The Bitterest Time: powerful N.S. drama about wartime heroine Mona Parsons

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Rachel Hastings as Wendy receives a potato from Amanda LeBlanc as Mona in The Bitterest Time: The War Story of Mona Parsons, by Andria Hill-Lehr and Sarah Jane Blenkhorn.  (Bruce Dienes)

The Bitterest Time: The War Story of Mona Parsons is a powerful, deeply affecting play about the resilience of the human spirit as two women struggle to survive in a Nazi prison cell.

Thanks to Wolfville writer Andria Hill-Lehr, the story of Nova Scotian Mona Parsons – the only female Canadian civilian to be imprisoned by the Nazis in Occupied Holland – has come to light.

The Middleton-born nurse and dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York married a Dutch millionaire and, after harbouring Allied soldiers at her estate, was arrested by the Nazis when she was 41, first sentenced to execution and then, on appeal, to prison. She spent three years in Nazi prisons including at Vechta where she befriended a young baroness.

This is their story of friendship and endurance as Mona buoys Wendy’s spirits with her infectious humour, imagination and love of song, dance and poetry.

Beautifully structured as a narrative with flashbacks, The Bitterest Time starts with an unseen voice, that of Hill-Lehr on her journey to discover the personality of Parsons as she talks to the elderly, rigid and unfriendly Wendelien (in a fine performance by Carroll Godsman).

Wendelien reluctantly agrees to open the closed box on her war experience and reveal the astonishing, tough, loving, lively, artistic character of Mona Parsons.

This co-production by LunaSea Theatre and SarAndipity Theatre, which just wrapped a mini-tour of Nova Scotia, featured a remarkable performance by Amanda LeBlanc as Mona.

The actor had to climb mountains of brief joy and then burrow into the depths of despair as Mona struggles to keep her sanity and her will to live.  She needed to dance like a light-hearted sparrow then hobble on bloodied feet; she needed anger and she needed lyricism when Mona quotes from Emily Bronte’s poems (the source of the title).

The success of The Bitterest Time depends on the casting of Parsons and the young Wendelien, called Wendy. Director Ryanne Chisholm struck gold in the chemistry between LeBlanc and Rachel Hastings as the rigid, fierce 23-year-old Dutch woman reluctant to share her story or yield to the power of Mona’s imagination.

In focussing on Mona’s time in prison, this play traps its audience in the grimness of a cell with an excellent design in sets by Vickie Marston, lights by Vicky Williams, costumes by Noella Murphy and sound by Jenny Trites. You can almost feel the grime and see the little bird singing outside the cell window.

This production also featured the striking Sharleen Kalayil as a pregnant prisoner and nasty, apple-eating prison guard and the charming Garry Williams as Mona’s husband as well as the young Nova Scotian soldier, Clarence Leonard, who rescued Mona after she walked out of Germany. In fact, the real Clarence Leonard’s son attended this show.

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Garry Williams as Nova Scotia soldier Clarence Leonard giving the freed Mona Parsons a cup of tea. (Bruce Dienes)

Co-writers Hill-Lehr and Sarah Jane Blenkhorn, of SarAndipity, plan to present The Bitterest Time again. “Given the power of the story and the interest it attracts, we think that it has a future here, and beyond Nova Scotia as well,” says Blenkhorn.

That would be great because this is a woman’s war story, a Nova Scotian story and, as another glimpse into the horrors of war, a warning about the savagery of humans beings if their cruelty is left unchecked.

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Sharleen Kalayil as a prison guard with Amanda LeBlanc as Mona Parsons and Rachel Hastings as Wendy. (Bruce Dienes)

High and low tech meld in Onelight’s mesmerizing Asheq

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Onelight Theatre’s artistic director Shahin Sayadi is the actor, writer, director and scenographer, among other things, for Asheq: Ritual Music to Cure a Lover, at Halifax’s Sir James Dunn Theatre and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in December. (Onelight Theatre)

It’s amazing what one man can do with cloth, music and light.

In the hour-long Asheq: Ritual Music to Cure a Lover, Onelight Theatre’s artistic director Shahin Sayadi tells a Middle Eastern story as an enchantment of light and music with the basic pain of human experience.

