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SingFest PEI 2018

October 20 is World Singing Day and PEI will celebrate with at a week-long celebration called SingFe [ ... ]

PEI Sociable Singles

PEI Sociable Singles is a non-profit, non-denominational, social group with members age 40 and over. [ ... ]

The Guest Book: Patrick Ledwell

In the weeds

I’m putting on a final push to get a new book out. I’ve entered the phase that’s sometimes called “in the weeds.” To me, that expression describes a point where you’re entangled in the small details and complexities of things. A comma here, a dangling participle there. My sister Jane is copy-editing the book, and she’s an editor with whom you do not want to mess.

But here on PEI, I’m wondering if “in the weeds” would always suggest a negative meaning. Our weeds impress me. They take over ground that no one tends otherwise, and carpet-bomb it with rootedness and colour. Lupins march out of the ditches, musk vaults the canebrake barricades. Dandelions bloom right through the sidewalks, with a yellow primal scream.

My father Frank was a gardener, but had a real weakness for the redeeming quality of Island weeds. We’d just get a flowerbed cleaned up, and he would transplant something wild and rhizomatic into it. And then you could never get it the hell out. The gorgeous weeds would tower over any annuals we planted. Not choking them, but staking their ground and declaring a firm intention that they were not going anywhere soon. Trying to pull them was a slow exercise in gaining appreciation for their endless, sinewy, and tough network.

I’ve been asked to make a point about Island culture here. I’m going to say that, when I talk with other creative people at this late-winter time, we’re in the weeds. And that’s not necessarily a negative thing.

To talk with an Island artist, at this time of year, is to be impressed with the intricacies and uniqueness of doing the work.

Here’s my email inbox this morning. Friday rehearsal is no good for my brilliant folksinger co-performer, because that’s his fullest day of music lessons for ages eight and eighty. I’m looking at the new painting of my theatre-owner friend, who is renovating another property between pharmacy shifts. He’s an exhausting individual. I write a response to an tireless artist/candidate/advocate, because we might work together on a book event.

I am truly impressed with these people. They’re resilient. They get the creative work done and push the damn dandelion right through the pavement.

PEI certainly has more artists, and artists of high calibre, than any per capita measurement would give us right to expect. Funding doesn’t create an artist, anymore than a government highway worker plants a lupin. But it’s right to play close attention to the conditions that support this growth. Why?

One thing that’s important to understand is that artists will be the last to ever give up this ground. It is positive to see a new enterprise open a large building, with a picture in the paper and a fancy bed of annuals out front, spelling the company name. It’s part of a good ecosystem. It’s easier to appreciate.

But it’s also fair to say that there will never be a closure resulting in the immediate departure of fifty artists. We’ve created every filament of our work and our lives to keep us rooted. We’re taking on a versatile blend of jobs, we’re appearing at your community fundraisers, we’re intertwined in diverse support networks.

Why are artists important? You’re going to have to look a bit closer and trace out the length of the answer, which can be complex, filamented, and impressively exhausting.

Because we’re in the weeds. And we’re not going anywhere soon.

—Patrick Ledwell is a writer, comedian, and technology designer. His new book An Islander Strikes Back will be launched May 6 at The Guild.

The Guest Book is a monthly Buzz feature whereby we invite a guest writer to contribute an essay on whatever is on their mind. 

Right and Wrong

Murder in the Cathedral

Review by Patrick Ledwell

T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is, among other things, a drama about whether or not intentions determine the outcome. Locating us in the strife between church and state in 12th century England, Eliot shows soon-to-be-saint Thomas Becket pressing outside his spiritual authority as archbishop, much to the irritation of his former friend King Henry II. As martyrdom nears, Becket wonders aloud whether this outcome is God’s will or emanates from his own intentions on immortality: “The last temptation is the greatest treason/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Ambitious and uncompromising, the ACT production of Murder in the Cathedral—which ran at the Indian River Festival in August—contained its own interplay between intentions and outcomes. The design of director Terry Pratt was to create “location theatre,” where the audience gets immersed in the dramatic milieu. From the beginning of the play, when a chorus of women penitents rose from the pews, the action surrounded the congregation in an engrossing way, with characters shuffling along the outer aisles and bursting in the doors at the back.

