Saturday, 25 June 2016

Merry Wives is 2016-friendly writ large big-time
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 : The current re-mount of Johnna Wright's 2012 award-winning Merry Wives of Windsor grabs the Mainstage this year @ the Bard Yard instead of the intimate & cozy Howard Family Stage. This creates challenges for the troupe given memories of the show's palsy-walsy mise en scene from four years back. Viewing the shenanigans from the more distant football bleacher arrangement under the Big Tent makes for a calculably different Vanier Park experience in 2016. But happy to report that what may be lost from the chummy Howard horseshoe is made up for with big-time projection, showiness and satirical silliness that had the crowd whistling and shouting opening night.

Quicky redux on the plot : Down on his luck Sir John Falstaff -- a character who wholly anticipates Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- proposes to seduce two married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page. At 350 some-odd pounds, not likely for jiggery pokery. No, primarily to feed his rotund ego and bilk them of their husbands' money. The women, close chums, learn of his stuplicity. They conspire to expose and humiliate him. Mr. Ford gets a tip his wife has agreed to see Falstaff. An insanely jealous sort, he masquerades as "Mr. Brooke" in attempts to capture her in her infidelities. Three times Falstaff is tricked trying to consummate his seduction of Mrs. Ford, and both the plotting and execution of the women's knackery drive this simple comedy to near-farce levels.

A secondary plot involves Mrs. Page's daughter Anne who three men pursue -- the stupendously daft Slender; a crazy French dithering doctor named Caius; and her true love, an earthy horny goof named Fenton. When the hijinx conclude, it's another case of all's well that ends well for everyone (except the fulsome Falstaff perhaps). In the words of Shakespeare guru A. L. Rowse whose 2,459 page The Annotated Shakespeare anchors my bookcase, "This perennially successful play is the most purely amusing, from beginning to end, that Shakespeare ever wrote."

How it's all put together :  Not bound by copyright strictures, the works of Billy Bard lend themselves to wholesale reimagination and creative interpretation. Director Wright reprises the plot-design conceit she first advanced four years ago : wrested from Elizabethan England, the setting is now 400 years later in Windsor, ON, Canada. And The Garter public house is a 60's country western joint. Fiddlers and guitar pluckers and vigorous keyboard play central roles with ole fave 45 RPM cuts like "Ramblin' Man" and "Your Cheatin' Heart". Says Ms. Wright in the program Director's Notes : "To me, the play is built around an idea of community. The many 'misfits' -- Falstaff included -- are an integral part of that community and are lovingly mocked along with the rest. No one is exempt, yet in the end, everyone is accepted, warts and all. To me this reflects, if not a reality of Canadian culture, at least a way I think we'd like it to be."

What the show brings to the stage : Often the Bard tents tend to be a bit on the quiet-ish side as far as audience reaction is concerned. We are too busy straining our ears to discern and disassemble and then synthesize WS's elegant dialogue in poetry and prose to emit much gutteral reaction to what we're watching. Not here. Not this interpretation and production. The re-set button to its 60's country contemporariness makes this version of Merry Wives probably the most accessible Shakespeare live theatre fans will ever come across. Even for those who believe "If it's 'country' it ain't music!" Quite possibly a bit of a put-off to WS purists, this production is zany good cheer that even the tinnest Shakespeare ear in the house can't help but get the gist of.

Production values that high-light the action : What I claimed a week back was a too-plain set for Romeo & Juliet was transformed cleverly into the backdrop for Merry Wives. Mostly set in The Garter pub, the W.A.C. Bennett 60's red terrycloth beer table covers were resurrected anew from their sepulchre and put once more to good use. The open space in front of the tavern bar on the circular stage morphed easily into the Ford's living room and their front garden avec white picket fence and webbed aluminum summer chairs.

Once again Costume Designer Drew Facey put together percipient and droll early-60's threads for the cast : bobby sox, saddle shoes, crinolines for the gals -- particularly notable the outrageous Hollywood cocktail party sunglasses and bountiful hot ginger wig for Mistress Quickly -- jeans and leathers and assorted country-ish accoutrement for the men. The pea-green velveteen outfit for Dr. Caius, for its part, was an absolute stroke befitting the character's French effeminacy masqued by his magnified & stylized bravado.

Musical Director Ben Elliott supplied whimsical continuity around the country-western motif at play here. The cheeky little guitar riffs spliffed into the soundscape by Anton Lipovetsky and Victor Dolhai were a delight each and all.

Acting pin-spots : The three leads from 2012 evinced even more sparkle in this year's refashioning of their roles than last time out. Perhaps in part to accommodate for the Big Tent venue as opposed to the more chatty and companionable Douglas Campbell stage from before. Amber Lewis as Mistress Alice Ford has her role positively nuanced and keened and aced in all its wide-eyed scheming as well as the flibbergibbetty stage business bits. Katey Wright as Alice's cohort Mistress Meg Page was once more her plucky self. 

Ashley Ford pulls off the weight of Sir John Falstaff's role, lit. & fig., with a gleeful nonchalance and lightness of foot that is quite astonishing to watch from a man of two yards girth as the script describes. Cheeky and boldly naive at the same time, his capture of the spirit of Falstaff is choice.

Scott Bellis. Another go at Francis Ford + "Mr. Brooke". But this performance was a cut above, just priceless physical comedy and pained jealous rage so playfully wrought the audience roars at activity that if witnessed in real life would make folks cringe. Nice!

