The Blazing World: funny, pointed, sci-fi, comedy with a giant bug puppet

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Playwright Colleen MacIsaac stars as a despairing scientist experiencing a sci-fi utopian world in The Villain Theatre’s The Blazing World, at the Neptune studio theatre through Sunday. (photo by Stoo Metz) 

Colleen MacIsaac’s The Blazing World is a brilliant, hopeful, 90-minute comedy about environmental issues and a depressed scientist.
Literate, funny and theatrically inventive, the play is refreshing in tackling today’s fears and despair about climate change.
In fact, MacIsaac’s script is based on a 1666 proto-science fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, in which the lead character travels to an imaginary, utopian world.
MacIsaac stars as Peg Newcastle, a scientist studying a nearly extinct “glacier stone fly” living on a dissolving glacier in the Rocky Mountains. When she is offered an international environmental advocacy job, she alienates her partner Em by a self-absorbed despair about the efficacy of one individual fighting climate change.
It’s unclear exactly how she gets sucked into an alternate world during a dramatic storm at sea but no matter. What a wonderful world it is!
Peg finds herself guided by a trio of polar bears who can stand and communicate in growls and clapped hands. She falls underwater into a world of amazing sea creatures beautifully realized as puppets with a Mermaid Theatre level of quality, elegance and imaginative wonder.
Then she meets a giant stone fly, a proud scientist with an understated sense of humour, in a fantastic, comic performance by Dan Bray, with an incredible, bug costume by designer Jordyn F. Bochon.
The Villain’s Theatre is producing The Blazing World through the Open Spaces program, run by Theatre Nova Scotia and Neptune Theatre, with support from Arts Nova Scotia. The program gives a theatre company with new work one week of free performance space with technical and administrative support.
The Villain’s Theatre has jumped at the chance for increased tech with Matthew Downey’s beautiful lighting design animating the puppetry and creating watery and Aurora-lights effects on a backdrop of garbage-bag plastic.
The sophisticated lights and sound design with original music by Jenny Trites are twinned with the creative low-tech, glacier-inspired set by Katrin Whitehead, who also made all the wonderful puppets including funny, shadow puppetry pieces.
Ryanne Chisholm, director and choreographer, weaves her ensemble cast of Bray, Noella Murphy and Gina Thornhill with energy, clarity and comic rhythm
MacIsaac stars the highly inquisitive, fast-talking, punning Peg, a highly engaging character who’s fun to journey with.

(Stoo Metz)

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The Blazing World, based on Cavendish’s A Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World, is recommended for kids 12 and up. Its final message that individuals can act to combat climate disaster is a good one for people of all ages.
It’s a short run through April 15 with shows tonight 8 p.m. (Chip Night); Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. (Talkback) and Sunday, 3 p.m., at the Neptune Theatre Scotiabank Stage. Tickets are at the Neptune box office (www.neptunetheatre.com.)
The Villain’s Theatre, founded originally as Vile Passeist Theatre in 2009 by Bray, artistic director, and MacIsaac, artistic producer, likes to inject new life (into classical works. It holds a spring soiree and season launch May 5. Continue reading “The Blazing World: funny, pointed, sci-fi, comedy with a giant bug puppet”

Diary of Anne Frank as haunting as ever

The Diary of Anne FrankTAG (2) Sarah Chalmers as Anne Frank tries on the fur coat so beloved by Mrs. van Daan (Rayna Smith-Camp) in the Theatre Arts Guild’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, running to April 21 in the community theatre’s Pond Playhouse. (photo by Bruce Goodick)

 

 