Although Murder in the Cathedral is often performed in churches, the director made an evocative choice in St. Mary’s Church, with its red-tinged wooden ceilings known for reverberating like another instrument with the music happening within. Musical director Carl Mathis beautifully complemented the pieces specified by Eliot with further selections from the early Church. The mysterious chant that opened the performance wafted from the choir loft like candle smoke, immediately enveloping the listeners in the atmosphere of another time. Despite the church’s acoustical majesty, the words of Eliot’s verse drama did not always fare as well. The Church is designed to amplify words spoken from the altar, and not from the congregational spaces back in the nave. Particularly as performers moved into the periphery, some of the dark poetry got lost in the vaulted ceiling, and listeners were forced to strain after it. There were several times that I would have foregone the majestic surroundings of St. Mary’s for the charged intimacy of a chapel. Clive Keen performed Becket as an introspective and humble man caught in the battle between church and state, struggling to reconcile God’s will with his office. In a smaller theatre, the audience could have seen this internal drama play out more visibly across his face.

But in the cathedral, as makes sense on reflection, the audience responded to those performances when Keen and the other actors were in a declamatory mode. The Chorus of common women spoke their visions of a troubled world in impassioned and musical tones. The four knights who murder Becket offer speeches to justify their actions, and their homespun reasoning—about how Englishmen appreciate an underdog, and about how they had nothing to gain money-wise—resonated with the Island audience like a stump speeches by the local MLA.

By the end of the play, plainspeak is what playgoers wanted to hear. Neither the director’s intentions, nor the actors’ performance, can be faulted for the outcome. But given the beauty of Eliot’s language, and the creativity all invested in bringing it to life, this mood suggests a case of the right production in the wrong location.

Controlled Craziness


Riot Act

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Like the word couplings “resident alien” and “family vacation,” the phrase “riot act” is an oxymoron. Even so, “Riot Act” is a fitting name for an ensemble performing as part of the Stanley Bridge Festival, running throughout the summer in the newly-rechristened Barn Theatre. Their music, with its roots firmly planted in traditional soil, strikes the peculiar contradiction of craziness and control that defines the Celtic spirit, at least for this writer. Like the bands of a Celtic pattern, the musical lines of the performers are so densely woven that the point is not to successfully follow each one, but to lose your head a bit in the attempt.

Happily assembled from parts of other still vibrant bands, the performers share the ability to expertly balance fingerwork and freewheeling. Piper John MacPhee, who performs in the acclaimed Celtic group Slainte Mhath, conjures elaborately snaking tunes out of an assortment of traditional winds, including the Irish and the Highland pipes. MacPhee’s Irish pipes often dance in perfect lockstep with the fiddle lines spun by Ward MacDonald, whose unique footstomping slips around in a way that his jigs and reels never do. Hearing them play in a clockwork mesh, it’s easy to forget that their performance is highly practiced, and not just the effortless result—as in Greek myth—of wind passing over charmed wood.

Besides providing a supple piano and guitar backbone, Lester Stubbert and Margie Carmichael take center stage and intersperse their original songs throughout the show, bookending the traditional tunes with stories of the land and people whose spirit created the music. Stubbert is a masterful guitar picker, and his hands fly across the frets like a cat expertly walking somewhere it knows it shouldn’t.

In one of her introductions, Carmichael speaks of the red roads that connect the Island like blood vessels. She surely must have direct right-of-way to the beating heart of this country; time and time again, her songs are precise and humorous cartographers of our roads inward and out. Whether she is extolling the plight of the maligned come-from-away, the coyote, or expressing the frustrations of a would-be Islander, his umbilical cord prematurely cut while a-ferry, she is able to illustrate how the Island elevates the phrase “resident alien” into a mysterious cultural policy.

On the alien theme, I did try to adopt the mindset of a summer visitor during the performance, and particularly with the fiddle and pipe sets, would have appreciated more context to flesh in the tradition. At one point, even the performers joked that the next unnamed reel goes “diddly-diddly-dee,” rather than the “da-da-diddly-diddly” of the foregoing, also unnamed tune. MacDonald is a natural storyteller, and when he mentions that a composition is a lullaby for a newborn or that another has been passed down from his father, it gathers the audience—even those without red soil in their fingernails—into a wider celebration of how tradition binds families together.

