlimactically dubbed ACT (a community theatre). “Does exactly what it says on the tin,” as the old UK saying goes.

Early ACT members included Sherren, Gray, Rhodenizer, Jennifer Anderson, Wallena Higgins, Blaine Hrabi, Doug Huskilson, Ben Kinder, Allie McCrady, Ed Rashed, Greg Stapleton, Karen Swanson, Rob Thomson and more. Some were current or future theatrical professionals while others were gifted hobbyists, but 25 dollars bought them all a little slice of local theatrical immortality. It also purchased a pair of step ladders which became the minimalist set for ACT’s first production: Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic celebration of small-town life.

Youthful cast member Greg Stapleton was somewhat star-struck at their first script reading. “I remember the passion in that small room with that group of people,” he recalls. “Being 18 at the time, felt pretty special to be a part of something with such elite stage performers.”

Two months after the coffee table summit, Our Town opened at le Carrefour de l’Isle-Saint-Jean. The public responded enthusiastically, including professional actor Nancy McLure (later an ACT member). “It was magical,” she recalls. “I was so very proud of the cast and crew. I was an audience member and the show made me fall in love with theatre all over again.”

Twenty years later, ACT is one of the most enduring and influential groups in PEI theatre, staging well over 50 shows.

Full disclosure: two of those later shows employed this writer (ACT member circa 1998-2000), one secret of ACT’s success being expansion. From the start, they reached out to recruit thespians of all ages from all corners of the PEI theatre community. A wide array of theatre folk have cycled in and out of the group, helping foster variety in ACT’s performance catalog and a sense of a larger community among their ranks.

“We have [mostly] avoided the thing that destroys many amateur theatre groups sooner or later,” says longtime member Terry Pratt. “The impression you have to break into the coterie of insiders to participate in any significant way.”

Local theatre luminaries like Bunty Albert, Olivia Barnes, Dean Constable, Greg Doran, Doug Gallant, Adam Gauthier, Greg Hughes, Ron Irving, Nils Ling, Keir Malone, Sara McCarthy, Fraser McCallum, Rex McCarville, Nancy McLure, Dave Moses, Laurie Murphy, Jonathan Stewart and dozens more all played roles in the ACT story, some briefly and others for years.

Multiple members cite detail-conscious stage manager Wallena Higgins as key in setting a standard of excellence for ACT. Sherren (who left to run professional company Theatre New Brunswick), Pratt, Richard Haines, Brenda Porter, Paul Whelan and others have directed various productions successfully for the company, giving ACT a solid creative track record. Gray credits Karen Swanson with the “mammoth job” of staying in personal touch with ACT’s early members to keep them informed and engaged.

Barb Rhodenizer and Rob Thomson—Our Town Rehearsal, 1995Gray also praises pivotal ACT mainstay Rob Thomson, who has served as administrator, ambassador, emcee, publicist and everything in between while doubling as one of the company’s best actors. “I don’t think Rob Thomson ever gave less than 150% in whatever task he was doing,” says Gray.

Pratt became the ACT board’s first “Director of Theatre,” a position overseeing the selection of plays and directors, keeping both varied to avoid repetition and burnout. He believes ACT’s formal executive management structure has helped make the group stable and prosperous, so much so that ACT even bought its own building in 2004: a Beach Street warehouse, nicknamed “the Beach House,” where the company builds and stores its sets as well as housing ACT’s costumes, props and assorted mementos.

Beyond ACT’s financial and creative success, current president Brenda Porter is proudest of their development activities: “We provide workshops and play readings, lend costumes and set pieces to other theatre groups, encourage attendance at local productions.” Perhaps most notably and commendably, ACT took over management of the PEI Community Theatre Festival after Theatre PEI’s untimely demise.

UPEI professor Greg Doran credits the company with helping sustain a year-round PEI theatre audience despite the province’s often-seasonal theatre industry, and helping to build up PEI’s theatre community. Montreal-based writer Jonathan Stewart agrees: “ACT plays an essential role in building community, training artists, and making the Island a unique and fun place.”

Quite a laudable litany of achievements, all built on the quixotic foundation of those 25-dollar investors assembled around Gerry Gray’s coffee table twenty years ago. Or as Rob Thomson ably sums it all up, “We made something good happen.” 