Ben Elliott as Slender grabs the hardware along with Jennifer Lines as Miss Quickly for sustained silly continuity in-role. His mutterances and malaprops were sheer delight. And David Marr as the aptly named Justice Shallow. Can one ever get quite enough of his intuitive spark? I think not.

Who gonna like : Shakespeare "straight" excites me even though I have to work hard hearing it. Shakespeare "bent" in the ingenious and quick-witted manner Johnna Wright interprets this puckish Billy script is just a hoot to participate in.

This production has the commercial advantage of being an interpretation you could bring Aunt Audrey from Kapuskasing to see and she'd get it wholly & heartily. Again from Director Wright : "There is a warmth and informality to this rollicking tale of intrigue and revenge that makes you feel like you're getting a small glimpse into Shakespeare's youth. These are the people and places of his roots." 

Not a forgettable character in the piece : all deft and energetic and facile at the dramatic task WS put before them. Go. Laugh. Clap. Take your friends. Silly winsome stuff for sure.

Particulars :  Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Vancouver, B.C. At the Mainstage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : dozens of shows between now and its September 24th closing night [see bardonthebeach.org for schedules & ticket information]. Run-time 160 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Johnna Wright. Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison. Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker. Apprentice Stage Manager Elizabeth Wellwood.  Directing Apprentice Rohit Chokhani.  Set Design Apprentice Bronwyn Carradine.

Performers :  Scott Bellis (Francis Ford / 'Mr. Brooke').  Andrew Chown (Dr. Caius).  Daniel Doheny (Fenton).  Victor Dolhai (Bardolph).  Ben Elliott (Slender).  Hailey Gillis (Simple).  Amber Lewis (Mistress Alice Ford).  Jennifer Lines (Mistress Quickly).  Anton Lipovetsky (Host of The Garter Inn).  David Marr (Justice Shallow).  Andrew McNee (Pastor Hugh Evans).  Dawn Petten (Simple).  Tom Pickett (George Page).  Ashley Wright (Sir John Falstaff).  Katey Wright (Mistress Meg Page).

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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Rock of Ages is satirical whimsy & song
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 singer, in a smoky room / The smell of wine and cheap perfume / Oh, the movie never ends / It goes on and on and on and on."  That lyric by rocker Steve Perry and his group Journey in their anthem "Don't Stop Believing'" summarizes succinctly what the 80's were all about in the glam-metal daze of rock-&-roll.  The genre was kick-started earlier on by Gene Simmons and KISS : hair shagging all over the place and candy-coated guitar licks. Run thru some 30 jukebox pop faves from that decade, tie them to a tried-&-true cheesy storyline about small-town girls and city boys who dream of L.A. stardom and classic WYSIWYG : the show Rock of Ages.

The set-up scenes :  It's the Sunset Strip. A grasping and overreaching German developer wants to tear down the iconic Bourbon Room that's been a sleazy but charming mainstay of rock bands and their groupie, gropey gangs of fans. Plot is the simplest of arcs. Boy meets girl. Boy, a bit dim, loses girl. Boy wins girl in the end. Along the way ACT's talented actor rockers cover a host of what at the time were overproduced glittery charts churned out by the likes of David Lee Roth (ex-of Van Halen), Styx, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Foreigner, Survivor et al. The hippie epoch from 15-20 years earlier was said to be all about sex, drugs & rock-&-roll. No match whatever -- us from back back back in that day -- compared to the Sunset Strip scene during the time of Ronnie Reagan. A time when sexploitation & snorting & mainlining were daily street staples, not sneaked. Reagan promoted a "Grab what you can!" social ethos in business and government that young people found attractive. On their own terms. On the street. In the clubs.

How it's all put together :  Rock of Ages is a snatch-back to MTV's zenith. Life stories told with all the depth that 3 1/2 minutes of technicolor and surround-sound can produce. This show is stitched together with a narrator named Lonny (Brett Harris) who winks and teases the crowd beyond the fourth wall mercilessly and mirthfully. His Brit accent is both spot-on and superb. Busboy at the Bourbon Room is Drew (Kale Penny), a wannabe rocker. He is smitten by wannabe actress Sherrie Christian (Marlie Collins) from Kansas, where Alice & Toto also come from. 

Along comes local metal kingpin and chief debaucher named -- wait for it -- Stacee Jaxx (Robbie Towns). He seduces and promptly dumps Sherrie. Meanwhile a protest-a-thon is being mounted to save the Strip from morphing into just another strip mall with Foot Locker as its anchor tenant. Sherrie slides into a period of personal disorder and clutter : she becomes a lap-dancer at the nearby Venus Club. Until Drew draws out the better angel everybody just knew was hiding under her G-string.

What the show brings to the stage :  Stage musicals are designed to grab people who can karaoke all the tunes being featured from what they recall as "their" time. Senior geezers may pine for South Pacific. Junior geezers will conjure West Side Story or the more current nostalgia piece Buddy! Early Gen-Xers might recall wistfully Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat that many of them acted in in grammar school.

Still, despite its plot and characterization that are complete and utter schmaltz, the 80's jukebox musical Rock of Ages succeeds in deriving a wee bit of emotional connection from all ages in the audience. Its clever linkages via song lyrics to the notional storyline start to grab. Grab even those of us who were lurching and flailing into middle age at the time -- with kids and careers and fat credit card balances, we hardly had the time to immerse ourselves or get wildly nostalgic over all this new noise -- much of it quite tuneful, mind you -- that blared out at us from the car stereo.

