Mind and Media: Sydney Blum and Alex Livingston at Studio 21

Deer by Calm Water, by Alex Livingston, archival pigment ink print, 47 ” x 65.5,” at Studio 21 Fine Art, 5431 Doyle St., Halifax.

Alex Livingston’s new digital paintings of deer in landscapes play with the mind. What is real and what isn’t?

These beautiful, pastoral images created solely on a computer refer to traditional art forms of photography, printmaking and painting.

The bodies of the deer appear to be lushly painted but even the deer don’t quite look real.

“I’m not trying to be an accurate naturalist,” says Livingston, exhibiting at Studio 21 to May 1 in a space shared with Nova Scotia sculptor Sydney Blum.

“I’m more interested in the variety of ways a deer can be represented and I also wanted to capture the emotional life of the deer.”

The small, colourful orbs dancing above a deer’s head in Buck Imagining Doe represent “what the deer’s thinking,” says Livingston. “Let’s look into his head a bit.”

This new series of work called DEER has many inspirations for Livingston from seeing deer at his Eastern Shore cottage to referencing 18th and 19th century European hunting prints and paintings to exploring natural history dioramas in Chicago, New York and Halifax.

“The Victorians basically stuck an animal in a glass box and there was no context,” says Livingston, a professor of drawing and painting at NSCAD University.

However, Carl Akeley, known as the father of modern taxidermy, changed that in the early 20th century. A fascinating character who was also an inventor and who died in 1921 in Africa near where he encountered his first gorilla, he created a new way of presenting animals naturalistically and was behind the magnificent dioramas of the 1920s and 1930s.

Before National Geographic Magazine and TV nature documentaries “dioramas formed this important educational tool,” says Livingston.

“A lot of museums ended up dismantling them. They are costly to maintain and they thought this wasn’t what young people wanted to see but they made a mistake.”

Livingston loves the suspension of disbelief and magical qualities in dioramas – qualities he mimics in his paintings.

“They’re very cleverly constructed with backgrounds taking you into a deep illusionistic space through painting techniques. You get transported.”

He sees a parallel in his art-making as he layers digitally-created images to build a world that appears realistic. He uses the same pictorial devices of a foreground image, an animal in mid-space and a deep-space background.

On a bench at Studio 21 is Livingston’s small, 1999 book, A History of Four-Footed Beasts and Other Curiosities, based on woodcuts made by Conrad Gesner, a 16th century Swiss “early zoologist,” of existing and mythological animals.

The artist creates black line drawings that look like woodblock prints and act as a lacy, storybook filter. This is one layer of representation among photographs from the Eastern Shore and painted backdrops.

Akeley and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt were ironically both hunters and conservationists who believed people would want to protect the natural world if they could only be immersed in it in museums.

With everyone’s knowledge today of high rates of extinction and the ongoing threat to the natural world and habitat for all creatures, from bees to human beings, it’s impossible not to think of extinction in any artwork on animals.

That is always going to be in the background, says Livingston, but it was not his intention. He is fascinated by the symbolic qualities of deer throughout history and he wants to celebrate and honour deer – creatures that are “ wondrous to look at.”

Sydney Blum describes her undulating, colour-charged, wall sculptures in a poetic way.
“They are shields, they are wings, they are air, they are water flow. They are currents, a breeze, a piece of paper flying,” she says in a phone interview from her Tatamagouche home.

Getting ready to show May 9 in New York City, she is exhibiting for her first time in Halifax at Studio 21 in Icarus-Colour-Space.


To create these majestic, optically-spellbinding pieces she went back to a childhood of sewing and a memory of the story of Icarus from a beloved book of myths and legends.

The artist, who taught for 17 years at New York’s Parsons College of Fine Art, starts each of her series with an idea.

This work was driven by thoughts about motion “in the etheric sense so the idea of a transcendence of moving back and forth between the secular and the more spiritual level.

“I wanted to create something beautiful and it needed to have some sense of motion. I’m a practical sculptor. I do things in a non-tech way.”

The wings are laboriously created out of hundreds of pieces cut from heavy, architectural chipboard. She painted each piece individually to get her waves of gradiated colour and then assembled the artwork by “sewing” one tiny piece to another with metal thread.

Blum works with a grid. “I love grids. I love the order of them, the solidity of them. They’re very formal but also can be can be individualized and made very emotional.”

As her form goes from flat to fluid it is supported by an exo-skeleton of wire. She keeps the back of her piece – and her processs – visible so you can see the wire and the numbers on the squares, all originally mapped out on paper. “Both sides are part of the piece.”

sydney4The sheer amount of labour is staggering. “I work six hours a day. Because I was doing a row a day or every other day there was enough variation. Every square is a different colour so I’m constantly mixing different colours and it’s quite engaging.”

