Arts, City

Chapters: We Knew How This Story Would End

Chapters on Whyte on August 15, 2019, the opening day of the 2019 Fringe festival.

In the 1970s, the stretch of Whyte Avenue that ran through Old Strathcona was not much of a shopping or hang-out destination. It was a place of discount stores, services like banks and gas stations, repair shops, dive bars, and a few strip clubs. By the time the 1980s came around, I was on the avenue at least once a week after high school, visiting HUB Cigar to pick up my copy of New Music Express and other British music weeklies, and a few times a year for a group outing to the Princess Theatre to see movies like Dawn of the Dead.

Then came the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. In a handful of mid-1980s years, the festival grew from a week of plays in a few theatre spaces, makeshift venues, and back alleys to a massive festival spread over several blocks. The festival, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and many interested community members built up the neighbourhood into a lively, year-round destination of boutiques, cafés, and a better class of night spots.

But gentrification and growth led to other problems. One was the proliferation of bars that left the street rowdy at night and empty during the day, addressed over the years through nightclub-led security initiatives and a municipal moratorium on bars. Another was the combination of chain stores eager to drink existing businesses’ milkshakes and landlords who were all too willing to serve them.

A new building went up at the corner of 105 Street and Whyte Ave, where a bank and gas station had stood. The first tenant in the expansive first-floor reatil space was a Sony Store, definitely a step up from the Radio Shack that was previously located down the block. But the high-end pricing of the store didn’t meet the low-end budget of the students, artists, and seniors who lived in the neighbourhood.

In the late 1990s, Old Strathcona fans and residents like me did not welcome the news that Chapters would be moving in. Walmart in the U.S. had set the precedence of a corporate big-box entity that would steamroll over existing locally owned stores, then close up when it was convenient for corporate HQ, leaving a community without any of the stores it replaced. (It was such a familiar pattern, the late 1990s sitcom That 70s Show borrowed it for a whole story arc involving the father’s unemployment due to the arrival of a giant “Pricemart” franchise.)

It took two decades, but Chapters is finally completing the familiar narrative, leaving the neighbourhood after it contributed to the premature closures of both Orlando Books and Greenwoods Books. In 2015, Jacqueline Dumas wrote about the factors that went into her decision to close her store, Orlando Books, for the Edmonton Queer History Project. She did not specifically mention Chapters, but did include the fact that she’d already moved the store east from its original location closer to Garneau due to rising rents.

Chapters’ prominent presence was most obviously a bold challenge to Greenwoods Books. The family-run store had a prime location on Whyte Avenue by the eastbound 104th Street bus stop, and, for a time, a second location in the building off Whyte that now houses some personal care studios and shops next to Planet Organic. (That building is itself the result of gentrification, having previously been home to Prudham Building Supplies.) I vividly remember being in the new Greenwoods, which was huge, well-stocked, beautiful, and had a wonderful children’s section, when a couple of tourists walked in. They said it was nice, but they were looking for the DVD section and knick knacks. In short, they were looking for Chapters.

After Chapters’ imminent closure made the news, I read a lot of fond remembrances on Twitter by people who had never known another new-release bookstore on Whyte Avenue. A few people said they would miss Chapters as an actual bookstore, and one that supported local authors. But most tweeters made mention of browsing the shelves, using the washrooms, having a place for kids to play, and hanging out for a coffee. They were essentially describing a library with a café. Chapters was evidently not selling enough books or knick knacks to run a library and public washroom on Whyte Avenue.

I also read some disparaging comments about the replacement tenant, Winners. I’m not thrilled that it will be competing against the nearby, underrated Army and Navy (some of my favourite pieces of clothing are from A & N Boutique!), but is Winners out of character for the neighbourhood? It’s certainly not a business that screams 1914, the heyday of Old Strathcona, but it’s not far off from the large, corporate tenants that have established themselves on that corner. Winners is just the next step on the retail ladder that detractors feared: an even larger, even more generic chain store. Granted, it does have a better general housewares section than anything in the neighbourhood since Call the Kettle Black moved to High Street. It won’t be a venue for local writers, but Winners might serve the neighbourhood’s needs as well as Chapters — as long it has enough washrooms.