Production high-lights of note :  Just entering the G.I. ACT arena one starts to feel the tickle : Marshall McMahen's set design is stunning. Ersatz neon announces Girls, Girls chilling out in green-&-white outsize martini glasses, also a ROXY lounge take-off plus Sunset Strip Tattoos and Tower Records signs alongside a period Shell gasoline emblem. Below them looms the band's perch set on a scenery wagon that takes up half of upstage with its two bass drums, four cymbals, four guitars and keyboards. To each side are elevated scaffolding to represent fire escapes where a lot of second-storey activity occurs to nice effect. Clever flips from this opening tableaux to subsequent Bourbon Room and Venus showgirl settings, too.

Sound? you ask. Check the list of music groups above. Sound Designer Brad Danyluk and Musical Director Sean Boynton probably thought they'd died and found a stairway to heaven with all that delightful noise they needed only to amplify and then let the band do the rest. Which they did with verve, gusto! and passion all night long.


All good, the previous. But it is Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard's consummate creative precision with the stage lighting that for this reviewer almost, almost! ran away with the show all by itself. I am not sure in 45+ years of attending ACT starting at the Seymour site that I have witnessed quite such a display of ingenuity and freshness in the use of criss-crossing follow-spots on the actors (and audience...) and coloured red mood lighting and back-lighting and and and. Truly a light show, lit. & fig., quite distinct from the Helen Lawrence wizardry Mr. Sondergaard created in his 2014 ACT debut outing. Spec-tac-u-lar crystal crisp effects indeed. Not unlike the rock concert motif that Director Peter Jorgensen obviously had in mind for this somewhat mindless bit of dramatic fluff driven by the time-piece glam favourites that are the show's raison d'être. 


In all this not to forget Director Jorgensen's choreography that worked well throughout embracing the whole stage. No question that Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" to end Act I followed by the iconic "Don't Stop Believin'" show-stopper by Journey truly cinched it.


Acting pin-spots : As Sherrie, Marlie Collins wow'd the crowd all night long. Powerful pipes, great hair, enticing and stunning facial expression. Her "High Enough" duet with Mr. Penny -- who was eager and engaged as the charming naif -- would bring me back easily. 


Lauren Bowler as Regina has a voice, both singing and speaking, that stops crowds dead in their tracks. And a natural acting magnetism to boot. Any show, any time go see Ms. Bowler. 


Kieran Martin Murphy as Dennis the maestro of Bourbon Room -- an ACT Buddy! veteran -- was sheer delight in his Haight Ashbury get-up, Hair! hair and expressive booming voice. Mr. Harris as Lonny, noted supra, was Supra!  His "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" duet with Dennis where these two mavens of the Room on the Strip come out was just plain fun. 


Clearly all 16 performers were selected for their unique acting nuances and undertones : not a weak outing for anyone on stage for sure. Their chipper Feel good! expressions at curtain were honestly earned without a doubt.


Who gonna like :  I confess I was prepared to not particularly enjoy this show. Silly plot. Thin characters. A rock concert in search of a narrative thread. But Director Jorgensen put the right ironic, goofy slapstick spin on everything such that the storyline needed to be, and was, utterly uncompelling. It was the music and the imaginative linking of lyrics to one another that give the production its draw. 


The enthusiasm of the crowd giving a standing-o to this troupe was deserved, just like the show itself : genuine and heartfelt and effervescent. Long at two-and-a-half hours by 30 minutes or more, still Rock of Ages will delight those who get a buzz off the nostalgic theatrics that the glam sounds of the 80's produced. Fun to be had sung robustly and big!

Particulars : Produce by Arts Club Theatre Company (52nd season, 582nd performance).  At the Granville Island stage.  From June 16-July 30.  Run-time 165 minutes including intermission.  Tickets & show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.


Production team :  Book & Lyrics by Chris D'Arienzo.  Arrangements & Orchestrations by Ethan Popp.  Director & Choreographer Peter Jorgensen.  Musical Director Sean Bayntun.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Jessica Bayntun.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Brad Danyluk.  Assistant to the Director Courtney Shields.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.


Performers :  Sean Bayntun (Jon / keyboards).  John Bews (Geddy / bass).  Lauren Bowler (Regina).  Aadin Church (Mayor / Ja'Keith).  Graham Coffeng (Hertz).  Marie Collins (Sherrie).  Nick Fontaine (Joey Primo / drums).  Paige Fraser (Franz).  Brett Harris (Lonny).  Hugh Macdonald (Eddie / guitar).  Kieran Martin Murphy (Dennis). Kale Perry (Drew).  Adriana Ravalli (Waitress).  Katrina Reynolds (Justice).  Mark Richardson (Jimmy / lead guitar).  Robbie Towns (Stacee Jaxx). 



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Saturday, 11 June 2016

Romeo & Juliet still pulls @ heartstrings
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 : Inauspicious. Wretched. Pathetic. These are the synonyms that pop up instantly when doing a thesaurus-search on "star-crossed", the 41st word uttered amidst the 14 lines spoken by the Chorus to kickstart Romeo & Juliet. The story is anything but. It is a love story writ large and lyrical and lovely. Boomers might be hard-pressed to not gurge up the silly ditty "Why Must We Be Two Teenagers in Love?" by Dion and the Belmonts from 1959 when watching this show.