Her inspiration for colour can be from looking at a winter sky to, in the case of 2017pnkorgylw-grn (titled in a colour code), seeing an apple in her orchard.

“It was the most beautiful, perfect apple and the transition in colour was so subtle and I thought, ‘How would you begin to capture that and why would you want to?’ I did want to and I didn’t come close!”

sydney3 An apple inspired the colour in Sydney Blum’s ICS2017pnkorgylw-grn,  of paper chipboard, paint, pencil and wire, 33 x 41 x 21,” at Studio 21. 

Blum, who practices Tai Chi and Chi Gong,  creates a remarkable fluidity in wave-like motion and sees her sculptures as stopped motion within a continuous movement in space and time.

“Any movement of energy through a form interests me. The idea of an earthquake when a force can move through a solid and re-form is fascinating and a version of that is in the tides and the water and a breeze that starts in one tree and moves to the next.”

Blum has exhibited in Europe and in the U.S; her work has been written about in Art Forum, Art in America and The New York Times.

In 2009 she moved to Tatamagouche. “I moved here specifically to be in proximity to the water and the power of the tides. I wanted to internalize that in my body before I died.”

In her New York show, Both Sides of the Sky, at the Kim Foster Gallery, the grid itself has a gradient of colour which is a new development in this series. These images are online (https://kimfostergallery.com/sydney-blum/), along with her earlier Fuzzy Geometry series painstakingly constructed out of strands of hair from coloured wigs.


The Color Purple, fabulous tower of song and talent than enriches the soul


Samantha Walkes as Nettie and Tara Jackson as Celie in Neptune Theatre’s production of The Color Purple,  on to June 2 (and selling fast). Stoo Metz.

Neptune Theatre’s The Color Purple is a fantastic production that starts with a storm of music and emotion and never lets up.

The characters are so engaging that the audience speaks back to them and cheers them on (or hates them) in an intense, uplifting story of repression and abuse, love and triumph. On the night I went there was an immediate standing ovation and roars for key cast members.

Originally a 1982 ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, then an 1985 Steven Spielberg movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a supposedly “ugly,” young, black woman who has had two children by an abusive father and is married off to a nasty farmer with a cow thrown in to sweeten the deal.

Mister sends away Celie’s beloved sister Nettie and is verbally and physically violent to Celie. This part of the story – which begins in 1909 – is tough to watch. Thankfully, there is a warmth and life force in the music as well as a wonderful comic relief in three super-charged, gossipy, church ladies (Keisha T. Fraser, Masini McDermott and Sarah Nairne).

This Tony Award-winning, Winfrey-produced musical, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and was revived in 2015, is not a traditional Broadway musical. It is more like an operetta with continuous music and song. The music is key in carrying the emotion and story, and it is rich, complex and varied in a Grammy Award-winning score of jazz, gospel, ragtime and rhythm and blues.

The all-Black cast of 18 Canadian and Nova Scotian performers includes remarkable singers in pictorially rich, earthy choreography for rousing community numbers interspersed with tender duets and searing solos.

The Color Purple celebrates female struggle and strength and is directed for the first time by a black woman – the award-winning Kimberley Rampersad, who is also the choreographer and currently intern artistic director at the Shaw Festival.

The female leads are terrific in voice and spirit: Tara Jackson in the heartbreaking, transformational role of Celie; Janelle Cooper, an audience favourite as the high-spirited Sofia, whose cri de coeur is “hell no!,” and Karen Burthwright as Shug Avery, the spectacular, sensuous, warm-hearted club singer whose preacher father has disowned her and who sets the community abuzz with excitement. Samantha Walkes as Nettie and Deborah Castrilli as Squeak are also key.

colorpurple4Ryan Allen as Mister caresses Karen Burthwright as Shug Avery. (Stoo Metz)

For a story that grow out of abuse, The Color Purple has a great sensual vitality and  models a positive relationship in the delightful duo of Sofia and Harpo, well-played by Andrew Broderick. These “good” characters have a passionate chemistry.

Ryan Allen, in the difficult role of Mister, steers this hard man towards the light and moves the audience in a soul-searing performance of a powerful song of penance and redemption.

Lifting up the song is a great band led by musical director Sean Mayes:  Joy Brown, keyboard; Jody Lyne, trumpet and keyboard; Marlowe (Bruno) Smith, bass; Matthew Machanda, percussion, and Nicole Auger, reeds.

