Get Thee to Nunsense Funsense!

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This being my first visit to Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre, I must admit that I like the theatre very much. The seats are comfortable with good sightlines because even from the very edge of a row near the front, I had a clear view of the stage. The wings were well-masked and the sets were well-built with excellent and sufficient detail. I just wondered about the sort of vow of poverty the Little Sisters of Hoboken that they could have such a glamorous bed and frilly window dressing, not to mention the huge plush toy and plush bedroom slippers and robe owned by novice Sister Mary Leo. That is my one little quibble for the night, besides the couple of times a costume piece latched onto a mike. Everything else makes me want to just see the play again.

The musical accompaniment was provided by the Musical Director Leo Marchison a.k.a. Brother Leo, complete in clerical black with a signature white clerical collar on an electronic keyboard, which went well with the Little Sisters of Hoboken Benefit Show setting. Brother Leo certainly provided a rousing overture that set the audience in the mood for what promised to be interesting, to say the least.

I knew from a couple of times the play had been performed back in Manila that it was a riot, and all the more fun because the play poked a whole lot of fun at Roman Catholics and made several references to common RC practices. Dan Goggin’s script, on its own, is extremely funny especially if you are Catholic. Even if you aren’t, there is just so much witty repartee and banter, not to mention the completely hilarious if not absurd situation of a group of nuns who have to raise funds to bury four deceased congregation members who have been temporarily housed in the convent freezer until the nuns have enough money for the burials. What is new is the incorporation of a multimedia presentation with the nuns watching themselves in a silent-movie video “Nun on the Run.” This mini-feature is a unique, creative and certainly shameless but hilarious way to promote the city Summerside. A couple of localized jokes were especially funny and I thought the recipe for Stuffed Turkey Steven Harper very clever and pretty apt. The cast also interacted with the audience, making the play’s audience the audience of the play’s Benefit Show. Audience participation was rewarded as well, which added to the novelty of theatre.

Not unexpectedly, the five nuns who are selected to participate in the show all have the human frailty of wanting to be a star, having come from backgrounds where they had a taste of the spotlights. The nuns are led by the energetic Sister Mary Regina, played by Robin Craig, who does her best to be a role model, mother and mediator among the sisters. Regina has a performing background, having been one of a family of tightrope artists and who, through a fluke of fate, has to fulfill a promise to dedicate herself to religious life. From the start, Regina/Robin has the audience in stitches. She was at her most hilarious in the scene where she investigates a sniffing bottle and gets high, but her best number, by far, is when she gets into full throttle in the throaty jazzy Turn Up the Spotlight. The growling gets better when she sings in harmony with her No. 2, the Novice Mistress Sister Mary Hubert, played by Marlene Handrahan. Marlene shows off her tap-dancing skill as well as her powerful voice in a couple of numbers, and delivers the grand finale with a parody of a roof-raising singing Baptist preacher.

Brieonna Locche as Sister Robert Anne has the Brooklyn accent and swagger to go with her streetwise ways as she constantly tries to get into the limelight and finally does it with a smashingly hilarioius number. I remember a nun I used to know who also played with her veil but never in as many creative ways as Robert! Sister Mary Leo was the novice who hadn’t quite learned to suppress her desire to be a star or to be famous, but remains an expressive dancer, using ballet to express herself, including in prayer. Natalia Gracious is a skilled ballet dancer who, with her beautiful clear voice fits the role of Mary Leo perfectly. Her solo, “The Dying Nun Ballet” is a hilarious parody of “The Dying Swan.”

A great deal of the story hinges on Sister Mary Amnesia’s inability to remember who she was before she lost her memory from being knocked on the head by a crucifix. Natalia Sullivan, with her amazing soprano, plays Amnesia with a sweetness and innocence befitting a mindless nun who, nonetheless, is a great ventriloquist as well!

The music was wonderful, the singing was almost sublime—and I use almost because sublime is not exactly the word to use with the throaty belting and growling in the jazzy numbers—certainly accomplished, the acting was superb, the story absurd and the script hilarious. What more can you want of a comedy?

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Dance Umbrella’s Thirst for Life: Beauty and the Vampire

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I was expecting a dance concert, after all, it was a Dance Umbrella production. The simple but informative programme told me right at the start that it would be a play, and a musical one to boot! What luck! I just love musicals. Then I read the synopsis and said to myself, “Oh no. Not vampires again.” Believe me, I do not watch the vampire series or movies. My vampires began with Bram Stoker and ended with Anne Rice, the glut of vampire literature, television shows, and series notwithstanding. Did they have to bring it to the stage too? But we try to keep an open mind, eh?