Sean has compiled an appendix of additional ACT production history which is available below: 

ACT's 20th: Members Survey 
ACT's 20th: Tributes 
ACT's 20th: History

Endearing Silliness

Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale

Review by Sean McQuaid

Cinderella (photo: pixbylorne)Your paternal prattler was in no mood for princesses. He was tired and grumpy and wishing he’d gone to that mashed potato party with Mrs, Prattler, fond as he is of both her and potatoes.

But dauntless daughter Elsa was stoked for the princess show, so ye olde reviewer and his offbeat offspring ambled into the Homburg Theatre to watch the Confederation Centre of the Arts’ new community musical Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale. And the critic’s small heart grew three sizes that day, as the daddy-daughter duo enjoyed themselves immensely.

A yuletide jukebox musical written and directed by the Centre’s shiny new artistic director Adam Brazier, Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale (CFTT) returns yet again to the Cinderella fairy tale – this time set in a wintry PEI where Cinderella (Alicia Toner) toils thanklessly at the Happiness Hotel until she finds romance with Prince Edward (Aaron Hastelow) through the mystical aid of her Fairly Good Mother (Meghan Hoople) despite the interference of her wicked stepmother Putrid (the conspicuously male Jody Racicot). Hijinks ensue, as they are wont to do.

There’s singing, dancing, slapstick, local humour (the Tignish and Crapaud references are especially good), pop culture references (everything from Shania Twain to Frank Langella) and poop jokes (executed with enough shameless glee, deft wordplay and expert timing to largely negate your constipated critic’s reflexive disdain for such things).

It’s all about as subtle and sophisticated as a pack of strawberry Twizzlers, yet often just as pleasingly sweet. Brazier’s show seldom takes itself too seriously, basically serving as a loose framework for a bunch of cornball jokes and musical numbers. It’s all written and performed with a tongue-in-cheek wink that makes all the silliness palatable, even endearing.

CFTT’s knowingly goofy vibe, its communal spirit (embodied by a pleasingly eclectic 90-plus cast with only several professional actors among them), its variety show elements (such as a talent show segment and some lovely choral singing before the show and during intermission) and a very meta sense of characters consciously putting on a show are all pleasantly reminiscent of The Muppet Show. In fact, one of CFTT’s musical numbers even comes from The Great Muppet Caper (1981).

Welcome added bonuses are CFTT’s video segments directed by Jan Rudd, TV commercials which combine brazenly blatant local business promotion with surreal comedy bits. It’s hard to resent product placement in your entertainment when it’s this funny.

Lead players Toner, Hastelow, Hoople and Racicot are all great. Other standouts include Jacob Durdan as Cinderella’s friend Buttons, an unrecognizably vile Adam Gauthier as wicked stepsister Botox, a similarly hideous and even funnier William Millington as wicked stepsister Bovine, and a note-perfect Fraser McCallum as cheesy talent show host Ryan Seabiscuit.

My second-favourite performer in the bunch is the delightfully pathetic Sarah MacPhee as a teary-eyed town crier, who wrings countless laughs from her one-joke character; but my favourite would be Elsa McQuaid herself, appearing on stage during an audience participation segment as a talent show judge. Impartiality be darned, she was adorable (takes after her mother that way); and the rest of CFTT was pretty good, too.

Online Edition Bonus: Elsa’s Review

As noted above, Elsa was among several kids drafted into appearing on stage as talent show judges, rewarded with plastic light-up wands for their efforts. “I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach while I was on stage,” she says, “but it was worth it because I got this cool wand.” 

She said it was “really strange” to be up there in front of so many people. But she concludes, “I enjoyed my time up on the stage, and I could actually see the people doing the music” in the orchestra pit.

She liked the Snow White sequence “because all of the dwarfs were coming behind Snow White and then they wouldn’t stop to walk and it was just really funny.”

“I also loved when the rainbow lights went on the sides” of the theatre walls, she says, a neat effect used recently in Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I thought the commercials were really funny. All of the characters kept on appearing in the commercials and it was just really funny.”

Regarding audience participation of the cheering/booing variety: “I thought that the cheering was okay but the booing was, like, weird to me.”