With this cast and band The Color Purple would fly off the page without a set. However, the design deeply enriches the experience. Dora Award-winning set and costume designer Tamara Marie Kucheran creates a simple, flexible set of  worn, louvered, gothic, church windows. Her costumes and Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting operatic thematically in a voyage from darkness to light, from drab browns to hot colour. The final, light bath of purple against Celie’s orange costume is a perfection of complementary colour expressing joy.

The Color Purple fills the head with song and the best of the human spirit as it ends like a prayer.

Neptune is the first regional company to produce the play in Canada. There is a Bell Aliant Pay-What-You-Can performance Tuesday, May 28, 7:30 p.m. (The original PWYC April was cancelled due to actor illness and those lined up offered tickets to another show.)  Throughout the run audiences may donate to Alice House.

The Neptune Theatre Foundation is partnering with the 1588 Barrington Building Preservation Society to raise funds to revitalize The Khyber, which will be called the Turret Arts Space. Partial proceeds from the May 30 performance go to the society, which needs to raise $3.5 million. Tickets are online under the menu item fundraiser (https://1588society.ca/color-purple/). Other special performances are listed online (neptunetheatre.com). Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 902-429-7070 or toll-free 1-800-565-7345, or in person at the box office, 1593 Argyle St.


A community explosion of sound and movement in The Color Purple, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. (Stoo Metz)

Colour pops in Rosengarten’s plein air paintings at Gallery 1919

Orange Dahlia on BlueViolet2Violet Rosengarten exhibits her plein air, mixed media paintings at Gallery Nineteen Nineteen, 6025 Stanley St., Halifax, including Orange Dahlia on Blue (above). 

It’s no secret that Dartmouth-based artist Violet Rosengarten loves colour.

She is wearing a fuchsia sweater and a delicate scarf of pale pinks and oranges – colours that are echoed in her plein air paintings at Gallery Nineteen Nineteen.

“I think of myself as a colourist,” she says in an interview at the gallery, attached to Dean’s Flowers, 6025 Stanley St., Halifax.  “I’ve always explored colour.

“I remember as little girl I’d pick up the shiny wrappers from chocolates and I’d collect them.”

Violet Rosengarten’s Spring Collection: Foliage & Flowers, Islands, Lakes and Sea is on view to April 26 and features plein air paintings of some of Rosengarten’s favourite spots in Nova Scotia including the Salt Marsh, Grand Desert, Carter’s Beach, Five Islands and the Blue Mountain — Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area.

Rosengarten gets her vivid colours by working in oil sticks over an underpainting textured in a light modelling paste.  “The oil stick catches onto the parts that are sticking out and lets the underpainting come through which I like. There is a play between the two.”

Her passion for painting outdoors quickly on the spot started when she first sketched  outdoors in Spain.  “My father was born in Spain, he’d just died and I wanted to go back to Spain and connect with relatives. I did a little bit of plein air painting there. It has been more intense here because of the beauty of the province.”

She and her husband, filmmaker Alan Collins, moved to Nova Scotia 13 years ago and live next to the Dartmouth Commons.

“When I first came here I was enchanted by, seduced by, the work of Wayne Boucher and also by Leya Evelyn,” she says. Both these artists are abstract expressionists who work in saturated colour and with oil sticks.  “When I discovered Leya’s work I couldn’t sleep at night. I was so stimulated.”

In 2012 Rosengarten produced Collins’ 45-minute documentary film, Drowning in Colour: The Art of Wayne Boucher. She also took art workshops with both Boucher and Evelyn but  “I had to break away from them and find my own voice.”

Her own voice is lively and lyrical with strong line and striking colour. She can see colours in tidal pools that others might never notice.

Her skies in four paintings of a favourite view of the Salt Marsh from a Lawrencetown hill range from intense orange with a sweep of blue created with a wooden comb she bought in Toronto’s Chinatown to a pale, misty, foggy pink.

“The Salt Marsh always looks different depending on whether the tide is going out or coming in. It’s a very magical place and I find all kinds of colour in it.”

Violet Rosengarten, Salt Marsh 2Salt Marsh 2

Rosengarten is not concerned with realism. “I’m concerned with the feeling of the place and expressing that through colour.”

Plein air painting is just one part of Rosengarten’s art-making.  She also works in her studio on multi-media, abstract paintings and has a continuing series of abstracts with found rope that “symbolizes my attachment to Nova Scotia and what I feel about the ocean.”

“I’m a restless artist who wants to try different things,”  she says. “The abstracts and the plein air definitely inform and enrich each other.”

Rosengarten was initially a textile artist who apprenticed in Mexico and Guatemala and  explored colour, texture and abstraction. She loved tapestries as “paintings in wool” but wanted to go a step further.