So at seven-thirtyish, choreographer Morgan Wagner walked out onto the stage to formally announce the beginning of the play, in which she played the dual roles of the rather sedate Auntie Belle and totally dizzy Lizzy.

I must admit that despite my trepidation over the current vampire genre extending to the stage, I was drawn in by the music. Louisiana is a great place for music and, in keeping with the blue bayou tradition, the play delivered where music was concerned. Even the singing of the Ensemble was pretty good, I’ll admit. The voices blended well, there was vocal energy and character in the chorus numbers, and the lyrics were appropriate.

And then it hit me. It was a teen vampire play. Of course. And most of the players were pretty much teens, or looked it. Well, I recognized a couple of familiar faces in the cast and I do know for a fact that they are teens. So the audience was quite naturally made up of family, parents and friends of the performers. Fair enough. They were a really appreciative audience though, and they did laugh in all the right places. But that’s because the book was well written. It was witty with some really quick dialogue and snappy exchanges that the cast executed really well. After all, timing is of the essence in comedy. And indeed, there was comedy.

But really, it was a love story. In vampire land. Vampire boy falls in love with normal girl who falls in love with normal boy who’s cursed to become a vampire when he does fall in love. Rival boys fight and fledgling vampire is near death and the only thing that can save him is a true love’s kiss. Sigh. Trite. But the dialogue had its moments, especially with the Ripper-Drucilla-Lizzy tandem and Mayor and the Town Council quartet.

The choreography suited the play. Nothing out of the box, no big surprises. Just good old fashioned standard musical theatre choreography. The execution was another thing, though, as the ensemble repeatedly showed that they were amateurs at it. Granted there were stand-outs who sang and danced with all their heart and all their energy, when one, two or three people in the chorus don’t know their choreography and miss a beat, you see it. When arms and legs aren’t all at the same level, you see it. When bodies are lax and lack tension, you see it. It’s not the coordination that stands out. It’s the uncoordinated ones that stand out. As dancers, the ensemble have a thing or two to learn about sustaining energy levels, watching the other dancers to match levels and movements, and dance as a single entity rather than several individual stars. After all, they weren’t doing solo numbers. That said, I must say, the fight sequences were nicely done and pretty well executed.

Kudos to the leads. While they weren’t Broadway material, they have the potential. Special mention goes to Veruca, played by Melissa MacKenzie. She has a beautiful voice and internalized her character well, but lost control of her voice in the very crucial duet (Your Light Within) with Eryck in Act 2. She’ll also need to practice looking at a boy with love in her eyes. Dalton MacKenzie as Eryck wasn’t too bad and he got better towards the middle and even better in Act 2. You could see his confidence building up as the play went on, and with the proper training, he’ll be a regular on musical theatre stages.

Jacob Hemphill’s Bobby John was quite a strong character from the beginning and it was something he maintained throughout the play. While his projection was weak in the lower registers, he really shone when he was belting out, and the development of his character was evident in his portrayal. His “Child of the Night” and “Kill the Fanger” were memorable.

Ripper/Rupert played by Tristan Lewis was a perfect foil to Bobby John. Along with his sidekicks Drucilla (Emma Zinck) and Lizzy (Morgan Wagner), he commanded the stage when he entered in character. In the ensemble, however, he clearly did not know his choreography by heart.

Alex Durant was vivacious and outstanding in the ensemble, but totally bland as Felicia. The Mayor, played by Lindsay Gillis, had some really great musical and dance numbers, and the character was consistent throughout, except that I got the feeling that she sometimes didn’t know what to do with her hands. The movements often came out quite artificial, though her firm movements were certainly better than Jolie’s overall limpness. Gesturing with your hands half-closed just isn’t gesturing, and the kill scene seemed more like an accident than a deliberate attack. She might as well have been holding a hairbrush. She was highly conscious of the audience, frequently sneaking peeks at them that it ruined the illusion.

The Mayor’s three stooges were just that, and they played their role well. No lack of energy there, except that Lucy occasionally dropped out of character and she and Bartles were clearly not dancers.

One of the aspects of theatre that make a performance really good is the blocking. Being conscious of positioning on stage, audience sight lines and the blocking of other characters is second nature to seasoned performers. There were just way too many scenes with duck rows in them, I wished I had a paintball gun in my hands.

The lighting was well done, again no bells and whistles except for the “Kill the Fanger” number, which totally stood out. The microphone levels were just right, except when the characters raised their voices or sang in high registers. Then the feedback was annoying to say the least, but at least not totally disturbing or uncontrolled. What really broke the momentum and the mood, however, was the awkward gap when the music went dead between the end of Act 2 and the Epilogue. That really threw everyone off.

