The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Brings Newfoundland History to Life

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carmen grant & colin furlong

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, now playing in Halifax at Neptune Theatre, is an adaptation by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel of the same name. It is a work of historical fiction, which imagines the real-life Joe Smallwood, sometimes called “The Last Father of Confederation,” interwoven in the life of a fictional Sheilagh Fielding, an ambitious and cutting political journalist, against the backdrop of the fall of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

There are so many beautiful layers to Chafe’s play. At its core, it is about the relationship between two very complex human beings, Fielding and Smallwood. Fielding is a pioneering, entrepreneurial woman, who is also an alcoholic battling deep secrets and intense emotional struggles. Carmen Grant creates a true force of nature in this deeply flawed woman, whose writing talent and tenacity to survive in a man’s world is, nevertheless, inspiring. Colin Furlong plays Smallwood, the scrappy underdog, as a man continually trying to do the right thing, but who often finds he’s accidentally screwed something up. There is a bit of a hapless Rick Moranis in Furlong’s portrayal of Smallwood, which ensures that even when all the odds are stacked against him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.   

Chafe’s characters also beautifully mirror the political landscape in Newfoundland in the years between 1927 and 1948. Smallwood is the perpetual idealist. He begins as a passionate Socialist advocating for Newfoundland’s poorest residents. He believes, earnestly, that he is working in the best interest of the working class, and that there is reason for hope among Depression and possibility among War, and he latches on to Confederation with Canada as a testament to that promise. Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, is the cold voice of Cynicism. As a journalist she criticizes all sides of the political spectrum. In her column hope and idealism are  sneered at and dismissed as naive. She views Newfoundland with a hard sense of fatalistic doom. Both represent a clash of two prevalent viewpoints. In a similar way, Fielding is Cosmopolitan and worldly; she writes with scathing wit and academic sophistication, catering to a certain audience, largely centred in St. John’s. Smallwood reaches a different demographic in focusing on the Island’s folklore on The Barrelman, his radio program. It then becomes clear that the future of Newfoundland’s nationhood is divided along these same geographical and economic lines.

Although this play is set in the 20th Century, it is timely to see a story of politicians being beleaguered by a free press; one might even charge Fielding with printing “Fake News.” Although, it was the scene where three men sit at a typewriter intent on destroying the career of a female journalist, to shut her up and to break her, that I found most eerily reminiscent of our own time. It reminded me of the Twitter war against Leslie Jones after Ghostbusters was released and of Donald Trump’s inexcusable treatment of Megyn Kelly. In that moment, Sheilagh Fielding was Everywoman who dares to push the boundaries for women, and who dares to express herself in print.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Furlong and Grant both give formidable, deeply nuanced and heartrending performances. Steve O’Connell and Alison Woolridge shine dramatically as Smallwood’s parents, Charlie and Minnie, embroiled in domestic troubles of their own.

Jillian Keiley directs the piece with a beautiful, continuous sense of movement, and of time, and perpetual snow, that clearly propels the audience through this truly epic era of Newfoundland history. The sets and props are minimal, which gives Keiley the freedom to take us anywhere in a moment and the stage effortlessly transitions between scenes with ten actors (large by Canadian standards), to much more intimate moments with just Fielding or just Smallwood.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know very much at all about the history of Newfoundland, beyond that she joined Canada in 1948, until I saw this play. Its history is far more dramatic than I realized, and I was truly riveted throughout, not knowing how the demise of the Dominion of Newfoundland was going to play out. It is so important that we tell these stories and also that we take them out of our Communities and share them with those who live elsewhere in the country, and beyond. I feel enriched in my new knowledge of how Newfoundland came to join the Dominion of Canada, and to learn so much while being so thoroughly entertained and moved, is really the best the theatre can ask for.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays on Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage in Halifax (1593 Argyle Street) until March 12. Show times are Tuesdays to Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $33 to $70 and are available here.     

More Comedy Than Errors in Neptune’s Season Opener

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david leyshon, genevieve steele, stephen gartner, jonathan wilson & jeff schwager

Neptune Theatre’s 51st Season Opener, William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, boasts of having a cast featuring predominately local based actors, which makes it a promising beginning to Halifax’s theatrical year. George Pothitos’ production, which is set in 1974 Greece, is silly and full of fun and sure to bring merriment to an audience wishing to be transported to a warmer climate and a groovier time.

On the surface this early and shortest play of Shakespeare masquerades as being a frothy and farcical romp centering on the mistaken identities of two pairs of identical twins, separated shortly after birth and raised in different cities, who find themselves at the same place at the same time and inadvertently wreck havoc on a small town.

Stephen Gartner plays Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant’s name is Dromio, played by Jeff Schwager. Their lives are turned upside down when their twin brothers, Antipholus of Syracuse (David Leyshon) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jonathan Wilson) come to Ephesus. Gartner’s Antipholus is brash and womanizing, much to the chagrin of his wife, Adriana. Leyshon’s Antipholus is gentler, more of a laid back daydreamer whose sights become set on Adriana’s sister, Luciana. This also infuriates the much-vexed Adriana, who continually mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband.