“Painting is so direct and spontaneous as opposed to the planning that goes into weaving,” she says.

She did a BFA in painting and drawing at Concordia University,  Montreal, and became a painter.  “I sold my looms, I gave my yarn away and it felt good.”

She also did her B Ed at McGill University as an art specialist and taught art for 20 years in public schools in Toronto and Dartmouth.

Rosengarten, who exhibited last September in her solo show, Some Enchanting Islands, at Annapolis Royal’s Round Hill Studio, grew up in Ottawa and used to love going to the Gatineau Hills.  “I’ve always loved nature and the nature of Canada.”

She is keen to continue painting with an artists’ group that explores and supports the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area near Halifax through sales of their paintings.  “We go with guides because you really can get lost in there. It’s very wild.”

This exhibit includes views of Charlie’s Lake, an island in Susie’s Lake and granite erratics just in from the back of Kent Building Supplies in Bayers Lake.

This August the painter will explore another part of Nova Scotia with a residency on Brier Island.  “That’s very exciting. Apparently at the end of summer you can see birds migrating and, of course, there are whales. I’m looking forward to that.”Charlie's LakeCharlie’s Lake 






MacIvor play cause for celebration

fun town
Daniel MacIvor as Dougie and Andrew Moodie as Allen in MacIvor’s 90-minute, New Magic Valley Fun Town, to April 21 at the Neptune Scotiabank Stage, Halifax. (Leif Norman)

Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town is a brilliant, must-see, Cape Breton comedy with deep poignancy and a powerful ending that will leave you shaken and blessed.

The 90-minute drama opened to an immediate standing ovation Friday in Neptune’s studio theatre and is selling quickly for its run to April 21.

A Prairie Theatre Exchange/Tarragon Theatre co-production, presented by Neptune as part of its second stage series, New Magic Valley Fun Town opens with Dougie entering his Cape Breton trailer park home loaded down with groceries, liquor and his Tim Hortons coffee cup.

He’s incredibly excited about a visit from his boyhood friend Allen, whom he hasn’t seen in 25 years. Joining him to prepare and celebrate are his separated wife Cheryl and unhappy daughter Sandy, taking a break from graduate studies and medication or a break from “your break,” according to her dubious and critical mother.

This play features a remarkable performance of intense physicality and emotion by MacIvor as Dougie within an excellent cast of actors whom MacIvor first imagined in these parts as he wrote and workshopped the play.

The bitter bantering and funny interplay between the ill Dougie and Caroline Gillis as Cheryl, a middle-aged, disappointed, religious, gossipy and ultimately loving woman, is sheer delight and so true to life. Gillis and MacIvor have worked so much together over the years that their communication is seamless as Gillis nuances and deepens a familiar type of woman.

MacIvor, a Governor General’s award-winner and Siminovitch Prize winner, often writes uptight, frustrated, angry men who fiercely – and comically – try to control their physical environment as they are psychologically out of control.

Dougie is a neat freak and Brian Perchaluk’s wonderful, highly-detailed set bears that out with a spotless, authentic interior of a kitchen and a livingroom featuring an old, afghan-covered sofa. Outside the home is a beautiful sky with tall pine trees.

Andrew Moodie as Allen is a terrific contrast to the constantly-moving and chatting  Dougie. He is held firmly within his body and is wary and warm as this educated, intelligent, reserved man. Stephanie MacDonald, who’s also worked with MacIvor before, fleshes out Sandy into a fully-realized, empathic and comic character.

Director Richard Rose, who is Tarragon’s artistic director, directs for excellent rhythm in a difficult turn from comedy and human elation – which peaks in a fantastic dance scene – to deeper, darker human truths.

The people in New Magic Valley Fun Town communicate indirectly and are all seeking connection. As MacIvor writes in his program notes: “Here’s to poetry that it may save us yet.”

This play, inspired by MacIvor driving by Magic Valley Fun Park on his way to visit his brother in his trailer home, is masterfully written so that by the end you search back to discover the clues that were buried within from the very start.

Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell, original music and sound designer Don Benedictson, choreographer Brenda Gorlick and costume designer Brenda McLean all hit their high notes.

Note: There is an audience advisory that this play touches the aftermath of past trauma.
fun time
Starring in New Magic Valley Fun Town are, from left, Daniel MacIvor, Andrew Moodie, Stephanie MacDonald and Caroline Gillis. (Leif Norman)

Wendy Lill’s The Fighting Days lands at home with Dartmouth Players

the fighting days three
Sarah Crowell stars as suffragist Francis Beynon and Joey Yazer as her editor George McNair in  The Fighting Days, on stage to April 13 at the Sawmill Playhouse, Dartmouth. (Bruce Goodick)  

The comical tag-team announcing The Fighting Days proudly tells people they are about to see a Canadian story by a writer who is not only Canadian but lives in Dartmouth.