“I loved the little cute pony that pulled Cinderella and I loved Cinderella's dress. It was all white like a wedding gown but all sparkly, and her old dress transformed into her beautiful dress.” Best spinning transformation since Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, says the paternal prattler…

Ado Done Well

Much Ado About Nothing

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your broken-down bardolatrist’s brain is bedeviled by Much Ado About Nothing, what little of said brain isn’t awash in abusing alliteration anyway.

On the one hand, Ado features some of William Shakespeare’s finest comedic dialogue and two of his most entertainingly alluring romantic leads, acerbic verbal sparring partners turned soul mates Beatrice and Benedick.

On the other hand, the plot strains both credibility and modern gender sensibilities in its treatment of junior romantic female lead Hero, who ultimately shrugs off some unforgivably ugly mistreatment from the men in her life en route to the requisite Shakespearean comedy matrimonial happy ending.

There’s unresolved darkness in Hero’s arc, all the more conspicuous given how frothily fluffy the rest of the play is, a will-they-won’t-they lark about a couple of jaded upper-crust quipsters manipulated into romancing each other by mischievous peers.

That being said, there’s so much to like in Ado’s language and characters that a skillful production can transcend the play’s limitations, such as Joss Whedon’s sweetly hilarious 2012 film adaptation or the funny, inventive production mounted in Robert Cotton Park by ACT this summer.

The latter is the latest in ACT’s series of Shakespearean park productions, comparing favourably to its predecessors. While not quite as wide-rangingly adventurous as ACT’s MacBeth in terms of mining the park’s many locales, it surpasses their A Midsummer Night’s Dream by more fully exploiting the park’s varied surroundings.

The result is a show with lots of visual variety, much of it quite pleasing, though a scene inexplicably staged in front of some ill-concealed modern park dumpsters is an odd choice that gels with neither the show’s often-pastoral vibe nor the period-specific, post-World War I setting conceived for this production by director Richard Haines.

Speaking of that postwar setting, it works well here. Ado’s story – about feuding nobles Beatrice (Olivia Barnes) and Benedick (Adam Gauthier) falling in love with each other while they help save the romance of Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Alexandra MacDonald) and Benedick’s friend Claudio (Patrick Jeffrey) from a plot engineered by evil Don John (Robert Crossley) to spite his estranged half-brother Don Pedro (Keir Malone), influential friend to the assorted lovebirds – is a straightforward romantic comedy that could fit comfortably into most any time period, and the military background of multiple characters translates well to Haines’ chosen postwar milieu.

The post-World War I setting also enables Haines to add some colour by way of handsome period-specific costuming and tantalizingly brief tastes of period-specific music as well, giving this production its own unique look and feel.

Haines and his cast excel at finding the funny in their script, sometimes in unexpected ways. There’s a lot of cartoonishly broad physical comedy, executed especially well by Gauthier; but there’s also subtler nuances like a good eye and ear for the comedic potential of quiet awkwardness, whether it’s Barnes’ Beatrice squirming at a hint of romantic interest from Malone’s Pedro or Hero’s gentlewoman attendant Ursula (Catherine MacDonald) uneasily interrupting an overly ardent Beatrice/Benedick duo.

Ye olde reviewer is considering programming a keyboard shortcut along the lines of “Adam Gauthier is great as _____” because Gauthier’s work in parts large or small is so consistently strong. His Benedick is no exception: alternately tough or tender as the story requires, always entertaining and believable whether he’s being suavely aloof or goofily vulnerable, he fills out every aspect of the role adroitly.

If Barnes’ Beatrice seems a tad more affected by times, it doesn’t sink her performance. She strikes a tone of airily arch wit that suits the character’s penchant for clever banter, which Barnes delivers smoothly and amusingly throughout. She and Gauthier make a good team, helped along by some of Shakespeare’s best playfully romantic dialogue.

Other standouts in the cast include reliably strong performers Catherine MacDonald & Malone; sympathetic lovers Alexandra MacDonald & Jeffrey; father-son funnymen Tim & Danny Wartman netting laughs aplenty as inept policemen Dogberry & Verges; comforting presence Alex Arsenault as supportive clergyman Friar Francis; and a delightful Amanda Rae Gallant, who brings winning charm and primo pipes to her role as Hero’s attendant Margaret.