“Riot Act” might unravel the “family vacation” contradiction as well, as the show featured several friends and family members who—with and without shoes—spontaneously leaped onto the stage to stepdance. The only riot produced by this act is comprised of warm laughter, and you’d do well to let yours ring in the rafters of the Barn Theatre this summer.

In Perfect Harmony


Borealis String Quartet

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Johannes Goethe once observed, “I call architecture frozen music,” and in many ways, you can see the century-old St. Mary’s Church in Indian River as this metaphor made real. During the performance I attended, I could easily imagine my surroundings as the outcome of a musical moment crystallized and then scaffolded with wood, the melodic lines converted to arches and the plucked quarter notes to supportive columns.

If this sounds a bit cracked, I’ll defend my imaginings as being somewhat in tune with those of the church’s designer, the renowned Island architect, William Critchlow Harris. Harris (who receives second billing only to the Creator in the province’s design credits) was preoccupied with acoustical perfection, and the church’s interior was conceived as an experiment in preserving musical timbre through arrangements of timber. Music rises to the 60 foot high vaulted ceiling, where ribbed interlacings of Island hardwood and softwood faithfully carry it back to each waiting ear.

It is a testament to this acoustical achievement that the Indian River Festival can attract performers as accomplished as the British Columbia-based Borealis String Quartet. True to their name, the quartet—Patricia Shih and Yuel Yawney on violins, Nikita Pogrebnoy on viola, and Joel Stobbe on cello— are seen as bright lights in the Canadian classical music horizon. My ear detected a unique sympathy between the wood in their instruments and that lining this countryside church, creating an electric evening where the performers and the space resonated as a single instrument.

The performers were as synchronized with each other as they were with the atmosphere. Goethe observed that string quartets are a “conversation among equals” (quite a busy observer, that Goethe), and the members of the Borealis Quartet are well-matched in their virtuosic mastery of their instruments. Brilliant conversants do not assure good dialogue, though, and it was enthralling to watch how these musicians used a richly physical performance to choreograph shared musical phrases.

This idea of conversation carried strongly across the three complementary selections performed by the Borealis Quartet. The first piece, Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 64, no. 5, is subtitled “The Lark.” In the opening sonata, the light-hearted and trilling first violin was as carefree as a bird’s flight, but in an ongoing conversation, this motif was counterpoised by staccato, measured accompaniment from the other three instruments. The String Quartet in E flat major by Fanny Mendelssohn is an especially distinctive work considering the suffocating norms of her time, where both her father and famous composer brother forbade her from publishing any of her compositions. The quartet’s performance evoked an argument between resignation and hope. The falling third movement, where the performers pass around a forlorn repeated motif, is answered by an energetic finale, which makes a final statement of resolve and persistence.

The most impassioned playing of the evening came during the final work, Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D 810, no. 14, also known as “Death and the Maiden.” Composed when Schubert became aware of his impending death, in his late 20s, the performance spoke expressively about the double bind between sexuality and mortality. The lurching dance between sensual and desolate themes throughout the final movement, where you can feel the composer desperately writing to cheat death’s onset, left the audience breathless and on its feet.

To spend an evening at the Indian River Festival is literally to experience an evening in concert—the performance, the architecture, and the surrounding green countryside all reverberate with a single harmonious note.

Cultural Alchemy

Acadie en Musique

Review by Patrick Ledwell

As a ship captain announces in an opening scene, the performance “Acadie en Musique,” playing throughout the summer at the Carrefour Theatre, is a voyage charged with an impossible mission. The show aspires to celebrate and somehow capture the soundtrack to 400 years of Acadian history, a task made no easier by the embarrassment of musical diversity that this tradition embraces.

While maintaining its own distinct character, the Acadian musical spirit has been made a magpie by the accidents of time, feathering its musical nest with other bordering cultural traditions and also tuning in to influences from modern airwaves. Is it possible for the group to trace all the strands in this crazy-quilt in two spare hours, and not go crazy themselves?

