Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Bakersfield Mist is vintage Cavendish hilarity

From the footlights : Canadians are wonderstruck by lotteries. Just two years ago 34% of people polled by the CBC included winning the lottery as a linchpin of their retirement planning. Seriously. "Rags to riches!" "Instant happiness!" These are the premises underlying Bakersfield Mist. In the 40's, USA's controversial drip-&-flick abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack was the master of splatter. His brush never touched the canvas. He and others of the so-called New York School became famous, adopted enthusiastically by the Guggenheim Museum family for their gestures of improvisational enthusiasm. 

It's now 2012. Fifty-something Bakersfield, CA ex-bartender and divorcee Maude Gutman (Nicola Cavendish) thinks she's got herself an authentic Pollack. She paid $3 for it at a local 2nd-hand shop. Seeing it, a high school art teacher says it might be the real thing. So she wheedles and begs an international art foundation back in New York to send out a curator and art expert to authenticate her painting. This will set her free from her trailer park void where she drinks and dreams and pines for her dead son. The foundation agrees, and a limo promptly plops Lionel Percy (Jonathan Monro) at her trailer pad with neighbour Roberta's frothing dogs about to shred him. Bouncing ideas about what is "real" -vs- what is "fake" in life through endless comic banter is what the rest of this unlikely 2-hander about an art snob and a barkeep coughs up. And delightfully so.

How it's all put together :  The premise here is right out of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, the theory known as "thin-slicing", what Wiki calls "our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion". Percy prides himself on being able to spot the true from the phony in just eine Augenblick as the Germans would say : the blink of an eye. Should his glance convince him this truly is a successor to Pollack's famed One : Number 31 (1950) called Lavender Mist, who knows what untold riches Maude will reap financially and personally and himself professionally.

The fun of the show is the clash of values between this truly odd couple. Right from the get-go. Maude, raucous and profane, surrounded by a clutter of kitschy bric-a-brac Sally Ann decorations. Lionel. Urbane, tutored, worldly in his vested suit and Armani tie. But bring on a fistful of Jack Daniels No. 7 whiskey and the ensuing snozzle teases out remembrances of things past in vino veritas moments that pit her trailer park artlessness against his higher brow pretensions. Who's "real" here, who's "fake" ? 

What the show brings to the stage : Underlying the verbal shenanigans is the question what is, after all, "genuine"? Art is just the medium to get to the core message.

Take Italian painter Pietro Perugino, beloved by his countrymen. One of his most famous pieces -- "Virgin and Child with Saints" -- was recently subjected to an examination called wavelet decomposition. Conclusion reached was that no fewer than four painters from his studio had their hand in producing it. Does that make it less a thing of beauty and joy forever? Is it now no longer genuine? 

Or what about Michaelangelo's marble statue David at the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence. Why is it more compelling than all the knock-off lookalikes scattered around Rome?

Most folks agree it was Andy Warhol who started the current conversation about What is art? with his famous Campbell soup can series. Meanwhile, in Maude's trailer, pigs in a blanket under slices of Velveeta lathered in hot dog mustard are her approximation of what Felix Unger would call hors d'oeuvres. What importance any of this at the core of our orderly and striving and anxious 1st-world lives. Need we care? 

Still, we gotta know. Is Maude's canvas -- "this godawful piece of shit, the ugliest painting I've ever seen", she calls it -- is this pure laine Pollack DNA or not. A $3 fake or a $100 Million masterpiece?

Acting pin-spots :  Playwright Stephen Sachs clearly has an ear for snappy dialogue. And in the hands of long-time collaborators Director Roy Surette and Cavendish, the script bristles and crackles with fun. Cavendish and Monro capture the fun of big ideas in small moments with disarming and fetching nonchalance on her part, scads of stuffy pretence on his. Learned as he is he snorts : "My opinion means something, yours does not!" Maude retorts, hurt but defiant : "You mean me and this painting are bogus, worthless, junk, with no reason to live...?".

Percy's discourses on what art does to the hearts and minds of aficionados are priceless. Particularly his soliloquy replicated in ACT's Bills Notes about Pollack having a spiritual quasi-sexual experience creating Lavender Mist, even pees on it in the making. Hearty audience applause at its end. She pleads with Percy to mark his 'X' in the box affirming his professional opinion her painting is the real issue. When he accuses of her of just wanting the windfall from her three-buck purchase Maude pounces : "I don't give a shit about the money, it's the truth that counts you snooty sonuvabitch!" 

Maude reveals she knows Percy's history at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its purchase under his watch of an allegedly bogus 2,500 year old Greek kouros statue. Percy resigns / is fired from his post. Just like Maude from her bartender job. They hoist shots of Jack and yak. Life stories emerge : about Maude's abusive alcoholic ex-husband who abandons them, a likely gay son unloved by Dad who kills himself in a car wreck after a 6-er of Coors. About Percy's failed childless marriage to a woman who found art attractive to look at but nothing even remotely to orgasm over. Or spend countless words puffing and snorting righteously over the way Percy does. 