Able ACT veteran Terry Pratt mostly works well as Hero’s father Leonato, apart from the character’s mid-show meltdown over Hero’s supposed infidelities. It’s a potentially awkward scene for any actor given how unsympathetically over-the-top Shakespeare writes Leonato’s reaction to begin with, but Pratt’s version goes simultaneously too far and not far enough: going through the motions of literally falling down and tearing up the ground in distress, without injecting quite enough raw emotion to really sell that extreme action as genuine.

Robert Crossley is a puzzle as Don John. It’s not a bad performance, and often unexpectedly entertaining, but his off-kilter tone and delivery often feel more eccentric than malevolent, more of a wacky neighbour vibe than a “plain-dealing villain.” Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not always clear what emotion or motivation he’s trying to convey.

Haines is a plain-dealing director, though, and a fine cast in a fun location helps him achieve Ado done well.

(Having said that, ye olde reviewer, musically suggestible as he is, keeps hearing “Ado done well” on an endless loop in his noggin to the tune of vintage pop song “Da Do Run Run” – which apart from offering further proof  of said reviewer’s dubious mental stability, just might form the basis for a catchy advertising campaign someday.)

The Meaning of Storytelling

Story

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your aged analyst has a long history with David Weale productions, dating back to when the inimitable Ed Rashed and I briefly served as roadies for a touring production of Weale’s very first storytelling stage show, A Long Way from the Road. Our only remuneration was our supper and a lift back to Charlottetown, but we enjoyed the show—as did PEI audiences. Weale spent much of the next two decades starring in Long Way and its assorted sequels, and I reviewed a few of those shows.

Fast forward to 2014, when Paper Lions drummer David Cyrus MacDonald had an idea for a show about storytelling and secured a 2014 grant to fund it. Weale endorsed the grant proposal and later joined the production, co-writing the script with its director, MacDonald’s Paper Lions band mate Colin Buchanan. The result is half anthology, half analysis as the show presents a series of stories while pondering the meaning of storytelling itself.

The show features a host of short stories presented by assorted performers in impressively varied formats—dialogues, monologues, jokes, poems, songs, photographs, video clips, even animated cartoons—all introduced and interlinked by narrator/host Mike Walker, who appears as the personification of Story itself.

Other performers include actor Hank Stinson, storyteller Alan Buchanan, singers/songwriters Ashley Condon & Dylan Menzie, and musician Brad Fremlin. It’s a good mix of complimentary and contrasting storytelling styles and flavours, shifting back and forth between larger-than-life character Buchanan (the director’s father), wryly understated Stinson, charmingly folksy Condon and the more musically intense Menzie. Walker ties it all together neatly as Story with silky-smooth, seemingly effortless grace.

Story’s performers are all individually impressive, especially Condon—her emotional range, warmth, humour and musicality could justify the price of admission all on their own—but this production is more than just the sum of its excellent parts. The playwrights’ meditations on the meaning and importance of storytelling, mostly voiced by Walker’s Story, offer thoughtful insight and provide a narrative spine giving the show a sense of continuity, momentum and purpose. The show also features many thoughtful and often amusing comments on the nature of PEI stories in particular, including consideration of how storytelling both defines and preserves a given time or place.

Weale fans might be disappointed that his only appearance in the show is a brief video voice-over, but anyone who doesn’t see him in Story isn’t looking hard enough. His sensibility, quirks and even some of his old material are peppered throughout the script, and Walker’s sly, lilting storytelling cadence often echoes Weale’s performance style.

The first of the show’s many gear shifts is an awkward one as the velvety-voiced Walker’s opening monologue gives way to a jarringly loud Menzie musical number, but most of the show’s various sequences blend together much more smoothly, forging an eclectic array of entertaining stories into a coherent and compelling whole. It’s an impressive debut production for MacDonald’s company, Confederation Entertainment. One might call it a success story.

Living a Legend

The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom

Review by Sean McQuaid

Cameron MacDuffee as Stompin' TomYour crusty chronicler admires the persistence of playwright David Scott. By his own account, Scott pestered Canadian music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors into helping him create a musical based on Connors’ life and music, wearing him down with a series of letters until the living legend acquiesced.

Five years of development later, The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom premiered at the Blyth Festival in 2006 and has since been remounted by several companies, including the Charlottetown Festival in 2008. The show is now playing exclusively at the Harbourfront Theatre as the foundation of that venue’s nascent Summerside Theatre Festival.