The answers are yes and no, respectively, and entertainingly so in both cases. Sung a capella from the four corners of the theatre, the opening song “La mer est mon domaine” gives voice to the theme that Acadians have salt water in their blood. My theory is that the salt has actually increased the boiling point of Acadian plasma. Each member of this talented five person troupe appears to be able to perform indefinitely at a breakneck pace that would soon burst the bubbles of those from differently seasoned backgrounds.

In one of his many side-splitting bits, Chuck Arsenault (who, along with fellow performer Louise Arsenault, was a member of the celebrated, now-retired group Barachois) plays a nutty professor teaching Acadie 101, claiming that Acadians are defined by their ability to “take what’s given and make it better.” For me, this cultural alchemy was the theme of the show, as many of the pieces are explorations of the Acadian gift for reinventing and reinvigorating tradition.

“A la claire fontaine” shows how a single folksong can experience life as both a heartbreaking air, sung by the sweet-voiced Tanya Gallant, and a heartpounding reel, practically sawed in half by the gifted fiddler Louise Arsenault. If someone knows the spell that can remove the perpetual motion tapshoes from Louise’s feet, please do not give it to her until the end of this summer’s performances.

The performance shows how the spirit of Acadian song can survive not only changes in tempo but also changes in the times. In the touching piece “Dors, dors, dors,” Gallant and Louise Arsenault sing a duet timed to the different cadences of maternal life, one melodic line rocking softly and the other clicking like a busy household. Later in the show, Gallant updates the motherhood sentiments with a strip-off-the-apron, kick-off-the-shoes rock number, “SuperMaman.”

The musical selections are rounded out by the brilliant blue bass of Julie Arsenault and the rhythm guitar of Robert Arsenault, both of whom also steal the spotlight for two of the show’s richest comic moments. In a role that is not too much of a stretch, Robert plays a vertically-challenged man declined admittance everywhere from the King’s Army to the Pearly Gates, and Julie sings a playful song about a husband too small to be found in the marriage bed.

The pantomime that accompanies this winking humour also acts as a sign language for anglophones like me, allowing me to follow the narratives behind the all-French songs. The troupe also does an admirable job of translating their dialogues between songs. More importantly, though, they remain true to the role that language plays in their musical rhythms, a universal language that won’t have you scrambling for your Larousse dictionary. This summer, hitch your wagon to an Acadian star, and buckle your seat belts for the ’50,001st party’ in their rich history.

In Perfect Harmony

Borealis String Quartet

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Johannes Goethe once observed, “I call architecture frozen music,” and in many ways, you can see the century-old St. Mary’s Church in Indian River as this metaphor made real. During the performance I attended, I could easily imagine my surroundings as the outcome of a musical moment crystallized and then scaffolded with wood, the melodic lines converted to arches and the plucked quarter notes to supportive columns.

If this sounds a bit cracked, I’ll defend my imaginings as being somewhat in tune with those of the church’s designer, the renowned Island architect, William Critchlow Harris. Harris (who receives second billing only to the Creator in the province’s design credits) was preoccupied with acoustical perfection, and the church’s interior was conceived as an experiment in preserving musical timbre through arrangements of timber. Music rises to the 60 foot high vaulted ceiling, where ribbed interlacings of Island hardwood and softwood faithfully carry it back to each waiting ear.

It is a testament to this acoustical achievement that the Indian River Festival can attract performers as accomplished as the British Columbia-based Borealis String Quartet. True to their name, the quartet—Patricia Shih and Yuel Yawney on violins, Nikita Pogrebnoy on viola, and Joel Stobbe on cello— are seen as bright lights in the Canadian classical music horizon. My ear detected a unique sympathy between the wood in their instruments and that lining this countryside church, creating an electric evening where the performers and the space resonated as a single instrument.

The performers were as synchronized with each other as they were with the atmosphere. Goethe observed that string quartets are a “conversation among equals” (quite a busy observer, that Goethe), and the members of the Borealis Quartet are well-matched in their virtuosic mastery of their instruments. Brilliant conversants do not assure good dialogue, though, and it was enthralling to watch how these musicians used a richly physical performance to choreograph shared musical phrases.

