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Jane Enkin

Winnipeg Fringe Festival 2013 Reviews : Quilters, May and Alia do Pirates! (of Penzance) and O(h)

by Jane Enkin, July 23, 2013

Reviews of Quilters, May and Alia do Pirates! (of Penzance) and O(h)

Quilters is a beautiful production of a fascinating, lovely play. Shoestring Players is a community theatre group, with the resources to bring together a large cast of talented actor/singers, ably handled by co-directors Peter Spencer and Maureen Taggart. The play gives us the voices of early farm women from the prairies.

Quilts had an important place in the lives of these women and their families. Some saw quilting as a necessary chore, to provide warmth for their families. Others found a chance for artistic expression, and a way to have some colour on the prairies where most of the year the landscape was dry and brown or frozen white. Worn bits of cloth worked into quilts held family memories, and quilts were a legacy passed from mother to daughter. Piecing was done alone, but quilting on a large frame was a social event.

In the story that frames the play, an elderly woman pieces together a quilt, each square a different traditional pattern. (I found the frame story much less gripping than the wonderful anecdotes, some funny and some harsh, that were the heart of the play.) Each pattern brings out memories of school days, family life, and community. The stage is filled with beautiful quilts that become part of many of the stories.

I loved the “log cabin” quilt block scene, involving a newly built log cabin. On their first night sleeping there, the children of the large family discover that the still green logs creak eerily, and one by one they all gather under their mother's quilt.

In addition to older quilts on the stage, many new quilt blocks and a “Legacy Quilt” were created for the production by Sue Hudson, working with a community of craftspeople.

Each story is brief and heartfelt, told with the restraint I'd expect from stoic settlers. Some are presented as monologues, some as short scenes, and some in Greek chorus form or with overlapping voices. It is refreshing to hear about women's lives in such detail. The first few stories seem sweet, but soon we hear of many dark aspects of these women's lives, as they cope with sexuality and childbirth, relationships, and the rigours and dangers of life on the prairie. The cast of fifteen women and men play multiple characters of all ages, presenting an astonishing number of anecdotes. The acting is subtle and powerful. Because these people tell their stories in a straightforward manner, with simple language, a great deal of the communication is unspoken.

By the way, this is a play written in the 1980's by Americans Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. That may account for the fact that the play doesn't reflect the ethnic diversity of Manitoba prairie communities – no one appears to be French, Ukrainian or Mennonite. There are no Aboriginal characters or encounters with Aboriginal people among the stories.

Along with the stories we hear lovely choral songs, solos, and quilting bee songs. Especially fine singing comes from Angela Rajfur as a romantic young woman, and Joan Stephens and Martin Wilson, who lead the moving final hymn. The Rinn Celtic Quartet accompanies on stage.

Joan Stephens also skillfully brings to life some of the most moving, sorrowful women in the play. Erica Mitchell handles beautifully the role of a wide-eyed but feisty child. There was a terrific scene of her baptism in the river. She's afraid to go in, but is talked into it. When she flounders under the water, her minister father has to dive in and fish her out. As soon as she's safe on dry land, she gives him a defiant push and splashes him back in.

The Baptist minister father comes off very well in another favourite scene of mine. He joins his wife and daughter in town and buys the red cloth they crave to brighten their quilt patterns. As they ride home in their buggy, he quotes Eyshet Chayil, A Worthy Woman, from Proverbs, in the Bible.

“She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands...

She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all of her household are clothed in scarlet.”

Worthy women, these prairie women, and they have passed on a legacy for us all. Highly recommended.


May and Alia do Pirates! (of Penzance) is great family-friendly fun. Show creators May and Alia, from Australia, play all the characters in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and squeeze all the major plot points into an hour. They sing most of the highlights too – except for the squeaky soprano bits that neither of them fancy. Along the way, they tease each other, squabble and make up, and enjoy each other a great deal – a delight for the audience.

It's a show business maxim to “leave 'em wanting more.” O(h), by duet company Casebolt and Smith, left me hungry for more, since all the dance in it was so wonderful. The complex educational/entertainment aims of the creators encompassed much more than dancing.

Liz Casebolt and Joel Smith are professors of dance, eager to teach their students and general audiences some of the inner workings of the vocabulary of dance gesture. There's a lot of comedy in their approach, a lot of interesting speaking and singing, and, as I mentioned, some wonderful dancing.

A vey complicated show, parts of O(h) left me cold. Some references were unfamiliar to me – when they pointed out “Fosse” hands and “Martha Graham” contractions, I recognized the names, but I'm sure a lot went over my head. Smith's solo was a critique of the pretentiousness of contemporary dance, which seemed a bit nasty, and Casebolt's was an attack on the lyrics of “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, which just didn't seem relevant.

On a more positive note, I found most of the show energizing, both beautiful and intellectually challenging. Joel Smith is dazzling to look at – the men in the audience were teased that if they looked too hard, they would “turn gay.” Casebolt and Smith move together gracefully in a wide range of genres. They danced to the accompaniment of a lecture about a drum break, they danced in silence, and they danced to their own singing. They confronted the question of ownership and originality in movement. I was reminded of similar questions in genres in other forms – if you write a blues song or a detective novel, can you claim originality? Can someone accuse you of borrowing too much? How does a choreographer, a dancer, or any artist “make a work their own?”

As a finale, Casebolt and Smith improvise a new dance for each show (I asked – they always start with a new line of dialogue, and end with a wave goodbye as they leave the stage.) The night I saw them, this dance was like the rest of the show – beautiful, silly, informative and leaving me wanting more.

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