Still and all, if I weren’t reviewing this performance and because I do love a musical, in the end I’d say I did have a good time!

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Come-All-Ye for the Time of Your Life!

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On its second year run, Come-All-Ye opened to a full house at The Mackenzie Theatre, better known as simply The MackCome-All-Ye brings together a stellar cast of five musicians and one comedian for an evening of live island music and, yes, comedy. The show runs for two full hours, possibly a bit more, since I got home really late and I’m sure I didn’t spend an hour and a half chatting with fellow-reviewer Michelle Pineau or Patrick Ledwell, the show’s sole comedian and co-creator or Acadienne singer Caroline Bernard. If I did, I certainly didn’t notice time fly, and fly it does when you’re having fun! What made the evening more entertaining was that Michelle and I were fortunate enough to be seated at the same table as the legendary veteran music radio host Eric MacEwen (the Director’s Notes misspelled it “MacEwan”) who was featured in videos presented during the show. Come-All-Ye is a multimedia show about PEI and its denizens, told through music, songs and witticisms, backed with photographs, slides and video clips that help the imagination and the mood. Except for the first time John Connolly and Patrick Ledwell used the center mike solo and the pickup was somewhat spotty—more likely because they were too tall for the mike’s position, which was rectified by the next number—the show was technically flawless. I just miss the presence of footlights or at least sidelights that would lessen the shadows on performers’ faces—which is what footlights are for.

Besides the music being an excellent representation of island music, the singers were top-of-the-line professional performers—stars in their own rights who, nonetheless, worked marvellously well together. I completely agree with Director Wade Lynch that there is so much talent on the island and to see it put together so magically is always a treat. Kudos to Music Director and performer John Connolly, who wove together a program of well-chosen songs with the right mix and mood that kept the audience clapping and stomping and singing along alternately with swaying and quietly listening to more introspective numbers.

And then there was Patrick. Most of my encounters with Patrick are of a more serious nature, although he manages to slip in some humour here and there, mostly tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw him “at work” was when he emceed a mixer for Culture PEI. I thought he was quite the funny man there and his accompanying slides helped to emphasize the humour. This show was the first chance I had to catch him in full glory and all revved up in performance mode, bounding up the stage on his daddy-long-legs and keeping the audience charged and rolling with laughter after every two or three songs in the program. I guess the best thing about being a comedian is that you don’t really have to act and be someone else you really aren’t, and that’s just what Patrick was on stage—completely himself and at home, well, I’d say ninety-eight percent at home on stage—and only because he once in a while tripped over his own tongue or almost said something he didn’t mean to say, or seemed to be trying to recall a thing or two. Still, it was all very natural and very endearing as well as entertaining. Since he was also plugging his new book I Am An Islander, I’ll help him along and say that if the jokes in the book are as funny as the jokes he told in the show, I’m definitely buying that book and hoping he’ll sign it for me someday.

Kidding aside, Patrick Ledwell’s spiels explored various aspects of PEI, from history to geography, Charlottetown, the Acadian influence, the pros and cons of living on PEI, the Confederation Bridge and all the peculiarities of the typical islander, along with the unavoidable gibe at government. But only, in his words, “about what I know.” His penultimate spiel was a recitation of the poem “John of the Island” by his poet father Frank Ledwell, which pretty much summarized what PEI is all about. Without doubt, Come-All-Ye is the best and most entertaining way to learn as much as possible about this gentle island and its islanders. It is music and humour that will be appreciated by everyone, whether you are from here or away, as islanders would say. To quote my new friend Eric MacEwen, “it was a beautifully inventive celebratory show.” And to that, with a little intake of breath, I say “Amen!”

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Canada in Love: In Love with Canadian Song

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While it might have been a little late for Valentine’s Day, Canada in Love was not a moment too late to experience as the appeal of love songs never fades. After all, who doesn’t love a love song? Whether you’re love struck or lovelorn, bursting at the heart or broken hearted, in love with your country or just in love with love, there is a love song somewhere out there for you. And so Canada in Love made its way to The Guild theatre in Charlottetown for its final performance after a gruelling 38 performances in a 5-week tour of PEI, bringing love and laughter to the many island seniors who would otherwise not have had a chance to see the show. That was, after all, the purpose of the production team of Young at Heart Musical Theatre for Seniors.