Arts, Reviews

Fringe: Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs

The first Ron Pearson work I encountered at the Fringe were the outdoor sideshow illusions of the Spider Lady, Cobra Girl, and the Headless Horror (thanks for reminding me of the titles, Gig City). The illusion were safely ensconced under a tent, like olden days freakshows. There was even a barker (“step right up!”), and someone to take your dollar when curiosity finally got the better of you and you decided you had to see for yourself. I went to each show multiple times because the illusions looked so real. I could never figure them out!

Pearson has also put on his fair share of more conventional indoor plays, all with an emphasis on magic. This year, he’s back with a play called Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs. (Directed by Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss, the production originally debuted at the Roxy on Gateway in January of this year.)

In Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs, a female escape artist fights to escape the narrow roles to which women are confined. The play follows the story of Minerva Vano, a now-forgotten escape artist and rival of Harry Houdini. She is thought to be active from 1904 to 1913, a period of heightened suffragist activity, and a time that coincides with years of ascendency for the cities of Strathcona and Edmonton. The latter is not part of the show, but sets the action in a period that fits well with the Old Strathcona location of the Fringe festival.

Alas, some things have been slow to change. Vano had a #MeToo moment when she was sexually harassed and then blacklisted by an amusement park manager. Surprisingly for the time, Vano sued. The case and its outcome is a highlight of the play. Later, a discomforting chant of “lock her up” sums up Vano’s fight to lead a public life, and reminds us that the struggle continues for many women.

Minerva Vano is played by Miranda Allen, a fine actor who ably conveys Vano’s complicated relationships with her husband, other people in the industry, and her own psyche. She’s also an actual escape artist! With the help of Richard Lee Hsi (who plays a variety of characters, including Vano’s husband, the amusement park boss, and Houdini), and volunteer members of the audience, Allen pulls off some amazing escapes that I will probably never be able to figure out!

I may just need to see Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs again.

(For those curious about Minerva Vano, check out this link out AFTER you’ve seen the show.)

Tickets for Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs

Arts, Reviews

Fringe: Best Foot Sideways

The Novus Actors production of Best Foot Sideways begins with a scene that plays out like a hilarious “what if” scenerio: what if CEOs were brutally honest? At a dreaded and evidently rare all-staff meeting, the CEO of a family-owned company, Blaine Starkar, begins by saying that he’s decided not to use the usual “There’s no easy way to say it” preface in favour of the words, “There’s no easy way for you to hear it.” He then announces his resignation, but rather than blandly citing “family reasons”, he goes on to announce that his marriage to Lavinia Hippincott, the company executive (and daughter of the company’s founder), much to Lavinia’s surprise. When she asks if he’s having an affair, he says, yes, but he’s ending that, too!

With Blaine’s exit, the play focuses on how the remaining employees (all related to the founding Hippincott) continue on with the business, but first, they must figure out what the firm actually does. With the help of two young, unpaid, and vastly more competent interns, the company/family survivors uncover a long-ignored family secret that proves to be the company’s true fortune, with a speculative fiction twist.

Novus productions are always fun. Because this year’s show touches on themes of family and corporate identity, renewal, and responsibility, amusing and enlightening connections can be made to real life and current affairs.

Best Foot Sideways is the latest play written and directed by Stewart Lemoine for the Novus Actors, a troupe of lawyers who began collaborating with Lemoine troupe, Teatro la Quindicina, at a lawyer show to raise funds for the Victoria School of the Arts. The lawyer/actors (Mark Facundo, Jill Gamez, Stacey Grubb, Ed Picard, Jeremy Schick, and Marissa Torndoff) seemed to be having a lot of fun with estate law in this production, while two wonderful emerging actors (Michael Long and Elizabeth Turner) were perfectly cast at the perky new interns. The ensemble worked very well together, fittingly for such a fruitful collaboration.

Tickets for Best Foot Sideways

Arts, Reviews

Fringe 2019: Balance Board

My 2019 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival experience started on a terrific note with the latest historical play presented by MAA & PAA Theatre.