A fine climax scene when Maude takes out a butcher knife and threatens to carve up this apparently fake Pollack. Percy is aghast. (A professional moment of doubt perhaps?) They fight. Painting saved. Maude shows him a letter from a chap in India who offers her $2 million for the piece, no certification or authenticity required. Percy advises her to take the money and run. She demurs. "It's not about the money. This painting found me. The world needs to know its true meaning, its true value because there are some things you can't say in words!" She toasts the canvas with a final shot of J.D. as curtain falls. 

Production features that add value : Designer Pam Johnson has a fine eye for detail. Pre-show I was convinced the Stanley stage would be too wide and deep for just two actors. But Johnson's details of Maude having 70+ fridge magnets and her favourite piece, a laughing clown litho, a cheesy Route 66 beer sign and other junk shop specialties spread themselves across the stage wonderfully well.

The Wanda Jackson / Patsy Cline intro-exit tunes were perfect book-ends, while Michael Sider's video cuts of Picasso and the kouros statue atop the scenes below added clever visuals.

Who gonna like : It is probably impossible for this reviewer to exit a Nicola Cavendish show with a critical syllable whatever to utter. Just hitching her pants up in the opening moments had me in stitches. She is a master of stage business, fidgetry, eye-rolling smirky sarcasm. And b.t.w. every actor in Vancouver needs to have a 2-day seminar in swearing from Nicola : she knows precisely when to emphasize the f-word and when to hit its attending noun instead.  

The shift from Percy-the-snob to Percy-the-bourbon swiller was probably too abrupt, though his return to snooty form after the exhausting orgiastic knife tussle was just right. Thus that the show is one-act (85 minutes) is good : while capable and professional and clever, Mr. Sachs' script is not Pulitzer-level stuff. The energy gets flattish and just sort of dissipates until the final verbal burst of defiance by Maude.

But no need to look for serious messaging in all this. Sure, maybe learn some ideas about how and why visual art stirs passions. And some details about why 1940's abstract expressionism is supposed to excite us, not leave us cross-eyed. And have some fun comparing NYC 5th Avenue values with Bakersfield, CA main street. 

But mostly this is a rollicking chirpy tale through the eyes of a robust and battered and bounce-back romantic whose charm can't help but embrace you and let a better angel perch, if but a moment or two, on your shoulder.

Particulars : Written by Stephen Sachs. At the Arts Club Stanely Theatre, 11th & Granville.  On until November 20.  Run-time 85 minutes, no intermission.  Tickets by phone at 604.687.1644 or

Production team:  DirectoRy Surette (Artistic Director Centaur Theatre, Montreal).  Set & Costume Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Conor Moore.  Video Designer Michael Sider.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager Noelle Sediego.

Performers :  Nicola Cavendish (Maude).  Jonathan Monro (Lionel).


Saturday, 15 October 2016

A vigorous search for self in The King of Yees
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : What is perhaps the most common life experience of people the world over? Discovering their roots. Learning about their clan. Their tribe. Particularly so for folks who find themselves "strangers in a strange land" -- not part of the dominant race or culture -- even if their family's kin have been around for generations.

When Chinese immigrants flocked to North America during the Gold Rush they were racially discriminated against by the ruling anglos : trite indisputable fact.  Considered inferior physically, intellectually and morally, the immigrant men formed benevolent and protective societies often called "family associations". The Yees are just such a clan whose international home is in San Francisco and known as the Yee Fung Toy Society (Vancouver branch on East Georgia).

King of the Yees is San Francisco playwright Lauren Yees' pursuit, lit. & fig., of her father who's gone missing, of her cultural roots through the sexist and exclusionist Yee family Society, and through her emerging identity as a playwright mining her own life story for substance.

How it's all put together : The play is actually a play within-a-play. Or a play about a play. Main characters are Andrea Yu as Lauren Yee opposite Gateway Theatre artistic director Jovanni Sy as Lauren's dad Larry. Act 1 opens with the actors ostensibly rehearsing their parts as Lauren (Donna Soares / Actor #2) and Larry (Raugi Yu / Actor #1) along with Milton Lim as Actor #3.

The "real" players interact with the "acting actors" on the eve of Larry's 60th birthday and his retirement as a techie with A T & T telephone. He has American Airlines tickets to take Lauren the next day to China to visit his father's clan's village. But not until after a birthday celebration at a local restaurant where he's reserved 50 tables for "everyone" from Chinatown to attend. When racketeering charges are laid against real-life California ex-State Senator Leland Yee whom Larry has supported for 20 years in various campaigns, Larry "disappears" himself. Fear spreads that another actual San Francisco local, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow -- dragon head of the Ghee Kung Tong (gang) -- will blame Larry for his related arrest and take revenge on the Yee family.

Act 2 is about Lauren's attempts through the vehicle of this play to find her missing dad, and herself, in the process.

What the show strives for on stage :  Biographic techniques are tricky to pull off. John Irving's novel Garp -- about Garp the writer whose mother is also a writer which induces severe writer's block in son Garp -- comes to mind. The King of the Yees is similar in structure. A playwright writes a play that includes rehearsals of a play about her life.

