Stage Notes: Workshop West debuts latest from Conni Massing

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It’s a murder mystery, and it’s funny. But Dead Letter — Conni Massing’s latest play — also offers an unexpected twist best left as a surprise.

Massing’s second new outing on an Edmonton stage in just over a year (Fresh Hell was at Shadow Theatre in the winter of 2023) enjoys its opening night May 17 at Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.

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Directed by Heather Inglis, the one-act features Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle as Amy and Doug, a couple negotiating a tricky point in their relationship. Maralyn Ryan plays Maggie, who lives across the hall in the same apartment building. Her memory may or may not be in flux.

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“It’s about a search for meaning, the meaning of inexplicable events…It’s an interesting kind of beast because it goes into different territory,” says Massing in a phone interview.

The play posits an explanation for the unexplainable, like what happens to socks that go missing in the laundry, or eyeglasses that disappear only to turn up later in strange places. When Amy finds a long-delayed letter in her mailbox addressed to a tenant who hadn’t lived in the unit for years, she can’t help but wonder…why? The puzzle sends Amy on a journey that grows ever more urgent, mysterious and fraught while still veering into the ridiculous from time to time.

“Everyone experiences the mundane and banal daily mysteries,” says Massing. “I was tickled by the notion of what if someone became completely obsessed with solving the mystery of a missing sock? And that’s what I was really enjoying.”

Dead Letter has benefited from Edmonton’s robust play development network. It was hatched in a playwright’s program for local writers hosted by WWPT at the tail end of the pandemic. Then there was a staged reading at WWPT’s Springboards New Play Festival in 2023, and a second reading at Alberta Playwrights’ Network’s Script Salon, also in the spring of last year.

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Such public readings are vital to a playwright.

“You don’t really know what you’ve got until you hear it in a room with an audience,” says Massing, who took part in another workshop for Dead Letter in the fall of 2023.

Audiences can catch Dead Letter until June 2 at Gateway Theatre (8529 Gateway Blvd.) For tickets, visit workshopwest.org or call 780-477-5495.

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Francis Pegahmagabow, the subject of the play, The Two Battles of Francis Pegahmagabow, premiering in the fall at Shadow Theatre. Photo courtesy John Hudson edm

Shadow’s new season announced

Shadow Theatre has announced the lineup for its 31st season, which kicks off in time for Remembrance Day with Neil Grahn’s The Two Battles of Francis Pegahmagabow.

Based on a true story, the play focuses on the struggle of Pegahmagabow. an Indigenous man known as the deadliest sniper on the battlefields of World War One. He returns home with medals and respect, but without the right to vote.

“We felt (Pegahmagabow) is a Canadian hero and not a lot of people know who he is and we wanted to try and remedy that,” says Shadow’s artistic director John Hudson, who directs the play along with Christine Frederick.

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This is the second military history play that Grahn, who is Metis, has written for Shadow. The first, The Comedy Company, debuted in 2018.

Next up in January 2025 is Bea, by Irish playwright Mick Gordon. Directed by Amanda Goldberg, the 2010 play stars Kristin Unrah as Bea, a playful character with a debilitating medical condition. Bea’s mother and best friend must grapple with a request by Bea that pushes their compassion to the limit.

Another exceptional woman is at the centre of the third play in the Shadow season. After Mourning — Before Van Gogh is written by Calgary’s Michael Czuba and stars Lora Brovold as Johanna Bonger, who was married to Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Theo.

After her husband and brother-in-law die, Bonger is left with some 600 van Gogh paintings thought to be worthless at the time. The play traces her 35-year journey to bring van Gogh’s work to prominence.
“We all love van Gogh and recognize his brilliance now,” says Hudson, who directs the world premiere. “But none of this would be true without Johanna.”

The season winds up in May 2025 with a comedy starring the popular duo of Coralie Cairns and Davina Stewart.

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Where You Are is written by Kristin da Silva and sees sisters Glenda and Suzanne selling homemade jam on Manitoulin Island in their retirement. That is until Suzanne’s daughter Beth arrives. There are secrets upon secrets that change the three women’s lives and relationships forever.

“It’s laugh-out-loud funny,” says Hudson, who directs. “I thought that would be a delightful way to finish.”

For information on the 2024/25 Shadow season, held at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.) visit shadowtheatre.org or call 780-434-5564.

Belinda Cornish
Belinda Cornish directs the Teatro Live! production of Steward Lemoine’s The Oculist’s Holiday, opening May 30. Supplied

Teatro’s reborn Holiday

Teatro Live! presents one of Stewart Lemoine’s “beautiful” plays with the opening of The Oculist’s Holiday May 30 at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave.)

“It’s not a screwball or a farce,” says director Belinda Cornish by way of explanation. “It’s got some real beauty and thoughtfulness in it while being very funny.”

The Oculist’s Holiday debuted at the Fringe in 2009, where it won a Sterling award for the best new Fringe play.

Starring Beth Graham as Marian Ogilvy, the re-mounted production features Teatro Live! ensemble members Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshof, Cathy Derkach and Oscar Derkx. Set in 1930s Switzerland, the story involves a romance between a Canadian teacher and an American optometrist that gets complicated when they encounter two charming and yet volatile fellow tourists.

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Cornish says the play is influenced by the work of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Of the five, there is one particular character — and it’s the same with Fitzgerald — about whom we know very little and who changes the course of everyone else’s lives.”

Cornish herself is experiencing a change. For the last few years, she and Andrew MacDonald-Smith have been co-directors of Teatro Live! But with the hiring of general manager Cassandra Duval, Cornish has stepped back from the temporary, two-person position, turning the role over to MacDonald-Smith. The new hire also gives resident playwright Lemoine a chance to reduce his administrative duties and concentrate on being a wordsmith.

For tickets, go to teatrolive.com or call 780-433-3399.

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