I’ll have to admit that prior knowledge had me somewhat confused. I’d read that it was a performance of several songs Canadian, so I had come to the conclusion that it was a concert of some sort. Then the programme said it was a musical by Young at Heart Musical Theatre for Seniors, so I decided it must be a musical play, in which case I was delighted. Then I saw the song list and again had my doubts as to the play-fulness of this musical. So my curiosity peaked, but I imagined it would be a completely unique and challenging script to use all the songs on the list, assuming it was a full-length play with a running time of at least 180 minutes.. Then director and choreographer Catherine O’Brien announced that it would run for just a little less than an hour. I tell you, my mind was like a 78 playing at the speed of a 45—or would it be the other way around? Anyway, I had decided that you couldn’t really have a play with all those songs in less than an hour.

So I focused on the backdrop and scenery, which was a colorful screen that I initially thought was randomly designed with little hearts thrown here and there. After staring at it for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out its significance, being abstract and all, I realized it was a multi-colored map of Canada and the hearts were the provincial capitals! That was charming and quaint. And of course the wing screen on one side was a row of colourful houses along a shore, much like you would see on any eastern shore in the Maritimes. On the other wing screen was rolling plains and fields of whatever-you-will. This being the electronic age, of course the piano was an electronic keyboard with a mock-up lamp promising a bit of romance, of course, and live accompaniment.

Going down the list of songs, I have to confess that I didn’t recognize several of the particularly Canadian titles and so prayed that my initiation to authentic all-Canadian music would be a happy one. At least the familiar songs spelt out c-o-u-n-t-r-y and f-o-l-k music. I’m pretty partial to country and folk music after all, and Anne Murray and Paul Anka songs on the list were a reassurance.

After a 10-minute introduction and sponsorship-drumming by Catherine O’Brien, the show began. I was happy to see April Cook again, after seeing her in The Sound of Music. That she has a beautiful voice is no question, but the quality of the performance and the theatre makes a huge difference! In The Guild, April’s voice could be heard in all its power and all its nuances, the songs requiring quite a vocal range, and if there’s one thing April is good at, it’s belting out those high notes. Just perfect for a musical theatre soprano. Kevin Morris’s clear and powerful voice matched hers just wonderfully, doing vocal gymnastics from crooning to yodeling as the songs required.

So it wasn’t just a concert. But it wasn’t a play either. Clearly, this was a musical revue with very clever dialogue running along the theme of Canadian lovebirds across the nation. The script was clever and funny and so very tongue-in-cheek—which made it funnier. A voice-over narration sounded just like the narrator in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, with constant exhortations to “please contact the Canadian Wildlife Federation for more information on the Canadian lovebird.”

I’ll have to say there wasn’t a dull moment in whole 50-some minutes of their whole performance—not once in the music, dialogue, singing or dancing, which is a whole lot to say for a solid 50 minute show. Every moment was funny or lively or exhilarating or whimsical with a lot of campy humour and music playing all throughout. Sean Ferris certainly did an amazing job at the piano and he’s a wonderful accompanier—you could tell he was looking out for the actors and not just playing on ahead by himself. With him at the piano, even I would be confident singing out there with the rest.

April and Kevin switched characters on and off as quickly and as clearly as changing hats—which they actually did with the authentic and famous Canadian hat dance—and when one of the hats flew down to the audience, they managed to get it back with witty ad-lib by Kevin “after 38 shows…” all without skipping a beat. I just wonder if that was actually planned or if it truly was an accident. While each performer was excellent and their duets were in perfect harmony, they were no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and after 38 shows, they couldn’t raise their batons at the same level or keep them aligned somewhere near the start. That didn’t stop me, though, from expecting them to break out into a step-dance or tap-dance number during the piano interludes. Such was the vivacity and energy they exuded.

In the end, they summarized the top ten things Canadians love and I will quote: Tim Horton’s, the Canadian Rockies, Healthcare, fresh water, freedom, multiculturalism, the changing seasons, the Canadian landscape, the Canadian character and home. Their one addendum was hockey for the rousting grand finale, The Hockey Song.

My one addendum to the list of things that Canadians love: music!

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ALBERT NOBBS: What does it mean to be a woman in Victorian Ireland?

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I enjoy watching movies, mostly because of the sheer entertainment I get out of them, which is what, I suspect, why most people watch movies. I have to confess a partiality to Zip! Zap! Zoom! movies with lots of action or lots of mystery or both. I won’t watch movies that are violent for the sake of violence, so you’ll never see a review of the Saw movies nor will you hear about Freddy Kruger and his ilk. Many times, I will or won’t watch a movie because of the cast. You just know that movies with certain actors or actresses in them will be good. One such actor—or actress, in this case—that I would watch is Glenn Close, who is up there on my list with Meryl Streep. Ms. Close seems to like to take on roles with a special challenge in them, roles that push the envelope, in a manner of speaking.

