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Strangely Funny

Sketch-22 Xmas

Review by Mille Clarkes

I must admit, I'm a little intimidated by the assignment to write a review of a Sketch-22 production. How does one approach a critique of an act of absurd imagination? How can one write an assessment of the external representation of the inside of someone’s mind? Sure, every work of art (let us agree that a Sketch-22 show is a work of art) is invariably someone’s mental stirrings spilled forth into view. But it is hard to imagine a work of art with less filters, less paranoia, than a Sketch-22 show. It’s almost innocent, and thus innocent of reviewing. However…

The Sketch-22 Christmas Show 2007 was no exception—there before the audience with unabashed verve, Charlottetown’s crown jewel of comedy let it all hang out. This mad revelry must not be confused with untempered silliness. Sketch-22’s skits are finely tuned, often brilliantly conceived, and deftly executed. There is measure to the madness; just enough to keep it all flowing, but not too much so as to limit or restrict.

Most of the 2007 Christmas show’s material was recycled from the previous season, so my impressions are just a tad stale, and perhaps the performances suffered minutely from the age of the skits. Minutely. Overall the show is right on par with the best sketch comedies of our age, and I say this entirely seriously; Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall—you have a new soldier in your ranks.

A Sketch-22 Christmas takes its audience on an interpretive journey through the nativity story. The opening act sees the entire troupe (save Jason Rogerson who is occupied with sweetly portraying the Virgin Mary) dressed as giant sperm, each vying for a go at the virgin womb as they sing fresh lyrics to the tune of ‘Who are You?’ by The Who. The nativity story acts as the base line to the show’s narrative. Scattered throughout are other brilliant one-off acts such as a condensed fast-paced version of It’s a Wonderful Life, an audition for the part of Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas featuring none other than the Grim Reaper himself, and a slew of other “how the hell did they come up with that?” sketches.

Each of the cast members shine in their own strengths, but the show stealer may have been Jason Rogerson, whose understated presence on stage manages to hit the mark every time through subtlety and an almost visceral modesty; you can tell that he has dissolved his ego for the greater good of the whole. And he makes a charming Virgin Mary. Dennis Trainor kept the audience in a state somewhere between hysteria and perpetual squirming with his character Patrick Duncan Irving St.Clair, the overly-theatrical stage director. Dennis is fast and energetic and never hesitates for a moment in his roles. Graham Putnam brings such a deep sense of bemusement to every character that you can’t help but wonder if he's having more fun than everyone else, and perhaps it’s he who’s laughing at you, not the other way around. Rob MacDonald is the papa-bear of the bunch, and his forays into ambiguous sexuality are portrayed with an endearing gentleness. Andrew Sprague is strong in his roles which are often of the straight-man variety, providing a counterweight to the otherwise tightly-wound cast. The quiet, strong force behind the spectacle is Gislane O’Hanely who stage manages a seamless production. Harmony Wagner was missed amongst the cast. Her energy completes the circle and hopefully she will return for future shows.

The video segways between skits were entirely amusing, but lacked a little of the genius seen in other Sketch 22 productions, mainly because they were not as closely tied to the action on stage. It would be great to see slightly boosted production quality on the videos, though the content is there.

Seriously folks, what is it going to take to get the rest of the world to notice these guys? ’Cause once they do we’ve lost them for good.

It’s All Good

Anne & Gilbert

Review by Mille Clarkes

Praise and only praise, can be heaped upon this year’s production of Anne & Gilbert. There is no way around it. Everything was good. More than good, this musical was a well-crafted masterpiece with just enough modesty to allow one to forget the mastery. Large men in the audience boomed with laughter and slapped their knees, small women wept. Large men wept. Anne & Gilbert had its audience so deeply enthralled that most folks forgot themselves for a full two and a half hours, except perhaps to wipe a tear rolling down their cheek, or beam at their friend with an appreciative grin.