The story is as old as western society. It's David Mamet's quip about "Old age and treachery will beat youth and exuberance every time." Power-driven rich Capulets, Juliet's house, with a years-long running mad-on for their Verona neighbours, the lower-heeled Montagues, Romeo's bunch.

The fun is the kids' fated love in its bewitching and enchanting moments, not the tumultuous violent crash to earth that turns all the spunky rhapsodic stuff into tragedy.

How it's all put together : The Bard in the 12th line of the Chorus's opening promises "two hours traffic of our stage". In the current production under Director Kim Collier, it's more like 2 1/2 hours. Even for lovers of The Bard's lyrical sonnetry this is starting to push it. We are a people whose iPhones have shortened our attention spans to mere nanoseconds for the most part.

But Shakespeare is Shakespeare. And despite all the cheats of technicolour craftiness plus a theme song that still haunts nearly 50 years on, Franco Zeffirelli's iconic 1968 motion picture with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting also required 2.5 hours before Prince Escalus would conclude "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

What the show brings to the stage : Bard's mainstage works well bringing the three dozen characters (played by 16 actors) to life. All the skittery of the Capulet house party; the street scene brawls and sword fights; the antic preparations for Juliet's proposed marriage to Paris -- the big BMO house is perfect for this.

Entrances from up-aisle and side-aisle and backstage all add to the sense of crowd involvement in this classic love story. Not to mention some playful interactions between actors and audience such as Juliet's bouquet-toss after her nuptials with Romeo.

Production values of the show : Taking our seats, I confess to instant disappointment in the set by Scenery Designer Pam Johnson. Two giant rectangular scenery wagons in gunmetal grey -- some 15-feet long, six deep -- transect the stage. With closet doors below and castle wall-type openings on top, they failed to excite, engage or enliven visual interest. 

But such blighted hope from previous Bard scenic superiority was rescued by other production elements : Gerald King's lighting against these bland walls was triangulated imaginatively. Sound design by Brian Linds tuned the ears with delightful cello / piano riffs at key moments. Fight Director David McCormick had a vigorous workout indeed putting this show together with all WS's puffed and swollen male egos strutting their clangers together repeatedly, both lit-&-fig. Nancy Bryant's costumes were particularly good on the Capulet side of the aisle if a bit too-peasantry on the Montague flank. Given all the sharp-edged mayhem throughout the script, meanwhile, a curious lack of live theatre blood-spurts splashing all over the stage as we've come to expect over the years as de rigeur.


Acting pin-spots : Three actors particularly stood out for this viewer. As Nurse, Jennifer Lines once again demonstrates how compleat and commanding and imposing she is in her embracement of Shakespeare roles. Animated, effervescent acting of the first magnitude. A more compelling relationship between Juliet and this confidante who has been Juliet's surrogate mother since birth could not be imagined.

Friar Laurence as depicted by veteran Scott Bellis -- curiously wearing glasses throughout plus directed to do an odd flower-pot bit while wearing some Bose headphones early on -- grabbed the part's painful complicity well indeed.


Andrew McNee as Mercutio was worth the price of admission alone. Accusing Benvolio (Ben Elliott) of having no temper on his impulses, he betrayed instead his own reactionary explosiveness that would soon bring him to tell Romeo (Andrew Chown) three times "A plague on both your houses!" when he was cut to the core by Tybalt (Anton Lipovetsky).


For his part, Mr. Chown's Romeo was engaging and charming most of the night, though quite shouty in his overwrought state when told, over & over, how he had been "banish-ed" to Mantua by the Prince. As Juliet, Hailey Gillis was perhaps a bit too mature for the part overall. But still she was utterly a charm showing girlish impatience while she awaited the return of Nurse from visiting Romeo. And the two lovers during their wedding and on their brief honeymoon night completely embraced their roles -- and the audience -- in precisely the manner Shakespeare would have wanted of them. 


Who gonna like : While not as dynamic and captivating overall as many of the previous dozen Bard productions I've seen in recent seasons, for the reasons noted above, this Romeo and Juliet will nevertheless appeal to Shakespeare aficionados whose summer is incomplete without the lilt and harmony and mellifluous ring of The Bard's poetry, particularly that of the "greatest love story of all time". 


Particulars :  Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Vancouver, B.C. At the Mainstage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : forty-four shows between now and its September 23rd closing night [see bardonthebeach.org for schedules & ticket information]. Run-time 170 minutes including intermission. 


Production crew :  Director Kim Collier. Costume Designer Nancy Bryant.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director  David McCormick. Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker. Apprentice Stage Manager Elizabeth Wellwood.  Directing Apprentice Matthew Thomas Walker.  Set Design Apprentice Bronwyn Carradine.

Performers :  Scott Bellis (Friar Laurence, Capulet servant).  Andrew Chown (Romeo).  Andrew Cownden (Page).  Daniel Doheney (Balthasar).  Victor Dolhai (Escalus; musician).  Ben Elliott (Benvolio; musician).  Haily Gilles (Juliet).  Amber Lewis (Lady Montague; Capulet servant).  Jennifer Lines (Nurse).  Anton Lipovetsky (Tybalt; apothecary; musician).  David Marr (Montague).  Andrew McNee (Mercutio; Montague servant).  Shaker Paleja (Paris; Montague servant).  Dawn Petten (Lady Capulet).  Tom Pickett (Friar John; Capulet old cousin; musician).  Ashley Wright (Capulet).

