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

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

Walk across The Bridge: powerful, poetic, Black N.S. story with gospel music

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Jacob Sampson as John Solomon and Sophia Walker as Anna in The Bridge, a 2b theatre and Neptune Theatre co-production in association with Obsidian Theatre at Neptune to Feb. 10. (Stoo Metz) 

Shauntay Grant’s The Bridge is a powerful, poetic, 75-minute drama about an embattled soul told with the heartache of gospel music and an all-Black cast.

In Grant’s rural Nova Scotian community people perceive life through the lens of religion and the play is steeped in religious music and biblical references, including the Song of Solomon.

Not surprising since Grant is an award-winning poet and former Halifax poet laureate, the style is less a linear narrative and more a rich, poetic structure with repeating themes, words and songs. Framing the drama is a phrase from an African-American spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead/to heal the sin-sick soul.”

In 2b theatre’s premiere production on Neptune’s mainstage to Feb. 10, Nova Scotia’s Jacob Sampson is terrific as the central character John Solomon, who has been estranged from his preacher-brother, Reverend Eli (Jim Codrington) for 22 years.

John is an embittered drinker, a loving father, a man who can’t control his rage, who can’t forgive, who can’t crawl deep inside himself to see the truth.

The cast, seated in darkness behind a giant wooden bridge, is a Greek chorus sitting in judgment with whispering voices that swirl around John like ghosts.

The spirit of his deceased wife Anna — in a sensual, highly expressive performance by Sophia Walker – steps forward to try to lead him through his past to a present-day healing.

The incident driving the plot is the death of John’s mother and the return of his son Samuel (Daniel Ellis) for the funeral – a funeral John, himself, refuses to attend.

Grant balances her intensely biblical, tragic story with three marvellous, gossipy, church ladies who prowl around the cemetery criticizing the folk they once knew.

2bnep - the bridge - media photos-45Charla Williams, Murleta Williams and Chiamaka G. Ugwe. (Stoo Metz)

They are also the choristers and come alive in magnificent, salty, comic performances by Halifax singer Charla Williams, Halifax singer and musical director Murleta Williams and Halifax-born actor/singer Chiamaka G. Ugwe.

2b theatre’s artistic director Anthony Black directs The Bridge to envelop the viewer in a sensory, spiritual experience of music, word images and a lovely, holy design while still highlighting the extremes of emotion and active suspense.

Apart from the bridge, itself, which is as metaphorical as it is utilitarian, Toronto-based designer Rachel Forbes suggests a country kitchen and a pulpit with a stagefront graveyard expressed in piles of dirt making one think immediately of “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

The church ladies’ costumes are in variations of browns and Leigh Ann Vardy’s subdued, golden, lighting design amid much darkness suits a play set in a real and a spirit world.

The Bridge is told in broad strokes of high emotion and a few plot details are confusing, though the emotional content is clear and deeply affecting.

Grant is 2b’s theatre playwright-in-residence and this is her first play. She writes in the program that she approaches language “with the sensibility of a poet concerned with voice and cadence, metaphor and symbolism, and – in works like The Bridge – achieving a communicable balance between the natural and the supernatural world.”

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Get Thee to the Theatre: Hamlet as you’ve never seen it before

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Micha Cromwell as Ophelia in Below the Salt’s Hamlet, staged at and on an enormous  Edwardian dining table, at Neptune’s studio theatre to Jan. 20. (Stoo Metz)

I’ve seen Hamlet at Point Pleasant Park, a film noir Hamlet and even Mel Gibson as Hamlet — what was I thinking?

I have never seen a Hamlet like Below the Salt’s startling, unique theatrical experience at the Neptune Studio Theatre to Jan. 20.

Jackie Torrens as Hamlet stomps on the longest Edwardian dining table this side of Downton Abbey in an intense, inventive, atmospheric production with the audience seated at the table, behind the table and in the Neptune’s studio theatre seats.

The six actors are a butler and five maids in black dresses and white aprons who decide to stage play around – and on –  the  dining table before guests arrive.

This Hamlet matches the intelligence and inventiveness of its director,  Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s artistic director Ken Schwartz, with the skill, ferocity and emotive power of Halifax actor Jackie Torrens as Hamlet.

Schwartz specializes in making Shakespeare’s language sound like natural conversation and the actors talk, even in the famous soliloquies, to the audience members seated at the table.

Schwartz has nurtured a tight-knit ensemble for outdoor theatre during the summer at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts near Canning. He takes some of those actors to the city including fan favourite Burgandy Code.

She brings Hamlet’s uncle, the usurping king, alive in a way I’ve never seen before – as a crafty, comfortably powerful, two-faced demagogue.

hamlet jan 2019-191Burgandy Code as the duplicitous king in Below the Salt’s Hamlet.  (Stoo Metz)

Schwartz also utilizes his magic for transforming everyday objects into things they aren’t. For example, Code dips a dining knife as a pen into a glass of scotch to write on a blood-red napkin as a piece of paper.

Jackie Torrens, who in real life is far apart in years and build from a young boy, is highly convincing and compelling as Hamlet.

Her blond hair pinned back to look boyish, her body stance stiff and solid, she brings a powerful, often restrained – other times violently unleashed – emotional torment to Hamlet that rings true.

I recognize the deep anxiety, the effort to mask it, the head-hitting in self-directed anger, as female. My husband disagrees entirely but he’s never forgiven me for taking him to Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.

hamlet jan 2019-82Jackie Torrens as Hamlet. (Stoo Metz) 

Geneviève Steele is an excellent Gertrude, both queenly and a fraught mother. She and Matthew Lumley are wonderful as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Steele slipping out of Rosencrantz and leaving behind a hat that Lumley holds as he switches into a high voice.

Sarah English and Micha Cromwell are both fine Ophelias, with English playing Laertes and Micha anchoring Hamlet’s friend Horatio as a more interesting, commanding and  loyal character than I’ve seen him played before.

It’s amazing that only six actors populate the stage. With the audience it seems like there are so many more players. The only quibble is that the device of the table while brilliant is sometimes distancing from the actors.

This production is intensely beautiful, like a Renaissance painting, with a great use of light by designer Susann Hudson – both overhead and as candles for an excellent ghost-on-the-ramparts scene with the ghost speaking in a scary, strangled whisper.

The design by Two Planks costume designer Jennifer Goodman and set designer Bob Chaisson is rich and polished, all dark wood with warmer golds and Ophelia’s shockingly white dress. Also on the creative team are assistant director Emily Jewer and stage manager Christine Oakey, with assistance by Virginia Iredale. Set pieces were built by “Ross Creek hero” Micah McGough.

It took four years to get this creative Hamlet to the stage. Tickets at the Neptune box office are going fast but are still available.

NOTE: The summer season at Ross Creek opens July 6 with three Two Planks and a Passion Theatre shows: the mainstage show, In This Light, an adaptation of An Enemy of the People by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Catherine Banks, the fireside performance of Frankenstein by Fire, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, and an end-of-season special performance of The Ruins by Nova Scotia playwright Gillian Clark. Tickets are already on sale (http://www.artscentre.ca/twoplankscurrent.html).