Where to begin? The backbone of any musical must be of course, the music and lyrics. Co-composers Nancy White and Bob Johnston, drew from Jeff Hochhauser’s book, bringing forth the essential story structure and dialogue, while weaving around it an original musical score. The clever lyrics dropped effortlessly into place, aided by superbly controlled arrangements, which never fell prey to sentimentality. Though a singing, dancing, romance, Anne & Gilbert was surprisingly palatable. A good lick of humour was evenly and deftly applied throughout.

There was not one actor out of place in the considerably large cast. Not one who didn’t seem to shine in their own strengths, yet function as a part of the whole. Rebecca Parent was superbly cast, and gracefully acted as the fulcrum around which the rest of the ensemble swung. She portrayed just the right mixture of wisdom and innocence, which is the junction of qualities that has won the character of Anne Shirley a place in the hearts of countless many around the globe. Rebecca was able to project and dramatize with the best of them, yet she reserved a placid inwardness which drew the audience into a sense of kinship and intimacy. Aaron Kyte as Gilbert Blythe was notably light on his feet and sang beautifully. He was likable to a fault, and no one would have doubted his claim to be the most sought-after young man on Prince Edward Island. A bit of a show stealer was the jubilant countenance of Sarah Sheps as Diana Barry. Her beaming, good-natured, slightly mischievous, counter-balance to Anne’s proud idealism swept across the stage like a breathe of fresh air. The supporting cast, which unfortunately are too many to name, all seemed to inhabit their bodies and the space around them with a fluidity that drove the spectacle on with an engaging rhythm from curtain up to curtain down. They made the dance numbers look easy and even the set changes between acts were almost engrossing. Each cast member wove seamlessly around each other and about the stage—leaving no awkward dead space. There was fiddling, there were back flips, there were victorian-style formal dances—this show had it all and no one in the cast fell short of the challenge.

It would be remiss not to mention some of the perhaps less glamourous, but certainly essential elements of this production. The cast could not have come together as such an organic whole using up every inch of the stage, without the remarkable choreography of Heidi Ford. Timothy French’s direction wasted not a moment or a movement—he molded his material to a tight and succinct form. The costumes by Phillip Clarkson were spun from a subtle yet rich colour palette, with a fine smattering of detail. The set by John Craig Dinning was intelligently engineered, using minimal props and decoration, yet just enough to suggest the scope of the world being portrayed. The lighting design must have been good, for it went almost unnoticed and did what lighting is supposed to do; created mood and arranged space. Lastly, the musicians in the pit, directed by Jacqueline Sorenson, played harmoniously. Jacqueline must be applauded also for her overall musical direction, as the production maintained a consistent level of professionalism, while not coming across too slickly.

As this is a critical review, I must offer one line of criticism; I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.

Sweet Summertime

Love List

Review by Mille Clark

On a warm summer evening, there is no finer time to stroll around the fragrant, sleepy streets of Victoria by the Sea. And then, to end one’s wanders in happy suspense-of-disbelief at the Victoria Playhouse. On even a Tuesday night the theatre is filled. Once the audience’s murmur is hushed and the lights dimmed, a languid anticipation descends over the crowd.

The Love List by Norm Foster opens to a typically decorated bachelor apartment. Immediately, the use of lighting and space draws the audience into this intimate setting. The stage is divided into a foreground, in which all the dressings of a living room are affixed, and just behind the slats of the living room wall, an apartment building hallway is visible. These two locations become important, as the play unfolds. The living room houses the inner life of the characters; their fantasies, neurosis, and desires, while the hallway serves as an intermediary space—a window into outer ‘reality’ where these desires and neurosis are ultimately challenged.