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Odd Couple (Female Version) not odd : chummy !
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 : Until this week I had not known Neil Simon re-wrote his original 1965 script The Odd Couple twenty years later to create what is known as "the female version". A few changes. If in 1965 men had poker nights, why not instead Trivial Pursuit nites when women gather in 1985?

Host Olive is still a newsy, still slovenly and still specializes in mouldy hors d'oeuvres & warm bubbly out of her broken-down fridge, just like Oscar. And like Felix, Florence is an all-over wuss when it comes to her spouse Sidney who pulled the pin on her. These gals are what Simon imagined his poker beer buddies would act like if they were women, and often with some very amusing one-liners that pay lip service, but no more, to au courant social and gender issues.

On the final Preview night I say as Olive Madison, Launi Bowie strikes home convincingly with her character, giving it the kind of understated turn that hints of both Frances Mcdormand and Lily Tomlin. Sarah Green as Florence is the ditzy o.c. neurotic originally (and unsurpassably) played on screen by Jack Lemon. Her womanly version of that role is charming and compelling.

The set-up scenes : Simon quite obviously had some exposure to the Canadian-invented, Wisconsin-produced game of Trivial Pursuit. Small wonder. Wiki tells us some 30,000,000 games were manufactured (in over a dozen languages) between 1983-1985. His opening scene of five women playing it reveals a keen ear for all the dipsy personal cadences that intersperse the Pursuit quizzes, to wit :

Renee: Two. Science & Nature. Vera: What's the strongest muscle in a man's body? Sylvie: Before or after...? Mickey: You're not still sending Phil money are you? Olive: I can't help it. Every time I hear his voice on the phone, I end up sending him a check. He's so good at it. He puts a little whimper in because he knows it gets to me. Renee: I would never support an ex-husband. Not until women are getting equal pay with men. Sylvie: Right!! Vera: You give up on the strongest muscle? Renee: The tongue -- don't ask me how I know that...

Later, Phil phones and blubbers how he's gambled away two months rent owing on his pad. The girls urge Ollie to ignore him. She doesn't. He snivels and bleats. Ollie tells him she'll send him $300 which she immediately bumps to $650 as soon as the pathetic sucky Phil mentions their anniversary a week off (and the pathetic sucky Ollie bites, again). Renee shouts at her : "Gloria Steinem hates you!"

Florence, meanwhile, has been MIA all day. Distraught at being punted by husband Sidney, she's god-knows-where in NYC. Her pals worry she's suicidal. When she finally shows up late for T.P. nite they do an intervention and subdue her. Act One ends with her moving in with Olive. Act Two introduces the hilarious Castilian brothers who live in the same building, Manolo and Jesus Costazeula. Esa sorpresa! Florence moves in with them. "One kicks you out, two take you in. Women are finally making progress," she tells Renee with not one iota of irony.

What the show brings to the stage : As noted, this script is Simon's verbal la femme slapstickery that matches his original. I.e. in no way designed to reflect the zeitgeist of 1984 and same-sex relations as there were, quite openly and demonstrably, at the time. These are characters who simply don women's threads to spiel forth the same lines that their predecessor male characters spit out 20 years earlier. Not criticism, just an observation.

The 1965 script implied, at least, a subtle homosexual subtext underneath the Felix and Oscar squabbles that lent the show a tension and energy and thus a clever double entendre in its very title. Because Simon was so strictured by his indelible male p.o.v., however, there is some incongruity -- though no clanging dissonance -- in his rendering of the female Olive / Florence live-in scenario that he mounts 20 years down the road despite where both male and female gay culture obviously were, openly, at the time. 

The result is a script less subtly suggestive than the male version original, perhaps. But while not providing particularly more insight into human nature twenty years on from its original comic riffs, The Odd Couple (Female Version) is nevertheless an amusing evening's escapist romp that beats How I Met Your Mother hands down, no question.

Production hi-lites : What grabs the viewer instantly upon curtain is the NYC to-die-for high-ceiling'd off-white apartment with its myriad raised-panel doors, matching wall insets and crown holdings. Designer Andrea Olund, an interior design architect by trade, is decades ahead of her only six years doing WRPC productions. Her work here easily equals some of the best seen in the 150 productions on Vancouver's professional stages I've taken in over the past four years.

Costume Designer Jacquie Alexander has a trained and imaginative eye for outfitting the cast so their threads match each character's personality to a T.

Acting pin-spots : Director Susanne de Pencier had considerable Lower Mainland talent to choose from for both her leads and the support cast. But it's her trademark pizazz! that's all over the piece. The gesticulations and stage business and blocking of each of the eight characters are imaginative and manic. Voice projections, for their part, were varied : best from Flo and Manny, more diaphragm oomph! from Ollie and pals needed in the first act particularly.

In addition to the leads, there were solid performances across the night by all. But particularly by Jennifer Lane (Sylvia) and Bryce Mills (Manolo Costazuela). And no doubt to this ear that Simon's delightfully-stunned Vera (Richelle Martin) was his favourite support role to craft : gigglery writ large there.

Who gonna like : Confession. As an alumnus of WRPC (4 or 5 minor roles, 1969-1980), I confess to a soft and sentimental spot in my heart for this theatre bunch. But prejudices aside, this production provides considerable talent -- a much higher plane of performance than one expects and accepts from the customary "mom-&-pop-&-the kids" feel of many homegrown community theatre productions in small towns across the land that are nevertheless so warm and welcoming and genuine for their being so.

