Category Archives: Madeline McParland

Human nature laid bare in ambitious production

Lion In The Streets

By Judith Thompson

Directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz

Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

February 12-21, 2015

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

Celebrated Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Lion In The Streets premiered 25 years ago to immediate acclaim. Set in an ethnic Toronto neighbourhood, the play is a series of interconnected stories that explores the complexities of human nature and exposes indecent behaviors that are often ignored. Director and choreographer Conrad Alexandrowicz has brought his interpretation of Lion In The Streets to life with UVic theatre students, in one of the most ambitious productions I have seen staged at Phoenix Theatre.

Isobel (played by Lindsay Curl) is the play’s central protagonist. The lost Portuguese girl is always present on stage, sometimes as the focus and sometimes as part of the audience, watching the troubled lives of her neighbours unfold. The first half of the play examines class issues and suburban life in Canada. Some intense moments dealt with marital infidelity, but the play also touched on humourous idiosyncrasies of contemporary life, such as Zoë Wessler’s portrayal of a mother, named Laura, who had everyone laughing at her shrill scream of “Bullshit!” when she interrogated a teacher about her child’s sugar intake at daycare. Multiple storylines made the plot difficult to follow at times, but dynamic acting compelled me to stop asking questions. Instead, I was caught in each powerful moment.

At first, I thought it peculiar most actors were present on stage, whether they were involved in the scene or not. They sat upstage and stood from time to time to rearrange chairs to fit the scene. Few props were used beside the chairs; instead the actors relied on intense physicality, acting as props or performing stunts. Actors not starring in the scenes, dressed in black, flitted around the main characters, sometimes to assist in spinning the characters in the air to emulate happiness. Other times, they would act as barriers to signify when a character felt emotionally trapped. Eventually, I decided this was a beautifully intriguing aspect of the play, and I recognized this perhaps as a trait of Alexandrowicz’s, an Associate Prof. at the University of Victoria, who is also artistic director of Vancouver company Wild Excursions Performance.

The humour came to a devastating halt in the second half of the play, when heavy social issues were explored deeply. Starting with Arielle Permack’s impressively strong portrayal of a woman with cerebral palsy, each scene hit harder than the last, dealing with emotionally charged issues such as gender, marital abuse, child abuse and death.

I was unsure how the stories would tie together in the end, yet I came to realize this play was truly about surrendering assumptions about storytelling. As the young girl Isobel watched these individuals’ experiences from beyond, just as the audience did, it became less about the mystery of her presence, and more about the reality of the convoluted, and disturbing, moments life can bring us.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

Alumni production packed with energy

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Adapted by Ron Reed from C.S Lewis’ Novel

Starring Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams

The Phoenix Theatre

Two added shows: Oct. 24 and 25 

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

Phoenix Theatre alumni Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams have been touring The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the past two years and now have brought it to the theatre that shaped their careers. The first book of the Narnia adventures is compressed into a famous two-hander play, but for me, C.S. Lewis’s hearty narrative is not well served by the play’s format.

The story is told in retrospect on behalf of brother and sister characters Peter and Lucy, who are revisiting the Wardrobe eight years after leaving home. The two actors recreate 10 different characters between them, including Mr Tumnus, Mr and Mrs. Beaver, the Queen and Aslan the lion. They did an impressive job navigating the play’s entire dialogue  — not an easy feat.

A simple set keeps the characters reminiscing in one room furnished by a chair, a lamp and a wardrobe, with a few fur coats for costume. Minimal props and lighting are used to indicate shifts in character or scenes. However, I found the constant switching back and forth between characters to be underwhelming. Peter and Lucy would talk — and with only a small accent adjustment and a white fur coat they’d become brother Edmund and the Queen.

The first half of the play had a steady pace — Narnia was nicely introduced and all the familiar references were there. Gordon’s portrayal of the Beavers was my favorite, as he hunched and waddled with vigour. I found Williams’s portrayal of the Queen to be her best character: she had the perfect cackle and looked just as irritated with Edmund as the rest of us felt.

Unfortunately, the second half of the play seemed rushed: all the best action was funneled into a whirlwind of shifting characters. Some of the best moments, the battle or the stone table, were undercut with overwhelming narration mixed with hurried dialogue. I was most looking forward to seeing the great lion, Aslan, but alas, he was only portrayed with a small throw blanket the actors passed back and forth.

The book has many beloved magical elements that create its fantastical narrative, and although I admire the play for taking on such an endeavor, the story calls for a performance that is a little more larger than life.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

Rez issues still powerful

The Rez Sisters

By Tomson Highway

Directed by Peter Hinton

Performed at the Belfry Theatre

Sept. 16 – Oct. 19

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

In The Rez Sisters, the dark realities of Indigenous women’s lives are staged with a blend of humor and truth.  Peter Hinton has headed theatre centers and organizations from Vancouver to Montreal and now he brings The Rez Sisters to life again after 28 years. Originally launched in 1986, The Rez Sisters is written by celebrated First Nations writer, Tomson Highway. As someone born after the play was first produced, I have grown up learning about the complex issues stemming from Canada’s colonization of Indigenous peoples; this play shows the “rez” issues are just as relevant as when I first learned of them.

The play follows a cast of female Indigenous characters living on Wasaychigan Hill Reserve in Northern Ontario. The women are all obsessed with their dream of winning the BIG BINGO. Pelajita Patchnose (Tantoo Cardinal) wants to stop roofing houses and move closer to her sons in Toronto; Annie Cook (Lisa C. Ravensbergen) wants to become a singer; and Marie Adele Starblanket (Tasha Faye Evans) looks to lighten the financial load of having 14 children. My favorite was Pelajita Patchnose’s (Tantoo Cardinal) comedic timing: nonchalantly threatening to hit her friends over the head with her roofing hammer and telling Annie Cook she has a “mouth like a helicopter.” Her quick lines always brought fast laughs that relieved any tension in the scene.

This intimate play is set entirely on a raked stage, on top of a shingled roof. Kudos to Tracey Nepinak, whose character, Philomena Moosetail, spent the entire play in heels. Other than minimal assistance by simple sound effects and lighting, the actors bring the play to life through animated dialogue. Although effective, I found the dialogue to be quite aggressive as it is riddled with swearing, characters screaming threats at each other and Emily Dictionary (Reneltta Arluk) telling Veronique St. Pierre (Cheri Maracle) to shove a great big piece of –ahem- something, into her mouth.

I felt a peculiar balance in tone throughout the play: emotional monologues about abuse are contrasted by frank jokes about Indigenous men and sociopolitical hardship. The audience eventually discovers each woman’s reality and the struggles she experiences — whether it be abuse, alcoholism, segregation, sickness or death.

To me, the play’s pivotal scene occurs when Pelajita Patchnose (Tantoo Cardinal) gives a moving speech after Marie Adele Starblanket (Tasha Faye Evans) passes away. Pelajita stands in the center of the stage with the women surrounding her as she addresses the injustices experienced by women living on the reserve: from lack of access to proper medicine, abuse and poverty. Tantoo’s character also consistently refers to the reserve’s dirt roads and how their chief always claims he will pave them. She declares if she were chief, if any woman were chief, things like this would get done.

The play’s opening night was particularly moving because it was introduced with a cultural song and drumming by two younger Indigenous performers, one male and one female. This made the reality of the issues raised in the play all the more apparent to me.  Twenty-eight years later, young women of my generation are aware and listening with acute attention.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.