As the character Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close has, once again, challenged our ideas of what is usual. She plays a woman who has chosen to pretend to be a man just so she can get a job that helps her survive through an economically depressed Ireland during the Victorian Era. She has kept up the pretense for nearly 40 years so that everyone believes she is a man. Albert’s one driving ambition is to eventually open his own tobacconist shop and saves every farthing he makes from tips and hides his money under a floor board in his room. He believes he is content with his life and seeks nothing more until he meets the painter Hubert Page, who turns out to be another woman like him. Befriending Hubert, he finds that Hubert has a wife who is a milliner, and they live together in a cozy home where the wife keeps shop. Albert now dreams of having a wife as well, who will share his dreams, and sets his sights on the pretty Helen Dawes. Helen, however, is a bit of a flirt and has set her sights on Joe Macken, who plots to convince Albert to fund his desire to migrate to America and uses Helen to get at Albert’s money. Before long, Helen finds herself pregnant and Albert is desperate because he has also promised Helen he will take care of her but doesn’t really want the burden of a wife and child. Meanwhile, Hubert loses his wife to typhoid fever, which nearly takes Albert as well. When Albert finds that Hubert is alone, he proposes a partnership, not realizing that Hubert was truly in love with his wife. This realization pushes Albert to reassess his feelings and he realizes that he now dreams of Helen as his wife and takes more active steps to assure there that he will care for and love her and her child, convincing her that Joe has no intentions of bringing her to America with him. When confronted, Joe becomes violent and Albert is fatally hurt in the process. As fate would have it, Helen meets Hubert again and tells him of her plight. Hubert sees this as a way of both helping Albert achieve his dream and rebuilding his own family life.

Insofar as acting is concerned, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, who plays Hubert Page, are perfectly convincing in their roles. You know, in the back of your mind, that they are women, yet you see them as men in the story and sympathize with them as men. Or is it that you empathize with them because they are women and you understand that? The characters are solid, well-developed characters that gave us an excellent picture of the working class in Victorian Ireland. The sets and costumes were impeccable. Overall, an outstanding film production.

What makes this stand out more is the brilliance of the story. Not many movies make you think…and this one made me think for several days before I could even begin to write anything about it. I think that is the mark of a brilliant script. The story makes us ask questions: What was life really like for the working class in Ireland? This is a class that is rarely represented. We are familiar with the problems farmers had as well as the general poor. We are familiar with the upper crust, but we hear very little about the working class—people in service industries. Did women really have to disguise themselves as men just to find or keep certain jobs? What was it like for transgender people? What sort of lives did they live? Did having to pretend to be men eventually change the women so that they eventually thought and felt like men? Or is it a latent homosexuality that is only brought out by extreme and extenuating circumstances?

What is probably more significant is that the movie comes at a time when same sex marriages are once again at the forefront of moral and social issues. Recent actions by religious groups have us thinking about individual rights and freedom. The movie shows us that same sex marriages can work and that they are no less human than heterosexual marriages. Beyond that, the movie makes us ask if such relationships should be ostracized or, worse, condemned. In situations where heterosexual relationships fail, is it not possible that a same sex relationship might actually succeed? Moreover, how much more different—or difficult—is it for women than it is for men?

That the movie has come out at this time is timely. That is has come out at all is revolutionary. It will definitely make us question gender roles and relationships and perhaps look at a new order of things.

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A Portable Shakespeare: Vagabond Productions’ The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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The doors to Room 303 of the Murphy Community Centre opened promptly at 7:00 p.m. with tickets priced at $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children, which is an amazing bargain for a Shakespearian production, granted it would be good. That rock music played in the interim did not sit very well with me, although a former technical theatre/production design class of mine did stage a Goth production of Hamlet, complete with electric guitars and yes, rock music. At least this group didn’t have the speakers for outdoor rock concerts in a small room. There were barely 100 seats arranged around an empty 10’ x 10’ square space in the center of the room, the seats no more than 3 deep, and the corners wide open.

Ah, theatre in the round. I personally like the intimacy of small theatre spaces as they naturally draw the audience into the play and, I suppose, there’s nothing like the intimacy of arena theatre to involve the audience in a play by Shakespeare. It was an eclectic audience for sure, a good number looking like parents and university professors and the rest being university students and, certainly, family members and friends.