The Odd Couple (Female Version) is utterly fun divertissement that entertains merrily and mirthfully. WRPC deserves to beam in pride over this production.

Particulars : Two co-productions : written by Neil Simon. Original Male Version (1965) and Female Version (1985) alternating each performance day. At the White Rock Players Club Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock.) From June 7 to July 2. Schedules & ticket information from WRPC or box office at 604.536.7535. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.

Production crew : Producers Fred Partridge and Gordon Mantle.  Director Susanne de Pencier.  Set Designer Andrea Olund.  Costume Designer Jacquie Alexander.  Costume Assistants Stella Gardner & Laura MacKenzie. Sound Designer Gord Mantle.

Performers : Launi Bowie (Olive Madison). Sarah Green (Florence Ungar). Diana Harvey (Mickey). Jenn Lane (Sylvie). Richelle Martin (Vera). Bryce Mills (Manolo Costazuela). Diane Tzingounakis (Renee). Ray Van Ieperen (Jesus Costazuela).

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Saturday, 4 June 2016

Apocalypse amuses as it riffs on last days
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 : Apocalypse. Revelation. End of days. Maybe it'll be a quake or a tsunami. Or what if anthropogenic fossil fuel combustion french fries the planet ? What options ? One answer is to become a "prepper" : one who gives up protest marches and embraces instead a practical mission to survive whatever Doomsday looks like. Learn to hunt and fish. Stockpile water, tins of food, fuel to cook with. Shelter and clothing for every season unto heaven. Add a warm body, married or otherwise, to snuzzle up with. And with real estate in Metro already at cataclysmic levels, more the reason to drop off the grid. Making har-har from such dire straits seems unlikely. Unless you are emerging comic playwright Jordan Hall in her How To Survive An Apocalypse. Imagine Point Grey millennials born and fetched up in privileged times who don't see much irony in their eager, preppy pursuit of survivalism. Survival mode that must somehow still include Sunday sablefish benedict at Hawksworth's. The fun starts here.

How it's all put together : "Preppers" are so prominent S. of 49 that the esteemed National Geographic on its cable channel recently devoted 14 reality t.v. episodes to following these folks around. And, no kidding, each of the individual prepper's survival plans was critiqued by a real-time consulting firm named, fittingly, Practical Preppers. Ms. Hall mined this material for all its serio-comic possibilities. As well she became a licensed hunter in B.C. Also paid for a hunter-trainer week-end just to get a taste of the camou culture. She brings to life urbie couple Jen (Claire Hesselgrave) and Tim (Sebastien Archibald). He's a geeky video-game designer sans paying contract. She's the high-strung editor of a Gastown glossy fashion mag about to go bust. Enter Bruce (Zahf Paroo) who's been brought on [after sleeping with the publisher] to stanch the red ink at Jen's mag. A prepper, he leads everyone into the woods where survival hi-jinks rule the week-end that includes newly-separated Abby (Lindsey Angell) who's working on pinot grigio therapy with a vengeance.

What the show brings to the stage : Jordan Hall's script plopped this viewer 1/2-way between Michele Riml's Into the Woods and Morris Panych's Gordon, both of which had popular runs in Vancouver in 2012. Hall brings a Millennial perspective on what existential angst means in BC's increasingly-hyperventilated and competitive culture. Her metier is comic banter that spits out its ironies and fears and anger, too, at a world so vastly worsened on so many fronts by us greedy hypocritical Boomers. We who once marched to Timothy Leary's siren call of Turn on! Tune in! Drop out! soon followed fellow-hypocrite Yippie Jerry Rubin into 3-piece suits and full-&-utter economic co-optation : job, house, kids, RRSPs, vacations, lakeside cabin, and now our latest rage, pickleball tourneys in Palm Springs.

Contempo dialogue drives the script : For the Millenials, it's New New Age angst: Jen touches up her mascara and tells Tim "We tend to all be progressives, but nobody pays attention to an ugly feminist." Later, she explains why now, spontaneously, she thinks she wants a baby : "Look, if everything keeps getting shittier and shittier and we wind up in the wilderness and we can't go to concerts and eat brunch...", to which Tim responds : "You mean you want something to rescue us from the relentless boredom of living?" Out in the woods Tim complains "Say what you will about the beauty of unspoiled nature but the choice of brunch cocktails sucks." 

All of this quite unlike Boomerville of yore, when we could afford a house but couldn't spring for a downtown Sunday brunch with benedicts & endless glasses of Mimosas if we had wanted to. When kids came along "as a matter of course", not as an escape plan from Yaletown and Whistler outings ad nauseam because a house and settling down became prohibitive options in the post-2008 fiscal meltdown that still infects their dreams. So easy to understand a view of why not piss away the week-end days and nites on clubs & drinks & ad hoc outdoor adventures in the social spineramas they can afford today

Production values of the show : Director Katrina Dunn propels Ms. Hall's rapid-fire repartee forward with gusto, and her cast is equal to the challenge. Albeit never having managed a soupçon of creative writing beyond the odd travel haiku, I did find the constant clever chatter among the characters in the first act a bit stretched and tiresome. Would there ever be anything but a smart-ass line to-&-fro, I wondered. So the believability as individuals and couples suffered somewhat as they became caricatures rather than characters to me. But by the second act I'd forgiven and forgot : I let myself fall into the sheer antic slapstick nonsense of the "survival camping" schtick that fight choreographer David Bloom orchestrated crisply and originally with max-laugh results. Pure unadulterated fun, so to speak.