I have never totally forgiven my mother for presenting me with The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 13.
I so strongly identified with the teen writer that the tragedy of her merciless death has always haunted me.
Theatre Arts Guild’s powerful and moving production of The Diary of Anne Frank brings it all back as director Bill VanGorder and his cast vividly re-create the Amsterdam hideout where Anne and seven people escaped from the Nazis for over two years.
When Otto Frank’s daughter Margot was called up to report for a German work camp, he hid his family in a secret third-floor annex to his office building. Joining the family were Hermann and Petronella van Daan and their son Peter, and a dentist, Mr. Dussel.
This play, a new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman from the 1956 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, focusses on the eight’s daily life full of challenges and squabbles as Anne journeys through her diary to deeper realizations about life.
Anne, in a charming, high-spirited performance by Sarah Chalmers, starts out hating her mother and provoking the shy Peter. She is jealous of her perfect, quiet sister Margot, worships her father and barely puts up with her roommate, Mr. Dussel. Yet her vivacity and cheerfulness, her essentially giving nature, keep the others going from day-to-day.
VanGorder beautifully moves his fine ensemble of actors in an atmospherically-lit, highly detailed, living area almost the same size as the actual annex. Roxanne Smith based her set design, rooted in realism, on an exploding Star of David.
VanGorder creates lovely tableaux of the characters quietly about their business in a dim sepia light while bright light targets those talking dramatically.
The Hanukkah celebration with a lit menorah, Anne’s gifts born of privation but so much appreciated and a lovely group song is very touching.
Esther VanGorder’s sound design conveys the outside world in terms of radio news, the hostile German pronouncements against the Jews and suspicious noises.
Just as spring comes and hope blooms this story reaches its end with the sound of boots and German voices.
The end is so much sadder after the vitality, love and even occasional joy of the annex’s inhabitants, beautifully made flesh by the actors.
Terry Coolen is a strong presence as the kind and decent Otto Frank. A dentist himself, Lowell Shore brings spice and sonorous vocals to Mr. Dussel. Rayna Smith-Camp adds deep humanity to the wealthy, sarcastic Mrs. van Daan in a conflicted marriage with the boorish Mr. van Daan (Patrick Charron).
All the actors are solid in theirs part including Jennifer Robbins as Anne’s struggling mother, Maddi McKay as her resigned sister, Benjamin Leger as Peter, Joshua Law as Otto’s business partner Mr. Kraler and Jocelyn Covert as the beloved Miep Gies, who delivers food and news to the annex.
Gies, who died in 2010 at the age of 100, recovered Anne’s diary after the family was taken and gave it to Otto Frank at war’s end. Otherwise this story would have been lost.
At the end of the two-and-a-half hour play with intermission I am haunted again by Anne and her faith in humanity and the future. She wrote: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
In truth, I am always grateful to my mother – a huge believer in social justice –  for opening my eyes with The Diary of Anne Frank.
This impassioned production by the long-running community theatre has a  huge production team including producer Kate Hendry, lighting designer Gayle Hughson and costumes lead Pam Wood.

It runs to April 21, at the Pond Playhouse, 6 Parkhill Rd., with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information go online (tagtheatre.com).

Half-Cracked is whole fun

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Genevieve Steele stars as Sugar Mary with Christian Murray as a folklorist and Sharleen Kalayil as her sister Yewina in Eastern Front Theatre’s premiere of Mary-Colin Chisholm’s Half-Cracked: The Legend of Sugar Mary, presented by Neptune Theatre at its studio theatre in Halifax to April 1.

(photo by Stoo Metz)

