Unsuspicious- La Cité Francophone- Edmonton

Unsuspicious played as a workshop for the Stage Struck Festival and will enjoy a full run at this years Edmonton Fringe Festival 2016.



Written & Directed by Maria Colonescu

This year, Edmonton’s Fringe Festival will have a rare treat on offer- a titillating new play revealing the warm, candid, and delightfully dark traditions of mother-daughter relationships. Workshopped at the Stage Struck Festival for new work, Unsuspicious shines through as a diamond in the rough and come Fringe, you will not want to miss out on this absolute gem of dramatic story-telling.

We are invited to an intimate tea party where three generations of women from a proud French family will reveal the closely-guarded mysteries behind their 100-odd year old tea set. This very special heirloom, as well as the ritualistically retold tales behind it, has connected the women of the family for generations. Brewing tea and tales with this ancient family treasure is sacred; an essential rite of passage as each mother must unveil the family’s secrets and each daughter must carefully guard their inherent wisdom. At the appropriate time, each story must be told in full, never watered down, never neglecting the more unsavoury details, and with new stains and scratches come new stories from each woman.  In this way, they have brewed a powerful arsenal of life lessons with which to arm the next generation against life’s cruelest tests.

Although afternoon tea is, for most Canadian families, a relic which remains lost in the dregs of our colonial history, we can all identify with the importance of a quiet chat over a hot cup of something soothing. Even more heart and tummy warming is the prospect of a sweet home-baked treat to dunk, and when our hostesses pass out delicious looking madeleine’s (a cherished family recipe since grandmother read Proust’s ode to the delicate goodie), the audience is instantly welcomed into their closest circle of trust.

Playwright Maria Colonescu’s brilliance is in her deep understanding of human relationships, especially profound intra-family eccentricities; her keen insight manifests not only through her sensitive and scintillating writing, but also in her approach to direction and stage craft. She literally has us eating out of the palm of her hand.

Comparable to Edward Albee’s wonderful examination of the female “self” in Three Tall Women, Unsuspicious is told by three women from different generations coexisting together on stage to tell their collective stories. Grandmother, Mother, and Daughter, though being born in different ages into vastly different worlds, have all faced similar trials of womanhood and have all found solace, strength and resolve through the tea pot tradition. The omniscience of the three generations onstage together, each presented to us as she was in her early forties, blurs any temptation toward weak linear plot devices and cleaves rather to their consanguinity- their unbreakable bonds as women raised by and growing with each other.

Coming from a family of nearly all women myself, it is undeniable that the maxim “like mother like daughter” can often stretch to “like great-grandmother like grandmother like mother like daughter”.

Each woman is presented as a hostess behind her own tea table and Colonescu has given them recognizably individual voices directly linked to their personalities and time periods. Her intricate characterization and sound theatrical construct work to seamlessly imply change and the passage of time through the generations, whilst fortifying the deep-running connections of the characters’ blood and background.

Grandmother, a well-groomed lady of Parisian society played by a demure yet deliciously glint-eyed Marcia Anderson, presents us the woman of the early 1950’s. In a full-skirt and pearls, she tells us how women weren’t allowed to do much else other than have children and host tea parties. We’re taught that everything must be just so; for even if one is hosting one’s enemy with perfectly civil intentions of ruining them over tea, there’s no reason it can’t be a properly lady-like and thoroughly pleasurable afternoon.

We can imagine that Mother, shown at her prime in the swinging 1970’s, might very well be the hostess to the most respectable key parties in the neighbourhood as well as afternoon tea. Nicole Grainger’s gay and bubbly portrayal vacillates effortlessly between child-like and maternal (which is, after all, her precarious position on the generational spectrum). She is all charm and guile as she generously shares with us the horrific trials of her life. Between them, Grainger and Colonescu paint a very realistic picture of a spirited survivor of an era which was particularly tricky for young wives and mothers.

Daughter is our direct link into the family, played sensitively by Elizabeth Grierson with all the coquettishness, pride and wisdom of her foremothers. Yet in spite of all the advances in women’s rights and freedoms up to the present day, she still faces many of the same dangers which threatened women decades before. Though much on the surface level of society has changed, the lessons of the tea pot must still be carefully observed. She is still a woman, and must not be unsuspicious of men.

Whilst writing this, I have been puzzling over how to define “strong women”. It is a term I have been tempted with throughout this review and, although I know exactly what it means to me, “the word”, as Feste says, “is over-worn”. It has come to be a stamp for the foreheads of the stubborn, the self-assured, the assertive, the woman who fearlessly voices her opinions or dominates a room. Although these marks of confidence are not inherently negative, I have heard such inadequate generalizations applied to “strong women”, oft warping the term into a sort of gender slur, and never so often as in the theatre.