His story is set in the hot sun by the sea on the Persian Gulf in a southern Iranian village where men dive for pearls and believe in a Zoroastrian goddess-figure of light, Mithra. They live in a world where light struggles with dark, good with evil.

Sayadi travelled to Spain and his native Iran to create Asheq with glorious, driving music commissioned from two, international musicians with southern Iranian roots: Habib Meftahoushehri and Mohsen Sharifian.

Sayadi was inspired by the East African and Persian traditions of southern Iran where modern Zar exorcism rituals are still held.

Sayadi creates an exotic world on a simple stage of sand with cement blocks and ropes to lift white, cloth walls that become, through light and moving image, heat, sun, sunset, the surface of the ocean and its watery depths.

The story is about a man whose simple path in life is interrupted by grief and about his son’s love for an outcast woman which leads to a Zar exorcism of ecstatic dancing, drumming and chanting.

Sayadi is gifted at moving from his main character into a woman and a young boy simply by shifting his body and using a length of cloth.

Anyone interested in theatrical lighting must see Asheq for its fantastic, lush, expressive lighting design by Mike Mader, with stunning yellows and chilly blots of grey and floods of red when the bad stuff happens.

Asheq is a fascinating mix of basic, primitive storytelling with a sophisticated technology involving light, live video and sound with digital technology by Jake Dambergs and projections designed by Nick Bottomley.

It’s takes a while to relax and get into this mysterious world which becomes mesmerizing. Sometimes the music fights too much with Sayadi’s voice for attention.

Asheq straddles theatre and contemporary theatrical dance. It’s up to the viewer to decide what it is about exactly.

For me it is an insight into stories of the outcast, of one seeking refuge, of communities expelling who they perceive as evil, of the nature of family shame – concepts I like to think are old-fashioned but really are not.

Onelight Theatre takes this hour-long show to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Dec. 6 to 8. Its Halifax premiere is part of the Prismatic Arts Festival, an annual multi-disciplinary professional arts festival featuring work by Canada’s Indigenous and culturally diverse artists, running through Sunday in Halifax with a slew of music, theatre and art including a show on a bus. For Prismatic details go online (http://prismaticfestival.com/)Shauntay Grant launched her new book Africville at Prismatic and reads Saturday, 11 a.m. at Halifax Central Library as part of Word on the Street.

Fall in Love with Shakespeare in Love

ShakespeareInLoveMediaCall-107A  merry band of reprobate actors and producers in Shakespeare in Love, Neptune Theatre’s rollicking, witty season-opener, on stage to Oct. 7. (Stoo Metz) 

Neptune Theatre’s popular new artistic director Jeremy Webb makes the winter of Atlantic Canadian actors’ discontent glorious summer with his first season-opener.

He casts local and homegrown talent, instead of importing from Toronto, and he casts inclusively with African-Nova Scotian and Asian actors.

But the play’s the thing and this must-see Shakespeare in Love is fun, witty, intelligent theatre with the bravado of The Three Muskeeteers, a zip-line pace and some real, stir-the-loins romance.

The actors – and one adorable dog –  converge on a beautiful Globe-esque stage of dark wood with a prerequisite balcony and lush, painterly lighting.

The cast is fantastic with perfect, intense, articulate performances by the leads: Sarah English, who played Juliet at Neptune, as Viola, the noble young woman who would be a player, and Allister MacDonald as Will Shakespeare, the intense, playful, dissembling and desperate writer with a deep capacity for love.

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Allister MacDonald and Sarah English as Will Shakespeare and Viola. (Stoo Metz)

They tease out the tangle of a play-within-a-play, gender-bending and swashbuckling to make the love scenes pure, sweet and real  – real enough to convince Jennie Raymond’s arch and wonderful Queen Elizabeth I that a play can demonstrate true love.

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Jennie Raymond is Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. (Stoo Metz)

Webb, a classically-trained British actor with a talent for comedy, directs the merry, penniless band of actors, writers and producers for maximum comedy and lovable qualities.  These folk move in a rough and tumble Elizabethan England at the rapid, lively rhythm of any Shakespearean comedy.

The actors clearly relish their theatrical, over-the-top characters. Stand-outs include Marty Burt as the desperate producer Hemslowe, Jacob Sampson as the swashbuckling actor Ned Alleyn, Simon Henderson as the equally bombastic, self-adoring actor Burbridge, Josh MacDonald as the simpering Lord Chamberlain, Jim Fowler as the money-man Fennyman and Susan Stackhouse as Viola’s nurse.

