Edmonton’s Punctuate! Theatre tackles all six Suburban Motel plays
BY LIZ NICHOLLS, EDMONTON JOURNAL APRIL 24, 2015
The Suburban Motel Series
Written by: George F. Walker
Directed by: Liz Hobbs, Jeff Page, Geoffrey Ewert
Where: C103 Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: April 29 to May 11
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)
Hitchcock, I’m thinking, would have loved this place.
We’re in a brick fortress downtown. Counter-intuitive sunlight glints off the springs of an assortment of skeletal hospital cots. There are skinny coffin-shaped bathtubs draped in ominous tubes, sinister dentist chairs with wheels, and straps. There’s stuff in every cupboard, every closet. In the “pediatric aerosol tent,” as stencilled on the door, framed pictures of dead babies, with pastel wings, are stacked. Whoever left, left in a hurry — or didn’t leave at all.
The people who knock, once, for admittance at a locked orange door at street level aren’t ghosts, though. They’re directors, actors, producers, production and stage managers and their assistants, designers, some 40 in all. As these connoisseurs of irony readily concede, there is something eerily apropos about occupying an abandoned mental hospital, all five floors of the Eric Cormack Centre, to rehearse the black, funny, gritty tragicomedies of Canadian playwright George F. Walker, whose hardscrabble urban characters find themselves marginalized at the edges of civilization.
For the first time in the country (save one fleeting Fringe experiment in Vancouver), all six of Walker’s Suburban Motel plays, set in the same fleabag motel room, will run at C103 theatre, two a night starting Wednesday (through May 11), with full-immersion six-play marathons May 2 and May 9.
This vast and intricate project, which has attracted a stellar array of Edmonton theatre artists, is the work of an adventurous Edmonton indie company, Punctuate! Theatre.
They fully earn their exclamation mark just for figuring out the rehearsal logistics: all but four of the 15 actors are double-cast, and some of the characters show up in more than one piece. Since each of the three directors — Jeff Page, Geoffrey Ewert and Punctuate! artistic director Liz Hobbs — helms two plays, and rehearses one of them all day on alternating days on a different floor, three rehearsal versions of the seedy motel room exist on floors five, four and three: a couple of utilitarian ’50s kitchen chairs and a table, bed frames by Ikea, mattresses by Punctuate! scavengers.
“I wrote the grant applications last June,” grins Punctuate!’ s producer Sheiny Satanove, as we move downward floor by floor from Page’s rehearsal stronghold on the fifth, dubbed “the children’s floor” in honour of its tooth-grittingly cheerful yellow paint. Production manager Julie Ferguson started the rehearsal scheduling last September.
This isn’t their first venture into Walkerland. Punctuate! was born in a 2010 Fringe production of The End of Civilization, one of Walker’s Suburban Motel plays. Hobbs directed; Page appeared memorably as the more menacing of a pair of cops. Satanove, for one, has been suggesting something as crazily massive as Walker’s entire 1990s Suburban Motel cycle ever since.
With the continuing unavailability of the TACOS arts space in Old Strathcona, “we had no venue, but we had the desire to do something so big it couldn’t fail!” smiles Hobbs. “Better to be huge and innovative and employ a lot of artists than small and cautious ... I woke up in the middle of the night and thought ‘this might actually be do-able!’; I did the math, then slept on it for a couple of days just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.”
Amazingly, it computed.
But why Walker? And why this 1990s cycle by a star Canadian playwright like no other, for his combination of scabrous hilarity and zinging social indignation?
“The plays are about real people, people not often represented in theatre,” says Hobbs, who’s directing Featuring Loretta and Criminal Genius. It’s the downsized, sidelined, furious losers who inhabit Walker’s aggrieved and scrambling demi-monde. “They’re about people who don’t go to theatre,” says Ewert, who is in charge of The End of Civilization and Adult Entertainment. “And they’re funny!”
“All the characters make valid points, thoughtful points,” says Hobbs. “They’re in extreme situations, darkly comic; they’ve ended up in this (motel room), a transitional space, all of them in there fighting for something better for themselves ... You laugh at them because they make sense. You can recognize yourself, things you’ve said, the struggle to not get blamed, to be recognized as valuable. ”
As Ewert says, “we’re all only a few short steps — a couple of bad choices or things beyond your control — from their circumstances. Take Henry, fighting for work day after day in The End of Civilization. I’ve been there! I know what it’s like. All of these characters are trying to get somewhere, to move on, elsewhere, with their lives ... The motel is their purgatory.”
“Will they succeed in making something better for themselves? A lot of the plays end with a question mark.”
Satanove is attracted to the plays because, extreme as their choices might be — arson, violence, murder, porn, prostitution — “the characters are so real. And though the plays are probably set in Toronto, I feel like these could be characters right here in Edmonton.”
For the actors, there’s the rare experience of rehearsing two alternating plays. Andrea Jorawsky, a core Punctuate! artist, loves the “24 hours you get to let whatever you’ve learned in rehearsal sink in. And there’s no time to obsess.”
Amber Bissonette, who plays the title character in Featuring Loretta and the helpful hooker next door in Problem Child, says of her first rep experience that it takes some getting used to, “riding two waves at once.” For Elliott James, the experience is even more intense since he plays the same character, the motel clerk Phillie, in two plays, Problem Child and Criminal Genius, at evolving stages of a dissolution into booze. “In the first play he’s struggling to keep functioning. In the other, he’s off the wagon for the whole show.”
“To me, the plays are, together, about the fallout of capitalism,” says Harley Morison, assistant director to Ewert, and an actor/playwright himself. “There’s a progression in time and lack of success ... It’s pretty fascinating to see these characters. They may be losers; they may end up in the same motel room ... What interests Walker is to see people trying.”
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