THE LAST WIFE

By Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper Presentation. Opened January 24, 2017.

Meav Beaty (katherine Parr) and Joseph Ziegler (Henry VIII). (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Kate Hennig is an exceptionally fine character actress who is presently striking sparks as Margaret Thatcher opposite Fiona Reid’s Elizabeth II in The Audience. She is also a budding playwright. In her first full-length play, The Last Wife, that debuted at Stratford last season, English-born Hennig reimagines a chapter of English royal history, using historical fact as a channel for contemporary insight. Although Henry VIII had a firm mythic grip on his era, he is challenged for the dramatic centre of Hennig’s play, and his challenger is Katharine Parr, his sixth and final spouse, who outlived him and even out-manoeuvred him in radical ways. In Joseph Ziegler’s honest but unflamboyant performance, we find a king who is older, gout-ridden, authoritarian, hot-tempered, lusty, and not easily outpaced politically. But it is Katharine Parr who knowingly and daringly contests him for domestic, emotional, and sexual power.  And Maev Beaty, fully into the character and text, refuses to sanitize the woman. Married to a third husband, who is sexually inadequate for her, she is involved in an affair with untitled Thomas Seymour, a man whom Gareth Potter fails to make an adequately charismatic sexual lure. Beaty nevertheless manages to be eloquently erotic, subtly powerful, and daringly avant-garde in her feminism. She has a maternal side that comforts yet controls Henry’s daughters, Mary, Bess, and Edward, and she is able to get her way with the king, while keeping her eyes steadily on the future.

Maev Beaty (Katherine Parr) and Sara Farb (Mary). (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Alan Dilworth’s production, pragmatically designed by Yannick Larivee and lit by Kimberly Purtell, shrewdly focusses on Henry and Katharine. Hennig’s play boldly brings English history smack dab into the modern century by using modern language and relishing an occasional anachronism. And her characters are put in modern dress as well. Neither strategy is particularly essential because a play does not uncover an essential truth merely by its language or its costuming. Nevertheless, the text is sometimes hard-edged, cynical, and grainy, and this is good if only because the production looks and sounds quite different from anything by Masterpiece Theatre. What is not so good is the coarsened texture that extends into some of the acting. While convincingly juvenile and naïve, Bahia Watson’s young Bess is never much more than a common little wilful girl. Sara Farb, Goth-elegant in hairstyle and black costume, is deliberately off-the-wall in her acting, though she does manage to be darkly droll and more than slightly sinister as Mary, an outsider not only by temperament but by deep down ambition as well. How these two young characters develop into future rival queens will undoubtedly be covered by Hennig’s next foray into English history.

METIS MUTT

Created and Performed by Sheldon Elter
Directed by Ron Jenkins
A Native Earth Performing Arts Presentation at the Aki Studio
Toronto. January 26-February 5, 2017

Sheldon Elter (Photo: Ryan Parker)

 

Sheldon Elter (Photo: Ryan Parker)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born in a small, northern Alberta town, Sheldon Elter is not everyone’s Metis. Not does he try to be. This exceptionally talented Canadian (winner of two Sterling Awards and numerous other nominations; core member of the ukulele rock band, The Be Arthurs; stand-up comedian; and writer/star/co-executive producer for APTN’s CAUTION: May Contain Nuts and Delmer and Marta) is evidently a triple or even a quadruple threat in the performing arts. So, when he begins with crude, rapid-fire politically incorrect stereotypical jokes about native Indians, it is only to segue into vehement truth-telling. The self-inflicted jokes are no joke; they are really this country’s subversive way of unacknowledging its own cultural racism. His racial ethnicity is hybrid, making him part native, part white, and therefore he is a reservoir of contesting passions. His ninety-minute solo performance piece is an intense, semi-autobiographical narrative about his quest to free himself from a destructive cycle. Originally an eight-minute piece devised for the NextFest emerging artist festival in Edmonton in 2000. After graduating from the Grant MacEwan College’s Theatre Arts Programme, he expanded the show into a full-length piece in collaboration with Ken Brown, his instructor and mentor. Metis Mutt has now played various Canadian cities and New Zealand, and should be part of every major Canadian theatre’s season in some manner.