Heck, every cast member is accomplished so I’ll name them all:  Wayne Burns as Marlowe, Kevin Curran as Lord Wessex, Andrew Chandler, Adrian Choong, Colby Conrad, Lisa Corey, Kya Mosey and Nathan Simmons.

The play is produced by a creative team of 11 including set and costume designer Joanna Yu, who does a remarkable job working in sepia browns of olden days with the marvellous exception of Queen Elizabeth’s stunning, red gown, lighting designer Jessica Lewis, choreographer Mary Lou Martin, fight director Karen Bassett and musical director Chuck Homewood —  the music being a lovely added layer.

Shakespeare in Love is based on the 1998 award-winning movie with its screenplay written by British playwright Tom Stoppard – which is why the movie and play are so literate – and American screenwriter Marc Norman.

It belongs to the canon of wonderful plays about theatre with lots of inside jokes, familiar stereotypes and a love for art, life and love. Neptune also presents Noises Off, a farce about staging a play, Feb. 26 to March 17.

Webb demonstrated his lineage on opening night  in bringing former artistic director Linda Moore and founding artistic director Leon Major on stage.

They are directors in The Lear Project, March 22 to 24, with Richard Donat.  Also for Shakespeare lovers is Hamlet by Below The Salt (Ken Schwartz and Jackie Torrens). Jan. 9 to 20. Torrens is Hamlet in an immersive production  in an Edwardian dining room.

Elapultiek: lovely fireside journey into a Mi’kmaw perspective on the world

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shalan joudry, left, and Matthew Lumley perform in joudry’s fireside play Elapultiek, commissioned by Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, first staged at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, now touring Nova Scotia. (Macky Schwartz)

Being non-indigenous, the experience of seeing the Mi’kmaw play Elapultiek is both  illuminating and warming.

That’s not just because it’s told around a blazing fire with the croaking ravens, the wind, the trees and the stars echoing the play’s messages about land, culture and ecology.

It’s because playwright shalan joudry gives her audience a rare and true insight into Mi’kmaw culture as she portrays Nat, a young M’kmaw drum singer in conflict with Bill, a biologist counting endangered Chimney Swifts on disputed land.

As they meet on count nights, the two try to forge the vast cultural divide between the Mi’kmaw and Nova Scotia’s European descendants.

jodry’s quiet passion is clear in both her words and her acting as Nat,  who is feisty but  falters when the odds are stacked against her.

Matthew Lumley is endearing as the baffled and stodgy but kind Bill. The biologist has dedicated his whole life to species conservation and cannot believe he’s seeing someone talking to a fire.

Nat believes rocks are animate and that Euro-centric science can’t explain the world as well as her ancestors did.

Two Planks and a Passion Theatre commissioned joudry to write for its fireside stage and the company’s artistic director Ken Schwartz directs.

The one hour, 15-minute piece has the rhythm of a sacred ritual with the actors’ movements in the dark lit only by fire.

This effect is particularly lovely when Nat tells a story of the passing seasons with joudry prowling around the fire as a bear star.

Elapultiek  is a healing journey for its characters and its audience with a glimmer  of hope at the end.

When Nat questions if she can make any meaningful change, joudry throws that same question out to her audience.

Schwartz thinks this is the first full-length play by a Mi’kmaw writer commissioned by a Nova Scotia company. “We plan on touring this work again next year.”

Elapultiek (ehl-ah-bool-dee-egg) — “we are looking towards” —  plays Eskasoni tonight (Sept. 6), Millbrook (Sept. 7) and Kejimukujik National Park (Sept. 8, 8 p.m., The Campfire Circle in P2 Jeremy’s Bay Campground.)

joudry, who writes with humour and grace, is an oral storyteller and ecologist from the traditional district of Kespukwitk (southwestern Nova Scotia). She first worked with Two Planks and a Passion in 1998 in its production of Drew Hayden Taylor’s 400 km. She lives in L’sitkuk (Bear River First Nation).

“It’s a crucial time to have these conversations,” she says, in a press release. “The power of performance can engage audience in ways that moves them to ask more questions about the past and future.”

