And if any two shows could demonstrate why the Citadel Theatre continues to be a beacon of cultural hope in a vulgar, de-sensitized pop culture world (Miley Cyrus, Snooki, say no more) it would be Eugene O'Neill's sombre and sober (in tone at least) Long Day's Journey Into Night, on the Shoctor stage until Oct. 13, and Ronnie Burkett's cheeky, hilarious, poignant, satirical, spur-of-the-moment marionette (puppets on strings) Daisy Theatre, playing cabaret-style in The Club (Rice Theatre).
Long Day's Journey is homage to what's very much now old-style, "classical" American theatre - when audiences arrive, sit in their seats, listen and watch intently but only, only as observers.
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Cat on Hot Tin Roof, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, these dramas were all expressions of an American post World War Two culture where rooting about in family dysfunction, a heretofore forbidden topic, was now allowable in writing for the stage and film. Blame it on Sigmund Freud?
The themes may be a tad dated and, through today's eyes, formulaic. Overbearing, alcoholic fathers and emotionally crippled mothers hoist their unresolved emotional burdens on the next generation, with predictable results. But this theme has produced towering works of American literature, in which Long Day's Journey Into Night happens to be one of its brightest lights.
If you can sit through 3.5 hours of heavy theatrical lifting where there’s not a laugh to be had, watching a family self-destruct, you'll deeply appreciate this well-produced, well-acted, well-directed evening of drama. The acting is all first-rate but Brenda Bazinet's nuanced descent from normalcy to chemically assisted gentle madness is to watch an excellent actress continue to grow in her craft.
Which brings us down a set of stairs in the same Citadel Theatre complex to Ronnie Burkett's one-man hilarious brilliance of The Daisy Show.
The Citadel has been wrestling with relevance for the last few years, when it discovered, to its chagrin, that even the most hip contemporary big-stage theatre company in Canada was not immune to aging audiences shunning season's tickets as former subscribers opt to winter in Palm Springs or Phoenix.
If ever a strategic plan needed results - a validation of reaching out to new audiences - it's this Burkett show.
To create an ambiance appealing to a younger, or at least more contemporary socio-demographic, the downtown stairs Rice Theatre is now "The Club". It's still a performance space, but so much more informal, with cabaret tables, chandeliers and a bar for the thirsty to stock up before and after the show of the night.
It's a space perfectly suited to Ronnie Burkett's quite famous marionette theatre, for Burkett's unique theatricality that has had major reviewers call him "the best puppeteer in the world."
Burkett's towering talents include the actual designing and creation of his 30 to 50 centimetre high puppets, the portable marionette theatre unto itself, his technical puppet-on-a-string wizardry and organizational skills allowing Burkett as a soloist to present dozens of his characters (they hang from their strings back-stage) from scene to scene without the least faltering over 90 non-stop minutes of stage time.
Then there's the artistic talent - Burkett as playwright, commentator, an actor who plays not one part but dozens - instantly changing his voice, mannerisms and very psyche to the marionette he has on stage.
The Daisy Theatre is an interesting exploration for Burkett. Normally, his shows are full-length and pre-scripted by himself. This time around, they are a series of vignettes, loosely tied together as characters in a traveling cabaret show owned by "that cow" and marionette Madeline Porterhouse.
Each vignette was written by playwriting friends - Chris Craddock, Brad Fraser, Daniel MacIvor among them. At least the friends wrote the starting point, as Burkett is open to wherever his 1000 mile an hour mind takes him, is forever throwing caution to the wind and ad-libbing to the outer edges.
This Burkett show is fascinating in its unique relationships to an affable audience, sipping their drinks as they enjoy the show.
There's no wall! Burkett has his perch above the stage from where he orchestrates all. But he comes out front to interact, speaks to the audience as himself from above the marionettes, speaks to the audience as marionette characters, and then will return to the dialogue at hand on the puppet stage. Audience members come up "on stage" to assist in marionette manipulation, with hilarious results.
Burkett is also a wickedly funny social satirist. On the opening night, the show was full of zingers about acting in Edmonton, at the Citadel, about the other shows playing (i.e. Long Day's Journey), about Wild Rose country (Burkett grew up in Calgary).
He makes himself laugh. So often you can see Burkett above his puppets, guffawing into his sleeve before he launches yet another hilarious one-liner at something contemporary.
Lest Burkett be perceived as nothing more than a talented funny man, t’aint so. He and his characters have their moments of deep sadness, or exquisite wistfulness, the more poignant for the hilarity around which they are book-ended.
The contrasting of these two shows reveals the endless depth and breadth of the Citadel's theatrical experience.
Once again, well done Citadel crew – a promising start to the current season.