The audience learns some Chinese-American history along with Yee, stuff perhaps that was equally unknown or understood by the playwright herself until she undertook this project. 

Insight is derived from a 2010 interview Yee had with blogger Adam Szymkowicz in his blogsite I Interview Playwrights (Part 130). Asked to tell a story about her childhood, Yee said : "Growing up in San Francisco, I hated Chinatown. Dirty. Spitty. Crowded. Old people literally pushing you out of their way on Stockton Street. As a Chinese-American, I totally felt out of place in a place I should have felt at home in. Now I go back and I revel in the noise and trash. I'm like 'Rotten bok choy on the curb : yeah! Jam-packed 30 Stockton bus that closes the door on you : yeah!' I don't know if it's the playwright in me what wants to find some sense of authenticity, but it's an interesting change."

Yee never learned to speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. That alienated her from the ethnic environs she grew up in. Later her character is told : "In the advertising marketing world, Chinese are not isolated. Their preferences are considered so aligned with white people it's like we don't exist!" Actor #1 tells Actor #2.  King is Lauren Yee's attempts to come to grips with her invisibility.

Production values that enhance the piece :  It is common in contemporary scripts for the so-called fourth wall -- the airspace between the stage and the audience -- to be penetrated so the actors become part of the crowd either in their roles or breaking character to "chum" with viewers. Yee employs the technique repeatedly and effectively, particularly the town hall assembly sequence. On stage the dream sequences with the ghosts -- the Lum elders in monks' hoodies -- were a fun diversion. And the chiropractor / acupuncturist / herbalist piece was Chaplinesque slapstick writ large to great guffaws in the seats.

These bits all occur on a superb Pam Johnson-designed set representing the board room of the Yee Family Association headquarters on Waverly Place in San Francisco. The fifteen foot high inlaid faux-rosewood panels accompany twin mystical / magical portals -- that only the spirits of Yee elders can open -- are altogether breathtaking. Truly.

Gerald King's lighting and the hazing effects huffed through these pivoting doors -- doors of perception and reckoning -- will join Johnson's wizardry come Jessie nomination time next Spring, no doubt.

Acting pin-spots :  Director Sherry J. Yoon utilized all corners of the wide-ish Gateway stage with imagination and good follow-spot isolation. Mostly steady performances by the cast, while Raugi Yu's turns as dragon and chiropractor were particularly clever and deft. The scenes with Donna Soares trying to master the tonal nuances of the word Chi-nese! were priceless. Meanwhile one tone-deaf bit of dialogue by playwright Yee in Actor #2 describing how to speak Korean -vs- Chinese. To compare speaking Korean to "the screams of someone being raped right after having plastic surgery" is unworthy script. Whatever the playwright's gender. Why? Because it's 2016. 

Who gonna like : The ON crowd at Gateway cheered and clapped and derived great mirth from the silly antics of both the "real" Yees and the "actor" Yees. Upon exiting I encountered a former teacher colleague from nearly 45 years ago. He grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown and went to Strathcona High with world-famous architect Bing Thom who succumbed to a brain aneurism this week. 

"This show is wonderful because it reminds me of my dad who always told me I needed to go back to China to see the family village. I had to do it. And I did. And I tell my son the same thing. It's part of being Chinese," Fred told me.

Italians have clubs just like the Yee Fung Toy Society. But Italians are caucasian. This show will appeal to folks who want a deeper understanding of those whose families have made the world's Chinatowns what they are and why. To outsiders. Whether named Smith, Grabowski or, apparently, Lauren Yee. 

Particulars :  Playwright Lauren Yee.  Production by Gateway Theatre through special arrangement with Goodman Theatre, Chicago, that commissioned the script. Performances at the Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert, Richmond through October 22nd. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission. Schedules vary daily. Ticket information via Gateway box office or by phoning 604.270.1812.

Artistic Team :  Director Sherry J. Yoon.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Design Assistant Jessica Oosftergo.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Costume Assistant Victoria Klippenstein.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Lighting Associate Graham Ockley.  Sound Designer Stefan Smulovitz.  Stage Manager Lorilyn Parker.  Assitant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Production Properties Carol Macdonald.  Dialect Coach Derek Chan.  Technical Director Liam Kupser.  

Performers : Milton Lim (Actor #3).  Donna Soares (Actor #2).  Jovanni Sy (Larry).  Andrea Yu (Lauren).  Raugi Yu (Actor #1).  


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Piya Behrupiya is hilarious Hindi-Bard musical
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : In BLR's review of the Bard on the Beach production of Twelfth Night in 2013 I described the play thus : "TN is like a Hallowe'en party on speed -- scads of silly people playing games in costumes sewn not just of thread but of thought and deed as well. Mistaken identities, disguises, romantic fantasies, cozening capers, songs, drunk scenes, homoerotic dilly-dallying, omg what a swillery of good cheer."

Enter Mumbai's The Theatre Company and its artistic director Atul Kumar. Piya Behrupiya is not only Kumar's Hindi version of Twelfth Night, let's make it into a musical to boot  Largely from the nautanki tradition (folk drama from North India), the other part is sheer Bollywood goofiness. One cannot imagine Billy Bard not giggling himself silly over this masala-infused translation -- more like a reformation or metamorphosis -- of the original TN. (Its title in Hindi, fittingly, means "lover impressionist").