This idea of conversation carried strongly across the three complementary selections performed by the Borealis Quartet. The first piece, Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 64, no. 5, is subtitled “The Lark.” In the opening sonata, the light-hearted and trilling first violin was as carefree as a bird’s flight, but in an ongoing conversation, this motif was counterpoised by staccato, measured accompaniment from the other three instruments. The String Quartet in E flat major by Fanny Mendelssohn is an especially distinctive work considering the suffocating norms of her time, where both her father and famous composer brother forbade her from publishing any of her compositions. The quartet’s performance evoked an argument between resignation and hope. The falling third movement, where the performers pass around a forlorn repeated motif, is answered by an energetic finale, which makes a final statement of resolve and persistence.

The most impassioned playing of the evening came during the final work, Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D 810, no. 14, also known as “Death and the Maiden.” Composed when Schubert became aware of his impending death, in his late 20s, the performance spoke expressively about the double bind between sexuality and mortality. The lurching dance between sensual and desolate themes throughout the final movement, where you can feel the composer desperately writing to cheat death’s onset, left the audience breathless and on its feet.

To spend an evening at the Indian River Festival is literally to experience an evening in concert—the performance, the architecture, and the surrounding green countryside all reverberate with a single harmonious note.

Controlled Craziness

Riot Act

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Like the word couplings “resident alien” and “family vacation,” the phrase “riot act” is an oxymoron. Even so, “Riot Act” is a fitting name for an ensemble performing as part of the Stanley Bridge Festival, running throughout the summer in the newly-rechristened Barn Theatre. Their music, with its roots firmly planted in traditional soil, strikes the peculiar contradiction of craziness and control that defines the Celtic spirit, at least for this writer. Like the bands of a Celtic pattern, the musical lines of the performers are so densely woven that the point is not to successfully follow each one, but to lose your head a bit in the attempt.

Happily assembled from parts of other still vibrant bands, the performers share the ability to expertly balance fingerwork and freewheeling. Piper John MacPhee, who performs in the acclaimed Celtic group Slainte Mhath, conjures elaborately snaking tunes out of an assortment of traditional winds, including the Irish and the Highland pipes. MacPhee’s Irish pipes often dance in perfect lockstep with the fiddle lines spun by Ward MacDonald, whose unique footstomping slips around in a way that his jigs and reels never do. Hearing them play in a clockwork mesh, it’s easy to forget that their performance is highly practiced, and not just the effortless result—as in Greek myth—of wind passing over charmed wood.

Besides providing a supple piano and guitar backbone, Lester Stubbert and Margie Carmichael take center stage and intersperse their original songs throughout the show, bookending the traditional tunes with stories of the land and people whose spirit created the music. Stubbert is a masterful guitar picker, and his hands fly across the frets like a cat expertly walking somewhere it knows it shouldn’t.

In one of her introductions, Carmichael speaks of the red roads that connect the Island like blood vessels. She surely must have direct right-of-way to the beating heart of this country; time and time again, her songs are precise and humorous cartographers of our roads inward and out. Whether she is extolling the plight of the maligned come-from-away, the coyote, or expressing the frustrations of a would-be Islander, his umbilical cord prematurely cut while a-ferry, she is able to illustrate how the Island elevates the phrase “resident alien” into a mysterious cultural policy.

On the alien theme, I did try to adopt the mindset of a summer visitor during the performance, and particularly with the fiddle and pipe sets, would have appreciated more context to flesh in the tradition. At one point, even the performers joked that the next unnamed reel goes “diddly-diddly-dee,” rather than the “da-da-diddly-diddly” of the foregoing, also unnamed tune. MacDonald is a natural storyteller, and when he mentions that a composition is a lullaby for a newborn or that another has been passed down from his father, it gathers the audience—even those without red soil in their fingernails—into a wider celebration of how tradition binds families together.

“Riot Act” might unravel the “family vacation” contradiction as well, as the show featured several friends and family members who—with and without shoes—spontaneously leaped onto the stage to stepdance. The only riot produced by this act is comprised of warm laughter, and you’d do well to let yours ring in the rafters of the Barn Theatre this summer.