Akin to poster maven Ursula Abresch's forest prints, David Roberts' abstract trees shadow downstage across the floor into mini-sets of condo, office and a wee tiny representation of David Hawksworth's Georgia Hotel restaurant bar. Loved the trees, but I found the spot-sets all somewhat tightly-spaced and thus cluttery to this eye at least on the diminutive Firehall stage. 

Effective lighting blackouts and chiaroscuros, costumes just right for each character.  

Acting pinspots : Strong performances by each and all. Nice complementary contrasts between the A-bitch Jen and her buddy the needy simple Abby. Same for funky struggler nerdy husband Tim whose persona was set -vs- the macho Tilly Endurables character Bruce. 

Who gonna like : This is rising-star comic fun from Jordan Hall (of earlier Kayak accomplishment) that Millennials, particularly, will relate to given the social, economic, existential, climate change \ social Darwinist leitmotifs of Ms. Hall's piece. The world they face in BC Metro is stupendously different than in 1971 when a third of an acre and a custom built albeit unfinished double-A-frame all-cedar house with 20-foot vaulted ceilings in White Rock cost our nascent family of four just $30,000. [Which counting for inflation would be only some $180,000 in 2016 equivalent dollars.]

Meanwhile for Jen and Tim to fret that they'll lose their 650 square foot rental condo when her magazine folds is a prospect hard for me to imagine given I paid but $375 for a 650-square-foot flat in Marpole in 1986. 

So kudos! to Jordan Hall for putting a lyrical & comic spin on issues that are at core dead serious (in 1st-world terms) to our children's and grandchildren's generations. Fun if agonizing reflections on the current version of What's it all about, Alfie? No question, Apocaplyse will engage & amuse & touch the heart too. 

Particulars :  Produced by Flying Start / Touchstone Theatre.  At Firehall Arts Centre (Cordova @ Gore, DTES).  From June 3-11.  Tickets Adults $24, Students \ Seniors $20. Schedules & reservations via tickets tickets@firehallartscentre.ca or by phoning Firehall Box Office @ 604.689.0926 during normal business hours.

Production crew :  Written by Jordan Hall. Directed by Katrina Dunn (Artistic Director, Touchstone Theatre). Set Designer David Roberts. Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier. Sound Designer Elliot Vaughan.  Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty.

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Abby).  Sebastien Archibald (Tim).  Claire Hesselgrave (Jen).  Zahn Paroo (Bruce).


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Thursday, 19 May 2016

Billy Elliot sets a new standard for musicals
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 :  Good vibrations was not just a popular Beach Boys song in '66. The expression captures what excitation and arousal and romance can be had from a fling! Which is what everyone seeks to get out of a stage musical. To take us away, momentarily, from life's drib-drabbery, its daily demands and lock-step marching orders. Billy Elliot delivers it all with grace notes to spare. As if taking a leaf from the kids' summer theatre camp, you'll feel you Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance! watching this. Fun indeed to witness youngsters break free from the clutches of parents. Particularly parents beset by history leaving them behind in the time of Maggie Thatcher's skinflinty England.


How it's all put together : Seeing the Y2K movie version at Cannes -- screenplay by Lee Hall -- Elton John was smitten : "I had to be helped up the aisle, sobbing. The film had really got under my skin," he reported. It took five years to do, but EJ wrote the tunes to the show : his buddy Lee scripted both their lyrics and the show's book. Since its world premiere in London's West End in 2005, some 100 actors across the globe have portrayed the role of Billy in professional shows. Fully 41 actors played the lead during its 11-year run at the Victoria Palace Theatre where the show danced off the stage just this past month after totting up some 4,600 performances there.

What Billy brings to the stage : Set in the North England mining country of Durham -- you could flip a lump of coal and hit Edinburgh -- the time is the mid-80's. The epoch of privatization and deregulation, NAFTA free trade zones, the off-loading of government properties en masse : Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, VanderZalm were all of a piece in the devolution revolution. Durham miners were numb : from 1,000 pits during Churchill's "finest hour" only some 200 will remain post-Maggie. Their union was also NUM : the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite opposition from UK's Big Labour bunch, Solidarnosc! was their rallying cry. Mimic Lech's feisty docksiders in Gdansk they might, but ultimately they came away with a lot less to show for their struggles and bravura.

Dad Jackie (Warren Kimmel) and older brother Tony (Danny Balkwill) are caught up battling police and scabs when NUM takes its angry strikers to the streets. Young Billy (Nolan Fahey), motherless, fakes his way through boxing lessons at Dad's insistence. Quite by accident he stumbles across Mrs. Wilkinson (Caitriona Murphy) and her girls' ballet class right after a bit of boxing sufferance. Billy is intrigued, sticks around to try some plies and pirouettes. Dad finds out and is aghast : he prohibits any further such nonsense. Act 1 ends with Billy doing an Angry Dance of protest and frustration and rage.

As Elton put it : " The story of young Billy, a gifted working class boy with artistic ambitions seemingly beyond his reach had so many parallels to my own childhood. Like Billy, [I saw] the opportunity to express myself artistically [as] a passport to a better, more fulfilling life."

Early in Act 2 Dad sees the light. Billy's better at ballet than at boxing. He's got a future. Dad proposes to cross NUM's picket line and return to work to pay for Billy's future. NUM's strike lasts 358 days before it's crushed by its own inertia and Maggie's intransigence. Billy, a chrysalis amidst the trampled husks of the old miners, soon takes flight to the Royal Ballet School in London.

