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Festen not for the faint of heart

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Festen is not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach or the easily offended, because the truth can really hurt sometimes, especially when the subjects of the play have a  pretty deep, dark and disturbing secret.
That didn’t stop director Jay Whitehead from tackling taboo topics for his first outing directing a University of Lethbridge production, which runs  Nov. 24-28 in the University Theatre.Christian goes toe to toe with his dad in Festen. Photo by Richard Amery
“I’m an actor first. When I read the script, it struck me as a play filled with juicy  acting roles for the actors to sink their teeth into,” explained Whitehead preparing his 14 member cast for a Monday night dress rehearsal.
Festen is David Eldridge’s dramatic adaptation of  the 1998 Danish film “The Celebration,” which was written  by Thomas Vinterberg and Morgens Rukov.
The story surrounds the activities of Klingelfeldt patriarch Helge who is celebrating his 60th birthday following the funeral of the family’s eldest daughter Leslie who committed suicide.
 So right away you know this isn’t going to be an easy production to watch, especially  when the audience hears a chorus of ominous screeches, screams, groans,  baby cries, bumps and bangs while waiting for it to begin. The audience is right on the stage with the actors, as eldest son Christian, played by Tanner d’Esterre enters, suitcases in hand, sits on them and has a drink from his flask for what seems like an eternity with nary a word. And soon the audience  will discover why — because he is about to drop a bomb on this upper crust family and  their friends which will tear them  apart.  Ironically, or poetically , depending on how you look at it, Christian has prepared two speeches which his father must choose from to be read  during dinner which will turn this “pleasant ” family gathering into a chaos of  ripe curses, violence, and drama which will include a vicious sex scene, featuring some full frontal male nudity. Be warned.
Luckily  the talented cast  manages  to break up  a really intense situation with some black comedy thanks mainly from the grandfather as well as from Helge’s manic depressive friend Poul.
“This is something the university hasn’t really done before,” said assistant director Alison DeRegt adding she has  learned a lot about both acting and directing from being part of Festen.
“We‘ve been blessed with some really experienced actors who were able to take what we gave them and created really well rounded characters,” she said.Festen has an uneasy ending. Photo by Richard Amery
“It has some really surreal elements to it,” she continued. Tanner d'Esterre (Christian), Genevieve Pare (Helene) and Cory Joyce (Michael). Photo Submitted
“There  is definitely a haunted feel to it. There is an intermingling of the two worlds— life and death,” Whitehead added.
The stage is  as  dark as the plot  with only a few chairs and tables dressing the barren stage.
“It is purposely left barren because it’s an acting showcase rather than a spectacle. It’s about the story rather than the location,” Whitehead explained.
“That’s not to say the set designers didn’t do a fantastic job because they did,” he said praising an experienced cast for really making Festen pop.
“The cast of actors we’ve been able to work with have really embraced the dark places they have to go to in this play,” he said adding the actors embraced their characters so quickly that they were able to dedicate a rehearsal to improving  back stories for each of them.
“It touches on  social issues  that aren’t often spoken about in public. But theses issues need to be discussed. And for the cast to go to these dark places they have to go, that can be scary,” Whitehead said.
Cory Joyce, who plays the malevolent Michael, really embraces both sides of his character— the doting son and the angry, violent, borderline sociopath. Genevieve Pare, who plays the youngest daughter, Helene, exhibits  stunning dramatic chops. And Helge also  shows   his multifaceted sides, as the life of the party and a very, very, bad and angry man. Tanner d’Esterre, who plays Christian. does a remarkable job of  the tortured eldest son
 If you want all of your senses and  many of your deep set beliefs, then don’t miss Festen.
 It runs at 8 p.m., Nov. 24-28 in the University Theatre.  Call  the University box office (403-329-2616) for tickets, which cost $10 for students, $15 for the public.

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor

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