Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):

 

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Delightful comedy ensues as scandal & chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By

Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Madeleine Kane & Steve Ness in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Was out at the Village Playhouse last night to see the Village Players’ production of Mr. Pim Passes By, by A.A. Milne (yep, the one who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories), directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

In her director’s notes, Larose describes the play as “a comic charmer filled with innocence and irony” – and she and a fine cast deliver on this assertion big time as the relative peace and quiet of George Marden’s (Rob Candy) country home in Buckinghamshire is set at sixes and sevens after some disturbing news from a visitor. The visitor, Mr. Pim (Steve Ness), passes along some news that could have a disastrous impact on George and Olive’s (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) marriage. Meanwhile, all George’s niece and ward Dinah (Madeleine Kane) wants to do is marry socialist artist Brian Strange (Daniel Carter), but George forbids it on the grounds of their youth, as well as Brian’s occupation and politics – and the young couple has joined forces with Olive to get George to reconsider.

Ness gives the unassuming Mr. Pim a nice befuddled and affable quality, not unlike Milne’s most beloved character Pooh. Kane is an adorably precocious and energetic chatterbox as Dinah, and has a sweet, playful chemistry with Carter’s charming and passionate abstract painter Brian. Candy’s George is comically stubborn, proper and set in his ways – not a bad or particularly harsh man, just an old-fashioned patriarch struggling with progress. Jackson Allamby is lovely as the modern, forward-thinking and infinitely patient Olive, who is artful but not conniving in her dealings with George’s obstinacy. And Barbara Salsberg’s Lady Julia Marden is the perfect picture of an imperious older aunt, commanding both respect and familial fear, but essentially sensible and pragmatic in action.

Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By - photo by Jennifer Etches
Rob Candy & Kathleen Jackson Allamby in Mr. Pim Passes By – photo by Jennifer Etches

Add to that some good fun comic turns by the two maids – Shobha Hatte’s prim, stern and all-seeing Anne, and ASM Laura Conway as the younger, cheeky maid – and you have an all-around good time.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating this idyllic 1919 morning-room world in the English countryside: Steve Minnie (set), Theresa Arneaud (costumes), John Cabanela (lighting) and Rick Jones (sound), with the talents of Kyra Millan on piano. And, as always, to Margot “Mom” Devlin, the intrepid SM/lighting op who keeps it all together and running smoothly.

Delightful comedy ensues as scandal and chaos erupt in a good English country home in Mr. Pim Passes By.

Mr. Pim Passes By continues its run at the Village Playhouse until October 3 – check here for scheduling and tickets.

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading up to the murder and trial. Adding to the ghoulish fun and intrigue, The Actress plays Lizzie in the flashback scenes, with Lizzie taking on the role of Bridget, the family’s maid.

We see Lizzie Borden as an unconventional woman out of place in a conventional household and society, her feelings of entrapment aptly illustrated – with shades of the macabre to come – by the empty red wire bird cage in the corner of the parlour. That trapped feeling comes to a boiling point for Lizzie when her stepmother’s brother Harry (Rob Candy) arrives to bargain with her father (Thomas Gough) over the family farm, a move that would see the farm willed to stepmother Abigail (Sheila Russell). And Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) is more interested in absenting herself from the family strife than in saving their inheritance.

Larose has an excellent cast for this exploration of the famously accused and acquitted suspected murderess. King brings a quiet, slow burning intensity to Lizzie, and a sassy, firey mischief to the Irish maid Bridget. Brown is seductive and playfully dramatic as the beautiful extrovert Actress; and gives a sharp-witted, modern-thinking edge to her portrayal of the caged and frustrated Lizzie. Gough’s Andrew Borden is a disturbing, paradoxical combination of serious patriarch and doting father, capable of both extreme kindness and cruelty. Russell’s Abigail is a sturdy, practical and self-righteous housewife, but perhaps not above using her own family connections to gain power within her new family; and Candy brings a lovely ick factor to her snake-like brother Harry, a cunning man driven by avarice and giving no thought to his nieces’ futures beyond marrying them off. Jackson Allamby gives us an Emma who struggles to keep the family peace, but is terribly worn down by constantly being caught in the middle – put upon and wanting out as much as Lizzie, but lacking the rage to rouse herself to action. And Steven Burley does a nice job with his dual roles as the Defense and Dr. Patrick, the latter a particular delight as Lizzie’s charming and flirtatious friend and playmate, a married Irishman grappling with their complex relationship.

With shouts to the design and creative team: Margaret “The Costumator” Spence’s gorgeous period costume design, featuring Lizzie in hunter green and the Actress in deep purple; Ed Rosing’s magnificent set design, with its deep wood and sea foam green tones, and highlights of red throughout – realized by master carpenter Sandy Thorburn, with painting crew led by scenic artist Mark Cope – and lighting by Gabriel Cropley, especially effective in the carousel fantasy scene. With Razie Brownstone’s props selection, everyday household items like a silver tea service becoming projectile weapons – the civilized trappings of society covering darker emotions that lie just beneath the surface. And, of course, the ax. Speaking of, who doesn’t like a little Ragtime with their ax murder (thanks to Rick Jones’ sound design)? And to SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, who ran the lighting board and kept things moving along smoothly.