Wendy Lill’s The Fighting Days, in a Dartmouth Players’ production at the Sawmill Playhouse to April 13, is an historical drama about the tense, ultimately unravelling, relationship between suffragists Nellie McClung and Francis Beynon in Winnipeg from 1910 to 1917.

It’s fascinating to be introduced to the play’s heroine,  the lesser-known Beynon, a Winnipeg journalist and activist from farm country.

Always gifted at coming at issues from many different angles to mirror the complexity of life, Lill in The Fighting Days uncannily presages key themes of today.

This play – first published in 1985 and produced by Eastern Front Theatre in 2004 – is more than a herstory. It has universal themes of the courage of conviction, fear of the other, intolerance and pacifism versus militarism.

Gisela O’Brien directs a lively, two-hour production with fine performances in the leads, great period costumes and an elegant set of arched windows.

At first The Fighting Days is all fun – like a fiesty Katharine Hepburn lady-reporter film. Francis Beynon, brought to life in an accomplished, well-arced performance by Sarah Cromwell, arrives in Winnipeg to join her sister, journalist Lily Beynon, and meets Nellie McClung. The shy but highly principled and idealistic Francis is immediately drawn to McClung’s ideas.

After Francis talks her lovable, crusty editor McNair into a job as a homemaker’s page columnist her views become less about stain removal and more about politics.

Once the vote is won, Lill delves into the thorny, grey-area issues that still plague people. With conscription looming and McNair offering domestic peace, Beynon must choose between her ideals and her relationships.

the fighting days twoWomen march for the vote in Manitoba – the first province to get the vote in 1916 – in The Fighting Days. (Bruce Goodick)

Director O’Brien is skilled at getting strong performances out of her cast, at creating a swift pace and at filling up a small space with a women’s march and a suite of opinionated letter writers played by Britt Curran, Sandi Montgomery, Catherine Conrad and Sharon MacVicar.

Heather MacPherson as Lily Beynon is vivid and compelling, while Joey Yazer creates an appealing, complex character in the tartan-clad McNair. Rachel Franco’s performance of McClung is charged and radiant.

This production benefits from a good, unified design team with costume design by Pam Wood, lighting design by Richard Bonner, music composition by Ralph Walton-Bone Urquhart and set design by Sandi Siversky.

The Fighting Days is also timely, as O’Brien points out in the program, because women still fight in North America and globally for women’s rights. (All of Amnesty International’s cases for last December’s global, human rights. letter-writing campaign involved women activists.)

The play runs to April 13 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., with a Sunday, April 7, matinee 2 p.m., in the playhouse (dartmouthplayers.ns.ca) at 33 Crichton Ave. across from Sullivan’s Pond. Parking is in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Church and Churchill Academy with on-street parking on one side of Crichton Avenue.the fighting days four
Sarah Crowell as Francis Beynon, Heather MacPherson as Lily Beynon and Rachel Franco as Nellie McClung. (Bruce Goodick)

Hit N.S. comedic mystery lands with finesse at Bedford Players

habit of murder 2
Alex Smith, Trina Corkum and Elaine Melanson in Habit of Murder. (Bruce Goodick)

The Bedford Players’ production of Joanne Miller’s comedic mystery Habit of Murder is a great chance to see this popular show.

Habit of Murder was first commissioned from the Halifax author and staged by the Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro as part of a trilogy.  This production keeps the setting in Parrsboro;  however,  this story nestles comfortably into any small town where everyone knows everyone’s secrets – or do they?

Key to this heart-warming, funny production is Elaine Melanson’s stellar performance as Sister Vivian Salter, portrayed at the Ship by both Mary-Colin Chisholm and Martha Irving.

Melanson is a petite, sturdy, feisty, deeply engaging Sister Salter with a great grasp on the sleuthing nun’s dry wit and comic observations.

In Habit of Murder Sister Salter has been called back to the small town she fled for academia to care for her father. Meanwhile the affable, bumbling RCMP officer Buddy,  whose idea of happiness is a Tim’s honey cruller,  has two murders on his hands.

A body has been discovered in the local church, supposedly haunted by a tragic minister’s wife, and the local hockey coach has been mysteriously murdered. Buddy, to his future torment, asks Sister Salter to help.