Baiting the Storyline

Fish or Cut Bait

Review by Patrick Ledwell

From the moment I stepped into the Victoria Playhouse to see Fish or Cut Bait, it was clear that a cultural motif was at work. Behind a frothy plywood sea swell, the set (another richly imagined staging from W. Scott MacConnell) featured a single, standard-issue palm tree that located me immediately on thematic ground.

Some of my favorite variations on the desert island archetype—genus silica monotreeus—come from The Far Side, where the motif gets mined for dozens of jokes, but only one real conclusion. If two come ashore (scenario A), the castaways eat at each other, one starting The Desert Island Press solely to libel his only reader. If stranded alone (scenario B), the castaway eats at himself, suffering a loss of perspective where approaching salvation turns out only to be a toy boat, uselessly aground.

In Fish or Cut Bait, by Southern playwright John Holleman, two unnamed contemporary men fall from a budget cruise ship in circumstances as flimsy as, well, budget guard rails, and wash up on the conveniently-located sandheap. A businessman who I’ll dub the President (Josh Weale) declares himself alpha male, and speaking unsoftly, wields a big stick over the head of his beta. He spends all his time gazing skyward for the navy pilots he believes will execute the perfect search matrix. Between stretches of forced labour, the ship’s Piano Player (Graham Putnam) weaves patterns from stuff more abstract than planes, narrating baseball with composer’s names to prevent his mind from mocking its own meat.

Holleman is cannily aware that the island theme is anything but inhabited. Much of the comedy of the play is derived from rubbing up against the recognized cultural script, mentioned outright in metafictional winks at Lord of the Flies and Gilligan’s Island. The taboo topics horribly present in Golding—cannibal-style violence—and horribly absent from Gilligan—any notional framework of sex—are mined for the funniest runs in the play, where the two characters engage in exchanges skirting the forbidden. When the strandees riff on the “personal pink juices” of a London Broil, or target eligible partners from Gilligan (including the title character “in two more weeks”), we’re tickled by the fringe of civilization unravelling. Will they jump on one another, and for satisfactions of dinner or date?

The script (particularly in the first half) does not allot the two characters equal servings, and on a desert island for two, uneven portions never sit entirely well. Always a strong stage presence, Weale is underused by writing that only gives him the spectrum of response of a right-wing radio host: spout banalities about discipline, threaten the onset of chaos, and tell the feelgoodniks to shut up. Repeatedly. There’s the right sense of coiled violence to his performance, but as with most tyrants, the stage loves his character better when the mind starts going to wormsmeat.

The script tosses the Piano Player a bone with far more dramatic meat on it, and Putnam shows the teeth for it. He packs the crawling half-smile and fixed gaze that have served him in over-the-top comic roles, and tempers them for more subtle, but no less intense, story-telling work. His narration of a fabulated news story, regarding a Non-Existentialism project where participants shape the matter of card decks with their minds, is as cool and engrossing as the television it mimics.

Whether we stay or escape, don’t desert islands (scenario A) hold out the raw pleasure of story-telling as one of the few ways we can converse without slander?

Thank you to the Victoria Playhouse for a summer of thought-provoking and courageous theatre, and for telling the kind of stories that let us survive with each other and ourselves, on the Island, for another long year.

 

Events Calendar

September 2018
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Some Upcoming Events

George Canyon tour comes to S’side

November 3
Harbourfront Theatre Canadian country star George Canyon is taking his new album, Southsi [ ... ]

On the Bright Side

Barra MacNeils come to Harbourfront with new album October 5
Harbourfront Theatre  The Barra M [ ... ]

The Bruce Guthro Songwriters Circle

November 3
Delta Prince Edward The Bruce Guthro Songwriters Circle, presenting Maritime legends and  [ ... ]

Recent News & Articles

Drawing the line

Profile: Sandy Carruthers by Jane Ledwell Retired for a year now after twenty-five years teaching  [ ... ]

Filmworks Summerside

Film series is back for 7th season Filmworks Summerside opens for their 7th season on September 12  [ ... ]

An Island wish

On August 23, 4 year old Cooper Coughlin will arrive on Prince Edward Island soil for a once in a li [ ... ]