Quicky take on BB's plot : Duke Orsino (Sagar Deshmukh) is lovesick over Lady Olivia (Mansi Multani). His manservant is actually a woman, Viola (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who masquerades in men's get-up using the name "Cesario". Fake Cesario is smitten by the Duke, but the Duke orders that s/he plead his love for Olivia. Cesario does so so engagingly that Olivia falls arse-over-teakettle in love with "him", forget the pesky annoying Duke.

Meanwhile Olivia's calculating steward Malvolio (Saurabh Nayyar) has sweaty-palmed dreams of becoming Olivia's husband and jumping up a caste or two in the social hierarchy. But her maidservant Maria (Trupti Khamkar) despises him. She conspires with Olivia's uncle Toby (Gagan Riar) and his accomplices Andrew (Aadar Malik) and Feste the fool (Neha Saraf) to pull off some serious knavery and skullduggery against Malvolio. By forged letter, they trick him into believing Olivia only needs proof of his love for her to reciprocate juicily: her servant's horniest urges and thrusts will be requited if only he'll dress like a foppish nerd when he tries to seduce her. He goes there. Yikes. Major, major "Uggggh! reaction from Olivia just as the conspirators had predicted. Declared mad, Malvolio is dungeoned. 

Thought drowned-at-sea, Viola's twin brother Sebastian (Mantra Mugdha) magically appears and all the swooners wind up bedding their desired mates. Except poor ol' Malvolio : he's sprung from prison with only his wounded pride to sleep with. 

How it's put together : Reviewers since the show's 2012 opening at the Globe to Globe Festival in London maintain the audience's inability to understand Hindi is no hindrance to their enjoyment of Kumar's show. Surtitles (English translations that are projected above) do help, but also the fact that the Amitosh Nagpal translation flits in some English expressions for timing and comic effect, too. Meanwhile one surtitle screen proclaimed "My king is brooding sadly on his throne" while easily 8-10 lines of Hindi dialogue were uttered to accompany it...! 

The show is part slapstick, part vaudeville, part farce, part English panto, wholly batty soap opera melodrama that pays scant lip service to Shakespeare. Mostly WS's plot is what's patriated for the Orsino-loves-Olivia-loves-Cesario-loves-Orsino schtick. Just an excuse to mount a series of silly stuff scenarios that being borrowed from a "serious" playwright might help sell the show. It works indeed. For his part, Malvolio is a puffy snot, not an unrepentant sermonizer to fellow staff. Most central to all the fun are the three comic relief characters from Bard -- Olivia's forever buzzed-up uncle Toby, his sidekick Andrew who drools and gropes for Olivia, plus the impish and cheeky Feste the Fool. Together they carry the bulk of Act 1's song, dance and overall merriment singly, in duo and trio all. 

When not downstage left and right acting and preening and aping for the crowd, the players skip back to join the chorus in cross-legged yoga poses on the orchestra dais. With the orchestra they add gusto! voices to the individual performances out front, jibing and taunting and directing and upstaging them at will.

What the show brings to the stage : Certain reviewers have insisted this show is not an "adaptation" of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night but rather a true and honest direct Hindi translation of WS's original. Either they saw a wholly different script at play or they drank too much of Toby Belch's champagne punch. Piya is pure send-up following the nautanki tradition of songs sung to entertain theatre-going troops that have numbered up to 10,000 or more at a single amphitheatre sitting.

For their part, the dialogue threads are really just connectors for a dozen or more solos / duets all aimed at Tina Turner's timeless ironic taunt : What's Love Got To Do With It?  Piya features a host of them : "A song celebrating young love". "A song for lovers in longing". "A song for Olivia to fall deeply in love". "The fool's song of love and folly" (by Feste & the Dipsomaniacs that was the crowd's favourite of the night). "The fool's song of wisdom declaring that love is blind".

Who gonna like : The 2001 Bollywood film Monsoon Wedding jumped into mind instantly and repeatedly. If the colourful showiness of such films makes you giggle and clap and snort with glee, Piya Behrupiya will give you countless moments of mirth. But also insight into how rich and layered live theatre entertainments in India have been and can be when reworked for contemporary folk. 

That playwright Kumar is known for clown performances and spoofs of serious writers who evince his country's myriad voices and regions comes through loud and clear and cleverly. A more agreeable introduction to the Diwali tradition -- what Diwali Fest artistic producer Rohit Chakhani says is India's "Thanksgiving and Christmas" both : a festival of light over darkness, a victory of hope over despair -- certainly no easier an intro to the culture or its dramatic impulses is likely to be found today in North America.