Nova Scotia playwright Mary-Colin Chisholm’s new comedy, Half-Cracked: The Legend of Sugar Mary, is a wild, enchanting ride into the lives of two unusual sisters who love storytelling – and chickens.
The magic realist writing, the glorious set of Holly Carr’s storybook, silk paintings and a  magical use of props make this a highly intriguing show apart from the top-notch performances and good laughs.
Reality is super heightened in a two-hour play with intermission as Sugar Mary constantly mythologizes her limited existence. One day when she’s talking to her favourite chicken, Sheila, she senses imminent change.
Just then the folklorist Scott, with a broken-down Volvo, knocks at the door much to the surprise of Sugar Mary’s suspicious, straight-shooting sister Yewina.
Hungry for company, Sugar Mary barrages Scott with community stories, gossip and a legend that he thinks is fit for his long overdue masters’ thesis.
The first act sags a bit with a lot of storytelling and little action. The second act is a hilarious firecracker with a final touch of pathos as Scott reveals his Norwegian folk dancing skills, Sugar Mary acts on her dreams of love and sex, the chickens are in peril and a mystery is solved.
Genevieve Steele, nominated for a 2018 Merritt Award for her portrayal of an odd, malevolent sister in Snake in the Grass, turns all her physical and vocal skills to this equally isolated but benign, funny character in a highly kinetic, sparkling performance. She beautifully manages Sugar Mary’s character tic of mangling and mispronouncing words.
Steele’s magnificent performance is beautifully balanced by Neptune newcomer Sharleen Kalayil’s richly detailed, solidly comic turn as the terse, hunter-provider Yewina, annoyed by – yet fiercely protective of – her sister. Christian Murray’s Scott is wonderful, particularly in the purely comedic moments.
Director Martha Irving keeps the verbal furnace stoked and the stories in motion as Chisholm reveals and celebrates these marginalized, rural characters,  partly inspired by tales she has heard over the years in her native Antigonish.
The silk paintings and the words are a match made in heaven. Carr’s panels playfully  describe a kitchen set;  at their tops are images from Sugar Mary’s tales lit up for each telling.
The ingenious use of  movement, props and sound design recalls the visual joy in Sheldon Currie’s Lauchie, Liza and Rory.  You hear the sound of tea being poured from an invisible pot into a real cup. When Sugar Mary opens an invisible cookie jar and offers it to Scott he somehow pulls out a real cookie. There’s magic afoot.
Apart from Carr as scenic artist, the design team includes set designer Garrett Barker, costume designer Jordyn Bochon, sound designer June Zinck, lighting designer/stage manager Ingrid Risk, choreographer Ryanne Chisholm and assistant director Jacob Planinc.
An Eastern Front Theatre world premiere, presented by Neptune Theatre, Half-Cracked is on stage to April 2 in the studio theatre.

Note: Next up at the studio theatre is Drew Hayden Taylor’s In a World Created by a Drunken God, May 1 to May 20. The Merritt Awards are March 26 at the casino.

Salt-Water Moon wonderful transformative theatrical experience

Neptune studio theatre’s production of David French’s classic love story Salt-Water Moon is a little gem of a play.
Running 85 minutes without intermission, it stars two up-and-coming young Atlantic Canadian actors Kelin Boyd and Nathan Simmons and evokes a coastal Newfoundland world full of moonlight, stars, rock and sea.
French’s story is poetic and magical – what love story isn’t ? – but also rooted in the harshness of Newfoundland life.
Set in Coley’s Point in 1926, the lovers Mary and Jacob are haunted by the history of the First World War, in particular the July 1, 1916, tragedy of the advance at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
They are angry at social and economic injustice and with each other. Mary, 17, fell in love with Jacob the previous summer only to have him leave without an explanation or a goodbye. Now she’s engaged to a dull but stable school teacher.
On this moonlit summer night Jacob has returned from Toronto to woo her.
The beauty in Salt-Water Moon lies in the language and culture of Newfoundland with the push and pull of love and hate and a final joy in resolution.
Jacob is a born storyteller and Simmons does a grand job delivering the tales in vocal and physical acting. A Fountain School of Performing Arts graduate and film and TV actor, he is totally charming in this part. Mary may not love him but the audience sure does.
Boyd, who is from Newfoundland, has the accent down perfectly and creates a fierce, intelligent spitfire who loves the stars and believes in ghosts. Her emotional control is excellent.
The Newfoundland rapidity of speech makes it hard to hear every single word.
The staging is magical with excellent movement design by Halifax director Martha Irving on a front porch and giant slanted rock on wharf-like posts.
Katrin Whitehead’s lovely set for this intimate stage represents the sea in a rolling blue plastic with twinkle lights beneath a canopy of stars.
This artificial world, with Leigh Ann Vardy’s exquisite lighting, becomes so real that when Jacob skips an invisible stone people turn their heads to watch its journey.
Salt-Water Moon’s atmosphere is boosted by composition by Fiona Ryan and period costumes including Mary’s famous yellow dress by Helena Marriott.
Based on the courtship of French’s parents, it belongs to the late playwright’s famous quintet of plays about the Mercer family.
This production is a wonderful experience in transformative theatre and runs to Feb. 18.
On opening night Neptune Theatre’s new artistic director Jeremy Webb joked that Neptune had a plan to keep Irving off the streets. She is directing the next studio production of Half-Cracked: The Legend of Sugar Mary, by Halifax-based playwright Mary-Colin Chisholm, and a co-production with Eastern Front Theatre, March 13 to April 1.
(Photo Credit: Stoo Metz)