This cast has beautiful command of Shakespeare’s language, which in this play is filled with delightful word play and colourful insults. Thanks to the deft comic prowess of these actors Shakespeare’s jests still resonate easily and directly to the funny bone for a contemporary audience. Pothitos makes good use of Jeremy Webb and Simon Henderson’s Vaudevillian-esque comic chemistry, although I was secretly hoping for them to break the fourth wall and begin an improvised shtick of their own. There are some beautifully nuanced performances from Andrew Gillies and Mauralea Austin. Schwager and Wilson are endearingly hilarious as the two supremely awkward and much-abused Dromios and Marty Burt has a wordless cross as a crazed monk that brought down the entire house on Opening Night.

Overall, George Pothitos has a lot of fantastic elements in this production of The Comedy of Errors, but the play would benefit from them being tightened up. The comic elements could be pushed even further, especially the chase scene. Pothitos’ concept for staging the play in 1974 Greece is explained in the programme notes, but for those unfamiliar with 20th Century history of Greece and Turkey it is difficult to understand the political elements that are being drawn from the 1970s and those inherent in Shakespeare’s text and then even more challenging to connect how these two combined are relevant to us, the contemporary Canadian audience, today.

The Comedy of Errors is a challenging play in that its farcical plot loses its humour if the audience feels too much emotional investment in Genevieve Steele’s Adriana, whose husband treats her terribly, yet her reunion with him at the end is presented as the comedy’s solution and the characters living “happily ever after.” Even still, I wanted Steele to be able to give Adriana more depth, as I know Steele is more than capable of doing, especially because there is such compelling complexity in Adriana’s sister, played by Jody Stevens. Rather than gloss over the complexity and contradictory nature of Shakespeare’s problematic solution to the play’s machinations, it would have been a more interesting and a stronger choice for Pothitos to delve into it and explore it in a way that had resonance for the contemporary world.

The Comedy of Errors’ biggest strength is its silliness and the clarity with which the actors bring Shakespeare’s story to vivid life and how delightful it is to see a wide array of Halifax’s most talented actors sharing the Fountain Hall stage with their contemporaries from elsewhere in the country. That deserves an ardent celebration that is long overdue.

The Comedy of Errors plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Mainstage (1593 Argyle Street) until October 13th 2013. Showtimes are: 7:30pm Tuesdays to Fridays and Sundays, 4:00pm and 8:30pm on Saturday and 2:00pm on Sundays. Tickets are $25.00-$55.00 depending on Seating. For tickets please call the box office at 902.429.7070, visit in person at 1593 Argyle Street or go online. Also, ask about their Rush Tickets policy. 

Once More With Feeling

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photo by emily jewer

In 2001 Joss Whedon’s iconic television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer featured a musical episode entitled “Once More With Feeling” and this year Saint’s Alive Theatre brings the stage version to the Atlantic Fringe Festival, much to the exorbitant delight of the show’s dedicated and impassioned fans.

Since it began as an episode of a television series the stage version works best if the audience goes in knowing a little bit of context, especially concerning the characters’ relationships with one another and the fact that Buffy, a young vampire slayer, has recently died and has been brought back to life and is having difficulty adjusting back to what was once the life and responsibilities expected of her.

Joss Whedon’s music is catchy and deftly constructed; a nice mixture of musical theatre and pop music. The choreography by Lauren Amyotte is beautifully configured and proficiently executed, especially by the cast’s core chorus of dancers. The cast is inconsistent, especially vocally. Adam Krzyski and Chelsea Doherty capture nicely the essence of Nicholas Brendon’s Xander and Alyson Hannigan’s Willow. Jessica Barry’s rendition of “Under Your Spell” is nearly a carbon copy of Amber Benson’s and Savanna Darby’s singing voice is very strong. The stand-out performances, however, belong to Brandon Lorimer’s Spike and James MacLean’s Giles, who both really root the musical in Whedon’s Sunnydale in a vibrant and immediate way. There’s also some great costumes from Chelsea Kendall.

Once More With Feeling is not as polished as I would like to see from Saint’s Alive, as all the elements don’t quite come together in a cohesively solid production, but it is absolutely fun and sure to leave die hard Buffy fans squealing.

(Once More With Squealing?!!? … Sorry.)

TWISI Rating: 3 and a half stars

Once More With Feeling plays at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) at the following times: 

Wednesday September 4 – 7:00pm
Thursday September 5 – 9:00pm
Friday September 6 – 9:00pm
Saturday September 7 – 3:30pm
Sunday September 9 – 7:00pm

Tickets are $10.00 and are available in advance online at this website or 30 minutes before each show at the venue on the day of the performance. I’d advise to buy in advance as this show has been selling out. All tickets bought in person must be purchased with either cash or credit. For more information please visit this website or call 902.422.7604 between 10:00am and 5:00pm. 