Without so much as a by-your-leave or a dimming of the lights, Lucentio made a smashing entrance, followed by the glib Tranio. It was a brilliant use of doors as entrances and exits, with characters roaming about the room, around the audience and in the central space. They certainly took command of the available space, although the audience was hard pressed to follow some of the movement, especially if it was happening behind them. Still, it was an engaging way to keep the audience awake and involved, considering the language of Shakespeare can sound completely stilted to the untrained ear. Anent to that, the scene changes were seamless as characters entered from one door while others exited through another and it was their voices that drew the audience to turn to see them, much as one actually would turn toward new voices in a three-dimensional real world. The fourth wall was certainly there, and then again it was not. The overall effect was that the audience was more like ghosts within a world of another dimension, silently watching events as they unfolded, sitting in the midst of everything, yet not really being part of it all. In a way, it was surreal and I liked it.

The effect of using the normal lighting of the space with no sets save some empty seats in the audience that were used by the characters in character was effective in making the audience part of every scene. It was most unlike any other Shakespearean production I have witnessed, where minimalism was used to maximise the impact of Shakespeare’s spoken verse, edited as it was. Yet, it was that same minimalism that cut out lines and scenes from the original play that would have caused the play to drag on, although I think the value of a new gown for Kate was lost because we never saw her dragging her wedding dress through the mud and having to wear it day in and day out.

I have to mention that this performance was physical theatre—nay, physical comedy—in a way that Shakespeare must have somehow meant it to be. Bawdy, rowdy, loud and earthy, sans the fancy ways of upper society that transformed Shakespeare’s plays into two-dimensional worlds of unutterable language and twisted speech viewed by powdered wigs in fancy dress from balconies untouched by the riffraff in the orchestra. The amount of unpretentious hitting, dragging, bumping, running, struggling, wrestling and touching between characters was completely unprecedented. But there was no way they could not do it, the audience being in their midst, after all.

To add to the minimalist staging, the actors wore contemporary clothing with token costuming and accessories to accentuate the character or the occasion. Not that it was a problem. The delivery of lines and consistent internalization of character completely overshadowed that fact that the dress did not the language match. And yet, because the action and the actors are so close to the audience, the way they relate to each other as characters has to be convincing, and Hortensio in disguise looked not in others’ eyes, whereas all the other characters maintained eye contact with each other or with the audience.

Besides the fact that one actor could properly pronounce the Italian “Signor” but another could not say “Signora,” Mantua should sound more like Padua than Manchew-a, and Hortensio’s widow should speak a bit louder so that even the audience behind her can hear what she is saying, the deliveries were clear, precise and rhythmic. Someone might have forgotten a line a spent a couple of extra seconds getting it out, but no harm done. What did harm the illusion was someone’s cellphone going off somewhere in the last act.

So yes, I will admit that, once again, I was entertained, and thoroughly. I am the bard’s number one fan, and this rendering hasn’t changed my mind at all about his genius, but it’s genius as well to pull it off without boring the audience. It’s a wonderful play to bring on the road as it’s perfectly portable, extremely affordable and will charm even non-believers. I hope every performance is at least as captivating as this one!

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Anne & Gilbert: Island Through and Through

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“You’re never safe from surprises till you’re dead” is what Rachel Lynde always reminds Marilla. It’s perfect advice for the first-timer to a performance of Anne & Gilbert The Musical, running at The Guild until October.

As I do every time, I entered The Guild with no expectations and a lot of questions in my head, all wondering how this play would connect with my experiences watching Anne of Green Gables The Musical. I have been to The Guild several times and from the moment I learned that Anne & Gilbert would be staged there, I was thinking that the small stage and narrow hall would constrict the performers and box in the performance too much. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the black box had been completely transformed. The whole orientation was shifted 90 degrees so that the performance space included the whole length of the theatre, as did the audience space, which was transformed by several risers providing every row of the audience with perfect sight lines. Already, I was pleased.