Particulars :  Produced by Mumbai's The Theatre Company in collaboration with The Cultch and DiwaliFest with Bard on the Beach a Community Partner.  At the York Theatre,  639 Commercial Drive, right next to Nick's old-time Italian pastapizzariaOn thru October 22nd. Run-time some 135 minutes including intermission. Box office 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at Cultch ticket office

Production team :  Director Atul Kumar.  Translation by Amitosh Nagpal.  Music Assistants : Gagan Riar, Rahul Sharma, Saurabh Nayyar.  Dance Assistant : Neha Saraf.  Costumes : Trupti Khamkar, Neha Saraf, Kiyomi Mehta.  Direction Assistant : Rachel D'Souza.  Administration : Priyanshi Bahadur.

Music :  Harmonium : Amod Bhatt.  Dholak : Rahul Sharma.  Percussion Accompaniment : Niketa Saraf.

Performers : Sagar Deshmukh (Orsino).  Trupti Khamkar (Maria).  Geetanjali Kulkarni (Viola).  Aadar Malik (Andrew).  Mantra Mugdha (Sebastian).  Mansi Multani (Olivia).  Saurabh Nayyar (Malvolio).  Gagan Riar (Toby).  Neha Saraf (Feste). 


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Flick is life illuminated by slow rheostat
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  A live stage play about three movie theatre staff in a fading 60's single-screen movie house watching movies. Also watching one another. Run-time three hours with intermission. That's what Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick brings to Granville Island this month.

Instantly the show conjures up American composer John Cage who introduced symphony audiences to what Simon and Garfunkel would showcase in their melancholic, iconic ballad The Sound of Silence. Fully 90 seconds elapse between Baker's first sentence of dialogue and the second. 

Dramatic arc? Not much of one, really. Just three people who 175 years back Thoreau would have seen as folks infected with "unconscious despair". That despite, now, their never-ending circus of internet games and amusements. We watch them doing their mundane theatre jobs at the slightly lackadaisical pace probably predictable for their work. And we watch how these three, thrown together quite by chance, get to know one another closely, intimately, distantly, awkwardly.  

How it's put together :  This isn't your Silvercity kind of theatre. This is Worcester, Massachusett's last picture show, its version of Vancouver's the Ridge. Spliced & patched 35mm triacetate film is on its way out. Digital Dolby is in. Three underpaid workers are tasked with sweeping up every screening's myriad popcorn kernels, swabbing the decks to  slosh over endless sticky sweet soda spills -- touch it up, for better or for worse, for the next wee clutch of ticket buyers who are among the few not streaming into the mall cineplex.

Sam (Haig Sutherland), 35, is a kindly, amiable sort who slogs resignedly through this no exit job that stares blankly back at him. Somewhat younger, snappier Rose (Shannon Chan-Kent) has been given the job of projectionist, her promotion a fact that grinds at Sam. Summer furlough from college finds black Avery (Jesse Reid) joining them in his first-ever job. Avery's a complete movie nerd who rattles off celluloid trivia with flickering speed and focus, linking through the 6-degrees-of-separation method actors who never appeared together on film such as McCauley Culkin and Michael Caine.

Wiki terms the style of the show a "comedy of the mundane". No snappy dialogue with smart Edward Albee repartee flung about. Rather through casual thrust and parry, some jibes flipped about, a typical workplace where self-revelation comes about in fits and starts, casually, incrementally, obliquely. Some love interests equally oblique and altogether circular, too.

What the show brings to the stage :  As Brit dramatist Harold Pinter perfected half-a-century back, a play's pauses and silences and hiccups reveal as much as the words we hand-pick to fill those spaces. And sometimes the words pile on top of one another with no effort to speak sequentially -- a clever mix of styles by playwright Baker.

The audience in The Flick is placed as if it's the movie screen looking out into the theatre at the trio of staff doing their same-old, same old. As they clean up and kibbitz, random comments are flashed back-&-forth about film lore. Along the way revelations about their fears and hopes and dreams and sweaty urges lurch forth in syncopated rhythms. We get to know them at about the same speed as they get to know each other.

It is utterly obvious in USA that McJobs at $10 and less an hour are too often all that debt-ridden college grads can look forward to. In such a milieux the hackneyed expressions "existential angst" and anomie -- social alienation -- spike to new heights each passing year. Young Avery, son of a linguistics / semiotics prof at Clark University has free tuition there. But he also has a therapist who he's in instant touch with via his android device even when the therapist is on vacation. The need to molt the skin of WTF that millenials often project is constant. Many believe they were born that way and are condemned to little better thanks to a rigged system stacked against them in today's culture. Life's core relationship to them seems less ironic than sardonic. 

Production hi-lites and pin-spots :  Clearly, to this eye, Shannon Chan-Kent as Rose grabs the limelight (pun intended with her green hair). Her attempted seduction scene with Avery was 100% a believable antic schtick that starts with a madcap solo dance-&-shimmy routine to Jay Z's "I Just Wanna Love You" hip-hop rap. Her cheeky nonchalance most of the rest of the time was perfect. Closing my eyes I heard Samantha Bee in syllable after syllable. Opening them, I saw her.

As Sam, Haig Sutherland gained terrific momentum across the night, his Act 2 nuances as a trapped man free in spirit was a thrill to watch. In Act 1 he betrayed a depth of tragic shallowness that at times plunked him but one sad step behind Edvard Munch's terror-struck silent Screamer. By the end of Act 2 his persona became a kind of winking, knowing Squire Barnes character -- a touching, telling performance.