Alex Smith as Buddy is a lovable, comical chap in a cast that is equally strong with Rebecca Marriott as the loopy, overly-dramatic but sweet Sunny, Trina Corkum as the peppy, flirtatious nurse Winnie, Rafael Franco as the hockey coach,  Jacob Bradbury as the mysteriously simple, silent Duck and Jon Peirce and Sydney Fleet as two bumbling  construction workers.

Miller’s play has been re-mounted in Canada because it’s well-written with a lot of good humour from cornball to Sister Salter’s caustic comments. The solid, labyrinthian mystery keeps you guessing right until the end.

Sister Salter teaches her community a thing or two about faith and truth but she also learns something about herself along the way which makes this drama richer.

Habit of Murder is smoothly directed with good character and comic balance by producer, actor and playwright Lita Llewellyn, who shared in the set design of church and green-walled nursing home with Dave Parsons and Beth Spratt. The fine costumes are by Terri Smith-Fraser.

It’s great that The Bedford Players are presenting a Nova Scotia play. Later this month The Dartmouth Players produce  Wendy Lill’s The Fighting Days, about the women’s suffrage movement in Canada, March 28 to April 13.

Habit of Murder runs to March 16, Thursday to Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets are online (www.bedfordplayers.ca). The theatre is fittingly in the church hall of All Saints Anglican Church, 1408 Bedford Highway.

Nothing Off about Noises Off

After much serious theatre this winter and a week of ice-rage, Neptune Theatre’s Noises Off is a great tonic.

Director Jeremy Webb, himself, points out that this pure comedy is the exception to a season – his first as artistic director – of “plays curated to provoke some pretty high-stakes and emotional responses.”

Not Noises Off.  Michael Frayn’s hit 1982 comedy — last seen in Nova Scotia at the Atlantic Theatre Festival in 2006 — features the on- and off-stage shenanigans of a threadbare, English, touring theatre company staging a farce that its director proclaims is, just like life, “all about doors and sardines.” noises off
Mary-Colin Chisholm, Sarah O’Brecht and Kirstin Howell in Noises Off. (Stoo Metz)

With an all-star cast of local favourites and a spectacular set, this comedy snaps off the page like laundry in a stiff wind.

It has all its required breakneck speed and comedic power with a flair for theatrical showmanship and a love of British farce by its director Webb, who is a Brit.

The fun of Noises Off is seeing a farce, called Nothing On, performed on stage and then, with a revolve of the set, in this case with flashing lights, Star Wars-esque music and theatrical smoke, the same farce performed with the actors backstage.

At this point the actors are fighting amongst themselves and panicking as they still try to fly through all those doors and fetch all those plates of sardines to pull off their last performance of Nothing On.

Mary-Colin Chisholm shines as the upset, diva-type Dotty, whose classic British house-keeper character is central to Nothing On. Joining her onstage is her real-life partner Christian Murray, also a local comedic powerhouse, playing the overwrought Garry, who has been in love with Dotty and fumes at her possible affair with another actor. It’s a wonderful performance of pent-up and unleashed rage.

Webb has brought beloved, veteran actor Walter Borden, now a Canadian star, back to Neptune after 20 years to perfectly play Selsdon, the alcoholic, aging, master thespian  everyone wants to save from himself. Borden gives Selsdon his booming voice and  playful, cagey character.

noises off 4Starring in Noises Off are, front, Christian Murray and Mary-Colin Chisholm; back, Kirstin Howell, Theofani Pitsiavas, Sarah O’Brecht, Bill Carr and Walter Borden. (Stoo Metz)

This tight-knit ensemble needs and has a lot of physical theatre smarts as well as a gift for the smaller comedic moments with Karen Bassett as the sad stage manager Poppy, veteran comic actor Bill Carr in a welcome return to Neptune as the uptight, selfish director, Kirstin Howell as the dumb blonde starlet, Theofani Pitsiavas as a kindly actor who faints at the mention of the word blood, Sarah O’Brecht, who was in Mamma Mia!, as the kindly actress frantically trying to hold the show together, and Tom Gordon Smith, as the exhausted technical director who must sub in for the burglar.

Smith is a star comedic actor and fan favourite at Shakespeare by the Sea, as well as its technical director – a bit of art imitates life.

The design features John Dinning’s fabulous concoction of a set with stairs, doors and wooden floors and furniture done in blues, turquoises and different shades of wood; timeless, colourful costumes by Helena Marriott and a cool lighting design by Ingrid Risk with sound design by Jesse MacLean, co-artistic director at Shakespeare by the Sea.

Noises Off does not touch the heart but it sure tickles the funny bone.  It runs to March 17 on the Neptune mainstage. Try the sardini cocktail at intermission.

