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I Am a Mountain

Sarah Harmer comes to Summerside on tour in support of her new album

by Natalie Pendergast

Sarah Harmer could talk at length about the Platinum-selling success of her sophomore release, 2000’s You Were Here, or that of her 2005 album, Juno Award winner All of Our Names, or even any one of her chart-topping hits. But the down-to-earth chanteuse has her mind and heart focused on more ground-breaking issues. She wants to help stop big gravel companies from digging up Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment, the natural habitat of many endangered species.

For the past year and a half, Harmer has been merging her musical pursuits with promoting awareness about the protection of this delicate terrain. After co-founding the volunteer organization, Protecting Escarpment Rural Land (PERL), she and her band traveled for two weeks on foot along the Escarpment’s Bruce Trail, performing at theatres and concert halls all the way.

“It was an idea that came about because I wanted to stop driving three hours between gigs and only seeing the scenery from the window of a van,” she says over the phone.

Being immersed in nature and unplugged from typical touring chaos, Harmer was able to tap into a simpler side of song-writing. By the end of her trip, she had an album ready in mind, and by November 2005, I am a Mountain was on record store shelves everywhere.

“The songs that I was stock-piling aside were kind of simple in nature,” she explains, “Recording took four days, and we didn’t need too much in the way of equipment to create the sound that was appropriate for the songs.”

The effect produced by this simplicity is Harmer’s most intimate and sentimental sounding album to date. She describes it as creating a “relationship between nature and imagination,” and “telling new versions of old stories in song.” Consistent with her reputation, I am a Mountain’s lyrics are poetic and metaphorical, with personal anecdotes dedicated to loved ones. And in some cases, songs even feature loved ones. Harmer’s father performed with her on tracks “Goin’ Out” and “Oleander.”

“It was really a treat (to work with him). My Dad and I have been singing together and with my sisters forever so this was very enjoyable and I think he got a kick out of it too,” she laughs.

Harmer’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “Will he be Waiting for Me,” fits well on the country and bluegrass-fused album. Although her progression toward this style is slightly different from her early career’s more pop-rock direction, Harmer says the country and bluegrass influence has always been there. “It comes pretty naturally to me as far as the simple harmonies and arrangements; maybe because I grew up going to church and was singing that way as a kid,” she says.

Harmer may have found a balance between the fast-paced life of a mainstream artist and a die-hard nature-lover, but she still gives in to technology every once in a while, “I’m talking to you on a Blackberry right now so it’s only an illusion that I’m free of machines!”

Sarah Harmer and her I am a Mountain band play the Jubilee Theatre in Summerside in September.

A Real Cut-Up

Shear Madness

Review by Natalie Pendergast

First adapted in 1978 by New York duo Abrams and Jordan, the perpetually original script of Shear Madness is meant to reference local and recent trends, pertaining to the politics, gossip, and culture of the town in which it is staged. In the wrong hands, the task of editing such a script to fit local settings could be disastrous. Director Bob Lohrmann, however, has woven PEI into Shear Madness so seamlessly that one would never know of its New York roots.

Set in a pink and yellow schemed, patent leather floral beauty salon, and with characters who are just as cartoon-ish, the stage feels like either Willy Wonka or Andy Warhol has been decorating. Garnished with ’60s to ’80s upbeat pop music, the only indication that we are viewing a contemporary performance is the bright yellow croc’s on Tony Whitcomb’s (Wade Lynch) nimble feet. Barbara MacEachern’s (Andrea Risk) Island name juxtaposes her untraditional electric blue low-lights and cheap nail polish, while Jay T. Schramek and Kevin Sepaul shine as the bookish and macho cops. The youthful setting precedes very clever jokes which are so quick and intimate at times that audience members have to be alert to catch everything. But even if some references or double entendres are missed, there is enough kinesthetic, Chaplin-esque humour to satisfy everyone. The actors poke fun at local celebrities Robert Ghiz and Brad Richards, as well the town of Cornwall and the Charlottetown police.

The play is all fun and laughs until somebody gets murdered; sheared to death. The slaying happens off-set to a character never seen by the audience, but whose piano-playing is heard and complained about by the cast. When the police stake out the salon and narrow the suspects down to the customers and employees of Shear Madness, the play suddenly becomes a whodunit mystery which requires the audience’s memory of Acts I and II. Clues and evidence become subjective and lead to numerous surprises. The audience becomes characters as well: witnesses in the case of who killed Isabel Czerny.

But never does the mystery component of Shear Madness take centre stage. This play is first and forever a comedy. Even during the most climactic parts of the police questioning, almost every line is a punch line: “She took viagra because she thought it helped old pianists perform better,” says Whitcomb at one point.

The cast improvises frequently throughout the play, as was intended by original visionaries Abrams and Jordon, so not only is each season of Shear Madness unique, but each performance and outcome is different. In fact, if I were to reveal the identity of the murderer, it would not matter because the culprit will be different each night.

