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An encore for WJT

Curtain expected to rise again for theatre that went dark last winter

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From left, James Warnez, Paul St. Pierre and David Simard  in Black Bottle Man at Brandon University.


From left, James Warnez, Paul St. Pierre and David Simard in Black Bottle Man at Brandon University.

The veil of secrecy that has enveloped the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre since it abruptly halted operations last February may be lifted any time now.

The theatre's board of directors met this week and is deciding when to announce that it will re-open this fall with some programming, perhaps a fundraising production in December followed by a full run of a play in the new year. The stumbling block in planning, according to sources, is the size of grants the theatre can expect in light of it's uncertain situation.

There is a lot of talk in the theatre community that former WJT artistic director Kayla Gordon (1994-2004) will return as interim artistic director to help get the financially-challenged organization back on its feet with her artistic expertise. Gordon is currently the artistic director of the Winnipeg Studio Theatre, a company specializing in developing and staging musicals.

In mid-February, WJT pulled the plug on its 26th season, cancelling the April run of its final offering Shiksa by Winnipeg playwright Cairn Moore. Artistic producer Michael Nathanson was dismissed after seven years and has since left town.

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Brandon writer Craig Russell is coming to Winnipeg Saturday to showcase his play Black Bottle Man and perhaps interest some theatre in producing it.

"It's like an audition for every theatre person in Winnipeg who might consider it," says the 58-year-old provincial government lawyer and district registrar for land titles.

Black Bottle Man, Russell's stage adaptation of his first novel of the same name, is being presented Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Berney Theatre (123 Doncaster St.). The drama debuted July 3-6 at Brandon University's Evans Theatre.

The University of Manitoba graduate has acted and directed in community theatre for 15 years in several companies, including Mecca Productions, which is staging Black Bottle Man.

The fable follows Rembrandt, a teenager who, with his father and uncle, wants to help his childless aunts become mothers. Rembrandt makes a Faustian pact with the devil after which a mysterious bottle arrives and the women must sell their souls for its contents. To retrieve the women's souls the men agree that they can't stay in the same place more than 12 days.

Black Bottle Man was published in 2010 by Winnipeg's Great Plains Publications and earned positive reviews. It won an American Moonbeam Children's Book Award and was a finalist for several other prizes, including the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award. It sold a few thousand copies.

"A good portion of the story came out of some grief I had over my father's death in 2008," Russell says. "I wasn't really a writer before then. Death is a mysterious thing and you try to come to your own terms with it."

Russell penned a radio version of the story called Rembrandt and then sent the script to Rory Runnells, artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights. He was impressed enough to alert the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which hosted a reading but it was ultimately rejected due to its cast size of 18 actors. In 2011 Black Bottle Man was part of a two-day workshop with director Ann Hodges and playwright/dramaturge Bruce McManus. It has now been pared to eight actors.

The production is the subject of a Page to Stage cable documentary for MTS but Russell is focused on the one-day Winnipeg showcase.

"It's one thing to put it in front of your hometown crowd but it's another to put it in front of people who don't know the actors and get their feedback," says Russell who was born the ninth of 10 kids on a farm near Carman. "Of course I'm keen to have my play go further, what playwright isn't?"

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The 33rd annual Edmonton Fringe Festival wrapped on the weekend with a record 118,280 ticket sales to 211 indoor shows. That's up from 117,730 in 2013 and continues a five-year run of more than 100,000 in attendance at North America's largest fringe festival.

In comparison, the 2014 Winnipeg edition drew 104,859 ticket-buyers to 175 shows. That was up from 101,488 the previous year and the third festival that saw attendance top 100,000 in ticket sales.

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Next month, you can get great seats to a season of acclaimed productions from London's famed National Theatre without leaving town.

Starting Sept. 4, Cineplex's Front Row Centre Events will kick off with the Greek tragedy Medea starring Helen McCrory, who won praise for her portrayal of a woman scorned. The 100-minute stage production will be screened at 7 p.m. at Silver City Polo Park, the home of the entire series. It will be repeated Oct. 4. Tickets are $23, $22 for seniors and students.

The playbill also includes A Streetcar Named Desire (Sept. 16 and 21), Frankenstein (Oct. 15 and 22), with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Skylight (Oct. 23 and 25), starring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, Of Mice and Men (Nov. 6, 13, 23 and 24) with headliners James Franco, Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester, John, (Dec. 10 and Jan. 24, 2015) and Treasure Island (Jan. 22 and Feb. 21).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2014 C3

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