Fox: Not Your Average Volpone

Villians Theatre - FOX-164
Stepheny Hunter as Corbacci in The Villain’s Theatre’s Fox, running today, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. with a closing matinee Sunday, 2 p.m., at the Weldon Law Building, Dalhousie University. Tickets are online (http://villainstheatre.com/). (Stoo Metz)

The Villain’s Theatre presents a visually extreme, bedazzled, intense, new twist on Ben Jonson’s Volpone in a 70-minute drama called Fox.

The Halifax company sets this satire of lust and greed as a courtroom drama in an auditorium-style classroom of the Weldon Law Building, making the audience the jury.

Artistic director Dan Bray and artistic producer Colleen MacIsaac with director Kathryn McCormack have updated and adapted Jonson’s 1606 classic to reflect the #metoo movement. They make Celia, the wealthy young woman whose husband offers her up to Volpone, the central character.

As Celia, MacIsaac talks in a low, everyday voice and in contemporary language. While she sits in her docket, on trial for murder, below her is a pit filled with outrageous, carnivalesque charlatans and lawyers revealing their avarice and amorality in high-volume, comically melodramatic displays. They speak in the language and style of Jonson’s time.

This split in delivery styles emphasizes Celia’s point of view and brings the play into a contemporary context.

Villians Theatre - FOX-255Colleen MacIsaac as Celia in Fox. (Stoo Metz)

Director McCormack, clearly interested in the highly theatrical style of the piece, wrings the most from her performers in MacIsaac’s steely delivery as both a strong woman and a subdued victim, and in the amped-up physicality and volume of Dan Bray as Celia’s horrid husband Corvino, Nicholas Cox as the defence lawyer Avocatori, Stepheny Hunter as the grasping, loveless mother Corbacci, Lara Lewis as the prosecuting lawyer Voltora and Jessica Oliver as Volpone’s conniving servant Mosca.

Actors take turns portraying the presumably old and dying Volpone as Corvino, Corbacci and Voltora visit the rich old man presenting gifts and asking to become his heir.

Since Jonson’s characters are named for birds the director and designers run with bird metaphors in costumes with spiky black feathers and in Madeleine Tench’s makeup design of white faces with dramatic, black, eye makeup in harsh, feathered patterns.

Dan Bray fully embraces the crow – though not overly so – in his voice and movements. The striking, compelling Lara Lewis curls her mouth in a vulture-esque snarl. Hunter plays Celia’s grotesque mother with good, clear comic touches and pacing.

Cox’s performance as Avocatori is highly vehement and particularly comic when he can’t get his technology of video and cassette tapes to work. Using vintage technology keeps the timeline in this Fox fluid.

Fox is electric in terms of design by an all-female team with the amazing costumes by Kaelen MacDonald (a Dal costume studies graduate), vivid lighting in hot yellows and reds by Vicky Williams and videography by Kathryn Reeves.

Details of the plot are confusing to those who haven’t read their Jonson in a long time but the basics of duplicitous trickery, would-be heirs and an appalling amorality are all clear in this unusual, striking production. Fox is on today 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. with a closing matinee Sunday, 2 p.m.

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Jessica Oliver as Mosca, Lara Lewis as Voltora and Dan Bray as Corvino in Fox. (Stoo Metz)

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells): compelling, complex theatre of consent

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Celia Koughan as Laura in the Neptune studio theatre production of Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells), on stage to Feb. 24. (Stoo Metz)

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) — a 90-minute rocket of a drama about an affair between a teacher and a student — is compelling, complex and thought-provoking theatre.

Now running at the Neptune studio theatre as part of Neptune’s season, it stars Halifax actor Josh MacDonald as a loveable, though flawed, English teacher and Charlottetown-born Celia Koughan as his precocious, emotionally-needy, talented 15-year-old student.

Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s poetic, suspenseful narrative goes against expectations. It is not a simple, victim vs. sexual predator story.

Instead, Napoli goes into the grey areas so it’s less Harvey Weinstein and more all the news stories over the years of male and female teachers falling in love with students and vice versa and where all that lands.

Napoli’s play starts with Laura as a self-possessed 25-year-old looking back at the affair as she approaches Mr. Wells’ house to give him a copy of the novel she’s written about it.

The present and past are beautifully intercut as the story is told in quick scenes set in a classroom of yellow cement-block walls with a very important door that is left open or kept locked.

Neither character does the right thing. Napoli flips the story with creating sympathy at first for Mr. Wells and later for Laura. The audience is gripped by clarity and insight as it watches a train speeding towards a wreck.

This strong production, directed with great understanding and speed-control by Halifax director Annie Valentina, features very fine perfomances by MacDonald and Koughan in difficult roles.