Did she? Alumnae Theatre’s Blood Relations is a sharply drawn, darkly funny and eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden – and the assumptions others have about her.

Blood Relations continues its run on the Alumnae mainstage until February 7. Alumnae usually does a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the second matinée performance, so keep an eye out for that on Sunday, January 31. For ticket info and reservations, click here. Go see this.

Lisa Moore’s February transformed for the stage in world premiere @ Alumnae Theatre

In semi-darkness, the stage is set with two platforms on either side – the floor panels later being flipped up to create walls. Up centre is a wooden tower from which chairs and various props pieces hang. And a digital clock that reads 2:59. The tower is neat. Clever and interesting – whimsical, even. And also malevolent and looming. The Ocean Ranger oil rig. As the house lights go down and the actors emerge from the wings, we hear the sounds of deep, steady breathing. A ventilator. Yoga exercise. Darth Vader. Breath echoing, as if coming from inside a chamber.

This is the audience’s first glimpse of Lisa Moore’s play February – adapted from her novel and directed for its world premiere on the Alumnae Theatre main stage by Michelle Alexander.

Helen is having a phone conversation with her adult son John, a corporate image consultant who travels the world. Life is good and things are great. And he may have gotten a Canadian woman pregnant in Iceland. He seems callous and detached, a Bluetooth-sporting yuppie douche, and Helen demands to know what he told the woman and what he means to do about the situation. The scene shifts to a phone call from years earlier – 1982, when Helen receives word that her husband Cal perished when a snow storm hit and sunk the Ocean Ranger. The play continues its time shift from past to present and we see Helen and Cal’s courtship and marriage, and John’s early entry into being the man of the house at the age of 10. An imaginative lad and a Star Wars fan, as handy as he is with a light sabre, John is not ready – and comes to fear both commitment and submersion in water.

Told with real, often raw, emotion, February is not all doom and gloom. Resilient and good-humoured, Helen struggles with her grief, a young widow suddenly thrust into single motherhood, coping with Cal’s absence by continuing their relationship, conversing with his ghost. In middle age, she finds the courage to start making changes and she finds herself ready to bring light into her home via renovation – then, unsure but game, investigating online dating and considering the friendly contractor who is transforming her home. Meanwhile, John takes a job at a local oil company and is forced to confront his fears. It is a touching story – and, as in life, hard edges are softened with humour, with insight gained creating light in the darkness.

Director Alexander (who appeared in an Alumnae production of Private Lives several years ago), with assistant director Darwin Lyons, has done a fine job of staging Helen and John’s parallel stories. Working with producer Tabitha Keast (who is also producing a baby, its opening night just a few weeks away), Alexander has assembled an excellent design team to evoke time, place and atmosphere – with set and props by Karen McMichael, lighting by Gabriel Cropley, sound by Megan Benjafield and costumes by Peter DeFreitas.

The outstanding cast features Kathleen Jackson Allamby, Trevor Cartlidge, Justin Skye Conley, John Fray, Victoria Fuller, Lavetta Griffin and Steve Switzman. Griffin (herself a Newfoundlander, who appeared in Our Eliza at New Ideas Festival 2012) is marvelous as Helen. From a spirited young woman in love to an overwhelmed widow in mourning, dealing with the stress of raising four young kids alone, to a middle-aged woman emerging from the darkness of past and ready for a brighter future – a lovely performance. Conley does a nice job of playing John’s many layers, shifting from that scared little boy trying to be brave with his light sabre and blanket cape to a young man pretty much doing the same, minus the sabre and cape. Fray is sexy and fun as living Cal – and a supportive confidant to Helen as his ghost. Nice work from supporting cast members: Cartlidge, who juggles multiple roles, including Cal’s father Dave, and Allamby as Helen’s sister Louise, both offering good-humoured practical and emotional support to Helen in the aftermath of Cal’s death; Fuller (also from Newfoundland) playing dual roles of John’s pregnant, anxious lover Jane, as well as a good-natured, wry-witted waitress at a pub, giving Helen her ear in a scene that is both touching and funny; and Switzman is lovable, sweet and warm as Helen’s contractor Barry. The Newfoundland flavour of the characterizations is strong, assisted by dialect coach John Fleming, who also provided the voiceover work for the production.

I haven’t read the novel, but I did purchase a copy during the fabulous reception (organized by Joanne Nelson and Sandra Schneider) after the show last night. And I have it on good authority that it’s been well-adapted from page to stage by author and first-time playwright Lisa Moore, who was very pleased with the results – as was the assembled audience.

February runs until Saturday, October 6 – with a Q&A talkback with Moore, Alexander et al after the matinée tomorrow (Sun, Sept 23). For info and reservations, visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213feb.html