Huskily striking, Elter jumps back and forth in time and place, and plays an entire list of aunts, uncles, parents, brothers, and sisters in the course of his non-fictionalized narrative. Admitting that he has been called a “prairie nigger” and a “bush nigger,” he spares no one—least of all himself—in his exposure of some of the most sordid qualities of native life in general and his personal life in particular. “Women are sacred. We give great respect to Mother Earth,” he intones, and then proceeds to dramatize spousal abuse, exploitation, rape, and alcoholism. It is a tale as flashback retrospection. His father Sonny, his mother Patsy, his young, terrified brother Derek, cousin Kevin, and assorted other figures, such as Mrs. Hamelin and Bill the Medicine Man are all brought to vivid life with his multi-vocal impersonations. In fact, it is his voice and presence that bring a special authenticity to his cyclical tale, one that begins and ends with memories of his violently alcoholic father who visited physical, emotional, and psychological torment on his entire family. Sonny Elter died on New Year’s Day, 1999, in eerie circumstances, and this started his son’s downward spiral. Booze, hard drugs, rootlessness, depression, convulsions, suicide attempts, all create a hard-edged, grainy texture for the show that, nevertheless, manages to have flashes of sharp parody as Elter (with his guitar) proceeds from a blues parody and a Metis version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to a cutting vocal satire on the Lone Ranger through the voice of Tonto.

All jokes aside, this is a relentlessly honest tale that carries us into the heart of native visions, spiritual wisdom, and mystery. At the end, Elter returns to his father, now dead, to pay him tribute, express his own pained love, and earn some form of purgation. “He had a short, bitter life,” he summarizes. “I intend to do better.” He already has to a considerable degree.

SEQUENCE

By Arun Lakra
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
A Tarragon Theatre Production. January 11-February 12, 2017

The Sequence, Tarragon Theatre

Kevin Bundy (Theo) and Nancy Palk (Dr. Guzman) in “Sequence” (photo: Cylla  von Tiedemann)

Sequence won the Grand Prize in the 2011 Alberta Playwrighting Competition and later won an American award when it played in Bloomington, Indiana, so Calgary ophthalmologist Arun Lakra has been fortunate, indeed, and yet he is unfortunate in another sense. His eighty-minute four-hander is more a debate than a play. It is chock full of scientific knowledge, engages in witty cerebral discussion about luck and chance, God and science, love and despair, but the characters speak much more than they ever feel, and the dramatic action that crowds the final sequences seems forced and unconvincing.

There are two parallel story lines but Lakra’s attempt to balance them is erratic. Theo, (Kevin Bundy) described by Time magazine as the luckiest man in the world because he has a perfect 19-year record in predicting the winner of the Super Bowl, comes on like a circus star or ring-leader, walking under a ladder or yelling out the name “Macbeth” when he smashes a looking glass. His luck never seems to run out. But this is his charming side; the other side is sleazy, and is expressed by his breast and penis jokes. His antagonist is Cynthia (Ava Jane Markus), a math genius who also happens to be pregnant with her first child, who might be at real risk of a genetic disease. She doesn’t believe in luck.

The second story line is anchored in Dr. Guzman (Nancy Palk), a nearly blind but brilliant researcher with fiercely ironic wit. “Don’t test me. I have tenure!” she warns Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe), a young undergraduate with cerebral palsy who has got all 150 answers wrong on a multiple-choice test. His religious fervour has run into bad luck because he is confined to a wheelchair after a bad car accident, caused by a drunk driver. His bad luck deepens when he literally becomes Guzman’s captive and is threatened with dire torture.

Lakra appears to be channelling Tom Stoppard and John Mighton but he does not as yet possess the technical finesse or depth to create fully rounded human beings. Instead, he offers striking ironic parallels, dialectical talk about statistics, probability, and genetics, and absurd physical action in the penultimate sequences. With the honourable exception of Nancy Palk, whose Guzman is a cutting figure of snappily manipulative wit and irony, and flashes of intellectual bravado from Kevin Bundy, the cast doesn’t have an easy time of wit. LaVercombe manages to sound both nauseatingly righteous and vulnerable as the paraplegic, but he cannot transcend the incredible plot artifice, while Markus is more of an unchanging attitude than a character. And director Andrea Donaldson can’t camouflage the fact that the play is really not ready for a main stage.