MacDonald’s Mr. Wells is a goofy, kind man who loves books and writing and wants to bring out the best in his students. When the troubled Laura reveals her creative writing talent he pushes her to express herself. They start a friendly writing club – for two.

MacDonald balances the goodness in Mr. Wells with a much less appealing sexual side; his overall body language of comfort and control is very interesting.

mr.wells10Playwright Rose Napoli makes great thematic use of The Great Gatsby which Josh MacDonald as Mr. Wells reads to his student Laura in Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells). Stoo Metz

Koughan treads Laura’s complicated emotional line very well. The teenager is demanding, brilliant and desperate for love. Recovering from an attempted suicide and fatherless, she mistakes Mr. Wells’ concern for romance and pushes him hard into a forbidden world.

The chemistry – both sexual and romantic – between MacDonald and Koughan is deeply felt. The sex scenes have no nudity – thank God! – but are realistic and disturbing. (The actors worked with intimacy director Amanda Cutting, and the play comes with warnings of explicit language, underage sexual content and “simulated non-consensual intimacy.”

Leigh Ann Vardy’s hot lighting inside director Andrew Cull’s classroom with contrasting  dark, moodier lighting is part of a creative design that includes falling papers, Janet MacLellan’s apt costumes and sound designer Aaron Collier’s driving beats of heels on hard floors and booming door knocks.

This play will hit people in different ways depending on their experience. There is a warning that it may be a trigger for some people.

As a mother of a teen and also as an English major who had a crush on at least one high school English teacher – or two – I’ve been been lost in thought and likely will be for some time time to come. It runs at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. weekend matinees to Feb. 24.

Joyride just as thrilling as 25 years ago

Kya Mosey and Taylor Olson in Matchstick Theatre’s production of Michael Melski’s Joyride today, 2 and 8 p.m., Neptune studio theatre. (Samm Fisher)

Cape Breton playwright Michael Melski’s short, explosive Joyride is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.

Matchstick Theatre gives the tightly-structured, suspenseful play its hard-core strength as well as all the bells and whistles with two shows today, 2 and 8 p.m., wrapping up a short run at Neptune’s studio theatre as part of Neptune Theatre’s 2018/2019 Open Spaces program.

At just an hour long and $15, this is a great chance to see a Cape Breton classic first produced in raw, indie style and launching Melski’s career as a playwright and, now, filmmaker.

Matchstick brings this deeply honest, sometimes funny, play alive with fine acting by Kya Mosey, Henricus Gielis and Taylor Olson, sharply focussed directing by artistic director Jake Planinc and a great set design by Wes Babcock of car doors standing in for gravestones, Tim Horton’s and a pool table.

Joyride is set in post-industrial Sydney in 1994 with references to the steel mill and tar ponds. Its tragic story of disaffected youth looking to escape a dead-end town is universal.

Rachel (Mosey) is making minimum wage at the corner store she hung out in as a kid and unable to realize any of her dreams. Jess (Gielis) is also broke but more optimistic about home and inheriting his dad’s lawn mowing business. He is obviously in love with Rachel, though she’ll have none of it.

When their old friend Craig (Olson) returns home after jailtime in Halifax, he is thrilled to discover that Rachel’s boss has $40,000 in a safe.

Rachel, whose wit and intelligence surpass her prospects, is attracted to his danger and drive. The more slow-witted Jess is desperate to belong but so obviously doesn’t. Gielis makes him really empathetic and lovable.

Henricus Gielis takes his talent to Matchstick for a second time as Jess in Joyride. (Samm Fisher)

Mosey brings a natural quality to Rachel. She gets all her edges but also a sweet side and a sense of humour so one cares about her future. Olson, with his blond hair long and lank, fuels Craig with an inner rage, intelligence and initial appeal.

Melski writes with a pace like a car’s wheels spinning faster and faster as those in the audience want to shout out, “No, don’t do that.”

Adding greatly to Joyride’s imaginative design is an excellent lighting design by Alison Crosby, who is emerging lighting designer for Neptune’s Chrysalis Project, contemporary costumes by designer Kelsey Stanger and a good use sound by designer Jordan Palmer. Stage manager Chelsea Dickie is in charge of picking up all those Tim Horton’s cups.

Matchstick is an emerging, Halifax-based company dedicated to revitalizing contemporary Canadian plays. Since 2017 it has produced seven plays and received Merritt Award nominations. Newly a registered non-profit, the company is able to receive donations through Theatre Nova Scotia’s partnership program. Information and advance tickets are online (www.matchsticktheatre.ca).joyride-17
Wes Babcock’s stellar set design with Alison Crosby’s light. (Samm Fisher)