On Saturday May 21st I saw two short theatre productions that blew me away with a level of poise and maturity coming from the young student-artists at Once Upon a Kingdom Theatre company. The Flying Machine and The Legend of Parvana Lake premiered at the University of Ottawa’s Academic Hall and are part of the students’ final projects with the company this season. Under the direction of company instructors Alexandra Isenor and Simon L. Lalande (The Flying Machine) and Artistic Director Ekaterina Vetrov (The Legend of Parvana Lake), the young performers have proven without a doubt in my mind that they have the discipline, creativity, and talent to contend with their adult contemporaries and the work that’s currently being produced by the local independent and professional theatre artists here in Ottawa.

Once Upon a Kingdom is dedicated to producing work where the student-artists have a heavy hand in shaping the work the audience ultimately sees on stage. Since the company’s inception in 2008, OUAK has been offering classes in a myriad of artistic subjects including (but not limited to): dance and movement; set, lighting, and sound design; costume and masks; stage management; and, yes, even theatre criticism. The skills and tools that these young artists are accumulating now are providing them with a solid foundation for their future should they decide to continue to pursue theatre. And let’s hope they do because, in all honesty, the dedication and discipline I saw on stage that night was inspiring.

Ok, I know what you’re probably thinking: “But Brie, you’ve worked directly with this company. Aren’t you a little biased?”  Sure, perhaps I am in that I have had a number of conversations with these students about art and what, in their opinion, makes a successful performance. We’ve gone to see productions that range from a complex Butoh dance piece to traditional opera and I listened as they conceptualized adult professional theatre in relation to their own work. I publish their criticism on this site, not simply because I act as the “theatre criticism instructor”, but because I legitimately believe that their voices are necessary to the fabric of the Ottawa theatre community.

In any case, I’m not the only one who sees their creative potential. The World Festival of Children’s Theatre selected The Legend of Parvana Lake as one of two Canadian works to be showcased at this year’s festival in Stratford, Ontario. For the purposes of this review, I would like to focus on Parvana Lake, however, I will briefly touch on The Flying Machine as the two pieces, while appearing to be in stark contrast, contain some lovely parallels.

Presented by the junior English class and adapted from Phil Porter’s much longer text by Isenor, The Flying Machine sets its story in an ophthalmology (a fancy word for ‘optical’…or eyes) ward where a group of young girls who are recovering from eye surgery meet a new inpatient named Imogen. Seeing her new friends in their constant state of ennui, Imogen dedicates herself to recharging their power of imagination and play. Unfortunately for Imogen, her constant attempts at make-belief are continually foiled by a disembodied voice- a nurse who has it out for ‘disturbers of the peace’.

The text is definitely a little darker than what you might expect from young artists aged 9-14 and yet the performers handle themselves really well. With a little more work on enunciation, pace, and projection this show has some true grit behind it. The concepts of escapism and the importance of creative imagination all still ring true in 2016 where many youth are accused of having a lack of attention or lack of imagination vis a vis social media and digital technology.

OUAK's Junior English class rehearsing "The Flying Machine"; Photo courtesy of Simon L. Lalande
OUAK’s Junior English class rehearsing “The Flying Machine”; All photos courtesy of Once Upon a Kingdom

There are some visually compelling moments that happen during this performance, though two of them stick out in my mind specifically. The first occurs when the characters are pretending they are on a great sea vessel in the middle of a mighty storm. By using the variety of props on stage, including a large sheet that acts as the ships sails, but more importantly becomes the massive tidal wave that washes over the entire crew. The second moment that I found to be very memorable comes right at the end of the piece where Imogen, played by Laila Burns, has just come out of her surgery and with her eyes all bandaged stands up on a chair and reaches outward. Whatever you interpret Imogen to be reaching out for (escape, healing, her parents etc), the simple image is a powerful finale nonetheless.

Now, The Legend of Parvana Lake is a bit more of a juggernaut when compared to the previous show. Incorporating dance, shadow work, and three different languages (Russian, Armenian, and English) the intermediate class presents us with a creation myth about one of Georgia’s most beautiful lakes, Lake Parvana. I understand the “language barrier” might make one hesitant, but it really shouldn’t. Vetrov and company have done a fantastic job of telling this story through movement and physical imagery.

