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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Play's the Thing - Taming of the Shrew presented by Freewill Players

It's July in Edmonton, that means it's time for the Freewill Shakespeare Festival.  Thanks to a ripped canopy at Hawreluk Park, the entertainment has moved to a new, temporary, location and the presentation of a single production but let that not dissuade you from attending, as they serve up an excellently delivered, fun-filled night. This year the performance of Taming of the Shrew is held at the Myer Horowitz Theatre in the University of Alberta Student's Union Building.  Your best bet for parking is in Stadium and they have thoughtfully provided signage to guide you to the theatre around the construction. The company has done their best to retain those familiar things that could be easily transported from the park to this new theatre space - the 50/50 Sellers and FOH staff all looked very familiar.

Although Taming of the Shrew is far from my favorite Shakespeare play, there are so many things that made this a delightful evening of theatre.  First of all, there was a real nod to the members of the company as members of Edmonton's Artistic Community.  These are not just actors on the the stage, but rather people that we enjoy seeing like old friends and true contributors to the overall artistic scene and they have been for a number of years.  Several 'original' company members are on the stage, and in the opening sequence they poke fun at themselves and bring us all into the joke.  A running gag with Julian Arnold is set up and this carries through the show.  We get a sense of both the characters these actors will play as well as hints about what they might be like in their 'real' lives off the stage.  Overall, the tone is light and there are subtle nods to the unusual situation of this season and how hard they are working to ensure that they will not disappoint their audience.  It's a generous feeling and a reminder of where the festival came from and where it's been and where it will return.

When the production gets going it is a real fun ride.  James MacDonald as Petruchio and Mary Hulbert as Kate are well-matched and excellently cast.  They are an attractive couple and both have a strength and charm that makes you root for them as a couple. I loved that each of them seemed to have a journey beyond just the 'taming'. Each starts with a number of questionable qualities but throughout the course of the play, those rough exteriors are chipped away revealing much more likable people. The rest of the cast is equally delightful. Bianca (Bobbi Goddard) and her suitors (Jamie Cavanagh, John Wright and Nathan Cuckow) and their accompanying servants (Sheldon Elter, and Patrick Lundeen) are full of fun in their hi-jinks. It's a testament to the depth of this company to see people who have anchored shows like Lear and Julius Caesar and Midsummer Night's Dream step up to bring their considerable talents to make for a show with no weak links. And although we are not in the park, the production's musical score and streamlined set give it a soft, light feeling that almost make you feel like you were outside on a summer's evening. 

This production moves quickly from laugh to laugh and was a wonderful way to spend an evening.  Don't miss it!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Odysseo - More Magic and Horses with Cavalia!

This past week I got to experience the magic of Cavalia once again, this time with there new show, Odysseo.  I took Gibson this time, as Oliver got to see it last year and Gibson was quite devastated that he missed out.  Gibson and I got the royal treatment as we experienced the VIP experience which included a lavish buffet supper, haagen-dazs ice cream, champagne, popcorn and a dessert buffet at intermission.  It was truly a VIP experience and Gibson was over the moon to get not one, but two, chocolate chunk ice-creams!  At first we could not find seats, but a lovely couple of women invited us to join their table.  The Buffet is aimed more at adults, but there were enough items for Gibson to enjoy (he's crazy for shrimp and hummus) so we both were well looked after. Our seats were fantastic and looking at the floor map, I would recommend the Red to Gold seats for a great view.  Red, Pink and Purple are all VIP seating, but the Gold is not for those of you who just want to see the show.  I looked around though, and although some seats are marked as obstructed view, I can't imagine there is a bad seat in that house.  We were certainly spoiled in the centre, but they do a terrific job playing to the whole house.

The show is wonderful!  It's hard for me not to compare it to Cavalia.  I preferred this show as there was a little more variety to it and the tumbling group from West African added a spark and humour that lifted it even more.  Bear in mind, I really enjoyed Cavalia, it's just hard not to compare! It's a circus, but a very high end circus.  It's amazing what these performers can do, both human and animal.  Sometimes they make it look so easy that it is only afterwards that you realize what they did and how incredibly difficult it was. When the West African Tumblers first come in and all of them do 10-20 backflips in a row across the stage it left me open-mouthed in glee!  Gibson kept turning to me yelling, "This is Awesome! Thank you! Thank you for bringing me!" I am pretty sure the tumblers were his favorite.  I had a few favourite moments: I loved the humour of the tumblers, especially with the addition of the high jumpers (you have to see these contraptions they wear!); I could have watched the Carousel forever, it was so beautiful and awe-inspiring; the hoop work blew me out of the water; speaking of water, well, I don't want to spoil it, but it's pretty incredible.  So many wonderful moments.  Hard to count them all.  The horses are still the stars, but they seem to get a little more of a break this show.  I am still so impressed with what they can do. Such smart, talented animals.