Some song-&-dance highlights : Unlike, say, Mary Poppins that interjects choreography into its storyline, in Billy Elliot ballet and choreography are the centrepiece. The storyline is stretched and manipulated to suit the EJ / Lee Hall musical numbers, e.g. Billy singing to his dead Mum [Leora Joy Perrie] and she back to him : a contorted dramatic stretch i.m.o. Or the dead-broke NUM miners spontaneously! and instantly! coughing up scant shekels -- as well as the scabs -- to fund Billy's Royal Ballet School audition in London in Act 2. Really? But these are quibbles.

Because addlepated Grandma (Barbara Pollard), meanwhile, is sheer delight. She rants against her late drunken husband but still champions the memory of dancing with him -- sort of : "He was bliss for an hour or so / And in the morning we were sober," she sings, much to the crowd's merriment.


Choreographer Valerie Easton outdoes herself with the piece "Solidarity" half-way through Act 1 that combines crisp dance routines involving the bobbies guarding the mines, the NUM strikers, and Mrs. Wilkinson's dancing class all at the same time -- 20 people braiding and dovetailing their various manoeuvres with cheek & bustle as they sing out "We're proud to be working class!" The routine, rightly, won huge audience huzzahs, no question at all my personal favourite on the night.


Billy's classmate chum Michael (Valin Shinyei) is a 12-year-old cross-dresser gay not quite out of the closet. The song "Expressing Yourself" where the boys don Michael's sister's silky threads and tap-dance with the ensemble before a slivered silver scrim was simply choice. 


A prize piece of fanciful footwork called "Born to Boogie" involving Billy, the ballet class piano man Mr. Braithwaite (Gordon Roberts) and Mrs. Wilkinson spins wildly after her admonishment to Billy : "You have to release your inner kid!"  Mr. Roberts, of some girth, almost upstages slight Billy in that one in the robustness of his "release". 


Next to "Solidarity", my personal favourite had to be Billy's closer to Act 1, the "Angry Dance" that starts in his bedroom and ends with him ricocheting off police plexiglass riot shields. Brilliant conception and execution both. 

Production values that add to the show : Not to overstate the case. But to make it. The "choreography" of Ted Roberts' exquisite North England mining village set design and Marsha Sibthorpe's variegated geometric lighting effects with Alison Green's superb costuming all dance wonderfully together in a visual and textured spectacle that is pure treat throughout the night. Ken Cormier's orchestra is chipper and nuanced with these familiar-ish EJ melody strains. 

Acting pin-spots : Hands-down champs of the night would have to be -- of course -- Nolan Fahey as the shy, thrilling young ballet and dance star Billy. Also Caitriona Murphy whose in-your-face ironies and take-no-prisoner feistiness against the County Durham sexist men matched her footwork. But other favourites were David Adams as Big Davy, chief "enforcer" of the striking miners with a wonderful booming voice. Danny Balkwill as Billy's belligerent big brother proudly sporting his Che Guevara t-shirt was powerful. Good convincing widower \ teen-age Dad befuddlement & bemusement by Warren Kimmel the night through.

Kudos of course to the young ladies of the ballet class and all the other dancers, too, who charmed the bejesus out of the crowd. Not one weak link anywhere in the Ensemble chain. 


Who gonna like : Often have I ranted against Vancouver's tendency to give performers knee-jerk standing-o's even for just B or B+ performances. The standing-o on opening night for Billy Elliot was explosive and resounding and utterly deserved by the 20 cast and countless dozens of creative production back-up. Musicals are meant to deliver whimsy and warmth and feel-good vibes. Billy Elliot aces this challenge. Economic downturns always mean loss. Life is a series of losses : innocence, family, familiarity. But the themes of hope! and faith! and belief! that always emerge from the "death of the old order" are what we need to hitch our thoughts to as we face the uncertain future. Billy Elliot gives us money-back-guaranteed good fun and good value and just plain downright good theatre -- the best overall big-stage musical production I have ever witnessed by a homegrown theatre troupe in Metro Vancouver.



Particulars :  Book & lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.  At ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through July 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via www.ArtsCentre.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director Ken Cormier. Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Ballet Advisor Suzanne Ouellette. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Managers Claire Friedrich, Tessa Gunn.  (Originally directed in London by Stephen Daldry).

Performers :  David Adams (Big Davy / Ensemble).  Mat Baker (Posh Dad / Ensemble).  Danny Balkwill (Tony).  Jordyn Bennett (Margaret). Avril Brigden (Susan). Matthew Cluff (Older Billy / Ensemble). Nolan Fahey (Billy). Warren Kimmel (Dad). Kristi Low (Sharon). Julia MacLean (Tracy). Caitriona Murphy (Mrs. Wilkinson). Arta Negahban (Keely). Leora Joy Perrie (Mum / Ensemble). Nathan Piasecki (Ensemble). Barbara Pollard (Grandma). Brian Riback (Tall Boy / Ensemble). Gordon Roberts (Mr. Braithewaite / Ensemble). Taylor Dianne Robinson (Debbie). Valin Shinyei (Michael / Billy [alternate]). Kirk Smith (George / Ensemble).

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle (Drums). Henry Christian (Trumpet). Ken Cormier (Keyboards). Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards / Keyboard Programming). Chris Startup (Reeds). Andreas Schuld (Guitars / Variax).  Original London orchestrations : Martin Koch.

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