At first glace, The Love List is sweet, entertaining, and superficially insightful; precisely what one would hope for in an evening’s distraction. However, the play is so fanciful and absurd, that the question begs to be asked; “what is this play really about?” A confirmed bachelor, Bill, (played by Erskine Smith) and his best friend Leon (played by Colm Magner) with the help of an unseen mysterious gypsy, draw up a list of the ten qualities they would wish from an ideal mate. And voila! Dressed in a garish hue of pink, she manifests. What ensues is the classic struggle of man dealing with his desires fulfilled and the consequences of acting “god.” Though maintaining the veneer of light entertainment throughout, The Love List manages to explore some of love’s perplexing quandaries. Can we deal with what we want when we’ve got it? Do we claim to crave love when really what we crave is the projection of our fantasies and a balm to our neurosis? Does the union of love exist in the space between two souls, or does it always necessarily reside alone in the consciousness of the lover? And is it imperfection that batters down the wall of concocted desires, and that ultimately lets love through? Perhaps in the end love’s great gift is not the fulfillment of one’s desires. Perhaps love’s offering lies in the abandonment of the human impulse to control and through this, the surprising revelation that what you need is relentlessly available—it is there in the imperfections.

Erskine Smith, as the driving force behind The Victoria Playhouse, is a veritable Island treasure. His lightness of heart shines through all their productions. His portrayal of Bill was goofy and endearing. Mr. Smith certainly knows how to act with his whole body and how to delight an audience with almost charicatural expressiveness. Colm Magner as Leon played it somewhat straighter. His was a darker, more ironic character, whose inner decency shone through at pivotal points. The real force on stage was Johanna Nutter who, in a host of hot-pink ensembles, managed to bring the three actors into a visceral relationship, demanding raw interaction and inciting dramatic tensions and releases. The direction by Marlane O’Brien was good, and there is no doubt that in the latter days of its run, this will be a very elegant production.

Truly there is no more enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, than breathing in the thick salty air of Victoria-by-the Sea while taking in a well-crafted performance at The Victoria Playhouse.

Simple, Yet Effective

Waiting for Godot

Review by Mille Clarkes

To have such a play as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot performed here on PEI was a real treat. It is not the sort of play that most community theatre troupes would likely tackle. It is not an easy script; with its rambling seemingly nonsensical high-paced banter and abstract plot-line. ACT did the play justice.

All elements of the production were executed with simple effectiveness; from the lone sparse tree in the centre of the dark stage to the tattered every-man threads worn by the performers. The moment the lights went up, the audience was drawn into a place that is both somewhere and nowhere simultaneously. And that is certainly what Beckett intended; to portray somewhere and everywhere, someone and everyone, some day and every day.

There have been many debates over the meaning of Samuel Beckett’s play, but there is one explanation that is often overlooked: This is a play about life. Perhaps because this is such an obvious explanation, many have chosen to tweeze out more complex theories as to the intention behind Beckett’s snaking dialogue, confounding characters, and futile plot. It is a difficult thing to create a work of art that is about everything, a play that transcribes all of human experience, distills it to reflect what is at the core of our grapples with the universe, while concurrently depicting the superficial, farcical, bumbling of diurnal episodes. But this seems to be exactly what Beckett has done. It is a masterful work. The characters, waiting for an ambiguous entity (Could it be God? Could it be some sort of gratifying and decisive answer?) bide their time in what appears to be a wasteland. As they wait under a pervasive sense of unarticulated insidious oppression they go through the range of human interactivity—acting out the comedietragique that stuffs our daily routine. This play depicts so poetically those gestures, intentions, actions, and effects, that seem profoundly consequential to us humans. Yet, against the backdrop of bleak sameness and the unanswered dilemmas of consciousness and perception, are shown to be something like an overturned truck spinning its wheels. It is not a pessimistic portrayal of the human experience. There is no moral or comparative point being made. Waiting for Godot simply reflects and lends humor to the great and often lonely mystery. Godot never arrives.

The ACT troupe deftly danced through this challenging piece, delivering their lines and moving about the stage with a facility that allowed the nuances of the script to come to the foreground. Richard Haines as director controlled all the elements making it a very watch-able play. The performances of Adam Gauthier and Corin McFadden who played the main characters Estragon and Vladimir were seamless and fluid. Gerry Gray’s character Lucky pushed the humour quotient over the top, and Seb McFadden was very convincing as ‘Boy’.

Not an easy feat. Yet a feat none the less. Hopefully productions of this cerebral scope and professional caliber will continue to be produced by community theatre groups on our Island.

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