There is now and has always been a problem surrounding the portrayal of “strong women” in theatre. This insipid idiom is often carelessly wedged into a casting breakdown to  designate “the feisty one” or a woman who is hard-done-by and must stand tall through her plight. In most plays, there is only room for one strong female character because of the desperately narrow view theatre has taken on what the strength of women means and its impact on stage. This short-sighted notion can creep in as an unwritten law of form for playwrights; unfortunately, audiences are often more comfortable dealing with balanced archetypes in easily digestible situations to the tune of a serenely tranquilizing linear plot-line.

However, this accomplished group of women, and by this I mean both the written characters and the company who bring them to life, deliver a razor-sharp picture of womanhood and women’s relationships through the ages without having to rely on any  re-heated ideas or diminish the powerful affects our characters have on the audience and on each other.

Though unquestionably strong, they are beautifully flawed. What’s more is that they see and love each other for their whole selves without prejudice. No archetypes or idioms needed. Just like any meeting between colourful women, you will belly laugh, gasp with terror, sink with sorrow, and most importantly, you will not be able to take your eyes off of them.

I can’t wait to see how this extraordinary story-telling experience will grow in the months before its official run at the Fringe this year, and I urge you to get your tickets as soon as they become available. Watch this space!

Related article on the rest of the Stage Struck Festival to come soon

SkirtsAFire Festival- Gideon’s Knot-Alberta Ave Community League- Edmonton

The SkirtsAFire Festival is celebrating the work of women in theatre with a diverse program of multidisciplinary arts March 10th to 13th at venues on 118th Avenue in Edmonton. Click Here for more on the festival’s many exciting events.



Halfway through her story, playwright Johnna Adams brutally challenges her audience by offering this suggestion: If you want to draw attention to a cause, use the story of a dead child. Political unrest? Dead Child. Cure for Cancer? Dead child. Drunk driving? Dead, dead, dead child.

This kind of macabre “hook” has been widely used to advertise causes both local and global for decades. Gut-wrenching stories of personal loss so dominate the media that, in the deluge of our instant of pathos, we may fail to identify the propagandizing of child mortality. We may forget that that child was indeed a person in and of themselves or, what’s worse, overlook the plight of those who have been left behind to unpick the impossible knot of how to simply go on with life after such unnatural events.

Like the mythical Gordian’s Knot to which the title refers, Adams’ play fearlessly throws us into the inconceivably complex and troubling aftermath of atrocity, but there are no loopholes here. Set in a classroom during a truly horrific parent-teacher conference, we scrutinize the circumstances of an 11 year old boys death through both public and private lenses, begging the terrifying question, When it takes a village to raise a child, who then is to blame?

This “Pick of the Fringe” first played in Edmonton last summer. Now remounted for the SkirtsAFire celebration of women in the arts, new complexities emerge from this morally ruthless two-hander as mother and teacher struggle to come to terms with the roles they played in young Gideon’s life, and death. Although they have both been instrumental in his upbringing, they’ve known slightly different Gideons, for no child is the same at home as at school. Each needs something from the other in order to complete the picture of the sad events and begin to grope past culpability and towards closure.

Mother Corryn (Liana Shannon), certainly helped by her confrontational and stubborn personality, freely demands information from her son’s teacher regarding his final days in school. Undaunted by convention, Corryn challenges the idea that children are untouched innocents who must be wrapped in cotton batting to survive their precious formative years.

However, Ms Clark (Amber Lewis), more emotionally guarded but no less stubborn, is caught in an impossible political muzzle as so many teachers are these days. The responsibility of protecting the other children weighs heavy on her, and she is reluctant to divulge any information which might make the school culpable in any way.

For over an hour, audience and characters wait for the principle to arrive and legitimize the meeting, but we all know she’ll never show. The situation is too dangerous for the school not to have a lawyer present for such a meeting and so a desperate mother and a deeply shaken teacher are trapped together in a room where they do not want to be. It is always difficult to watch characters wait, let alone in a situation they want desperately to escape, and over 90 minutes the writing becomes repetitive and the action empty, trying to reinforce an awkwardness we don’t need to be told twice to feel.

However, simply cut the script down and allow the action to carry the content, and the pace and tension of the play would have us hooked. We are already engaged by the complexity of the situation and the human struggles of the characters held within its confines. Our minds buzz with questions as we scrutinize the many thought-provoking problems, but with a constantly drooping energy, it’s difficult to remain captivated.

Despite these dramatic flatlines, there is some truly beautiful writing which encourages us to re-examine the societies of children and their perceptions of self. Calling to mind such classic dissections of juvenile societies as Lord of the Flies, we are let into Gideon’s world piece by piece as his school and home lives collide post-mortem.

Soon, he ceases to be a poster child to be slapped across a cause, or a trauma for his fellow classmates, or a black mark on a teacher’s record, or a stamp of failure across a parents forehead. The watery generalizations of “dead child” ebb away and we can see glimpses of who Gideon the person was, and who he could have been.

Though the content is certainly uncomfortable, and the script a bit too long, this production is certainly worth taking in. I recommend you allow time afterwards to decompress and air your reactions over a large glass of wine.

Gideon’s Knot is part of the SkirtsAFire Festival this weekend in Edmonton. It plays at the Black Box theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Centre until March 13th. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.