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Stage Door Reviews of
Blyth Festival 1996 Season

Stage Door Reviews by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Barndance Live

by Paul Thompson
Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario, June 18 to August 23 1996
A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

Larry Mercy. Al Cherney. Ernie King. Earl Heywood. Cactus Mac. Johnnie Brent. The Ranch Boys. Ward Allen. Ross Mann. Archie Mann. Clarke Johnston. Slim Boucher and the Golden Prairie Cowboys. Maurice Bealieu (Boyler). Tommy Hunter.
-----The honour role of country music in the CKNX-920 ten-county listening area, these names are all indelibly linked to, as emcee Johnnie Brent would proclaim at the beginning of each show, "Canada’s Largest Travelling Barn Dance." CKNX founder Doc Cruickshank created Barn Dance in 1937, first with recorded old-tyme music, and then, within a couple months, adding local live talent to the broadcasts. Crowds would gather to watch the show from the street, through the windows of the Wingham broadcasting station, and by 1942 the show hit the road, playing in community halls around the area. It quickly became the most important event on a Saturday night (seasonal Foster Hewitt notwithstanding) in the region, and went on to provide three decades of unforgettable entertainment.
-----One of those listeners was Atwood native and playwright Paul Thompson. Through a process known as "the collective" that Thompson used on such familiar works as The Farm Show, Thompson and the actors themselves gathered information on the show and together through improvisation and workshopping, fine tune the ultimate product.
-----The ultimate product is now Barndance Live and is the first of the Blyth Festival’s four-play season to open this season. The talented cast, many of whom double as musicians, include Raoul Bhaneja, Eric Coates, Andrew Dolha, Carolyn Hay, Gary Muir, Jack Nicholsen, John Wright and Anne Lederman. Different local talent in "walk-on roles" also highlights each performance, assuring a different experience each evening. Opening night, for example, featured the extraordinary step-dancing talents of the Family Ties of Mitchell, in an act that received the most sustained and enthusiastic applause of the entire evening, and the aptly-named Betty-Anne Bray of Walkerton.
-----In recreating the excitement of the original CKNX Barn Dance, Thompson’s task is not easy. Using a talented cast of professional entertainers, he had to preserve the spirit of the amateurish and downright hokey entertainment that was so appealing in its day (and its day ended in 1967). Into this he had to weave the background and history of the program and the personalities of the individual stars in a manner that is fresh enough for today’s stage. Effectively employing freeze-action and a broom-pushing narrator (John Wright) to guide us through the decades, he kept it moving, and most of the audience absorbed. Most that is. The show is local, very local, and for those who came from outside the 10-country reach of CKNX-AM 920, or who opted instead for Foster Hewitt, it is a stretch. If you don’t like country music, the stretch can be particularly difficult.
-----However, this is exactly what the Blyth Festival needs: a return to solid, local, grass roots, Canadian entertainment. The stories told on that stage do not need to have world-import to be worth telling and to be entertaining. Memories alit, hearts aglow, feet a-tappin’ — this is a great evening of nostalgia for anyone who grew up with CKNX Barn Dance. It’s playing in Blyth Memorial Hall until August 23.
-----For tickets, $6 to $20, call 519-523-9300.

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by Gordon John Portman
Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario, to August 31, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Fireworks a warm and moving family drama at Blyth

Fireworks, a searing family drama currently in rep at the Blyth Festival, is a wonderful conclusion to a roller-coaster season. Written by Gordon John Portman, the Blyth production marks its professional stage world première and is under the direction of Paul Lampert.
-----Fireworks was developed at Edmonton’s Theatre Network under the Artistic Direction of Stephen Heatley, and with the input of a large number of talented actors, designers and support personnel. It also received developmental support from Alberta Playwrights Network's New Play Development Program, and was a finalist in Theatre BC's national new play competition. Fireworks was workshopped In Toronto, May 1996, with Janet Amos, Rustey Davenport, Layne Coleman, Ron Hastings, and Paul Lampert.
-----Fireworks is a magic journey that centres around a broken family held together by Wynn, an elderly woman who is the light of her husband’s life, a solace to her son, and a life-line to her grandson. Her death shatters their world but her memory lingers on to guide them in their new life. The "fireworks" in the play are moments of emotional insight where each character finds the courage to step into the future.
-----English war-bride Wynn is played by the Festival’s artistic director, Janet Amos, in a towering performance. While Portman’s beautiful script provided the words, Amos was able to bring from them a full range of emotions: laughter at one moment, and then next, a single word—"gladiolas"—that brought us to tears. For an actor who is best known in the region as Mrs Aylmer Clark (He Won’t Come in from the Barn), this tremendous success has proven her ability to carry a heavy dramatic role; we hope to see more of it next season.
-----Rustey Davenport plays mentally challenged grandson Jamie, mesmerizing the audience from his opening lines, and sustaining the demanding speech and mannerisms of this difficult character with dignity and sympathy. This role proves his gem of a performance in Mabelle Mabel was no accident. Davenport is destined for a great career.
-----Ron Hastings plays Wynn’s husband, Franklin, and John Wright plays their son, Frank.
-----Paul Lampert is the director, among whose many triumphs is the current Shaw Festival production of The Hollow. Set and costume designer is Victoria Wallace, whose last work at Blyth was the 1995 season’s war-bride story, This Year, Next Year. Lesley Wilkinson’s richly evocative lighting sets the tone, clearly communicating the difference between flashback and present-day scenes. Simple yet powerful incidental music added to the play’s emotional impact, and was composed by John Roby, a twelve-season veteran of Blyth.
-----Fireworks is a triumph of directing, acting and writing, creating a shattering theatrical experience. It plays until August 31, closing the Festival’s 1996 season. For tickets ($6 to $20) call 519-523-9300.