Soon enough, the play began with the lively opening number of Avonlea schoolgirls in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Blythe” led by Brieonna Locche as Josie Pye. This song establishes the fact that Gilbert Blythe is the most sought after bachelor in town and Josie is out to make sure he becomes hers despite his known love for Anne. Margot Sampson’s portrayal of Rachel Lynde is livelier, wackier, and more endearing than the same character in Anne of Green Gables The Musical, albeit somewhat sedate in her first number “Gilbert Loves Anne of Green Gables.” Carroll Godsman’s Marilla Cuthbert still bustles around but her role as Anne’s adoptive mother has become stronger and more assertive. Ironically, it is through a letter to Anne at College that she reveals a depth of love for a former beau, which begins Anne’s journey to accepting her feelings of love. PEI’s most beloved character Anne Shirley, portrayed beautifully by Ellen Denny, is only slightly more restrained as a young adult, but still passionate and dramatic. Ellen Denny’s sweet, clear soprano voice reveals itself little by little and is at its best in her solos, my favourite being “Someone Handed Me the Moon.” Her best friend, Diana Barry, is played wonderfully by Brittany Banks, and shares Anne’s trepidation for married life. Unlike Anne, however, Diana is more excited, as she already has a beau and eagerly plunges ahead into marriage, while Anne continues holding Gilbert at bay, denying that she has any feelings for him. Patrick Cook is the perfect Gilbert, somewhat cocky, but utterly devoted to Anne, and certainly the best-looking guy in town. With his voice and looks, he most certainly will find not only all of Avonlea’s schoolgirls, but all of Charlottetown’s, hankering after him.

In the same way she instantly befriends kindred spirits, Anne befriends the wealthy Philippa Gordon, played by Morgan Wagner, whose bubbly but ever-pragmatic personality dominates the stage so that the fiery red-head seems quite sedate by comparison.

The projected backdrops were amazing, the proximity to the audience making one feel part of the scene, especially at the end of Act I. The sets were completely manageable and the execution of scene changes was disciplined and efficient. The costumes were reminiscent of the times. The music original, varied, and covering every range of emotions felt by the characters. The lighting was spot-on although I wonder if the space restricted back lighting and side lighting so that larger-than-life shadows were thrown about on the floor and backdrop, sometimes in more than one direction. Because the stage was much wider than it was deep, certain scenes had characters at opposite ends beyond peripheral vision, which limited the view for the rows nearest the stage. Having to turn your head to one side then glance quickly to the other just to see if something significant was happening there was a bit of a stretch. The best thing, however, was the absence of mikes. Hearing natural stage voices is something I really miss, because so many productions take advantage of wireless mikes, which can be a problem with a big cast and a lot of movement. Overall, though, the technical aspects of the production enhanced every minute of the performance and helped to draw the audience deeper into the atmosphere of Anne & Gilbert’s Avonlea.

Indeed, the surprises were plentiful in this play and, I am happy to say, they were wonderful surprises! The thrill of courtship, the warmth of a close-knit community, and the cheer brought on by song and dance were conveyed over and over again throughout the play. Brittany Banks’s lively and masterful choreography enhanced every mood and the Young Company players and cast executed it precisely and enthusiastically.

Patrick O’Bryan, a gentleman from Chicago sitting a seat away from me at the performance aptly summarizes what everyone in the audience must have been thinking by the end of the first act: “I am very impressed with the professionalism. The dancing, the singing, the music—all excellent!” To add to that, I say Broadway move aside, Charlottetown is here!

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So Glad for the Plaids

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by Cindy Lapeña

                  Once again, director Catherine O’Brien delivers an outstanding production of a show that can only be one of the most entertaining trips down memory lane in Forever Plaid. In tandem with musical director Patrick Burwell, who cameo-ed as the “pianist that came with the room” and requires a union “smoke” break every hour or so, O’Brien has brought together an astounding quartet of male actors to deliver standards from the 50s with the same hip, hurray, and huzzah of the “guy groups” of the 50s, reminding us of the clean cut and harmless ivy league look that our parents or grandparents preferred.

Rather than being a play, however, this performance is really a musical revue with a bit of talking between the 29 songs, during which the audience learns bits and pieces of the quartet’s lives before their fatal accident. The humour sometimes borders on the hilarious, picking up more as the show goes on, while the reminiscing and sentimentality are very well handled and never quite become maudlin.

The four cast members, while very youthful, bring an impressive wealth of stage experience to the Harbourfront Theatre. More than that, they bring amazing voices that blend in perfect harmony punctuated by originally funny choreography that highlights the comicality of missteps and forgotten steps that were most certainly practiced but were delivered with natural spontaneity.