Between and sometimes during performances of Connors’ songs, the show stages a largely chronological series of vignettes charting the star’s life story. His troubled youth (parts of it spent on PEI), nomadic wanderings, career struggles, rise to fame, self-imposed retirement and latter-day comeback all unfold over the course of the play.

Jukebox musical veteran Cameron MacDuffee (past credits include Ring of Fire and Dear Johnny Deere), stars as the adult Connors and leads all the songs in that guise. While not an impersonation per se, MacDuffee’s performance captures much of Connors’ style as both a musician and a personality, often strongly evoking the original.

MacDuffee brings a crafty twinkle to the show in general and the musical numbers in particular, but he also has enough dramatic range to pull off the darker chapters of Connors’ story, whether he’s observing them passively in flashbacks or actively participating in the scenes.

He’s backed by an excellent house band (led by musical director Chas Guay), who also play assorted small supporting roles in the story; and a strong cast of eight actors, most of whom also play multiple parts. Highlights among these include a haunted Emily Oriold-Keay as Connors’ petty criminal mother Isabel, who brings the play much of its pathos; and all-star utility player Gordon Gammie, whose many roles range from the quiet dignity of Connors’ stepfather Russell to the screwball comedy of the world’s weirdest ice cream vendor, not to mention a laugh-out-loud hilarious bit as a potential employer baffled and repulsed by Tom’s bizarre “Muleskinner Blues” song.

Scott’s script has more meat than many such jukebox musicals, crafting a life story that conveys a strong sense of Connors’ character and the events that shaped it, not just a concert with dramatic asides. Director Catherine O’Brien and her fine cast do Scott’s work ample justice with a smooth, well-crafted production that often fosters a sense of playful humour in the proceedings.

Scott’s script loses steam somewhat near the end, partly because the most dramatic elements of its subject’s life are unavoidably front-loaded in Tom’s early years. Even taking that into account, the home stretch before the finale feels somewhat cursory and anticlimactic as the story more or less peters out, though a big musical finish helps the show end on a high note regardless.

Strip Mining

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Review by Sean McQuaid

There’s gold in them there strips. Comic strips, that is, your blathering blockhead being a lifelong lover of same. Blondie, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or For Worse, Garfield, Liberty Meadows, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Mickey Mouse, the Spirit and many more, this reviewer’s known and loved them all – but none more than Peanuts (1950-2000), the late Charles Schulz’s wise, funny and gently tragicomic take on life as lived by luckless preteen everyman Charlie Brown and his pals.

The paragraph above refers primarily to comedy gold, but the strip also generated plenty of garden-variety filthy lucre. Peanuts continues to generate millions of dollars today, long after the strip ceased production. The characters have been merchandised endlessly, reprinted perpetually (notably in Fantagraphics’ sublime Complete Peanuts hardcovers) and adapted successfully into various other media, even theatre.

Which brings us to one of the most unlikely Broadway shows of all time, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (YAGMCB for short), written primarily by Clark Gesner. First staged in 1967 and remounted often since then, it’s a favourite of low-rent and amateur theatre companies due to its small cast and potentially simple staging.

That makes YAGMCB a perfect debut production for new PEI theatre company Head First Productions – a very professional but modestly budgeted operation – and their venue The Guild, continuing to defy its architectural limitations by somehow successfully mounting another honest-to-gosh musical within the compact, pillar-studded confines of a former bank turned arts nexus. Much like Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy playing baseball, it makes no sense, but somehow it works.

The same could be said of the musical itself. A gag-a-day strip like Peanuts is unlikely musical fodder at best, and Gesner’s day-in-the-life script is more an episodic mix of interlinked vignettes than a coherent story per se, but Schulz’s characters are so vivid and charming that it all adds up to an entertaining whole in spite of itself.

Those characters include lovable loser Charlie Brown (played by David Light), crabby diva Lucy van Pelt (director Brieonna Locche), her precociously wise little brother Linus (Andrew German), Beethoven-obsessed piano prodigy Schroeder (musical director Noah MacDougall), Snoopy (choreographer Tyrell Witherspoon) and Charlie’s little sister Sally (Jessica Gallant), who replaced early Peanuts character Patty in the musical’s cast of characters during a 1999 revamp of the show.