Marg Delahunty On Rage & Laughter

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mary walsh as marg delahunty photo by renee pye

Between allegations of Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers, Stephen Harper being embroiled in scandals that led to Nigel Wright’s resignation and Mike Duffy leaving the Conservative Party with his reputation in shambles, while the Pamela Wallin saga is only just beginning, it seems like Newfoundland’s favourite Political Satirist Princess Mary Walsh (and her alter-ego Marg Delahunty) has her work cut out for her. Indeed, Walsh brings her sharpest wit, delicious irreverence and iconic characters beloved from This Hour Has 22 Minutes to the stage in her one woman show Dancing With Rage, playing as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Festival until June 4th.

Dancing With Rage is akin to Gilda Radner’s Gilda Radner: Live From New York (1979), as it takes an assortment of characters familiar to audiences from a sketch comedy television show and brings them all together onstage and part of the fun is in watching the performer slide from one into another with great comic dexterity. The show begins with Walsh as Miss Eulalia unleashing a tirade of hard-hitting zingers, most of which are aimed directly at the arses of the motley crew of Canada’s most embarrassing and scandal-laden politicians- much to the delight of the crowd. Of course, one of the reasons that shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes are so successful is that, rather than growing bitter and losing faith, when things in politics reach a new level of absurdity it can be a powerfully cathartic experience to have a satirist like Mary Walsh to encourage you to laugh in the face of your country’s troubles. There was a strong, unifying spirit in the house tonight, a sense of solidarity in the laughter which is a testament to the transformative power of comedy. Walsh’s work often masquerades as silliness, yet it is also an ardent commentary not only on Canadian politics, but also on Canadian culture and the stories that we tell to ourselves about what it means to be Canadian in the 21st Century.

So too is Dancing With Rage silliness concealing much more serious undertones exploring the theme of abandonment and how it can lead to disempowerment, self-loathing and alcoholism. The premise is an insight into the life of Marg Delahunty as she sets out on a quest to find her long-lost love child, finding Dakey Dunn, Connie Bloor and lisping Sister Mary Wanda along the way. It is cartoon machinations at their silliest, but woven in between is a much more sombre story about a little girl who grew up next door to her family in a dysfunctional household of extremes that oscillated between drunken brawls and extreme piety. It is unclear whether this story is meant to be Delahunty’s or Walsh’s, but either way, it becomes clear that Marg, and especially Marg: Princess Warrior, is the disguise of strength and heroics used to empower someone who often feels at her core disenfranchised and insecure. She is the superhero that allows Delahunty to be bold and saucy and successful, despite all odds against her. Many critics of this show lamented that there was not enough Walsh here, despite the fact that she permeates and resonates so loudly in every line. Mary Walsh also uses her characters like a shield, yet her vulnerability still manages to shine through. The play is an exploration of how actors use performance as a means to shroud themselves behind the essence of someone else and how laughter can be used as a supplement for anger and for pain. It is about coming toward a catharsis of spirit, but not yet achieving one. It is much more powerful to see how Walsh accomplishes this through her portrayal of Marg than it would be for her to reveal herself to us candidly.

I do think Dancing With Rage could be streamlined down to 90 minutes, as some of the descriptions of the story of the little girl bogged the pacing of the play down a little (although Walsh’s writing in these bits is eloquent and beautiful). I also would have liked to see a bit more crisp physical differences between Marg and her daughter Lorraine. Andy Jones directs the piece, making fun use of projected video footage, especially when Dakey and Marg are in the car together and Walsh is able to have a scene with herself onstage. Jones makes the Fountain Hall stage seem very intimate and keeps Walsh moving to different realms of the theatre to keep the action perpetually pressing forward, which is especially important once Marg embarks on her zany quest. I particularly enjoyed his use of a chair on wheels with a steering wheel for Dakey’s cab. Yet, it is Walsh herself who keeps the audience in the palm of her hand, even through small technical glitches; her command of the space and her performance is full of bold sauciness, warmth and charm.

Whether we are examining the fictional life of Marg Delahunty or the real life of Mary Walsh the question can be the same: What makes a woman grow up to ambush politicians for laughs? Both Walsh and Delahunty can be seen as feminist superheroes and both have imperfect pasts that make them unmistakably human. Dancing With Rage is just a glimpse into the answer, but it is both fascinating, hilarious and unexpectedly poignant.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, whater ya waitin’ fer, b’y? Get them tickets now before yer after forgettin’ about them.

Dancing With Rage written and performed by Mary Walsh and directed by Andy Jones plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle Street) as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Festival. For more information about Dancing With Rage and all the other great shows on stage as part of this festival and to book your tickets, please visit this website or visit in person at 1593 Argyle Street or call 902.429.7070. Tickets for Dancing With Rage are $45.00 all other full length shows are $20 or 2 tickets for $30.

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