Mark Allan, performing in PEI for the first time, plays Frankie, who seems to be the leader and the main motivator of the quartet, and sings in a beautifully clear tenor. Since I first came to PEI and began watching performances, I have watched Ian Cheverie mature as an actor and a singer and as Jinx, his baritone/tenor voice can be soft and sweet or powerful and belting. Nathan Carroll is another borrowed talent, whose energy and expressiveness stand out in the character of Sparky. I must say his stage antics and tenor remind me of another excellent actor who is a friend of mine, and it almost felt like I was watching my friend when I was watching Nathan. Last, but not the least, Sam Plett is also a visitor to the PEI stage who will always be welcome with his amazing baritone/bass voice, in the role of Smudge, who could very well be dyslexic. Besides being a magnificent singing quartet, each of the players brought other curious talents to the stage—from juggling balls to playing a mouth organ, to playing the piano. Needless to say, each song is an act in itself and extremely entertaining. Too bad that some of the wit and humour in the dialogue and stage business was lost on the audience. My favourite number? The Ed Sullivan show in 3 ½ minutes, because of the skill, perfect timing, energy, and enthusiasm it was performed with.

The only thing that might have helped create better focus was, perhaps, to reduce the size of the stage a tad bit—possibly drawing the curtains in up to where the legs ended so that it would seem like a more intimate set, especially when the quartet separated into different corners of the stage, preventing the viewer from seeing all the actors at the same time. Nonetheless, the majority of numbers did make the use of most of the stage, and the lighting helped concentrate the audience’s focus on the actors.

It’s too bad that the show doesn’t draw a full house every performance, because it is the type of show that would be great fun with a larger audience. Still, I would definitely see this show with this particular cast again and again because their music will never get tiring!

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The Attic, The Pearls & 3 Fine Girls Make One Very Fine Evening!

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(This article is also available on onrpei.ca)

I love comedy. There. I’ve said it. There are many other things I’ll say I love, but the evening of November 3 has gotten me out and admitting that I love comedy, and I just loved this performance, so wonderfully directed by Laurel Smyth! CONGRATULATIONS, Laurel!

Of course, without the cast, the play would have been nothing at all, and it was mainly the cast that made the play so amusingly and amazingly human.

The playwrights, whom, I have learned, started writing the play as improvisational theatre and worked on it over several years, have captured the essence of family and sisterhood in their delightfully delectable and infinitely humorous script. Tell me if there are too many superlatives…but I can’t really think of enough.

Three sisters, Jojo (the eldest, played by Melissa Mullen), Jane (the in-betweener, played by Kathleen Hamilton) and Jelly (the baby, played by Gill Mahen) have to deal with their father’s death and the party he requested as his dying wish. But it is not just the party and his death they have to deal with, apparently. Like any normal family, they have had issues about each other and with each other, as well as with their lives outside their sisterhood.

Jojo has been in a couple of failed relationships after giving up her one true love, Umesh, to be with Jane at her “death bed” which, as it turns out, was not final. Jane, who is plagued with episodes of some unnamed condition (asthma? a weak heart?) has also been in several relationships, and is as yet unable to come out in the open about her sexuality. Jelly is a struggling artist who has decided to return home and take care of their ailing father in his last year of life.

Jojo is angry at Jane for many things, but mainly the loss of her one true love and for having slept with her ex-husband, then inviting him to the party. Jane is obsessed with her work, her girlfriend, and her former lover, Mrs. Gray, who is also at the party. Jelly is the only without any real hidden anger, and interprets her life in her art, particularly for an upcoming exhibit in Munich.

Their father’s death has thrown the three together in the house they grew up in, full of memories of good times and bad times, and the script constantly throws us back and forth between past and present. Most of the memories are literally and figuratively stored in the attic, which is where the girls are reminded of most of them.

How they confront each other and their pasts is alternatingly poignant and hilarious, as Jane and Jojo lapse into rambunctious remembering in between blaming and bickering. Jelly finds herself more and more in the role of mother and peacekeeper, emphasized by the way she is supposed to look so like their mother and how she does things the way their mother did. Still, she is the “baby” who is constantly ignored and not heard, until she finally finds a way to get their attention and make them listen to her. In the end, they find the best solution, which really was Jelly’s suggestion in the first place.

The actresses were superb in their roles, which all seemed so natural. It’s no wonder after all, since Laurel told me that they had about two years to go over the script and work on the characters before they finally decided on a definite run.

The sets, executed by Anne Putnam, had all the charm of a rustic aging attic—indeed, the whole house seemed like an attic, fraught with memories—and served the performers well. David Bennet’s lighting, including a few special effects, worked excellently with scene changes, except for one tiny forgivable execution in timing, which revealed an exit that should have been hidden. The costuming was both whimsical and characteristic of the teacher, the businesswoman, and the artist in each of the three characters. And the music! The sound effects and the music that triggered many of the memories were the icing on the cake.

If I could, I would watch this show every night of its run! One performance is not enough to savour every little aspect of the play, or even to just enjoy the quick and witty dialogue and the little surprises every scene change brought. Definitely a play to catch before the month is over!

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