This year’s show is called Balance Board, by Edmonton activist and writer Bashir Mohamed, and directed by John Mukonzi Mysyoki. The play is based on a 1914 incident in Calgary, where a black railroad worker had tickets to see a production of King Lear at the Sherman Grand Theatre. The theatre tried to change his orchestra-level seats to balcony seats, where it liked to seat black patrons due to complaints from white people who did not want to sit with black people.

Not many people have heard of the case because Alberta school curricula have lacked focus on the histories of people of colour in the province, and our experiences have not been well represented (or represented at all) in popular culture.

Mohamed has been diving into the provincial archives and sharing his fascinating findings through his Twitter account and on his blog. The Charles Daniel case was one of the stories he found. However, like many newspaper stories about regular people, there wasn’t much follow-up. Last year, MAA & PAA did a play based on a tantalizing, albeit very brief, news story about a fire in a brothel, but almost all the details had to be imagined. Balance Board takes a different approach. The protagonist is a young man whose mother was a Somali refugee sent to Edmonton to begin a new life. The son wants to know more about the history of black people in Alberta, but since his school was not equipped to teach the subject, he goes to the provincial archives.

Actor Shingai Madawo turns in an amazing performance as both the son and as Charles Daniel (two big scenes in the play are dramatizations of actual court transcripts). The other cast member, Onika Henry, plays the mother and several other black women, representing different African diaspora experiences, not just with her words, but with changes in accent. When the actors played white characters, they placed white masks atop their heads, a thoughtful theatrical decision that references the unthoughtful theatrical practice of blackface.

Kudos to director Musyoki for shaping this complex play into a whole, and to Sherry Alvaro, the set and sound designer. The production included several wardrobe changes; shifts in places and eras, indicated by changes in lighting and music; and paper — lots and lots of paper, which appeared from my front-row vantage point to be taken from or copied from phone books and newspapers. Until now, Charles Daniel’s story existed only on paper (and perhaps microfilm), but not in our collective consciousness or in our cultural imagination. Great job by this whole crew, plus MAA & PAA co-producers David Cheros and Karen Simonson.

Balance Board is in Venue 13, the Old Strathcona Public Library.

Tickets for Balance Board

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.02 Wendigo

No, he’s not a park ranger.

THEN:
I used to say that “Wendigo” was the worst episode of Supernatural. It’s definitely the second-best of the two I’ve re-watched so far! But I think I disliked it because of the terrible monster effects, which were a let-down after the Japanese horror-movie level ghost effects of the pilot. Maybe I’ve come around, like Erik Kripke has, as summarized on the Supernatural Wiki:

Eric Kripke had long been critical of this episode, particularly because he felt the creature wasn’t successfully scary. “He looked more like Gollum’s tall, gangly cousin than anything else”, he says in Supernatural: The Official Companion Season 2. However on February 11, 2018 he tweeted: “I have something shocking, even sacrilegious to say: I watched #Wendigo with my son for the first time in over 10 years. And it wasn’t bad at all. 2005 effects were lame, but it was scary. Plus young Han Solo! I’m taking it off my shit list. #spnfamily @cw_spn”

NOW:
I also used to say that even bad episodes of Supernatural yielded character gold. “Wendigo” is no exception. Looking back, I see how early the show established how the boys communicate through the car. Sam is still reeling from seeing Jessica die the same way his mother died. Dean, clearly still feeling responsible for taking care of his brother (remember the line “It’s okay, Sammy” from the pilot?), tries to console Sam by offering to let him drive the Impala. Dean also issues a statement of purpose when he shows Sam their father’s journal: “This is Dad’s single most valuable possession—everything he knows about every evil thing is in here. And he’s passed it on to us. I think he wants us to pick up where he left off. You know, saving people, hunting things. The family business.” When Sam asks why, Dean elaborates: “I figure our family’s so screwed to hell, maybe we can help some others. Makes things a little bit more bearable.” (Quotes are from the transcript on the Supernatural Wiki.)

Another Supernatural trope established in this episode is the moment when the person they’re helping figures out the boys are not who they say they are, the “You’re not really park rangers / FBI / from the phone company / etc.” moment. As soon as the key normie figures this out, the boys drop their masks, and they can work cooperatively.