Photograph courtesy of Once Upon a Kingdom Theatre
Pictured Alexandra Milman hoisted by cast mates

To summarize briefly (thanks to handy dandy Wikipedia) the mythos behind Parvana Lake tells of a beautiful Princess who, in her arrogant desire for the perfect Prince, sends her suitors away in search of an eternal flame (understood to be a Herculean task). When she discovers that every single one of the eligible knights have perished in their quest for her hand in marriage, she finds that she cannot stop her tears from falling and consequently drowns the entire Kingdom of Parvana her sorrow. One could easily make the comment here that The Legend of Parvana Lake offers up a perspective on modernity and how having unrealistic standards can be self-defeating and potentially harmful.

There are a lot of noteworthy things in this production that I could expand upon for great lengths, though, I will attempt to be as succinct as possible. Specifically, I would like to look at the choreography, the shadow work, and one or two thoughtful moments in the acting. But where to even begin?

Pictured: Alexandra Milman; Photograph courtesy of Once Upon a Kingdom Theatre
Pictured: Milman

Let’s start with the choreography and movement which are the primary vehicles in recreating this story on stage. Choreographed by Mariya Bugrova, the students (who are not, by the way, formally trained dancers) have almost completely mastered these dance steps that I would not consider to be ‘basic’ or ‘simple’, even in my somewhat limited knowledge of dance. Timing and synchronicity can certainly be tightened up a little (though, to the performers’ credit they are pretty spot on for the most part), however, this is certainly forgivable in the grand scheme of things. Through the choreography we, as an audience, are able to understand the concept of community and ensemble which is integral in mythmaking.

Furthermore, the individual journeys of the suitors are also made clear through movement and we watch as each knight is ultimately defeated by different trials that emerge along their quest for the eternal flame. Their deaths are illustrated through the use of coloured scarves that the performers then throw up into the air when their character has perished. A truly creative way to stage death scenes for potentially younger audiences, but more importantly allows the performers to show their understanding of imagery and metaphor.

Pictured: Ben Nossik

The incredible use of shadow play is a further testament to the young performers’ exploration of creative images and symbolism. Having hand-crafted the lighting gobos (or maybe ‘stencils’ is a more apt term here) themselves, the performers use shapes and figures against a fabric screen which, through the backlight, reveals much of the story’s context. An undeniably striking moment occurs when actor Alexandra Milman, playing the Princess, first enters the scene pulling the long white fabric, fastened to her tiara, taut across the stage- as if these shadowy memories we see playing upon it have become her grand bridal veil.

ouak shadow
Rehearsal shot of the Princess’ “veil”; Pictured: Milman

It is so nice to see young people on stage who are confident in their roles as creators and performers. Mikhail Tsirlin and Timofei Smolko are strong forces as the Narrator and the King, respectively, and both display a great maturity when it comes to delivering text. Kudos to Anna and Ben Nossik who, while sitting on the younger end of the scale, create this lovely little subplot between their characters that threads through the piece from beginning to end. Finally, Milman deserves another shout out because this girl has some serious stage presence. I can almost hardly believe the depth and range of emotion I found expressed in Milman’s performance as the haughty Princess brought down by her own arrogance. The solo dance piece performed towards the end of the show will give you chills with its poignancy. As Milman is one of two or three in the company with dance experience, Choreographer Bugrova and Director Vetrov have really put their team’s strengths to good use.

Pictured (standing centre): Timofei Smolko
Pictured (standing centre): Timofei Smolko

I can’t express enough how wonderful this show is. My views are inherently subjective (apparently the worst thing you can be as a critic), my involvement with these talented young people will of course make it impossible to avoid bias, but beyond my own personal biases I challenge you to see The Legend of Parvana Lake and tell me that this isn’t a solid theatrical performance worthy of legitimate praise. If you’re in Stratford, you can catch this show June 7th at 7:00pm and 8:15pm at the Stratford City Hall. Otherwise, Once Upon a Kingdom Theatre can be contacted for possible booking here.

Ticket information for the World Festival of Children’s Theatre can be found here.

Links to live streaming of all 1:00pm performances can be found here.

Brianna McFarlane


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