 

Wonder at the talent in comical Alice

AliceThe cast of Shakespeare by the Sea’s Alice in Wonderland at Cambridge Battery, Point Pleasant Park. (Nick Harrison)

I have watched my little girl grow up watching Shakespeare by the Sea’s all-ages, comic variations on classic tales.

Now the company is 25 and she is 18 and living in Montreal. So this summer I took my Ontario great-nieces — eight and 13 – and my sister. I knew the show would be great but they were dubious. At the end the beaming kids  said, “Can we see more of their shows?”

Alice in Wonderland is a reprise of the company’s 2012 hit and a laugh-out-loud, musically-rich, high-energy comedy. The remarkably talented actors and singers totally invest themselves in the wacky world of Lewis Carroll, made even wackier here.

The show, directed by its first director Jesse MacLean, brings back 2012 audience favourites of Kathryn McCormack as The Mad Hatter, Simon Rainville as the White Rabbit and Tom Gordon Smith, who is so funny and wickedly imperial as The Queen of Hearts.

This production is blessed with the golden-voiced Melissa MacGougan as Alice, who plays the imaginative, adventure-seeking heroine as an earnest, genuinely perplexed, ultimately savvy 12-year-old. (She has a wonderful soprano voice for hitting some tricky notes.)

As is usual in these popular, collectively-created adaptations of children’s classics, Alice   is full of rapid-fire, contemporary references from the Brady Bunch to the movie Bodyguard that may go over kids’ heads but leave adults like my sister in stitches.

The show moves so fast and with so much energy, talent, dance and song that it doesn’t matter if a child doesn’t know or understand all the references, or hasn’t read both Alice books. However, it’s richer if you do; for instance, the giant Cheshire grin rising like a moon makes more sense.

Told by four cards singing barbershop harmonies and making tons of puns, the play has a wonderful, purple-clad, somewhere-between-helpful-and-menacing, Cheshire cat in Peter Sarty, a jazzy caterpillar split in two performed by McCormack and Jade Douris,  a sweet, sleepy Dormouse (also played by Douris) and a great manifestation of the multi-eyed and truly scary Jabberwocky.

This is a showperson’s piece complete with jazz hands.

Alice in Wonderland, with its award-nominated score created by Jeremy Hutton and fantastic, detailed costumes, runs to Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. at Cambridge Battery with indoor matinees at 1 p.m. at Park Place Theatre.  You can reserve in advance if you wish online (http://www.shakespearebythesea.ca/index.html).SBTS
Great-niece Illyanna Ellis with the Cheshire Cat (Peter Sarty) and the Mad Hatter (Kathryn McCormack).

 

 

It can happen at Any Given Moment: Ship’s Co.’s intense new drama

Ships_Any_Given_Moment_2018-20 Wally MacKinnon is Bill in Kim Parkhill’s explosive, contemporary drama Any Given Moment, at Ship’s Company Theatre, Parrsboro, to Sept. 2 before a New Brunswick tour. (Dave Risk)

Halifax playwright Kim Parkhill explores the fear of random violence in her explosive, 90-minute drama, Any Given Moment, at Ship’s Company Theatre to Sept. 2.

Three disparate characters are caught in a city-block lock-down in a church. They have no idea what is going on outside.

This story starts with Emma, an unsettled, angry, 21-year-old young barista who knows “the world is shit.”

Played with intensity and rage by recent Dalhousie University theatre graduate Claudia Gutierrez-Perez, she is plagued by a mind of whirring, existential thought and wonders if people are connected, if one individual’s decision has a domino effect or no effect at all, if life has meaning or none.

Emma is forced to communicate with people when she is trapped with an uptight housewife and a homeless man, both of whom bring a lot of humour to Parkhill’s play.

Halifax actor Alexis Milligan finely hones Lisa, a stressed-out, upper class mother and housewife who is a bundle of fears.

New Brunswick actor, Wally MacKinnon, makes a welcome return to Ship’s as the lovable homeless man Bill, a tormented character who possesses the least in life but finds its smallest joys.

The three fear each other — as well as the unknown — but are forced to forge a tenuous connection.  Parkhill’s view of the world is ultimately optimistic.

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Claudia Gutierrez-Perez, Wally MacKinnon and Alexis Milligan star in Any Given Moment. (Dave Risk)

Parkhill’s ideas are good, thought-provoking and very current; her dramatic structure solid. She references the Moncton shootings and the Halifax mall plot.