The cast are uniformly superb, though the ladies lead the pack. Gallant is the most convincingly and endearingly childlike performer of the bunch, and the fiercely funny Loche is so eerily perfect as Lucy it’s like she was genetically engineered in some cartoon laboratory for the role. Then again, Loche’s years playing a flawless Josie Pye in Anne & Gilbert might have something to do with it, too, since both characters are an amusingly volatile mix of vanity, anger and aggressive unrequited love (Josie for Gilbert and Lucy for Schroeder).

Loche also does a great job directing the whole shebang, though the unsung hero of the show may well be set designer Shawn Arsenault. His impressively durable and deceptively simple structures and backdrops fit well into the snug stage confines and perfectly replicate key images from the comic strips, right down to the thick squiggly outlines typical of Schulz’s inking. It’s the perfect packaging for one of the best and most entertaining musicals staged on PEI in years, hopefully the first of many Head First productions.

Religion Meets Science

Inherit the Wind

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your pseudo-simian scrutinizer is a religious man, albeit a deeply flawed specimen of same. Inherit the Wind is often called a tale of religion vs. science, but this reviewer prefers to think of it as religion meets science; not such a congenial collision as the chocolate and peanut butter in those old Reese candy ads, perhaps, but not an inevitable clash of natural enemies either.

For proof of potential religion-science harmony, look no further than Charlottetown’s recent Inherit the Wind production, co-produced by a church. Mounted by PEI community theatre mainstay ACT (their 50th production) in association with Trinity United Church (celebrating its 150th anniversary), the play was staged at the Trinity United Church Hall in a burst of anniversary synergy directed by John Moses.

The script was inspired by 1925’s infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial," during which Dayton, Tennessee civic leaders prosecuted schoolteacher John Scopes for defying a new state law against teaching evolution, regarded by some as undermining Christianity. In 1955, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized adaptation of the trial intended partly as a critique of 1950s’ anti-communist McCarthyism hysteria. The show was a Broadway hit, revived frequently since then and adapted repeatedly for film and television.

In the play, idealistic schoolteacher Bertram Cates (played by Adam Gauthier) is jailed for teaching evolution, supported by his smitten friend Rachel (Kim Johnston) and jaded reporter E.K. Hornbeck (Fraser McCallum), denounced by Rachel’s firebrand father Reverend Brown (Gordon Cobb), prosecuted by beloved religious conservative politician Matthew Brady (David Bulger) and defended by crusading liberal lawyer Henry Drummond (Terry Pratt).

ACT’s version makes good use of its church hall venue (despite some problematic sight lines due to the non-sloped floor), sending its players out onto the floor of the hall as well as on stage, selling meals and snacks though the adjoining kitchen, and casting the food servers and vendors and other production personnel as townsfolk preoccupied by the trial’s events, helping immerse the audience in the show’s reality.

This sort of dramatic immersion is becoming an ACT specialty as the company uses elements such as specialized venues, music or support staff to help build the world or set the mood of each show. It’s a nice touch, even if the church hall isn’t an especially theatrical or aesthetically rich space compared to some of ACT’s other venues.

Director Moses ably manages a sizable and mostly effective cast, including strong performances from Gauthier, Pratt, Cobb and Bulger, plus notably fine supporting work by veteran scene-stealer Rob Thomson as the Judge, Ian Byrne as frustrated district attorney Davenport, Keir Malone as the hapless Mayor, Kate Haines as a reporter and Alex Arsenault as radio personality Harry Esterbrook.

Less ideally, Kim Johnston’s delivery is too often flat, while McCallum’s Hornbeck is a smooth, polished and entertaining performance yet oddly hollow and one-note, never really layering anything emotionally substantial atop the character’s sardonic quip machine shtick.

The play itself is occasionally preachy and sometimes redundant in its repeated deployment of assorted eloquent defenders of free speech, but the story remains timely as self-appointed champions of religion and science continue to clash in our media and politics today.

Haunted Holiday

A Christmas Carol

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your yuletide yammerer is a sucker for Christmas. In fact, if he has a happy place, it’s probably basking in the soft rainbow glow of a well-decorated Christmas tree, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Boney M or Vince Guaraldi waxing seasonal on the CD player as loved ones gather near. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Not surprisingly, this deep and abiding affection for all things Christmas includes Charles Dickens’ evergreen 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, which this reviewer probably first encountered in its superb 1951 film adaptation Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, later seeking out the original Dickens text and many of its dozens of other adaptations.