As Avery, Jesse Reid was much of the time a bit wooden and stiff, but Baker's script puts him squarely in the cohort of people with some form of autism spectrum disorder. When he recites the smiting sequence from Ezekial 25:17, meanwhile -- aiming a mock 2-finger Glock 9mm directly at Sam's head -- his delivery was superb.

Laughlin Johnston's 60's movie house interior was choice, just like I remember Tsawwassen's last single-screen local movie house level'd in 2000 (final show The Perfect Storm) to make way for a supermarket. Alan Brodie's lighting and Murray Price's sound design -- from Jay Z to techno-pop to David Foster & Narada-stylings -- were great contributors to the event. 

Who gonna like : The Flick is theatre quite unlike normal Vancouver fare. This is "naturalistic" dialogue and drama as opposed to the customary representational stuff. It's a bit like these characters being mic'd up rather than their reciting nothing but pre-scripted lines. These are people being people being people in the slow, spontaneous reactive ways we all interact. Some call this "hyper-naturalism" or maybe it's just "magnified realism". 

The age range of the opening night crowd was from some vaguely mystified teens to a swack of millennials laughing uproariously behind me to no end of white hairs and baldies with canes in their 80's. All cheered and clapped vigorously at show's end.

Just two wee grievances from me : a constant complaint of mine re: profanity on Vancouver stages. The swear words are so often wrongly emphasized. Surely Director Dean Paul Gibson has a finer-tuned ear to street patois than evident on stage. E.g. when Sam challenges Rose he says : "Why did you show Avery how to use the projector? What the fuck is wrong with you!" Then when Rose offers to train him too, he retorts angrily and jealously: "There's no fucking way!" Should have been "What the fuck is wrong with you!" -and- "There's no fucking way!" Troubles on this count by everyone. They all own this wearying trend.

Second kind of "Really!?" response was to playwright Baker's closing denouement that betrayed a bit of reverse racism that didn't work. What should have been Sam and Avery in a casual "No hard feelings, huh...?" shrug of parting became a huffy and pedantic diatribe on race and class completely at odds with the rest of the scene taking place. But mere quibbles, these, for sure.

In all this is inventive engaging theatre refreshingly not main stream or predictable. Watch and hear dialogue just happen. Let the pauses and silences speak loudly to you. This is first-rate entertainment writ large. 

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company (53rd season, 583rd performance).  At the Granville Island Theatre.  To October 29th.  Run-time 3 hours including intermission.  Tickets and show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.  Production team : By Annie Baker.  Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Set Designer Laughlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Stephanie Kong.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Assistant to the Director Wendy Bollard.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Angela Bieulieu.  Performers : Shannon Chan-Kent (Rose).  Jesse Reid (Avery).  Aaron Paul Stewart (Dreaming patron / Skylar).  Haig Sutherland (Sam).  


Saturday, 1 October 2016

Comfort Cottages spins a cute retirement fantasy 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Aunt Kitty has died. And though estranged from her family, she has left niece Katherine what in the Depression would be known as an auto court -- six individual cottages rented by travellers. For 40 years Aunt Kitty's motel has provided comforts to ever-arriving clients even though the No Vacancy sign was perpetually lit up. Pressure is now on to convert the land to its so-called highest and best use. Kitty has willed that Katherine must manage to stay open for one year to greet the regulars. Reason? To explain to each of them personally in a loving, kindly way that their feel-good home-away-from-home [figure it out...] is about to shutter up for good. Otherwise the plot will be sold lickety-split and the entire take given over to the truckers' union benevolent fund. Katherine corrals three of her chums to help out with the challenge. She promises each of them a 1/4 cut of the eventual profits from re-development if together they pass Aunt Kitty's test.  

How it's all put together : The play's fun is its characters. Not only the lifelong girl friends who, of course, have their issues. But also the clients. An in-the-closet cross-dresser who doesn't even know he is one. A man who's pined for 40 years over a not-so-secret love. Catalyst in the action is neighbour Tom, a snoopy gossipy ex-mall cop widower who wants to blow the cover off what Katherine blithely calls The No Tell Motel because he stands to profit from the combined parcels' immediate development.

There's a wee bit of pathos in all this, too. "I thought early retirement would be liberating but I just feel unplugged," Katherine (Merrilyn Gann) laments, a common enough complaint heard once folks quit their day jobs after decades of familiar toil. Belle (Marlee Walchuk) is freshly widowed from Bert and is lonely. Flighty flippant Flo (Annabel Kershaw) would have been a regular at Dal Richards' Panorama Roof dancing her toosh off in her slinky shimmery silky threads. Then -- doesn't every group have one? -- there's Eva the born-again hippie fortune teller masseuse (Suzanne Ristic).

When bug-eyed Tom (Vince Metcalfe) goes public with his claim Comfort Cottages is nothing but a brothel and a grow-op, the site is soon surrounded by both well-armed cops and indignant placard--wielding angry moms & dads in Trump-ish "Lock 'em up!" rant-mode.