NOTES:
I didn’t know it at the time, but the pilot was shot in LA, and when the show was picked up for a full season, the cast learned that they would be moving to Vancouver. Vancouver made good with some of its finest filmed-in-Vancouver talent, including Callum Keith Rennie and Gina Holden. The episode also featured small roles for Alden Ehrenreich, who would later star as young Han Solo, and a minuscule role for future Glee star Cory Montieth.

RANKINGS:

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 2.01 “Wendigo”
Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.01 Pilot

Sam and Dean

THEN:
My roommate convinced me to give Supernatural a try. It was being promoted as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with male leads. I loved Buffy, so this dude version had a high bar to clear. The handsome male leads were, as advertised, handsome. The ghost story was spooky. The shocking beginning and end scenes were shocking, but relied on the deaths of two interesting female characters who could have been powerful ongoing characters. However, the intense relationship between the two brothers was undeniable, and the fate of the father was enough to keep me watching.

NOW:
Rewatching it for the umpteenth time, I marvel at how beautiful the pilot looks. Directed by David Nutter and filmed on actual film, it looked better than a lot of cheap horror films of the mid-2000s. It was also more tightly written, with an entire ghost story, a family mystery, a complicated relationship, and a huge about of backstory being unspooled in less than 45 minutes.

NOTES:

  • I’m watching the Season DVD set because it has all the music that was originally licensed for the show. While other WB shows at the time leaned on power ballads and pop songs, Supernatural went for classic rock, which instantly set it aside from the Smallvilles and Gilmore Girls on the network’s roster. It’s hard to imagine what this should would have been with forgettable music. I guess I could have watched a streaming version with substitute music to find out, but I’m not that curious.
  • Jensen Ackles is now older than Jeffrey Dean Morgan was when they filmed the pilot. They, as adult Dean and dad-again John, along with Jared Padalecki as collegiate Sam, look so young and full of hope!
  • It’s been fun to see Adrianne Palicki and Sarah Shahi, who played tragic women in the pilot, play assassins in John Wick and Person of Interest, respectively.
  • I forgot that little bit of dialogue that small Dean said as he held tiny Sam outside their burning home: “It’s okay, Sammy.” ;_;

RANKINGS:

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”

Arts, Reviews

DYSCORPIA: The Body in Trouble

DYSCORPIA, the multi-artist, multi-disciplinary art exhibit was originally scheduled run until mid-May, has been extended to the end of June, and has been added to The Works Art and Design Festival.

This is great news, as I’ve had time to see only half of this sprawling show, with pieces in almost all of the display space in Enterprise Square Galleries. (These interconnected galleries comprise a space large enough to temporarily house the Art Gallery of Alberta when it was waiting for its new (current) building to be completed.)

DYSCORPIA’s subtitle is “Future Intersections of the Body and Technology”. I saw the show before I read the didactic (aka the printed program). I felt that the work fulfills the curators’ stated goals: “DYSCORPIA is an exhibition gathering artists and thinkers in visual art, design, contemporary dance, medical humanities, virtual reality, sound creation, computer science, and creative writing in order to question what it means not to know the limits of our bodies in the face of new technologies.”

All of the work in the exhibit was designed to ask questions, mull over possibilities, and allow people to feel either good or uneasy, or something in between, about technologized bodies.

Here are a few of the highlights of the East Galleries from the visit I made on May 25, 2019:

Work: Deep Connection / Body Invader
Artists: Marilene Oliver and Gary James Joynes

Volunteer with a facsimile of DYSCORPIA head curator Marilène Oliver.

This work is behind a partial wall. You hear it before you see it. A full-bodied score by Gary James Joynes alerts you to the fact that something interesting is going on back there. I have to admit, when I turned the corner, the life-sized 3D-printed figures standing there scared the bejeezus out of me! I was not expecting to see a crowd of “people” in that space. The room is actually made of two complementary pieces of work. The first component is physical: the “crowd” that startled me was a group of 3D laser-cut coroplast figures. The second component is a virtual reality experience. When I visited, a volunteer, was there to help with the VR equipment. Once he fit me with the goggles at one end of the exhibit, he explained that it should seem like I was standing in the middle of a prone body. I was able to use a joystick to hold the person’s “hand” and see her heart beating. It was neat, but also a little creepy! At the other end of the display, the VR experience made it seem like you were standing much too closely to some very tall people (based on the people who modelled for the coroplast figures). My discomfort with these virtual reality entities just brought home how “real” they were.