Shear Madness exposes true Island culture in a way that is so revealing and honest that I almost blushed at the familiarity of the characters and conversations; seeing oneself in such exaggerated and ridiculous people is humbling and touching.

Two's A Crowd

Oscar and Felix

Review by Natalie Pendergast

Oscar and Felix have nothing in common except each other. In this play, not so much about an odd couple as it is about a true friendship, there lies a subtle message that committed relationships don’t exist only in marriages.

The play begins on the beautiful Victoria Playhouse stage, presently adorned with the simple decor of the living and dining rooms of a nice New York flat. A group of bachelors are playing poker and subjecting themselves to Oscar’s (Bill McFadden) wisecracks. The married member of the group, Felix, is late for the game because he was kicked out by his wife. When he finally shows up, the men’s first assumption is that he is suicidal, because the feat of expressing one’s sorrow any other way is of course worse than death.

Luckily, they figure out a more reasonable solution to Felix’s problem and decide he will room with Oscar until he finds a place of his own. It is at this point that the play reaches its peak in entertainment. For the rest of the performance, the story rolls along until its anticlimactic conclusion.

Eskine Smith is perfect as a hypochondriac Felix whose voice effectively cracks and sea-saws with emotional expression, and McFadden is a natural Oscar with a Rodney Dangerfield stand-up quality that makes the play feel very New York-appropriate. But some of the other acting suffers.

What could have been a very humourous and charming scene between two Spanish sisters and Oscar and Felix turns out to feel just as awkward for the audience as it does for the characters. Furthermore, the girls’ accents are not as polished as they could be and at times sound more Slavic and throaty than Spanish and exotic.

But the first half of the play is where the bulk of the Oscar and Felix banter takes place, where more important than the word play is the dynamic between actors McFadden and Smith. Neil Simon’s writing comes alive during these scenes when Oscar and Felix compliment and clash each other wonderfully in most harmonious arguments. Like a Beethoven symphony in which the brass call and the strings answer, Oscar and Felix keep up a rhythmic dialogue that puts musical duets to shame. And the chemistry between McFadden and Smith bring the realness of their sticky roommate situation right into our laps. Each of the audience members can relate to both men, on the one hand feeling annoyed at high strung, obsessive neat freak types, and on the other, being the high strung, obsessive neat freak types.

Although the writing and acting seem promising, after intermission the remaining half is underwhelming. The couple continue to get on each others’ nerves until finally—surprise!—Oscar kicks Felix out after they both supposedly reach their boiling points. But their anger is never very convincing, because they maintain the same emotional expression throughout the entire play, it is an emotion that is well expressed, but static just the same.

Oscar and Felix decide their friendship is worth too much to let it fall apart so they have a twenty-odd second conversation and patch up. They decide to continue being different and to always be there for each other: a resolution that both agree is much simpler than divorce.

The Neil Simon updated classic Oscar & Felix is still timeless and well-written. And thanks to McFadden and Smith, the Victoria Playhouse does it justice.

Bridging Familial Gaps

Marion Bridge

Review by Natalie Pendergast

Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge is first a character study, second a drama. It is not the events of this play that evolve, climax and entice, but rather the three sisters themselves. They are the events. They are the story.

Fifty-something Theresa, played by Melissa Mullen, is a devout nun, farmer, and the apparent rock of the family. When she is not tending to her dying mother’s needs or resolving conflicts, she is knitting, reading and doing chores. But her quiet control is disrupted upon the arrival of her sassy, unapologetic sister, played by Kathleen Hamilton.

Agnes‚ red lipstick, wild hair and thong heels give her the appearance of an animal out of her urban element. Colourfully contrasting the background of a grey afghan with a crucifix pattern, she has come home from Toronto minus her Cape Breton accent. She opens first scene by recalling a dream in which she is drowning in the ocean, pausing every few sentences to take a swig from her flask. With this move, director Laurel Smyth artfully hints to the audience that there might be something else in which she is drowning.

Flippantly denying she has a drinking problem, Agnes sees more cause for worry in their youngest sister’s lazy and reclusive lifestyle. But although the “strange” and simple Louise does not express emotion or even thoughts very well, she eventually reveals that, like her sisters, she too is complex. Craftily portrayed by Christina Forgeron, Louise surprises the audience with a poignant line: “We are all strange, some of us just hide it better than others.”

Although Marion Bridge is about three very different sisters united by the failing health of their mother, her eventual death is secondary to the growth and love of the characters‚ relationships. With each of their layered personalities, the play’s epiphany is when the sisters realize that despite their feuds, they are together not only because their mother needs them, but because they need each other. It is only with the help and support of the other two can they each begin to resolve their issues. And when they do, when they shed their egos, they are finally able to accept each other.