What the show brings to the stage : Clearly the set-up is for lots of ribald by-play and heavy breathing. Mostly, though, it's an endless string of double entendres particularly in Act I as each of the clients' secrets come out of the shadows and into the light. In Act II the kinds of natural tensions among lifelong girl friends emerge and a likelihood their get-rich scheme will implode long before year's end. 

Dramatic and situational irony works throughout this original script written by Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk who are residents of the PAL retired actors' complex beneath the 8th floor stage . The play's fun is how The Four Chums greet and treat Aunt Kitty's former clients who don't know Kitty has gone to geisha heaven. The women don't just kick the men out, of course, else there'd be no play. Stories and expectations and benign couplings occur among them all that charm more than they surprise. Age changes each of us and wisdom creeps in.  As Tom wryly notes : "These ain't girls here. They haven't been girls since Elvis left the building!"

Production hi-lites : WGT's Artistic Director Anna Hagan directs the show and she cast it expertly. Her blocking of the nine characters in the diminutive PAL room -- bleacher seats flanking the small stage north & south -- was crisp and definitive. The actors' flow and physical interaction were equal to the challenges of the space. 

Most outright fun, judging crowd reaction, was the cross-dressing Simon (Terence Kelly), a kind of toned-down Klinger from M.A.S.H. When he slips into Flo's gowns and becomes Simone, there's fun afoot : "I feel comfortable, strong, confused...!" he tells her. As Belle, the mediator and cookie maven, Marlee Walchuk's role was nailed squarely by the writers.  Sgt. Tom, the camouflaged ex-mall cop, was a goofy but lovable caricature who talked to his wife Ange's ashes in the urn he carried with him constantly as he snooped and spied and plinked his ukulele dreaming of Hawaii. (The closing background overlay of Brudda Iz -- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole singing his iconic "Over The Rainbow / It's a Wonderful World" cover -- was choice.)

Keith Martin Gordey plays Aunt Kitty's faithful but unrequited lover Big Ed warmly -- quite reminiscent of Ben Jonson as Sam the Lion in Peter Bogdanovich's classic move The Last Picture Show. And speaking of movies, Steve James as lawyer Adam is a Pierce Brosnan soundalike if ever were one.

Personally I found Eva's lines and soliloquies consistently some of the best, e.g. : "How did we go from Little Women to Lord of the Flies...?" she demands to know before she escapes back to her mushroom-infested camper van. "Do you know where you're going?" Big Ed asks her. "No, but I will when I get there!" she flips back.

This production is pure & genuine community theatre as it's supposed to be done. While over the run the necessary tightening of lines in timing and cadence will surely occur -- the tailing minutes of Act I particularly lost momentum -- overall there's a Big Chill kind of feel-good vibe that embraces the entire evening. 

Who gonna like : Not surprising, relatively few of the Gen X / Gen Y cadres were in attendance at Friday's world premiere of this play. But folks at or in or soon-to-face the almost certain disorientation that retirement foists upon them will surely relate to the mental adjustments retirees face. Lifelong women friends facing an uncertain future -- "Remember, I have nowhere to go and no money to get there!" is how Flo puts it -- manage comic interplay and empathy and power in ways often foreign to us men. There is enchantment along with just plain fun in this evening's local outing.

Particulars : Original script by Performing Arts Lodge creators Jane Clayton and Judy Ginn Walchuk. Produced by Western Gold Theatre. Presented at the PAL theatre, 581 Cardero Street in Coal Harbour. Scheduled run September 30 - October 23. Saturday-Sunday matinees @ 2 p.m.  Evening curtain Tuesday - Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. Box office 604.363.5734 or tix via the site

Production crew : Director Anna Hagan.  Set Design Glenn MacDonald.  Costume Design Naomi Lazarus.  Lighting Design John Webber.  Sound Design Chris Allan & Javier Sotres. Choreographer Michel Guimond. Stage Manager Tanya Mathivanan. Assistant Stage Manager Andy Sandberg.

Performers : Dave Campbell (Roger). Merrilyn Gann (Katherine).  Keith Martin Gordey (Big Ed).  Steve James (Adam).  Terrance Kelly (Simon).  Annabel Kershaw (Flo).  Vince Metcalfe (Sgt. Tom).  Suzanne Ristic (Eva).  Marlee Walchuk (Belle). 

N.B. WGT originally performed this show over a week-end in June, 2015 as what WGT calls a staged-reading -- all actors with script-in-hand -- after just three (3...!) days rehearsal time. Some lines in the review above are repeated and/or revised from BLR's review of that show.

Addendum : Co-author Judy Ginn Walchuk says this in the program's Playwrights' Notes :

Before there was PAL, Jane and I imagined and joked about the type of housing that might be available for single, senior women with low incomes, and the spark was ignited for Comfort Cottages. The concept grew and flourished as friends, neighbours and family encouraged and supported this idea of play writing.

I want to tank Anna Hagan for taking two dingbats seriously, believing in us and following through with suggestions on how to complete this project. I also want to thank my co-writer, Jane, for being so generous with her imagination and with and for expanding her technical knowledge while typing, retyping, formatting, swearing, updating, weeping, inserting and printing 22 rewrites of this script while keeping our friendship intact.