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Ma Belle Mabel

by Cindy Cowan
Blyth Festival Theatre, Blyth, Ontario, June 25 to August 29, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
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Ma Belle Mabel brings history to life on Blyth stage

Now playing at the Blyth Festival is Cindy Cowan’s Ma Belle Mabel, an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable historical account of the life of Mabel Hubbard Bell, wife and greatest supporter of Alexander Graham Bell. The play takes place in their home, Beinn Bhreagh, in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on January 3, 1923, five months after Alec’s death.
-----The production featured a very versatile set by Pat Flood with lighting by Michael Kruse, enhanced by the interesting use of slide projections and sound effects, including a realistic simulation of the first manned flight in Canada, just one of Bell’s lesser known achievements. (Others included a candle-powered sock dryer for use by soldiers in the trenches of WWI, a hydrodrome speedboat, the manned tetrahedron kite, and his primary interest: devices and techniques to assist the deaf. And, oh yes, the telephone.) Cowan’s script is of average quality but with several emotion-filled and action-packed scenes.
-----The cast is headed by Wanda Graham who originated the title role for its Expo ’86 premiére in Nova Scotia. After only her opening line, you realized she was playing the role of a deaf person, without ever having to mention it. She had mastered the speech pattern of the deaf, and, in several scenes, provoked genuine emotion.
-----Alec Bell is played in flashback by Ted Johns, adequately representing the prolific and multi-disciplined inventor.
-----Bell’s assistant at the Beinn Bhreagh lab was played by the versatile Rustey Davenport. His remarkable transformation from the down-home Nova Scotian boy to the erudite engineering graduate of an Eastern school was effected as he moved effortlessly from exhausting physical scenes to dramatically emotional moments.
-----The supporting cast included Liza Balkan as Mayme, housemaid and confidante of Mabel Bell, and Jocelyne Zucco as Elsie, one of the Bells’ two daughters. Of particular impact was Balkan’s portrayal of Helen Keller in an encounter with Bell.
-----Ma Belle Mabel, directed by the Festival’s artistic director, Janet Amos, plays until August 29. Phone 519-523-9804 for tickets.

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Villa Eden

by Colleen Curran
Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario, July 23 to August 31, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Blyth comedy too long between laughs

One of the enjoyable things about attending world premiéres at the Blyth Festival is participating in the development of a workshopped script into a production that may live on in theatres around the country and the world. Villa Eden is Canadian playwright Colleen Curran’s sixth comedy to premiére at Blyth, from Cake-Walk in 1984 to Ceili House in 1993.
-----This murder mystery comedy is set in Villa Eden, a bed and breakfast, soon to be a dead and breakfast, in a North American seaside village. The faux-Italianate interior design is the idea of Charisse, the ditzy proprietress who, like the playwright, is influenced by seeing "far too many fifties movies far too many times." A weekend rush of strange guests include an obsessive archaeologist, a mysterious movie star, a budding architect and a set of quarrelling triplets. A shocking death in the midst of the play raises the question: Was it death by poison or death by dessert?
-----Charisse is played by Liza Balkan in a role that showcases her zany, warmhearted style. Blyth newcomer Jacques Basko portrays triplets Cyril, April and Avril in a garish and campy manner. Barndance Live! veteran Andrew Dolha plays a nice guy architect in the script’s only really normal role. Diana, the Italian bombshell, is played to the hilt and over the top by Jocelyne Zucco. Eric Coates is trapped in the cross-gender role of Dr. Anne Brice, but even his formidable talent cannot totally rescue the play. The biggest embarrassment comes with the casting of Wanda Graham as Constable Larry, an unnecessary and confusing choice. Why waste her considerable gifts on this strutting, macho role? Surely there was a male actor available to play the part?
-----Thematic material from the 1950s film Three Coins in the Fountain is the basis for the play. The audience is seated before a white sheet used as a screen for projected stills from the movie as Frank Sinatra croons the title song. This introduction seems clever at first but after five minutes becomes tiresome and is needlessly reprised between scenes. Indeed, the entire production is overly long and could be greatly improved with significant cuts to the script. For example, the "Dessert and Tribute to Three Coins in the Fountain" playlet is tedious and amateurish; the 15-minute re-enactment would have more punch if done in two minutes. Diana’s shopaholic monologue is also rendered ineffective by its length: the audience applauds halfway through, at which time Ms. Zucco would be well advised to stop.
-----Designer Julie Fox did an admirable job with the spumoni set, especially noteworthy was the trompe l’oeil staircase that even fooled the archaeologist. However, director Anne Anglin would find little solace from patrons’ reactions overheard at the play’s interval and conclusion: "What’s the point?" and, "‘I’ve seen worse plays.’ ‘Oh yeah…where?’"
-----There is no point, and I have seen worse plays. But in Villa Eden the humorous dialogue is lost within the bulk of the script; the 2½-hour production will be more enjoyable after at least half an hour is cut before the play is re-mounted on another stage.
-----Villa Eden plays until August 31. For tickets call 519-523-9300.

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