Smyth does a wonderful job of staging this play. The minimal props and desolate kitchen table force audience members to focus their attention on the characters‚ monologues and dialogue rather than the physical setting. With their charming accents and Caper expressions, they incarnate their rural Nova Scotian home, inviting viewers in warmly. Like the women’s personification of Cape Breton, the play’s final scene shows how Marion Bridge is more like a person than a place; with all of its character and emotion.

Beyond the Bridge theatre collective has brought a Cape Breton play to PEI, but just as successfully as it portrays rural Nova Scotia life, so does it possess a timeless, worldly quality. Sibling relationships, death, growth and acceptance are universal themes; themes that we can all relate to; themes that help this show to transcend genre. Where a regular drama captures a crowd for the length of its production, Marion Bridge captures a crowd’s hearts and thoughts for days afterward.

Not So Odd Couple

Scott Burke directs MacFadden and Smith as Oscar and Felix

by Natalie Pendergast

Erskine Smith, Jenna MacMillan, Gill Mahen, Bill MacFadden, with director Scott Burke (below)The Victoria Playhouse opens its 25th summer season with Neil Simon’s legendary comedy The Odd Couple, now an updated version entitled Oscar & Felix. Although the pairing of Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar may be odd, the union of acting duo Bill McFadden and Erskine Smith is a perfect match. Fifteen years ago, McFadden and Smith starred in the same roles in the Playhouse’s original production of Simon’s classic, and their performance was met with so much success that they have decided to repeat history. “They wanted to reunite Erskine and Bill and revisit a big hit production,” says director Scott Burke.

Though The Odd Couple has always filled seats, the version set to hit the stage this summer has been tweaked a bit. “It is set today,” says Burke. “Back in 1965 divorce was a little less prevalent than it is today.” Simon has also changed the ethnicity of the women with whom Oscar and Felix go on their famous date, a switch that adds even more room for humour. “In the original play they were English girls, the Pigeon sisters, and in this version they are Spanish girls, they’re the Costazuela sisters,” explains Burke, “So that gives a lot of opportunity for mixing up of languages and translating from English to Spanish. It’s really a great source of comedy in the second act.”

What remains unchanged in the script are the qualities that make this production a timeless hit: excellent writing, and real sentimentality sans corny clichés. For Burke, the quality of Simon’s vision made the play an attractive directorial opportunity. “We kind of take [Neil Simon] for grated. He gets maligned a lot I think,” He says, “But he’s really actually a brilliant, brilliant writer. This original play really chronicled an important time in American history about men growing up. Their wives have thrown them out and they have to figure out why they were thrown out and how they can grow up and be better people. And I think that actually speaks of something about America; some things that haven’t actually changed and some things that have changed, but it really speaks about something much bigger than fun and games with two divorced guys.”

As delighted as he is to direct Oscar and Felix, Burke is equally pleased with his cast. Having first met Smith in 1998 when he directed Scavengers at the Victoria Playhouse, he has always kept in touch. When Smith suggested McFadden for the role of Oscar, Burke agreed he was the one. What makes the play such a pleasure to direct, says Burke, is the ease with which Smith falls into his character’s shoes. “He’s one of the big draws to the theatre here. People come to see Erskine!” Says Burke, “[With] recognizable characters, great laughs, I think it’s a good chance for the Victoria Playhouse to celebrate its past and present.”

Shows run from June 22 to July 22 at the Victoria Playhouse, Victoria, PEI.

All Aboard

Departures and Arrivals

Review by Natalie Pendergast

Arrivals and Departures is much more than a study about everyday airport drama. Canadian author Carol Shields' first play is also flavoured with comedy, romance, and charm. It's production by Little Voices at Georgetown's King's Playhouse is directed by Luis Gondeslen with actors Joseph Marmo, Haley Batchilder, Ashley Condon, Kyle MacMillan, and Graham Thompson.

The comforting setting of the Playhouse is soon forgotten as the first scene transports the audience to Montreal's Dorval Airport, with travellers rushing and lugging. The pace of the airport is established with jumping lights coming from behind and jazzy beats of a drum from in front of the stage. The static-riddled voice on the intercom receives groans of recognition. Every person in the room is reminded of the excitement and stress of travelling.

Departures and Arrivals inspects of the specific conversations, events, and conflicts of various passengers including the activist, the hippy, the middle-aged wives, the business men, the sports team, the high school jock, the British and French personalities, the movie director, the sexually undefined, the philosopher, the quiet observer whose thoughts are not so quiet, and the airport custodian-to name some. By themselves they are intriguing enough, but together their different and often clashing perspectives on issues satisfy the audience on a higher level.

The cast of Departures and Arrivals, a team of six, is able to captivate the audience with the play's wide array of personalities. They could not know their characters better if they had lived in the Montreal airport. But just as important, they have fun doing it-a fact not lost on the audience who found the fun contagious.

Events Calendar

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