I could never have imagined that I would have taken this journey at my age and am truly grateful to everyone that has handled this project with such love and care. Thank you all.


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Stranger to Hard Work is idiosyncratic Newfiness
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  At just 18 years of age, Cathy Jones joined up with comedian Tommy Sexton and fellow Newfoundlander 21-year-old Mary Walsh plus a couple others to form the comic crew Cod Company a.k.a. Codco that showcased their silliness sporadically over the next decade. Until their self-deprecating Newfie humour and sociopolitical satire were scooped up by CBC t.v. to toggle opposite Kids In The Hall from 1987-1992. Jones and Walsh played sketchy characters such as the "Friday Night Girls" whose lives of tedium and aimless bus rides were positively Pinteresque in banality and nonsense. From there she helped found This Hour Has 22 Minutes with Walsh, Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey. Stranger To Hard Work is Jones' third one-woman show of self-exposing comedy she is famous for N. of 49. Fresh into her 7th decade of life, Jones relies on whimsy & post-menopausal pottymouth to drive her script. 

WYSIWYG : Caricature. Embroidery. Hyperbole. Autobio-stuff limned with truthiness aimed at the audience's shits-&-giggles zone. Still, despite 40 years howling week-after-week as she and her comedy mates riffed on life, Jones admitted to CBC a year back she suffers "wobbly confidence" sometimes. So at 60 she decided put on stage a kind of self-help "book" particularly designed for the CPP/OAS crowd : "I think, like the Buddhists, there's a middle ground. And I think the human realm is about the middle ground. It's about there not being so much suffering that you can't take the time to work on yourself and that things not being so great that you also don't care about working on yourself," she told interviewer Natalie Dobbin.

What Jones's schtick brings to the stage :  Cathy Jones is famous for comic sketches. Multiple characters mimicking their accents & idle banter is a staple in such shows. For Jones, it's nostalgia for Newfoundland and its generous but at times in-your-face local folk. Blunt jokes about her aging, slightly bulgy body that still dreams juicily of getting it on again after years as a single : anyone 30-something to 90-something will do, thanks, even "a 54-year-old who's had his first heart attack." The existential angst and quirky loneliness that come from being, she claims, a punctual procrastinator and social misfit. These are myriad mirror-moments for ticket buyers who on opening night were primarily Jones' vintage or, like me, a decade or more well past that. Reminiscent of the quip "The older I get the better I was."

Snippets & snatches : The book she imagines writing would be titled "Get Help! You Sick Fuck", but she quickly reassures the audience : "It's not for you, it's for the person who came with you!" Her cadence, clearly her own, nevertheless reminded me of singer Jann Arden when doing comic bits a la her Live With The VSO show. Funnin'. About herself and all the sillies she meets. The massage lady who instead of providing breathtaking news "like Donald Trump died last night or we're going to save the boreal forest", no, "apparently her husband has difficulty trying to buy shoes...".  

Lamenting the decade's corner-turn, she refers to "60 years old, what I call The Nobody Wants You To Sit On Their Face Anymore years old", which brought down the house. Followed by a priceless crotch-slam at her ex- : "He thought sex was like doing the dishes : if you did it bad enough you wouldn't be asked to do it again." Jibes at snootish married Newfie friends who feel they need Conde Naste-style h'ors d'ouvres at house parties instead of basic earthy garden veggies. Too-familiar St. John's Tim Horton's staff selling her Roll Up The Rim coffees who demand to share her winnings. The upset gramma heard shouting at her grandson : "Nan loves you, honey, nan fukken loves you!" 

Best-for-last was when she donned her trademark Miss Enid octogenarian outfit -- a character from THH22M played opposite Mary Walsh's equally hilarious Miss Eulalia. A terrific go at the St. Jude's Nursing Home she finds herself in follows. Still -- always -- horny, she drools over Brendan the male nurse who gets her cockles tittled : "Oh my god he brought tears to my eyes : if eyes could only cum oh. my. god...!"

Who gonna like : Clearly no stranger to hard work, Cathy Jones doing a string of stand-up squibs is true codfish and maple syrup and a double-shot of rye whisky all at once. Her comic wit is quintessential Canadiana across its 75 minutes that brings to mind not only the CodcoTHH22M shows but is redolent of other downhome chummy English Canada variety gigs the country has loved from decades past like good ol' Don Messer's Jubilee. This is a Hudson's Bay blanket wrapped around a wet Newfie dog in front of a cackling fire. Not always even or 100% consistent in pace or content, Stranger To Hard Work is nevertheless a zingy tongue-in-cheek stand-up love song about growing older-ish in Canada. Jones fans will cheer gustily during the inevitable teary sentimental standing-o they give her.

Particulars :  At Firehall Arts Centre (Cordova @ Gore, DTES).  From September 28 - October 8.  Schedules & reservations via by phoning Firehall Box Office @ 604.689.0926 during normal business hours or through their website

Production crew :  Written and performed by Cathy Jones. Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr. Stage Manager Jenny Kim. Young Man David Lees.