As this co-production with Theatre New Brunswick tours New Brunswick, including Fredericton, from Sept. 4 to 16,  audience members will think of the recent, tragic Fredericton shootings.

Ship’s Company artistic producer Natasha MacLellan directs for conflict and suspense in the dimly lit church with set design by Katharine Jenkins-Ryan. Lights designed by Ingrid Risk and sound designed by Aaron Collier keep the fear of the outside world high.

Cathleen McCormack’s costumes are great for the Lululemon-like wear for Lisa, Bill’s homeless garb and Emma’s teen clothing.

Since I love details, I’d like to know exactly what did happen out there as they sat in the church. It’s left unclear.

Any Given Moment, running to Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays, is the last show MacLellan directs before joining Theatre New Brunswick this fall as its new artistic director.

While at Ship’s, she brought Jacob Sampson’s Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story, winner of six Merritt Awards, to the stage. Ship’s remounts this not-to-be-missed production Oct. 18 to 20 with Sampson, Marty Burt, Micha Cromwell and Zach Faye.
For tickets and more details call 1-800-565-SHOW or go online (www.shipscompanytheatre.com).

Mary-Colin brings her magic to Ship’s Co.

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Karen Bassett and Martha Irving star in Mary-Colin Chisholm’s Hook, Line & Sinner, to July 29 at Ship’s Company Theatre, Parrsboro. (Jennifer Harrison)

Sister Vivian Salter is back in action solving crime and cracking up an audience in Mary- Colin Chisholm’s mystery-comedy Hook, Line & Sinner.
The third instalment in Ship’s Company Theatre’s series, this play is highly entertaining, wonderfully local and warm-hearted with a convivial, village community of old salts, arty new agers, an embittered single mother and various pets.
Chisholm’s play is smart and silly, well-crafted, and then produced with lovely details to make it the perfect summer theatre package.
Sister Salter, incarnated by Martha Irving, has come home to Parrsboro for a writer’s retreat at Dominion House, much like Ottawa House. (The cat is named Tupper.)
The sleuthing nun is happy to see two old, high school friends, the doctor Maureen and the heart-throb paleontologist Ken, who recently moved back to buy a fancy house with his second wife, the hot-headed Lucia (Natasha MacLellan).
But on the night of the Confederation gala Lucia is murdered and Ken is the prime suspect. Like Miss Marple or Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher, Sister Salter must use all of her keen intelligence to figure out the real culprit.
Director Natasha MacLellan — just named new artistic director at Theatre New Brunswick — has a wonderful cast in Irving as the satirical, astute, no-nonsense detective.
Karen Bassett is a scream as a non-stop-baking, single mother who loves to dance, criticize her neighbours and run community events, all the while seething with an unknown resentment. Her performance is a physical and verbal gem.
Julia Williams has a wonderful pacing, warmth and use of her hands as expressive tools  as Maureen. Her description of one amorous night is hilarious.
She and Bassett also play the wacky comical duo of Bliss and Felicity, neo-hippies who are enthralled by the area.
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Martha Irving as Sister Vivian Salter is flanked by a comical, neo-hippie couple played by Karen Bassett, left, and Julia Williams in this classic whodunnit.  (Jennifer Harrison)

Kevin Curran’s Scampy, the quirky fisherman who mangles the language and owns a misanthropic dog, is a comic highlight, while Stephen Cross anchors Ken as the suspicious, handsome academic. Micha Cromwell, a natural on stage, plays his daughter.
Chisholm cleverly combines the academics of paleontology and Sister Salter’s research into Hildegard with the pure comedy of local characters and Maritime humour. Her references run from Dante to fluff to the game of Clue.
The design elements are elegant and classy with Garrett Barker’s set of three housefronts, Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting, Andrea Ritchie’s costumes and the poignant, light touch of a sound design including medieval song by Aaron Collier.
Laughs are guaranteed during this good-hearted, two-hour play with intermission at Ship’s Company Theatre to July 29.
Interestingly, Mary-Colin Chisholm starred as Sister Salter in the first two mysteries. She and Martha Irving, who starred at Ship’s Co. in The (Post) Mistress, are friends and co-founders of Lunasea Theatre.