ETA (June 28, 2019) This complicated work was the result of a collaboration between many individuals across disciplines. Here are the full credits:

Work: Solastalgia
Artists: Brad Necyk and Dan Harvey

Side-by-side video work by Brad Necyk and Dan Harvey about one’s placement in the world.

There are videos everywhere in this large room. It’s projected directly onto the gallery walls, displayed on wall monitors mounted on the wall, or on monitors leaning on walls awaiting to be mounted, or laying flat on the floor, like those virtual displays that you can walk on (but you can’t walk on these monitors). Ironically, The the sound design, which reminded me of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical score for the movie Arrival, amplified the feeling that the images were alien. However, instead of being from outer space, these images are on earth, an altered Earth, a hyper-real Earth, a possible future Earth.

Work: Barrier
Artist: Xi Jin

Part of an installation by Xi Jin, guest-starring my shadow.

This piece is made up of a collection of text fragments, cast in bas relief in plastic, some of which also have an image embedded in them. To read the text, you had to stand at certain angles. You couldn’t help but cast a shadow, which meant becoming part of the artwork. A barrier breached! I thought about how membranes that can be as little cell-width thin can be both very strong, yet very fragile, and how changes in the state of a membrane can have drastic consequences on our physicality.

Work: Anticipated Alliterations (Body Talk)
Artists: Kasie Campbell and Gary James Joynes

Soft sculpture set to hard music by Kasie Campbell and Gary James Joynes.

This was fun to experience! Kasie Campbell’s soft sculpture look almost like faces or bodily organs. They’re connected with cords and wire, but the day I went, the volume and force of Gary James Joynes’s soundscape had shaken the connections loose. It was like an audio-visual version of Claes Oldenburg’s slowly disintegrating soft sculptures of hamburgers and other consumables. Campbell and Joynes’s piece challenges the idea that art should be permanent and unchanging, and serves as a memento mori of our own mortal bodies. No matter how much we augment them, they will break down. It’s part of our design.

Work: There’s Something Inside Me / My Medicine / PRN
Artist: Blair Brennan

Long view of Blair Brennan’s printed and painted pieces on paper.

I’ve known Blair Brennan for many moons. He recently had major surgery to mitigate a serious condition. His physical abilities are now very different than he had even just a few years ago. His medical journey is documented through the pieces that make up “his” wall in DYSCORPIA. If you “read” the display from left to right, you might start thinking about the aesthetics of medical imagery. There are more transformative pieces, art that is not a facsimile of the medical record, but that clearly references, and then there are pieces that reference the reference. If you start in the middle of the display, you might feel surrounded by iterations and impressions of how the medical view of one person’s body changes how he thinks about his physical self, and about your own reactions. On a less personal scale, you might think about how technology helps us live, and how we live with technology.

Work: Eve 2050
Artist: Van Grimde Corps

Still from Isabelle van Grimde’s film Eve 2050.

Also included in DYSCORPIA is the film that inspired it: Eve 2050, by the Montreal troupe Van Grimde Corps. Isabelle van Grimde is the dancer and choreographer who conceived of the piece, which incorporates sculpture by Marilène Oliver, the head curator of DYSCORPIA. The film is a beautiful exploration of possible future evolutions. At DYSCORPIA, it plays as one continuous movie which takes you through four chapters: Origin, Transform, Hybrid, and Sapien. It’s also available on the internet as a webseries, but I appreciated the opportunity to see it as a singular piece of work, in a theatre setting in the gallery.

I had a quick run through the work in the West Galleries. There was some very neat stuff there, including some interactive displays. I’m adding them to my to-do list for The Works.

DYSCORPIA is open to the public at Enterprise Square Thursdays to Sundays from 12 noon to 5 pm until June 30, 2019. Admission is free.
https://www.DYSCORPIA.com