Odysseo runs in Edmonton until August 12th. Prices range from $40-$240 depending on seats and package. There are also lower prices for accompanied children.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Summer Theatre - Walterdale Theatre presents Jennie's Story

Last Friday I took in the final show in Walterdale's 2013/2014 season, Jennie's Story by Betty Lambert, directed by Alex Hawkins.  It tells the story of Jennie McGrane (Heather Brooke), a young married woman in 1938 Alberta who finds herself unable to have children because of a terrible injustice done to her when she was a naive teenager. There is much in the playbill about the reason for how this was allowed to happen, primarily the barbaric Eugenics Laws on the books at the time and the machinations of a trusted Priest (John Trethart) and her mother Edna (Syrell Wilson) who choose to go along with everything. It was a very thought-provoking piece and has stayed with me since.  Although the history of the piece is important in itself, as Lambert was specifically writing about this to draw attention to it, for me it connected strongly to the fact that there are still people and policies determined to control women's reproductive freedom.  A few weeks ago this story about a doctor in Calgary who refuses to prescribe any birth control due to her beliefs enraged me and the recent Hobby Lobby decision in the U.S. further emphasized the main theme of the play - that throughout history people have taken control of women's reproductive health and this is simply wrong and unfair. This is what resonated with me on seeing the play.  From 1938 to 2014, we've come so far...

The show itself is very well done.  Brooke has a real glow onstage and her Jennie moves from a cheerful earnestness to a desperate sadness over her loss.  As her supportive husband Harry, Ryan Beck gives a thoughtful and intelligent performance.  The rest of the cast rises to the challenge of supporting this story. The fifth cast member, Molly Dorval played by Molly MacKinnon is a lovely contrast to Jennie in her journey and characterization. The set, designed by Joan Hawkins, is  picture-perfect, it's pastel colours and clean lines contrasting sharply with all the dirty little secrets. Overall, I liked the script, but there are a few repetitive sections that I thought were unnecessary as well as an occasional strange turn of phrase here or there that didn't quite work for me.

It is, however, a thoughtful night and worth the trip - plus, the theatre is air conditioned, which is quite nice on these hot summer nights! Show runs to July 12th at the Walterdale Playhouse.

Checking out the Edmonton Street Performer's Festival in Winston Churchill Square

One of the very cool benefits for me of working at the Citadel Theatre is that I right next door to Winston Churchill Square.  I knew the Square was busy in the summer, but until I was walking by it on an almost daily basis I didn't quite get the scope of it.  Last week, The Works was in full force and we even had some art in our lobby, and this week (starting last Friday, July 4th) The International Street Performers Festival is in full swing.  I took some time on Friday to walk around and check out the activity and it brought back for me, many memories of previous visits to the Festival.

Years ago (in the late 1980s), when I was in University I had a job just North of Downtown and I had a bus transfer right at Edmonton City Centre.  I would hop off the bus with my lunch, take a walk to the Square and enjoy whatever was going on.  My favorite week was the Street Performers Festival.  Coming from a smaller city I had never seen anything like it before.  I couldn't believe that I was able to see such performers, right there, and all it would cost me was my applause and what I could afford to toss in the hat at the end of the show. I loved watching the kids react and thought it was a fabulous way to introduce children especially to theatre.

The Festival has grown up a lot since those early days, but the spirit at the centre of it remains the same.  It's definitely about bringing unique performance art to everyone.  The price is the same for everyone - whatever you can afford - and that is fabulous!  Now there are Food Trucks and lovely shaded seating areas for those who want to enjoy the atmosphere nearby.  I really like the way they have the space laid out.  The Food trucks have their own lane and you can scoot over for a green onion cake or butter chicken or whatever else suits you and then head back for more performances in the square.  There are face painting stations and a special Kid's section complete with bouncy castles - perfect for the wee ones who might need to stretch their legs after sitting and watching.  On Friday, I took in a bit of two performance circles - varied in what they presented.  One was a trio of dancers who combined exceptional physicality with a brilliant sense of humour. The other was a juggling type of a performer who you could tell was an expert on engaging the audience and making them feel like they were an important part of his performance.

I've been back since the Opening to catch a glimpse here and there at lunch time of the shows on the square and to get a taste of my favorite festival fare! It's been perfect weather and it looks like it's going to hold for an absolutely wonderful week!  Check it out!

A Special Note: For those of you who think that this is a just-for-kids event, I would wager that you would be very impressed by the quality of the acts AND there are special Late Night events on July 11th and 12th at the Stanley Milner Library Theatre hosted by Trevor Schmidt with music by Darrin Hagen.  Tickets are required for this and are available in advance.  This show is specifically for the grown-ups and starts at 11:11 p.m. both nights!