A Christmas Carol is the second-most important and influential Christmas story of all time, surpassed only by the birth of Jesus (no shame in being runner-up there). Dickens’ classic novella is wise, funny, spooky, clever, inventive and imbued with a timeless sense of social conscience that makes his story as invaluably instructive as it is entertaining.

It’s also almost infinitely adaptable, having been revived, remixed and re-imagined successfully in a wide array of media and genres by entities as diverse as the Teen Titans (“The TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol,” Teen Titans #13, 1968), WKRP in Cincinnati (“Bah Humbug,” 1980), Mickey Mouse (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, 1983), the Muppets (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) and even Doctor Who (“A Christmas Carol,” 2010), to name just a few.

This endless string of adaptations includes plenty of live theatre, such as the stage musical version penned by revered Charlottetown Festival founder Mavor Moore for Vancouver’s Carousel Theatre in 1988 and remounted at the Confederation Centre of the Arts this December. Its original songs are pleasant albeit seldom individually memorable, and are generally well-executed by director/choreographer Liz Gilroy and her cast.

Moore’s adaptation preserves most of the Dickens story’s essentials. Mean, miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge (Wade Lynch) despises mankind in general and Christmas in particular until the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley (Justin Simard) gives him an overdue crash course in human decency, aided by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future (played by Renae Perry, Bruce Cummins and Connor Sharpe, respectively).

Lynch is the gift that keeps on giving in this cast, mostly because he’s so effortlessly funny. He portrays the darker aspects of Scrooge’s character capably enough, but he shines whenever he finds the humour in his role, sometimes in unexpected places; lines that might read less than hilarious on paper become side-splittingly comical courtesy of Lynch’s expert delivery.

The large supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Simard is great undead fun as Marley with his sepulchral voice, menacing presence and erratically shambling zombie-like body language, but other spectres are less satisfying.

The whiplash-inducing tonal shifts of Perry’s Past ghost – who lurches back and forth mood-wise between giggly sunshine and aggressive darkness – feel like two entirely different characters haphazardly stapled together, while Cummins’ Present ghost is a more coherent but also more pedestrian take on that particular spirit, not especially distinctive.

Other notables include a winningly sympathetic Stephen MacDougall as Scrooge’s long-suffering employee Cratchit, a charming Cameron Cassidy as Scrooge’s lost love Belle, and adroit comedic duo Olivia Barnes & Ellen Carol as cynical servants Dilber & Dobbs.

Presentation, like the cast, is somewhat mixed. For every sequence that soars like Simard’s bravura fireplace entrance, there are others that land with a thud, like the almost comically anticlimactic revelation of Ignorance and Want huddled beneath Cummins’ robe – there’s nothing in the performances or the production values in that scene that really conveys the potential horror of that moment.

Other, stronger scenes fall tantalizingly short of full success, like the Ghost of Christmas Future’s gliding, mist-shrouded entrance, which works wonderfully until the fog lifts just enough to reveal the wheeled dolly beneath his feet. It all adds up to a spirited and appealing but ultimately uneven take on the Dickens classic.

NOTE: Ye olde reviewer’s songbird sister Monica Rafuse appears here as Mrs. Fezziwig (and quite effectively at that), so this review is obviously haunted by The Ghost of Christmas Conflict. Factor that into your reading accordingly.

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Some Upcoming Events

One-act comedies

Rob MacDonald presents four of his plays in November The Guild Island audiences are familiar with  [ ... ]

Jimmy Rankin shows

November 22 at Trailside Café
November 23 at Harbourfront Theatre Jimmy Rankin's new Moving East (o [ ... ]

The Ennis Sisters

Newfoundland sisters on the mainstage December 1
Homburg Theatre  On December 1, Sobeys LIVE @ [ ... ]

Recent News & Articles

Acadian showman

Profile: Christian Gallant by Jane Ledwell Forty-six musicians and step dancers took the stage at  [ ... ]

The St. Lawrence

The Cove Journal by JoDee Samuelson We lean against the rails as the Island slips by. Souris, Litt [ ... ]

The same mistakes

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider When I’m teaching the UPEI course on ecological forestry, I  [ ... ]